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When the Farsei Blooms

Chapter Text


Julian Bashir frowned, his eyelids twitching as his mind began to flicker back toward consciousness. A flash of grey briefly penetrated his mental haze. Dark. It was dark, and his face and hands were cold, and he had a dull headache pulsing behind his temples. He seemed to be sitting upright in a chair, his head lolling to one side. It was quiet — too quiet. There should have been sounds all around him, the subtle hum of machinery, the subliminal vibration of a shuttle’s engines. There should have been warm steady illumination and calm air, not the hint of an icy breeze that was caressing his cheek. He tried to turn his head towards the light and winced as pain shot down his neck.

“Doctor.” That voice again, soft yet urgent, rousing him further. The voice of his Cardassian friend, Garak. Normally he could happily listen to the tailor speak for hours on end; now, however, the intrusion only made his headache worse. He heard himself utter a low moan of protest, but his inarticulate rebuke was rewarded by hands taking hold of his shoulders and administering a gentle shake that sent another ripple of aches down his back. “I think you’ve slept long enough. We have a situation here that requires your immediate attention.”

“Wha...?” He blinked his eyes fully open. All the lights in the shuttlecraft were off, including the instrumentation panels. The only radiance came from the open door, and Garak was a stylishly-clad silhouette against the dim grey glow of whatever lay beyond it. He was leaning over Bashir’s chair, studying him intently. Bashir looked up at him in perplexity. “What happened? Where are we?”

“I wish I knew.” He sounded apologetic, and Bashir’s heart sank. Garak, who had been an Obsidian Order agent in a past life he never talked about, was usually at least two steps ahead of any given situation. If he didn’t have answers... “Can you stand? Those energy pulses seemed to hit you terribly hard.”

“Energy pulses?” Memory was starting to return: an anomaly on the sensors, subspace turbulence, a tear in the fabric of space and surges of raw energy that had whipped through the shuttle’s shields as if they weren’t even there. He remembered being slammed back into this very chair, shafts of strange power running through his body as the panels around him went mad; he remembered seeing, out of the corner of his vision, the “plain, simple” tailor fighting with the shuttle’s navigational system. And then only blackness. “You got us down...?”

“Somewhere.” Garak let go of his shoulders and stepped back, giving him space to rise. “But where that ‘somewhere’ is, I honestly couldn’t say.”

“A Class M planet, though.” Obviously: the atmosphere coming through the open door was breathable.

“Fortune seems to have favored us in that respect at least,” Garak agreed as Bashir slowly got to his feet. Every muscle in his body held a lingering ache: clearly he’d suffered convulsions when the energy surges had hit him. He turned his head to the left, and then to the right, then shrugged his shoulders and flexed his arms, but there seemed to be no damage more significant than that.

He turned his attention to Garak. “Are you all right?”

The stockier man smiled brightly. “Oh, you know us Cardassians — we’re far tougher than we look.” In response to Bashir’s more probing gaze he waved one hand dismissively. “A headache, nothing more.”

“I’d better check you out, just to be on the safe side.” And myself as well he thought, moving toward the small locker where the shuttle’s medical stores were kept. As he did so Garak went back to what he’d clearly been doing before waking up his Human companion: one of the lower panels on the main console had been removed and placed to one side to permit access to the shuttle’s inner workings.

“All the ship’s systems are completely dead,” he announced as he got back down on his hands and knees, picking up a small flashlight and directing its beam into the mass of intricately interlaced conduits and circuitry. “A result of the energy pulses, I suspect — I was barely able to keep power flowing to the engines long enough to get us down without the shuttle breaking up during re-entry. It took the last gasp from the power cells just to get that door open.”

“What about sensors and subspace communications?” Bashir took out the emergency medical kit and closed the cupboard door again.

“All deader than Quark’s attempt to run a par-kehh night.” The flashlight beam scanned the inert expanse and Garak emitted a soft hiss. “These isolinear relays are completely fused.”

Bashir came to join him, going down on one knee and setting the medical kit on the edge of the console. As he cracked it open he glanced down at Garak’s elaborately brocaded back, suddenly hopeful: the Cardassian had pulled unexpected technical expertise out of his pocket in the past. “Can you fix them?”

“I’m afraid you’re confusing me with Chief O’Brien.” Garak turned off the flashlight and crawled backward out from under the console, turning to sit back against it and dusting off the knees of his well-tailored pants. “I can tell you that I believe that the surges overloaded the relays, among other things; however, I’m no engineer...”

“But?” Bashir recognized the quality of that pause: it meant that Garak had an opinion to offer on the subject at hand anyway.

“... but I think they’d all need to be completely replaced.”

Bashir filled his cheeks with air and puffed out a thoughtful breath. “So that’s that, then. We can’t take off again and we can’t send out a distress signal.”

“Nor can we close the doors.” Garak looked out at the threatening grey sky and permitted himself a refined shiver. All that was visible beyond the open door were ranks of trees roughly equivalent to conifers marching away down a slope, with mountains in the dim distance — and closer, but still distant, a haze of thin grey smoke rising toward the clouded sky, as if coming from a collection of small fires. “I’m finding this place uncomfortably cold already. We’ll have to seek out better shelter than this.”

“Let’s see how you’re doing first.” He was about to pick up the handheld scanner when Garak stopped him with another hand-wave.

“I wouldn’t bother with that.”

“Why not?”

“While waiting for you to wake up I took the liberty of attempting to use various pieces of equipment. Nothing works. It seems that the energy pulses have disabled every electronic device aboard.”

Bashir frowning, picking up the scanner and opening it; the device, which should have activated automatically, remained dark and silent. He raised his hand to his comm badge and tapped it. There was no chirp in response. If both of those items were dead, the chances were pretty good that the hypospray in the medkit was as well. He removed it and checked. “You’re right.” With another sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, he rose and opened the weapons cabinet to do a bit of investigating. “The phasers aren’t working either.”

He closed the doors and looked across at Garak. Their eyes met, and Bashir was certain that Garak knew exactly how desperate their circumstances were. The Cardassian’s tone of voice, however, conveyed no sense of anxiety whatsoever.

“Now," Garak said briskly as he rested a hand on each knee, "let me see if I understand our situation correctly. We’ve crash-landed on a remote planet, in the middle of a wilderness, with no way to get the shuttle off the ground again, no way to defend ourselves — in fact, no electronic equipment of any kind — and limited supplies of food and clean drinking water. We can’t seal the shuttle to provide a stable environment, it’s perhaps zero degrees outside and will certainly get colder with nightfall, and we have no idea what sorts of hungry or venomous animals might be waiting outside that door.” He sounded almost cheerful about their predicament, as if pleased with the challenge it presented.

Bashir nodded. “I’d say that about sums it up.”

“So," he continued as if administering a rather playful examination, "what are our options? Wait here until someone comes looking for us? We might be waiting a very long time indeed, and even if they somehow determine which world we've landed on they have an entire planet to search. Or —”

“— or find out where that smoke is coming from and see if there’s some sort of civilization here.” Bashir glanced out the doorway toward the only sign of possible humanoid habitation. A kilometer away? Maybe a little more. “Perhaps they’ll have a transmitter, or at least decent shelter from the elements.” It wasn’t himself he was worried about so much as Garak: Cardassians, while nominally endothermic, were still reptilian enough that they couldn’t tolerate the same range of cold temperatures that Humans could.

“Very good, Doctor!” He reached up and caught hold of the edge of the console with one hand to pull himself to his feet; evidently at his age he felt he needed the assistance, especially after having just been through a muscle-cramping energy storm. “So-called ‘primitive’ peoples are usually quite adept at creating whatever comfort they can,” he winced on the way up, “no matter how harsh the environment. I’m sure we’ll at least find a warm hearth, and perhaps, if we’re lucky, a decent meal.” He straightened and primly dusted off the seat of his tunic. “I for one have no desire to survive on Starfleet rations until your friends rescue us.”

“We’ll take them anyway.” Bashir turned his attention to another locker, pulling out two large backpacks stored flat.

“Of course. I also suggest that we take any survival equipment we can find.”

“Agreed.” But first he put the backpacks aside for a moment to delve back into the medical locker, pulling out, after some digging, a small bottle. He opened it up and tipped four pills into his hand, then extended them to Garak, who had come over to see what he was doing. “Here. Take two of these.”

Garak eyed the little capsules suspiciously. “What are they?”

“Ipenogysic acid. It’s a —”

“— a painkiller widely tolerated by many different species,” he concluded.

“At least we can do something about our headaches,” Bashir smiled as Garak plucked two of the pills neatly from his palm.

“Thank you.” He tipped back the pills and swallowed them dry as Bashir did likewise and then stuffed the bottle into a side pocket of one of the backpacks. The next several minutes passed without much conversation as the two men went through the shuttle’s stores, pulling out everything that was still useable and figuring out how to best fill the two packs. In the end they had quite a collection of items, including a cold-weather tent, two ultrathin sleeping bags, two camp knives, and all the food and water rations they could carry, plus warm jackets that should keep out the worst of the cold. If the people gathered around those distant fires proved hostile they’d at least be out of the elements with something on their stomachs, Bashir reflected, although they might have to sleep curled up against each other in the tent to conserve body heat. He tried not to think about how well they’d fare if something the size of a grizzly bear, and hungry, happened upon them. Perhaps Garak would have some Obsidian Order trick up his sleeve for dealing with angry wildlife, but somehow he doubted it.

He glanced sidelong at the Cardassian, who was fitting items into his pack with a deft efficiency that suggested he’d done this a hundred times before. Their situation was dire, but there was no cloud without a silver lining: under the circumstances, he had a feeling that Garak’s pose of being merely a simple tailor would have to be dropped out of sheer necessity. He might learn more about him in the next few days than he could hope to learn in a few years on Deep Space Nine, and the knowledge would be a welcome addition to his scant store of information about his friend. Not for the first time, Bashir wondered how he could call this man a “friend” at all... but there was something about Garak that he’d always found fascinating, a quality of mystery that kept him coming back for more, and the tailor-who-was-probably-a-spy had always treated him with warmth and courtesy, inviting ongoing communication. With a little smile he went back to preparing his own pack, resolving to watch for ways that he could catch Garak “out” in the days to come.

By the time he exited the shuttle door Bashir’s headache had almost entirely dissipated. He settled the heavy backpack more comfortably on his shoulders and drew a deep breath of the cold air, taking a long look around as Garak, similarly encumbered, stepped down to join him. The forest all around them was moderately dense and was held in the grip of a silent winter: a layer of snow perhaps four centimeters deep lay on the ground and hung caught in the layered branches of the trees. They stood on an elevated slope amidst mountainous terrain; boulders projected from the ground at intervals and a range of peaks was visible to their left, marching to the horizon in either direction. It was a wild and beautiful landscape, a lovely place for a hike if one wasn’t stranded in the middle of it without hope of immediate rescue. Bashir tried to concentrate on the prospect of friendly natives waiting for them at the end of their long walk, but the possibility of worse luck was hard to dismiss.

Garak evidently noticed something in his expression. "Cheer up, Doctor! If they have need of a physician, your skills should buy us anything we need during our stay.”

“Or perhaps they’ll give us supper in exchange for you hemming their trousers," Bashir quipped.

“I sincerely doubt that!" They started downhill toward the plumes of smoke ascending into the windless sky. "I have all the admiration in the world for the resourcefulness of the noble savage. However, he almost always lacks any fashion sense whatsoever.”


The terrain was rocky and it took them over an hour to pick their way down the slope to a wide path which had evidently seen use recently. The snow was littered with long thin wagon-wheel indentations and the impressions of large clawed footprints, as well as the marks of a few sets of boots.

“Those don’t look like the tracks of a modern vehicle,” Bashir remarked as they started up the middle of the roadway.

“Indeed they don’t.” Garak neatly sidestepped a sizeable pile of animal droppings. “But at least now we know that we won’t have to depend on our feet to get us everywhere we need to go on this planet.”

Bashir took a moment to do a visual diagnostic on his companion: usual energy levels, straight posture, alert. The visible scales on his neck were a little darker than usual, but he was evidently in good spirits. The cold hadn’t started to affect him yet in any significant way. “How are you feeling?”

Garak grimaced and flexed his shoulders a little under the pack’s straps. “If you must know, my back isn’t terribly happy with me at the moment.” He shot a keen glance back. “And you?”

“I’ll feel better once we’ve made contact, whether we get a good reception or not.”

Garak nodded sympathetically. “Wondering is almost inevitably worse than knowing, isn’t it?”

“I just hope that we can at least get information from them about what’s edible around here and what isn’t, if we have to rough it until we’re rescued.” Getting trace amino acids was going to be the hardest part of that particular nutritional equation; Bashir had no way to treat deficiencies or the illnesses that accompanied them. In his pack he carried a supply of tablets from the survival stores which would satisfy those needs in large part, but they didn’t have enough to last more than a month. Local foods would have to make up for the lack.

“Hmm.” They trudged along in silence for a little way. “Have you ever had K’r’r’aussian biras’s’s stew, Doctor?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“It's the worst thing I have ever put in my mouth. Not even Klingon gagh can compare for sheer vileness. Let me tell you, getting a whole bowl of it down took all my intestinal fortitude.”

“Then why did you eat it?”

“I was negotiating the price on a consignment of silk lingerie, and K’r’r’aussians put great stock in sharing food to seal a contract.” He shuddered dramatically at the memory. “I just hope that my many loyal customers appreciated my sacrifice when they put the lingerie to good use afterwards.”

Bashir couldn’t help but laugh. “So what are you trying to say, exactly?”

“That you should be prepared to discover that the local cuisine is not at all to your taste. I don’t suppose you brought anything with you that can numb the tastebuds, did you?”

“Unfortunately, no.” And the only painkiller they had was the bottle of ipenogysic acid. Hopefully neither of them was badly injured during this little adventure, because there wouldn’t be much Bashir could do to ease the suffering. Doubtless the locals had their own medications for quelling pain, but getting access to them would depend on the natives’ goodwill. “I suppose we’ll just have to —”

Garak stopped in his tracks and held up one hand. “Listen.”

Bashir fell silent. Cardassian hearing was somewhat less acute than a Human’s; he was surprised he hadn’t heard it first, that distant dull rhythmic thud. It was growing slowly but steadily closer, coming upon them from behind. They turned to look back, but the road took a bend around a cliff some hundred meters away and nothing was yet visible.

“I think your questions are about to be answered, Doctor.” Garak’s eyes were narrowed, his body infused with a subtle tension quite unlike his usual easygoing manner.

Hopefully they’ll be the answers we need to hear. As they waited Bashir recalled to mind the content of his Starfleet training briefings concerning first contact with an alien species. The first rule was immutable: no interference with the internal affairs of another species, including through direct intervention or the introduction of offworld technologies. He and Garak had come up with a plausible story on the way down the hill: travellers from a distant territory, lost their way, and so on and so forth, but Garak had insisted on mocking up only the barest outlines of a narrative. Bashir suspected he wanted maximum latitude to improvise as the situation warranted. He’d also advised Bashir to let him do most of the talking, and while Bashir was technically the ranking officer — the only officer — present, he also knew better than to try to outdo a Cardassian spy at spinning a convincing yarn. With difficulty he’d gotten Garak to concede to abiding by the Prime Directive, although the tailor had argued that Starfleet regulations weren’t binding upon him; how closely Garak adhered to that promise remained to be seen. Bashir was fully prepared to give him the equivalent of a good swift kick under the table if he started to stray too close to that particular line in the sand.

Within seconds two figures rounded the side of the cliff, and the thudding was revealed to be coming from the galloping feet of lean-legged heavy-set reptilian creatures perhaps six feet high at the shoulders. Their backs sloped to significantly lower hips and their long dragonish tails were adorned with ragged dorsal spines; similar spines topped short thick necks behind broad jaws full of truly impressive and very sharp teeth. A rough mane of reddish hair flared from their scaled shoulders, and each had a humanoid in armor mounted on its back, seated on long saddles of dark leather with gleaming metal fittings. Both beast and man seemed intent on the travellers in the road, and as they drew nearer the riders reached to their sides and drew businesslike shortswords from sheaths at their hips.

Bashir observed them with amazement. While the scaled and furred creatures were new to his eyes, the species of the humanoids riding them was not.

They were clearly Cardassians.

“Stand where you are!” A barked order echoed back from the nearby hill as the fur-clad riders came to within ten meters of the newcomers to their world. Garak spread his hands and smiled disarmingly, and Bashir decided to follow suit, minus the smile. The riders reined in and slowed to a weighty stop on either side of the men on the ground, looking down at them with suspicion but not with particularly virulent hostility.

“Can we help you, gentlemen?” Garak inquired politely.

“State your name and business,” the taller rider demanded.

Garak’s smile became even wider. “Ah! My name is Khormar, and this is my associate, Bahker. Perhaps you could tell us where we are, exactly? We seem to have become lost.”

“Lost.” The tall rider’s tone was completely flat.

“Yes.” Garak had the butter-won’t-melt-in-my-mouth expression that Bashir had been fooled by himself a time or two in the past. He shot his Human companion a look both withering and indulgent. “I told him that we should have hired a guide, but of course he never listens to me.” Back to the rider, with another cheery smile. “How fortunate that you happened by! We were just starting to —”

The point of the tall rider’s sword was suddenly six inches from Garak’s nose. The tailor’s hands rose higher, intensifying the signal of surrender. “Friends, friends!” he cried. “There’s no need for that!”

“We’re not your friends,” the rider said curtly. “Your business!”

“We are but simple merchants,” Garak assured him. “Perhaps you’d be interested in some of our wares? If you’ll just let me remove this pack —”

Garak! If Humans had been telepathic the Cardassian would have gotten a sharp smack across the frontal lobes. The tall rider, however, didn’t seem inclined to let Garak finish.

“Where are you headed?”

“Ah...” Garak was spinning like a champion spider, but even he couldn’t work with no information. “We understand that there’s a rather rich town somewhere in the vicinity.” Now his eyes held a gleam of most convincing avarice. “Zikar — he’s a fellow in the same line of business — was there last spring, and he told us that —”

The shorter rider spoke for the first time, levelling the point of his blade at Bashir. “You say this koraka is your — partner?”

Bashir didn’t recognize the local term, and would have bet that Garak didn’t either, but the tailor picked it right up and ran with it. “Yes. He is. Is that a problem?”

The riders burst into laughter. Garak smiled mildly. Bashir did his best to look like someone who isn’t worthy of further inspection.

After a moment the tall rider shook his head. “What kind of merchant has a slave for a partner?”

“The exceptional kind,” Garak replied, as smoothly as if he’d been expecting exactly that sort of remark. “Now, if you’re not willing to tell us where we are, perhaps you’ll leave us in peace to find our own way as best we can?”

The tall rider grinned down at him. “You have o’wn’s balls, little man,” he said with a trace of admiration, and put away his sword, nodding at his fellow rider to do the same. “But if you’re a merchant, I’m a zioan streetwalker. Doesn’t matter. You’re coming with us.”

Bashir looked up at each of them in turn; their expressions now suggested that they had enjoyed a rather good joke. “Where are you taking us?” he asked.

“Ah, so it does have a tongue!” The tall rider shifted slightly on his mount, making it dance briefly in place. “To see the scholar Xerxex, who sent us on this fool’s errand in the first place.”

“We’ll stick you if we have to,” the shorter rider added conversationally. “He said he wanted you alive; he didn’t say in one piece.”

Bashir glanced at Garak, who nodded fractionally. The tall rider caught the little exchange and smiled thinly.

“Turn around, men, and start marching,” he ordered as he and his comrade reined their beasts round. “Half a sandclock turn’ll bring us to camp, and then our work’s done and we can have ourselves a hot dinner.”

“I hope that applies to us as well,” Garak said a touch wistfully, shifting his shoulders under the weight of his pack and starting to walk again.

“Doubt it,” the rider said shortly.

“Maybe they’ll need some trousers hemmed,” Bashir murmured under his breath. The look Garak shot him was well worth it.

Chapter Text

Evidently “half a sandclock turn” was approximately thirty minutes, because that was how long it took them to walk to the roadside clearing that held a camp of twelve tents of varying size and ornateness. The riders escorting them didn’t seem inclined to talk, although Garak did his best to draw them into a conversation about the country hereabouts and where the town the fictional Zikar had mentioned might be. He wisely stopped that line of inquiry when the shorter rider threatened to use his sword to shut him up.

The sun was hidden behind dense grey cloud so that it was impossible to tell exactly where it stood in the sky, but the quality of light was growing significantly dimmer by the time they made their way into camp. The sight of more Cardassians greeted them, almost all males in thick winter clothing with a scattering of females in long woolen skirts over trousers; most were gathered around two large central fires where skinned and skewered animals the approximate size of small pigs were roasting in front of the flames. They sat on handy pieces of deadwood or on triangular camp stools, talking amongst themselves in a freer and easier manner than Bashir normally associated with their species and drinking from metal or wooden mugs. He counted twenty-seven of them at a glance, not including their own taciturn guides.

But the Cardassians weren’t alone. There were members of another species present as well, thirteen tall slender figures dressed in much simpler and lighter clothing. The hair on their narrow heads had the texture of long layered feathers and their skin was the color of Terran mahogany. These aliens seemed occupied with the task of cooking the evening meal, stirring pots and attending to the meat; the ones who weren’t thus employed sat silently near the groups of Cardassians but further away from the warmth of the fires. Each of them wore a collar around his or her neck: the styles varied, like the tents, from plain to elaborate, but they seemed to mark their wearer in some culturally significant way. The aliens didn’t appear to be included in the Cardassian’s comradery, and in fact were ignored almost completely. To the Cardassians they simply didn’t seem to exist.

A slave race? It would certainly be in keeping with the Cardassian attitude toward non-Cardassians that Bashir was familiar with, and the short rider had mistaken Bashir for a slave himself. There was, however, no one handy to ask unless he wanted to risk a swordpoint in his ribs. He glanced at Garak and noticed that his friend was taking in the scene intently, doubtless drawing his own conclusions. They’d have a very interesting conversation about this later...

Assuming there is a later. It was also possible that they’d just walked right into a situation where they’d end up prisoners or worse. The riders, however, really hadn’t left them with much choice, especially not with fairly heavy packs on their backs that prevented them from moving as quickly as they might otherwise. As they approached the fires Bashir prepared himself to do some of the smoothest talking of his life in case this Xerxex was of hostile intent; if diplomacy didn’t work they might have to fight their way out of this, although he wouldn’t give them very good odds against the pair of riders, much less an entire camp full of potential combatants. If they could make it into the woods they might stand a chance of escaping, although they’d almost certainly lose track of each other in the process, especially when night fell.

The tall rider called out: “Ho! Lierrit!” One of the slim aliens rose silently from his seat on the ground, turning large dark eyes on the new arrivals. “Tell your master we’ve returned with his quarry, and be quick about it!”

Lierrit bowed his head and crossed both wrists briefly in front of his chest, then sprinted toward the largest and most ornate tent, which was set up at the far end of the clearing. The riders reined in their beasts and the shorter one indicated with a hand gesture that Bashir and Garak were to halt as well. The Cardassians had turned to look and were putting their heads together to murmur amongst themselves, paying particular attention to Bashir as if they’d never seen a Human before — which was entirely possible. He drew himself up to his full height and gazed back at them with what one of his Academy professors had termed “Starfleet composure”, not permitting either discomfort or self-consciousness to show on his face. Beside him Garak stood with his feet slightly apart in a balanced posture that Bashir recognized as a type of fighting stance: nothing overtly aggressive, but ready to move in any direction should the need arise.

They waited. And in less than a minute Lierrit came sprinting back to stand before the riders, crossing his wrists again in that strange salute. His voice was soft and liquid. “The Trivar will see them now.”

The tall rider gestured Garak and Bashir forward. “Follow him,” he said, and he and his comrade turned their mounts to the right toward a cluster of similar beasts as Lierret led the way toward the largest tent. They had to pass through the crowd of Cardassians to get there, and up close Bashir found their intense scrutiny almost uncomfortable. A few of them looked like they might want to fight him and a couple of them looked strangely hungry, but they watched him pass in silence. He was glad to leave their eyes behind.

Lierret held open the flap of the tent to allow them to enter. It was tall enough that they didn’t have to stoop to step inside, where the shadowed interior was lit by the last thing Bashir would have expected to see: portable artifical lighting strips, laid out around the perimeter and providing a mild overall radiance that revealed two small tables and a narrow cot. In the centre of the tent stood what was clearly an ancient but still recognizable infrared heater, its glowing triangular facing clearly bespeaking Cardassian design. It was all much higher tech than Bashir would have expected given what he’d seen so far, and he turned his attention swiftly to the Cardassian who rose from a high-backed folding chair next to the heater to face them, a faint but friendly smile gracing his grey features.

He was old. Even Bashir, who knew little about Cardassian physiology, could tell that much. His long hair was gunmetal grey and there were lines around the ridges and scales on his face that Garak lacked. He still stood tall, as tall as Bashir, his back unbowed by age, his hands neatly hidden in the sleeves of the dark robe he wore.

“Greetings,” he said in a low but powerful voice. “I am Trivar Xerxex. You’re offworlders, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Garak responded at once. Evidently he’d decided that given the level of tech on display there wasn’t much point in hiding that fact. Bashir just wished that he’d been consulted.

The smile widened and he gestured elegantly at Bashir. “That much is obvious. Welcome! Please, take off your packs and be seated.” Another gesture indicated two backless camp stools set close to the heater, across from his own seat. “I’ll have Lierret bring us some hot tea and quickbreads.” The servant — or was it slave? — who had followed Garak and Bashir inside turned and went back out without a word. “Where did the guards find you?”

This time Bashir took up the thread of conversation. “On a well-travelled road about half a sandclock turn from here.”

“Dressed like that?” Xerxex was studying their relatively light jackets and boots and the thin material of Bashir’s Starfleet uniform. “But of course, this is fabric of the old sort, is it not? Far warmer than it looks?”

“It is indeed,” Garak agreed as he and Bashir took the offered seats. “You’re familiar with such things?”

The old man nodded. “Traces of the old technology still exist, highly prized and greatly valued. I am fortunate to have amassed quite a collection at my home niatta.”

“I’m sorry,” Bashir said, “but we’re unfamiliar with that term.”

“It means ‘university’, Doctor, but in a very old vernacular — from our perspective, at any rate.” Garak was studying Xerxex, who was gazing back at him with evident interest. “You’re a scholar, I presume?”

“All my life,” Xerxex said. “And what do you call yourself?”

“A tailor.” Garak offered a little bow of his head. Bashir had noted the precise phrase Xerxex used and got the feeling that it had pleased his Cardassian friend. But of course, that type of wordplay was very Cardassian. “My friends call me Garak.”

The older Cardassian turned his dark gaze on Bashir. “I’m a physician,” Bashir responded, deciding not to try to play any word games. “Doctor Julian Bashir.”

“Warmth and safe haven to you both,” Xerxex replied. Evidently it was merely a social pleasantry because he went on without seeming to expect a response: “I confess that when I saw your ship descend on a trail of fire across the sky my heart leaped in my breast. Tales are still told of the ancient spacecraft and examples exist in Zio Rak’har but our people have not used them since we originally came to this world. The ash’uar forbid the use of such technologies in order that we may more purely live the values of our most ancient ancestors.”

Ash’uar?” Bashir asked again.

“Priests,” Garak clarified, although Cardassia had given up on religion centuries ago. “Most curious... do you remember the name of your original home world?”

“Cardassia,” Xerxex said at once. “A name you yourself should know well, obviously. Our people were sorely persecuted there before we found this planet to claim for our own.”

“For your own?” Bashir frowned. “What about the natives?”

For a moment the scholar frowned in response; then his expression cleared. “Ah! You mean the Naievirl. We brought them civilization and the o’wn; they embraced the beast, but alas, not the cultural values we’ve tried so hard to impart to them. They’re fighting us still, in fact.”

“I should think so,” Bashir replied. “Are those servants out there, or slaves?”

“Doctor,” Garak said in a soft silky voice that Bashir knew better than to mistake for anything other than a warning. He ignored it, waiting for Xerxex’s response.

“Slaves,” the elder said calmly. As if on cue Lierret returned, bearing a wooden tray which he set on one table as he drew the second table closer to the fire. When he brought the tray over Bashir could smell a pungent tea in three mugs and the delicious scent of some kind of dark flat bread. Xerxex, meanwhile, continued as if he was not present: “Surely you are not surprised, Doctor — Bashir, is it? It is the proper destiny of lesser races to serve the greater.”

“I am surprised,” Bashir began with considerable heat, but Garak smoothly cut him off.

“That’s really neither here nor there, is it? With any luck we won’t be here long enough for it to truly offend you.” He took the cup that Xerxex offered him and passed it to Bashir, who accepted it with a hint of bad grace and the unspoken acknowledgement that Garak had a point. “Thank you,” he said as he accepted a cup of his own. “As you’ve correctly deduced, we’re from offworld — and we’d like nothing better than to be offworld again, as soon as possible.”

“I’m sure you would.” Xerxex sipped his tea, which Bashir found to have a sweet undernote in spite of its odor. “And the sooner you’re gone, the better for all concerned. Please understand that it’s been three full cycles of birth and death since our people came to this world. Life here is harsh, but good. Most have all but forgotten our distant origins — the ash’uar have seen to that — but memories are kept alive among the caste of trivarli so that if anyone from the stars should find us again we would be prepared to deal with them appropriately.”

That didn’t sound at all good in Bashir’s opinion. Garak voiced the question before he could: “Define ‘appropriately’, if you please.”

“We do not desire contact with your kind.” Xerxex smiled to soften the sting of the words. “I speak in terms of the society in general, not personally. And of course you both dearly wish to return to your homes.”

“That will be difficult without access to a subspace transmitter,” Bashir said. “Ours was damaged in the event that brought us here.”

The scholar took another long sip of his root tea. “Perhaps we can help you with that. There is an artifact in a distant temple which was used to talk with the towers in the sky when our people first came to this planet; to my knowledge it has not been used in this generation, but it’s the only one of its kind that I know of. I believe that you would be well advised to seek it out.”

Garak cocked his head to one side. “How distant?”

“I’ve never been there myself. Somewhere to the north, I believe. If you accompany us to Zio Tevar’in I should be able to find the details for you and help you to hire guides for your journey.”

Bashir and Garak exchanged a glance. A single ancient transmitter on the entire planet: not good odds, especially considering that it might not have a subspace function and that it might not even work after so long a time out of use. But it was better than nothing at all.

“I don’t suppose,” Xerxex continued, “that you happened to bring any money with you?”

“We don’t even know what your currency is,” Bashir said.

“We do, however, have articles to trade,” Garak interjected.

He turned to look at the tailor with lowered brows. “Garak, we’ve been through this! I’m not going to allow you to introduce advanced technology to this culture.”

“You heard the good scholar, Doctor. This world is not unfamilar with high tech devices and fabrics. Tell me,” he said to Xerxex, “would the presence of such things as our jackets and unusually warm tents and sleeping bags seem strange to your people?”

“To the general populace, yes,” Xerxex informed him. “However, there is a niatta in Zio Tevar’in which would almost certainly be very interested in anything of the sort that you have to sell. Such objects are studied and then often turned over to the ash’uar, who will likely lock them away for safekeeping.”

“I don’t suppose,” Garak asked casually, “that you have any idea of how much such items go for on the current market?”

“That depends on what you’re selling.”

“A cold-weather tent, two ultrathin sleeping bags, two duranium knives, two highbeam flashlights...” Garak proceeded to list the contents of their packs down to the last button, but left out the ipenogysic acid and the nutritional supplement tablets. Xerxex listened carefully to the litany and asked some pertinent questions — how long would the flashlights last? how durable were the jackets? — before finally nodding and offering them the flatbread. Bashir had the feeling that he’d just watched two shrewd hagglers complete a transaction, although the words themselves had not been particularly mercenary in nature.

For a little while they ate in silence and with good appetite. The bread had a pleasant nutty flavour that seemed to take the place of the inobutter that Bashir normally enjoyed on such things. He found himself eating more quickly than either Garak or Xerxex — again that Cardassian tendency to savour one’s food — and consciously slowed down to match their speed. Whatever his opinions on slavery in this culture he had no desire to be rude to their host, especially when that host had made a clear offer to help them get to the transmitter that was their best hope of a quick rescue. The infrared heater emitted a faint pleasant hum and kept the air around them toasty warm, a mercy which he was sure Garak was quite grateful for. A slight smell of woodsmoke reached them from beyond the tent, reminding Bashir of the few times his father had taken him camping back on Earth; the memory made him feel that odd combination of wistfulness and disappointment and lingering anger that his father always seemed to rouse in him, so he tried to ignore it and concentrate on the bread and the tea.

Garak was right, at least about his response to the presence of slavery. He had no right to interfere with this culture no matter how repugnant he personally found their practices. None of the Naievirl seemed to be mistreated, or at least none of the ones he’d seen so far. Best to avoid the subject completely in the future, he decided, unless he was alone with Garak. Then he would be free to express outrage to his heart’s content — although, he reflected wryly, Garak would probably just find his “Federation values” amusingly naive. Not that he ever seemed to mind being entertained by his Human friend’s moral and intellectual assertions; or at least, not often. Bashir could still remember the hatred in Garak’s voice and eyes when he’d been dying from that malfunctioning Obsidian Order implant. It was an unpleasant thought but one that he still accessed from time to time, turning it around to look at it from different angles, trying to untangle the mystery inside the riddles that Garak seemed to delight in presenting him with.

Because Bashir was carefully observing his companions they all finished eating at almost exactly the same moment. Xerxex brushed his hands clean against his robe and nodded again. “I’m sure you have many more questions, as do I, but you look rather tired and I’m weary myself after a long day of riding. You say that you have a tent of your own? Excellent. I suggest that you set it up and retire for the night. The camp will be stirring well before dawn and we’ll be on the road at first light.”

“Thank you, sir,” Bashir said graciously.

“Thank you.” Garak inclined his head in a little bow and rose, picking up his pack by the top strap. Bashir quickly did likewise. “May we set up our tent anywhere?”

“Yes, but as close to the fire as you can would be my advice. Grok’arli are seldom seen in these parts but they do sometimes appear to pick off outliers.” He smiled in the friendliest way Bashir had yet seen. “Now that I’ve agreed to help you get home it would be a pity if I lost you to a hungry predator in the night.”

“We’ll keep that in mind,” Bashir smiled in return. Xerxex rose to offer them a little bow of his own and they stepped back out of the tent into much greater darkness than they’d originally left. The rest of the Cardassians were eating their own meals and the smell of roasted meat made Bashir’s stomach grumble, but considering that they were totally unexpected guests he supposed they’d been lucky to get anything for their supper.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Garak asked as they started to walk the perimeter of the firelight, looking for a gap in the cluster of tents large enough to set up their own.

“And what would that be?”

“That I’d commit murder for a plateful of whatever it is they’re eating.”

Bashir almost laughed. “I wouldn’t go that far, but yes, it does smell awfully good.”

“Plain bread and Starfleet rations,” Garak sighed dramatically. “What has my life come to?”

They’d been noticed, and once again Cardassian eyes were trained on Bashir. He tried to ignore them. “With a little luck we’ll be back to having lunch on the Promenade in no time.”

“I sincerely hope so!” He pointed. “That looks like a likely spot.”

Bashir agreed, and within a few minutes their tent was almost set up. Starfleet tech might not produce particularly delicious nutrient bars (although Bashir had come up with a very tasty one in medical school), but it beat local tech all hollow in terms of a quick-to-erect temporary structure. As they set about securing the final anchors he asked: “How long do Cardassians live?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I’m trying to figure out how old this colony is.”

Garak didn’t answer immediately, concentrating on his side of the tent. “Oh, around eighty years, on average.”

“So about two hundred and fifty years. That explains the remnants of high tech. I wonder why they chose not to sustain it?”

“Two hundred and fifty years ago was a time of great unrest on Cardassia,” Garak informed him in a low voice that wouldn’t carry to the fires, “with several splinter factions insisting that we needed to ‘get back’ to older values. This colony may be a concerted effort to do exactly that.”

Bashir looked up at him thoughtfully. “You’re saying that they may have deliberately abandoned the tech they brought with them?"

“That’s certainly what it sounds like.”

“Well, at least if they find the shuttle it won’t be completely unprecedented.”

“And completely useless to them, unless they have some handy isolinear relays lying around and a way to recharge the energy supply. It wouldn’t even make a very good shelter in its present condition.”

For perhaps thirty seconds the only sound was their hammers on the inertial pegs and the sound of conversations from around the fires. Then Garak spoke. “If we sell our clothing and equipment when we reach Zio Tevar’in —”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, since we’re going to need them ourselves.”

“Doctor, the local versions are evidently quite adequate to the task of keeping these people well-clad and safe from the elements. There’s no reason why they wouldn’t do the same for us. And we have no idea what lies ahead: we should have all the money we possibly can, to be prepared for any emergency.”

“Need I remind you that the Prime Directive —”

“— is binding for members of Starfleet. It certainly doesn’t constrain me in the least. Besides, you heard what he said — this planet is not unspoiled virgin territory. Its inhabitants came from Cardassia, a spacefaring civilization, and not that long ago either. They already have technology left over from their arrival on this world.” He offered his most persuasive smile around the side of the tent. “I sincerely doubt that the appearance of a few ration bars and warmer-than-usual tents and jackets will send this civilization crumbling into ruins, although the presence of your uniform might definitely lower the tone of their culture as a whole.”

“And I suppose your pants and tunic will instigate a fashion revolution?” Bashir shot back. That smile was pretty damned convincing, but he wasn’t quite ready to buy what it was selling.

“I wouldn’t be surprised.” He seemed quite unruffled by his friend’s sarcastic tone.

Bashir secured the last peg. “I’m not parting with this uniform.”

Garak sounded vaguely horrified. “Surely you don’t intend to wear it for our entire stay? You stick out like a foross in a patch of clavita as it is. That hideous piece of work certainly won’t help matters.”

“I’ll pack it away,” Bashir agreed, getting to his feet again, “and wear local clothing instead. But it’s coming with us when we leave.”

“As you like, Doctor.” Garak rose as well and they started to unpack the sleeping bags. The tent was low but easily wide enough for two people, and Bashir pushed the packs in first before crawling inside to lay out his bed, then backing out to let Garak do the same. While his friend was busy with that task he turned his gaze to the Cardassians grouped around the fires. They seemed to have gotten their fill of looking at him for the most part; now only a couple were regarding him with obvious curiousity, and he reflected that he might well get very tired of such stares before they managed to get off this planet. In any case it made the notion of going to spend some time sitting among them quite untenable.

Garak evidently had different ideas. “I think I’ll join the others beside the fire for a while,” he said when he emerged from the tent. “Would you care to join me?”

“Thank you, no.” Doubtless Garak was planning to subtly pump the locals for information, and as much as Bashir usually enjoyed watching him work he was unwilling to face their stares. They reminded him too much of the nightmares in which he’d been found out as genetically enhanced and was regarded with loathing and prurient curiousity, stripped naked and driven through the streets like a leper. “It’s been a long day. I think I’m going to turn in.”

“Suit yourself, Doctor.” He inclined his chin in another little bow. “Good night, then.”

“Good night.” He watched after Garak for a moment, long enough to see him greet the nearest Cardassians with such warmth and pleasure that they invited him to take a seat with them, before slipping off his jacket and pushing it into the tent alongside his sleeping bag and sliding inside himself. The night air wasn’t much below zero but it was a piercing cold: perhaps he’d gotten too used to artifically controlled environments, he mused as he snuggled down between the layers of ultrathin fabric. The ground beneath was hard and it took him a long time to become warm and comfortable enough to sleep, but sleep he eventually did, to the accompaniment of low conversation outside, frequent laughter, and the occasional lilt of Garak’s voice, clear to be heard amidst the confusion of sounds. It was that which finally eased him fully to rest, but his dreams were vaguely uneasy, full of prying gazes and nameless fears.

Consequently when Garak joined him he half-woke at once, a soft exclamation of query in his throat. The light beyond the tent was dimmer now and the sounds of conversation had ceased.

“Go back to sleep, Doctor.” He sounded kind and a little amused. Bashir waited until the Cardassian was settled beside him, back a few centimeters from his back, before drifting down into warm blackness again.

He slept more soundly after that.

Chapter Text

It took another day and a half of travel to reach the city of Zio Tevar’in. Their path had been winding slowly but steadily downward and the first time Bashir saw the settlement was as their party emerged from a set of low hills. It lay in a neat arrangement of narrow streets and tightly packed houses in the valley below them, smoke rising from hundreds of chimneys within the perimeter of a high stone wall dotted with what looked like wooden guard towers. The road they were on led to a massive gate which stood open as if waiting for visitors, which in fact it was.

Xerxex had invited his two offworld guests to dine with him again the previous evening, and they’d all enjoyed a stimulating and informative discussion over simple vegetarian food and several cups of the root tea Xerxex favored. The scholar had informed them that he was travelling with this group on his way to the city for the festival of Gart Achor, a religious celebration concerned with the forswearing of damaging behavior and impulses (as far as Bashir could determine the faith these people practiced was typically Cardassian in its pragmatism, evaluating acts in terms of utility rather than moral rectitude). He had no relationship with anyone else in the party other than his slave Lierret, but it was a common practice for travellers to band together for safety in numbers against mercenaries, wild beasts, and Naievirl rebels, although Xerxex was quick to assure them that such attacks were very rare in the settled lands even though they were at the far northern edge of Civilized territory.

Earlier that morning Bashir and Garak had found places for themselves on one of the baggage carts: not the most dignified way to travel, but the best they could contrive under the circumstances. They sat on their packs near the edge of the cart bed with their backs against a mound of secured luggage and kept their eyes open while they engaged in an intermittant form of their usual verbal fencing, evaluating the terrain around them and the way the travellers riding with them behaved and interacted. By the end of the day Bashir had been able to get a much better sense of what these people were like — temperamental, argumentative, loquacious, given to ready laughter but rarely smiling, more free and easy in their movements than the Cardassians he’d seen in the wider universe. As they rode on their tall o’wnli they talked incessantly and occasionally sang, mostly long melodic ballads with a stacatto cadence concerned with adventurous tales and with the nature of their Gods, but once a young female had sung an almost heartbreakingly pretty lament about a girl missing her soldier love and everyone had fallen silent to hear it. Later that night as they lay in their tent Bashir had asked Garak what he thought about them and gotten the distinct impression, through the tailor’s usual smooth remarks, that he didn’t quite approve of these distant relations. It had made him smile in the darkness, unsurprised. Garak might be a uniquely fascinating individual but in many ways he was still a quintessential Cardassian.

Now a cheer had risen from the riders, heralding the appearance of the city, and Bashir leaned over to his left and half-stood, steadying himself with one hand on the cart’s rail as he craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the settlement around the mound of luggage.

“Well?” Garak asked impatiently. The cart was wide enough that he would have needed to get up and make his way to the other side to get a similar view.

“The road turns up ahead,” Bashir replied. “We’ll both get a good view then.” And sure enough about thirty seconds later the cart took a slow turn, presenting them with an unobstructed view to their right. “What do you think? A few thousand people?”

“At least.” He was studying the city’s layout critically. “I wonder which section holds the niatta?

“I’m sure Xerxex will be able to tell us once we’re on the ground.” They’d already agreed upon a plan of action: Xerxex was willing to take them straight to the university, where he was headed in any case, to introduce them to the head scholar and get the negotiations started for the sale of their high tech items. Bashir still wasn’t very happy about it but the fact that the equipment would be isolated from the general populace mollified his conscience somewhat and would almost certainly, given the circumstances, be enough to shield him from a Prime Directive violation court martial. After that they’d find accommodations in a local inn to tide them over until Xerxex could arrange for guides to take them further north to the Temple of the Distant Towers, where the artifact that was possibly a subspace transmitter was housed. The trivar hadn’t been able to tell them much more than that except that the Temple was beyond the Civilized zone and that the guides might only be willing to take them as far as the city of Zio Araga, which was the furthest northern settlement that Xerxex knew by name in this region. After that they’d be on their own.

That was several ‘maybes’ too many for Bashir’s comfort, with a trek across unknown wilderness territory at the end of it. Garak, however, seemed to view the challenge with his usual cheerful optimism, an attitude that Bashir strongly suspected concealed an assessment of the situation even darker than his own. Not that Garak would admit as much: he appeared determined to put the best possible face on the matter to keep up the spirits of his Human companion, an approach which both made Bashir appreciate the consideration and irritated him because it implied that he wasn’t capable of handling the facts. It wasn’t worth bringing up for argument — Garak was Garak and would do exactly as he deemed best — so he accepted his Cardassian companion’s light approach and kept his more pessimistic thoughts to himself.

It took their train of carts and o’wnli almost an hour to finish the descent to the city gates. Once there the leader of the party, a broadly built professional guide with the blue chevron of his profession on his left shoulder, was questioned in a half-hearted way by the city guard and then the entire group was waved through. Inside they found themselves in a huge yard with stables at each side and a riotous crowd of Cardassians saddling and unsaddling mounts, loading and unloading carts, talking, arguing, gesticulating and generally seeming to have a roaring good time in the middle of it. It was exactly the sort of atmosphere Bashir might have expected in a city about to celebrate a festival, indeed even a little more so considering that the holiday hadn’t started yet, and as far from normal Cardassian behavior as he knew it as he could imagine.

In the midst of the raucous chaos Garak looked positively prim. “How nice to see so many people enjoying themselves,” he noted with just the slightest edge of sarcasm as their cart moved toward an empty slot in the left-hand row.

“Oh, I don’t know.” Bashir watched as a woman came running through the crowd to practically climb up the side of an o’wn and throw herself into the arms of the man in the saddle. “I think their enthusuiasm is quite charming.”

“Charming? Perhaps. But a very little of it goes a long way.”

Bashir grinned at his offended tone. He honestly couldn’t tell if Garak was putting on an act or not, but it didn’t particularly matter.

“And I must say,” Garak continued, “that it’s a bit depressing to see the changes that only a few generations of separation from Cardassia Prime have wrought.”

The woman was kissing the man with almost savage passion. He broke the contact of their mouths, spoke softly to her while gazing deeply into her eyes, then pulled her close for another punishing kiss. Garak’s eyes flickered to them and slid away in a manner that was more stinging than a spoken rebuke, if the couple in question had given a damn about his opinion.

“I’m sure they’ll be more sedate at the university,” Bashir assured him with a teasing gleam in his eyes.

“One can only hope so, Doctor.” He sounded so sincerely grateful for the prospect that Bashir knew he was being had. He shook his head and went back to watching the highly entertaining crowd.

As their cart came to a stop Xerxex rode up on his o’wn, with Lierret sitting behind him in the long saddle. The Naievirl youth handled the uneven stride of the riding beast with easy sways of his lithe body, not even having to hold onto his master to keep his seat. “Welcome to Zio Tevar’in,” the scholar intoned over the noise of the crowd, indicating the yard with a sweep of his hand. “Are you ready to proceed to the niatta?

“Most definitely.” Garak stood up and dropped nimbly to the ground as Bashir did the same. It took them only a few seconds to settle their packs on their shoulders and then they were off through the crowd, keeping just to the left of Xerxex’s mount and letting the beast do most of the work of cutting a path through the press. The o’wn shifted restlessly as they moved up close alongside it and turned its ruby eye back toward them, champing its sharp-toothed jaws in an almost speculative way.

“Best let me walk in front, Doctor,” Garak said, interposing himself between Bashir and the creature’s head. That seemed to settle the o’wn, which turned its attention full front again.

My non-Cardassian scent must be spooking it, Bashir decided, and resolved to keep an eye on any o’wn he had to get close to in the future. That mouth full of fangs could do a lot of damage and he didn’t want to get into a position where he’d have to tip his hand by using GE speed to get out of the way of an attack. The Cardassians of this planet might not know how fast Humans were supposed to be but Garak certainly did, and the last thing he wanted was to have that particular hound pick up an interesting trail.


It took them quite a while to get to the niatta through streets packed with bustling citizens and visitors, but in the end they found themselves admitted into a comparatively quiet compound with a grove of winter-bare trees in the middle of a quadrangle of low stone buildings. A Naievirl girl came out to greet them and to take news of their business back into one of the wings; a few minutes later they were invited inside to meet a Cardassian at least as old as Xerxex and invested with no less power and dignity. Xerxex briefly explained that outworld technology was for sale; Trivor Tiar, the silken-clad head scholar in charge of ancient technologies, invited them all to sit down at a wide table in a sparely but pleasantly appointed room; they were served a sweet tea that Bashir rather liked along with plates of little savoury cakes, and the negotiations began.

He’d admired the skill with which Garak ran his business in the past, from a distance, but now he saw a type of cutthroat instinct that both surprised him and yet struck him as completely in character for his Cardassian friend. Garak cut a financial deal the same way an agent of the Obsidian Order might carry out an interrogation: ruthlessly, changing course on the fly as circumstances warranted, and with great attention to detail. Xerxex had schooled them on the currency of this world and Garak navigated his way deftly through the offers and counter-offers, haggling Tiar up to the last possible nior, at least as far as Bashir could determine. All he and Xerxex could do was sit by and watch as the two men did battle, their voices sometimes rising in impassioned exchanges of a sort not unlike the displays of emotion Garak had scorned back in the guardhouse yard; evidently he was willing to compromise his principles in the service of getting them off this planet, Bashir reflected. By the time the cold-weather tent was sold he felt that he was watching a master at work and Tiar wasn’t smiling quite as widely as he’d been at the start of the meeting. Garak, on the other hand, wore an expression of gentle satisfaction as he finally reached for one of the cakes.

Then Tiar laughed softly. “By the Gods, Garak, if they’re all like this where you come from business deals must be conducted with knives at the hip!”

“There are very few like me, fortunately.” He tasted the cake and seemed to approve. “Quite exquisite! You must tell me where we can find more of these here in Zio Tevar’in.”

“They come from my personal cook. I’d be happy to send you some,” he joked, “but it would cost you another four niorli apiece.”

“Eat up, Doctor,” Garak advised mildly. “You won’t be tasting the likes of these again.”

Tiar turned his attention to Bashir, who had decided that another cake wouldn’t be such a bad idea. “I’ve never seen your kind before, torva — not surprising if you’re of offworld stock. What do they call your kind?”

Bashir swallowed his mouthful quickly, wondering what the term torva meant. It didn’t sound like an insult at any rate. “Humans, sir. Or Terrans, based on the name of our home planet.”

“Are all Humans as unadorned as you?”

“We lack the ridges and scales of Cardassians, yes.”

“And tell me, how long have you been a spacefaring people? What sort of propulsion systems do your ships employ? Do they —”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid I can’t answer any questions about off-planet technologies.”

Tiar’s eyes narrowed. “Why ever not, boy?”

“My people abide by a code of conduct called the Prime Directive,” Bashir explained. “It forbids us to influence alien civilizations either by interfering directly in their affairs or by exposing them to outside technology. Describing our technology to you would be to act in violation of that directive, and I simply can’t do that.”

“i, on the other hand —” Garak started, and this time Bashir actually did kick him under the table. “— must agree with my friend that such a course of action would be most unwise. Without reservation,” he added more even earnestly as Bashir stepped on the top of his foot with warning pressure.

“I see.” Tiar considered Bashir for a long moment. “Very well. But I’m determined that not all my questions will go unanswered. At the very least I demand that we be permitted to fully examine you.”

“Examine me?” Bashir’s eyes narrowed in turn; he wasn’t sure he’d heard the scholar correctly.

“You say you’re a healer. Surely you must be familiar with the concept? I want to learn everything I can about your species — without breaching your hide, of course.”

Bashir put down the last bite of his cake and regarded the scholar coldly. “I’m afraid that’s out of the question as well.”

“in which case I’m afraid that all this —” He gestured to the tech they’d just traded, neatly stacked against the wall to his left. “— is off the table. Take it away. I’m no longer interested.”

“Fine.” Bashir started to rise. Garak put a hand on his forearm, but before he could protest the Human’s oversensitive reaction or remind him that they needed the money, Tair spoke again.

And I’ll make quite sure that no yolin in the city will take the job of guiding you to the Temple. Like Xerxex here, I have my connections — far better than his, I’ll warrant, since this is my home city.”

Bashir stopped halfway out of his chair. Without a guide their chances of finding the transmitter were so close to zero as to make no difference. Was Tair bluffing? Did they dare to take that chance?

Garak was looking up at him with unwavering concentration. Bashir looked back down at him and could almost read his mind: It’s only an examination, Doctor. So little to give in exchange for so much.

He drew a deep breath. He sat back down again. “All right. One examination.”

“One examination,” Tair confirmed. “It shouldn’t take more than a clockturn, perhaps a little longer. In the meantime Sieeila will take your friend to the inns and find you a place to lay your heads tonight. I’ll even send a note with them in my own hand encouraging the innkeepers to accommodate you.”

Garak’s boot briefly pressed against Bashir’s, but the contact was full of approval rather than rebuke. Bashir was far from pacified. “No invasive procedures, no incisions, no infliction of pain,” he stated.

Tair nodded. “We have a scanner from the First Landing here at the niatta. You’ll be given an external examination followed by an internal scan. Quite painless, I assure you.”

Bashir was torn, although his decision had been made for him by necessity: giving details of Human anatomy to an alien species was treading right on the thin grey line of the Prime Directive, not to mention possibly being a disasterous tactical error as well. But what choice did he have? Call Tair’s bluff? Find his way with Garak to another city and try to find their way to the Temple from there? Xerxex certainly wasn’t going to accompany them on their wanderings and the scholar’s help was essential. Tiar promised to be even more influential in their favor if they got on his good side.

“All right.” He glanced at Garak, whose expression was now unreadable. “Can we get this over with?”

“Of course.” Tiar reached into a drawer and pulled out a piece of parchment; Sieeila immediately went into a side room and returned with an inkwell, a stylus and a seal. The scholar tore the paper neatly in two, jotted two quick notes in flowing cursive Kardasi and handed them to Sieeila to wave gently in the air until they dried. “There’s the note for the innkeepers and one to the niatti fundsmaster with instructions to pay you for the traded goods. My seal will verify them both.”

“Thank you,” Garak said. Bashir couldn’t quite bring himself to express a similar sentiment.

After a minute Tiar took the notes back from his slave, folding them each in three as Sieeila lit a thin twig of wood in the brazier and carefully touched flame to a nearby candle. Tair dripped wax onto the place where the ragged edges overlapped to seal them and pressed his personal mark into the wax before it dried, an ancient technique that Bashir had only read about in old novels, and rose to hand them both to Garak. “Warmth and safe haven to you, merchant. I hope you make it safely to the Temple.”

“As do we,” Garak responded, likewise standing. Bashir and Xerxex followed. “Thank you for your help, Trivor. Warmth and safe haven to you and all you hold dear.”

Tiar nodded. Garak sketched a little bow to him and turned briefly to Bashir, laying a hand on his upper arm just above the elbow to offer quick encouraging pressure with his fingers. Then he was gone with Xerxes and the slave, and Tair was turning toward an inner door. “Follow me, if you please. I’ll be conducting your examination myself.”

Bashir obeyed, trying not to feel like he was walking to some unimaginable violation.

Chapter Text

Perhaps an hour and a half later Bashir was escorted back to the room of tea and little cakes, relieved that he’d escaped the Cardassian examiners in one unbroken piece. They’d stripped him, visually inspected him thoroughly, made some amazed and rather unflattering remarks about his exposed unretractable genitalia, and stuck him in a very slow and outmoded scanner — but it hadn’t been as nearly bad as it could have been. He’d performed enough exams of his own to have a detached attitude when he was the subject of one himself, even though he’d had to keep reminding himself that they weren’t looking for genetic enhancements and wouldn’t know what constituted one if it stood up and bit them on their scale-tipped noses. And at least they didn’t regard him as an enemy combatant: a similar examination from a doctor of the Cardassian Union would have been both less civil and more actively unpleasant. Afterwards they’d even given him a leather coat of local make to replace the one that Garak had traded away, telling him to return it via Xerxex when he had warm clothes of his own.

Sieeila was waiting for him, sitting in one of the guest chairs and kicking idly at the legs. She rose at once when Bashir entered. He looked at her small innocent face under its mane of feathery variegated hair and felt again a surge of sorrow and outrage at the idea that this girl, barely more than a child, was condemned to a life of slavery — but it wasn’t his battle to fight. The Prime Directive dictated as much. He mustered a smile for her. “Hello — Sieelia, isn’t it?”

She offered the salute of the crossed wrists. Her collar was of delicate silver and her voice was flowing and sweet. “Yes, irav. Your friend found a room. I’m to take you there.”

“Thank you.” He followed her out of the niatta and through the fairly quiet courtyard, into the noisy and busy street outside. There didn’t seem to be a square block of the city that wasn’t swarming with pilgrims or inhabitants. Garak found a room at an inn in this market? he though admiringly. I wonder who he had to kill to get it?

The thought was joking but it had a much darker undertone: he’d heard what Garak had done to Corbin Entek on Cardassia Prime only two months past, killing the Obsidian Order agent and then passing it off with a lighthearted remark. True, Entek had pulled a phaser, but Kira and Odo had been very insistent that Garak seemed quite pleased to murder him. While the spy-turned-tailor might not be willing to blast someone into atoms in order to secure a comfortable bed he was nevertheless capable of doing things that Bashir found highly morally dubious. It was sometimes a mindbending contrast, to look at the man who was so friendly and personable over lunch or when dealing with a customer and realize that he’d performed acts of deliberate violence and destruction. Horrible acts. Unforgivable acts.

But I forgave him anyway. Bashir’s mind flashed back to a dying Garak lying on a biobed, holding out his hand to be held. Asking forgiveness for his crimes. And I’d do it again. He remembered the texture of that cool skin against the palm of his hand and under his fingers, the soft cadence of Garak’s voice as he offered thanks for the absolution Bashir had offered him. Why? He’s my friend, for whatever inexplicable reason -- in spite of the endless evasions, in spite of all the clever lies. And somehow that’s enough.

Sieeila dodged and darted through the crowd so swiftly that he decided to tap into his enhanced abilities rather than ask her to slow down. Just a little taste, a tiny expansion beyond the limits he imposed on himself every day: there was nobody present who would notice. He found himself revelling in the sensation of being even so slightly free, even to the point of scarcely noticing the unabashed stares being directed at his alien face, and was almost disappointed when they arrived at the door of a broad three-story stone structure on a main thoroughfare with sign hanging over the door depicting a rearing o’wn entangled in a strange twining red vine. The girl led him through a tavern full of more chattering Cardassians and up a flight of narrow stairs to the third floor, where he heard familiar voices through a door at the far end of the hall as the Naievirl walked him up it.

“— manage without slaves? How does anything get done?” It was the voice of the scholar, Xerxex.

“With great difficulty, on occasion,” Garak was heard to admit.

Bashir gave Sieeila a final smile of thanks and opened the door to reveal a large room with tall windows letting in plenty of light from the street and the thinly clouded sky. Two open doors led off to the left and the right into smaller spaces that also faced the street: bedrooms, probably. The main space was surprisingly well furnished: tall cabinets displaying pottery beside each bedroom door, thin woven hangings adorning the walls with muted geometric patterns, thick rugs on the wooden floor, and a few small tables scattered about with four chairs each. It looked like the sort of room where someone might host a party with space for guests to sleep off the excesses afterwards. On and around one of the larger tables lay a collection of local supplies: knives, cooking equipment, two rolled sleeping bags, additional fur throws, a couple of small leather wallets with unknown items inside, neat paper packages that might contain some sort of hardtack and various other pieces of low-tech survival gear, arranged as if awaiting Bashir’s inspection.

Xerxex and Garak were seated at a small table beside one of the windows, evidently enjoying yet more cups of tea; a tall metal teapot was sitting between them on a wooden trivet, along with a little bowl of brown crystals that must be sweetener. A third cup, currently empty, stood in front of an unoccupied chair.

“Doctor!” Garak beamed when Bashir walked in the door. “Come, join us!”

For some reason that sparked a memory of one of the first times he’d ever met the Cardassian tailor: Join me, Doctor! Enhance my evening! Bashir shook off the audio ghost and smiled. “Thank you, I think I will.” He glanced at the neat pile of supplies as he crossed to the table. “I take it your shopping expedition was successful?”

“Highly,” Garak practically purred in a way that informed Bashir that he was inordinately pleased about something, some private reference between the two of them that Xerxex didn’t share. He poured the tea while Bashir took his seat. “Trivor Xerxex and I were just discussing the nature of this planet’s civilization. It’s a most fascinating subject.”

“I’m sure it is.” He looked Garak over as the Cardassian set the teapot back on its wooden base. He was wearing local clothes now, including loose dark pants tucked into practical calf-high boots and a warm long-sleeved tunic with an interwoven vertical wave pattern of what looked like dark blue and dove-grey wools; it was plainly but neatly finished, and covered his neckridges almost to the ear while plunging nearly to the hollow of his throat. Somehow in less than an hour of shopping he’d managed to find something immensely flattering. Bashir wondered what he’d found that was suitable for a Human to wear, but that conversation would have to wait since they had a guest.

“I trust Trivor Tair didn’t give you too hard a time?” Garak’s tone of voice was casual but there was the faintest undercurrent to it that suggested he was feeling something a little more intense and less pleasant than polite interest. It surprised Bashir but he was fairly sure that Xerxex didn’t know Garak well enough to have picked up on it, so he answered the overt emotion in kind.

“Not at all. It was the sort of examination I might have given myself, under the circumstances.” He took a sip of the tea and discovered that it wasn’t tea at all: it was thicker and had more body, with strong hints of coffee and chocolate. The taste was utterly delightful.

“Then I’m sure you were treated with professionalism and compassion.” He turned his attention back to the scholar with a smile. “We’ve been talking about many things, in particular the institution of slavery in this culture.”

“Yes,” Xerxex continued, “and especially about you, young Bashir.”

“Me?” He helped himself to a spoonful of sweetener. “This is very good. What is it?”

K’rahl,” Xerxex replied. “Don’t you have it on your world? It’s used to promote wakefulness in the mornings.”

“We have something similar, called coffee.” He took another sip. Perfect.

Garak wasn’t about to be sidetracked. “The good trivor and I are concerned that your status here might be... problematical. A slave without a collar is something to be hunted down and punished, and if you’re not Cardassian you certainly aren’t considered to have any right to be free.”

“So long as you’re perceived to be a Savage, especially a strange and alien one, people will be threatened by your presence if you’re not wearing a collar to indicate you’re under the control of one of the Civilized,” Xerxex explained. “I’ve advised Garak to pick up a collar for you tomorrow so —”

“No,” Bashir said firmly, then cut Garak off when it looked like he was going to protest: “I’m sorry, but I draw the line at pretending to be a slave. I’m willing to bet that my unique appearance will put me into an undefined category that members of this society won’t question too closely. We can deal with any other situations as they arise.”

Xerxex shook his gunmetal grey head. “I think you’ll live to regret that decision, torva, but nobody’s your master. You can do as you please. I just hope that it doesn’t get you beaten, or worse.”

“Thank you for your concern, sir, but I’m quite capable of taking care of myself.” He ignored the look that Garak cast his way, which was skeptical in nature. “I’m a trained officer in my civilization’s military. Tactics and self-defense are part of that training.”

“Military officers get killed all the time,” Garak pointed out. “If they didn’t, nobody would ever get promoted.”

Xerxex chuckled and held out his cup for more k’rahl. While Garak poured he turned his dark eyes back to Bashir with more solemnity. “Your friend’s right, and you really should consider listening to him.”

“It’s quite pointless to try to tell the good Doctor anything,” Garak remarked. He finished pouring with a little flourish and set the pot down. “Believe me, I’ve tried, but he never listens to me.”

“I’ve listened to you many times,” Bashir said with equaniminy. “The problem is, you tell me something completely different each and every time.”

“And it’s a credit to your discernment that you manage to pick exactly the wrong option ‘each and every time’.”

“Gentlemen, please!” But Xerxex’s eyes held a gleam of good humor; he was clearly taking the teasing in the spirit that it was meant. “I didn’t come here to start an argument.”

“An argument between friends is a dash of chakta in the stew,” Garak quoted.

“Ah!” Xerxex beamed. “So our cultures still share some similar proverbs! Tell me, do your people know the one about —?”

And then they were off on a discussion which Bashir really couldn’t follow, so he sat back and drank his k’rahl and watched Garak work his charming magic. The Cardassian was a master at smooth social interaction and being around him over the past thirty months had taught Bashir a great deal about what to say, and when — and about what not to say, which could be equally important, although he feared he’d never have Garak’s talent for knowing precisely what to leave out of a conversation. He knew that he had a tendency to reveal too much and that his propensity to wear his heart and his mind on his sleeve had afforded the spy-turned-tailor considerable amusement over the years; Garak, however, had always handled him relatively gently given how sword-sharp his tongue could be, with an ability to twist and attack that Bashir had clearly seen when the Obsidian Order implant had been slowly killing the former operative almost nine months ago.

He sipped the k’rahl slowly while Garak engaged Xerxex in a lively discussion about the significance of proverbial analogies, only half-listening to the conversation although he hoped he looked politely interested. He was remembering Garak’s vicious verbal and physical attacks during his withdrawal from the implant, fiercely hissed words of virulent hatred for the station, his life, and his occasional lunch companion. Those words had hurt more than Bashir cared to admit, although he’d been able to comport himself perfectly professionally in the face of them. He had come to value Garak’s friendship — indeed, to treasure it. When he considered the matter he realized that was something about the Cardassian exile that had affected him deeply from the moment he’d presented himself in the Replimat, sophisticated and smiling, and that he’d been pleased that Garak found him worthwhile enough to cultivate the acquaintance. Yes, the words of denial and loathing had hurt and Bashir had suspected that even if he was able to save Garak’s life their relationship would never be the same...

But afterwards, when Garak had approached him in the Replimat yet again with his mysterious merry smile and a novel by Preloc as a gift — or perhaps a peace offering — Bashir had studied his face, looking for any trace of that hatred, and had found none. Garak had seemed genuinely pleased to be with him. And as much as he now knew about his friend, as clearly as it had been demonstrated that Garak lied as easily and as fluidly as most men breathed, that pleasure had a ring of truth to it that Bashir had chosen to accept. Who knew? Perhaps Garak both hated and liked him. Bashir knew that this man was more than complex enough to encompass two evidently contradictory emotions in the same heart.

And so things had gone on as before. They’d met for their weekly lunches and the occasional snack at other times, Garak had continued to be charismatic and Bashir had continued being earnest, and their relationship had retained its engaging mysterious core that Bashir never tired of trying to decipher, for all that he sometimes felt like a blindfolded child being led through a maze by a piper he could scarcely hear. Was that why he’d risked his life to save Garak’s? Going to face Enabran Tain could well have ended in his capture, his torture and his death. Was the faint mocking melody he sometimes heard in his dreams worth so much to him?

It was, and he desperately wanted to hear more of the larger work, to appreciate its heights and its depths, no matter how dark they might be. Every so often he heard the rumble of a threatening chord under Garak’s smooth flow of words that made the hair stand up on the back of his neck, or a bittersweet cadence that made his heart sing in response. Those moments of strange harmony had become more frequent since the incident with the implant, and now that they were here on this unknown world Bashir felt even more in tune, as if Garak was opening up simply through being in a challenging situation among his own kind... or perhaps this novel environment was merely increasing Bashir’s own sensitivity to the cues. Whatever the case, he was keeping his ears open for each elusive note, and he was learning.

For now he sat and listened, grateful that the two Cardassians had let the matter of the slave collar drop so easily. It was almost enough to make him suspicious. Knowing Garak he’d sneak around behind the issue and attack from a different angle at some point in the future; well, Bashir would be ready for him. He’d submitted to Trivor Tair’s examination but he refused to pretend to be enslaved for the sake of convenience.

It wasn’t long before the k’rahl pot was empty and Xerxex rose with a small sigh. “I should be getting back to the niatta before supper prayers.”

“Here,” Bashir said, standing up to shrug out of the leather coat he still wore. “Trivor Tair asked if you’d mind bringing this back with you? He was kind enough to loan it to me.”

“Of course,” Xerxex replied gently, accepting the coat and folding it over his left arm. His perceptive eyes seemed to penetrate Bashir’s mind and he had the sudden feeling that this man could see his disquiet about the examination, although he was too polite to say anything. “I’d be pleased to do so.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The Cardassian nodded and turned back to Garak, who had also risen. “Well then, good day to you, Garak.” A nod to Bashir. “And to you, torva. Warmth and safe haven to you both on your travels.”

They returned the salutation and Garak saw the old trivor to the door. As soon as it closed Bashir looked around the apartment and let the fact that he was impressed clearly show. “My God, Garak, this is amazing! How did you manage it?”

“By being the only person willing to pay the price to rent it,” Garak replied with definite irony in his pale eyes. “And believe me, it was the only room left for miles. As soon as I expressed dismay at the nightly rate a dozen travellers leaped forward to assure me that none of them had been having any luck finding accommodations of their own.”

“Well, it’s marvelous. After sleeping in that tent I really appreciate the extra space.”

“I thought you might.” Garak nodded toward the two doors. “And with separate sleeping quarters, no less!”

Bashir nodded. If they were going to be sharing a tent after this it would be nice to have a couple of nights to sleep alone.

“I’ve taken the liberty of laying out your new clothes in your room,” Garak said, indicating the open doorway to the right. “I hope they meet with your approval.”

“You’re a tailor; I’d be very surprised if they didn’t.” He approached the table of camping supplies. “And if we had to sell our equipment I’m glad to see you found some suitable replacements.”

“My tunic and trousers went for a particularly fine price in the marketplace,” Garak observed pointedly. “More than enough to pay for this room.”

Bashir quirked an amused eyebrow. Those clothes had been Garak’s; he couldn’t have stopped him from parting with the rich futuristic fabrics if he’d tried. “So the fashion revolution has begun?”

“Any day now,” the Cardassian assured him with a gleam in his eye. “If we ever come back this way I’m sure you’ll find things quite transformed.”

“I sincerely hope we never do.” He looked at the supplies. “They’re not packed up yet?”

“I consulted with the merchant who sold them to me and he informed me that it’s the job of the stable slaves to take care of such things. They’ll be neatly organized and placed in saddlebags on the o’wnli I’ve rented for us tomorrow.”

Now both eyebrows rose. "You found someone to guide us that quickly?”

“Xerxex took care of it while I was shopping. He really does have connections: all it took was a quick visit to a local official and he turned up two guides to see us safely to Zio Araga just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Their names are Aslel and Borik; how competent they are, unfortunately, remains to be seen.”

Bashir nodded thoughtfully. “And all this cost... how much?”

“Less than half of our profits,” Garak assured him. “This room really is quite expensive, and of course the rental of the o’wnli for such a long journey was a major up-front expense. The redoubtable Aslel and Borik didn't come cheap either, but we still have plenty left to see us through this adventure, assuming your tastes aren’t too extravagant. Why don’t you go look at your clothes and see if they’re suitable?”

Bashir smiled. He had no doubt that they would be, but decided to humor his friend. “All right, if you like.”

The bedroom turned out to be quite large in its own right, with four twin cots arranged along the walls. The one against the far wall and closest to the window was where Garak had laid out the clothing, and Bashir’s breath caught a little at the sight of one piece in particular.

He approached the bed and bent to run his hands over the chest of the coat, admiring the colours and textures. It was a subtly gorgeous thing, as slimly cut as the pelt lining would allow and falling to mid-thigh, with interlaced triangles of napped leather in various shades of muted green and blue and a luxurious fur ruff of icy grey. The majority of the clothes he'd seen in the streets of this city so far had not exhibited half so playful a sense of colour and style and he couldn't even begin to guess how much it must have cost. He called back through the door: “Garak, this coat is is beautiful!”

“I’m so glad you like it.” He sounded like he was in his own room now. “I thought that as long as we’re going to have to look at each other day in and day out for the foreseeable future we might as well present a pleasing picture.”

He glanced up, curious. “What’s yours look like?”

“You’ll see. Tomorrow.”

“Hmmm.” A slight smile curved his lips as he turned his attention from the coat to the clothing laid out beside it. Loose pants woven of medium-weight wool but the color of Terran doeskin; a shirt of something like thick cotton, soft to the touch and as pale as cream, with a crossover pattern of fasteners; a lightweight vest of velvet-textured animal hide, warm grey, with the short tight-curled fur turned inward. They wouldn’t be enough to keep a Cardassian truly warm but for a Human in this climate they’d do quite nicely under the coat. At the foot of the bed stood a pair of leather boots with a touch of burgundy in their dark hue, calf-high as seemed to be the prevailing style in this culture. All in all quite a nice collection, and Bashir was both impressed and pleased that Garak had put so much thought into what he was going to be wearing.

Then again, he is a tailor these days. I suppose it’s second nature to him now.

Still, the coat was the showpiece of the ensemble. The pale sun broke through the clouds and radiance washed over it from the window, bringing the colors to full life. He stroked it again, savouring the softness of the leather, before moving it and the other clothing to the next bed over. He liked the idea of sleeping so close to the window.

It was only mid-afternoon but he was at a loss for what to do next. The idea of going out into a city full of Cardassians, all of them likely to stare at him, was far from appealing, and Garak’s next words made the possibility of a few hours of conversation moot:

“I think I’ll head down to the tavern for a while.”

Bashir looked up. “To drink, or to pick up information?”

“A little of both, Doctor.” He sounded amused. “A little of both.”

“Just don’t get drunk,” Bashir warned. “I don’t have any injections handy to combat intoxication.”

“Doctor!” He sounded shocked and appalled at his friend’s lack of faith. “Would I be so — so irresponsible?”

“No, but you don’t know the strength of the local alcohol either. Maybe their beer will knock the top of your head off.”

“Among my many skills,” Garak informed him, still from his distant room, “I’ve cultivated the ability to appear to be drinking quite a lot while not drinking very much at all. Rest assured you won’t have a hangover patient to deal with in the morning.”

Bashir smiled at that. “Why am I not surprised?”

“The day I stop surprising you is the day it will be time for me to fully retire.” Bashir heard his footsteps emerge into the main room and head for the door. “If you must go out, do your best not to get lost. The name of this inn is The Tangled O’wn if you need to find your way back. There's a small satchel of money on the table beside the bed.”

“Actually, I’m thinking of turning in.”

The footsteps stopped. He could clearly imagine Garak turning around in surprise. “So early?”

“I haven’t slept very well the last two nights.” He didn’t see any point in mentioning the way the stares of the local Cardassians had been bothering him, triggering the memory of rare and awful nightmares. “And if we’re going to be lying on bare ground for the next several days I want to get some solid rest while I have the chance.”

“As you wish.” The footsteps resumed. “Goodnight, then. I'll see you in the morning.”

“Goodnight.” The impulse to tell Garak to be careful was strong, but if any man on this planet was going to proceed with caution it was Deep Space Nine's resident tailor. Bashir heard the door close and after a moment he sighed and slipped off his boots, then the rest of his uniform. Now dressed only in his lavender undershirt and tight black briefs, he folded the uniform neatly around the boots and carried the bundle into the main room to investigate whether Garak had purchased any empty bags. He had, and Bashir tucked the evidence of his Starfleet identity into one of the leather wallets and closed the clasps. He left his pips of rank where they were, at his throat; nobody local would recognize them for what they were anyway.

Then he returned to his bedroom, closed the door, and stretched out on the bed. Interlacing his fingers behind his head, he looked up at the clouds slowly tracking across the grey-blue sky and tried not to think about the examination he’d just undergone. It shouldn’t have bothered him so, but ever since he was a child he’d been wary of doctors. How ironic, that he’d ended up becoming one himself — a physician inordinately disquieted by exams performed on his own person!

Perhaps he should tell Garak after all. The Cardassian would no doubt find it worth a chuckle.

His thoughts idly circled several issues: the voices of the doctors, the cool touch of their alien hands, the way they'd looked at him, a more professional version of the invasive stares of the general public. The latest details of Garak's behaviour and what they could imply. What challenges might lie ahead as they set off across the wilderness of this cold world. How much that lovely coat had cost and how well it would wear. The unexpectedly pleasant taste of k’rahl. His stomach growled a little at the thought: maybe he'd get up later and hazard the tavern after all in search of some supper. But for now...

The bed was wonderfully comfortable.

After a long while he closed his eyes. A long time after that, he slept.

But he did not rest easy.

Chapter Text

He was running through the night streets of Zio Tevar’in, moving at full speed — faster than a normal member of his species, uncaring of who witnessed the enhancements that had always brought him such shame. The festival was in full swing, crowds of Cardassians all around him. He darted between their milling bodies as if they were a dense stand of humanoid-sized trees, searching for something in the glow of the torches, he knew not what. Only it was very important that he find it. Something about music? Yes, a melody more rare and exultant than the joyful sounds of singing around him, the coarse soldiers’ voices lifted in celebration.

Glancing down, he saw himself sheathed in the black and teal of a Starfleet uniform. Garak is going to be angry with me. He told me not to wear this. Well, to hell with him! He was proud of his accomplishments and needed to display them like a banner. It was the only way to get some measure of respect from the alien society he found himself in...

... whose members were starting to take notice of him. Heads turned, snake-quick; cold eyes narrowed, fixing him with glares of xenophobic malice; whole groups turned and started to follow him, moving as swiftly as he. With a sinking heart he realized that he’d miscalculated: he’d only drawn attention to himself and his uniform marked him as an enemy. He turned his attention fully forward and forced his way through a particularly dense press of bodies, heading toward the gate out of the city. He could see it clearly, only a block away. If he could reach it, he’d be safe. He’d be free.

Hands grasped at him but slid away, unable to get purchase. He broke free and put all his heart into running. He could sense the multitudes behind him, the entire city, in hot pursuit, hissing for his blood. If they caught him they’d tear him apart to devour his enhanced flesh.

Suddenly Garak was there, running at his side, dressed in a Cardassian military uniform with an insignia on his chest that marked him as an agent of the Order. Bashir turned to look at him as they sprinted toward the gate, feeling grief draw his face into desperate lines. “You’re dead,” he told him, thinking of a dark corridor and a flare of fatal light. “I saw you die!”

Garak’s teeth flashed white in the torchlight. “We’re dead together, Doctor,” he confided, not at all out of breath. “Didn’t you know?”

A mob of grey ridged faces and clutched knives appeared between them and the gate, cutting off escape. Howling, it moved in for the kill.

They can’t hurt us, Bashir thought as the rush of bodies crushed in upon them from all sides. We’re already dead.

He came awake with an almost soundless gasp, sitting bolt upright in bed. The room was nearly pitch dark. Looking around, he discerned three other beds and geometric hangings on the walls, and then he remembered where he was. The inn. The street outside was quiet and devoid of any trace of light. No festival yet, or was it that late? No way to tell.

The door was slightly ajar and warm light fell in a bar upon the wooden floor. He could smell food — his stomach clenched with a rumble — and hear quiet voices, two of them, unknown. He listened until he heard Garak’s silken tones and then swung his legs over the side of the bed, picturing where he’d put the clothes the tailor had purchased for him. As quickly and as quietly as he could he dressed in the darkness, his surgeon’s fingers quickly deciphering the mysteries of the strange clothing’s closures. When he was presentable he pulled on the boots, ran a hand over his hair, drew a deep breath and went out into the main room to see who Garak had brought back with him.

Three figures sat at a meter-wide table near the door to the hallway, evidently eating a late supper from metal plates and drinking small glasses of what might have been kanar to judge by its clouded blue color. A fourth chair on Bashir’s side was empty, the plate before it unused. A crystal-chimneyed lamp cast gentle yellow radiance on bowls of strange vegetables and something that looked a bit like a roasted chicken, a few pieces of meat still hanging on its bones. The two men who were dining with Garak couldn’t be a greater study in physical contrasts: one was tall and lean, rather similar to Gul Dukat in build with heavy facial ridges, while the other was short and chubby and delicately featured, no taller than Bashir’s shoulder. Both wore leather chestplates over what could have been dark sheepskin jackets if this planet had sheep, their legs encased in pants of rough black leather and their feet shod in bulky boots. The taller one was in a position where Bashir could see the shortsword scabbard at his left hip.

“Ah! Good evening, Doctor.” Garak indicated the two men with a smile. “Look who I ran into down in the tavern!”

“We came looking for you,” the shorter man pointed out, taking more from a bowl of green grainy stewed leaves. He nodded to Bashir. “I’m Yolin Borik. Warmth and safe haven to you.”

The taller man was gazing at Bashir with undisguised surprise and contempt. As Bashir took the remaining chair, the prospect of food rapidly chasing away the remnants of his bad dream, he turned to Garak. “You let your slave walk around without a collar?”

Bashir regarded Aslel evenly while Garak replied: “Doctor Bashir is not my slave. He is my colleague.” His sleek voice contained a hint of something much more threatening. “I trust you’ll be able to keep that in mind?”

“And this is Yolin Aslel,” Borik continued with a trace of resignation. “I’m sure he’s pleased to meet you as well.”

The heavy-ridged fellow certainly didn’t look it. He addressed Garak again: “This koraka is your partner?” He looked Bashir up and down, his gaze lingering on the tight neck of his lavender undershirt where it was visible above the creamy linen. “And he dares to mock the collar? Likes to live dangerously, doesn’t he?”

“I’d really prefer it if you spoke to me directly,” Bashir said quietly but firmly.

Aslel sneered. “I don’t talk to korakali, unless it’s to give orders.”

Borik lowered his fork, which had been busy attacking the chicken on his plate, and frowned at his fellow guide. “So he looks a little strange. So what? They’re paying us good money, you know.”

Very good money,” Garak reminded them, still speaking in that gliding razored tone.

The tall Cardassian snorted and put down his fork with more force than was strictly necessary. “I think we’re done here,” he said, rising to his feet, his gaze deliberately directed away from the Human at the table.

“So soon?” Garak asked with just a touch of mockery, which didn’t help to make Aslel any less hostile. He spun on his heel and started for the hall door, leaving Borik to stand up hastily after grabbing a final sip of his kanar.

“We’ll see you in the morning,” he said with a nod almost of apology to Bashir. The two men departed, Borik closing the door which Aslel had left open after stalking out of the room. Bashir could hear Borik speaking as they went away down the hall although he couldn’t make out any exact words.

After a couple of seconds of silence he let out a long slow breath. “Well, that was certainly strange.”

“On the contrary.” Garak poured him a little glass of kanar. “It’s exactly what Xerxex and I tried to warn you about. I suggest you take off that undershirt and pack it away with the rest of your uniform, and steer clear of all neck-hugging fashions for the moment.”

Bashir sighed and used his fork to snag a large piece of meat from the carcass. His stomach was definitely protesting the long gap since their lunch of dried meat and hardtack in the back of the cart. Still a little sleepy, he also helped himself to the green vegetable that Borik had seemed to favor. “Tair didn’t have a problem with it. Or Xerxex, for that matter, or any of the people we met while we were travelling.”

“They didn’t express it in so many words,” Garak corrected him. “But surely you weren’t entirely oblivious to the way that some of our travelling companions were looking at you?”

Bashir sighed again and let his shoulders fall slightly. “To tell you the truth, all their stares are starting to look the same.” He took a mouthful of the meat and found that it tasted more like pork than like fowl. After chewing and swallowing he quietly admitted: “I’m getting rather tired of it, actually.”

Garak shook his head. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to endure a lot more of it before we’re done here, Doctor.”

The prospect made Bashir grimace. “Being out in the wilderness will be a nice change of pace, then.”

“Aside from sleeping on the ground, yes. It’s never been an experience I particularly relish.”

Bashir looked at him curiously as he dealt with the last mouthful of food on his own plate. “Have you done a lot of camping before?”

“Oh, you know... here and there. Doesn’t everybody?”

Bashir smiled at his own doomed expectations of ever receiving a straight answer and took a sip of the alcohol. It was definitely kanar, although less sweet than the kind Garak had once badgered him into trying back on the station. “My father used to take me camping, back on Earth. The smell of the woodsmoke these last two nights was very evocative of the times we spent by a campfire, toasting marshmallows and looking up at the night sky.”

“That sounds quite pleasant.”

“It was.” He briefly debated revealing more, but decided it wouldn’t be wise or very interesting. “So — what did you find out down in the tavern?”

While he ate Garak sat back with his drink and regaled him with a tale about making some new friends by buying a round of ale, playing a game of domchar with them and wheedling out details about the festival, the local political situation, the indiscretions of the city guard and the affair the innkeeper had been carrying on for the last two months under his wife’s nose. Bashir found himself laughing over the peccadillos of the locals, so wittily recounted, and ended up resting both elbows on the table, alternately watching Garak’s animated face and smiling into his own glass of kanar, poised between the fingers of both hands. The sound of that expressive voice was soothing to him and he found his eyes nearly drifting closed a few times before he snapped awake.

In the middle of a sentence, grey fingers deftly plucked the glass from his hands. He looked up at Garak in surprise.

“Go back to bed.” The Cardassian was studying his face, his expression almost one of fondness. “You’re falling asleep in your chair.”

As though prompted by the observation, Bashir yawned. “I suppose I am,” he admitted. The food and the alcohol had fully relaxed him and it was nice to sit here with Garak in the lamp’s mellow glow, just talking — or rather, for the last few minutes at least, just listening. He felt warm and contented, if still very tired. “Goodnight then,” he said as he got to his feet. “Again.”

“Goodnight, Doctor.” He could sense Garak's gaze on his back as he went back to his bedroom. Does he think I’m drunk? I haven’t had nearly that much kanar...

So tired. He stripped off his clothes, remembering Garak’s advice when he got down to his undershirt. Slipping it off, he walked back to the bedroom door. “Garak?”

From the table, where doubtless he was enjoying his kanar in peace: “Yes, Doctor?”

“Would you mind packing this away for me?” He opened the door enough to hold out the undershirt. “I put my uniform in the dark leather bag with the brass clasps.”

“Of course.” Footsteps approached and the shirt was taken from his hand. “Sleep well.”

“You too.” Yawning afresh, he turned back to the bed. So comfortable. He actually got under the covers this time, and was asleep within seconds.


This time there was no murderous mob. This time he was alone.

A shadowy corridor on a nightmare version of the station he knew so well.

Garak, dead at his feet.

He stared down at his friend's face, so terribly still, knowing that he had to leave him there -- and tried not cry out loud.

He woke with a sob in his throat anyway, clutching desperately at the blankets gathered close to his chest.

The lamplight in the main room had been extinguished. A sharp call came to him across night, so low that it barely reached him from the far bedroom, but it penetrated the haze of his distress nonetheless: “Doctor?”

Bashir drew a deep breath and ran his hands over his face, as if to scrub away the clinging shroud of the nightmare. “I’m fine, Garak,” he called back equally quietly. “Just... a bad dream. Go back to sleep.”

He pressed his cheek against the pillow again and tried to follow his own advice. Still, the minutes felt like hours.


It was a restless night. He eventually opened his eyes to the brightest morning he’d yet seen on this world, the quality of light suggesting that it was just past dawn.

Still weary, he rolled out of bed and stretched, then dressed again in his new clothes and belted the money satchel to his waist.. There was silence in the rooms beyond. He emerged to find their camping equipment gone, the remnants of last night’s meal still on the table — and no sign of Garak. His bedroom was empty, although the bed had clearly been slept in.

After checking his hair in a mirror by the door and stroking it into submission — and thanking whatever Gods might be for the Federation technology that suppressed beard growth for weeks at a time — Bashir went downstairs. The tavern had enough seats for about forty but currently boasted only twelve Cardassians, many of them looking almost as sleepy as Bashir felt. He took a seat at the bar and raised his hand to get the attention of a slender Cardassian maid standing beside a chafing pot.

“Excuse me, miss? I’m looking for —”

“They’re out in the stables. Have been for the last half clockturn.” She slopped a generous portion of what looked like cooked grains from the pot into a bowl, stuck a spoon into it and pushed it in front of him. “Eat up. I think they’re waiting for you.”

Guiltily Bashir all but gobbled his breakfast, scarcely taking time to enjoy the taste, which was slightly sweet and actually quite pleasant. The serving girl also plunked down an earthenware cup of k’rahl, which Bashir attacked gladly; it obviously had a good hit of caffeine in it, because by the time he got up from the bar he was feeling considerably more awake. The maid waved away his offer of money and pointed him out the back of the inn; the door he exited opened directly into the stables, a surprisingly large building with stalls for many o’wnli, most of which were occupied. Four of the great beasts stood saddled and bridled in the central space, thick canvas packs slung across their sloping flanks. Borik was standing at the head of one, stroking its scaly muzzle and addressing it in a low croon; closer to the door stood Aslel and Garak, talking quietly.

Garak, Bashir had to admit, looked quite sartorial in an outdoorsy sort of way. He’d chosen a coat of a similar cut to Bashir’s and suited to his sturdier build; the pattern, however, consisted of long vertical rectangles in different shades of burgundy and blood, with a thick auburn ruff that emphasized the slate-blue of his eyes. His expression as he stood chatting with Aslel was merely polite, but it warmed to a smile when he saw Bashir approaching. “Good morning, Doctor! Are you ready to depart?”

“It seems you’ve taken care of everything for me.” He raised his right hand to hide a small yawn.

Aslel stalked away to mount up without gracing Bashir with so much as a glance. Garak appeared not to notice his rudeness. “I thought you might appreciate a little extra sleep. It sounded like you had a rough night.”

Bashir tried not to look sheepish. “I’m sorry, was I making a lot of noise?”

“Not much. Scarcely enough to be noticed.” But the way Garak was looking at him suggested that he was being carefully evaluated; he did his best to look perfectly awake and alert. Evidently it was enough to pass muster because Garak gestured toward the four saddled o’wnli that stood waiting in a group in front of the stable doors. “Shall we?”

Borik, who was just climbing into the saddle, smiled slightly and nodded at Bashir as they approached. “Good morning.”

“Good morning. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”

The heavy-set Cardassian shrugged as he settled himself astride the great beast and started pulling on heavy leather gloves. “Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve gotten a late start, and it won’t be the last.” He glanced out the narrow window atop the stable door. “Nice day for a ride, at least. I hope we don’t get snow before nightfall.” He was wearing a dull green cloak over his winter coat, and Bashir turned around to find Garak suddenly wearing an almost identical one while offering him another.

“Thanks.” He took it and slung it over his shoulders, his fingers puzzling briefly with the unfamiliar fastenings. By the time he'd finished Garak was already beside one of the o’wnli; he put his foot on a leather projection on the belly girth, grasped a handhold on the side of the saddle that was obviously made for just that purpose, and within two seconds was astride the dragonish creature and settling his cloak around him. The way he did it suggested that he’d had past experience with such a mount, and Bashir made a mental note to ask him if they had o’wnli on Cardassia Prime.

Now, however, Bashir was the only one not ready to ride. He eyed the remaining o’wn for a moment; it eyed him back, its large crimson orb gleaming with unreadable intent. Remembering the behavior of Xerxex’s mount the previous day he approached it at what he hoped was a non-aggressive pace, keeping within its line of sight.

When he got close enough it tried to take his arm off with a snap of its massive jaws. He barely got out of the way in time.

Aslel choked back laughter. Borik winced. And Garak leaned forward in the saddle, clearly curious to see how this would play out.

Again Bashir and the riding beast regarded each other silently. “Is there some trick to this that I’m missing?” he asked after a long pause at a safe distance.

“Not really, Doctor. Just put your foot on the girth, grasp the saddle-hold and mount up.”

“Riding animals isn’t exactly something they teach at the Academy,” Bashir muttered before attempting another approach to the ow’n. It raised its hackles and snapped at him again, almost sinking its teeth into his flesh. He leaped back, only avoiding moving with enhanced speed through long practice at concealing his abilities. Those jaws were frankly quite intimidating.

This time Aslel didn’t try to hide his mirth. Evidently he found not being able to get on an o’wn, much less ride one, quite a hilarious deficit in a grown man. Borik simply looked embarrassed.

“You can ride with me,” offered Garak, whose ow’n seemed testy but firmly under his control. “I’ll just have to get the price of the rental back for the extra one.” He swung his leg back over the saddle and nimbly descended in reverse order to the way he’d climbed up. With a brief nod at Aslel and Borik and a murmured “If you’ll excuse me,” he strode back into the area that presumably contained the stable offices, leaving Bashir standing at a safe distance from the intractable o’wn, which was still glaring at him balefully.

Aslel gave Bashir a look almost as sour. “You’re more trouble than you’re worth, koraka.”

Borik, however, seemed more kindly disposed. “Don’t they have o’wnli where you come from?”

“No,” Bashir answered honestly, “they don’t.” From the inner office of the stable he could hear two voices: Garak, being reasonable, and the stable owner, sounding like Garak had just poked him with something sharp. He gestured at the o’wn. “Are they always this... temperamental?”

“No,” Aslel informed him. “It must not like your smell.” The sneer made it an insult, but Bashir ignored the provocation. It wouldn’t be productive to get into a shouting match with one of their guides on the very day they were setting off to find the transmitter.

“Sometimes,” Borik contradicted. He looked the o’wn over with a critical gaze. “She might be coming into heat. That would explain the biting. Although it isn’t really their breeding season...”

Inside the stable office the voices had risen slightly. Evidently the stable owner, like a Ferengi, didn’t want to part with money once it was in his hand, and Garak was too much of a merchant to just let the silver go.

“Marvelous,” Bashir remarked dryly. “The one proddy beast in the entire stable and I end up with it.”

“It’s the luck of the draw,” Borik commiserated. “Good thing they make these saddles big enough for two in a pinch, otherwise we’d be hauling you out of here in a cart.”

“Like garbage?” Aslel asked pointedly. Borik gave him a look that was both exhasperated and amused.

“I’d just as soon be spared that indignity, thank you.” More aggravated sounds from the office. While he couldn’t pick up most of the words, he recognized that note in Garak’s voice: the tailor was moving in for the kill. He’d have his money back in fairly short order. “Are there any other animals that are used for riding here?”

Borik shook his head. “Not among the Civilized. The Savages have little beasts that they use to pull carts, but even they’ve adopted the o’wn for riding and heavy pulling. It’s hard to understand, the way they take some parts of our culture but fight so hard against accepting others that are just as good.”

“Like slavery?” Bashir asked sharply. So much for keeping the conversation pleasant.

Aslel’s green eyes flashed in return. “It’s about all they’re good for. If you’d ever had to deal with them, you’d know. They’re lazy and dirty and shiftless, and they don’t even —”

Garak emerged from the back hallway with a cheerful countenance. Bashir was certain that his money-pouch was a bit heavier than it had been a few minutes ago. “There! All taken care of,” he announced dramatically, as if he realized what he’d walked in on and was trying to defuse the argument before it escalated. “It will just take a minute for the stable hands to redistribute the packs. In the meantime, Doctor, why don’t you join me up here?” He patted the top of his saddle, then mounted again with the same easy efficiency.

Bashir looked up at him and cautiously approached the o’wn. It made as if to turn its head but Garak applied sharp pressure with his knees and it steadied. He reached down a hand for Bashir to clasp and waited until he got the edge of his boot onto the girth-projection before lifting him with easy Cardassian strength. It took a bit of maneouvering but Bashir ended up seated right behind him, feeling a little unstable on the narrow saddle and not sure where to put his hands; there were no convenient handholds to steady himself.

“Put your arms around my waist,” Garak suggested in response to the shifting of his weight.

Bashir did so and found to his relief that Garak was perfectly and securely balanced. He chided himself for being so uneasy: it wasn’t that far to the ground even if he did fall. But somehow the o’wn seemed much taller than it actually was.

“Hold on tight,” Garak advised quietly, “and if we have to gallop please grip the saddle with your knees. I don’t want you sliding off the hind end of the beast — believe me, those spines are quite painfully sharp.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” He found himself holding on with just a little bit more pressure than necessary and forced himself to relax, momentarily wishing that he'd elected to take horseback riding instead of tennis lessons when he was a child.

Naievirl boys, their feathery hair cropped short, had appeared and were unburdening the abandoned o’wn with swift efficiency. Very shortly they had the packs redistributed to Garak’s mount and were moving to open the wide stable doors. Light and cold air poured inward, making their breath frost in the brilliant morning as Aslel led the way out into the stable yard, with Garak right behind and Borik bringing up the rear. The stable boys ran ahead to unbar the gates to the street and they rode out into the emptiest version of the city Bashir had seen so far. Evidently the early hour was too cold for most Cardassians to be abroad if they could possibly help it.

Aslel turned in the saddle. “Keep close behind me and keep your mouths shut. Let me do the talking to the city guard.”

“Oh, we shall,” Garak agreed, while Bashir watched the almost silent city pass by and tried to enjoy what might be his last sight of civilization for quite some time to come.

Chapter Text

Once outside the city gates Aslel set an alternating pace for the o’wnli: walk, trot, walk, trot. It covered ground with commendable speed and soon Zio Tevar’in was out of sight behind them. Looking back, Bashir saw the same landscape as lay ahead: rocky hills with their brown and grey sides clad in snow and white-dusted alien trees under a greyish blue sky full of high clouds. The light of the sun rose and fell behind their shifting veils.

Unlike the party of pilgrims that had brought Garak and Bashir to the city the yolinli travelled away from it without either speaking or singing. The silence around them was so deep that Bashir could almost hear his own heart beating and every heavy-clawed footfall of their mounts on the snowy road rang clear, each chuff from the beasts’ muzzles like the report of a gun. It was very different from the environment he had lived in all his life, a world where the subliminal hum of technology was ever-present, and he found it a little unnerving until he learned to concentrate on the sound of his and Garak’s breathing. He paced his respiration rate to the slightly-slower-than-Human pattern of his Cardassian companion but made no attempt to converse: he wasn’t particularly interested in having Aslel and Borik view their usual banter as mere entertainment on the journey. Instead he occupied his mind by silently composing a response to a medical dissertation he’d read back on the station concerning how Bolian leucocytes operated under the influence of tanarzine enzymatic compounds.

That kept him from being bored for almost half the day, at which point Garak produced dried meat and hardtack from the small saddlebags in front of him and they ate as they rode, taking frequent drinks from the skin of water that was also hanging over the o’wn’s withers. The meat almost burned with salt, the biscuit was bland and the water tasted like leather, unpleasant but not entirely unpalatable. Bashir choked it all down and then went on to spend the afternoon contemplating the neuroplasmic generation problem that was bedevilling the biomolecular replication project he’d been working on for the past year and a half. By the time the sun started sinking behind the mountains to their left he was almost certain he’d solved the issue and wishing that he was back on Deep Space Nine so that he could immediately test his hypotheses. He resolutely refused to consider the possiblity that he’d never get the chance to find out whether or not his conclusions were correct.

Night came down swiftly, heavy with fresh clouds, and rapidly reduced the landscape around them to patterns of blackness strewn with patches slightly less black: the snowbound path ahead, trees against the sky, cliffs sometimes looming on one side or the other. Scattered flakes of damp snow began to fall and Bashir was glad of the cloak he’d been given: it repelled the moisture and kept out the worst of the chill air, although his face was still exposed and the temperature seemed to be dropping rapidly.

The rise-and-fall stride of the ow’n was very tiring to endure but Aslel didn’t seem inclined to call a halt anytime soon. After a long interval in darkness Bashir found himself nodding off; he snapped himself awake several times, cursing the nightmares that had disrupted his sleep so badly the evening before, but in the end he gave in and cautiously laid his head on Garak’s shoulder. The Cardassian didn’t seem to object so he left it there, closing his eyes and trying to ignore the increasing ache in his thighs and buttocks and back. Garak’s body felt completely relaxed against his, moving easily with the ow’n’s stride as if he’d been riding all his life. Another piece of the puzzle to fit into place, Bashir reflected with a barely stifled yawn.

Garak glanced back. “You’re not falling asleep on me, are you?”

“No.” Although he did sound sleepy, even to himself. He raised his head slightly and let it fall again, barely touching the shoulder of Garak’s cloak with his cheek. “You don’t mind —?”

“Of course not.” Garak seemed amused. “You’re helping to keep me warm.”

“Oh.” He took advantage of the ow’n’s next up-and-down undulation to move a bit closer, tacitly offering more of his body heat, and rested his cheek fully on the broad shoulder in front of him.

“Remember what I said about sliding off.” And with that cryptic piece of advice Garak turned his attention forward again. Bashir tightened his grip on his friend’s waist and closed his eyes, wondering if the slight spicy scent he was picking up came from the cloak, the coat beneath, or Garak himself. It was pleasant and he let himself doze a little, glad that he was providing Garak with some much-needed physical comfort. The temperature was bracing for a Human but must be fairly uncomfortable for a reptilian humanoid, even though the night was windless.

It was difficult to tell time in the all-encompassing darkness, but eventually Aslel reined his beast to a halt. Garak guided his mount to a stop beside him, prompting Bashir to open his eyes and raise his head. Far below them, perhaps a half a kilometer away, the blackness was alleviated by inviting yellow lights glowing from several windows, and through the silence came the faint sound of music in the distance. It was the only sign of habitation anywhere and, to Bashir’s eyes, a most welcome sight. His lower body was almost numb now; he couldn’t get off this o’wn fast enough.

Aslel’s spoke quietly: “Behold Cheldar Nor’iv, the last inn before Zio Araga.”

“Looks packed,” Borik observed, coming up from the rear to stand on their right. Bashir couldn’t tell what cues he was picking up on that gave him that impression, but Cardassians were reputed to have excellent night vision — perhaps he was seeing something that a Human would miss.

Aslel’s crooked smile was in his voice: “I’m sure Garak has enough money to convince old Frevah to put us up, even if he has to squeeze us into a closet. Come on.” He guided his o’wn forward and they followed him down the sloping road, headed for light and warmth at last.


As they trotted into the yard Aslel raised his voice in a strange sharp ululating cry; it must have been loud enough to carry through the music inside the inn, for within fifteen seconds the light of handheld lanterns came out to meet them, carried by five Naievirl youths — scarcely more than boys — who stepped forward to catch hold of the bridles of the ow’nli. Aslel and Borik were dismounting with a fluid ease that Bashir couldn’t help but envy, and Aslel was issuing orders to the stableboys, instructing them to take damned good care of the beasts and to let Frevah know that he had four more heads to find resting places for.

Garak swung his leg forward over the saddle and dropped neatly to the snowy ground. When Bashir tried to do the same he almost fell flat on his face as his abused muscles protested the long ride he’d just endured in no uncertain terms. Only Garak’s quickness saved him from a full tumble to the ground beside the ow’n’s left hind foot.

“Easy, Doctor!” He caught hold of Bashir’s upper arms and steadied him as he half-stumbled, half-fell off the riding beast. “I’m sorry, I should have realized —”

“It’s all right.” Judging from the expression on Aslel’s face he was enjoying the Human’s humiliation immensely. Even the stableboys now wore smirks. Bashir swallowed his pride and let Garak take his right arm and sling it over his shoulders, offering him the stability and support that his legs seemed temporarily incapable of providing. “I never realized that riding took so much endurance.”

“We should have dismounted and given you a rest at lunch,” Garak fussed. “You’ll feel better in a few minutes.” The yolinli started toward the inn and their offworld employers followed, Bashir still having trouble getting his body to obey his mental commands. “Take your time. One foot in front of the other...”

“I know how to walk, Garak!”

“Really?” He didn’t miss a beat. “It seems your legs don't agree with you."

It’s my femoral nerves that are the problem, actually... Bashir clamped his jaws shut over the retort. He didn’t feel like getting into a debate about human anatomy right now, as much as he felt that Garak got the last word far too often in their relationship.

By the time they got inside the inn Bashir was starting to regain control of his limbs, his enhanced nervous system recovering with exceptional rapidity; nevertheless he entered the common room limping and still supported by Garak. That didn’t prevent him from getting a good look around in the dimness as the tailor helped him toward the only empty table in the inn, set in a corner far away from the fireplace. The room held nineteen circular tables of varying sizes and was packed with Cardassians in winter coats, male and female, sitting on high-backed four-legged chairs, eating and drinking and talking loudly over the spirited music being produced by two musicians next to the fire who were playing something that looked similar to a fiddle and what was clearly a flute. Lamps of pale blue striated crystal mounted on the walls provided illumination, but not much of it, and the tall windows on three sides of the room were heavily curtained in crimson against the blackness beyond. The overall mood of the place was one of servicable decor and a promise of comfort, with the temperature a welcome change from the icy night outside, if a little stuffy.

Aslel had reached the table before them and taken a seat with his back to the wall; Borik immediately headed toward the bar, having to squeeze his wideness between the close-set chairs as he progressed. Garak lowered Bashir into a chair with his back to the other patrons before taking one himself, his right side to the room, opening his cloak and letting it drop from his shoulders to drape over his chair’s back. Bashir followed suit, finding it a little too warm for comfort with so many layers of clothing, and undid the fastenings of his coat to spread it open. He noted the tall yolin’s demeanor, his green eyes alertly scanning the crowd beyond Bashir as if looking for trouble. Bashir couldn’t see why; certainly people were turning to gaze curiously at the new Human arrival, whom they probably viewed as a cripple as well as exceptionally strange-looking, but he found that tonight it didn’t bother him as much as it had in the past. Perhaps it was because the dimness prevented him from being quite as aware of their eyes.

Garak was looking around too, his expression more pleasantly unreadable than Aslel’s little frown, but Bashir felt that he was just as alert if not more so. They both seem to be expecting something to happen, he thought. He glanced over his shoulder, saw nothing but a group of curious Cardassians watching him and murmuring amonst themselves, and turned back to his companions. “Is there something I’m missing?”

“Hmmm?” Garak brought his gaze back to Bashir with a reassuring smile that didn’t fool him in the least. “No, Doctor, not particularly. Why do you ask?”

Bashir gave him an exhasperated look. Garak’s smile widened. Bashir left the expression in place. Garak started to look positively angelic in his innocence. Bashir sighed. “Fine. Nothing’s wrong. There’s no reason at all why you’re watching them as if they’re about to start biting you.”

Garak blinked, while beside him Aslel continued his slow scan of the room. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“Of course you don’t.” Bashir looked over his shoulder again. People were starting to go back to eating their dinners. “I don’t see anything worth worrying about.”

“Then you’re stupid as well as ugly, koraka,” Aslel said softly. Garak slid a gaze toward him as narrow as a dagger blade. Bashir chose to ignore him instead, turning his attention instead to something he’d been wondering about periodically all day.

“When did you learn how to ride?” he asked Garak.

That thin injurious gaze at Aslel turned into a new focus on Bashir and another one of those smiles that, in Bashir’s experience, concealed far more than it revealed. Catch me if you can! it seemed to say. “Oh, a very long time ago. Surely you can’t be interested in something so pedestrian?”

“It’s not ‘pedestrian’ to me. That journey nearly crippled me!”

“Probably because you weren’t riding with correct posture. I’ll give you some pointers tomorrow morning before we set out. It’s all in how you carry yourself, really: the shoulders and hips must be in the correct alignment, and it’s important to shift one’s weight periodically. Getting off the o’wn to walk occasionally also helps.”

Aslel turned his attention fully to the conversation. “We’re not stopping just to let your... what did you call him?”

Bashir fixed him with a level gaze. “My species are called Humans,” he said quietly but adamantly.

“— your pet ‘Human’,” Aslel continued to address Garak, “stretch his skinny legs.”

Garak had many different qualities of smiles. This was one that Bashir would not have wanted turned in his direction. “Since I’m paying for your services on this trip,” the tailor said amiably, “and quite well, I might add, I think I’m entitled to call for breaks in our journey as warranted. Tomorrow we are going to stop for lunch, and dismount for at least half a clockturn. That won’t be a problem — will it?”

At the bar Borik had been speaking to a rather rumpled man in an apron, presumably the innkeeper. He gestured toward their table. The innkeeper nodded and waved him away, and he made his way back to his party as quickly as he could, bumping into the backs of a few people who didn’t see him coming because they were busy looking at Bashir. Now he arrived and took the remaining chair, appearing to ignore the locked gazes of Garak and Aslel. “They have qarat stew, thank Gart! Do you remember the last time we were here, Aslel? All they had was dara root and hasa, which makes for a pretty poor meal after a hard day’s travel. I’ve ordered us some ale, too. Hope you don’t mind,” he added to Garak.

Another protean shift, this time to graciousness, as he regarded Borik with a friendly expression. “Far be it from me to deny thirsty men their reward after a long day’s work.”

Bashir let out the breath he’d been holding without realizing it. For a moment there he’d thought that Garak was about to get into a serious argument with the tall guide — or perhaps...

For a fraction of a second, Bashir had gotten the distinct impression that Garak wanted to wound Aslel with more than words.

Physically hurt him? Over what? Not following orders? Or because he insulted me? No, it couldn’t be that. There’s something here I’m not seeing, which is usually the case where Garak is concerned. Honestly, the man could be maddening: it sometimes made Bashir want to grab him and shake the secrets out of him, although he doubted anything real would emerge no matter how hard he shook.

“Good,” Borik said with feeling, “because I feel like I could drink a nema’s worth. I won’t,” he added with a humorous quirk of his eyeridges, “but I certainly could.”

A broad Cardassian woman in an apron similar to the innkeeper’s wove between the chairs to their table, balancing a wide wooden tray on one hand. Without a word she placed a large metal mug and a bowl of a meaty brown stew in front of each of them, added cutlery, deposited a fat pale loaf in the centre of the tabletop and went away again. Borik immediately drew his belt dagger, picked up the loaf and began cutting thick triangular sections out of it, offering a piece first to Garak, then to Bashir and lastly to his fellow guide before slicing off some for himself. Bashir, meanwhile, was tasting the ale and finding it a touch too sour for his taste, with a faint acidic tang underneath; still, it cut the dryness in his throat and he took a long swallow before turning his attention to what was in his bowl. The stew had little lumps of cooked grains in the bottom, soft blobs that were reminiscent of Bajoran keraja in texture if not quite in flavour. The gravy itself was satisfyingly savoury, the meat almost black and mildly gamey. Garak appeared to be enjoying it and Bashir himself ate heartily, surprisingly hungry all of a sudden, occasionally mopping up the juices with bites of the sage-flavoured and slightly sweet bread.

For several minutes everyone concentrated on their food and their drink. Borik asked Bashir a few friendly questions about what things were like where he came from, and Bashir did his best to answer honestly without giving away his offworld status; he found himself offering details that would be commonplace whether one was in a high tech or a low tech environment, talking about his friends and how much satisfaction he got out of being a healer. In response Borik talked about growing up in Zio’iv Nassa, a small village far to the south, and learning to ride almost before he could walk. Across the table Garak and Aslel were discussing what they could expect to encounter in the next stage of their journey: three days of camping on the road with one stop in a handy cave along the route, and then the major city of Zio Araga, a settlement even bigger than Zio Tevar’in and bound to have rooms at a reasonable price now that the religious festival was over. They could expect to encounter some travellers heading in the opposite direction but almost none going their way. Beyond Zio Araga, Aslel and Borik would not go; Garak and Bashir would be provided with comprehensive instructions on the route to take, but neither guide was willing to risk the Naievirl tribes who lived in the forests closer to the Temple of the Distant Towers.

Bashir kept track of both conversations simultaneously with ease. Being enhanced might be highly illegal but it did confer distinct advantages.

As he ate, however, he became aware of a strange sensation, similar to the way he’d felt when Garak had watched him walk away the previous night, but far less welcome. It seemed to prickle up the back of his neck in little shivers. The music still played merrily, the conversation around them continued at its previous level — but something had changed. Something that made him pick up his chair and shift both it and his bowl around the table enough that he could keep his eyes on at least half of the room. Borik moved closer to Aslel to make room for him, giving him a questioning glance but making no comment. Garak offered an enigmatic hint of an approving smile, as if Bashir had just impressed him somehow, although Bashir wasn’t sure why — he wasn’t even sure what had prompted the action in the first place. He only knew that he felt a little safer as he finished his meal.

He was spooning up the last mouthfuls when he became aware of a new person in the room, a Cardassian female winding her way towards a big table surrounded by men in armor being raucous over their ales. As Bashir watched she came around behind the largest one, trailing her hand languidly over his left neck ridge; he looked up with a smirk and she gazed down at him with eyes that tried to be merry and didn’t quite succeed. She spoke. He spoke.

Bashir nodded in their direction. “Is that woman...?”

Garak glanced round casually. “A prostitute? Yes, I believe so.”

Bashir frowned. “I thought Cardassians didn’t have that sort of thing.”

“These people have been isolated for quite a while.” He sipped his ale, looking sardonic. “Perhaps we’ve always been only a couple of generations away from producing ladies of easy virtue.”

Bashir watched the prostitute slide onto the lap of another soldier and start toying with the top of his breastplate, smiling into his eyes in a way that was almost coy as her fingertip brushed his throat, while the soldier appeared to find her naked clavicles absolutely mesmerizing. He’d have paid good money to see her try that trick with Garak. He dropped his voice a little, making it harder for Aslel and Borik to listen in; the two guides had taken the opportunity to turn their attention to each other anyway, discussing the route ahead. “That’s not the only difference. Have you noticed that speech patterns here seem to be less formal and that they carry themselves in a more relaxed manner?”

“Hmm.” Garak didn’t seem to approve. “I suppose you see that as an improvement.”

“Not at all,” Bashir protested. “I’ve always found your people to have a certain undeniable... dignity.”

“That’s one way to put it.” The words had a mocking twist to them, an implied backhanded slap at his own species and their sense of self-importance. “However, you must admit that such an attitude is —”

He stopped, looking around sharply at something happening at the next table over. Bashir had noticed the large Cardassian male in roughly stitched leather clothing push his chair back and get to his feet. What he didn’t anticipate was that individual approaching their table to stand glaring down at him — and in particular at his bare throat.

Bashir looked up at him. And up. He was even taller than Aslel. The tingling at the back of his neck became a thrill of impending danger. “Can I help you?” he asked, keeping his tone low and polite.

Borik spoke first: “We don’t want any trouble, good pilgrim,” he said earnestly.

“Trouble?” The man barked a harsh laugh and took hold of Bashir’s left shoulder with hard fingers. “It’s this slave who’s in trouble! Who’s your master, hissar?” The fingers dug in and gave him a hard shake. “Where’s your collar? Did y’think you could run away and not —”

Bashir opened his mouth to reply, to try to defuse the situation. The man was clearly drunk. But before he could speak Garak had risen to his feet.

“I really think that you should take your hand off him, friend.” The tailor’s tone was the soul of politeness. His smile was mild. But something about his eyes sent another, deeper warning chill through Bashir’s entire body, from balls to bones.

“Garak —” He tried to convey, through simple inflection, the fact that he could take care of himself. The pilgrim didn’t give him a chance to finish.

“Or you’ll what?” The taller Cardassian sneered down at Garak and then turned his full attention back to Bashir, giving him another rough shake. His other hand moved toward his belt “I don’t like the look of this koraka perujo, and I’ll be damned if I’ll —”

Bashir started to stand up, ready to push back: if aggression was all this Cardassion understood, he was prepared to play that game. But again he was interrupted. Garak reached out and took tight hold of the pilgrim’s forearm, just above the wrist. He pulled it sharply away from Bashir’s shoulder. Simultaneously he closed the fingers of his other hand around the man’s upper arm. Before Bashir could even think of interfering he’d administered twisting pressure in one economical motion, tearing the pilgrim’s elbow out of its socket.

The audible ripping snap! must have carried even through the music, because the pilgrim’s friends suddenly stared with much wider eyes. The rest of the crowd closest to them, whose attention had been attracted by the grabbing and shaking, watched with interest as the pilgrim gaped at Garak, then down at the dislocated angle of his useless arm. There was nothing polite about Garak’s smile now; he looked, in fact, uncannily like a Terran wolf. He released the pilgrim and took a small step back, glancing around at the other patrons of the inn with an aura of commanding menace that Bashir had only seen him assume once before, a steely demeanor that he slipped into as easily as any of his other personas. Most of them looked away and turned their attention hastily back to their ale and food as if eager to avoid his gaze. Bashir couldn’t say that he blamed them.

One of them, however, did not.

“Bastard!” There was an insult that Bashir recognized, and one that was especially offensive in Cardassian society where proper lineage was equivalent to social legitimacy. One of the pilgrim’s travelling companions picked up the chair his friend had just vacated and came for Garak, his eyes alight with righteous fury. Garak sidestepped the attack easily; the chair struck the table in front of Bashir, smashing the dishes and doing no favours whatsoever to the chair itself. A second later the travelling companion had dropped the impromptu weapon and was staggaring back, clutching at his throat and gagging: Garak had punched the points of two fingers into his neck like a blade. He wouldn’t be shouting any more insults for quite some time.

Bashir stood up. He opened his mouth again, to say he knew not what. Then he saw the entire group of five pilgrims push back from their table and realized, with a sinking heart, that things were about to go straight to hell.

The soldier dumped the prostitute off his lap and rose to his full armored height, growling. His fellows followed suit. Aslel looked at Borik and grinned. Borik was grinning back. They pushed back their chairs and came around the table to wade gladly into the fray.

Garak had time to make one suggestion before the first combatant reached them: “Behind the table if you please, Doctor.” He sounded quite calm.

“Like hell!” Bashir had time to reply. Then one of the pilgrims was moving in on him and he ducked the first punch, grabbing the extended arm and driving his knee into the man’s crotch — which had nowhere near the effect he’d anticipated. He hit something hard and the blow bounced off — he’d just kneed the Cardassian in his penile sheath. Staggering off-balance, he barely recovered in time to avoid the knife the pilgrim drew and stabbed toward his guts. He deflected the hand holding the blade with one forearm and smashed his fist full into the pilgrim’s face; that worked better, sending the ale-sodden man stumbling back to fall flat on his ass.

In fiction battles were always carefully choreographed and seemed to go on for minutes on end; in practice, at least in Bashir’s experience, most episodes of melee combat were utterly chaotic and rarely lasted more than sixty seconds. He could hear the innkeeper yelling and was peripherally aware of more males joining the fight; mercifully only the pilgrims seemed to be pulling knives, otherwise things could have gotten very bloody very fast. The soldiers were grabbing them and disarming them, trying to pull them back, but getting them under control didn’t affect the other Cardassians who seemed to be throwing punches just for the fun of it.

Beside him Garak was delivering open-handed blows that seemed no less painful that Bashir’s fists. He stayed in one place, silently letting his opponents come to him, blocking and striking almost gracefully and with clinical precision. His face bore an expression of intense concentration occasionally sharpening into a snarl; in fact, if he didn’t know better Bashir would have suspected that the tailor was enjoying himself.

Well, I suppose that after several years of hemming pants a bar brawl would be a nice change of pace. Bashir ducked another drunken punch and slashed his elbow back across the face of his attacker, breaking the man’s nose with a wet crunch. He’d have to offer to tend to the wounded once this was all over. It was the least he could do considering that, in a way, he had started it.

The innkeeper, who had looked for a moment like he was thinking of trying to stop the fighting, apparently decided that discretion was the better part of valour and hightailed it into the kitchen area. The prostitute had vanished like smoke. The musicians had fallen silent and were watching the action as avidly as anyone else. The pilgrim wasn’t the only one who had decided to use furniture as an impromptu weapon: chairs were being wielded like clubs and Bashir estimated, on the fly, that this would turn out to be a very expensive night for the owner of the inn. The sound of breaking wood carried over the fleshy impacts and breathless grunts.

Someone grabbed him from behind, squeezing his throat with a hard forearm. He grabbed his right fist in his left hand and pistoned his right elbow back into his attacker’s belly. Once, twice — and then he heard another chair being smashed, this time directly behind him. The Cardassian holding him went limp and slid to the floor. Surprised, he risked a glance back to find Borik holding the remnants of the chair in question; he’d clocked Bashir’s attacker across the shoulders. The fat little guide grinned at him and dropped the broken chair, turning his attention to another male coming at him with a roar.

For a couple of minutes all was shouting, punching, breaking chairs and mayhem. Then, as Bashir had known it would, it burned itself out. He fended off one last attacker, a smaller man who took a half-hearted swipe at him and then backed off, and stood panting, watching people start to break apart. Quickly he did a self-diagnostic: he’d be bruised in the morning and had a couple of minor scrapes on his hands but no sprains or broken bones. Not bad for a combat where he’d driven off or outright defeated seven individual Cardassians. He glanced at Garak, who had fallen back into a ready stance and was watching the combatants separate with narrowed eyes. There was blood washing down his left temple from a long incision across his forehead ridge, thin enough that it was already ceasing to bleed on its own; other than that he looked unscathed, although his usually immaculate hair was somewhat mussed.

I don’t imagine I look much better, Bashir thought wryly.

But Garak’s eyes, glancing at him in turn, reflected only admiration for what he saw. It was a gaze that startled Bashir because of the way it lingered: a little too long, a little too intensely. There was a quality there he'd never seen before, an element nearly of hunger, totally unexpected and only present for a fraction of a second before becoming a more companionable expression of general approval. But it had seemed, for that instant, to devour the image he presented.

Almost as if --

No, that’s crazy! His heart rate, just starting to come down after all the physical exertion, leaped anew. He turned his eyes away quickly, but not before another little shiver of dangerous electricity ran up his spine, this one not entirely unpleasant. A sensation akin to what he'd felt last night, in fact, when he'd felt Garak's gaze upon him as he walked back to his bedroom, only much more intense. It's impossible. I’m mistaking his meaning. I've got to be. He’s just never seen me fight before and he’s impressed that I was able to —

Borik approached somewhat unsteadily and grinned at them both, pumped his fist in the air at shoulder height. “Hala! Now that’s the way to end an evening!”

Bashir looked around at the injured men groaning on the floor and ran a hand back through his hair, exhaling a slow breath. His work here had barely begun.

Chapter Text

“You didn’t need to break his arm,” Bashir said quietly.

Garak winced slightly as Bashir started to clean up the blood running from his left temple down to his cheek with a little wad of clean linen soaked in distilled spirits. The Human leaned close to him while they sat on old chairs in a corner of the inn’s large kitchen, lightly steadying the Cardassian's chin with the fingers of his left hand while his right hand worked. “On the contrary. If I hadn’t, he likely would have pulled his belt knife on you, and then where would we be?”

Bashir was skeptical. “You can’t be sure of that.”

“Believe me, Doctor, I’ve had enough experience with people who intend to do grievous bodily harm to someone else to recognize it when I see it.”

Bashir regarding him thoughtfully for a moment, pausing in his task. "You know, Garak, I think that just may be the most honest thing you've ever said to me."

“I’ve said many things to you over the course of our acquaintance.” He winced again as Bashir ran the pad over a bruised place on his cheekbone. “All of them true, I might add.”

“Especially the lies?” Bashir couldn’t keep an amused expression off his face, where it settled cosily side-by-side with his exasperation. He tipped a little more alcohol onto the linen and went back to work. “Couldn’t you have just disarmed him if he pulled the blade?”

“Once he drew his knife the odds greatly increased of his friends deciding that drawing their knives would also be a good idea.”

“Which they did anyway,” Bashir pointed out.

“Sometimes we do all we can,” Garak shrugged, “and things still don’t work out quite the way we planned.” He fell silent for a moment, then glanced sidelong at Bashir. “I don’t particularly enjoy hand-to-hand combat, you know.”

“Well, you’re very good at it for someone who finds it so unpleasant.”

“Come now, Doctor! Surely you don’t find every aspect of your job absolutely enchanting?”

“Actually, yes, I do.” He discarded the soiled pad into a basket placed nearby, its bottom already full of other bloodsoaked wads of cloth, and selected a small strip of fresh linen from the pile the innkeeper’s wife had ripped from an old sheet. Garak was his last patient for the evening and he’d been cleaning wounds for the last clockturn. They were alone here now except for the innkeeper’s wife washing pots and occasionally glowering at them, but the kitchen had recently been home to several of the bar brawl’s victims gathered to take Bashir up on his offer of free medical care. Most of the injured had chosen to lick their own wounds though, including the pilgrim whose elbow Garak had rended. The man had shied away when Bashir tried to approach him to offer help and his companions had looked as if they were on the verge of attacking him themselves, so he had backed off. Perhaps in the morning, after a night of pain, he'd feel differently about being treated by a healer. In the meantime Bashir couldn’t do anything for him, or any of the others who'd elected not to have treatment, so he did his best to put them out of his mind.

“How lucky you are,” Garak said fervently as Bashir neatly folded a fresh pad and applied more alcohol to it. “I can’t think of anyone else who —” A little twitch as Bashir stroked lower down his cheek, cleaning away the last rivulets of blood. “— who utterly enjoys what they do. What a blessing that must be!”

“I thought you liked tailoring.”

“Oh, it pays the bills, but believe me, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, at times it can be downright distasteful.”

“How so?” Bashir suspected this conversation wasn’t exactly what it seemed.

“One has to destroy so much in order to create: cutting cloth, slicing lace, snapping threads,” Garak explained. “It’s really somewhat violent if you stop to think about it. Of course one employs great precision in the work and the final result is often both useful and elegant, but nevertheless there are days when I seriously consider putting down my laser cutter and taking up another profession.”

Bashir smiled. Now he was certain of it. “Like medicine?”

“I wouldn’t be so quick to scoff if I were you. I’ll wager that my stitches in fabric are at least as neat as yours in flesh.” And he’d had a chance to observe them too, less than half a clockturn ago, when Bashir had used a sterilized needle and thread to sew up a gash in the hand of one of the soldiers who’d fallen prey to a lucky strike from a pilgrim’s belt knife. Garak had been busy nearby with another needle, sewing broad linen strips tightly around another patron’s injured forearm, but Bashir had sensed that he was being observed and had observed in his turn. The tailor’s hand really was exceptionally steady, his work exacting even though he was only securing a bandage.

“Being a physician requires an in-depth understanding of how the body goes together.” Bashir discarded the pad and prepared another. “It’s more than just dealing with individual pieces. You have to comprehend how all the parts work together as a whole and the many, many ways that a problem in one area can cascade into others.”

“And in tailoring,” Garak countered, “one must understand that Tholian silk simply cannot be laundered with Nemian velvet or the colors will blend into a hideous mess. Or that pairing Veralian rhinestones with black fusta is considered an insult in that culture worthy of a death-duel. Really, Doctor, if I didn’t know you better I’d think you believed that any profession other than your own is not worthy of any respect or capable of any subtlety!”

It was a play-bite and Bashir knew it. “And I’d think that you were really considering going into medicine.”

“It would —” Garak hissed as Bashir finally applied alcohol directly to the thin cut on his temple. “It would certainly be better than fitting fat Bajoran women into dresses that absolutely don’t suit them but which they insist upon wearing anyway.”

Bashir cleaned the wound in silence, contemplated the metaphors Garak had just provided him with. Was he speaking about his past life as an agent of the Obsidian Order? About espionage work he might currently be performing on Deep Space Nine? Was he really talking about the frustrations of being a tailor? Or, more likely, was it all three simultaneously? He’d never met anyone who could layer a conversation as densely as this enigmatic Cardassian, and it was part of what he enjoyed most about their relationship. With Garak nothing was to be simply taken at face value, as much as he might protest to the contrary, and that was part of the game too.

“There.” He threw away the final pad. “I’ll check it again in the morning but it should be closed up by then.”

“Thank you,” Garak replied, and they both stood, Bashir subtly flexing his shoulders to work out their slight stiffness. He thanked the innkeeper’s wife as they took their leave and accepted her sour expression as his due for the disruption they’d caused to the smooth running of the establishment. In the common room beyond the kitchen they’d heard sounds of furniture being moved and voices talking in a less exuberant register than had prevailed during dinner. Now they emerged to find the space transformed. The tables and chairs had been moved back against the walls to make space for sleeping bags and furs arranged in rows on the floor. Some of them were already occupied by pairs of Cardassians, lying in various combinations of back to back and face to face. Other patrons were still setting up bedding or standing off to the sides, talking quietly amongst themselves.

Bashir stared, trying to figure out what was going on. Borik, who had been kneeling and arranging his own bed close to the kitchen door, looked up at them and rose to his feet as they approached. “All done?”

“Yes, finally.” Bashir indicated the floor covered with sleeping areas. “What’s going on?”

“Breakfast comes early. Everyone turns in soon after dinner.”

“But — together like that?”

“For warmth,” Borik explained.

Bashir could understand that: while the temperature inside was currently fairly comfortable from a Human point of view it had already dropped slightly during the past clockturn and wasn’t exactly toasty for Cardassians. If the innkeeper let the fire die down during the night it would get even cooler. Still, the custom struck him as odd and that opinion must have shown in his expression because Borik quirked an eyeridge at him. “We always sleep in pairs while on the road. Don’t you?”

“No. And here? On the floor? Not in rooms upstairs?”

“The rooms are all taken.” Borik was looking at him curiously. “You must come from a very strange place, Bashir. Probably a warm one. Better go ask Frevah for some bedding; I tried to get some for you but he was very short with me. Here.” He knelt again to pick up two green cloaks from beside the sleeping bag and held them out. “I grabbed them when people started moving furniture.”

“Thank you.” He accepted both articles of clothing and draped them over his left arm, because Garak had already spotted the innkeeper, who was across the room next to the fireplace talking with one of the musicians. He set off around the edge of the room toward him, leaving Bashir behind.

“That was one slick move, breaking that pilgrim’s arm like that,” Borik remarked, watching Garak walk away. “Slicker than a foross stealing eggs. He wasn’t always a merchant, was he?”

“No.” Bashir looked after the tailor who was so much more than that. “But don’t ask me what he was exactly, because I couldn’t tell you.”

“I’ve never seen a healer fight like you did either.” Now Borik’s expression was one of open admiration. “I guess looking the way you do, you’ve had to learn to take care of yourself.”

“You could say that.” He glanced around. “Where’s Yolin Aslel?”

“Probably checking on the o’wnli one last time. You couldn’t get me out there for all the silver in the ash’uar treasuries, but...” He waved a hand, acknowledging and accepting his fellow guide’s foibles. “He’ll be cold as Nasha’s ears when he gets back. It’ll be like sleeping with an icicle.”

Bashir tried not to let a smile play around the corners of his mouth. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Garak had reached Frevah and didn’t have to wait to be addressed: the innkeeper turned from the musician at once and lit into him. Garak was obviously protesting, wearing an expression first of outraged virtue and then simply of outrage; their tones of voices carried if not the actual words, Frevah’s surly, Garak’s surprised and protesting.

“It’s my lot in life,” Borik sighed. He turned his attention to the argument happening across the room. “That doesn’t look like it’s going well.”

“We did start a minor riot. I’m not surprised the innkeeper’s unhappy.”

Now the Cardassian’s glance was curious. “Why don’t you wear a collar? We could pick one up for you in Zio Araga. It would save a lot of trouble.”

Bashir almost shivered. “No, thank you. I refuse to present myself as something I’m not.”

“It almost got you a knife in the neck tonight,” Borik pointed out.

“As you said, I can take care of myself.”

“Suit yourself. But don’t be surprised if Aslel takes you to task for it later.”

Frevah and Garak had finished sniping and gesticulating at each other, and Garak had turned on his heel and was making his way back. He looked far less than pleased with the exchange. When he reached Borik and Bashir he announced: “Bad news, Doctor. We’re sleeping in the stable.”


Garak nodded grimly. “I’m afraid so. He claims that he has no more bedding and that there’s no room in here in any case. I suggested the kitchen, but... well, let’s just say that my recommendation was firmly rejected.”

“That’s —”

“Vindictive? Completely unreasonable? Heavy-handed?”

“Yes, and more!” He stared at Garak in disbelief for a moment, then looked across at Frevah. “Let me talk to him.” He started toward the innkeeper but Garak caught hold of his upper arm.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Bashir turned to scowl at him. “Why not?”

Garak removed his hand but kept it hovering near Bashir's elbow as if ready to stop him again if necessary. “Because he spoke of you in less than complimentary terms and implied that if you made any more trouble we’d be sleeping in the stable yard, not the stable.”

Bashir looked around at the bundling Cardassians arranged on the floor. As much as he didn’t like the idea of sleeping under these conditions, being banished to a cold outbuilding was far worse.

“Apparently there’s a cot in a garret above the stalls,” Garak continued. “Perhaps the heat rising from the o’wnli will make it somewhat bearable.” His tone of voice indicated that he wasn’t sanguine about that possibility.

“Then let’s get our sleeping bags and —”

“Ah. More bad news. He won’t permit us access to our luggage.” In response to Bashir’s head-toss and soft groan he raised a pacifying hand and hastily elaborated: “He also claims that our packs are at the back of the storage space and he can’t take the time right now to dig them out for us...”

“Which is an absolute lie,” Bashir said with some heat although he kept his voice low, “since we were the last people to arrive.”

“I thought so.”

At that moment Aslel came back in, heavily cloaked and indeed looking rather chilly. Borik went to meet him, saying a few words and indicating their employers. Aslel’s smile in response was thinly satisfied and his gaze settled on Bashir as if gloating over his misfortune.

Bashir looked over at Frevah to find the innkeeper regarding him darkly. After a moment he let his tensed shoulders fall. It had been a very long day. “All right,” he relented. “I guess we’ll just have to make the best of it.”

“That’s the spirit!” Garak congratulated him, although Bashir was sure he wasn’t looking forward to the next several hours either. He motioned for Bashir to give him his cloak, then donned it and pulled the hood over his head, suiting up for the walk across the stable yard. Bashir did likewise. “Although,” he said in a much lower voice, “perhaps we could convince Agent Borik to come with me to the stable instead. He seems to like you well enough to —”

“No, thank you.” The thought of lying beside Aslel was even less appealing than sleeping in a garret. Garak was by far the preferable option even though it promised to be a long cold night. He sighed softly. “Let’s go.”

They slipped past the two guides with murmurs of “Warmth and safe haven!” and went out together into the icy darkness.

Chapter Text

The stable was located about thirty meters from the inn and sufficient light leaked from the larger building’s windows to illuminate the way, although Bashir suspected that Garak could see much better than he could. Their breath frosted in the faint light as they trudged over the thin layer of crunching snow toward it. Briefly he wondered where the Naievirl slaves were being housed and whether they should have pressed to be placed there instead: certainly the innkeeper would have taken satisfaction in humiliating them that way. But there was no point in considering unlikely options and he resigned himself to the circumstances.

The small side door to the stable was unlocked and Garak slipped inside first, holding it open for Bashir and then closing it almost stealthily. The space within was much warmer than the outside air, full of slow animal breathing and the shifting of clawed feet; judging by the way the sounds echoed Bashir estimated that the structure was about twenty meters wide by thirty meters long. Some light leaked in through crystal panes over the large doors and he paused to let his eyes adjust. “How well can you see?”

“Better than you, I expect.” He started down the central aisle toward the far end of the building and Bashir followed his shadow in the dimness. “Let’s see... he said there’d be a ladder — there.” He began walking more quickly, all the way to the opposite end of the stable, where it was so dark that Bashir found himself almost totally blind.


Cool fingers caught his right wrist and guided his hand to the rung of a wooden ladder built into the wall. “Right here. You go up first. I’ll be right behind you.”

Above lay a square of somewhat brighter light. Bashir climbed toward it, emerging into a smaller space dimly lit by faint light leaking in through three tall narrow windows, the glow of the inn across the stable yard. He stepped sideways onto the wooden floor and moved back against the nearest wall to give Garak room to step off the ladder, looking around as he did so. His eyes were well adjusted now and he could see piles of wooden boxes neatly arranged along one side of the garret and a narrow pallet on a low frame set against the opposite wall. It had the air of a storage attic not much accessed “At least we’ll have some privacy up here,” he remarked, trying to put the best possible face on things.

“We’re being punished, remember? Banished far away from the glow of the embers and the warmth of our fellow travellers.” He crossed to the pallet and took off his cloak, bending to spread it as added insulation on top of the coarse woolen blanket that already covered the small bed. It was not quite as warm here as down among the o’wnli but at least their breath wasn’t emerging in little puffs of frost. “If you’ll add your cloak as well...” Bashir obeyed while Garak took off his heavy coat, placing it neatly on top of a nearby box. “However, I consider myself to have gotten by far the best of the bargain in the end.” His teeth flashed happily in the darkness. “I’m the one who gets to sleep with a hot-blooded mammal! If the others had any idea of how warm you actually are they’d be throwing punches all night over who has the privilege of getting under these cloaks with you.”

“I suppose I should be flattered,” Bashir said drily. He straightened again and slipped off his own coat, shivering briefly as the cool night air almost instantly penetrated his remaining clothing. Warmer, yes, but still quite chilly.

“Indeed you should.” Garak’s eyes gleamed at him in the dimness. “Fortunately I’m quite good at keeping secrets.” He extended his hand for the coat.

“Are you?” He barely suppressed a smile as he handed it over. “Why Garak, I’d never have guessed.”

He studied the bed with its thin pillow as Garak laid the green coat atop the red. It was barely wide enough to accommodate two people lying on their sides. For some reason that made him a little uneasy: he’d never spent the night that close to anyone who wasn’t a lover. The sense of being regarded made him look up and he found Garak gazing at him evenly, apparently quite placid.

“I take it you’ve never lain with a man this way before.”

That sounds like... Bashir found himself swallowing nervously, but of course Cardassians didn’t use the same euphemisms as Humans did. Garak’s observation was perfectly innocent and technical. “Now that you mention it, no.”

“There’s really nothing to it. It all comes down to a simple decision: which do you prefer to be warmer, your front or your back?”

Bashir considered that and decided to go with the option that suggested less confrontation and/or intimacy. “My back.”

“Well then...” Garak folded back the cloaks and took hold of Bashir’s shoulders, guiding him onto the bed with firm but gentle hands. As soon as he was settled, face toward the far wall of the little garret, the Cardassian slipped in right behind him and adjusted the cloaks properly over them both, then laid down with his back to the wall and his arm laid lightly over Bashir’s waist.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he apologized in response to the sudden tension in Bashir’s body. “I’ve never appreciated having cold hands.”

“No...” Bashir drew a deep breath, analyzing his own reaction. Conclusion: this didn’t feel bad. At all. He forced himself to relax. This is Garak. I’m pretty sure I can trust him not to stab me in the back in the dark... “No, it’s all right. I’m just not used to this.”

Garak chuckled into the hair at the back of his head. “Don’t worry, Doctor.” He already sounded drowsy. “We’ll make a native out of you yet.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he muttered, doing his best to settle down on the cold lumpy mattress. It was surprisingly easy given how tired to the bones he was after a long day of ow’n-riding and the exertions of the bar fight. Weariness overcame him rapidly as the warmth of his body created a comfortable environment under the cloaks, a comfort that his friend was able to share in the depths of this chilly night. He was glad for that much at least.

Even if it is his fault that we’re out here in the first place. He closed his eyes. My fault too, though, in a way. But I won’t wear one of those damned collars. He can talk until he’s bluer in the face and —

His drifting mind suddenly delivered up the way Garak had looked at him just as the fight was ending. Another thrill chased down his spine, small but hot: for some reason the thought of that devouring look was actually pleasant to contemplate. He pushed it out of his mind. He’d been mistaken; it certainly wouldn’t be the first time he’d read Garak wrong. The alternative was...

No. It was pointless to think about something that was impossible, and even more pointless to consider how he might feel about it if it were true.

The last thing he was aware of was the Cardassian’s solid weight pressed against him from chest to calves, cool breath subtly tickling the nape of his neck, and his final thought was that he could think of a lot worse ways to fall asleep.


It had been a couple of months since he’d experienced a full-blown nightmare about what had happened in the Dominion simulation. But now he was there again, hurrying through the darkened corridors of Deep Space Nine with Commander Sisko, Jadzia Dax and Garak at his side. They had to get to the runabout and collapse the wormhole. If they didn’t, the entire Alpha Quadrant would pay the price for their failure.

They had hoped not to run into any Jem’Hadar, but when they did Garak had drawn his weapon without hesitation and performed an outrageous bluff that had, for an instant, convinced even Bashir that he might have really switched sides. Only when Garak shot the two Jem’Hadar did he realize that he’d been fooled yet again, and he’d wondered if the day would ever come when he’d be able to take anything his friend said purely at face value.

Less than ten seconds later Garak lay slumped against a bulkhead, dying of multiple organ failure, and Bashir had looked down into the Cardassian’s slate-blue eyes as he managed to offer one final sly play on words before the light in his merry gaze went out forever.

He had stared, unable to believe, his heart breaking open and bleeding black denial even though he’d known that all of them might not make it. The sight of Garak’s death turned the abstract into the agonizingly concrete. Time seemed to stand still, trapping him in a moment of pure horror.

It had taken three tugs from Sisko’s hand to finally pull him away, to a life no longer whole.

He awoke shaking, panicked, with no idea where he was.

He was on his back in a very narrow bed, with someone lying beside him — no, in front of him, as he twisted toward the presence of faint warmth in the icy air that pressed upon his face, almost tumbling off the cot in the process. Strong hands caught him and saved him from the fall. He struggled toward wakefulness like a swimmer surfacing from a cold and grasping depth of black water, aware that he was shivering but powerless to stop it. His eyes flew open, but it was pitch black. The arms that had prevented his fall held him close against a sturdy body; a soothing hand rubbed the back of his neck; there was a firm shoulder under his cheek, and someone was murmuring comforting words in his ear:

“Doctor! Shhhh... it’s all right. Wake up! I’m here. You’re safe...”

Garak. He shuddered as the sensation of physical closeness combined with the memory of his grief prompted a pang of yearning as powerful as it was unexpected. “I saw you die!” The words came out in a whispered rush. “Oh God, Garak... I saw you die...”

“But I’m not dead, a’latli.” He sounded gently chiding. “I’m right here.” Now teasing. “Can’t you feel me?”

Oh God, yes! He buried his face against the Cardassian’s trapezial scales and closed his eyes again, sliding his uppermost arm around his friend’s waist and holding him tightly. He suspected that touching Garak’s throat this way was an act of almost shocking intimacy in Cardassian culture, but right now intimacy was what he wanted. What he needed.

Garak’s hand paused at the nape of his neck. For a chilling instant Bashir was convinced that he’d gone too far. Then it tightened its grip, drawing him even nearer.

“Ah, a’latli!” His voice was strangely soft, but he said nothing more — just held his Human friend close. Bashir soaked up the contact, letting the feeling of a solid living body gradually replace the dreadful shadows of his nightmare. Part of his considerable intellect was already starting to chase down the High Kardasi word Garak had just used — a’latli... he’d read it once before, in an excerpt from a volume of Cardassian poetry called The Fall from Shadows...? Yes. There. His enhanced memory found the passage and delivered it up for consideration; the page itself seemed to appear in front of him.

His eyes opened wide.

Garak had, in Human terms, called him something very much like One who strikes sparks from me, as blade against blade, and whose gaze sheathes itself in my heart. And the context of the original reference was far from platonic.

“... what did you just call me?”

“Something to distract you from whatever terror was haunting your sleep.” His tone was one of self-satisfaction. “And it’s certainly worked, hasn’t it?”

“Garak!” It was a dirty trick, a simple trick, but it had worked: he definitely wasn’t thinking about the nightmare anymore. His thoughts, in fact, were spinning off in an entirely different direction. The yearning returned, but its quality was subtly different, hotter, more immediate. He debated whether to thump his friend in the small of the back with his fist as hard as he could, pull away as an expression of his annoyance -- or bite down on the scales so close to his mouth. Two of those options would probably lead to a spirited argument conducted in whispers; the other would almost certainly result in something completely different and far beyond any aspect of his mysterious companion he’d managed to explore to date. Two were safe courses of action; one was a tremendous gamble that could badly break their friendship if it went wrong.

For a second he hesitated, but no longer. The image of Garak, or the simulation of Garak, dying in a dark corridor flashed across his mind again, along with the essence of the appreciative look in his friend’s eyes this very evening, and made the decision for him: he leaned up a little to apply a bite to the ridge running from Garak’s neck down to his shoulder, an unambiguously erotic gesture. He bit close to the throat, firmly, knowing that his teeth wouldn’t break through the toughened scales that felt like smooth leather under his lips, their texture pleasantly alien. As he did so a frisson of powerful sexual desire surged up through the complex affection he felt for this man, as easily and immediately as if it had always been there, waiting to be aroused.

He applied pressure for a couple of seconds before drawing back a little to press a lingering kiss to the spot he’d just bitten. Then he waited with his face still in the curve of Garak’s neck, staying close enough that his breath continued to warm the Cardassian’s cool skin. He was half-hard and did not doubt that Garak could feel it pressed against his own penile sheath: all the better to communicate exactly what he’d meant by his actions.

“Doctor...” His tone was even, almost polite, almost wary, but fundamentally unreadable. “Do you know what it means, to —?”

“Yes.” The precise cultural nuances were unknown to him, but he was pretty sure he understood the gist of it.

A long pause. Garak was an unknowable quantity in the darkness but Bashir felt a definite shift in the quality of that brief span of silence: the arms around him curved a little closer and a subtle tension infused the Cardassian’s body. In an even lower voice he said: “I don’t think you do.”

“I want to be sexually intimate with you.” A blush warmed his cheeks in the cold and he was absurdly glad that Garak couldn’t see it. If he’d gotten the signals wrong he suspected that he was about to be corrected on the point, probably with considerable and justifiable outrage. Hastily he added: “Unless of course you don’t want to...?”

Garak turned his head and breathed in slowly, his nose almost touching the skin just below Bashir’s left ear, and Bashir thought he might actually be considering the proposal. His arms withdrew, his hands closed on Bashir’s waist, and for a second the Human was certain that he was about to be forceably ejected from under the cloaks that they shared and banished downstairs to sleep with the o'wnli. It would serve me right, too, he thought, for getting it so completely —

With a lithe serpentine wriggle Garak shifted them both under the covers, easily moving Bashir’s weight as well as his own. Bashir found himself on top, straddling Garak’s hips; he scarcely had time to open his mouth before Garak leaned up a little, caught hold of the back of his neck, drew him down and bit him where his left shoulder joined his throat. The caress was slow but forceful and just a little painful, conveying a hunger that instantly provoked an answering fire in Bashir’s flesh. In fact it went straight to his cock, and he gasped in amazed pleasure, fully hard now and suddenly burning all over in the cold of the night.

In the stable below an o’wn shifted and snorted, perhaps disturbed by the slightly louder exclamation of surprise. He pitched his voice lower, moving his hands to Garak’s neckridges to run his fingertips over the delicately sculpted scales, carefully exploring their contours in the perfect blackness that surrounded them. “Shall I take that as a yes?”

A soft throaty chuckle. He’d never heard Garak make quite that sort of sound before, and he immediately adored it. “Though I must say,” the Cardassian murmured against his neck before biting him again, this time more gently, “that your timing leaves something to be desired.”

“What, the bed?” Narrow indeed, but that wasn’t an insurmountable problem in Bashir’s opinion. The way Garak’s fingers continued subtly moving was most engaging. “It’s not so different from —” Sharp teeth nipping lightly at the line of his jaw proved a momentary distraction. “Ah! — making love on an Academy cot, and I’ve certainly done that before.”

“Have you really?” That blend of gentle teasing and sexual heat shouldn’t have been possible in one voice at the same time. “Why, Doctor, I’d never have thought it of you!” The nibbling progressed to his earlobe, awakening nerve endings all along the way, little jolts of electricity that raced down to his groin and made him shiver. After another thrilling application of his teeth to the delicate lobe itself Garak concluded: “I’m afraid that I simply can’t believe it.”

Bashir found himself smiling. A whispered argument and lustful play. If he’d been anticipating this it’s exactly what he would have expected. “Would you like a demonstration?”

A sly murmur against the hollow under his jaw where his pulse was beating faster: “If you please. Oh no,” he amended in a completely different tone as Bashir moved as if to shift them back onto their sides, “you’ll stay right where you are, for the moment.”

“And why’s that?” His first impulse was to resist. He hadn’t been thinking in terms of a rough-and-tumble tussle but it definitely had possibilities, although they might fall off the cot in the process. The thought of pinning Garak, or more likely being pinned himself, was undeniably exciting.

“Hush, dearest.” Another electrifying little bite, this one on his collarbone, and then Garak sank back onto the thin pillow, his hands releasing Bashir’s waist and neck to start opening the front of his shirt. “And let me work.”

The words were superficially kind but there was an unmistakable timbre of command beneath them. For a moment Bashir considered disobeying the order, taking the sexual play to a more aggressive level... but instinct told him otherwise. The time wasn’t right, and some deep part of him was murmuring that surrender wouldn’t be so bad at all. He relented and leaned up a little to give Garak room to touch him unimpeded, tipping his head back and closing his eyes while cool agile fingers dealt with the closures in seconds and spread the shirt open so those grey hands could slip inside. They immediately traced a series of maddeningly light patterns over his chest and shoulders, sides and back — mapping his skin, looking for ridges, he realized, looking for ways to return the pleasure being offered by Bashir’s own hands. The thought was somehow intensely arousing. He smiled and stretched sensually, tightening his grip briefly on Garak’s ridges and letting desire roughen his voice: “It all feels good.”

“Mmmm.” He heard Garak’s smile. Fingertips traced idly down his spine from between his shoulderblades to the waistband of his trousers, making him hollow his back and hiss. “All equally good?”

“I’m — ah! —” And up again, sending tingles of electricity coursing up the back of his neck. “I’m not going to spoil the surprise by telling you.”

He sounded delighted in the darkness. “A challenge! You know me too well.” And then silence fell between them as he proceeded to explore with singular concentration, an intensity that Bashir could clearly feel without vision the way that tides sense the moon through clouded skies. Within seconds he was almost vibrating as those skilled hands roamed over his upper body, following each shape as if savouring it thoroughly and seeking out points of pleasure with uncanny accuracy, a thoroughly erotic interrogation following clues that Bashir couldn’t help but give away. His spine, revisited and confirmed: arching, trembling. The hollows of his flanks: a swift intake of breath. The delicate skin around his navel: tensed muscles, a tiny shiver, almost a laugh. His nipples, stroked, briefly slid away from, and then unexpectedly and firmly pinched: another gasp, soft and nearly desperate as a new flare of heat pulsed in his cock. He ground his pelvis down against Garak’s and felt a new shape there through the woolen cloth that separated them, hard and long, an unspoken answer to his own lust. He paused to savour the intimate contact, so radiant even through their intervening clothes.

Had he ever been this sensitive before? His memory was better than Human but he couldn’t remember responding to anybody else’s touch quite like this. Perhaps it was the inability to see, forcing him to concentrate on other sources of input.

Or perhaps it was simply who was doing the touching. Another male, for the first time in his life.

And Garak, in particular.

How long have I wanted this? His whole body, awakened, sang in eager confirmation. Too long. His mind raced back through infallible memory and couldn’t find a time when it hadn’t been there, subliminal. Dear God, I’ve been a fool. And obviously he wanted it too if —

Garak’s fingers ran teasingly down the sides of his stomach, making his muscles tighten, and then swerved away to finally stroke slowly over his hips and upper thighs. Deliberately avoiding the aching hardness in his groin, he noted with intense frustration. Torture. Of course. Well, two can play at that game! He’d been playing along, letting Garak do as he liked, but he was tired of being passive. Leaning forward, he returned his attention Garak’s right neckridge, bestowing little bites and strokes of his tongue close to the shoulder, revelling in the delicate spicy flavour and in the tiny tremors of reaction his caresses provoked. A highly erogenous zone, from the look of things. Quickly he worked his way up to the twin ridges that ran down along the line of Garak’s jaw from the ear, and those seemed even more sensitive if the Cardassian’s hissing sigh and slight arching of the back when he licked them was any indication. He’d touched those lines of scales before in a medical context and hadn’t gotten this kind of reaction: perhaps pre-existing sexual arousal was vital to their sensitivity. They seemed to swell and sharpen ever so slightly under his ministrations, and he wondered if their color had changed, but he’d have to wait for another encounter in much better lighting to find out.

If there is another encounter. But the thought was quickly banished by Garak’s fingers, which had never stopped moving and now finally, wondrously, touched him exactly where he wanted to be touched. The contact was almost feather-light, one hand pressed to the small of his back while the fingertips of the other brushed up his length, but it instantly escalated the slow sexual burn that Garak had been gradually building into searing flame. Bashir groaned aloud and pushed his hips forward, striving for firmer contact. The Cardassian’s quick hand pulled back, refusing to give it to him, keeping the level of stimulation exactly where he, Garak, wanted it.

“You are —” Bashir choked back all the savage words that sprang to mind. Insults would probably get him nowhere, and besides they wouldn’t properly express the complexities of his emotional response. Better try a different tactic, letting genuine feeling ache in his voice: “Please...”

He sounded so innocent that Bashir knew he was really immensely entertained. “Why Doctor, what a thoroughly nonsensical —”

Bashir kissed him hard and deep, trying to communicate those complexities that five minutes worth of speaking wouldn’t have conveyed. He was met with resistance, reservation, and then a sudden yielding that felt like secret aggression; tongue stroking against tongue again and again, the flow of passion was like drinking flame. Garak’s palm pressed him firmly, one slow stroke that was like tasting paradise, and when Bashir broke away with a gasp that satin voice caressed his blinded senses: “You have only to ask.” Assured fingers swiftly freed him, took him in hand, applied pressure that sent him soaring. Lower, in a register that seemed to shake his heart free from all reservations: "You know you have only to ask."

“Oh God,” he sighed, bowing his head to moan into Garak’s ear, finally thrusting into his grasp, “yes, oh yes —” Not the most original sentiment in the world under the circumstances, but perfectly sincere. He had half-expected to have to fight for this, to be led in circles and through a maze of denials: to be given it so freely felt like the most generous of gifts. But it was not a gift free of complications, as he soon discovered, because Garak wasn’t prepared to grant him release by the swiftest and most obvious route. The Cardassian’s hands explored him fully, discovering every erogenous zone between his knees and his navel, even stroking back to stimulate the cleft of his ass, although they didn’t probe into it. Bashir found himself moving shamelessly in response, restless with need, pursuing every touch. He’d never imagined that there were so many ways to be intimately caressed: lightly, forcefully, slowly, quickly, long strokes and tiny touches, with tenderness and with borderline savagery. They all felt magnificent, but he realized in the end that Garak was mapping his sexual response just as he’d mapped his body, an almost clinical investigation, stepping him up and down the levels, learning how to precisely control his reactions. That realization did not dampen his arousal; rather, it increased it. He was worthy of close attention. He was worthy of the time. He was worthy, and coming from Garak that was the highest possible praise.

Still, by the end of several cycles of arousal inflamed and denied he was almost crying for release. He’d long since abandoned trying to concentrate on making love to Garak in return: the sensations and emotions he was experiencing were too intense, they demanded his full attention. Like a meal carefully prepared for him, they deserved to be savoured, and indeed when he’d tried to reach down to touch Garak in kind the Cardassian had caught hold of his hands and returned them firmly to the pillow just above his broad shoulders, whispering another gentle but adamant command in the darkness: “Not yet, Julian. This is for you.” He had trembled afresh at the intimacy of Garak's voice using his given name, then trembled again as Garak’s hands returned to their work. A gift indeed -- one he could only hope that he was capable of returning in full measure.

Finally, when his breath was coming in low sobs and he thought he was on the verge of going mad, Garak moved him back onto his side with that same swift and easy strength. He had just enough time to feel a moment of surprise as the Cardassian slid smoothly down under the cloaks. The hand grasping him shifted to permit a different sort of access, cradling him as a light tonguetip ran up his length from base to tip, lingering to taste his copious pre-ejaculate with delicate flickers. It felt like being struck by a bolt of lightning. Then Garak’s cool mouth engulfed him, sinking swiftly down, and he let out a helpless wail that he was sure could be heard all the way back at the inn. He reached down blindly with both hands, running his fingers over his friend’s ridged forehead and deep into his silken black hair, and quivered with arousal so intense that it was almost desperation as Garak proceeded to work him over thoroughly.

The tongue that had challenged and teased and amused him over so many lunches proved supremely skilled at this sort of interaction as well, taking him to nearly unbearable heights as sharp teeth lightly raked and nipped at his most sensitive skin. It was pure rapture, and Bashir didn’t last long before a blinding orgasm finally swept through him. It seemed to go on for long minutes, filling every dimension of his being with all-consuming luminous energy. When the hot pulses at last began to recede he felt the Cardassian gently licking him clean, provoking an aftershock of sweet sensation that drove him to moan in amazement: “My God, Garak...!”

Garak did not reply. He finished his final task with slow unhurried strokes of his tongue. When he moved back up the bed Bashir enfolded him in a warm and grateful embrace, gladly letting Garak guide his head to rest on one elegantly scaled shoulder and embrace him in turn. For a long time the loudest sound in the room was Bashir’s breathing slowly settling back down again. He had no words to offer. They seemed utterly inadequate after such a profound experience.

But at last Garak spoke lightly. “I take it you enjoyed that?”

Bashir managed a shaky laugh, full of joy, against his neckridge. “It was... incredible!”

“I’m so pleased,” Garak murmured, and for once Bashir was inclined to believe him without reservation.

Chapter Text

“Wherever did you learn how to—?” -- stimulate a Human body that way? He stopped himself. “Never mind. You won’t tell me.”

Garak laughed in his turn, softly and delightedly. “You’re quite right. I won’t.”

The Cardassian’s hands began to move again ever so slightly, fingers subtly caressing Bashir’s shoulder and the middle of his back, prompting a stretch and a long shivering inhalation. He’d felt strongly inclined toward sleep in the wake of that earth-shattering orgasm and with last night’s sleep deficit, but suddenly he was fully awake again — and wanted to return the favours he’d just received. Garak’s everted penis was still pressed against his own naked quiescence, only a layer of soft wool and thin underwear separating them. His first impulse was to reach down and start caressing it through the cloth, but he suspected that Garak’s approach to stimulating him had probably been a coded message communicating how his friend wanted to be handled in his turn.

So instead he shifted on the bed, silently turning and pushing; Garak responded instantly to the pressure of his hands and ended up on top, in the position Bashir had just occupied. He reached up with his left hand to touch Garak’s face, tenderly tracing the ridges surrounding his right eye, while his right hand investigated the fastenings of his shirt; Garak let him fumble for a moment, and Bashir could imagine his smile, the one that said he was enjoying himself at his friend’s expense, before he reached up and took care of it himself. The brush of hand against hand as Bashir’s fingers were nudged aside made his heart start to beat faster again: so simple, yet so intimate. He thought of the color of the linen: a cream not unlike his own, its warmth setting off the twilight hue of Garak’s skin, and he wished that he had light enough to appreciate that delicious contrast.

He waited breathlessly, his left hand caressing that familiar face, relearning its well-loved shapes, until Garak had finished and his hands were braced on the pillow again. Then Bashir needed both hands to begin a slow exploration of his own, reaching inside, finding a surface that ranged in texture from smooth skin like finest leather to firm-scaled transverse ridges starting approximately where a Human male would have their nipples and proceeding down along the ribcage. There were four on each side, the final structure curving sharply away along the middle plane of the external oblique muscles to disappear into Garak’s pants, running toward the inner curve of his hips. He ran his fingers up, the material of the shirt incredibly sensuous against the backs of his hands, to discover that each ridge continued in tapering points to the spine; there were patterns of subtler scales between them, yielding and sleek. The spine itself was adorned with a double row of such light scaling down the centre, starting between the shoulderblades, and he followed it with the fingertips of both hands until it too was lost in Garak’s clothing.

Listening, he heard the Cardassian’s breathing deepen; he felt tension gathering in that solidly built body, although he made no other sound or movement. Bashir smiled, unseen. The Obsidian Order taught their agents self-control, did they? Well, his touch was having an effect and he fully intended to drive Garak to distraction. He followed the shape of each ridge again, starting with the first and using a firmer touch, deliberately taking his time. Certain stretches of each were more sensitive: he could feel it in the silent frequency of the energy flowing between them. He memorized each place of heightened response and then shifted his attention higher, to Garak’s clavicles, which were arrayed with sculpted scales not quite as leathery as the hardest on his body. He stroked his fingertips inward along them, dipping into the hollow of his throat where a scoop similar to the one on his forehead lay, and traced the outlines of it lightly but thoroughly: evidently not erogenous, but still of interest. Then he ran his hands up to seek out the ridges of his neck: more tension, and this time the quietest hiss as he gripped them both hard, massaging them with slow pressure. Garak’s pelvis ground reflexively against his and he felt the alien’s penis slide out a little further before Garak recovered and pulled away again.

“Don't.” He was capable of issuing his own orders. He released the neckridges and reached down, taking hold of Garak’s hips and pushing down with gentle pressure, infusing his voice with all his desire. “I love the way you feel against me.”

Resistance. “And tell me, do you believe that you should always get everything you want?” There was no trace of an answering ache in that smooth voice, but Bashir imagined he could hear it anyway.

He let Garak hear his smile. “When it comes to you, yes.”

“Oh, Doctor!” There. Response. Heat. “How much you have to learn...”

Bashir didn’t continue the argument — not with words, at any rate. He couldn’t, because Garak leaned forward and started to kiss him. Lightly at first, brief contacts that left his lips burning; he gripped Garak’s hips harder, trying again to pull him back into genital contact. Garak refused to yield. Instead he ran slow fingers into the hair at the back of Bashir’s head and held him steady for a deeper assault, his tongue stroking Bashir’s lips, then slipping into his mouth. The taste was intoxicating and Bashir groaned, thrusting his own pelvis upwards. There. Long, hard, thick against his lower belly. Were those ridges along its length? He felt himself beginning to stir again. This time Garak didn’t pull away.

I thought I was supposed to be the one in control here. The things Garak’s mouth was doing — his lips, his tongue, this teeth — made thinking difficult. His hips sank back onto the mattress and Garak followed, maintaining the lustful contact. Where did he learn how to do this? How many human lovers has he had that I never suspected? Later. He could ask later. As if there’s any hope of getting a straight answer...

Later, because right now the skin of Garak’s belly felt wonderful against his hands, elegantly patterned with silky scales. His friend wasn’t in perfect physical shape, at least not if you liked abdominals sharply defined, but Bashir loved the contours of his body, solid and familiar. He caressed his stomach for a few seconds, exploring the scales, teasing the edges of the oblique ridges with the ends of his fingers, before slipping lower. He stroked along the cloth-covered shaft with his right palm and this time felt a slight but definite shiver of reaction through their mouth-to-mouth contact, the hint of a growl deep in Garak’s throat. He closed his hand and squeezed. Garak bit his tonguetip hard enough to cause a bright bolt of pain. He uttered an exclamation of protest and the Cardassian’s mouth immediately gentled. More little kisses. Apology. He accepted, deepening the contact and offering his tongue again, his right hand continuing to slowly move, his left hand stroking upward to curve around Garak’s jaw, applying pressure to the sensitive lines running down from his ear.

Yes, there were definitely ridges under his caressing hand and he felt the shaft slide out another full centimeter. For an instant he spared a hard-won thought to wonder how long it would get: a rather pointless speculation, considering that he was certainly going to find out. This time Garak let him figure out the closure of the pants himself, although it briefly took both hands to do it. At last he succeeded and pushed back the silky underwear beneath to uncover a mystery as much medical as sexual.

He’d known that male Cardassians kept their genitals in a lightly armored sheath tucked under the pelvis, but for obvious reasons he’d never had the opportunity to examine an everted penis and the Federation’s database on the species didn’t contain any information on the phenomenon. Well, here one lay in his hands, an unexpected lesson he was most eager to study.

Garak drew back just enough to break the contact between their mouths. His breathing was coming more deeply now. Bashir could understand wanting to concentrate on sensation, so he lay back and devoted his full attention to the task at hand.

He carefully investigated the pronounced ridges that adorned the 16.5 centimeter length, two on the top and two on the underside. The texture of the skin in between was smooth and more like fine leather than the silky dermis that sheathed a human erection. He could feel natural lubricant leaking from between the scales of the ridges, letting his fingers glide easily, and judging from the way Garak was growling and hissing under his breath he was finding the manual stimulation very pleasant. The head was more pointed than a human glans and additional fluid slicked the tip; taking a firm grip on the tapering shaft with his right hand and stroking slowly up and down, exploring the easy friction, Bashir thought about how those ridges might feel during penetrative sex and felt a wanton blush heat his cheeks, along with a shock of surprise at the nature of his own desires. He’d never wanted to go to bed with another male before, much less get fucked by one, and now...

If he asked me to, I’d give him what he wanted without one murmur of protest. The flush deepened, spreading throughout his entire body. In fact I’d probably end up begging him to give it to me deeper... harder... faster...

“Do you —” Damn it, he wasn’t looking into Garak’s eyes. He was glancing away, even though they lay in pitch blackness. This should be easier. “I mean, if you want to — have me, I... I wouldn’t mind, I think.” He steeled himself for the answer, half-feared, half yearned-for.

To his surprise Garak chuckled. “Not here, my dearest.” He sounded both tender and amused, if a little breathless, and removed his right hand from the back of Bashir’s head to run the backs of curved fingers gently down the Human’s cheek, leaning closer to touch forehead fondly to forehead. “When I finally possess you fully, I want the room and the liberty to move freely.” A purr of dark sexual promise. “And sufficient light to thoroughly enjoy watching you writhe beneath me.”

The quicksilver shift from passion to kindness and back to passion again was almost dizzying, the conversation itself surreal. If you’d told Bashir that it was coming two days ago he wouldn’t have believed it in a thousand years. But suddenly he was half-hard again, because Garak’s words carried the ring of truth. And... well, the evidence of his friend’s sincerity couldn’t be more evident, could it? It was right there, sleek and urgent under his caresses.

“Then I’ll just —?” He took hold of Garak’s hip again and ran his right hand up and down with a firmer grip. Garak sighed and thrust into his grasp.

“Your touch is — quite exquisite...” He was drawing out his sibilants just a little now, lending his voice a distinctly exotic quality as his fingers slipped around to the back of Bashir’s neck again, holding him still to receive a kiss that was slow and penetrating and did absolutely nothing for the Human’s peace of mind. He responded with equal fervor, concentrating on the sensation of those wonderful ridges against his palm and on applying varying degrees of pressure and various types of strokes, discovering what best pleased his lover.

My lover. His heart pounded a little quicker at the thought. That’s what we are now, and there’s no going back.

Garak’s mouth preyed on his with a refined and burning hunger that seemed to take his breath away in a real physiological sense, kisses interspaced with sharp lingering bites at his lips and jawline that bespoke a barely restrained animal savagery. As alien as the caresses were, Bashir found them intensely arousing: he tried to reciprocate, kissing and biting in his turn, and Garak immediately responded by hissing fiercely and gripping the back of his neck — roughly, for a fraction of a second, then more carefully, as if suffering the briefest lapse of that iron control before remembering the comparative fragility of his partner.

“Don’t stop,” he commanded when Bashir hesitated, uncertain if he’d done something wrong. The whisper was a potent blend of reassurance and menace that sent a thrill both cold and hot down the Human’s spine. He leaned up and applied his teeth to Garak’s jaw again, and was rewarded with a low laughing growl and more biting, more kisses, more heat.

What’s he capable of if he did lose control? Bashir had a sudden image of himself walking out to their o’wn tomorrow morning, the elegant clothing Garak had purchased for him concealing the delicious ache of numerous bites and bruises, his ass throbbing with the memory of powerful thrusts, while Garak himself looked as smooth and as innocent as cream. The implication of danger was thrilling, running down his spine like liquid heat and bringing his cock back to full and pulsing hardness.

Not an implication. He is dangerous. He could hurt me very badly if he wanted to — hell, he could even kill me. The thought should have cooled his ardour. It certainly shouldn’t have instantly driven it to new heights and made him apply his lips and teeth with even more urgency. This was a side of his sexual self that he’d never suspected existed, but he wasn’t about to deny it, not when the otherwise icy night burned between them with such incandescence.

Garak’s attentions moved down to his neck, teeth marking the corded tendon in his throat as though it were a Cardassian neckridge. He tilted his head back to grant full access, stroking harder on the shaft in his hand, and was rewarded with more brief crushing pressure at the nape of his neck and a bite almost sharp enough to break the skin. This time there was a clean eroticism to the pain that shocked him into moaning aloud and closing his fingers even more tightly, provoking a guttural hiss of unmistakable approval.

He could —

Another bite, this one more tender, followed by the firm stroke of that wonderful tongue soothing the bruised place on his skin. A murmur as light as a sigh — something in Kardasi — and the hand at the nape of his neck began to move down toward his shoulder, fingers tracing the slope of the trapezius muscle with unhurried delicacy. He squirmed slightly under the touch, finding its ghostly quality more than a little maddening and a delicious contrast to the intervals of ferocity. Garak was playing him like a violin: he knew it, but that didn’t make the techniques any less effective.

A whisper of near-certainty filled his mind: But he wouldn’t do anything to really damage me: not here, not now, not unless he completely lost control of himself. All he wanted to do earlier was to please me, and now I’m returning the favour. That’s what friends do for each other, isn’t it?

Yes, he was certain. Fairly. But that didn’t change the fact that Garak was considerably stronger than he was, even with his genetic enhancements, and had already broken a man’s arm earlier this evening with casual violence. A pulse of something hotter and more poignant flared in Bashir’s chest at the memory: No, not casual at all. He did it to protect me. Or had he? Was it all a game, some sort of elaborate manipulation? Was this a game? Would Garak do such a thing to him, in a setting where he could be quite sure of not getting caught by Bashir’s colleagues?

Something of his doubt must have communicated itself through his body, because Garak drew back enough to “look” him in the face. His voice was soft, husky, persuasive. A lover’s voice. “What is it, Julian?”

“What did you just say to me?” He kept his hand moving — he owed Garak that much, at least — but he was wary now, uncertain of this new thing between them, and it came through in the cadence of his words.

To his surprise Garak chuckled again. “Eraska t’kor,” he repeated warmly. “It means —”

“— This secret beauty.” The page was already in his short-term memory, ready to be called instantly to mind. “From The Fall From Shadows.

“Ballad Forty-Seven, Verse Six. You know me, Doctor — I’m a literary man at heart.” His fingers were still stroking down Bashir’s shoulder; now they cupped it warmly and started back up again, delighting in the shapes in the darkness. No voice should have been capable of so much seductiveness. “Although there’s hardly anything hidden about your charms.” He paused, but Bashir did not respond, so he continued in an even more caressing tone: “Does it surprise you that I find you beautiful?”

“You’ve never said anything about it before.” He was stroking more slowly now, wanting to concentrate on this conversation. Trust Garak to introduce an intellectual element into something as unabashedly sexual as this moment: Bashir still burned, but his mind was now as engaged as his libido, and Garak burned with equal intensity if the steady flow of lubricant readying him for action was any indication.

The Cardassian kissed him, lightly but with considerable smoulder. His hand found Bashir’s cheek and lingered there, tracing the lines where a Cardassian’s sensitive aural ridges would be with tender precision. Silken words flowed against Bashir’s lips like shared breath: “There’s a time and a place for everything, my love. An enemy station is hardly an appropriate venue for pursuing a handsome young officer from the opposite side.”

Bashir’s eyes opened wide in the total darkness. Did he just say —?

So much, packed into two short sentences.

It wasn’t easy to reinterpret almost two and a half years in the span of a few seconds, especially with a dear friend’s erection in his hand and a distracting hard-on of his own, but Bashir did his best. To re-evaluate all the lunches, the cunning diversions, the remarks, the glances... the sharing of art and literature, sometimes simply for the pleasure of a rousing argument... the small gifts, the trading of favours... the way that Garak, dying, had wept in front of him, raged at him, asked forgiveness for his crimes... back to the first time the Cardassian had approached him in the Replimat with a playfulness he now realized he’d been too overwhelmed to properly interpret. It was absolutely stunning. He found himself barely able to speak. “How long have you...?”

“I might ask you the same question.” Another kiss, a little deeper, a little more compelling, and another teasing bite on the point of his chin. Bashir felt his concerns begin to slip to the back of his mind even as he heard Garak smile a rebuke: “Need I remind you that it was you who bit my neckridge?”

He had: that much was undeniable. But this man had fascinated him from the moment they’d met, and he too was in a place where there was no one looking over his shoulder.

“However,” Garak continued in a tone of voice several shades closer to normal, pulling away a good three centimeters, “you needn’t feel obliged to continue if your heart’s no longer —”

Bashir lunged upward and kissed him hard enough to silence that ridiculous statement. Oh, the Cardassian’s mouth was wonderful, as quick and as cunning as his mind. “Oh, no — you’re not getting off the hook that easily.” He pulled up and twisted with a harder touch, rough treatment which Garak evidently appreciated if the muted growling hiss he emitted was any indication; it might have been an exclamation of pain but for the tremor that ran through the muscles of his belly and thighs. Bashir smiled triumphantly and kissed him again, repeating the stroke. The response was less dramatic, but he certainly wasn’t foolish enough to mistake renewed control for a decline in interest.

“Keep that up,” Garak almost gasped when their mouths parted, “and you won’t have long to wait.”

“I can live with that,” Bashir informed him, turning them both onto their sides again on the narrow mattress. He began to move down Garak’s body, gracing the cool naked skin with brief caresses of his lips, stroking his tongue lightly over the ridges on the alien chest while he applied his hand more gently. A refined shudder chased down the Cardassian's spine with almost every touch of his mouth. He could smell Garak’s arousal as he got closer, a scent like mildly spiced oil with an undertone of salt, but he restrained himself from proceeding too quickly and concentrated on tracing on the patterns of subtler scales on his belly with his tonguetip, deliberately drawing out the tension for them both. Garak’s fingers slid deep into his hair but didn’t try to compel him — not that he needed any urging. He'd always loved seeking out new experiences and this was a journey into entirely unexplored territory.

Down. It was close and hot under the cloaks, the confinement making this contact feel even more intimate. He could feel Garak’s pulse in his hand, eighty-six beats per minute, more or less. It leaped when his tongue stroked over the underside of the pointed glans, then again as he explored a little lower, his hand sliding down to take hold of the base where it emerged from the ornately scaled sheath. The taste of the lubricant was as subtle and delicious as its scent. It filled his senses as he licked up each side, savouring the scales, and then took Garak’s cock slowly into his mouth, using his teeth to firmly stimulate the ridges. Garak uttered a barely restrained cry, a throttled roar, that was easily the sexiest sound Bashir had ever heard. The sturdy thigh against his forearm trembled, relaxed, then trembled again, but the Cardassian quickly restrained himself as Bashir began to work up and down, taking his time with it, getting used to its length and girth. He wanted to give at least as much pleasure as he’d been given — more, if he possibly could — and judging from the way Garak’s breathing was deepening and quickening he was certainly succeeding.

A particularly sharp application of his teeth provoked another hissing sigh. He managed to voice a low inarticulate query whose basic cadence was: Do you like that?

“Oh, you are full of unexpected talents,” Garak breathed with a serpent’s inflection. He was almost panting now. His fingers stroked through Bashir’s hair with greater force, then dug in and held him in place as his hips finally began to move, sliding his slicked erection in and out between the Human’s lips. “A little harder on the — oh, yes, just like that — if you — just —ah, yes!”

With a powerful shiver and a resonant howl deep in his throat he thrust upward and climaxed, filling Bashir’s mouth with thicker and saltier fluid from the tip and the uppermost vents. He swallowed it without haste, letting the exotic taste linger on his tongue, then courteously returned the favour of licking the shaft thoroughly clean, enjoying each tiny aftershock of reaction that coursed through Garak’s body.

So responsive — to me. He felt both absurdly proud of his accomplishment in compromising Garak’s self-control and tenderly privileged to have witnessed it. When the shaft started to retract from his hand, still firm, he caressed it back into its sheath and smoothed the scales of the slit as it closed, prompting a deep and contented sigh from above.

“What a delightful final touch,” Garak remarked as he came up for air. “Now, where did you learn how to do that?” He seemed amused.

Bashir grinned. “I have my secrets too.”

Garak applied another bite to the line of his jaw, but this time it felt friendly rather than passionate. “Of course you do,” he said indulgently. His hand slipped down and caressed Bashir’s hip, the side of his thumb lightly stroking over his partial erection. “But this isn’t one of them. Shall I...?”

“Mmm? No, that’s fine.” He was still more than half-hard but post-coital exhaustion was rapidly overtaking him. It had been an amazing sexual interlude and he felt like snuggling close in the afterglow, if the Cardassian would allow such intimacy.

Garak voiced a low hum of acquiesence and set to work, deftly tucking Bashir’s cock back inside his trousers and closing up his clothing with a tailor’s sure touch, then taking care of his own clothes. When everything was back in place he reached out and drew Bashir against him, pressing their bodies together from shoulders to knees. His arms embraced the Human’s waist and held him close, and he offered no objection when Bashir slipped one thigh in between his own.

Bashir wrapped his uppermost arm around Garak’s back and nuzzled under his cheek, relaxing against his friend with a sigh of contentment. He was still mildly aroused but the residual heat in his flesh was slowly fading to pleasant embers that effectively drove back the winter’s cold. He was mildly amazed as well. “And you call me full of surprises...”

“You bit me first,” Garak reminded him again, but he sounded like he was smiling and didn’t seem to be looking for an argument, so Bashir decided not to give him one.

“Granted.” He yawned. Did Cardassians yawn? Another gap in Federation medical knowledge; he suspected, he hoped, that he’d be filling in a lot of those in the days to come. He pressed a final sleepy kiss to Garak’s throat and murmured softly: “Thank you.”

Garak’s hand curved around the nape of his neck, holding him even nearer. “And you.” He sounded awake and alert but very satisfied. “Sleep well, my dear Doctor, and may you have only pleasant dreams.”

Bashir smiled, already fading fast. “I will,” he managed to mumble before warm oblivion overtook his mind. If any nightmares waited for him in the darkness Garak’s touch kept them at bay. He didn’t stir again until a bell started ringing in the stable yard just before dawn, rousing him half-awake with a stretch and a shiver, still in his friend’s embrace.

At which point he quickly discovered that if falling asleep in bed with Garak had been good, being nipped and kissed to full wakefulness by the Cardassian’s remarkable mouth was absolutely marvellous.

Chapter Text

They didn’t get off the narrow cot for another ten minutes at least — ten wonderful heated minutes of kissing, biting, and caressing culminating in another orgasm for Bashir. He could hear people moving around in the stable below amid the snorting and shifting o’wnli, and he had to bury his face against Garak’s throat to muffle his involuntary little cries as the Cardassian’s hand slipped inside his pants and did things that were probably illegal on most planets in Federation space... at least, they felt so good that they should have been illegal. Certainly they were sufficiently inspiring to make him uncharacteristically vocal: he couldn’t remember ever having been a whimperer in the past, but then again he couldn’t remember being so hypersensitized to anyone else’s touch before.

When he came, bucking and shaking with the effort of choking back his moans, Garak capped his cock with tightly closed fingers and thus saved their clothes from being stained by ejaculate. The most polite and expedient thing Bashir could do under the circumstances was to draw the Cardassian’s hand up from under the cloaks afterwards and take care of the damning evidence with his tongue. Garak certainly seemed to enjoy lying back and watching him lap up his own semen with such sensual attention, and to his surprise Bashir found himself rather liking both the rich salty taste and the hint of exhibitionism implicit in the act itself, but when he let go of Garak’s hand after a final kiss on the palm and reached down to demonstrate the least that he could do in return Garak caught hold of his wrist and leaned closer to murmur in his ear:

“Don’t you think we’re already late enough for breakfast?”

“Breakfast,” Bashir whispered back, “is the least of my concerns right now.” He nibbled at Garak’s aural ridges in what he hoped was a very persuasive manner and tried to twist his hand free of Garak’s hold.

The tailor tightened his grip to a degree that was a little more than merely playful. “You can make it up to me in Zio Araga,” he promised.

Bashir drew back to see if he was serious. Apparently he was. Something of Bashir’s puzzlement and disappointment must have shown on his face, because Garak kissed him again very thoroughly. “Just enjoy it,” he advised with a quirk of his expressive mouth.

“You really don’t want me to...?”

A slight sigh. “I prefer to have a little more privacy for these sorts of things.” He let go of Bashir’s wrist and turned his hand to entwine their fingers, squeezing warmly, but there was a wicked edge to his smile that shivered down Bashir’s spine with more erotic heat. “Believe me, my dear Doctor, I will hold you to your obligation. But for now...”

Reluctantly Bashir nodded and, after offering a final lingering kiss, slipped out into the chilly air. It was the most regretful departure from a bed in his extensive memory but Garak seemed quite cheerful as he emerged from under the cloaks. Perhaps he was already looking forward to Zio Araga — Bashir knew that he certainly was. Three days away, with Aslel and Borik as close companions for the duration. As he donned his coat and cloak again Bashir wondered if there might be some way to convince the guides to go off on their own for a little while at some point during the journey: after all, it had just been proven that ten minutes was time enough for a genuinely delightful interlude, and given how keyed-up he was feeling a minute or two might well serve in a pinch.

Garak looked calm, rested and in excellent spirits. It would be interesting to see how well that demeanor wore over seventy-five hours of self-denial. Mind you, Garak had long training in concealing his true emotions; considering the matter, Bashir mused that he might be the one whose patience was wearing manifestly thin by the time they got to the last northern city before the Temple of the Distant Towers. And no doubt Garak would be immensely entertained by the spectacle of his mounting frustration. For once Bashir didn’t mind the prospect of being observed losing a little of his self-control.

When they stepped out into the bright morning he was surprised to see a completely cloudless day, his first on this planet. The windless air was diamond-bright, every particle of snow in the landscape glittering. The change from the previous days of overcast skies was dazzling, and it combined with his emotional and physical reaction to last night’s sexual revelations to create a sense of joyful exhilaration. He felt wonderfully attuned to the optimistic energy of the new day and to the man who walked beside him; it was as if he’d finally cracked the code on the symphony he’d been trying to decipher for so long only to discover that its leitmotifs harmonized magnificently with his own. He found himself glancing at Garak again and again, knowing his lips were curved in a little smile but taking no pains to hide it. When Garak glanced back he wondered how he could ever have missed the intensity in those brilliant eyes, directed at him. His. He marvelled at it again and again.

The main room of the inn was a scene of subdued chaos: full of noisy travellers, some coming and going in various stages of readiness to depart, some eating breakfast, some apparently just sitting and talking over cups of k’rahl. The innkeeper, his wife and his daughter were bustling through the crowd, serving hot food and drink and, in the case of the women, skillfully avoiding the hands of the soldiers. The prostitute was nowhere to be seen; Bashir decided that she was probably sleeping in.

As soon as they entered the room Borik hailed them from a table near one of the windows. Aslel was nowhere in evidence. Simultaneously the innkeeper spotted them and pointed grimly at Garak, then at the door to the kitchen.

“Excuse me,” Garak said, and started wending his way across the room to answer the summons, leaving Bashir to join Borik by himself. Not that he minded: he rather liked the pudgy little guide, who seemed to view him as simply another person rather than as a strange and disgusting alien.

“Good morning,” Borik greeted him as he reached the table and took one of the three remaining seats. Two of the chairs didn’t match the others and the one Bashir chose had a distinct wobble; it looked like the innkeeper had pulled his second-best chairs out of storage after last night’s destruction of his furniture.

“Good morning.” He glanced around the room but saw no sign of the pilgrim with the dislocated arm or his friends, and turned his gaze toward the bar. “Do we serve ourselves, or —?”

“The women’ll take care of it.” He was looking pointedly at Bashir’s throat. “Did you sleep well?” he asked with a little quirk of his lips.

Bashir tried not to blush and was fairly sure he failed. So Garak’s hardest bite had left an obvious mark, had it? But he didn’t feel ashamed in the least: on the contrary, he felt a glow of boundless energy and pride that warmed him down to his toes, and he smiled back at the Cardassian guide with genuine pleasure. “Marvelously, thank you.”

“Glad to hear it.” Borik caught the innkeeper’s wife’s eye and held up his cup, silently asking for more k’rahl, then turned his attention back to Bashir. “I wish I’d had your luck. Aslel hogged all the blankets, as usual. I spent half the night fighting to get them back.”

As the innkeeper’s daughter bustled over and poured Borik another cup of k’rahl Bashir scanned his memory for any data on Cardassian attitudes toward homosexuality. He came up totally blank. They were a species which kept their sexual customs close to the vest, and in any event this society had been out of touch with Cardassia Prime for quite some time. Obviously Borik, at least, didn’t have a problem with the idea that Garak had been amorously biting him last night... of course it was possible that in this culture close friends did something similar, but Borik’s observation about ‘sleeping well’ seemed to have an obvious sexual connotation. By the time this adventure was over, Bashir reflected, he’d have enough material for a couple of papers on cross-cultural interpretation of social cues.

The innkeeper’s wife appeared with a porridge bowl and k’rahl for him. She served him with an impersonal air and bustled away again without speaking. He tasted the grains, then helped himself liberally to the sweetener in its little pot. “Where’s Agent Aslel?” he asked Borik.

“Making sure the stablehands do a proper job saddling the o’wnli, I expect. He had some boy do a bad job of it on a mission about three Turnings ago and the beast ended up getting an infection from girth-chafe. They can be sensitive that way, you know — or maybe you don’t. He’s been paranoid ever since.”

The k’rahl was delicious, with a deeper note of chocolate than the drink he’d been served back in Zio Tevar’in. He added only a half-spoonful of sweetener. Garak had disappeared into the kitchen with the innkeeper and showed no sign of returning. Borik seemed to be concentrating on his breakfast, so Bashir did likewise, enjoying the new flavours it presented him with.

Not half as much as I enjoyed the new flavours I sampled last night... The memory of light oil and subtle spices suddenly rose on his tongue and he took a hasty sip of k’rahl to lay it to rest, with only partial success. If he was blushing again, he could only hope that Borik didn’t know how to interpret it this time.

About a minute later Garak emerged from the kitchen just ahead of the innkeeper. They ignored each other completely and parted company at once. Garak crossed to their table immediately and sat down, looking very put out.

“Is something wrong?” Bashir asked.

“That Frevah is one of the most unreasonable men it’s ever been my profound misfortune to deal with!” Garak declared.

“He seems nice enough to me,” Borik said mildly.

“Nice enough,” Garak scoffed, “until morning dawns and the bill comes due. He tacked on an outrageous additional charge because he thinks —” He glanced around and leaned closer to them, lowering his voice. “— that I was responsible for last night’s unpleasantness!”

Borik scraped up the last of his porridge with his spoon. “You did break that fellow’s arm.”

Garak leaned out again, his eyes flashing. “After he threatened one of my companions with grievous bodily harm! It was clearly a case of defending a friend.”

“Well,” Bashir felt compelled to point out, “furniture still ended up getting broken.”

Garak slid him a glance which clearly told him that he wasn’t helping. “You can scarcely blame me for that. I tried telling Frevah that I wasn’t the one who picked up the first chair, but the man wasn’t even willing to try to be reasonable about it.”

“So what happened?” Bashir asked, cradling his cup in both hands.

“I had to pay ten tiorli to get our luggage back,” Garak huffed.

“And how much is that, exactly?” He took a sip.

“Three full days' stay at an inn. For two!” The innkeeper’s daughter breezed over, deposited a cup of k’rahl and a bowl of porridge in front of Garak, and hurried away again. Garak was so incensed that he didn’t even acknowledge her.

Bashir couldn’t help smiling. “That may be the most expensive arm you’ve ever broken.”

“I don’t make a habit out of breaking arms, Doctor, but yes, it certainly qualifies.” He picked up his spoon, still looking sour. “Pass the sweetener, please.”

Bashir obliged him and then went back to his own breakfast. Borik drained his cup of k’rahl and rose to his feet. “I’d better make sure that Aslel isn’t giving those boys too hard a time,” he said. “Take your time. I’ll come let you know as soon as we’re ready to ride.”

He set off, leaving Bashir and Garak as alone as they could be in such a crowd. The Cardassian didn’t seem inclined to talk and Bashir felt no pressing need for conversation; they ate in companionable silence for a few minutes, until Bashir looked up and said: “Thank you. Again. For everything.”

The last trace of Garak’s annoyance over the innkeeper’s extortion vanished. “The pleasure was entirely mine,” he assured him.

“If you believe that,” Bashir smiled, “you clearly weren’t paying attention.”

Garak laughed softly. “Perhaps I wasn’t,” he agreed with teasing warmth that became a hint of the sensual purr Bashir had been caressed with last night. “I look forward to having another opportunity to be more observant.”

To having you, was the clear implication. Bashir’s body instantly responded with a reflexive flash of sexual heat. Flirting in public, saying one thing while meaning something completely different — how typically Garak, and exciting now in a whole new way.

“I’d like nothing better,” he murmured, regarding his friend across the table through lowered eyelashes. Garak’s expression was perfectly innocent, there was nothing in it to attract anyone’s attention, yet somehow it managed to convey that he was thinking about reaching over and pulling his Human companion onto the table and doing things to him that the innkeeper would really kick up a fuss over...

Bashir found himself smiling again, quite helplessly. Oh, this new permutation to their already complex relationship was wondrous! Mindful of where they were, he tried not to look too sultry even though all he wanted to do was take Garak up on that unspoken invitation. He found himself already half-hard in anticipation. Briefly he considered whether Garak would be able to keep up with his enhanced stamina, which applied to sexual matters such as his refractory period as much as it did to any other aspect of his physical being. It was definitely going to be a lot of fun finding out, and even if the Cardassian wasn’t able to sustain as many eversions as Bashir had erections it was a safe bet that Garak was more than resourceful enough to figure out some excellent work-arounds. Thinking of a nice warm bed in Zio Araga and a whole night or two of privacy, Bashir had to resist the urge to lick his lips. Judging from Garak’s trace of a lecherous smirk he’d seen the impulse flicker across his lover’s face regardless.

It had become automatic for Bashir to constrain his actions to prevent anyone from discovering his enhanced status; for example, he’d been very careful never to let his past bedmates know that he was capable of recovering exceptionally quickly and having several orgasms a night. But how many Human male lovers could Garak have had? Surely he wouldn’t realize that such an ability was anything unusual... this, however, was Garak, and who knew what purely clinical research he’d been doing, especially if he’d had his eye on his alien friend for some time now? On the other hand, there were certainly unenhanced Human men who were able to climax that frequently as a matter of course, although they were rare. Gazing into the piercing blue eyes regarding him with such intensity, Bashir knew that he wasn’t going to be able to resist this much temptation: he was going to give Garak everything he had, in every way he could think of. Almost fully hard now, he could hear the pounding of his own heart even through the noise of conversation surrounding them.

The innkeeper’s daughter suddenly appeared with her pitcher, breaking their heated moment of silent communication. Garak smiled at her pleasantly and slipped back into a fully public persona as she quickly refilled their k’rahl cups and departed. “So, no more nightmares last night?” he asked casually before taking a sip.

“Not a trace.” Bashir turned his attention back to his porridge, stirring it before spooning up another mouthful. “Which is no surprise, given how exhausted I was.”

“I’m so pleased to have been of service.” Garak inclined his chin in a little bow.

“You didn’t seem very tired afterwards.”

“A perfectly natural reaction,” Garak replied. “It’s called —” A glance around. He leaned closer and spoke in a lower voice. “— n’assa tevar.” He sat back again and continued in a normal tone: “You’ve seen a reference to it before, I’m sure, in —”

“— The Fall From Shadows excerpt you gave me.” He opened his mouth to continue, but Garak forestalled him with a raised hand.

“Please, Doctor, don’t quote the passage. It would not be wise.”

“I wasn’t going to. I was just going to say that I’m wondering how long you’ve been trying to tell me something.”

That familiar enigmatic smile. “I’ve been ‘trying to tell you something’ since the moment you indicated you were willing to be educated. However, what you’ve heard has generally been quite a different matter. Take, for example, your failure to appreciate the Cardassian repetitive epic...”

Bashir stifled a little groan. “Not The Never-Ending Sacrifice Again again!”

Garak looked pleased with his perceptiveness. “The very book!”

“I fail to see what that has to do with anything.”

“Why,” Garak protested, “it has everything to do with the subject at hand! Do you recall —?”

He paused, looking past Bashir’s shoulder. Turning, Bashir saw that Borik had re-entered the inn and was heading towards them. The guide stopped when he saw them both looking at him and indicated that they should come outside.

“Well, that was quick,” Garak observed, and they concentrated on finishing their porridge and k’rahl while Borik headed back outside. The food and drink was satisfying but Bashir would have given a great deal to have some bacon and eggs instead: he’d always preferred to start his mornings with a hit of protein. The prospect of dried meat and hardtack for the next three days was almost as unpleasant as the prospect of being so close to Garak without an opportunity to do anything about it.

It’s like being in love, Bashir thought as Garak led the way through the common room toward the door. Maybe it even is... No, he couldn’t afford to think along those lines. There were still too many questions unanswered between him and Garak, not enough of the trust necessary for that sort of relationship. What they had was a friendship that Bashir had almost as much trouble explaining to himself as he did unlocking Garak’s past, along with an amazing dose of previously unsuspected physical compatibility. Sexual infatuation, perhaps, but not love. Not the same thing at all.

He tried to put the issue out of his mind, but it kept coming back at odd moments while they found Aslel and Borik and checked that the innkeeper had given them back all their luggage. Garak extracted two scabbarded sixteen centimeter knives and belts from their packs and they each put one on; now that they were headed away from all civilization the blades might come in handy. Then, while Aslel waited impatiently and Borik seemed content to relax for a moment, they mounted up. As soon as Bashir was settled behind him Garak began to issue instructions for improving his riding posture: how to set his pelvis, how to keep his shoulders back, how to grip the saddle with his knees, how to align his legs. By the time they were back on the main road Bashir was pretty sure he had it right, but they were in such close physical contact that Garak could feel any variation in his posture instantly and the Cardassian issued further instructions periodically as the day progressed.

In between lessons on how to ride properly Bashir had plenty to think about. Today Aslel and Borik talked intermittantly between themselves and Garak occasionally took part in their discussions, but Bashir was mainly silent. He was still contemplating what had changed and what was the same between him and the mysterious man he was on this journey with. In particular he considered the piece of poetry that had started last night’s encounter, Ballad Forty-Seven of The Fall From Shadows. His better-than-Human memory retained every line, in part because it had struck him as being so different from any other piece of Cardassian literature Garak had exposed him to.

1 Hush, my a’latli, dearest heart;
Nothing shall touch you in the shadows, unless it be my hand.
Be at peace, my beloved, my jewel beyond price,
Until the sun soars over Lesar Nor, until battle summons us again.

2 We are stars set within the iron sphere,
We are soldiers arrayed within the serried ranks,
Our courses preordained, our measure taken.
But in this space between us, things unheard of
And wonders undreamed of waken.

3 You are a flood that casts my resolve into ruin,
An unlooked-for song that shatters the silence of sacred duty.
How shall I cleave again to the core of my oaths?
How shall their sanctioned comforts nourish me
In the aftermath of your eyes?

4 Lay your hand upon me for but this moment,
Palm against palm, heart against beating heart.
Passion destroys the order of all that matters,
Or so say the sages. I welcome this brief destruction.
I open my gates to the army that has besieged me.

5 Tear me to pieces, sheathe your gaze in my breast!
Let us devour each other, wound each other, do battle for a common cause.
Never has culmination been more cruelly desired,
Never has
n’assa tevar been sharper or sweeter,
Never has rest been more peaceful than surrender in your arms.

6 It flowers for one brief season, this fierce and secret beauty
And will never come again,
But memory, ah! the memory of these nights
Shall sustain our souls forever.

It was the only section the larger work that Bashir had seen and he’d read it in a Terran English translation, so doubtless he was missing some of the cultural nuances, but it held many implications given Garak’s habit of coding multiple layers of meaning into any exchange. What Bashir couldn’t decide was whether those implications were wonderful or profoundly disturbing, or whether perhaps they were a little of both.

Chapter Text

“I’ve never read anything quite like it,” Bashir admitted, “at least not in Cardassian literature.”

He was sitting with Garak in the Replimat, enjoying one of their weekly lunches. The famiiar shapes and colors filled him with unaccountable wistfulness, as though he’d been away from them for a long time and was only recently returned. Garak’s face across the table from him, however, had never been far away: that wry expression barely concealed by sincerity, those shining eyes.

“That’s because there really is nothing like it in Cardassian literature,” Garak replied. “Scholars don’t even agree on who Leroc was: whether they were male or female, what social caste they belonged to, or whether they were writing literally or allegorically.”

Bashir paused in spooning up some I’danian spice pudding to frown at his lunch companion. “It seemed like quite straightforward love poetry to me.”

“Ah, Doctor — haven’t you learned by now that very little about Cardassian art is straightforward?”

“I suppose I should have. I still remember that statue you showed me, the one of the wrestlers that was actually a metaphor for the political conflicts of the Teralan Uprising in the Late Hebitian period.”

“Precisely! Now, take those levels of meaning and apply them to The Fall From Shadows.”

He considered that for a moment. “Are you saying that it really isn’t about two lovers at all?”

“What I’m saying,” Garak amended with the sort of patience that was really impatience, “is that you look at things far too simplistically. Don’t you find that a piece of literature or sculpture with only one or two levels of meaning quickly becomes insipid?”

Bashir glanced ceilingward briefly, a rueful roll of the eyes. “Actually, in Human culture a great deal of pleasure is taken in appreciating the purity of a single artistic vision.”

“Hmmm,” Garak disapproved. “Yes, you can see that clearly in your food.”

Bashir paused again with the spoon almost to his lips and frowned, perplexed. “Our food?”

“Your food,” Garak repeated emphatically. He gestured at the pudding Bashir was about to eat. “Only a few different flavours per dish at most... in Cardassian cuisine we believe in layering ten or fifteen different taste sensations in each recipe, or in serving them in such a way that they can be savoured in many different potential combinations.” He sat back in his chair with the air of one having made his point. “If you want to talk about insipid, try a gourmet Human meal.”

“And as a result,” Bashir smiled, “Cardassian cuisine is virtually inedible.”

“You seem to have learned to like it well enough.”

Bashir finished eating the mouthful of spice pudding he’d started to enjoy at the beginning of this conversational topic. “That’s because I’ve had a good teacher,” he mumbled around the delicious burst of simple sweetness and warmth, remembering the evening when his Cardassian friend had laid out a selection of small portions for him on the worktable of his shop and encouraged him to try a little of each. The flavours had ranged from light to dark, from sweet to bitter, from evanescent to heavy, a wide range often present in a single mouthful; Garak had stopped him from eating too quickly, admonishing him to hold each bite on his tongue to allow the sequence of flavours to properly unfold. It had been highly educational and he’d come away from it feeling both satiated and sensually stimulated.

Garak smiled in return. Bashir fancied that he might actually be pleased by the compliment.

“Bashir? Bashir, wake up!”

A low voice brought him out of the dream — a memory, really, replayed with admirable accuracy — to the weight of woolen and fur blankets on top of him, cool air on the right side of his face, and a faint spicy scent infusing each indrawn breath: cinnamon, bay leaf, a hint of bitter Tarkalean nonassa. As soon as he opened his eyes to deep darkness he knew where he was: inside a double-insulated fur tent pitched on hard snowy ground, snuggled up against Garak’s chest with his nose touching the spoon in the hollow of the Cardassian’s throat. A broken line of warm firelight marked the sealed flap just above the fur pillow. It was their first night of travel to Zio Araga, and the voice was Borik’s, summoning him to his turn to watch over the fire.

“I’ll be right there,” he called back, then yawned and stretched as he heard the yolin move away. He looked up to find Garak awake and looking considerably more alert than he felt. He smiled at his friend sleepily and murmured: “Duty calls, I’m afraid.”

“Mmm.” Garak’s arms tightened briefly around him with a possessiveness that Bashir instantly loved. It made his cock stir eagerly. “Only if you insist.”

“I do. “ Reluctantly but firmly he began to disentangle himself, not even seeking a kiss: no point in tormenting himself any further. Garak released him and he slipped out from under the sleeping furs, making sure that they were tucked in well to keep the Cardassian warm before putting on his heavy coat a little awkwardly in the confined space. He emerged from the tent as quickly as he dared and closed the flaps tightly behind him, then rose to his feet and approached the small fire burning at the edge of the camp closest to the forest beyond.

Aslel and Borik had chosen a site nestled in the intersection between two high cliff faces, leaving only one side of the space to be guarded against any hungry grok’arli that might happen by. The bearlike creatures were apparently quite wary of fire, so all that was needed to ensure a safe night’s sleep was a small blaze kept constantly alight; the guides had brought along a sandclock to time their shifts, with each person getting a two clockturn watch. Bashir had drawn the lot for the third watch; Garak had drawn the first, and Bashir had found himself acutely aware of the empty space beside him in their tent, sleeping lightly until his lover had finally slipped inside and embraced him. A few kisses and bites, a few murmured words, and Bashir had felt far more content. He’d slept soundly after that, and was feeling fairly well rested now since he could manage on significantly less sleep than an unenhanced Human.

Borik, on the other hand, seemed quite tired but still friendly. “Coldest clockturn of the night,” he observed, looking Bashir over as the Human came to sit down on one of the fallen logs that bounded the firepit area. This site had been used by other campers in the past. “Hard luck to draw it.”

“I’m fine,” Bashir assured him. Borik had hot tea going and he gratefully accepted a cup of it, sipping the bitter brew. “To be honest, the cold doesn’t bother me the way it does the rest of you.”

A look of rare suspicion crossed Borik’s face; for an instant he looked more Cardassian than Bashir had ever seen him. He reached out and caught light hold of Bashir’s free hand, leaving his fingers there for a long moment, then pulled them back with a little grin. “You’re so warm!” he marvelled. “Are all your people like that?”

“All of them.” Bashir surveyed the sizable pile of firewood beside Borik. Most of it had been already on-site when they arrived, and they’d have to replenish it before they moved on. He was no woodsman, but it looked sufficient to last the next few hours.

“Just like the Naievirl, then.”

“What can you tell me about them? Yolin Aslel was saying that no guide would go further than Zio Araga because of the wild tribes...?”

Borik poked at the fire with a thick charred stick, then added another log. Sparks flared toward the clear dark sky sprinkled with a million stars and adorned with an almost full moon at its zenith. “Zio Araga is the last Civilized city on the frontier. Beyond that the Savage tribes roam pretty much at will, and woe betide any of our kind who runs into them. They don’t like unexpected visitors very much.”

“And how, exactly, do they express their displeasure?”

“People disappear. We’re not sure what happens to them, but some say that the miiala — they’re a kind of ash’uar — use Civilized flesh and blood in their rituals.” His round face was uncharacteristically grim. “Some even say that they eat us when they can. There have been bones found, with pieces of skin and meat still on them, strung up on poles. Animals could have done the eating, I suppose, but animals don’t use sinew rope to tie things together, do they?”

A prickle ran up the back of Bashir’s neck, along with a powerful conviction that somehow he had to keep Garak safe from that future threat. They’d clearly need to pick up better weapons than their knives when they reached the city. Something not too long — a sword of about sixty centimeters should be easy enough to handle, although he knew that he at least wasn’t proficient in bladed weapons. Were Obsidian Order agents taught how to handle archaic weaponry? He doubted it.

“You said that there’s a main road leading to the Temple, didn’t you?” he asked.

Borik nodded. “There are three main roads, one approaching from the southeast from Zio Darrak and one from the southwest from Zio Tetrar. You’ll be taking the one heading there from the south proper. It’s not wide or well-travelled but the last I’d heard it’s still in good condition.”

“And when’s the last time you heard anything about it?”

“Two Turnings ago. But,” he added quickly, “the ash’uar come and go along it twice a Turning, so we know it’s good enough for them to use.”

Bashir took another sip of tea, thoughtful. “If there are Naievirl in the area they may be watching the road. It might be better to travel through the forest instead, parallel to the main thoroughfare. At least we wouldn’t be out in the open with a potential enemy able to see us coming from cover.”

“I’d say you’re more likely to run into Savages on a forest trail than on a Civilized pathway.” He took a drink from his own cup of tea. “Are you sure you can’t delay your journey until the ash’uar send another party up to the Temple? It probably wouldn’t be more than another quarter-Turning and it would be a lot safer to travel with them: they have soldiers to make sure they get where they’re going.”

Bashir shook his head. “We simply can’t wait that long.”

Borik sighed and stirred the fire again. “I don’t like the idea of seeing you safe to Zio Araga only to come back in a half-Turning and hear you got killed afterwards,” he complained.

Oddly touched, Bashir smiled at him. “We can look after ourselves, never fear.”

Borik drained his cup. “When it comes to the Savages, it’s always a good idea to fear. The poison they tip their arrows with is an instant death sentence, although it takes a while to kill you.” He set the stick aside and rose to his feet, wincing a little. “Well, I’ve gotten stiff enough! Time to go steal Aslel’s body heat. Warmth and safe haven to you.”

“Warmth and safe haven.” He watched Borik head toward the tent he shared with his fellow yolin, then turned his attention back to the fire. Memories of camping with his father immediately rose from their grave; this time he didn’t try to push them away, instead concentrating on cracking them open to taste the hint of sweet marrow they contained. During those few days and nights away from civilization his father had, for once, not seemed to be constantly obsessed with his son’s performance or in berating him to do his absolute best. For a little while he seemed simply content to be with his boy. Young Bashir had delighted in those times, when he could manage to pretend that his father loved him simply for who he was, not for what he was capable of.

It’s the scent of the burning wood that does it, I’m sure. Funny how the sense of smell is usually the most evocative. He watched sparks break free and rise on the heat chimney, winking out before they reached the full darkness, and let himself be briefly lost in the remembrance of things past before turning his mind to more immediate concerns.

The prospect of travelling for three days through wilderness territory with only Garak for company was potentially welcome for a number of reasons, but from a tactical point of view it set off loud alarms that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to take any action to silence. They lacked modern firearms and in a bladed weapon fight Bashir knew he’d be less than competant: he’d run a couple of holosuite programs with O’Brien that involved swordfighting but such virtual skills, practiced only very rarely, wouldn’t translate well into the real world. He had more confidence in his abilities in a knife fight than he did if forced to do battle with a short sword, but a knife in a swordfight was almost worse than useless.

In any case it sounded like the Naievirl probably wouldn’t even get close enough to let them try to defend themselves, not when an arrow in the back would be much more efficient and deadly.

Heading into enemy territory with no competant offense or defense, travelling virtually blind... A cold lump of dread settled in his stomach. We’ll be sitting ducks. The chances are damned good that we’ll never make it to the Temple and that we may end up on some Naievirl menu, probably after being softened up with torture first. If I could I’d make the journey alone, but I’ll need Garak to interpret the transmitter interface, assuming he can. Assuming the priests grant us access to it at all. Assuming... He leaned forward and pinched the bridge of his nose between his tightly closed eyes. His mind, which had apparently been crunching the numbers subconsciously for quite some time, offered up a set of probability statistics. None of them looked good. We’ll probably end up dying on this unknown planet, he concluded. And nobody will ever know what became of us.

He thought of his friends back on the station: Miles, Nerys, Jadzia... even Commander Sisko might miss him if he never returned. For a moment he gave himself up to the yearning for their company. Miles, so earthy and gruff, but with warm affection occasionally breaking through his brusque exterior... Nerys, so bright and bold, straightforward and fearless... Jadzia, who he had fallen for so hard in the beginning and for whom he still felt deep affection and a definite sexual attraction. Her face lingered in his mind the longest: her serene gaze, her elegant eyebrows, her smile that conveyed so much wisdom and compassion. Would she mourn for him if he didn’t make it back? He hoped so, although he wouldn’t wish the pain of loss on anybody. But in his life genuine affection had been a rare thing: he’d always kept a certain distance between himself and everyone around him, even with Palis Delon, the woman who he’d always considered to be his one true love. And even with her he’d maintained a degree of aloofness, never divulging his deepest truths. It had made it easier to leave her for Starfleet in the end.

Jadzia. He sat back and sighed, keeping the sound barely louder than a breath. He’d thrown himself at her like an eager puppy and she’d still offered him her friendship afterwards. He was truly fortunate to have found such a group of colleagues, people who seemed to like him for who they perceived him to be.

And Garak, of course. He didn’t have to associate with me, but he chose to anyway — and now I know why. It was a little unsettling to realize that their lunchtime debates and playful exchanges had concealed something deeper, but when had Garak ever offered up the truth willingly? Even when he was dying from the implant he wouldn’t give me a straight answer. Lending me that poem to read, buried in a collection of other short works, may have been the closest he’s ever come to tipping his hand. And I looked right through it. Was that what he intended? Was it his idea of a joke, or an amusing diversion, or a way to mock my Human inability to appreciate subtleties?

What would he have done next if I’d recognized the signal?

What would I have done next?

He was still in love with Jadzia, at least a little. He knew now that nothing would ever come of it although it provided him with fantasy material on long lonely nights. The thought of her skin, of that trail of spots running down her long body, could still make him dreamy on occasion. He suspected it always would. She was beautiful and experienced and intelligent and mysterious, and she’d drawn him in from the start. Even when she’d turned aside his advances he’d never ceased to be powerfully attracted to her, like a moth to a flame. Even though he knew it was quite hopeless.

Garak was not conventionally handsome, but he possessed charisma to burn. He was experienced in ways Bashir couldn’t even begin to imagine, intelligent enough to match him thrust for thrust, and more mysterious than ten Trills combined. The first time they’d met Bashir had felt like a mouse in the presence of a cobra, every nerve on fire with adrenaline, mesmerized by the seductive shimmer of scales and the razor edge of that sly smile. He’d been agitated, highly aroused — and yes, there’d been a sexual element present, although it had been sublimated into the greater thrill of being approached by a Cardassian spy. That final lingering touch on his shoulders... He was telegraphing the message on so many levels, even then. I just didn’t see all of them at the time.

Like the taste of Cardassian food, it had taken him a long time to appreciate all the nuances. And even now he suspected he wasn’t done. The thought filled him with eagerness: a lifetime might not be enough to discover all the secrets Garak could reveal, or to prove himself worthy of learning those secrets. As with Jadzia, it was the mystery that provided a great deal of the attraction. And the sexual burn, after two and a half years of foreplay. When we get back to the station...

When they got back to the station things would get very interesting indeed, because Garak was right: a Cardassian operative and a Starfleet officer made the most unlikely of matches. Commander Sisko would certainly have something to say about it. It would be up to Bashir to convince him that his interest in Garak was purely recreational.

The bigger question is, what's Garak’s interest in me?

Ballad Forty-Seven ran through his mind again. It seemed fairly unambiguous, if encompassing many different layers of significance — but it was also Cardassian. It might indicate that Garak was just as interested in him for political reasons as for any other. It might reveal treachery on the horizon.

I already know he’s dangerous. As much as I’m enjoying this new element in our relationship, can I really afford to —?

Metal gleamed at the edge of the firelight, approaching out of the treeline.

Bashir’s attention instantly refocussed. He barely had time to set his cup aside before an almost impossibly tall figure materialized out of the shadows, lightly clad in a short tunic of dark furs and boots of a similar make, wielding a shortbow. Its skin gleamed like dark wood, its large eyes were variegated blue, and its long hair, like hawk’s feathers, flared out behind its narrow shoulders. Muscles corded in its bare arms as it raised its weapon, pointing it at Bashir’s chest.

“Stand up,” the Naievirl male said in a low voice like trickling water. Others of his kind appeared on either side of him, eight in total, similarly clad and all but two carrying bows with arrows nocked. “We seek a healer, a stranger to these lands, in the name of Lieilii of the Red Hand. Tell us where he is, or perish.”

Chapter Text

Bashir obeyed the order, analyzing the situation in a couple of seconds. He was outnumbered and vastly outgunned. He debated which answer would best suit the circumstances. “I’m not sure I understand,” he replied at last. “Who, precisely, are you looking for?”

The leader’s eyes were unblinking. “I know only that he is a healer, that he has knowledge of Roughshod bodies, and that the miiala wants him.”

“Really?” a voice from approximately three meters behind Bashir said. He hadn’t even heard Garak come out of the tent. “There must be some mistake,” the Cardassian continued with a commendable imitation of earnest puzzlement. Now Bashir could hear his footsteps on the snow, slowly approaching, circling to Bashir’s right. “We have no healer here. I think you’ve been —”

“The miiala warned us to expect Roughshod trickery.” He changed targets, aiming the arrow at the new arrival. “One more deception and I’ll fill you with nilliea and cut that lying tongue out of your head before you breathe your last.”

Garak stopped in his tracks and shut up. Bashir glanced among the various arrowheads, noting the oily gleam on each one. A single scratch could be deadly. He didn’t dare take the chance. He stepped forward. “I’m the only healer here.” Garak’s sharp glance was almost palpable on the back of his neck. He ignored it, keeping his eyes on the lead warrior. “So it must be me you’re looking for.”

The warrior looked him over. “Lieilii did say to seek a strange one.” He turned his head slightly and bobbed it in an almost avian gesture; the two warriors without bows stepped forward and came up on either side of Bashir, drawing long knives. Garak’s tension was clear to be felt now, but again Bashir ignored it. Behind him he could hear Aslel and Borik emerging from their own tent, and more arrows were raised to target them. He heard them stop, obviously realizing that the odds were not in their favor. Aslel uttered a soft curse in Low Kardasi.

“Come with us, elai-Naievirl,” one of the knife-wielders said.

“Doctor —” Evidently Garak simply couldn’t keep quiet under the circumstances.

“I’ll be fine.” He looked back and flashed a smile he didn’t feel. The warriors were tall and incredibly slender but their visible muscle connections looked to be of a very efficient design: he had no doubt that any one of them could probably take a Cardassian in single combat. Against two of them he wouldn’t stand a chance. He looked up at them both, then at the leader again. “I’ll come quietly. There’s no need to harm my friends.”

“Your friends will come to no harm — if you do what’s asked of you,” the leader replied with a subtler head-bob. He bobbed more emphatically at the warriors flanking Bashir and they started out of the clearing, taking Bashir with them. He had time for one final glance over his shoulder. Aslel looked ready to spit nails, Borik looked anxious, and Garak...

Garak was telegraphing with his eyes. You're quite insane, but you are still capable of being careful, aren't you?

Bashir flashed another small smile of reassurance, then turned his face away and followed his captors into the wilderness.

Deep among the trees stood three o’wnli, one of them with a rider already mounted, all with saddles of a type Bashir hadn’t seen before. The shadows of the tree branches above patterned them with patches of black and moonlight, breaking up their shapes in a most disconcerting way. Bashir’s guards swung into their saddles, one of them pausing to grasp Bashir’s waist and lift him up with effortless strength before mounting up behind him. Obviously they meant to take no chances that he’d try to slide off the back of the beast and make a run for it.

As if I’d get far under these conditions, or know where to go if I did. Then they were setting off through the forest and Bashir looked up, trying to get his bearings using the moon anyway. It was hopeless; he was no outdoorsman, and within two minutes he couldn’t have told you which way the camp lay or how to get back to it. He settled himself in the saddle using Garak’s tips on proper posture and glanced over at the rider to his left. “Will you at least tell me what this is all about?”

The rider whistled softly to himself but did not glance back or make any other intelligible response. Bashir considered trying the question again with the rider behind him but decided against it. Three lives depended on his good conduct: he couldn’t risk making these people angry. So he fell silent and watched the snowy moonlit woods pass by, wondering how these people had known where to find him, much less what he looked like or his particular set of skills. No reasonable answers occurred to him during the long ride, which felt like it took a little more than half an hour.

The riders eventually reined in at the foot of a cliff face. Bashir could see little tendrils of smoke emerging from small fissures in the rock, and in a moment his dark-adapted eyes perceived a thin trace of light a few meters away: a tall rift in the stone, covered by a thick animal hide curtain, with firelight leaking through a little gap. The riders dismounted, Bashir was allowed to slide down, and together they approached the opening, which was only a few centimeters wider than Bashir’s shoulders. When the animal hide was pulled back he was all but pushed into a large interior space, lit by two small cooking fires and a number of small oval oil lamps set in niches in the stone walls. There were twenty Naievirl adults there, male and female, dressed in the same style of loose skins. Some of them were occupied with tending pots over the flames but the rest looked up curiously, their large liquid eyes following Bashir as he was ushered through the room into a narrow corridor leading further back into the cliff face.

He walked in silence, taking everything in and analyzing potential escape routes. The hallway had several other large fissures leading off it, all curtained with animal hides; what lay behind them was a mystery. At the end of the corridor one of his captors lifted a hide curtain and headbobbed him into a room perhaps four meters square, lit by three oil lamps, two in wall sconces and one beside a low cot set against the far wall. A burly figure lay on it, unmoving. Beside it stood a Naievirl older than any Bashir had seen so far, his feathery hair streaked with white, his thin frame slightly stooped at the middle back. He looked like he’d be a little taller than Bashir if he stood upright, and he was clad in animal hides longer and more elaborately sewn than those of his comrades.

He turned dark eyes on the Human as he entered, and nodded Bashir’s guards away. They departed in silence. Another warrior stood against the wall to Bashir’s right, unarmed but watching intently. A bodyguard?

“What is your name, neiassa?” the Naievirl asked once they were more or less alone.

Bashir glanced at the watching warrior. “My name is Julian Bashir.”

“Bash-ier?” He shaped his mouth around the sounds of it. “Not a Roughshod name, certainly. No matter. I am Lieilii of the Red Hand, miiala to this camp and third shaman of the Northern Tribe.” He bobbed his head. “Welcome to our haven.”

“Why have you brought me here?” Bashir saw no point in beating around the bush, considering that he was effectively a prisoner. “And how did you know where to find me, or even to look for me in the first place?”

Lieilii ducked his long chin. “Impatience! I remember being so young.” He bared his sharp teeth briefly. “My ennialal told me that we’d find you there, a healer with knowledge of how the Roughshod are put together.” He gestured toward the man on the bed. “I have a patient for you. Tell me what you think of him.

Bashir went warily to the bedside and did a quick visual check in the warm yellow light of the flames. The eyes of the man on the bed were tightly closed and he was only visible from the shoulders up under a thick fur blanket. Bashir checked his pupils, then touched the side of his neck.

“Cardassian male,” he noted as he proceeded, “pupils dilated and unresponsive, clammy skin, pale neck ridges, pulse swift and erratic. Elevated temperature. He’s going into shock.”

“You’ve been brought here to heal him,” Lieilii continued. “He possesses information we require and he has passed beyond the point of speech. No amount of pain would loosen his tongue now.”

The implication was unescapable: a prisoner of war, about to be interrogated. Remembering what Borik had said about Naievirl practices concerning Cardassians, Bashir stared at the unconscious soldier in horror, then turned disgusted eyes on the slender shaman. “I’m not going to save this man’s life just so that you can torture him to death!”

Lieilii cocked his head, birdlike. “If you refuse to lend me aid, I’ll have the warriors go back to your camp and send arrows into all your comrades. Nilliea venom does not bestow an easy death. I will even have them brought here in their agony so that you can witness their final liela.”

Bashir thought of them, waiting for him to return: severe Aslel, open-hearted Borik — and Garak. His heart leaped into his throat. For a dreadful few seconds he struggled between two equally unpalatable choices: to help heal the Cardassian soldier in preparation for torture was utterly reprehensible, but the alternative...

The alternative was Garak’s death, and that was an option he simply couldn’t choose. Besides, it was three lives against one; simple utilitarian arithmetic dictated which choice was the correct one.

There is no correct way to proceed. Whichever way this goes you’ll regret it... but one choice would result in a dead friend. His heart faltered around the truth, but the threat of death left little room for illusions. No. More than that. There is no choice here.

He straightened his shoulders. “After I’ve treated this man’s injuries, you’ll let us go?”

Lieilii made that odd headbobbing gesture again. “The sel’loi will return you to your camp and you’ll be granted safe passage to the caves at Seoi L’liar. I so swear on the power-clasps of my mentors.”

Bashir threw the dice. “I want safe passage guaranteed to the Temple of the Distant Towers.”

A feathery eyebrow rose. “The northernmost settlement of the Roughshod? That is a great deal to ask, elai-Naievirl.”

“Without it, we’re probably dead anyway.”

“Your guides are willing to see you that far? They’re exceptionally brave.”

“It would just be two of us, myself and one other.”

Lieilii turned his head a little to one side, as if listening to something far away. “Your a’latli,” he said evenly. “The kinslayer, the weaver of lies.”

Bashir confined his reaction to a slight widening of his eyes. After a long shocked moment he simply responded: “Yes.”

Lieilii seemed to consider the proposal, tilting his head to the other side in the same attitude of one listening to a voice whispering in his ear. Then he performed a little vertical shrug. “He has no Naievirl blood on his hands, although he would not hesitate to spill it if he perceived a threat to your life or his own. Very well. Passage to the Temple: we will send runners to inform our brethren to the north that you are coming, strange one.”

“Thank you,” he nodded, amazed that he’d been able to negotiate so much.

Lieilii smiled a small and wintery smile. “But first you must earn the privilege.” He gestured toward the man on the low bed and Bashir turned back to his patient, lifting the fur blanket to look beneath. The Cardassian’s wrists were bound to the bedframe with sinew rope and he was naked to the waist, a deep incision a full ten centimeters long gashing deep into his upper belly.

The smell of blood and feces rose from it to fill Bashir’s nostrils. That told him everything he needed to know; his heart sank and he looked back toward Lieilii, keeping his expression calm and authoritative. “I don’t have what’s necessary to repair this wound. I would need sterile equipment, and special medications... I’m sorry, if I could help you I —”

“I will be your tools.”

Bashir blinked. “Excuse me?”

“It is your knowledge I need, neiassa, not your hands.” Lieilii whistled intricately at the tall warrior standing against the wall; the man came forward at once and knelt at the Cardassian soldier’s feet, his long hands resting on his thighs, his expression masklike. “My ennialal will draw eliel’hassier from this warrior and use it to heal the prisoner’s flesh. However, I do not understand how Roughshod bodies are put together. You must join the link and guide my will into the proper courses.”

“Are you asking me to take part in a... mind meld?”

“I do not know those words. I am asking you to join your mind to mine, and together we will use the warrior’s eliel-hassier to replenish that of the prisoner.”

It was Bashir’s turn to cock his head. “So you can draw life-force from one person and transfer it into another?”

Lieilii headbobbed. “But I do not know how to knit together this creature’s strange flesh. You possess that knowledge, which is what I need.”

Bashir swallowed his rising nervousness. He’d never been in a telepathic link before, at least not that he was aware of; the incident in which the fantasies of the station’s officers had come to life was a notable exception, but that reading had been so subtle that he’d never been aware of it. This sounded far different, as if he’d be probed and read like a memory bank... but he had no choice. It was this or watch Garak and the others dragged in with nilliea coursing through their veins. “All right. But I have to warn you, I’ve never done anything like this before.”

“Neither have I. But I have both drained eliel’hassier and touched the mind of another in the past. To do both at the same time should be quite possible.” He came to stand beside Bashir, between the Human and the warrior, and eased himself down onto his knees, indicating that Bashir should do the same. When Bashir had obeyed he reached up one spidery hand and pressed his fingers to the side of Bashir’s face in a pattern not unlike that of a Vulcan mind meld. “Clear your mind, neiassa,” he murmured softly. “Concentrate on the body of a Roughshod. How its muscles knit together, how its inner mysteries are arranged...”

Bashir closed his eyes and did his best to follow the command. He’d scanned Garak fairly extensively during the incident with the implant, and Enabran Tain’s data had given him some valuable clues as well. He pictured a Cardassian male body rendered in three dimensions, concentrating on the internal organs in the upper belly and the circulatory system. There: the stomach, the curves of the intestines, the tri-lobed liver, the sacs that produced bile and other enzymes. It wasn’t so different from the layout of most other humanoid species. He pictured the wound on this soldier, gashing down through the stomach and cutting across the large intestine. A few centimeters to the left and it would have carved into the liver, resulting in a lethal bleed. As it was peritonitis was killing him, albeit more slowly.

He became aware that someone else was gazing at the mental image, a fluttering alien presence like a crow perched on his left shoulder: its claws scratching, its feathers rustling. Something about it was eerily uncanny; it made him feel lightheaded with its very presence. Lieilii spoke again, and this time Bashir had the further unsettling experience of hearing his voice doubled, echoing both in his ears and in his mind. “Very good. Now you must follow me into his body. Guide me with your knowledge. Show me what to repair, and how.”

The crow opened its wings. Suddenly it was as big as a Gunji jackdaw, its claws sinking into Bashir’s shoulders like the talons of an eagle. It surged forward, pulling him helplessly after it; he recoiled reflexively and suffered a searing jolt to his temples for his pains. He would have fallen onto the bed if not for Lieilii’s touch, which seemed to be holding him glued in place. The vision of his physical eyes dimmed and faded away as he plunged across and down through the incorporeal link that the miiala seemed able to create, into the body of the unconscious Cardassian soldier. The sensation was profoundly unpleasant, as if his own flesh was coexisting in the same space with the alien’s substance. He felt nausea churn in his belly as his mind struggled to comprehend what was happening, but he also felt the deep throbbing agony of the Cardassian’s wound, barely dulled by the man’s unconsciousness.

He reached out automatically to assess the damage. He perceived the exact parameters of the injury with hyperclarity, measuring it down to the last cell and fragment of tissue. He could see the torn flesh, but more than that, he could sense the infection seething through the weakened body before him. He knew exactly what was happening — and he knew how to repair it.

Lieilii reached past him, through him, and the open wings above glowed with ferocious radiance. They channelled energy from another source down into the wounded body. The brutalized flesh began to knit together. The immune system rallied powerfully, killing bacterial invaders. The lymphatic system began to collect and flush away toxins at a greatly accellerated rate. Utterly effective, and utterly amazing.

It’s not Lieilii controlling this process, Bashir realized with the small part of his mind not focussed on the task at hand. It’s something else entirely. A non-corporeal alien, like the Bajoran Prophets? Something hyperdimensional? That would explain how it know about me, and about Garak. He tried to reach up to it, to make contact, but another wave of sickness shuddered through him with the attempt. He pulled back at once. Obviously not very friendly...

“Concentrate!” Lieilii demanded. Bashir was dimly aware that the Naievirl warrior had slumped forward and sunk down on the bed, apparently unconscious. He’d evaluate his condition later, as soon as this meld was finished. He turned all his attention to the Cardassian, consciously directing his own mental force into the link, and felt the sturdy body before them jump and shudder at the influx of new energy. The healing process was accellerating. There was something heady about it in spite of its profound strangeness, akin to the satisfaction Bashir felt in treating injuries with direct physical contact rather than through the instruments of technology. This was a degree of intimate understanding, both intellectual and intuitive, that he’d never experienced before with any other patient. After this was over he’d be able to find his way around a Cardassian’s abdominal architecture with both eyes closed.

How long it lasted was unclear. Time ceased to have meaning as they dealt with micro- and macro-structures on such a concentrated scale. But at last Bashir looked into the Cardassian’s body and saw clean tissue, a non-infected bloodstream, and all but a few traces of poison flushed clear. The grey skin knit together, closing the final superficial wound. The man was healed, and would recover fully if given the opportunity.

Lieilii removed his hand from Bashir’s face, severing the contact. He snapped back into his own body, the shock of it briefly making him dizzy as he became aware of how sick and weak he truly felt. He blinked to clear his vision and put a hand to his face, feeling the clammy chill of sweat. For an appalling few moments he thought he was going to vomit. Simultaneously he felt utterly exalted by the experience of such a previously unimagined healing technique. It was powerful, immediate — almost godlike.

“Well done!” the miiala said, laying light fingers on his shoulder. “You have earned your life back, and the lives of your friends.”

“I...” He drew a deep shuddering breath, wondering if he’d be able to get back on his feet and how well he’d walk if he managed it. Still amazed, he looked toward the Naievirl warrior, and what he saw brought him immediately back to earth with a crash. The tall warrior was deathly pale and utterly limp, a trickle of dark purplish fluid running from his sharp nose. When Bashir struggled to his feet and went around Lieilii to his side he found that the man’s heart had stopped.

Stunned, Bashir turned his gaze to the old miiala, who was rising with great care. “He’s dead.”

“He sacrificed himself willingly,” Lieilii responded. “The information is worth the price.”

Bashir sank back down onto one knee, disbelieving. He’d just taken part in killing an innocent bystander. “You should have told me this was going to happen!"

“Would it have changed anything significantly?” Lieilii gazed down at him as if from a great height. “You took part in the rite of s’el’iarl to save your friends from being executed. Could you have let them die, knowing that the price of their freedom would be nothing more than a stranger’s life?”

“I’m a doctor,” Bashir snapped. Another wave of dizziness made his head spin. He braced himself against the bed. “I don’t take lives!”

“And you did not,” Lieilii said calmly. “It was my ennialal who drew this man’s eliel’hassier from him and stopped his heart, not you.”

Bashir wanted to close his eyes and bury his face in his hands. How could he make this alien understand that nothing could absolve him of this responsibility? He had taken part in an act of calculated murder. He opened his mouth to speak, to try to explain, and felt a wave of weakness rise up from deep within — too swift and all-encompassing to fight.

In a heartbeat, everything went black.

Chapter Text

The blackness was unfortunately not eternal.

“Wake up, Doctor.” Garak’s silky voice roused him from deep sleep. He cracked open his eyelids to see dim daylight beyond the shadowed space where he lay. He was back inside their tent, wrapped securely in insulating furs. Garak was kneeling beside him, slipping a strong arm under his shoulders and lifting him into a half-sitting position. A cup was placed against his lips. “Drink this.” He accepted a mouthful and found it to be some kind of warm meat broth. He drank it all, his stomach grateful for the nourishment but wanting nothing more substantial. The cup was set aside and he was laid back down on the pillow. A cool hand brushed the fall of tousled hair from his forehead, then slipped down to touch his cheek.

“Sleep now,” Garak instructed softly, and he obeyed without question.

When he awoke again he was alone and it was even darker outside. Dawn or dusk? There was no way to tell for the moment. He lay still with his eyes closed, simply enjoying the physical warmth. He could hear Garak, Aslel and Borik talking in low voices, presumably around the fire, but they were so quiet that he couldn’t make out any words. The sound was as soothing as the trapped heat of his own body. He thought of the broth and his stomach growled audibly, but he still felt weak and wasn’t inclined to try crawling out of his warm bed in search of food.

Memories started to return in fragmentary flashes. Riding draped face-down across a Naievirl saddle, travelling back through the cold moonlit night. The glow of a fire. Being lifted and deposited in someone’s arms, those arms carefully lowering him to the ground, supporting him, protecting him. Garak’s voice, low but with a fierce undercurrent, a dragon’s hiss: What did you do to him? A Naievirl voice responding, but Bashir had already been slipping away again.

And beyond that, in a place he didn’t want to remember, lay a dead Naievirl warrior whose extinguished life was partly his responsibility.

A cold certainty gripped his heart: he would never be able to forget what he’d done, and not merely because of his excellent recall. Yes, it had been necessary; yes, he hadn’t been the one who’d sucked all the eliel’hassier out of the victim like draining a glass of water. But he had made use of the energy thus obtained, and even though his act of violence had been unwitting the fact remained that he’d been a willing participant in the killing. It was something he was going to have to come to terms with on his own: Garak, with his ruthless pragmatism, surely would not understand, and Aslel and Borik were not close enough to be trusted with such truths. Maybe when (when, not if!) he got back to Deep Space Nine he would finally be able to unburden himself to Jadzia. The prospect brought him some small measure of comfort.

Perhaps he dozed again for a while, because suddenly it was full dark. The tent flap was opened, admitting yellow firelight. A shadow knelt at his side and fingertips lightly touched the pulse-point in his throat. He hadn’t heard a single footstep. “So, you’re awake. How are you feeling?”

“Weak.” His voice was frail in his own ears. He coughed and tried again. “But better.”

“Due to Yolin Aslel’s restorative korkal soup, no doubt. Can you sit up?”

He shrugged free of the blankets and attempted to do so, with success. His head was clearer and he felt considerably more lively. “What happened?”

“The Naievirl were considerate enough to deliver you back to us,” Garak replied, “like a package with insufficient postage. You’re none the worse for wear, or so they assured us.”

Bashir rubbed the back of his neck. “I feel like I’ve been in bed for a week.”

“Less than twenty clockturns.” Garak looked him over keenly. “I, for one, am looking forward to hearing all about your little adventure.”

“Let me get to the fire and I’ll tell you all about it.” Bashir’s mind was racing. He couldn’t tell the whole truth, that he’d healed a Cardassian so that he could be tortured by the Naievirl. Aslel didn’t like him as it was and the thought of getting a dagger in the ribs when he least expected it was not appealing, although anything Aslel started Garak would almost certainly finish. He’d have to falsify his account while leaving enough detalls intact to explain the state in which he’d arrived back at the camp. By the time he’d reached the fireside, with Garak following close behind, Bashir had a solid outline prepared for his deception.

Aslel was stirring a pot of hardtack and dried meat gruel and Borik was sitting on one of the logs, already spooning up a plateful of the slop. As Bashir approached the shorter guide nodded at him and continued to eat. Aslel gave him a bitter glance. “You’re up. Took you long enough.”

Bashir sat down on the next log over, Garak coming to rest beside him. “I’m sorry,” he said with a hint of sarcasm, “I’ll try to sleep longer next time. May I have some of that, please? I’m starving.”

Aslel ladled some into a plate, stuck a spoon in it, and passed it to Garak, who passed it to his Human companion. Bashir tucked in without bothering to test the scent of the food on offer: he’d had an identical meal last night. This time, however, it tasted more rich and savoury; evidently Aslel had used his leftover soup as the cooking base. Garak refused a serving of his own and watched carefully while Bashir ate. It reminded Bashir of their many lunches, when the Cardassian had eaten with slow deliberation and looked on in amusement while his friend gobbled down his meals. He didn’t mind being thus observed. It gave him time to put a bit more polish on his story.

“Well?” Borik asked when Bashir finally put down his plate, and offered him a cup of tea.

“Thank you.” He took two cautious mouthfuls of the very warm brew and set the cup at his feet along with the empty plate. He drew a deep breath and leaned his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands between them. “Perhaps you could start by telling me what happened while I was away?”

“Nothing much,” Borik replied. “They kept their bows on us the whole time. Wouldn’t let us so much as scratch our noses. It was as cold as the Eleven Hells, let me tell you, without our coats, but did the Savages care?”

“We’re lucky we didn’t get a dose of nilliea apiece,” Aslel said grimly.

“True,” Borik had to agree. “Anyway, when you came back Garak here went forward to take you off their hands, and they let him get away with it. Then they told us to let you sleep it off — whatever ‘it’ is — and disappeared into the forest again.”

“They wouldn’t have shot you.” Bashir picked up his cup for another sip of tea. Displacement behavior. He tried to keep from blinking too frequently. “I’d done what they wanted, and I’m afraid all your lives were hostage to my good behavior. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that my good behavior was hostage to your lives.”

Garak sounded merely politely curious. “And what, exactly, was it that they wanted you to do?”

“They wanted me to heal an injured member of their tribe.”

Borik looked amazed. “You can heal Savages?”

Garak’s eyes were sharp in his mildly interested expression. He knew that Bashir didn’t have any medical equipment, not so much as a scalpel. Bashir took another deliberate breath. “No, I can’t. Not unless I’m in a mind meld with one of their ash’uarli and using the energy he channelled to repair the damaged tissues.”

Borik was looking puzzled now, and Aslel’s sculpted face bore an expression of lip-curling disgust. “So you patched up a Savage?” the tall guide said coldly. “You really are a fool, aren’t you?”

“I tried to refuse.” Which was perfectly true. “But they threatened to kill you all unless I complied. Under the circumstances it seemed best to do what they asked.”

“So, you healed the Naievirl in question?” Garak asked, his diction a little too precise. To Bashir’s attuned ears it communicated profound disbelief.

He flashed his friend an irritated look. “It was that or have you all shot.”

“And what did they threaten to do to you?

Bashir paused. Blinked. Reviewed his conversation with Lieilii and discovered that at no point had he himself been offered any hint of violence. “I... nothing, now that you mention it.”

Garak nodded slightly, as if that answered a question. What exactly the question was remained a mystery to Bashir, but he was too busy watching the guides to worry about it right now. Borik still looked perplexed, frowning at their Human employer, and Aslel seemed to be discounting everything he said on principle.

“Just what we need,” Aslel muttered, going back to stirring the pot. “A Human hissar playing nursie to a bunch of sick Savages, jumping at their beck and call and healing their bruises with his mind. At this rate we’ll make it to Zio Araga in half a Turning or so.”

“Yolin Aslel does bring up a valid point,” Garak said. “This may have set a nasty precedent. One would think, though, that they’d have healers of their own capable of tending to any wounds that might arise...?”

Another coded statement, reprising the theme of I don’t believe a word you’re saying, Doctor. Bashir shook his head. “I wish I knew why they wanted me in particular. Maybe their own healer had been killed in combat. They didn’t tell me that much.” He could feel Garak’s gaze fixed on his temple and knew that the Cardassian knew that he was lying. He felt like an uncoordinated grade schooler trying to perform a pas assemblé in front of a professional danseur, but he persisted a little further: “I’m sure they won’t be following us, at any rate. And it shouldn’t take long to get far enough away that it won’t be a potential issue any more.”

“I hope you’re right,” Borik said around a mouthful of hardtack gruel. “I didn’t like having those arrows pointed at my neck, let me tell you!”

Bashir reached for his tea again. This time he kept it in his hands after taking a mouthful. “I did manage to accomplish one thing in our favour. I negotiated safe passage for us to Tio Araga, and beyond that to the Temple.”

Aslel’s head shot up, the gruel forgotten. Borik’s eyes grew huge, and he stuttered: “You mean they-they’ll be travelling with us? All the way?”

Mystified by their reaction, Bashir shook his head. “I think they meant that we won’t be attacked by any Naievirl tribes along the route.” He paused. The guides did not look any less alarmed. “Why, is that a problem somehow?”

Aslel bared his teeth. “The only safe way to be noticed by the wild Savages is not to be noticed at all. Now they know we’re coming, and where we’re going. We’ll have arrows aimed at our backs the entire way.”

After a moment Bashir nodded and admitted: “It was a risk I was willing to take for a chance to get to the Temple safely. And besides, if they keep their eyes open they’ll see us anyway. We are using a main road and we’re not exactly trying to hide.”

“But how did they find you?” Borik insisted. “They seemed to know exactly who they were looking for. They even knew you were supposed to be strange looking.”

“I don’t pretend to understand it myself,” Bashir said. Half-true. “But their ash’uar said he had a... familiar, I suppose, that knew I was here and directed the warriors to come straight to this location.”

“A ‘familiar’?” Borik frowned.

“A spirit or animal that helps a magician,” Garak explained. “Go on, Doctor.”

“Exactly. In this case it seemed to be a spirit, almost as if it was whispering things in his ear —”

Borik’s face turned a full shade paler. “So it was a miiala!” he said in great dismay, and made a gesture of tapping his left shoulder three times with the palm of his right hand, his fingers curled inward at the second knuckle. “And his ennialal! You’re lucky you got out of it alive. They suck the blood and breath out of anyone they come across!”

Bashir smiled at him. “He looked like an ordinary little old man to me.” Not true at all, but perhaps the description would alleviate Borik’s apparent fear.

“That’s why you came back like that,” Borik insisted. “He’d been eating your life-force. You’re lucky you lived through it!”

“Yes,” Garak said in a tone Bashir couldn’t read. “Very lucky.”

“Superstitious nonsense,” Aslel scoffed. He dished himself up a plate of gruel and sat down on a log by himself. “They probably slipped you something in the cup of tea you were stupid enough to drink in their camp. I wish you wouldn’t tell such tales, not when I have to sleep through his nightmares afterwards.”

Bashir caught his eyes and looked directly into them. “I am telling you nothing more nor less than the truth,” he said with quiet sincerity. “The miiala tapped into my mind and used my knowledge as a healer to close up the wounds of an injured member of his tribe. That’s what they wanted me for, and they were willing to guarantee us safe passage in return for my services.”

“I thought that they were willing to leave us alive in return for your services?” Garak queried.

Bashir shrugged. “So, I got a two-for-one deal. I’m not about to argue with it.”

“A wise policy,” Garak agreed. “Bargains should never be questioned.” Bashir suddenly wanted to throttle him. If he wasn’t willing to help, why didn’t he just shut up?

“I’m just glad you made it out alive,” Borik said fervently. He shuddered visibly. “A miiala! May I live to be a hundred and never come that close again!”

“Oh, give it a rest,” Aslel muttered. “I’ll be damned glad when we reach the zio and find our next job. This one is too —” A withering look at Bashir. “— annoying for my taste.”

Garak rose and stretched languidly. “Well, Doctor, if you’ve quite finished telling us a bedtime story I think it’s time we turned in. You’re still looking a little pale and I’ve had sufficient excitement for one day myself.”

Bashir felt the tension drain out of his shoulders at the suggestion. His story wasn’t being seriously questioned, and suddenly he was exhausted again. “That’s a good idea. Shall we draw lots for —?”

“You’re out of the running tonight,” Garak said. “And we’ve drawn lots already. I have third watch. Come now, let’s get you taken care of...”

He put one hand behind Bashir’s back as he stood up and guided him toward the tent without actually touching him. Bashir knew what was coming next: it wasn’t hard to foresee, but he didn’t say a word as they got into the tent, took off their coats, rearranged the sleeping pad, straightened the blankets, and slipped underneath them. When they at last lay face to face Garak was silent for a moment, his head cocked, listening intently until Aslel and Borik started conversing again. Then he leaned close to Bashir and caught his waist in a grip of muted iron, pulling him up against him.

“I must say, my dear, that you are a truly abysmal liar.” His whisper was a hiss in his friend’s ear, his tone adamant. “Now, you’re going to tell me all the things you left out of your charming little tale, and I’d advise you to be very thorough.”

Bashir almost pointed out that his performance seemed to have been good enough for the two yolinli; then he briefly considered pleading extreme tiredness, but judged that Garak had probably heard enough imperfect lies for one night. He fixed his gaze on the Cardassian’s left neckridge, put his hands on those broad shoulders, and did as he was asked. He described the moonlight ride, Lieilii, the silent warrior, the dying Cardassian. He recounted the miiala’s request and the terms they’d agreed upon, with the input of the ennialal. He painted as clear a picture as he could of the empathic healing rite of s’el’iarl, although the words to encompass the experience did not come easily. And he relived the death of the Naievirl fighter, drained of eliel’hassier like an empty skin of wine. He sketched his emotional reaction to the murder in as briefly as possible, determined not to call attention to the aspect of the experience he least wanted to talk about... but of course when Garak spoke again after considering the story for a few moments that was exactly what he homed in on.

“What you did was no more reprehensible than killing an enemy soldier in combat,” he said without preamble, his voice still so low that there was no chance of being overheard. “That Naievirl’s death was necessary to accomplish the goal of preventing our deaths. Surely you can see that?”

Bashir had closed his eyes when he began to speak of discovering that the warrior had died from the rite. It was easier to talk about if he didn’t have to face anyone. “I’m not a murderer, Garak,” he insisted, trying to keep the ache of grief and frustration out of his voice. He didn’t want to talk about this; he wanted to lock it away and start forming a protective mental shield around it like an oyster laying down layers of nacre over a painful object. But Garak wasn’t going to let it rest and the only way to get to the end of this interrogation was to plunge through it. “Or at least, I never have been. I took an oath to do no harm, to save lives rather than destroy them. But last night I broke those oaths by —”

“— saving ours,” Garak concluded. He slid one hand up to cup the back of Bashir’s neck, much as he had in the aftermath of the Human’s nightmare two nights previous. “And it was completely unintentional. You didn’t know what was going on behind your back, so to speak. You followed your oaths to the letter — you prevented our deaths and healed that Cardassian soldier. Isn’t that the point?”

“Only so that he could be tortured!” His voice started to rise in anger and he bit it back miserably. He grudgingly yielded to the gentle pressure on the nape of his neck and moved closer to press his face against Garak’s throat. “I healed him knowing that he would be harmed even more as a result. I...” He shook his head, his tense shoulders slumping in defeat. “There’s no way I can reconcile that with what I’m supposed to be. What I always had been, before last night. I know it was the logical thing to do —” He let bitterness leak into his tone. “— the practical thing to do. But the right thing to do? There was no ‘right’ choice, under the circumstances.”

“Ah, Julian.” He bent to press a kiss to the Human’s temple. “There you go again, concentrating on only one aspect of a much larger picture! Tell me, if the three of us had been slain — murdered — by those Naievirl warriors, wouldn’t that have been more harm than the deaths of a single Cardassian and a single Naievirl? Not to mention what they would have done to you, dear heart. Do you really think they would have kept you alive if you hadn’t played along?”

“They never threatened me,” Bashir protested.

“They didn’t have to. I’m sure they could see that you’d choose the lesser harm over the greater, especially if some hyperdimensional entity was involved, able to gaze into that hopelessly idealistic mind of yours,” he noted both wryly and fondly. “The choice was cruel, but you had to choose three lives over one, even if that one turned out to be, in fact, two. The practical thing to do now is to accept the exigencies of the situation and let it go.” He fell silent for a moment. “Tell me, would you have sacrificed the three of us, plus yourself, to save two strangers?”

“Myself? Yes.” Bashir answered without hesitation, then took a deep breath. “But you... no.” His hands slipped around to the back of Garak’s neckridges and gripped with gentle pressure. “I couldn’t. Not you.”

“I’m very pleased to hear it. Oh, I mean that quite sincerely,” he added as Bashir pulled back enough to look at him impatiently. “It’s good to know that I mean more to you than someone you’ve never exchanged a single word with.”

Bashir’s eyes widened. He gazed into Garak’s smiling eyes in the darkness, his heart seeming to swell in his chest as he suddenly comprehended just how much this man did mean to him. His mind flashed back to that wretched implant malfunctioning, to how much Garak’s evasions and attacks and impending death had hurt because —

Because even then, I needed him — his wit, his experience, his guidance. I didn’t want to lose him, because...

Because I adored him.

And I still do. He means more to me than anyone I’ve exchanged any number of words with — possibly ever.

He briefly closed his eyes again, struggling to adjust to the new angle of perception. So this is what it feels like, he thought, amazed, to realize how long you’ve been falling.

Garak cocked his head. “Doctor?”

But to reveal it would certainly not be wise. He met Garak’s gaze again and turned down another track.

“I was just... thinking about what you’ve said.” Which was true enough, after a fashion. “I can’t forget what I’ve done.”

Garak shifted his hand to stroke a broad grey thumb along the line of Bashir’s jaw. “You wouldn’t be who you are if you could.” His voice was a caress. Perhaps the admiration in it was even genuine.

“But you’re right. I couldn’t have made any other choice, and I couldn’t have healed that soldier if Lieilii hadn’t killed that man.” He leaned forward again, letting his forehead come to rest against Garak’s throat once more. “That doesn’t mean that I have to accept it without a murmur of protest.”

Garak settled his chin on the top of Bashir’s head and embraced him fully. “Protest as much as you like. But you did make the correct decision.”

He sighed, wrapping his arm firmly around the Cardassian’s sturdy waist. “I’m starting to think that there isn’t much I wouldn’t do —” A catch in his breath. Surely he could hint at this much. “— when it comes to you.”

“Is that a promise?”

Bashir smiled at the sly element of sexual challenge and answered in kind. “I’ll show you when we get to Zio Araga.”

Garak chuckled softly. “In that case I sincerely hope we don’t suffer any further delays.”

“Not if I can help it.” He let his eyes drift closed and just breathed in the warmth, the closeness. It felt powerful and sensual and bittersweet and dangerous and sheltering. It felt more than worthy of adoration.

In fact, it felt very nearly perfect.

Chapter Text

It was cold dusk on the following day when Aslel rode up to a cave’s wide mouth and emitted his ululating cry, summoning Naievirl slaves to tend their mounts. He did not rein in but instead led his little party inside, up a slight incline into the smokey light cast by two large firepits off to their left. Judging by the long picket lines of o’wnli they’d passed on the approach Bashir estimated that there must be at least fifty or sixty people here already, an impression reinforced by the ambient noise audible from within the cave as they drew near: talking, laughing, a woman’s sweet voice singing a cheerful song about the equivalent joys of new spring wine and her lover’s mouth. Two pre-teen children ran out to get a look at the newcomers, jogging alongside the o’wnli for a few meters before sprinting back inside the cave, shouting boisterously. The overall atmosphere was one of light and comfort and welcome in the heart of the icy wilderness.

But it was the appetizing odours of baking flatbread and hot stew that really captured Bashir’s attention as Garak guided their o’wn through a five-meter-wide cave entrance. His stomach immediately growled appreciatively. Glancing back, he saw that Borik’s face reflected an equal eagerness for something more tasty than dried meat and hardtack gruel after a long day’s travel, and probably a longing for company as well. Cardassians in this society certainly seemed happiest when in a crowd.

A couple of minutes of riding had brought them from the main road to this place, which Lieilii had called the caves of Seoi L’liar but which Aslel referred to as Nargal Tor’iv, a complex of interconnected caverns set deep into a low grey cliff face. Bashir wasn’t surprised to see it so crowded: the road from Zio Tevar’in had guided many travellers this day. Only a few hours after departing the camp where the Naievirl had paid their visit they’d started meeting parties of mounted riders and civilians in carts headed down it in the opposite direction — revellers from the festival of Gart Achor, conversation between Aslel and Borik had revealed, heading back to their home zio’ivli or to Zio Tevar’in itself. In the course of the afternoon they passed thirty-four Cardassians heading south, some travelling alone, some in pairs, some in chattering parties. The parties had seemed quite merry, laughing and singing and passing around skins of what Bashir assumed was some sort of alcohol. Evidently the foreswearing of damaging impulses during Gark Achor didn’t stop anybody from enjoying a little further cheer after the festival was officially over.

Once again Bashir had been the subject of some rather aggressive stares, but he’d remained outwardly impassive while Garak nodded civilly to the travellers on the way past, and soon each set of curious eyes was far behind them. The irritation of knowing that they considered him a slave was gradually becoming less onerous, an adjustment aided by the fact that in a few days he wouldn’t have to endure it any longer. He’d be required to deal with it at Nargal Tor’iv for a single night, then in Zio Araga for however long it took to gather supplies for the final push north. He could handle it gracefully for that long, although he was still waiting for Garak to spring another argumentative attack concerning the virtues of fitting him with a slave collar. If the Cardassian tried it he’d find himself vigorously rebuffed: Bashir had spent part of this day’s travel considering how, and why, the idea irritated him so much, and had come to the conclusion that he just couldn’t stand the prospect of accepting anything that so obviously marked him as being inferior. He might have his self-doubts but he’d be damned if he’d give an entire society an excuse to look down their noses at him. Garak could be as persuasive has he liked and he still wasn’t going to get anywhere on that particular subject...

But Garak hadn’t tried, at least not today, and now they had reached the cave complex where their third evening on the road was to be spent. As three male Naievirl in dull red woven tunics came forward to take hold of the o’wnli’s bridles the slaves had to quickly sidestep another group of children playing tag through the large forefront cavern; laughing, the young Cardassians swerved away and pelted into the side caverns with yells imitating Aslel’s summoning cry. One of them swooped out of formation far enough to grab a piece of flatbread from a woven basket near the cooking fires, and a Naievirl woman clad in the same muted burgundy as the others protested with a half-hearted exclamation as he darted off clutching his prize. More cooking slaves tended pots of the delicious-smelling stew and raw dough cooking on heated stones, while others were setting out piles of bowls and spoons on nearby tables in preparation for the evening meal. Aslel had stated that Nargal Tor’iv was owned by an extended family from a zio’iv further up in the hills and did brisk business serving travellers to and from the festivals, and that Garak and Bashir were fortunate to have undertaken their journey at this time of year, when they could be assured of good food and warm accommodations instead of an otherwise cold and deserted cave for their shelter. Given the enticing scents, Bashir wasn’t inclined to disagree with him.

Once they’d dismounted a Cardassian guard in a red leather tunic took money from Garak for their board while the slaves walked the o’wnli to a spring-fed pool across from the firepits, to water the riding beasts and unload their packs. While they waited for the luggage to be prepared for transport to the cavelet they’d rented Aslel engaged the guard in his usual cut-and-thrust style of conversation, which the guard seemed to regard as a form of friendly sparring.

“So, Nirak,” Aslel snapped, “still riding the garlak to its nest, are you?”

If that was an insult, Bashir couldn’t tell it from the stranger’s jovial reaction. “Every night, you old hound!” He reached out and clouted Aslel on the shoulder, which provoked a thin smile.

“Glad to hear it, just as long as you don’t try those tricks with me.”

Nirak looked wounded. “Would I do that to you?”

“You’d do it to your own mother,” Aslel observed dryly.

“Maybe I would! Maybe I would.” Amused, Nirak turned his attention to the newcomers to Nargal Tor’iv, his gaze taking in Bashir with particular interest but no especial malice. “Who are your friends?”

“No friends of mine,” Aslel replied, “but Garak here has exceptionally deep pockets, which is good enough for me.” His gaze flicked to Bashir and dismissed him before he turned his attention back to Nirak. “So what —”

Garak interposed smoothly. “And this is my colleage, Julian Bashir, a healer from parts south.”

Nirak was still looking the Human over thoroughly. “Far enough south to be off the edge of the world, I’m guessing. We’ve never seen anything like you here before, but your silver is good enough for us if it’s a true measure.”

“It is,” Garak assured him.

“So he’s not a slave?” Nirak addressed this to Garak.

“No,” Bashir said firmly, “I’m not.”

“Strange people indeed, from the south,” Nirak commented, then looked to Aslel again. “There’ll be time enough for news later — here come the boys with your luggage. Old Fiella will see to your comfort. Here’s a lantern, Garak — your room’s down that passage, look for the yellow circle crossed by a red slash. There’s bedding on a shelf. You’ll want to picket your own mounts, Aslel? Of course you do, of course you do. I still remember that o’wn you rode in here half-dead, what, three Turnings back?”

Aslel sniffed, then turned to Garak. “Be sure to lay out our own bedding — only a fool would sleep in public blankets and furs.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Garak replied earnestly. He glanced back at the slaves lining up with the o’wn’s packs slung over their narrow shoulders, then nodded to Bashir. “Shall we, Doctor...?”

He led the way down a short rough-hewn corridor past two other cave entrances. Each was covered by a leather curtain painted with a specific symbol, but the voices of the occupants within were clear to be heard. Reaching a curtain bearing the yellow circle crossed with a bar of red, he lifted it to one side and stepped through, holding it open for Bashir, who in turn held it open for the slaves carrying the packs. The rocky alcove revealed by the flickering glow of the lantern’s flame was three meters wide and about five meters deep, and the slaves at once conveyed the leather luggage to its far end and laid it in two rows, one against each wall, keeping the packs from each o’wn separate. A shelf to one side bore a streak of soot above it, rising toward the rough ceiling; Garak deposited the lantern there, then stood back to supervise the Naievirl’s work.

The room was very chilly but had a low iron brazier set in the middle of it, holding perhaps half a liter of what might have been charcoal or some sort of combustible rock. The oldest Naievirl present, a grey-feathered female with one eye clouded by a cataract — Fiella, Bashir guessed — did not help with the packs; instead she opened a thick leather tube she’d been carrying at her belt and knelt to carefully decant a hot coal on top of the coals already in the brazier. With a long iron tool she skillfully worked it down under its brethren and then rose to her feet, turning to Garak and bobbing her head submissively.

“A half clockturn, irav, and the room will be warmed to your liking. How else may we serve you?”

“You’ve done quite enough.” Garak’s face bore a cold and commanding expression Bashir had never seen there before. He gestured toward his Human companion. “As you can see, I have a servant of my own. You are dismissed.”

The Naievirl woman headbobbed again and crossed her wrists respectfully, then led the other slaves out, each of them offering Garak the same salute. When the curtain fell closed behind them Bashir unleashed a glare. “You enjoyed that.”

“Well.” The imperious look lasted a second longer before breaking into a wicked smirk. “Perhaps just a little.”

There was an argument to be had there, but Bashir found himself not terribly interested in pursuing it. That smile sent delicious heat through him that had nothing to do with the brazier, an escalation of the sexual hunger he’d been suppressing ever since that incandescent night above the inn’s stable.

“You know,” he remarked, starting to open his coat and walking slowly across toward his friend, “I can’t help but notice two very important things about this room.”

“Really?” A quirk of an eyeridge. Garak remained where he was, apparently not at all perturbed by Bashir’s predatory approach. “Please, enlighten me.”

“For one thing,” Bashir continued, holding his gaze, “we’re alone.”

A trace of a smile. “How very observant of you. And?”

“And,” Bashir concluded, sliding up close to Garak’s chest and dropping his tone to a murmur both inviting and demanding, “the light in here is actually quite good.”

The eyeridge became even more skeptical. “We haven’t even laid out the bedrolls yet.”

Bashir smiled and set his surgeon’s fingers to opening Garak’s coat in turn. “That wouldn’t take long to remedy.”

“Perhaps not.” His hands slipped inside Bashir’s open coat and slid around his narrow waist, lingering on the small of his back. “However...” He tilted his head a little to one side and glanced sidelong toward the curtain, indicating the voices still audible from the neighboring caves.

Bashir smiled more widely. Garak’s look became one of gentle exasperation. “Quite the exhibitionist, aren’t you?”

“I’ve been exceptionally good for three whole days.” He leaned forward and nibbled at the line of subtle scales adorning Garak’s chin. The Cardassian’s coat was halfway open now and Bashir’s whole body was on fire for closer contact. Between bites he purred: “And I still owe you... for your very kind assistance... back at Cheldar Nor’iv...”

“And to think I once considered you so innocent,” Garak mused, his grip on Bashir’s back tightening fractionally. Bashir wasn’t fooled by the pretence of wistfulness.

“Oh, I still need your guidance.” The last fastener yielded to his touch and he reached inside, taking firm hold of Garak’s waist and stepping right up against him. The heat in his body flared eagerly. “In fact,” he breathed against Garak’s lips, “I’m sure there are all sorts of things you can teach me that have nothing to do with Cardassian literature.”

The kiss was slow and deep and full of three days’ worth of frustration — on both sides, to judge by the intensity of the response. When it was over Bashir was panting softly, his arms fully around Garak’s waist, and Garak’s grip on him was just as powerful. He could feel the Cardassian’s penis everting, sliding out along his own hardened length, and found the sensation wildly exciting. Pressing forward, he discovered that Garak was willing to permit himself to be pushed up against the wall and kissed again — for a few seconds. In some sort of combat move so swift that Bashir scarcely knew what was happening Garak threw him off-balance and reversed their positions: now he was the one whose back was slammed to the wall, and the forceful efficiency of the manouver only excited him more. He’d been carefully handled during their last encounter, and that had been marvellous, but a bit of roughness — or a lot of it, his libido whispered — had its own lustful appeal.

Garak wasn’t kissing him. He leaned forward, offering his mouth again. Garak thwarted him by leaning in even closer, pressing his cheek against Bashir’s to speak softly into his left ear: “Patience is a virtue, my dear Doctor. Rest assured that I will encourage your natural talents in ways you can scarcely imagine — all in good time.” A cool tonguetip flickered against the little patch of sensitive skin where Bashir’s jaw joined his neck, the reptilian caress making Bashir’s already aching cock leap with new urgency. “For the moment, however...” His left hand slid down to curve possessively around Bashir’s right buttock, grey fingers stroking him in a way that was utterly maddening: in particular, the way his forefinger pressed suggestively into the gluteal cleft made Bashir writhe and thrust forward, hardness against hardness. “Sufficient light, I will admit, but alas! Insufficient privacy.”

He let go and stepped back, putting a full pace of distance between them so suddenly that Bashir was left spread to the wall, panting and gaping. The Cardassian’s smile was almost kind. He reached out and placed a curved finger under Bashir’s chin to close his open mouth. “In Zio Araga we will find a comfortable room with a nice, warm, large bed,” he said gently. “We will rent it for two full nights. And then, my a’latli, I will show you what desire and passion really mean.”

Bashir groped for words through the haze of lust. What eventually came out was a low moan: “You’re a bastard, Garak.”

“No, Doctor, merely practical.” He removed his hand and smiled brightly, clearly enjoying the sight of Bashir reduced to near-incoherence. “Now shake off your fit of pique and give me a hand with the bedrolls, won’t you? And then we’ll see about having a hot dinner.”

He walked away toward the packs, leaving Bashir to knock the back of his head against the wall and close his eyes and count very slowly to ten, all the while thinking of how good it would feel to release his frustration in a fine long yell — or perhaps a scream, articulating his displeasure in excruciating and outraged detail. In the end he sighed and pushed himself upright and went to help Garak with the bedrolls, as so politely requested. The Cardassian had always had a habit of giving him mental whiplash; why should things be any different now?

But after we get to Zio Araga, my plain and simple friend... He glanced sidelong at Garak across the brazier as they laid down the bedpads, admiring the economical grace of his most commonplace movements. I promise you, I won’t be the only one who’s screaming. If Garak noticed the speculative and predacious quality of his smile, he gave no outward sign.

Ah, well — if he couldn’t persuade his lover to indulge the restless heat in his flesh, he could at least steal a few moments of private conversation. “What was that you were saying about The Never-Ending Sacrifice?”

“Hm?” Garak finished smoothing out the pad and started unfolding the first grey woolen blanket.

“You said, and I quote: It has everything to do with the subject at hand!

“Which was...?”

Bashir opened one of Aslel’s blankets with a harder flick of his wrists than necessary. “Ballad Forty-Seven, and what you’ve been trying to tell me for... how long has it been, anyway?”

“Too long,” Garak noted both wryly and enigmatically. “Yes... Noral was the author of many fine pieces of Cardassian literature, but The Never-Ending Sacrifice was undoubtedly his greatest achievement. His other works, which included —”

“Garak? The subject at hand?”

Garak deftly smoothed the last of the creases out of the woolen throw. "I thought you enjoyed these discussions.”

“I do when you’re not haring off in a completely unrelated direction.”

He shook his head. “Nothing is ‘unrelated’, Doctor. Now, are you going to let me finish?”

“I’d rather you got to the point.”

“I certainly hope you’re not this impatient when it comes to other matters in your life, although experience suggests otherwise.” He unfolded a second blanket, this one striped with black and yellow. “Very well. Do you remember the character of Glinn Bessar?”

“How could I forget? He was one of the few characters in the book who actually did anything.”

“And do you recall his crime against his family’s honor?”

Bashir reached for the yolinli’s second blanket. “He chose to side with the Tekora faction rather than follow his father’s orders to back the family’s political interests.” Garak waited patiently until he looked up, frowning slightly. “And?”

“And...?” Garak was giving him another look Bashir knew well: Oh come now, Doctor, surely you can figure this out! With a moment’s thought he recalled every detail of Bessar’s part of the narrative to mind and turned them around, looking for the interpretation Garak was getting at. Slowly he said: “And he was treated horribly — not least of all by the author — because he dared to claim that devotion to the State was not the greatest possible...”

He fell silent.

“Very good,” Garak said softly. He reached for the first fur and spread it neatly atop the blankets.

Bashir looked at him for a long moment. “But... I thought you hated Bessar’s wrongheadedness.”

“Taking that viewpoint certainly made for a rousing argument, didn’t it?” Indeed it had. He and Garak had spent two whole lunches debating Bessar’s lack of proper Cardassian feeling. “And the dear Glinn is, indeed, a classic example of political pathology,” Garak continued. “You did find him the most interesting character in the book though, did you not?”

“Because he was the most interesting character in the book.”

“Or, from a Cardassian point of view, the most misguided. His impetuousness threatened his family with ruin.”

Quietly Bashir said: “But you don’t have a family.”

“Don’t I?” That mocking smile Bashir also knew so well, the one that suggested he knew absolutely nothing of consequence. “No matter. The fictional Glinn Bessar paid the proper price for his folly.”

The blanket lay forgotten in Bashir’s hands. “He was disowned and exiled, and the story went on to its predictable and boring conclusion.”

“Tell me, Doctor... did you ever find yourself wondering whatever became of Bessar afterwards?”

“Not particularly.”

“Well, neither do Noral’s native readers.” He finished spreading the final fur and rose to his feet. “The disowned and the exiled cease to exist as far as Cardassian society is concerned. They become the adult equivalent of the orphans you saw on Bajor, with no status and no legal standing. All they can do is hope that whatever their crime, whatever their weakness, whatever their failings, what they’ve lost is ultimately less valuable than what they’ve gained.” He indicated Bashir’s work on Aslel and Borik’s bedroll. “Finish with the furs, Doctor, and we’ll see about that stew whose smell you found so enticing.”

Bashir stared up at him, unmoving. “And is what you’ve gained worth it, Garak?”

The Cardassian offered a condescending smile. “One mustn’t read too much into literary analogies.”

After a moment Bashir nodded. “I see.” He went back to his task, mentally reviewing the exchange, turning it to look at it from different angles. Did he see? Garak had turned the use of shadows and mirrors into an art form; Bashir could only hope that he was concealing bits of truth in the shifting aspects he presented. He wasn’t going to figure it out in the next few minutes, or maybe even in the next few days, but he could put it on the back burner to simmer while he went about the business of living on this cold and benighted planet.

What he thought he saw, though, made his heart beat a little faster all over again.

Chapter Text

The last three days had been full of revelation after revelation, shock after emotional shock. By the time he’d finished arranging Aslel and Borik’s bedding Bashir was more than willing to put aside the task of pondering Garak’s intentions, implications and insinuations. After all, he had another full day of riding ahead with nothing to do but think: time enough for more analysis tomorrow. All he knew for certain was that the Cardassian was weaving a tapestry in front of him — no, around him, like layers of elaborate smoke — of daunting complexity, but how much he was trying to reveal and how much he was trying to conceal remained a mystery.

As Garak extended a hand to help him to his feet, then walked ahead of him back to the main cavern, Bashir couldn’t help himself: his mind kept coming back to the word a’latli, and Ballad Forty-Seven of The Fall From Shadows, and whether he could trust the evidence of his own senses. He almost shook his head. Let it go, at least for tonight. Just enjoy what this experience has to offer. Not sexual fulfillment, unfortunately, but there was something to be said for the delicious tension of waiting. Certainly he’d had enough practice with enduring that while pursuing Jadzia, so many nights of lying awake fantasizing about touching her and kissing her and telling her at length how much he wanted her, without being interrupted as if he were a presumptuous child. In the first weeks of attraction his need for her had robbed him of sleep and sometimes of the desire to eat properly or give his full attention to those around him. It had been a full-blown crush, neither rational nor, at times, particularly healthy.

This felt completely different. Yes, he was surrounded by dancing smoke, but the scent of it seemed to ground him; the desire that filled him was not high-pitched and flighty, filling him with nervous tension, but deep and solidly rooted in his flesh, anchoring him to something that felt inexplicably balanced beneath his feet. He sensed that it might be capable of doing things to him he couldn’t imagine yet, but he did not think it would let him fall. No... Garak would certainly lead him down some paths that were dark and some that were confusing, but ultimately they would, perhaps, all come back to the same place: his eyes, his smile, that word...

Don’t think about it. He accepted a bowlful of stew from a Naievirl woman and followed Garak to a square of logs set against the wall, still lost in thought. It took him a moment to realize that Garak had seen Borik and Aslel and gravitated in the yolinli’s direction. Borik was eating with his usual gusto, barely pausing for a smile and a nod before returning his attention to his dinner. Aslel was much more easily distracted. As Garak and Bashir sat down a few feet away on the next log over he lowered his spoon and said grimly: “Bad news from the north.”

“Indeed?” Garak settled himself and tasted a small spoonful of the stew. His expression indicated pleasant surprise.

“There are troops heading up from Zio Araga,” the tall guide continued, talking right past the male and female couple between them; the couple seemed engrossed in their own dinners but were listening with interest. “Word is that the Naievirl have taken the Temple of the Distant Towers.”

“Taken it?” Garak sounded surprised. “Completely? Now that’s a feat I’d pay good money to see! Surely dismantling it alone must have been —”

“I’m serious,” Aslel snapped. “This is serious!” The couple was now watching them as if they were following a tennis match.

Bashir tried a mouthful of stew and found that it had some sort of dried fruit in it along with the meat. The resulting taste was something like duck a l’orange. He applied himself to eating it slowly, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees to observe the sparring between the tailor and the yolin. Borik appeared to be ignoring the entire conversation.

“I’m sure you are,” Garak said politely. “But you’ll have to be a bit more specific than that.”

Aslel snarled. “Surely the southern dialects can’t be that different from our own, tiora borskk.” He leaned closer, speaking with great and insulting precision. “Savage warriors have overrun the Temple and driven out the ash’uar, who came running down to Zio Araga with their tails between their legs. That was a tenday ago. Two hundred troops under a halfbreed legate called Pondra headed back up a fiveday ago to to take it back.”

Bashir frowned, thinking of his agreement with Lieilii. If they were headed into a war zone, any guarantee of safe passage might be null and void. If Garak had similar doubts he gave no sign. “That’s very interesting, Yolin Aslel. Thank you so much for the intelligence.” He went back to eating his stew with every indication of nonchalance.

Borik spoke up. Evidently he had been paying attention after all. “Do you want to head back? This could set the northern Savages on fire. They haven’t attacked Zio Araga in fifty Turnings — but that doesn’t mean they won’t.”

“Are there that many of them?” Bashir asked. The alarms that his conversation with Lieilii had quelled were starting to sound again.

“A lot more than there are down here,” Borik replied through a mouthful of stew. He swallowed before continuing: “Zio Araga drove them back the last time they tried it, but who knows what could happen if they tried again?”

Bashir shook his head. “We don’t have a choice. We’ve got to get to that temple.”

“Why?” Aslel queried aggressively. This time his gaze met Bashir’s directly, his green eyes gleaming. “There’s nothing there but an ancient artifact that the ash’uar won’t let anybody see.”

“Perhaps we appreciate fine architecture,” Garak suggested.

“Or you’re insane,” Aslel said bluntly. “Or up to something that the ash’uar wouldn’t like.”

The couple seemed enthralled. Bashir decided it was time to cut this line of inquiry off at the pass. “Surely we wouldn’t have received the full support of Trivor Xerxex if we were doing anything illegal?” He made it sound like a question but accompanied it with the best look of cold warning he could muster.

Aslel laughed low in his throat, clearly unimpressed. “Trivorli have been known to run counter to the ash’uar more than once.”

“What a pity he isn’t here to ask,” Garak purred. Now there was an example of a threat couched in gentleness: Bashir wasn’t even the focus of it and he could still feel frost forming on his spine from the look Garak was directing at Aslel. “As it stands, all you know for certain is that Trivor Xerxex found our journey worthy of his aid. And that he might be quite displeased to discover that a yolin was inclined to skulk around behind his back sabotaging his efforts.”

“You’ll never make it back alive if you head north from Zio Araga,” Aslel said quietly. He was capable of projecting plenty of menace of his own. “Xerxex will never know for certain what happened to you.”

“He will, however, receive a message from us from the zio, as prearranged.” Bashir didn’t recall any such arrangement, but Garak certainly wasn’t above making one up and selling its existence with consummate skill, to discourage any ideas the yolin might be getting about betraying them in some fashion. “A message from one of his personal contacts, a man who will ensure that we’re well on our way before informing the good trivor that we’re safely embarked on the last stage of our journey.” He smiled one of those smiles that looked like a dagger between the ribs. “I’d be more than happy to put in a good word for you. After all, you’ve been so very helpful to us at every stage of this venture.”

For a few seconds the two men simply looked at each other. The couple glanced back and forth between them, apparently not daring to move anything but their eyes. Bashir found himself holding his breath. Only Borik continued to eat placidly. Perhaps Aslel got into arguments like this with every employer they’d ever had.

In the end it was Aslel who looked away first, down at his bowl with a grumble and a sneer. “It’s your bird-pecked corpses,” he said nastily. “And it’ll serve you right.”

“I’m sure we’ll get exactly what we deserve,” Garak agreed. He returned to his dinner without further comment, and so did Bashir. His heart was softly pounding again. He felt like he was sitting next to a recumbent tiger with blood still wet on its claws.

Aslel finished his stew quickly and departed, shoving his dirty bowl and spoon into the hands of a passing Naievirl female as he headed for an obvious group of yolinli gathered closer to the spring-fed pool. Borik emitted a little sigh and glanced after him before turning to Bashir and Garak. “He’s right, you know. Heading north from Zio Araga is suicide.”

“Our love for beautiful buildings knows no bounds,” Garak asserted mildly, now looking perfectly harmless. “We simply cannot resist the opportunity to see the Temple at this time of year.”

The shorter guide looked hopeful. “You won’t even wait a quarter Turning?”

“I’m sorry,” Bashir said. “We simply can’t.”

Borik shook his head mournfully and got to his feet. “I think I’ll go join Aslel,” he said regretfully. He nodded to them both, then to the couple. “Warmth and safe haven to you all.”

Bashir watched him leave, then turned to find the couple looking at him with obvious fascination. He frowned at them questioningly, but when the male spoke it was to Garak. “Your slave doesn’t have a collar.”

“I’ve never been able to find one that doesn’t chafe his pretty neck.” Garak smiled. He turned an admiring eye on Bashir. “And you must admit, it’s really one of his most charming features.”

If looks could truly kill, Bashir would have found himself sitting beside a very dead Cardassian tailor.




He sat on the balcony of her apartment, looking out over the ancient city that modern architecture had barely touched. She sat across a small wrought-iron table from him, her delicate hands clasped lightly in his. She had always been so graceful, so exquisitely beautiful, and so devastatingly intelligent. Tall frosted glasses stood beside them: iced tea with lemon, her favorite drink in warm weather.

Looking into her smile, he felt like he could bury himself in it and live thus happily for eternity. He had loved her so much. Had. This was the memory of passion, not the truth.

“You loved me less than you loved Starfleet,” she said in her softly accented voice, so melodious that it broke his heart. “That is the truth, Julian.”

“Palis...” Her name on his lips was almost a prayer. She leaned forward and silenced him with a kiss.

“That is not the name you should be speaking.” She smiled sorrowfully, but there was a warm light in her green eyes even through the weight of dead history between them. “Not when you have never contacted me, not once, in three long years. If —”

“If only I knew how I’ve hurt you,” he whispered. Oh, they had always finished each other’s sentences. But this time she smiled more cheerfully and shook her sleek head, its close-cropped raven hair like a jaunty cap.

“You made your choice,” she murmured. “Your dear friend — Miles? — was right. Life is a matter of choices.” She freed one slender hand to caress his cheek. “And sometimes life chooses us, and all we can do is follow the current where it takes us.”

“Sometimes...” He remembered that conversation, the words of wisdom from his dying friend. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and I think to myself: Will I ever find anyone as wonderful as you again?”

“Someone found you, Julian.” Her fingers were cool against his skin. “A monster found you, out in your wild frontier. But even monsters can be transformed.”

“By love?” he asked, looking deep into her verdant eyes.

“Perhaps.” She kissed him again, her smile delighted. “Or maybe it’s simply an appreciation for beauty. The question is, do you have the courage to look through the mirror?” Now she was teasing, referencing old fairy tales. Before he could think about it too much she got to her feet, raising him up with the fragile irresistible grip of her little hand. “Come, ma cher... once more, one last time. For old time’s sake.”

He took her inside to the bed that had always smelled of lavender and her skin. He made love to her, losing himself in her softness and strength. And he was happy.

In the darkness of the cave he awoke quietly, feeling joyous, to the cool embrace of male arms and the spicier scent of alien skin. He lay silent for a long time with his head on Garak’s shoulder, listening to him breathing slowly and deeply in his sleep. He thought of the tale La Belle et la Bête, and resolved that someday he’d have to introduce Garak to Grimm’s Fairy Tales; it would be fascinating to see how he interpreted such archetypical Human themes of abandonment, sacrifice, love, and dragons who at the last moment turned into princesses.

When Bashir closed his eyes again he was still smiling. His last coherent thought was: There's nothing to be transformed, unless the change has happened already. I wouldn't have him any other way.

This time sleep came without dreams, or at least none that he remembered in the morning.

Chapter Text

The end of another day’s travel brought them within sight of ranks of jagged hundred-meter-high cliffs running east to west for a full kilometer, with a city wider than Zio Tevar’in spread out along their base. The oblique red glow of the setting sun poured radiance like blood over the distant scene. A narrow gleaming river clear of ice wound down into the zio from the southwest and flowed through the heart of the city to disappear through a rift in the soaring stone face, some of its waters diverted into a broad moat that bordered the settlement. The water defense was crossed by three widely spaced bridges that led to heavily gated guard towers set in a wall of thick stone that looked like it had been built to keep an army at bay. The surrounding land was more open than any Bashir had seen thus far and dotted with widely spaced cottages, barns and small herds of animals: cultivated fields, he guessed, now lying fallow during the winter months.

Aslel indicated it with a sweeping theatrical gesture as they crested the top of a hill, his tall angular mounted form edged with sunset fire. “Zio Araga,” he intoned in what Bashir had come to think of as his Professional Yolin Voice, “the last stronghold of the North, home to one of the ships that sailed the stars. The gates are closed at sundown.” He pointed at a large cottage and barn complex perhaps half a kilometer ahead, its chimney emitting a trail of smoke that gleamed in the last light of day. “We will spend the night at Etarr Nor’iv and complete our journey in the morning.”

Bashir estimated they would have to descend at least fifteen meters in elevation to reach the zio, but the road was wide and sloped gently between the empty fields. It was also deserted, which struck him as odd so close to a major city. He softly said as much in Garak’s ear as their o’wn continued toward the inn: “It’s rather quiet, isn’t it?”

“Not at all, Doctor,” Garak murmured back, “when you consider that there’s an armed conflict happening less than three days’ travel away.” With his gloved left hand he indicated the other cottages dotted amid the fields, most producing their own markers of smoke. “Frankly I’m surprised to see anyone left out here. I’d have expected them all to have retreated inside the city walls.”

The herds of animals were of a heavily furred type Bashir hadn’t seen before and were all grouped close to the houses. “Maybe they didn’t want to leave their livestock behind.”

“Given the choice between one’s cattle and one’s life...” Garak shrugged eloquently. “Or perhaps they know something we don’t know — yet.”

Bashir nodded. News — any news — would be welcome. He fell silent, but tightened his arms a little around Garak’s waist and was rewarded with that gloved hand laid lightly on his right forearm for a moment before returning to the reins. The brief pressure made him shiver and move even closer, and marvel again that he didn’t have an award-winning case of vasocongestion after four days of denial. Garak’s outward composure, uncrackable, would almost have been enough to make him think that his lust was unrequited if it hadn’t been for that devouring kiss they’d shared back in Nargal Tor’iv and the sensation of a Cardassian erection everting as a result.

He permitted himself a slight smile that Garak couldn’t see: Oh, my dear friend, how I’m going to enjoy making you lose control... I may be new to this game, but I think I can manage a few tricks that will make you roar before I’m done with you. Did all Cardassian males make that lovely primal sound at the height of passion? As a scientist Bashir was curious to find a representative sample; as a man, he really only cared about one particular case.


A couple of hours later Garak was indeed roaring — but not from anything even vaguely resembling a sexual climax.

“Not bad,” Borik observed when the Cardassian tailor was finished, “but not quite right. Here, let me do it again —”

He threw back his fine-featured head and loosed a howling rumble that thrummed deep in his chest and then faded to a simmering growl, finishing with a flourish of a whimper. This time other patrons in their section of the common room at Etarr Nor’iv didn’t look up from their drinks or their conversation. Garak leaned a little closer, listening with great interest.

“Ah! I see now. Like this —” He cleared his throat, drew a deep breath, and imitated Borik’s vocalization with considerably more accuracy. The sound seemed to vibrate in Bashir’s bones until it trailed off and was lost in the general background noise of the inn.

Borik grinned. “Much better! You’ll scare off any grok’ar that braves the fire for sure with that one!” He turned to where Bashir was sitting at their little table for four. “You try it too, Bashir.”

Bashir smiled and shook his head. “I don’t think I have the same vocal equipment as you do.” Aslel, about to take a mouthful of ale from his tankard, rolled his eyes in a way that clearly signified that Bashir lacked anything worth having.

“Come now, Doctor!” Garak chided, his blue eyes gleaming in the light of the lantern mounted on the wall above them. “If we become separated you’ll have to take care of yourself out there in the wilds. Would you like to hear it again?”

“Please.” Not least because it makes you sound like you’re already coming apart under my hands...

Garak tipped his head back and roared again, this time putting more vibrato into it. By the time he was finished chills were racing over Bashir’s skin. He smiled innocently, his eyes alight, for all the world as if he didn't fully realize the effect he was having, and gestured for his Human friend to have a go.

Bashir cleared his own throat, sat well back in his chair, inhaled deeply, and did his best. Compared to the Cardassian males his vocalization sounded thin and flat. He looked around at them and shrugged apologetically.

“Not... bad,” Borik said carefully. “It might work if the grok’ar wasn’t very hungry...”

“The good Doctor lacks the variak organ in the upper chest,” Garak explained. “Sadly, he probably isn’t capable of accurately reproducing a grok’ar’s cry.”

Bashir gave him an exhasperated look. “If you knew that, why did you ask me to try?”

“One never knows until one tries.” Garak took a sip of his ale, his gaze full of secret meaning. Bashir found himself smiling back in spite of his annoyance. “Ah, well. Perhaps we can find a device in the zio that will make up for the lack.”

“There are grok’ar callers — made for women,” Aslel said with a surprising amount of cattiness for a reptilian humanoid. He glanced across the room. “Oh look, more trouble. Perhaps one of us will actually manage to get stabbed in the back tonight.”

Bashir turned to look and saw a Cardassian female approaching their table, her gaze fixed on Aslel in particular. She was tall and well rounded at breast and hip, and dressed in some of the finest clothes Bashir had seen thus far on this planet: what looked like silk in angular patches of red and royal blue, the seams daintily trimmed with white fur. He noticed that Garak was appraising her closely, no doubt with a tailor’s eye. Two tall males followed her, each bearing a shortsword on his hip not unlike those worn by Aslel and Borik but with more elaborate scabbards. Each wore a brown tunic over his leather armor, emblazoned with a heraldic symbol: a five-petalled white flower with a crown above it and a silver chain encircling both.

The woman smiled warmly as she came within conversational range. “Warmth and safe haven to you, travellers.” Her voice was as beautifully modulated as Garak’s.

“Warmth and safe haven, mistress,” Borik responded, but his eyes were darting sharply over the details of the armed warriors. He pushed his chair back a little — enough, Bashir noted, to make drawing his own sword easier.

“I am Esa Kassar,” she informed them with a little incline of her head, “agent for the Hassarl market at Zio Tevar’in.” She indicated Bashir with a wave of her elegant grey hand. “I couldn’t help but notice your slave. To my knowledge nothing so exotic been ever been seen in the inventory of Hassarl House. Pray tell, where did you find him?”

“In a zio’iv far to the south of Zio Ferrasa,” Garak said at once, “where he’d been captured after a party consisting of others of his kind attempted to raid the village. And you’re quite right: nothing like him had ever been seen before. He’s a warrior and a healer, and very good at keeping his pretty mouth shut. He won’t tell anyone where his species comes from and I’m reluctant to damage his delicate hide by beating it out of him.”

“I see.” Kassar stepped forward and glanced at Garak for permission. He nodded, and she took Bashir’s chin in hand. Bashir opened his mouth to protest and was promptly kicked under the table by both Garak and Aslel. Remembering the mayhem at Cheldar Nor’iv, he closed it again and let the Cardassian woman turn his head to one side, then the other, as she studied his physiognomy. “Indeed... very tender skin, and no protective scales at all. He’s a warrior, you say?”

“Among other things.” Garak smiled pleasantly. Bashir, who was looking right at him with his head angled by the woman’s touch, let his eyes flash fire and received a look of warning in return, there and gone so quickly that surely Kassar hadn’t seen it. “Tell me, is there a reason why you’re so interested in handling my property?”

“I’ll pay you double whatever you paid for him.”

Borik’s eyes widened. Garak simply looked amused. “I’m sorry, but I’m not interested in selling him.”

“Three times, then.”

“My dear woman.” He leaned forward a little, still smiling, but his eyes became forbiddingly cold. “There isn’t enough money in your House’s coffers to persuade me to part with him. I’m afraid you’re doomed to disappointment.”

Kassar turned Bashir to face her fully and bent closer, studying his eyes. Bashir met her gaze unwaveringly. “He’s bold,” she said softly. “He needs to be broken. And you let him walk around uncollared?”

“I’ve never found one that doesn’t chafe his throat.” The ice had reached Garak’s voice now. “And his... willfulness is part of his charm.”

“If you like a certain sort, I suppose.” She released Bashir’s chin and rose to her full height. “What a pity you won’t sell him. Still, you’ve revealed to me that a new kind of slave species exists in the world. Such good fortune should not go unrewarded.” She held out her left hand and one of her guards placed something in it. “A gift, tiora borskk. The velvet will be gentle on his dainty hide, I promise you. May I put it on him?”

Bashir stared at the narrow delicate silver collar she held out for Garak’s inspection, its intricate filigree backed by a band of soft burgundy fabric. He looked to Garak in horror and found the Cardassian actually snarling.

“Do you really think,” Garak said, his voice a glacial hiss, “that I am foolish enough to wear your House’s mark on my slave?”

Kassar gazed back at him, unperturbed. “No disrespect was —”

“At the very least,” Garak continued as if she had not spoken, “I would expect to be recompensed for giving you free advertising.” He deigned to glance at the collar, a brief flicker of his eyes the equivalent of striking it out of her hand. “Take that away,” he said contemptuously, “and yourself with it. We have nothing further to discuss.”

Bashir expected a few possible reactions to such a rebuff, including anger, threats or another attempt at negotiation. To his surprise, Kassar smiled as if Garak had just exceeded her wildest expectations.

“Very well,” she murmured, running her eyes over Garak’s face and body — hungrily, Bashir realized. It was hard to tell in the dim light, but he thought that her neckridges, visible above the collar of her tunic, were darker than they’d been when she’d approached the table initially. Dear God, he realized, she’s sexually aroused. He looked to Garak again and was relieved to see that Garak did not appear to be experiencing a similar degree of attraction... although of course Garak could be having a meltdown and he’d still look as cool as a glass of denairil tea.

Their eyes were still locked, and after a moment Kassar smiled more widely. She reached down without looking away and laid a cool grey hand on Bashir’s shoulder, caressing his trapezius muscle through the linen. “If you ever tire of this slave, irav, you’ll find that my offer is still open.” The heat in her gaze made it clear that the offer was of several kinds and that the term “open” was not a mere figure of speech. “Warmth and safe haven to you, wherever the road may take you.”

She turned, nodding to her guards, and made her way back to her own table in the next room over.

Aslel released a short hissing breath as she disappeared through the archway. Borik’s relaxation was so dramatic as to be almost comical. “Great Gart, Garak — do you know who that was?”

“No one of consequence,” Garak said flatly, and took a sip of ale. Bashir joined him, feeling like he needed to wash Kassar’s touch from his skin.

“She’s an agent for the largest family of slave traders north of Zio Betal!” He helped himself to a gulp of the bitter brew in his tankard. “It’s a good thing you didn’t take that collar — she could have used it later to make the claim that Bashir was part of her inventory and didn’t belong to you at all.”

“Which I don’t anyway!”

“True,” Garak said thoughtfully. He looked at the archway Kassar had passed through. “Tell me, are all your slave traders that heavy-handed?”

Borik frowned. “Heavy-handed?”

“A clumsy attempt to co-opt ownership, an even clumsier attempt at seduction...” Garak looked as disgusted as Bashir felt.

Aslel scowled and leaned forward to speak in a lower voice. “Tonight nobody goes off alone. We bed down together, we get up together, and in the morning we’re gone before dawn. It’ll mean a cold wait at the gates for sunrise, but —” He glanced toward the archway.

Garak nodded. “My thoughts exactly.”

Bashir gave them both an incredulous glance. “You don’t think she’d actually try anything else, do you?”

“Hassarl House isn’t known for being kind and gentle,” Aslel growled softly. “And if they see a new market on the horizon who knows what they’ll do to secure it?”

Bashir and Garak exchanged a glance that conveyed one syllable: Quark. “We’ve had experience with such people in the past,” Garak said.

Borik almost moaned. “Oh, Bashir, if you’d just agreed to wear a collar...!”

“Don’t start that again!” Bashir snapped.

Surprisingly, Garak stepped up to defend. “I’m not sure it would have helped in this case. Clearly she assumed that he was owned anyway and made her pitch regardless.”

“She’ll be looking for a chance to take him during the night,” Aslel said. “I’d bet my badge on it.”

Garak’s expression looked like a smile, but there was cold venom behind it. “If she tries,” he said quietly with the attitude of one making a vow, “she’ll lose her hand in the attempt.”

Bashir gave him a sharp look. “I don’t want anyone killed over this.”

Garak blinked, suddenly as mild as a newborn lamb. “Me?” he asked innocently.

“You,” Bashir said sternly. He glanced at Aslel and nodded, for once in perfect agreement with his usual adversary. “We’ll stick together and leave early in the morning. No need for violence —”

“— when intelligence and trickery will do?” Garak no longer looked half so innocent. “Ah, Doctor! I’ve taught you well.”

Borik sighed and pushed back his chair. “I’ll get us some more ales,” he said with a glance at Aslel, who nodded. “We’ll nurse them and stay out in public as long as we can. In fact, if we fall asleep at the table...?”

Garak wrinkled his nose. “No need to go that far,” he said tartly. “In any case, I very much doubt the innkeeper would approve.”


That night they ended up laying their bedrolls out side by side and less than ten centimeters apart, bedded down in the same common room where they’d stayed up late pretending to drink. Bashir noted that Garak made sure they ended up in a corner, and that his Human friend’s back was the one protected by the wall.

He slept poorly, which wasn’t surprising under the circumstances, but no one attempted to accost them in the dark, and by the time the sky was turning red in the east they were back on their o’wnli, riding hard for the gates of Zio Araga.

Chapter Text

As they crossed the wide southern bridge into the city Bashir could hear plates of thin ice shifting and creaking against each other in the moat below. The ow’nli’s claws rattled across the flagged stones and the heavy breath of the beasts hung like mist in the air, as did the exhalations of their riders. Within the circle of his arms Garak’s stocky body trembled with an occasional shiver: it was a deathly cold morning for Cardassians, as still and as silent as the grave. On the surface of that silence individual sounds lay lightly: their own breathing, muffled conversation from inside the guardhouse ahead, the rattle of cartwheels beyond the city walls. Trails of smoke rose into the paling indigo sky, absolutely vertical in the windless air.

The iron gate at the end of the bridge was still down and nobody else was awaiting entrance. As they reined in before it a Cardassian head appeared over the edge of the guard tower above and a sharp voice called down: “State your name and business!”

Aslel called back: “Yolinli Terka Aslel and Noress Borik, with a client who wants to resupply and travel further north.”

Further north?” The sun was almost risen and in the muted light from the east Bashir could see disbelief painted on the scaled features three stories overhead. “There’s a war on!”

Aslel shrugged inside his armor. “I didn’t say he was a smart client, did I?”

Garak looked up and nodded pleasantly. The guard above looked skeptical, but after a moment he nodded in his turn. “Have your papers ready.” He disappeared again, and while Aslel retrieved the necessary documents from a wallet across his o’wn’s shoulder Borik shivered dramatically.

“Nasha’s ears!” he said quietly but with great feeling, “I’ll be glad of a mug of hot k’rahl and some breakfast!” They’d left Etarr Nor’iv so early that the innkeeper hadn’t yet started serving the morning meal; even the k’rahl had still been brewing and they’d had to content themselves with bitter tea and the promise of a more substantial meal when they reached Zio Araga.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Bashir responded. “Will anything be open this early?”

Aslel pulled out the paperwork and let the flap of the leather wallet fall closed without bothering to secure the clasps. “In a city this size there’s always something open. We’ll take a meal at The Orova’s Nest — who knows, they may even have a room available on the premises.”

“That would be most convenient,” Garak said. “Although if it’s centrally located we may want to find something more out of the way.”

Borik turned and blinked at him. “Why would you want that?”

“Because he’s got a foross with a pretty tail,” Aslel remarked dryly, “and someone else fancies him for a pet.” He flashed a smirk at Garak. “You might not have a choice about where to stay if all the zio’iv’zar have crammed themselves into the city.”

“Actually I’ve been rather puzzled about that. We’ve met almost no one headed south, and I’d have expected people to be vacating the city as fast as they could.”

“The people of Zio Araga are proud,” Aslel stated. “They’ve stood against the Savages for over two hundred Turnings: it takes more than an attack three days north to send them running. Besides,” and this time his smile was predatory, “the Guls would flay the hide off anyone they caught deserting.”

“Deserting?” Bashir frowned at him over Garak’s shoulder. “Then how will they feel about us heading north?”

Aslel barked laughter. “A tiora borskk and a koraka, waltzing into the combat zone? They’ll mark you as right fools but they’ll see no reason to stop you.”

“Hm,” Garak mused, with a world of meaning concealed in that single syllable. Bashir had no doubt that he was already thinking of ways to sneak out of a locked-down city with a fully-laden o’wn and a conspicuous Human in tow. “Well, I suppose we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“’Cross that bridge when we come to it!’” Borik repeated delightedly. “I don’t know where you come from, Garak, but I like the way they talk there!”

Garak smiled benignly. “I’m so pleased to be widening your horizons, my dear Borik.”

The sky above had been lightening rapidly while they conversed, and now it turned cloudless blue in the space of a breath. Beyond the mountains the sun had crested the rim of the world. Beyond the iron gate more guards appeared, approaching it as it was raised by chains that creaked in the cold. And beyond them at the end of a long stone corridor a set of broad, thick wooden doors cracked open and slowly swung wide, granting admittance to the last city of the North.

Bashir drew a deep breath of the frosty air. The penultimate stage of their journey had finally begun.


The Orova’s Nest turned out to be a large tavern with a ground floor common room crammed with almost sixty Cardassians in various styles of dress, talking in loud voices and eating breakfast. There were eggs on offer as well as cured meat and Bashir took advantage of both, his stomach growling audibly as he took his place between Garak and Borik at a round table that held eight and was fully occupied. The k’rahl here was far more bitter than any he’d sampled so far, as well as thinner, and the sweetner pot was almost empty, but Bashir tipped out what little was left and made the best of it.

“Do you have any rooms open, tok tiral?” Aslel asked the woman who brought their food, four plates balanced deftly on her broad arms.

“Not for a nestful of garlak’s eggs,” she said shortly as she placed the first pewter plate in front of him, then slid the next one down her arm and set it in front of Borik. “Y’could try The Azure Reaches, though. Heard a vesalak just checked out there last night.”

Borik raised an eyeridge. “There are more troops heading north?”

She shrugged as she deposited the remaining two plates in front of Garak and Bashir. “Where else?” Then she was gone, headed for a table where a group of men in rough homespun had raised their hands to get her attention.

“I’m glad we’ve got quarters at the Yolin Guild,” Borik said, picking up the fork from his plate and stabbing at the scrambled eggs. “But if you hurry you might get a room at that inn.”

“We’ll need you to show us the way,” Garak said, “and then to direct us to a decent weaponsmith. After that we should be capable of managing things for ourselves.”

Aslel set down his k’rahl cup in the manner of one about to make an important point. “There’s the matter of some extra charges,” he began, but Borik rounded on him with a glare of surprising ferocity.

Aslel!” he hissed, with just a hint of resonance in his variak organ. The strangers at the table looked at him in surprise, as did Aslel, although his expression contained considerably more resentment. Borik turned to Garak. “We could have charged you for the extra day on the road while Bashir was laid up, but you’re already paying us so —”

“Nonsense,” Garak replied. “I’d expected to pay a reasonable fee for the extra time and trouble. Say, ten tiorli?”

“Twenty,” Aslel interjected, ignoring Borik’s anger.

“Twelve,” Garak countered.


Borik’s squared shoulders subsided a little. “Fifteen and fifty,” he said with an air of one resigned to the inevitable. He fixed his partner with a look of warning and Garak with a look of conciliation. “That’s fair, isn’t it?”

“Fair as fair can be,” Garak agreed with a beaming smile. “Would you mind passing the salt?”

Bashir, who had been concentrating on his breakfast and finding it excellent, smiled in his turn. He knew that Garak had been expecting to pay closer to twenty tiorli, and possibly a bit more, for the extra day on the road. Once again he found himself impressed by Borik and Aslel’s practiced good cop/bad cop routine; while they’d been pretending to drink plenty of ale at Etarr Nor’iv he’d asked the two yolinli how they’d met and been treated to a tale of high adventure, one that started with an assignment shared by two strangers and ended with both men being bound by the rite of artor p’tak, a ceremony not unlike the one Terran children used to make themselves into blood brothers. They’d been working together ever since, and over the past seven Turnings had fought side by side and saved each other’s lives on many occasions, as well as drinking their share of ale, enjoying their share of women, and traversing the vast expanses of the Civilized territories with clients who ranged from the superlatively wise to the criminally foolish.

During the telling he’d come to a somewhat startling conclusion: Borik might be the warmer and more emotionally demonstrative of the pair, but Aslel cared for his compatriot just as deeply. Exactly why Borik felt such affection for his cold and sarcastic friend was far less clear... but then again, an outsider looking at Bashir’s own depth of feeling for a ruthless liar like Garak might be just as dubious that a genuine connection could spring up under such conditions. No matter which culture one came from, Bashir reflected, love remained and likely would always remain a mystery, which was a boon to poets and a curse to almost everyone else at one point or another.

They cleaned their plates quickly and went back to their o’wnli. Twenty minutes travel through the crowded streets brought them to The Azure Reaches, which had a smaller footprint than The Orova’s Nest but was taller and much less busy. In response to Aslel’s distinctive cry a tall broad Cardassian female in a dirty smock came out into the street; she introduced herself as Erebak, proprietor of the inn, and confirmed that yes, there were rooms available to rent, so if they’d just go around the back and have their o’wn taken care of she’d be waiting for them in her office to discuss their needs. Aslel led the way down the street and around to an alley, which in turn led an open area in back of the inn flanked by a large stable building on one side and a ramshackle wooden tenement on the other, both clearly attached to The Azure Reaches.

They had barely entered the yard in front of the stables when a cry pierced the cold morning air — a high-pitched miserable shriek, followed by much quieter but still-audible sobbing. The sound instantly set Bashir on high alert: he’d been first in his class in pediatric medicine and he recognized the sound of a child in pain when he heard it.

The scream had come from the second floor of the tenement. As Garak reined their o’wn to a stop Bashir was already swinging his leg over the back of the saddle, sliding down to the trampled snow on the ground.

“Doctor —” Garak’s voice held a note of warning and puzzlement, but he held out a hand anyway for Bashir to take hold of, making his descent easier. No doubt he’d recognized the nature of the scream as well, and also recognized that his Human companion was constitutionally incapable of just ignoring it.

“Stay here,” Bashir told him. “I might need your help. See if you can get Borik on board as well.”

Looking dubious, Garak nodded, and Bashir set off toward the tenement, having to go through a wrought-iron gate set in a wooden fence and past a lit firepit to get to the narrow and somewhat flimsy stairs leading up to the second level. He followed the fading sobbing to a dark doorway at the very end of the landing, where he looked in through the opening to see a room perhaps two and a half by four meters, currently occupied by two Naievirl adults clad in dark brown linen robes. The smaller one, probably a female, was kneeling in front of a low and narrow bed, blocking the occupant from Bashir’s view, although he could see a smaller bunch of feathery hair on the thin pillow. A male Naievirl stood over her; he turned at once, his mane flaring in a display of what Bashir assumed was aggression. He stopped in the doorway and raised both hands. “It’s all right,” he said quickly. “I’m a healer. I’m here to help.”

The female turned and they both regarded him with narrowed eyes. “You?” the male said at last in a tone of disbelief. “What are you? Ni’ilav or irav?”

“Probably neither,” Bashir said, not fully knowing what either term meant. He lowered his hands but kept his gaze locked on the male’s eyes, suspecting that to look away would not be well received. “I have some friends with me, people who can also help if necessary. Is your child ill?”

The male studied him for another few seconds. “My daughter, yes.” He sounded grudging but willing to talk. “She cut her leg three days ago and it’s turned bad.”

“Has a doctor seen her?”

He warbled softly. “We don’t have the silver for that. Any doctor who would treat a girl-child of our kind comes very dear, and the eil neiassa and eil miiala have all been conscripted. We’ve been giving her lio’el tea to fight the bad spirits but they’re too strong for her.” He looked back toward the bed as the female rose to her feet, clearing Bashir’s view to a thin little body under a thick coarsely woven blanket. The child had stopped sobbing and was now silent. “She’ll go to the Red King’s halls tonight,” he added, and Bashir thought he could glimpse grief in his alien and liquid voice.

“If that’s a metaphor for dying — maybe not.” He employed the tone he’d learned was most effective when dealing with uncertain patients or their families, the one that conveyed professional confidence and more than a hint of dominance. “If her leg is infected I can probably help her. Will you let me look at her? At the very least I can promise to ease her pain.”

Chapter Text

The Naievirl female looked to the male, who was still giving Bashir the once-over. She said nothing but at last he bobbed his head. “If you can do that much, it will be a great easing to us.”

Bashir turned to shout down into the yard: “Garak! Come up here, and bring Yolin Borik with you!” Then, to the male, he said: “You’re the girl’s father?” Another headbob. “How did she injure her leg?”

“Playing with her friends on the scrap pile behind Two Triark’s Holt.” His brows lowered darkly. “We’d told her to stay away from it, but she did not listen to us. She came back bleeding, and the wound closed overnight, but by yesterday morning her leg was in great pain and by sunset she was hot to the touch. We’ve been keeping watch over her ever since.”

“Do you know what she cut herself on?”

“A piece of metal, or so she told us. She may have been lying.”

Behind him Bashir could hear boots coming up the stairs — three sets, by the sound of it. “I’ll need to take a look at the wound.”

The male took the female’s elbow in a loosely cupped hand and guided her toward the foot of the bed, giving Bashir room to approach. He knelt beside it and smiled down at the child, whose eyes had fluttered open when she heard him approach. He used a different mode of address now, extremely kind and gentle. “Hello, sweetheart. What’s your name?”

The little girl looked up at him and frowned, obviously trying to understand the question in her fevered and painful state, but at last she choked out: “Al’liel.”

“Well, Al’liel, my name is Julian, and I’m here to help you.” He drew the blankets back from her body, folding them down past her feet. “Will you let me take a look at your leg?”

After another long moment she bobbed her chin. Bashir didn’t look at her parents; he didn’t want to encourage questions that would delay the diagnostic process. He lifted the child’s long skirt to reveal a calf wound close to the knee which, on the surface, looked fairly clean; however, the flesh beneath it was manifestly swollen in a hard lump and its edges were a bright and angry purple. He pressed the flesh right beside the wound gently; Al’liel cried out and tiny beads of yellow appeared at intervals along the incision.

“You have a deep tissue abcess,” he told her, knowing that she wouldn’t understand but wanting to keep her occupied with the sound of his voice. The diagnosis was simple and the treatment even more so, although it wouldn’t be pleasant. He looked round to find Garak standing inside now near the doorway, watching keenly, and Aslel in the doorway itself, looking like he was smelling something profoundly unpleasant. Beyond him Borik hovered, trying to peer past his friend’s broad shoulders. “Garak, go and fetch the ipenogysic acid tablets from our supplies.”

The Cardassian’s eyes narrowed. “We may need those tablets ourselves, Doctor.”

Bashir infused his gaze with command. “I’ll only need four. We can spare them. And find something to hold eight half-doses of the powder. Squares of paper or parchment should suffice.”

For a couple of seconds Garak looked like he was going to argue; then he nodded and shouldered his way past Alsel, his boots clattering on the rickety stairs. That left room for Borik, who squeezed inside to stand in Garak’s place. The stout little yolin looked anxious. “Is there anything I can do?”

“In a minute, yes.” The girl was shivering again and Bashir drew the blankets back over her for the moment, then drew his belt knife and handed it to Borik. “When I tell you to, I’ll need you to heat the blade in the fire downstairs and bring it back to me as quickly as you can. Don’t let it touch the coals, or your hands after you've heated it.”

Borik accepted the proffered handle. “How hot does it have to be?”

“Fifteen seconds in direct flame should suffice.”

Aslel’s tone of voice dripped contempt. “And the purpose of this exercise is...?”

“I’ll tell you later, if you’re still interested.” He turned his no-bullshit expression on the taller yolin. “Just stay out of our way while we work.”

Aslel snorted and turned on his heel, exiting with an undeniable dramatic flair and audibly departing toward the courtyard. Borik’s eyes were fixed on the fevered child. “She doesn’t look good,” he said nervously. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to lance the abcess and drain it.” He turned to the female, whose large eyes were even wider now, and the stoic male standing at the foot of the bed. “I’ll need something to sterilize my hands — can you get me some alcohol?”

“We are not allowed to have such things,” the woman replied, speaking for the first time.

“Some strong vinegar, then? From the kitchen? Enough to pour two large doses over my hands plus about half again as much. I’ll also need some strips of clean cloth to bind her thigh when I’m finished with the abcess, and two sewing needle with two one-meter lengths of good stout thread. Can you get those for me, please?”

She bobbed her head and slipped out past Borik, leaving him alone in the tiny room with her mate, Bashir and Al’liel, who had faded back into unconsciousness. Bashir didn’t feel inclined to converse and for once Borik evidently wasn’t feeling particuarly garrulous. They watched the girl silently and Bashir calculated the odds that his proposed treatment would save her life: 78.3 per cent, more or less, if the infection hadn’t become systemic and the parents administered the medication precisely as directed, and if lio’el tea had antibiotic properties. He’d worked with worse odds in the past.

Garak returned first, carrying the bottle of ipenogysic acid and a large piece of coarse-grained paper. Bashir didn’t ask where he’d procured it, just set him to tearing it into eight equal sections at a tall chest beside the head of the bed, and he’d just finished that task when the Naievirl woman returned with a coarse clay jug holding perhaps a litre of liquid and long strips of worn cream-colored fabric draped over her arm, as well as the requested needles and thread in her other hand. Bashir instructed her to hold onto them, then had Garak put the tablet bottle and pieces of paper aside while he laid bare Al’liel’s wound again, moving the leg a little to one side to get the best possible access to the site of the injury. He wasn’t looking forward to causing her more pain but knew that the procedure would likely save her life. “Al’liel? I need you to wake up for me.”

Her liquid eyes flickered, and she bobbed her delicate head.

“This is going to hurt,” he said gently, “but I want you to be brave for me. My friend will be holding you down, but you must stay as still as you possibly can while I work. Can you do that for me?”

She licked her dry lips. “Can I have some water?”

“In a moment, sweetheart. When we’re done. I promise I’ll be as quick as I can.” He spoke over his shoulder in a quieter voice. “Garak?”

As the Cardassian came to join him Al’liel’s eyes suddenly opened much wider. She shrank away, shaking with manifest fear. Bashir put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “It’s all right. He’s not going to hurt you.”

“Blood.” It was a dry choked whisper. “Blood! His hands are covered in blood!”

Bashir looked at Garak, who was smiling with a most convincing kindness. “He’s a friend,” he repeated. “I promise he won’t hurt you. He’s just going to make sure that you stay still for the treatment.”

Al’liel looked into Garak’s eyes and seemed do draw no reassurance from what she saw there. She drew a long shuddering breath. “You promise?” she asked faintly.

“I promise,” Bashir assured her, and the girl settled down, allowing him to stretch her out flat again. To Garak he said: “Can you immobilize her leg?”

“I can do better than that, if the Naievirl nervous system is anything like the Cardassian nervous system.” Garak went around the foot of the bed and over to the side opposite Bashir, kneeling with some difficulty in the narrow space between it and the wooden wall, and took hold of Al’liel’s leg, one hand locked tightly around her slender ankle, the other grasping her knee. His fingertips probed into the hollow behind it, evidently seeking a particular cluster of nerves; he found them and tightened his grip. The girl’s tensed foot visibly relaxed. “That should interfere with her ability to feel what you’re doing.”

Bashir nodded. “Hold off on that for a moment, until I’m ready to proceed.” Garak obeyed, and Bashir glanced back at Borik. “Go and heat up the knife now.” As the yolin ducked outside and down the stairs he turned to the Naievirl woman and held out both hands. “Pour the vinegar over my hands. Only use about half of it. Then splash some onto the wound itself.”

She tipped the pale yellow liquid out of the jug as instructed, letting it fall unheeded to the rough board floor, and Bashir just as resolutely ignored the spreading puddle of wetness that crept around his right knee. Then he held his hands out in front of him, touching nothing, as she sterilized the site of the operation. “Fold up two of those strips of cloth and slip them under her calf... Garak, can you lift her leg? Yes, like that. Set it down again.” To the mother he said: “Now stand back, please, and give your husband the jug. Can you thread the needle — that first one meter length, doubled up, with a good stiff knot at the end?” That should keep her occupied while he performed the operation; the last thing he wanted was a second, fainting patient on his hands.

Borik returned at a run, the dagger blade faintly steaming in the cool air. Bashir nodded to Garak, who renewed his numbing grip, and took the knife that Borik offered to him handle-first. He worked quickly and decisively, and Garak’s knowledge of nerve clusters seemed to serve: Al’liel only flinched once as he incised deep into her flesh, loosing a flood of cloudy yellow pus streaked with blood that overflowed the wound and was soaked up by the cloth pad. He passed the dripping dagger back to Borik and had the male Naievirl pour a little more vinegar onto the hand that had held the knife blade, then set about pressing out the pus, not stopping until only clean blood welled up under his deeply probing fingers.

It was all over within sixty seconds. Garak did not relinquish his hold while Bashir removed and discarded the pus-soaked pad, put a fresh one in its place, took the jug from Al’liel’s father and poured about an eighth of the remaining vinegar over the wound. “Is that needle and thread ready? Excellent.” He passed the jug back to the male Naievirl. “Give it here. Now, if you’ll pour about half of what’s left over them, and my hands... perfect. Garak, keep holding her steady. I’ll try to make this quick. Borik, I’ll need your own dagger in about half a minute, also heated up in the fire, if you please.”

Borik departed again. The thread was thick, almost like what Bashir’s own mother had once used for embroidery, and he was confident that it would be strong enough to hold the edges of the incision together; he had, after all, been careful to make it a clean wound. He stitched quickly and neatly, ignoring Al’liel’s thrashing above Garak’s strong and inexorable grasp, aware at the edge of his vision of the girl’s mother twitching her head from side to side and whistling under her breath in a way that probably denoted distress among her kind. He ignored that too. Another thirty seconds and three tight stitches had closed the drainage site; he tied off a knot against the girl’s mahogany skin, took the second sterilized blade from Borik and severed the thread. "I’m ready for the remaining cloth strips now. Splash a little more vinegar on the wound... now soak a smaller pad in it... excellent.” He pressed the infused pad onto the incision and began to wind the strips around it, binding the sterilized cloth over the stitches. “Thread the second needle and I’ll sew this all into place, and then we’ll be done.”

Glancing up, he saw an expression of subtle admiration on Garak’s face and flashed a quick smile in return. “Don’t let go of her leg just yet. You’re not cutting off blood flow, are you?”

“I don’t believe so, but the return of feeling may well be quite painful.”

“That’s what the ipenogysic acid is for. I’m going to need you to —”

“Open the capsules and divide the contents into half-doses suitable for a child?”

The smile became a grin. “You read my mind.”

“A surprisingly easy task.” His voice was low and amused. “Well done, Doctor!”

“Why, thank you,” Bashir replied in kind. “It’s always a good day when I manage to impress you.”

Garak inclined his head, his eyes sparkling. Then Bashir accepted the second threaded needle and occupied himself with securing the bandage in place. “You can let go now,” he said at last, and both he and Garak sat back, watching Al’liel closely. Tears were running from the child’s tightly clenched eyes but she hadn’t made a sound. Bashir reached down and carefully stroked her feathery hair. “Well done, Al’liel! You were a very brave girl. I’m so very proud of you! Now, I have one last thing I need you to do — it won’t hurt, in fact it will take the pain away, but it won’t taste very nice.”

She opened her eyes and looked up at him. “That hurt a lot,” she quavered, as Garak rose again and went back to the chest-top where he’d set aside the tablets and squares of paper.

“I know, but now you’re going to get better.” He gave her his best bedside smile. “You’ll be back to running around and playing in no time at all.” He looked to her mother. “Get me a cup of water, would you?”

“Promise?” Al’liel almost begged.

“I promise.” He’d done everything possible to make that happen; he couldn’t prevent the child from sickening and dying after he’d left Zio Araga, but at least he could offer her comfort now and for the next four days. “Garak?”

“Just a minute, Doctor.” In considerably less than that he passed over a neatly folded piece of paper containing half a dose of ipenogysic acid powder, and the mother returned with a crude pottery mug.

“You can have that water now,” Bashir said, nodding to her to hold it for a moment, “but you’ll have to swallow this along with it.” The painkiller was also an anti-inflammatory and an anti-pyretic; it would ease her suffering, reduce the swelling of the tissues and bring down her fever all at once. He helped the child into a sitting position and supported her narrow shoulders with his left forearm. “Open your mouth, there’s a good girl... I know, it’s awful, isn’t it?” He dropped the empty paper on the floor and took the cup of water, holding it to her lips. “Now drink this. All of it.”

She obeyed, draining the cup, then lay back down with her eyes already starting to fall closed. “Sleepy,” she murmured.

Bashir smiled fondly. “I don’t doubt it. You’ve had a very busy day.” He took her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze between both of his own. “You can sleep now, and later on your mother will wake you up to take more medicine.”

“My leg hurts.” She was trying hard not to whine and almost succeeding.

“It’s going to hurt for a while, but that bitter powder I just gave you is very special medicine. It will take away the pain and help you sleep.”

Her voice began to blur. “I’m not going to the Red King...?”

“No,” Bashir told her softly, “not until you’re old and grey, and that won’t be for Turnings and Turnings yet. All you have to do now is rest and you’ll get better and better with each passing day.”

That seemed to satisfy her, or perhaps the shock of the operation was just too much for her little body. She didn’t speak again, and after a few moments Bashir rose as quietly as he could and turned to where Garak was portioning out the last doses, folding each paper into clever little origami containers that would open with simple pressure and produce a fold for easy pouring. Bashir watched for a few seconds, amused and wondering if there was any end to the odd skills that Garak possessed, then glanced at Borik, who was looking rather pale and shocky and still holding Bashir’s pus-smeared knife in one hand. He gestured for the yolin to precede him out of the room and silently invited Al’liel’s parents to do the same; he wanted to talk to them without disturbing his patient.

When they’d all emerged onto the stairwell landing the female Naievirl began to twitch her head and warble low in her throat. The male put his hand on her shoulder and she reached up to clutch at it, closing her eyes in what might have been gratitude. Bashir waited until she’d opened her eyes again before addressing them both. “My friend is preparing more doses of the medicine I just gave to Al’liel. It will help her sleep and fight the infection in her wound, as well as help to prevent fever. I want you to give it to her twice a day, as close to eleven clockturns apart as you can, and to make sure that she gets plenty of water and good food. There are enough doses for four days. You can remove the bandage at the end of that time. In the meantime, keep giving her the lio’el tea. If she starts to run a fever again, or to complain of a great deal of pain...” He reached for the money pouch on his belt and extracted ten tiorli, which he held out toward the male. “I want you to find a good doctor to help her. I’ll be leaving in a day or two but until then, feel free to come and find me if you have any questions.”

Borik’s eyes were huge in the face of such generosity to a slave. The Naievirl male just looked at the money in Bashir’s outstretched hand, then back up to the Human’s face, his own expression impassive. “Why are you doing this?” he asked bluntly.

Bashir shrugged. “I’m a healer. I couldn’t do anything else.”

The male was silent for a long moment. At last he said: “If it wasn’t for you, my daughter would have slept in the Red King’s halls tonight. If you’ve truly been able to heal her...” He reached out and took the money, tucking it into a fold in his tunic. “We owe you a life-debt, irav.”

“I’m nobody’s master,” Bashir insisted. “I’m just glad I was on hand to help.”

The male headbobbed. “The fact remains: you’ve helped us. If ever you’re in danger here, approach any Naievirl in the zio’kar and tell them that you seek aid in the name of R’rials of the Fallen Leaves and his daughter Al’liel. Help will be given to you without question.”

Seeing he had no choice but to accept, Bashir inclined his head. “Thank you,” he said courteously. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

The female stopped warbling and turned toward their doorway as Garak emerged and nodded to Bashir. “The doses are prepared and laid out on the top of the chest.”

“Is she sleeping?”

“Most peacefully,” Garak replied.

“Good.” He looked at the knife in Borik’s hand, then down at his own pus-smeared fingers. “Let’s get cleaned up. Could you fetch what’s left of the vinegar, please?” He turned to the parents one final time as Garak returned briefly to the room, emerging in short order with the jug. “Warmth and safe haven to you both — and to Al’liel.”

They both bobbed their heads strongly. “Shade and sweet water to you, neiassa!” R’rials intoned, then turned to lead his mate back into their little apartment. Bashir led the way down the stairs to the courtyard firepit, where he took his knife back from Borik and had Garak pour the last of the vinegar over both the blade and his hands, scrubbing his fingers clean before wiping the dagger dry on his pantleg and sheathing it again.

“I believe you used to talk about wanting to practice ‘frontier medicine’...?” Garak asked as he poured.

“I did.” He glanced up toward the room where Al’liel was hopefully finding pain-free sleep, knowing what Garak was implying: he’d had the chance now, and how did he like it? Something to discuss later. Borik was still looking a little white around the gills, so Bashir clapped him on the shoulder when he’d taken care of the dagger and offered him an encouraging smile. “Are you going to be okay?”

The little yolin exhaled a shaky breath. “I thought I was going to bring my breakfast back up!” He was looking at Bashir in a way that suggested he was deeply impressed. “Is she really going to be all right?”

“I could tell you better in a couple of days, if I was still here. But her chances are good.”

Borik shook his head. “Why’d you do it? She’s just a slave, and a girl-child slave at that.”

“Where I come from, a doctor doesn’t leave people to suffer if there’s anything he can do to help them.” He shook his hands as dry as possible and then wiped them on his pants, ignoring Garak’s slight wince. “I just wish I had the proper tools and medications to make sure she’d recover.”

“I’m sure her parents are more than grateful for what you did manage to accomplish,” Garak said.

Borik looked toward the stableyard, where only two o’wnli now stood; Garak and Bashir’s mount had been taken away, presumably into the stable itself, and the taller yolin was nowhere in evidence. “I’d better go find Aslel and help him pick up all the scales he just shed. Just wait until he hears that you gave a Savage slave ten tiorli!”

“Ten tiorli?” Garak’s tone was mild.

“Ten tiorli,” Bashir replied firmly, giving Garak a challenging look. The Cardassian merely blinked, but Bashir could tell that he was going to catch seven shades of Hell later on for his unseemly generosity. “Let’s go see about that room, shall we?”

They headed toward the inn, leaving Borik to tell Aslel the latest tale about the Human’s astonishing tendency to do spectacularly and inexplicably stupid things.

Chapter Text

Erebak, as it turned out, was indeed quite able to accommodate them: a command unit of the local infantry had just vacated the inn, leaving a few rooms available. Garak selected one on the third floor overlooking the main street and ordered a full bath, plus a selection of breads, cheeses and dried fruit and a tankard of mulled wine, to be ready when they took possession. He booked the room for two nights, and when he made certain that it included a large bed Erebak looked at Bashir for the first time and leered widely. Garak ignored the unspoken commentary, and Bashir, although he knew that he blushed, elected to disregard it as well. She asked him no questions and on the whole treated him as a non-entity, which, he reflected, might actually be for the best: if she found out he’d given one of her slaves a great deal of money for a sick child she’d probably look on him with active dislike, so perhaps running under her radar was no bad thing. Fortunately Garak didn’t seem inclined to enlighten her, and if the Naievirl themselves were smart they’d keep everything well hushed up.

Afterwards they went to join Aslel and Borik in the inn’s half-empty but rustically sunny common room, since their suite wouldn’t be ready until late in the afternoon (“Those vesalakli pay well,” Erebak had observed with an obsequious smile, “but they’re Nasha’s own minions when it comes to leaving an unholy mess behind. We’ll have to clean the carpets and the furniture, and chivvy out the whores they left behind... but they paid right up through to midsun, so what can you do? A thousand apologies, durtak!” Garaks’ only comment had been to demand that she ensure the bedding was completely changed.) They’d sat down with the yolinli over some final mugs of ale and Aslel had spread out a parchment map of the territory north of Zio Araga which detailed primary geographical features along the road to the Temple. He pointed out recommended camping sites and discussed the merits and disadvantages of each at length, with helpful contributions from Borik, who, when all instructions had been issued, asked one last time:

“Are you sure you won’t reconsider? A promise from the Savages is worthless! I wouldn’t give two niorli for your safety after you get ouside the city walls.”

“Don’t waste your breath,” Aslel growled, folding the map up neatly again. “He’s —” A nod toward Bashir. “— too stupid, and he’s —” A nod toward Garak. “— obviously insane.” He thrust the folded map at Garak, who accepted it with a little bow of his chin, evidently unperturbed by the insults. “If you’re still looking for weapons, there’s a shop less than a quarter clockturn up the road on foot, southward — Blueblade’s the fellow’s name, look for two swords crossing a flame. He’ll supply your needs and he won’t bleed you dry in doing it.”

“Thank you,” Garak said politely. “I’m so sorry our time together has finally come to an end. We’ve had such fun, haven’t we?” Aslel snorted and made as if to stand up, but Garak held up an entreating hand. “Come now, let me treat you to a little more ale, and then to lunch! We have some time to kill, after all.”

Borik, who’d been looking a little downcast, brightened. “Let’s, Aslel! The Golden Tarneks will be performing, and —”

“— and you can’t get enough of them.” Aslel’s angular face conveyed an odd combination of annoyance, amusement and indulgence. He sat back down again. “All right... I suppose we can spare a few more clockturns.”

“The Golden Tarneks?” Bashir asked, looking at Borik curiously.

“They’re the best osek band north of Zio Betal,” Borik explained enthusiastically. “There was a sign out front saying they’re here all week, didn’t you see it? Dinner and lunch concerts!” His dark eyes were almost shining, and Bashir couldn’t help but smile in response.

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to explain what an osek band is as well,” he said.

“A waste of time,” Aslel deadpanned. Borik ignored him.

“Well, osek is a popular style of music — any zio’iv with half a brain between it can boast a group — but to do it really well is pretty rare and I’ve never heard anyone better than The Golden Tarneks. There are four members playing four different instruments: a flute, a drum, a t’zar and a hatal. It’s...” He drummed his fingers swiftly, intricately and briefly on the table edge as if replicating the rhythms involved, then shrugged helplessly and grinned. “You’ll just have to hear it for yourself. It’s wonderful!”

Bashir grinned in return and took a sip of his ale. “I’m definitely looking forward to it.” Something about Borik’s happiness made him happy in and of itself, and he realized that somewhere along the way he’d come to think of the chubby little guide as a friend. He caught Garak’s eye and saw the gleam of affectionate understanding there, and realized that Garak knew it too. He smiled at the spy, looking forward to finally being alone with him later but also profoundly grateful for simple acts of friendship in the here and now: this, he suspected, was part of the reason why Garak had invited the yolinli to remain, so that his Human companion could enjoy Borik’s company one last time. Bashir resolved to be sure to thank him properly when the opportunity presented itself, and the prospect made him burn with feelings considerably more carnal than amiable.

Aslel didn’t seem inclined to do much besides drink his ale and make the occasional acerbic observation, but Bashir, Garak and Borik carried on a lively conversation as the sun’s light tracked across the room and the inn’s patrons came and went around them. When the sun was almost at its zenith people started to fill up the tables and order lunches; Borik recommended that his friends who were new to the region try the katar o’vess plate, which turned out to be a selection of bread, hard cheese, pickled vegetables and some sort of sugary cakes, pungently spicy but very good. They’d just started on the meal when Naievirl slaves pulled back a set of shutters at the far end of the room to reveal a small stage, occupied by four Cardassian males in rough-woven but colorful and elegantly sewn clothing.

”Hala!” they cried boisterously, pumping their fists in the air, a salutation which most in the audience returned loudly, including Borik. Then, without preamble, they took to their instruments — a big floor-seated drum, a metal flute, and what looked startlingly similar to a violin and a guitar — and launched into their set, filling the room with loud and joyful noise.

Insofar as it could be described in Terran terms, the performance combined the rollicking rhythms of twentieth century Celtic folk music with the modal scales of northern East Indian classical compositions. The overall effect was alien and enchanting and, Bashir had to admit, quite exhilarating: he found his feet tapping along with the beat and after the first few songs he felt quite comfortable in joining Borik and the rest of the audience in lustily singing along with the choruses. Aslel never lost his look of arrogant superiority to all this working-class frivolity and Garak simply smiled as if the overall atmosphere of gaity pleased him without directly involving him; his air of detachment was both more elegant and more down-to-earth than that of the tall yolin, and seemed far less of an affectation. When he looked at Bashir, who toward the end of the set ended up with his arm around Borik’s shoulders and the little guide’s arm around his as they grinned and swayed to the choruses, Garak’s smile turned positively fond, if only in brief flashes that Bashir was fairly sure only he was truly aware of. It was good to relax and let himself go a little: after eight days of constantly looking ahead, moving from danger to danger in a world full of hostile aliens, to find a few moments of uncomplicated enjoyment in songs about love and war and men who took the roads leading to adventure was truly a blessing. By the time The Golden Tarneks wound up their performance with another dramatic fist-pump and were cheered back behind the shutters Bashir felt like he was floating on the waves of the audience’s approval; strange how the shared experience of a performance could produce that sort of mild euphoria, but wonderful nonetheless.

“Oh, my!” Borik wiped both eyes with his free hand, grinning from ear to ear. He didn’t seem inclined to let go of Bashir. “Oh, my! That was even better than usual!”

Garak turned his smile on Aslel. “You didn’t seem to enjoy yourself very much.”

Aslel sniffed. “I’m not one for music.”

“You’re a real o’wn for women, though,” Borik said gleefully. “How about the Tortal Sisters tonight? With those fifteen extra tiorli you squeezed out of Garak we can afford to treat ourselves!”

“Hmn.” But his stern mouth curved in a slight smile. “We could, at that.”

Borik gave Bashir a rough one-armed hug and released him, sitting straight in his own chair again. With a sigh of contentment he picked up the last pickled vegetable from his plate and popped it into his mouth, chewing happily. When he had swallowed it he sighed again, this time more soberly. “Well...”

Aslel nodded and pushed his chair back, and this time Borik followed suit. “We should have reported to the Yolin Guild long since.” But the look he gave his partner suggested that he accepted the delay for the pleasure it had given Borik. “So unless there’s anything else...?”

“Not that I can think of.” Garak glanced at Bashir, who shook his head. “Well then — warmth and safe haven to you both, yolinli.” He rose and extended his hand to Aslel, who reached out and clasped forearms with him, a salutation which Bashir hastily stood up to offer in kind. “May the road treat you kindly, wherever it may take you.”

“And the same to you,” Borik said earnestly. He clasped Bashir’s arm with particular warmth. “I’ll say a prayer to Gart on your behalf when ask’har rolls around.”

“Why thank you,” Garak said as if the prospect pleased him immensely. “We’ll be sure to do the same for you.”

As the two yolinli took their leave Garak sat back down with a little sigh and picked up his tankard. “Finish your ale, Doctor, and that last bit of cheese if you want it. No? Do you mind...? Ah, thank you. It is rather tasty, similar to a type I favoured as a boy. Mm! Now, if you’re quite ready let’s see about those swords, shall we...?”

Bashir swallowed the last mouthful of his ale and spoke in a voice pitched not to carry beyond their table, which wasn’t difficult: the room was still loud with enthusiastic conversation about the musicians’ performance. “Garak, do you even know how to use a sword?”

He answered in kind: “I was trained in the use of bladed weapons, although my specialization was in smaller blades more along the lines of the daggers we’re carrying now. But I’m fairly sure that if push came to shove I could hold my own. I take it you’re not?”

“Not in the least — well, aside from a few holosuite programs with Chief O’Brien.”

“I think you’ll find that in the real world all the safeties are inevitably off. Well, we’ll get you one anyway: if nothing else you can hold it and look menacing.” The twinkle in his eyes suggested that he found the idea quite humorous. Bashir wasn’t so amused.

“If I’m holding a sword I’m that much more likely to get treated as a combatant — and attacked. I think I’d be better off sticking with the dagger.”

“If you’re holding a dagger,” Garak countered, “you’ll be treated as an easy target and you won’t have any hope of defending yourself against an opponent with greater reach. Even an inexperienced swordsman can get in a lucky strike, and I assume you’re familiar with the concept of bluffing?”

Bashir puffed out an annoyed breath. “You’ve said yourself that I’m a terrible liar.”

“You are, but you also have a tendency to be very brash when threatened. I think you could convince someone who didn’t know you that you have some idea of what you’re doing — and we’ll take time on the road to teach you some basic strikes and counter-strikes.” He offered what was clearly meant to be a reassuring smile. “It’s really not that difficult, and I’ve been told that I’m quite an effective instructor.”

“You’ve taught melee weapon combat?”

Garak grimaced dismissively and waved a hand vaguely. “Oh, you know —”

“Here and there?” He levelled a look of exasperation at his friend, which only prompted another smooth smile. “All right — but I’m going to hold you to that.”

“I sincerely hope so.” Damn, he could turn on a dime: the tone was now distinctly sensual and Bashir felt a flush in his cheeks as his thoughts were suddenly directed down an entirely different track. “However,” and Garak rose from his seat, “the first step is to get you a proper weapon. Shall we see what this fellow Blueblade has to offer?”

Bashir stood, torn between the urge to laugh, call Garak on his manipulative tactics, or pull him into a bruising kiss. In the end he settled for following him out into the street, where the curious glances of the Cardassian populace followed him as they set off for the weaponsmith’s shop.


By the time they got back to The Azure Reaches the sun was dipping behind the western mountain range and Bashir was feeling pleasantly stretched from some vigorous physical exercise. He also wore a new scabbard at his left hip which held a sword equally plain, functional and well-made, at least according to Garak.

Blueblade was an older Cardassian male with numerous scars and the jovial yet chilly demeanor of one who makes his living selling instruments of death. He’d taken one look at Garak and Bashir, heard what they were after, and disappeared into the back of his shop, leaving his young apprentice to keep an eye on them until he returned with two scabbarded blades. He passed one to Bashir and the other to Garak, who had immediately drawn his and held it lightly in hand, testing the weight and balance; after a moment Bashir followed suit, not entirely sure what he was looking for but guessing that if the weapon wasn’t suited to him something would feel wrong about it.

It fit his hand beautifully and seemed to weigh less than it ought. Looking up at Blueblade, he found the older man nodding approvingly. “C’mon back to the field, give them a try,” he invited, and led them down a long narrow corridor to a large enclosed space lit by panes of glass built into the sloped roof. The floor was smooth-worn wood marked off into four lanes, with a five-meter-wide circle in the middle overrunning them all. He gestured Garak into the centre and crossed to a wall of scabbarded blades of various sizes, selecting one of a length equivalent to the swords he’d just offered his customers, approximately sixty centimeters.

“Hold this, would you, Doctor?” Garak handed Bashir his scabbard and went to stand where Blueblade had indicated, setting his feet in a ready stance and making a few sweeping practice passes. Watching him, Bashir could almost see the muscle memory reasserting itself: it was impossible to know how long it had been since he’d last handled such a weapon, but clearly he’d been trained in its use. When the weaponsmith joined him his smile was pleasant but there was a coldness in his eyes that put his Human companion on alert: the Garak he knew had stepped to one side, replaced by something he was far less familiar with, something both forbidding and intriguing.

Blueblade came to stand three meters in front of him and looked him up and down, his own sword held almost casually to one side. “You’re a knife man, ain’t you?”

“By trade, yes.”

He raised his blade. “You attack, I’ll block. See how it feels in your hand.”

Garak bowed his head in acknowledgement and paused but a breath before moving in. His movements were economical, precise and forceful, and to Bashir almost heartstoppingly elegant. Blueblade deflected each attack with ease. “Good?” he asked when they moved apart again.

“Very good.” Garak looked at the weapon in his hand with admiration, raising it and turning it to let the blade catch the light. “How much?”

“One hundred tiorli.”

“A fair price, but I’m afraid I can only offer eighty.”

“Can’t let it go for less than ninety-five.”

Garak looked pained. “For a sword with a scratched hilt? Please! Eight-five.”

Bluebeard studied him for a long moment. Garak looked back without blinking. “Ninety, and I’ll buff out the scratch.”

“Done.” He turned his attention to Bashir. “Come, Doctor, and we’ll see how yours suits you.” He nodded to Blueblade. “My partner isn’t familiar with such weapons. I’ll conduct the test myself.”

The weaponsmith shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He crossed to Bashir as the Human drew his blade, holding out one hand. “I’ll take the scabbards, torva. Try not to get yourself cut.”

“I’ll do my best.” He walked into the circle, wryly noting that he was actually grateful that this particular Cardassian wasn’t treating him like an exotic animal. Facing Garak he found himself not even certain of how he should be holding his sword, so he defaulted to a pose from one of O’Brien’s holoadventures and saw amusement in Garak’s hint of a smile.

“I’ll train that out of you,” he assured Bashir in a low voice as he settled back into his ready stance. “Now — come at me, and do your best to hit me.”

Bashir hesitated. “Are you sure?”

A flicker of a snarl was his response. “I think I’m capable of defending myself against someone like you.” The coldness returned to his gaze and a thrill of adrenaline ran down Bashir’s spine. “Well, what are you waiting for, boy? Some courage? Or perhaps a set of —”

Bashir attacked, striking high then stabbing low, then coming in at elbow-level; Garak parried each move effortlessly, making no attempt to counter-attack. Even that brief engagement told Bashir that the weapon he was holding was intuitively right for him: it felt almost weightless in his hand and responded to the slightest change of direction like a bird in flight. He moved forward and Garak stepped back, letting him press his non-existent advantage for a few more blows which, while clumsy, were already becoming more confident: one advantage of being GE was that purely physical skills were easy to pick up, and he’d already deduced a couple of basics from seeing Garak in action for even a few seconds.

“Very good!” the Cardassian breathed when Bashir stood down, the chill in his eyes replaced by a strange subdued heat. Bashir smiled at him, well aware by now that displays of combat readiness were a turn-on as far as this man was concerned. “I’d like to see that simulation the Chief recommended: clearly it has some merits.”

“King Arthur, actually — and yes, it was quite inspiring.” He stepped fully back and lowered his sword. “So, is the weapon satisfactory?”

“Quite.” He led the way back to Blueblade, who handed them the scabbards to resheath the blades. “The same price?”

“That one’s not nicked.”

Garak took the sword from Bashir and examined the hilt. “So it isn’t. Ninety-two?”


The tailor sighed. “You drive a hard bargain.”

“Or you could get him a stick. It would do him about as much good.”

“Not by the time I’m through with him. Very well, ninety-five. You’ll throw in swordbelts, polishing clothes and oil, of course?”

“What d’you take me for? ‘Course that’s included.” He returned his own blade to its place on the rack and led the way back to the shop. “Can I interest you in something better than those pigstickers on your hips? I’ve got some fine daggers in T’rovahn steel...”

“The swords will suffice,” From the way Garak smiled when Blueblade’s back was turned Bashir guessed that he’d been prepared to pay a lot more than a hundred per weapon on this little shopping expedition. “Although it’s always a pleasure doing business with a man who knows his product so well.”

After the transaction was concluded Blueblade had offered them the use of the practice field for the afternoon free of charge, which led Bashir to suspect that they had ended up paying more than they ought to for the blades after all. Garak had accepted with pleasure and spent the next three clockturns administering an extremely abbreviated course in how to handle a short sword, starting with basic stances and moving on to practice passes, elementary defenses and elementary attacks. He turned out to be an effective instructor after all: eloquent, encouraging or firm as the occasion warranted, and above all resolute in catching and correcting the smallest errors. By the time the sun had moved below the level of the windows Bashir was feeling quite well worked over, as well as respectful of Garak’s abilities in an entirely new way. Seeing the Cardassian in this previously unknown mode, patient and relentless at once, wielding a sword with such competence, was also surprisingly arousing: by the time they got back to The Azure Reaches he was eager for a cold drink, a hot bath, and Garak’s hands all over his body, in that order — although in a pinch he supposed he’d settle for a quickie in some dark corner of the inn. Suddenly his patience, which had been equal to the task of enduring the last four days, was close to being completely exhausted.

“Ah, durtak!” Erebak greeted Garak from behind her counter as they entered the front hall, her round face wreathed in smiles. “You’re just in time! The room is clean and waiting for you. Shall I have the slaves draw your bath now?”

“Yes, thank you,” Garak nodded. “We’ll go up right away; have the food and wine brought immediately, as well as some cold clean water. We’re both simply parched.”

She bowed low. “There’s already water there for drinking. I’ll see to the rest at once. Peaceful sleep to you, durtak!”

Bashir turned away from her knowing smile and followed Garak up the stairs, his heart beginning to beat a little faster.

Chapter Text

The third-floor room was impressively large, with broad windows flanked by heavy indigo curtains, an overall theme of dark wood and burgundy, and a tall wide bed that looked most inviting. It also looked clean and as neat as a pin; either Erebak had been exaggerating about the damage done by the officers or her cleaning crew was excellent at their jobs.

“My, my — isn’t this pleasant!” Garak shrugged out of his coat as Bashir closed the door behind them, hanging the garment up on one of the curved metal hooks attached to the wall nearby. A large metal tub long and wide enough for two stood empty in front of the unlit fireplace, close enough to take advantage of the heat but not so close as to block it from reaching the rest of the space. A smaller door stood beside the fireplace itself, and Garak went to investigate it while Bashir took care of his own coat. “A water closet! With a faucet for —” The brief sound of running liquid. “Hot water. And a shower! My dear Doctor, I do believe we’re reached civilization at last.”

“I do believe you’re right.” He crossed to the bed, pressed the top blanket with his hand, then sat down on the edge, testing it with a little bounce: it was firm but yielding, and he flopped back onto it, spreading his arms wide and closing his eyes as he soaked up the luxury of a real, honest-to-goodness mattress. “Garak?”

“Yes?” He emerged back into the main room.

“Come over here and kiss me.”

The Cardassian laughed and Bashir heard him approach the bed at an unhurried stroll. “Didn’t I once tell you that patience has its rewards?”

“I’ve been patient for five days. Five long, cold, long — did I mention very long? — days.”

“Come now — they’re significantly shorter than Bajoran days, or haven’t you noticed?”

“I’m not in the mood to argue astrophysics.” But he smiled. “Are you going to kiss me, or not?”

“That depends.”

Eyes still closed, he mock-scowled. “On —?”

Then Garak was on one elbow beside him, on his left, leaning over him and kissing him in a most satisfactory way. Pressed back onto the bed, Bashir uttered a little “Ouf!” of surprise, followed by a purr of happiness as he locked one arm around Garak’s shoulders and wound the fingers of his right hand into Garak’s hair and pulled him down into even harder contact. After a long and satisfying engagement of lips and tongues, Garak pulled back enough to respond: “On how long I can resist the sight of you lying there, just waiting for me.”

“Mmm.” He stretched, feeling subliminal electricity coursing through every nerve and concentrating in his groin. Looking up into his friend’s merry blue gaze, he traced the ridge around the Cardassian’s left eye with a tender touch. “What was that you said about patience?”

“A lie, I assure you.” His hand settled on Bashir’s waist, stroking him through the linen of his shirt. “However, since we’re going to have company at any moment I suggest we restrain ourselves a little while longer.”

Bashir groaned softly. “I’m tired of being ‘restrained’.” He laid his palm flat against the cool grey cheek above him and executed a slow sensual writhe, rubbing his slim body against the spy’s stockier frame wherever they touched. “I’m severely tempted to make them all wait out in the hallway until we’re finished.”

“My dear,” he said sternly, “I for one refuse to make love to you in a room without a good roaring fire, not to mention the pleasure of a hot bath.” He pressed a lighter kiss to Bashir’s lips and offered his most charming smile. “Let’s see about that cold water, shall we?”

“Well,” Bashir admitted, propping himself up on his elbows as Garak rose and went around the foot of the bed to a table near the window where a ceramic jug and two mugs stood waiting, “I am rather thirsty.”

“I thought you might be.” He poured, and the sound of it was delectable. “You worked very hard, and I must say I’m impressed by your progress in so short a time.”

Bashir smiled and hoped that he hadn’t revealed too much of his physical competence. “I blame the Chief’s holosuite programs. Obviously they were based on real-world dynamics.”

“Clearly so.” He sipped from one mug, holding out the other, and after a moment Bashir abandoned his comfortable position with an audible sigh and came to take it. “You’ll have to introduce me to them when we get back.”

“They’re Miles’ programs — you’d have to ask him.”

“Hm.” A little grimace. “I can’t see that going very well. You know, I don’t think he likes me.” He sounded so surprised and puzzled that Bashir smirked.

"He doesn’t like Cardassians on general principles. I’m sure if he got to know you better he’d —”

“— discover an entirely new set of reasons to find my species repugnant, and me in particular.” He slid a rueful glance in Bashir’s direction. “I’ve seen it all too often in the past, Doctor — in particular among my fellow Cardassians. We may excel at conversation, but you’ll seldom find a species more xenophobic.”

“Do you consider yourself xenophobic?”

He shrugged and watched a carriage drive by in the street below. “Let’s just say that my tastes are unusually eclectic, and leave it at that.”

“Including your taste in lovers?”

“Quite frankly, if word got about that I was sleeping with you it would be considered tantamount to bestiality.”

Bashir almost choked on a sip of water. “You’re joking.”

“I’m afraid not. If it were that —”

A knock on the door made them both turn. “Enter,” Garak called, and the door opened to admit two Naievirl women, young and healthy and clad in identical blue robes. Behind them stood a Naievirl male similarly attired, barely more than a child and carrying a tray with a large platter of food on it, a metal carafe, and two elegant wineglasses.

“We’ve come to prepare your bath, irav,” the taller woman said with a respectful headbob. Her eyes went to Bashir and lingered, and he thought he detected a trace of a sincere smile.

Garak nodded. “You may proceed.”

They bowed and moved toward the metal tub, picking up two buckets which had been hidden from Bashir’s sight behind it and moving into the water closet. He heard them turn on the faucet, but his attention was more occupied with the food and wine the young man was bringing in and setting on a larger table beside a different window, one flanked by two chairs; his stomach growled, surprising him, but of course he’d exerted himself quite a bit since lunch. “Thank you,” he told the youth, who headbobbed at him, offered him a quick wide smile, and took his leave. Surveying the contents of the platter — soft buns, perhaps half a kilo of hard cheese, dried fruit, and some other items much less easily identified — he smiled. “I think this is that cheese you enjoyed so much at lunch.”

“I do believe it is.” Garak sat down, picked up the sharp-bladed knife on the platter, and began to carve off slices; Bashir joined him, and for quite a while they devoted themselves to eating with only the lightest and most inconsequential conversation, aware of the two slave women filling the bath and well within hearing range. When they’d finished that task the two Naievirl set themselves to lighting a good fire on the hearth, taking wood from a closet set into the wall and skillfullly coaxing it into a cheerful blaze. The light beyond the windows was fading significantly by the time they’d finished and Bashir was grateful for the extra illumination the fire would provide; looking around, he saw a crystal-chimneyed lantern on a table beside the head of the bed in addition to the one on the table they were currently seated at, both unlit, but at least it was an option for later.

The two women came to stand before them, heads submissively lowered. “Is there anything else, irav?”

“No,” Garak said, but Bashir disagreed.

“Yes, there is something,” he interjected. “How is Al’liel? Do you know?”

They glanced at each other, and this time both smiled. “The tale has spread of your healing, neiassa,” the shorter one said. “Her fever has broken and she was sleeping peacefully the last I heard tell. R’rials says that you saved her from the Red King’s court.”

Bashir smiled in return. “I’m glad to hear it. Please tell him that I’ll come to see her before I leave, if I can.”

They headbobbed. “We will convey the message,” the taller woman promised. “Shade and sweet water to you, eil irav! If you have need of anything, pull that cord beside the bed and someone will come.”

When they had departed and closed the door behind them Garak looked at him enigmatically. “There’s still that matter of the ten tiorli,” he began, but Bashir wasn’t in the mood to hear it.

“You can scold me later, Garak. Right now I have other things on my mind.” He took a final sip of water and rose from his seat, trailing a hand over Garak’s neckridge as he passed on his way to the bathtub and trusting that the message would be perfectly clear.

The tub was clearly designed for two people who didn’t mind being somewhat cosy, in keeping with Bashir’s theory that when travelling males in this culture tended to do things in pairs: a little over two meters long, and deep enough that the bathers could easily submerge themselves up to their necks. Each end was sloped sufficiently that one could lean back comfortably without reclining too far, and on either side a little ceramic bowl was attached to the outside edge of the rim, where it could be easily reached by someone relaxing in the hot water. Each bowl was filled perhaps two handfuls of a coarse white powder which glittered slightly in the fading light, its purpose discernable but its usefulness undetermined.

Bashir scooped up a small amount of the white powder and brought it to within a centimeter of his nose: the scent was mild and slightly astringent but not unpleasant. When he dipped it into the water and brought it back out again the powder foamed between his fingers as he rubbed them together. Some sort of detergent, perhaps containing a form of borate. Bashir waited, and Garak cocked his head. “Is something wrong?”

“I want to make sure that this isn’t going to irritate my skin.”

“A wise precaution.” He picked up the carafe. “Would you care for some wine while you’re conducting your experiment?”

“That would be lovely.” There appeared to be no reaction, not even a slight tingling; nevertheless he counted out a full thirty seconds, during which time Garak poured the wine into two glasses and brought them both to where he stood. Bashir nodded thanks as one was handed to him and took a quick sip, counted off the last fifteen seconds, then rinsed his fingers clean and examined them; he was pleased to find neither redness nor swelling. “Well, that’s a relief. I was looking forward to a good thorough scrubbing.”

“And is the water temperature to your liking?”

Bashir nodded. “The question is, is it warm enough for you?”

Garak dipped the fingertips of his right hand into the bath and smiled. “I’ve enjoyed hotter, but this is quite satisfactory. Now.” He set aside his wine glass on the little table at one end of the tub and turned fully to Bashir. “Are you ready to take advantage of it, or shall we —”

Bashir stepped forward and kissed him, eager but unhurried. The taste of the mulled wine burned between them, warm and spicy and slightly sweet; Garak had to tilt his chin up just a little, and for some reason Bashir found that immensely pleasing. He handed his glass to Garak to set down, which the Cardassian managed to do without interrupting the kiss, and then ran his hands lightly up and down his friend’s upper arms, feeling through the linen the slight ridges that ran down from his shoulders almost to the elbow. When their lips finally parted Bashir whispered: “I’ve been waiting to take advantage of a lot of things since Cheldar Nor’iv. A hot bath is the least of it.”

“It is, however, a very good place to start.” His blue eyes danced as he reached up and began to open Bashir’s shirt. With equal pleasure Bashir reciprocated, and within a few seconds they’d slid the garments off each other’s torsos and tossed them onto a nearby chair; for once Garak didn’t seem too concerned about neatly folding and setting aside articles of clothing. Between the glow of the fire and the fading daylight from the windows Bashir was able to finally get a good look at what he’d previously known only by touch: dove-grey skin like very fine leather, patterned with baroque curves of soft scales and elevated, heavier ridges. The ridge scales were thicker and a shade darker than the surrounding skin, each one embossed with intricate repeating patterns. He paused to run slow fingers back over the ones that followed the sweep of Garak’s eighth ribs, paying special attention to the places he’d marked as highly sensitive during their first encounter, and smiled as Garak caught his breath slightly. “Does that tickle?” he teased.

“That’s not precisely how I’d describe it, no.” His hands came to rest on Bashir’s hips and his eyelids flickered closed, the gesture subtly and strangely inhuman.

“I see.” He followed the ridges back, stepping right up against the broad chest as he explored the softer scales along his spine with a lingering touch. The scent of the Cardassian rose around him, cool and so delicious that it made his heart ache with longing both emotional and sexual; with a little moan he lowered his head and applied a bite to his left neckridge, stroking the scales with his tongue. His hands tightened on Garak’s back: suddenly they wanted to be everywhere at once, learning everything, pleasuring and being pleasured. He found himself almost trembling with urgency.

“Doctor,” Garak objected gently, pulling back a good ten centimeters. “As much as I’m looking forward to discovering just how comfortable that bed is, I think I’d like to be clean first.” He pressed another, lighter kiss to Bashir’s mouth before going down on one knee, opening the Human’s pants and sliding both them and his underwear down over his slim hips with a tailor’s impersonal skill. His smile, however, was very personal indeed as Bashir’s stiffened cock was revealed. “My, what a lovely rosy color! To think you’ve been hiding it under that hideous uniform all this time.”

“Mm.” Garak’s gaze was making him throb; he closed his eyes and allowed himself to be fully undressed, steadying himself with one hand on the rim of the bathtub as the Cardassian removed his boots and socks. The unexpected flicker of a reptilian tongue against the very tip of his erection made him gasp and twitch, but Garak rose immediately and Bashir opened his eyes to see another inviting and enigmatic smile.

He grinned and set to work returning the favor, kneeling to strip down the soft wool trousers and green silk underwear and expose a pattern of more elaborate and dramatic scales adorning the long slit that ran down the front of Garak’s penile sheath. The slit was slightly open and something glistened inside; Bashir looked up for permission, saw a raised eyeridge, and stroked a very gentle fingertip along it from bottom to top. Garak’s eyes closed and he tipped his head back a little, his breath catching in his throat once more, and when Bashir looked down again he saw that the ornamental scales had darkened under his touch, revealing delicate and intricate charcoal designs that were startlingly attractive.

He leaned forward and kissed them, barely brushing them with his lips before returning to the job of removing the last of Garak’s clothing. The slit opened even more in response to his kisses and the glistening had moved closer to the surface, but if Garak wanted to take things slowly he respected that wish: they had this room for two whole nights, and there’d be plenty of time to fully explore each other’s responses. For the moment Bashir was content to discover more of the overall ornamentation on Garak’s body, including the ridges and scales that ran down his thighs from his hips and tapered off just above his knees. Below the elbows and the knees his hide was smooth and scaleless, with just enough texture to differentiate it from Human skin — and make it very exciting to touch. Once the boots and socks were taken care of he cupped the back of Garak’s right ankle and caressed the upper arch of the foot below it, appreciating the elegant engineering of it, the solid grace of the shapes.

“Doctor?” Garak asked after a moment.

He looked up and smiled. “You’re beautiful,” he said simply.

Garak laughed outright. “I’ve been called many things in my time, but never that!

“I find that hard to believe.”

His expression grew more serious and he extended a hand to help Bashir up. “In my line of work, the word ‘beautiful’ is seldom what comes to mind.”

“’Elegant’, then?” He accepted the offer and let Garak half-pull him to his feet.

“’Efficient’, perhaps.” When Bashir was standing again Garak neatly shifted the orientation of their hands so that they ended up palm to palm, fingers aligned and pressed length to length at chest level: a distinctly Cardassian gesture, one of affectionate connection if Bashir recalled correctly. Now what he'd always known about Garak was definitely evident: the Cardassian was a good five centimeters shorter than he was, but the difference in height only made him feel even more engaged with his alien lover. “I’m afraid that you hold the monopoly on beauty in this partnership, my dearest. Come now — let us bathe, and finally rid ourselves of this infernal chill.”

Garak settled into the hot water with a little moan of pure satisfaction, and Bashir found himself making a similar sound as delicious heat enveloped him up to the base of his neck. The only other part of his body that wasn’t covered were his knees, and even they weren’t feeling quite so chilled anymore.

For a long while they lay in companionable silence, heads back and eyes closed, legs loosely interlaced, letting the warmth of the bath soak in and finally start to drive some of this planet’s cold from their bones. It was Garak who at last remarked: “You know, in the northern latitudes on Cardassia no house of any value is complete without a full sauna built in for use during the winter months.”

“Is that so?” Bashir could well believe it of a species with a reptilian heritage.

“In fact,” Garak continued lazily, “the art of the sauna is highly valued. Which subtle perfumes to use to scent the water, for example, or which wines to drink while luxuriating in the warmth and heat. There’s even a type of liqueur called ‘steam delight’ which is only imbibed under those conditions, and it’s considered the height of gaucherie to even suggest drinking it under any other circumstances.”

“We’ll have to try that sometime.” He could feel a tension he hadn’t known was there begin to leave him as the heat fully penetrated his muscles.

“I’m not sure you’d like it, Doctor. It’s sweeter than kanar and for a Human would definitely be an acquired taste.”

“With you to instruct me,” Bashir smiled with his eyes still closed, “I’m sure I’d come to like it quite well.” He let a hint of a sexual purr infuse the words, enjoying the game immensely.

“Hm!” He chuckled briefly, sounding both pleased and amused. “Perhaps you would, at that.”

After a few more minutes Bashir stirred and reached for the soap powder. “Come over to my side; I’ll wash your hair.”

“Why, that’s most kind of you!” Garak cracked open one eye and regarded his companion with mock disapproval. “But I haven’t needed help with that since before I learned to walk.”

Bashir smiled at him. “It’s a mammalian thing — the desire to engage in mutual grooming with one’s mate.” He sat up a little, his shoulders and upper chest breaking the surface of the water. “Come here,” he murmured, making the request a caress.

Garak looked sardonic. “Who am I to argue with hundreds of millions of years of tradition?” he quipped, moving to obey and being careful not to slosh water over the edges of the tub. In the process of turning around he revealed more ridges, thinner ones that circled the sides of his buttocks and ran several centimeters down his gluteal cleft from the coccyx.

“That’s the spirit!” Bashir guided the Cardassian to sit in front of him, leaning back between his legs and against his chest, and began to massage the foaming powder into his damp hair: it was so very black, like midnight itself made manifest, and as smooth as thick silk. The spicy scent and the non-Human texture, combined with the sensation of those gluteal ridges, made his cock stir eagerly again. Garak hummed softly, resting his elbows on the edge of the tub and letting his head fall forward under the gentle probing of the Human’s fingers, evidently enjoying the customs of mammals in spite of himself. “Don’t Cardassians do anything similar to this?”

“If I told you that,” he smiled, “I’m afraid I’d have to kill you.”

“Fine, don’t tell me. I’ll figure it out on my own.” He ran his hands down onto Garak’s neckridges for a moment, caressing the erectile tissue — and encountered small shifting patches where he’d expected to find firm skin. He paused mid-rub. “You’re shedding!”

“Hm? Oh, yes... that’s to be expected.” He sounded relaxed and not in the least concerned. “Ideally we like to enjoy a long hot soak each day; it keeps the scales supple. After a few days on the road in these temperatures I’m not surprised that some have dried out and are coming loose.”

He frowned. “Is there anything I can do?”

“What you’re doing right now is quite acceptable — more than acceptable, in fact. Just keep massaging the skin and removing any that come free on their own. Later on, an application or two of ikara oil will also help.”

"And we would find that oil... where?"

"I believe there's some on the bedside table, for the needs of weary — and flaking — travellers like myself. Please... continue."

Bashir quirked a little smile. “With pleasure,” he replied, and resumed stroking Garak’s neck and shoulders, scooping up handfuls of water to rinse them clean of the lather that had drizzled down from his hair. The thin patches of dried leathery skin flaked off easily, but only along the ridges: the larger, more subtle embossing across the nape of Garak’s neck and his shoulderblades seemed unaffected. He picked most of the scales off as they detached and dropped them over the side of the tub; the ones that sloughed off into the water he didn’t concern himself with, but as each new scale was revealed he leaned forward to press his lips to it, pleased to see the ridges begin to darken to cloudy grey under his ministrations. “Is this something lovers typically do for each other?” he asked as he removed the last visible dry patch.

“If they’re stuck on an icy backwater planet, yes, I suppose they might. And tell me, do mammals require any such special care?”

He kissed the final new scale and then returned to the pleasant task of washing Garak’s hair. “Oh, I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of the thrill of discovery.”

Garak laughed, the sound low and and intimate and thoroughly delightful. “How very considerate!” He settled deeper into the water and closer against Bashir, close enough that the Human’s burgeoning erection was pressed between them. “I can think of at least one place to start...”

“Mmm.” He briefly considered reaching down to see if the Cardassian’s penis was also everting, but there was something so charming about the simple act of grooming his lover — mammalian indeed — that he was loathe to take things to the next level so quickly and lose the moment. There was no hurry: they had all night.

He let his fingers linger in the smooth fall of blackness, recalling the theoretical ancestor of Cardassians, an alligator-like reptile with a crest of similar hair as its only adornment besides its intricate patterns of ridges. That animal was long extinct but impressions of its hide had survived in the shale that had once been part of the mud flats where it had flourished — or so a few leaked documents from Cardassia implied. For a species so dominant, aggressive and widespread, surprisingly little hard data existed outside of Cardassian databases... and here lay the mystery itself, relaxed against him with uncharacteristic trust and almost purring under his hands. The thought was both stimulating and humbling, and he silently vowed never to betray that confidence.

Garak turned his head enough to fix Bashir with a bright and questioning blue eye. Bashir gave himself a little shake. “I’ll take care of the scales on the rest of your body later,” he said, and finished washing the Cardassian’s hair in fairly short order. “There. All done.”

“My mother couldn’t have done a better job,” Garak commended him, sliding down in the tub to submerge his head from the hairline back; the black strands floated briefly free, swirling around Bashir’s hands like the tendrils of some exotic sea creature before he sat back up again, running both hands back to smooth them down properly. “Your turn, my dear.”

“I thought Cardassians didn’t engage in allogrooming,” Bashir noted as Garak returned to his side of the bathtub.

“Not as a rule, but we are very quick learners.” He leaned back and looked down at his own chest, and Bashir didn’t need any more encouragement, pausing only to quickly submerge his own head in a similar manner before joining the Cardassian. Garak scooped up some of the soap powder, lathered it between his hands and began to massage the foam into Bashir’s wet hair. “I must confess that I’ve often wondered if you were the same lovely color all over or if there were variations in the tone of your skin, if not the texture.”

“You’re not disappointed, I hope?” He settled back, enjoying the texture of the chest and belly ridges and accepting the fact that there was no sign of penile eversion against the small of his back; if Garak's experience of this moment was similar to his own, there was more tenderness than passion in their mutual contact. For now.

“On the contrary: you’re a study in minimalist beauty." The relaxing quality of his touch made Bashir utter a small sigh of pure contentment: another skill to add to Garak's already long resume. "Such smooth flesh, and such an attractive hue, like honey from the Akatar province — and, I might add, just as sweet.”

Now it was Bashir’s turn to smile. “Why, thank you.” As compliments went it was rather effusive, but he was pleased nonetheless. “If I didn’t know better I’d even think that you meant it.”

“Oh, but I do. I would take you there if I could, so you could see for yourself. Akatar is particularly beautiful in the autumn when the sokka sets forth its yellow fruit and the iss’harli sing to each other through the long nights. And of course, there’s all that honey.”

That set Bashir laughing, as much from the pure pleasure of his lover’s touch as from the sly bit of humor delivered so earnestly. Even if Garak didn’t mean it he found the statement of intent, especially from a creature as inherently xenophobic as a Cardassian, touching in a different way. “If I could, I’d accept that invitation,” he half-teased, “although you’d never convince me to visit during the summer months.”

“That would be highly unpleasant,” Garak agreed, “even if you went around naked — which, while an appealing prospect from my point of view, would certainly win you no admiration from my fellow Cardassians.”

Bashir found his mood suddenly more solemn. “I wish you could,” he said quietly. “Return to Cardassia, I mean. I know it’s all you really want.”

Firm grey fingertips worked their way to the back of his head and then returned to his temples, tracing circles on his scalp. “It’s been my experience that no matter how desperate one’s situation, life always offers some sort of compensation if one looks hard enough.”

“Funny, I never had you pegged as an optimist.”

“If I weren’t, my dear Doctor, I’d have died long since.”

Bashir closed his eyes from a combination of physical enjoyment and emotional poignancy. “You were ready to die when the implant malfunctioned.”

“True, but you wouldn’t let me.” There was a smile in his voice. “You were a proxy for the optimism I’d lost sight of, sickening Federation sympathy notwithstanding.”

“What would you have done if I’d given you that hypospray back?”

“Injected myself with a lethal dose of triptacederine... but with such an interesting conversation to engage in, how could I possibly have left without seeing how it turned out?”

He was joking. Bashir was not. “I wouldn’t have let you, you know, even if it meant subduing you in hand-to-hand combat and calling in a security team to strap you to a biobed in the Infirmary.”

Garak was silent as he finished washing the Human’s hair, only his hands moving. “You might even have won,” he said thoughtfully, “given my weakened and debilitated condition.” He cupped Bashir’s head between his hands and sighed from deep in his chest, then spoke in a softer tone: “What I could never understand was why you did it: went into Cardassian space, faced Enabran Tain, negotiated for a life I didn’t want to live anymore.”

“Because —” He slumped a little and sighed in his turn. “Because I knew that when you recovered you’d want to live again. You’re an optimist, remember?”

“You knew no such thing.” A soft hiss with an undercurrent of steel.

He opened his eyes to gaze out the dusklit window and stiffened his shoulders again, straightening his neck and squaring his jaw. “All right. I wanted you to live. And I wanted you to make the choice in your right mind, not driven half-mad by pain and withdrawal.”

“A more honest answer,” Garak conceded. He ran his fingers back into Bashir’s hair and his voice became sunnier. “In any case, I never did properly thank you for your efforts on my behalf. So.” He slid both hands down Bashir’s neck and onto his shoulders, trailing soap and an electric thrill of heat as he leaned forward to press his cheek to Bashir’s damp locks and whisper in his left ear: “Thank you, Julian. For everything. Now duck your head, and let me see to the rest of you.”

Chapter Text

Bashir smiled and obeyed, shifting forward and leaning back; Garak’s fingers stroked through his hair under the water, gently tousling it to free the last of the soap. When he sat up again the Cardassian’s silky voice murmured: “Turn around and kneel up — yes, just like that...” He guided Bashir into position between his open thighs, on his knees with both hands braced on the edges of the tub to help stabilize his upright position, and as he soaped his hands again his gaze slowly parsed the Human’s body with a force that was almost palpable; Bashir’s cock, which had been quiescent, began to harden again under his scrutiny. “Perfect,” he remarked before proceeding to wash his partner unhurriedly, starting at his neck and working down with a touch that was half massage and half caress. He took care of Bashir’s back first, skillful fingers finding and releasing the residual tension from their workout that afternoon — and also finding nerve pressure points that a tailor certainly shouldn’t have known about, applying firm precise force that sent waves of relaxation down Bashir’s body and made him moan softly with both relief and desire.

After the third such application of skill — index and middle fingertips digging in on either side of lumbar vertebra L1 — Bashir, now fully hard, gasped: “Where did you learn to—?”

He choked back the question. He wasn’t likely to get an answer anyway. But to his surprise Garak responded: “You’d be surprised how frequently I’m called upon to ease a customer’s aching back.”

A false answer, or perhaps half-true at best. He tightened his grip on the sides of the tub as the grey hands slipped lower. “Doesn’t running a massage parlour affect your zoning?”

“Not if I do it less than once a week.” Down the small of his back, tracing gentle circles; down onto his buttocks, slowly and thoroughly lathering the smooth skin as the muscles tensed under his ministrations. “Rest assured you’re getting special treatment,” he said lightly. “I don’t make a habit out of using this particular set of talents — not anymore.”

“Mmn.” It felt so good; he let his head fall back, drawing a deep breath as the throbbing in his cock intensified when Garak’s fingers stroked into the cleft of his ass. “You used to be a masseur?”

“I’ve been many things, as the occasion warranted.” He soaped Bashir’s upper thighs where they gleamed above the waterline, then transferred his hands upwards to the front of the Human’s throat, ignoring the little groan of disappointment as he completely bypassed the area that most wanted attention. Looking down, Bashir saw an unmistakable gleam of mischief in his eyes: he knew what he was doing, down to the last quiver of his hapless companion’s reactions. “And although I know you’re dying to ask, I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything more than that.”

Bashir pretended disappointment. “Not even a few hints?”

“Well.” He paused to retrieve more powder, evidently deciding that Bashir wasn’t soapy enough. “I still have a fondness for Edosian orchids — exquisitely beautiful and highly toxic, so it’s fortunate that they’re only used for ornamental purposes.” He reached up again to stroke his friend’s smooth shoulders. “Most of the time, anyway. Let’s see, what else... I appreciate art and literature, as you well know, although I’ve never particularly enjoyed performing in front of an audience. Now one fellow I knew, named Tervek — he could declaim and dance for hours, at the drop of a hat. Some of his best work was accomplished while others were happily watching a play or listening to a rousing speech.” He chuckled fondly. “Most of the time they never knew what hit them.”

“I find it hard to believe —” He sucking in a tiny breath as Garak’s fingers found his erect nipples and explored their responsiveness again. “That you’d be nervous about performing.”

“My best work has always been done behind the scenes.” Stroke, pinch, twist — not quite hard enough to cause pain, but close.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that either.” Bashir let the impatience he felt concerning Garak’s apparent reluctance to actually touch his erection leak into his voice.

“Hm.” He moved on to Bashir’s lean stomach. “My dear Doctor, I’m at a loss for what to say to convince you.”

“You can’t.” White foam was running down over Bashir’s abdominals, soaking into his pubic hair and framing his very eager erection. “In spite of yourself I’ve learned a thing or two about you, Garak.”

“In spite of me?” He smiled serenely and his hands swooped down, closing around the shaft pointed straight at him. “That sounds highly unlikely, doesn’t it?”

For several seconds Bashir couldn’t think of an adequate reply. The sensation of his cock being well-lathered by those clever hands was immensely distracting, but at last he managed to achieve coherence and a certain amount of wit. “For a species that doesn’t allogroom, you’re very good at it.”

“What can I say?” His thumb skimmed over the head and momentarily took Bashir’s breath away. “You inspire me to previously unattainable achievements.”

After a few more seconds of heavy breathing, Bashir almost pleaded: “Speaking of inspiring... if you keep that up, I’m not going to last long.”

“You say that as if it’s a problem.” His bantering voice dropped in pitch and volume to a sensual hiss. “I want to watch you come, Julian. Will you let me?”

He groaned helplessly as the temperature between them suddenly shot up at least twenty degrees. “Yes! But only if you’ll return the favor later.” Garak’s smile was a promise, but Bashir had a final question before he let himself go. “Garak, I can — mm! — climax several times in one night. Can you?”

“It’s been a few years since I last had occasion to find out. However, Cardassian males have evolved to mate multiple times with a single partner in order to ensure fertilization.” His smile widened. “I’m sure I can manage to accommodate you.”

“Oh, marvelous.” He relaxed and let his hips move freely, thrusting shamelessly into Garak’s soap-slick hands. “I want this to be just as good for you as it is for — ah! — me...”

“The prospect of seeing you lost and helpless in ecstasy is more than merely ‘good’ — it’s magnificent.” He ran slippery fingers further back, over Bashir’s balls and into the cleft of his ass; the tip of his middle finger changed direction, probed inward, and Bashir jerked and cried out with a note of desperation when it found his asshole and applied steady pressure. Garak made a low soothing sound and gripped his cock tighter, holding him steady for its slide inward, up to the second knuckle in a single stroke. The invasion, unlike anything he’d ever experienced before, almost made him see stars. “There,” Garak murmured, “yes, my pretty child, just like that...”

Bashir felt momentarily beyond words, so instead he let loose a long, bone-deep, fervent moan that hopefully conveyed the intensity of his approval. The hand on his cock began to stroke it again; the finger in his ass slipped back out, then in again, deeper and at a more acute angle — and this time it hit his prostate gland.

“Really, Doctor!” Garak sounded startled, amazed, delighted and scandalized all at once. Bashir gripped the sides of the tub with white-knuckled fingers and tried to concentrate on breathing while the water, which had slopped halfway toward freedom as a result of his sudden reaction, began to return to equilibrium. “I’ll have to remember that spot!”

“Sorry,” he gasped, “I just — wasn’t expecting that.”

“Nor I.” He repeated the internal caress; Bashir, now prepared for it, felt a white-hot thrill shudder through his belly but resisted the urge to thrash. “How very interesting. Tell me, are females of your species in the habit of providing such stimulation during intercourse?”

“Now that you mention it, no.” He’d never been touched that way before, even by his most enterprising female lovers.

“One would almost think that males of your species were designed to be delighted by anal penetration.”

He let his head fall forward and closed his eyes. “It’s an — hm! — accident of engineering.”

“A very happy accident, I must say.” He was sliding steadily in and out now, making Bashir quiver as the hand on his erection resumed its slow stroking. “And one that bodes extremely well for the future.”

He laughed breathlessly. “Why do I get the feeling that — ah, yes! — I’m in trouble now?”

“My dear Doctor, if you ever felt safe with me you were very much mistaken.” He applied harder pressure to both the sensitive gland and Bashir’s cock; the Human’s head snapped back, his slim back tensing almost painfully. Through the haze of fierce liquid heat he heard Garak say quietly: “You should never have let me get this close.”

Those hands, those hands that had injured and tortured and killed in the past — those hands were giving him such exquisite pleasure now, and the contrast only made his enjoyment more sweet. “I know you could hurt me,” he moaned, “but I know you won’t. I trust you.” Garak’s finger fucking his ass was preventing him from thrusting at his own pace: he had to accept what he was being given, the gliding pressure on his cock moving a little faster now, pushing him steadily higher. “I want you.” His thighs began to tremble uncontrollably and he transferred his grip to the Cardassian’s shoulders, provoking an audible growl and another increase in speed on his erection. “I want — I — Garak!”

It was an orgasm unlike any he’d ever known before, starting in his deliciously impaled ass and pounding through his balls and cock like a warp core meltdown. He tried not to scream and managed to choke his response back to a loud howl, dimly aware of Garak still growling, almost laughing, stroking him through brilliant aftershocks and down into the smouldering ashes of satiation. “Stop!” he panted, reaching down to pull Garak’s hand away from his highly sensitized penis. “That’s... it’s very sensitive right after an orgasm.”

Garak allowed his hand to be removed. “Does it actually hurt?” he asked with what appeared to be sincere curiousity.

Bashir drew a deep shaky breath. “Almost.”

“I see.” He shifted his grasp to the Human’s hip instead. “We’ll have to see if we can explore that a little further another time. A bit of pain can be quite enjoyable, properly applied.” He twisted his finger in Bashir’s ass as if to prove the point.

“Mph.” He couldn’t really argue under the circumstances. He opened his eyes and looked down to see Garak smiling up at him with an air of wicked promise. Semen was splattered on his broad grey chest and over his left neckridge and onto his cheek on that side; Bashir wasn’t quite prepared for the lustful shock the sight sent coursing through him. He ran his tongue along his upper lip, thinking about licking the salty fluid off, only to have the Cardassian’s fingers tighten warningly on his hip.

“I wouldn’t if I were you. There’ll still be soap residue on my skin, and your tongue might not like that very much at all.”

Bashir stared at him, impressed all over again by his ability to knit scant clues together into accurate predictions. Or at least he didn’t think that he was acting like a cum slut... then again, he’d been surprising himself an awful lot lately.

Garak smiled with evident delight. “You do seem to enjoy the taste.”

“I like the taste of yours much better.” The ambient light from the windows was almost gone and the glow from the fireplace cast an obscuring glare on the surface of the soapy water; he plunged his hand beneath it and found a fully everted Cardassian cock waiting for him. “Let’s rinse off and I’ll show you just how much.”

“Nothing would please me more, but first there’s the little matter of some loose scales...”

Bashir grinned. “I did promise, didn’t I? All right.” He let go and kneeled up, sliding off of Garak’s impaling finger — the loss left him feeling poignantly empty — then shifted back toward his end of the tub, lying back and using his best come-hither glance. Smirking, Garak came to kneel in front of him, granting the Human easy access to his body. He rested his hands lightly on the edges of the tub as Bashir lathered up more foam and carefully washed away his own semen, then began to apply the soap to the grey chest and belly visible from the waist up, paying special attention to the ridges and probing for any shed patches of hide with a surgeon's discerning touch. He found one or two, but the scales on the neckridges, being the most exposed, seemed to have suffered the worst; as he washed Garak’s sides and back he encountered no others, although he thoroughly enjoyed the task for its own sake.

“Sit up a bit,” he purred, looking forward to this part most of all. With a conspiratorial twinkle in his eyes Garak obliged him, and he turned his attention to the Cardassian’s groin as it broke the surface of the bath water, delighted to see that the ridges on the tapering shaft consisted of scales patterned much like the flatter scales on the sheath itself: they were dark grey against the dove-colored base skin and each scale was adorned with delicate designs in deepest black, terminating at the pointed glans with its muted hue of midnight rose. He’d never imagined that a sexual organ could be so ornamentally beautiful, and for a long moment he just looked at it with unconcealed admiration, but at last he scooped up more soap and washed the broad hips, then the ridges that curved over his pelvis, then back to the ridges that framed his buttocks and finally the ones outlined the cleft of his ass. As he touched the gluteal scales Garak hissed faintly and shifted restlessly forward: apparently those particular ridges were especially sensitive. Bashir stroked them more firmly, enjoying the way Garak’s cock slid out another full centimeter and flushed even darker, and resolved to keep that trick in mind for use after they’d gotten into bed.

Clear natural lubricant slicked the shaft but Bashir lathered his hands again and soaped it thoroughly, applying pressure a litttle greater than he would have used in handling his own genitals. As in the garret over the stable the rough treatment met with Garak’s approval if the low growl in his variak organ was any indication, or the way he gripped the sides of the tub more forcefullly and opened his thighs wider. Encouraged, Bashir left one hand on his cock and used the other to explore further back, sliding slick fingers over the cartilaginous underside of the sheath. The slit, now very wide open, terminated abruptly two centimeters from the point where the posterior edge of the protective structure sloped up into Garak’s body, just in front of his anus; as Bashir’s fingertips investigated the final couple of centimeters of the sheath, feeling the faintly embossed patterns of scales that he couldn’t see, Garak shivered visibly and hollowed his back.

“That’s very sensitive,” he whispered, “and there’s a trick to it that I’ll show you later.”

Bashir paused. “Do you want me to stop?” Just because Garak had penetrated him anally didn’t mean that Cardassian males didn’t have social taboos against being penetrated themselves.

“If I don’t like something you’re doing, rest assured I’ll let you know.” He opened his eyes, which had flickered closed when Bashir began to soap his cock, and smiled down at the Human with a predatory flash of white teeth that suggested the notification might come in the form of a sharp bite. Bashir’s heart rate started to speed up again. “Please continue, Doctor. I want you to learn everything you possibly can, and there’s nothing quite like hands-on experience.”

Suddenly and unaccountably nervous, he slid his fingers further along and carefully probed as Garak went on: “I’m afraid we don’t harbour such unexpected delights as you’ve demonstrated. While the fullness of —” The tip of Bashir’s index finger pressed with enough force to breach the ring of muscle, and Garak’s voice shivered briefly. “— of penetration indirectly stimulates the testicular nodes tucked into the rear of the sheath, we lack an internal structure equivalent to the Human prostate. However, the area is very well supplied with nerves and capable of —” He hissed almost angrily, his eyes gleaming intently as Bashir paused in stroking his cock and pushed his finger inside to the second knuckle. “— quite intense sensations!”

Bashir smiled slightly, his nervousness vanishing as rapidly as it had appeared . “Perhaps you should consider a career in medicine.” He twisted his finger toward the ventral plane, applying pressure downward to stimulate the Cardassian’s hidden testicles as instructed, and felt Garak’s whole body go taut above him. “I don’t recall ever telling you about the prostate gland. Your intuitive grasp of the situation is remarkable.”

“It pays to know one’s enemy,” Garak said almost primly, the ridges of his cock subtly pulsing in Bashir’s grasp as they released more lubricant in response to the sensations his partner was provoking. “I’m sure —” He uttered another growl, this one even more resonant, as Bashir rubbed his embedded finger in a slow semicircle and watched his reaction with great interest, the way his head tipped back and his eyes closed and the ridges on his torso rapidly phased to a darker shade, drawing vivid marks of passion across the grey skin . Breathlessly he said: “You — you’re really quite good at this, are you sure you’ve never had a Cardassian lover?”

“I’ve never loved a Cardassian before.” He continued his internal caress while renewing his attentions to the shaft in his hand, which slid out a little further again as he stroked, and dropped his voice to a persuasive murmur: “Can I make you come like this, Elim? Will you finally give me what I’ve been waiting for?”

“Oh.” It was almost a groan of pain, almost a laugh, and the darkening swept up the sharp scales of his neck. “Oh, you beautiful, insufferable boy...”

“I want to taste it. I can’t lick your cock at the moment, but —” He pulled Garak forward with a hint of roughness, until the tip of his erection was less than twelve centimeters from his parted lips, and looked up intently. “You can come into my mouth. And I want you to watch.”

“You are —” His eyes opened, slits of cold slate-blue burning down, and his words became infused with a pervasive hiss. “Most inventive, my dearest. Yes...” He shifted his grip on the edge of the bathtub, moving his right hand to a position just beside Bashir’s shoulder to stabilize his more forward-leaning posture while his left hand snaked around to the nape of the Human’s neck and locked tight with almost painful pressure, holding him in place. “I can see that I’ve underestimated you. I thought you so innocent...”

That sibilance was sending hot shivers through Bashir’s entire body, encouraging him to increase the pace of the stimulation he was offering both inside and out. He was fully erect again and almost desperate to be touched, but he could wait: he had no doubt that Garak was going to fulfill his every need tonight, including ones he didn’t yet know he had. “I am innocent. I’ve never been with another man before.” He moistened his lips with a slow tongue, keenly aware of Garak’s undivided attention. “You promised to ‘encourage my talents’,” he said softly: “Well, I’m ready, Elim. Teach me.” He shortened his strokes, concentrating on the swollen head and introducing a second finger into the cool, clasping channel further back. “Come for me. Please?”

Garak’s gaze became as palpable as a physical touch, lying on his skin like a fever; it was unwavering as a slow shudder worked its way down from the Cardassian’s shoulders, generating a deep resonant thrum from the alien organ in his chest as it flowed down his back and into his thighs. The thrum became that impossible beautiful roar Bashir had been hoping to hear: clearly restrained behind clenched teeth but still powerful, as the darker coloration finally touched the ridges flaring down from his ears and framing his eyes — a faint flush of charcoal, making his eyes seem only more pale and vivid in comparison. The shaft in Bashir’s hand pulsed and as he opened his mouth, still looking up into Garak’s face, to catch the first spurts of Cardassian semen while more of it overflowed between his fingers from the upper vents, he felt exultant and powerful and more wanton than he’d ever been in his life.

Chapter Text

He was still glowing with triumph when Garak, his orgasm over, emitted a long low growl and removed his hand from the back of Bashir’s neck to take hard hold of his chin, their gazes still locked. “Do you have any idea... how provocative that is?”

Bashir lapped a stray drop of semen from the corner of his mouth with deliberate slowness, enjoying the spicy salty taste. Some of the dusky grey fluid had sprayed onto his lower lip and chin as well, but the wet sensation was so deliciously lewd that he felt no need to wipe it away.

“Provocative enough to convince you to fuck me?” he challenged, tightening his grip on the Cardassian’s shaft, which showed no signs of either retreating or softening. He’d never before felt compelled to talk this way during sex — he’d always tended towards gentle words and somewhat flowery phrases — but he found that he was really, really liking it, and loving the effect it was having on the man whose evening it had just enhanced.

Garak blinked down at him and his bared teeth became a slow hot smile. “Has anyone ever told you that you have a dirty little mouth?” he chided.

“Not lately,” Bashir replied, not contrite in the least. “I can stop if you like.”

“On the contrary: I’ve always appreciated your ability to express yourself both frequently and well.” He was taking in the sight of the Human’s cum-streaked face with obvious satisfaction. “I can see that educating you is going to be a most rewarding experience.”

Bashir smiled in return and slid his fingers a little deeper into Garak’s ass. “You may end up learning a few things as well.”

“Reciprocity has always been very important between us, hasn’t it?” His tone was teasing; the renewed fire in his eyes was not. Bashir was pleased to note that one orgasm evidently hadn’t exhausted him, or even noticably tired him: he remained just as hard, and even flexed eagerly in Bashir’s grasp in response to the new invasion. With a small sigh of reluctance he stroked his thumb along Bashir’s lower lip, smearing some of the creamy ejaculate into his skin. “Now... as enchanting as you look this way, perhaps you should wash your lovely face and then we’ll embark upon our next lesson.”

He swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry with anticipation. “Which is?”

“A hot shower and some of that ikara oil I mentioned. I’d like to get rid of every trace of soap, and my scales really could use a bit of attention.”

After a moment Bashir nodded and removed his hands, taking a few seconds to splash a bit of water on his face before following Garak out of the tub. The room was quite warm now and he didn’t feel uncomfortable as he brusquely towelled off in front of the fire, although it was still a little cool from a Cardassian point of view. Once fairly dry, Garak removed a long match from a metal vase on the fireplace mantle, lit it, and led the way into the bathroom, where a tiled floor felt cold beneath Bashir’s bare feet and an enclosed cubicle with a rough woven rug in front of it stood in one corner.

The shower was small, barely big enough for two Cardassians of average build standing chest to chest; Bashir, however, was slimmer than most Cardassians, so that allowed a little more room. Two shelves flanked it high up on the wall, each holding a large lantern; lighting them was the work of a few moments and provided a surprising amount of illumination in the stall itself, which had an open top and a slotted wooden door. The interior featured another dish of the soap powder at one end and a small shelf at the other which measured seven centimeters long by five centimeters deep. The shower head, made of a perforated metal that appeared to be brightly polished copper, was situated directly over the centre of the small space.

“This is cosy,” Bashir remarked, peering into the stall once the lamps were lit.

Garak’s voice floated back as he returned to the main room: “I trust that’s not a problem?”

“Not unless you intend to get excessively active in here.”

“My dear, I assure you that my back is not up to a sexual encounter in a shower stall.” He came back with an armful of towels and a narrow round-edged bottle of dark green glass in one hand; the towels went on the closed lid of the water closet, and he reached past Bashir to deposit the bottle on the little shelf inside the enclosure.

Ikara oil?” Bashir asked, noting that the bottle looked like it had once been corked but was currently lacking one.

Garak nodded. “Safe for use both inside and out, if I recall correctly.”

“I hope so, because we’re going to need it.” The thought of being penetrated still made him nervous, recent encouraging experiences notwithstanding, but the prospect of penetrating Garak in turn was definitely exciting. “Unlike you, I don’t self-lubricate.”

“Really?” He turned to Bashir and reached down, running cool fingertips lightly under the length of the Human’s more-than-half-hard cock. “I thought I detected a few drops of moisture earlier.”

“Pre-ejaculate isn’t the same thing.”

Garak smiled slyly. “Isn’t it? So much to learn,” he said with evident relish as he pressed closer, caressing Bashir more firmly. “What strange creatures you mammals are...”

Bashir grinned down at him and slid both arms around his ridged back. “Are you complaining?” he asked with all the solemnity he could muster, which wasn’t much given the delightful sensations coursing up into his belly and lighting up his nervous system.

“Not in the least.” His blue eyes were sparkling with something that looked just like joy as Bashir stiffened in his hand. He was still fully everted. “That was a purely academic observation. From a personal perspective it —”

Bashir bent to kiss him, taking great pleasure in silencing him for once. “Garak,” he whispered huskily when their lips finally parted, “you do know that —” Kiss. “— sometimes you —” Kiss. “— talk too much, don’t you?” Very long kiss.

Garak didn’t seem deterred. “Conversation is an ancient Cardassian art.” But he was biting at Bashir’s jawline now. “What —” Bite. “— else —” Bite. “— did you expect, Doctor?” Nip, sending another thrilling pulse straight to his partner’s groin.

Deciding that actions spoke louder than words, Bashir guided him into the shower stall and closed the door one-handed, still kissing him. A moment’s fumbling on his part behind Garak’s back produced a burst of cool water that rapidly turned warm; he adjusted it until it ran hot at the upper range of his tolerance and then sank fully into Garak’s strong embrace, exchanging kisses and bites while the shower head dispensed enough water to rinse them both thoroughly clean. As soon as he felt no more glide of soap on Garak’s back he transferred his attention to a neckridge, applying his teeth and sucking gently, and was rewarded with the clean taste of Garak’s hide and a soft indrawn hiss. Smiling, he turned the water off and twisted in place to retrieve the oil. Carefully he poured perhaps twenty milliliters onto the highest slope of each ridge and then returned the bottle to its little shelf. Applying his hands to both neckridges and paying special attention to the lines of thick scales and the newest scales in particular, he was pleased to see them immediately flush grey under his touch, glistening beautifully in the warm lamplight. “These are highly erogenous zones, aren’t they?”

“Yes, as you well know.” His tone was a mild rebuke, but he stretched his neck and hummed softly under the slow stroking of his friend’s fingers. Bashir felt him reach for the oil bottle and pour some into his right hand, then set the bottle back on the shelf and work the oil briskly between his palms. “Let’s see if I can do something for you in return, shall we?”

Bashir smiled and kissed the aural ridges just in front of his left ear. “Mmm, some more massage?”

“Better than that, I hope.” His hands returned to Bashir’s back at the base of his spine and Bashir gasped as those grey fingertips found the nerve clusters on either side and skillfully manipulated them with just the right amount of force: he certainly learned fast for someone who’d never...

Have you had any Human lovers?” It came out a little breathless. Was he really such putty in this man’s hands? Oh, yes.

He sounded amused. “No, but your species doesn’t exactly go out of its way to make information hard to obtain.” Press, release, press again, progressing up Bashir’s spine, and the Human’s head tipped back, the neckridges momentarily forgotten. “For example, you have an entire field of study called ‘acupressure’ which is well documented in almost any public database. A crack squad of Cardassian masseurs could bring your government to its knees in minutes if the Central Command only thought in those terms.”

Bashir laughed, then moaned as the L1 pressure point received focussed attention again. “You... you may be right about that.”

Garak smiled and changed tactics, now massaging the latissimus dorsi muscles in slow circular motions: evidently he wanted his partner to be able to concentrate on something other than what his hands were doing. “My neckridges?” he prompted.

“Yes. Sorry.” He straightened up and pressed his right cheek to Garak’s left, enjoying the coolness of his skin, the texture like exquisitely fine leather and the subtle spicy scent: all aroused him in new and utterly wonderful ways as he rubbed oil into the thick scales. The sensation of a ridged penis nestled against his belly likewise quite delightful. “Am I using enough oil?”

“For the first application, yes,” Garak replied with just a hint of variak organ involvement. A slow shudder rippled down his spine, serpentine, as Bashir started to apply more pressure. “Mrmmrrrr — you have very talented hands, but I’m sure you’ve heard that many times before.”

Bashir felt his lips curve from an impulse of sheer happiness. “It sounds... different, coming from you,” he whispered tenderly, thinking: I’ve never wanted to please a lover more, not even Palis. But of course Palis hadn’t presented the challenge of learning alien sexual responses on the fly, a process he’d found exhilerating with all his non-Human sexual partners... and with Garak there was the additional dimension of deep emotional engagement. He bowed his head to kiss and bite the ridge between oily strokes, pleased to hear the Cardassian’s breathing audibly quicken and likewise pleased that the ikara oil was very mild and he could still taste Garak’s skin through it.

After a few seconds of enjoying such treatment Garak purred again. “And such a talented mouth, too!” His oiled fingers slid lower, shamelessly direct, to curve around Bashir’s ass and pull the Human into even closer proximity as he started to apply little bites of his own to his partner’s smooth-skinned neck. The slight rasping texture of his facial scales as he nuzzled and nipped made Bashir’s nerves buzz with white-hot electricity, and for a while they simply concentrated on using their hands and their mouths to fully explore the possibilities for pleasure in those specific areas, the wordless rhythm of deepened breathing between them punctuated with an occasional hiss or sigh, or the breathless pause of a long and devouring kiss. The body ridges that Bashir could see were all steadily darkening and he wondered if his own body, unadorned, was giving similar secondary visual signals that were obvious to alien eyes. Later. He’d have to ask later, when his mouth wasn’t so busy.

When Garak poured more oil onto his hands Bashir guessed what was coming next and paused, closing his eyes, trying to quiet a heartbeat quickening from nervousness as much as from sexual anticipation. He wondered, in a brief impulse of insanity, what would happen if he pulled away and said in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t ready for this, that he would never be ready for this, that he’d only ever been with women and that he’d always been the penetrator, thank you very much — and that he had no desire to be on the receiving end when it came to sex.

Only that would be a lie when you got right down to it. His mind flashed back to the very first time he’d met Garak, to the way the Cardassian had approached him: utterly confident, unapologetically assertive, maintaining intense eye contact and offering oblique intimacies. It had been a sexual dance, he realized that now, although at the time he’d been far too inexperienced and terrified to consciously appreciate the nuances. But unconsciously he’d recognized the tone and responded; it was almost embarassing to remember how thrilled he’d been, in a way he’d never experienced with any other man who’d ever approached him. The rest he’d responded to for the most part by simply ignoring their advances, because their advances had done nothing for him.

But Garak... something had awakened within him when Garak’s gaze had pinned him, when that smooth voice had caressed him without laying a finger on him, and when he’d startled him with that bold, too-friendly laying on of hands...

He’d been penetrated, laid open, from the moment they’d met. This was only the logical conclusion of a promise that had been made two and a half years ago, and that was why he opened his thighs a little wider now and braced himself for what was to come, and made no protest.

The Cardassian’s fingers ran lightly up and down alongside the cleft of his ass, tracing the areas where a member of his own species would have sensitive gluteal ridges; mentally Bashir took notes for use later, when he’d be preparing Garak for penetration in his turn. He couldn’t help tightening his muscles as the fingers slipped down and inward to press against the tender skin around his anus, stroking and parting to expose it fully.

“Relax,” Garak whispered against his throat with just a touch of commanding inflection. Biting, he ran the tip of his left forefinger over the opening itself, the contact shockingly intimate even after their explorations in the bath. “Let me.” Another little caress, then firm pressure and another murmured order: “Let me in. You know I won’t hurt you — no more than is necessary.”

Bashir drew a deep breath, pushed his apprehensions firmly to one side, and consciously opened the ring of muscle. The slippery grey finger slid inside and his cock twitched, remembering the amazing pleasure of it before and welcoming another experience. “I know,” he half-moaned, but oh, Garak was so dangerous, and it made his heart beat even faster. “I’ve just never....”

“That’s why I must prepare you.” Now that he’d achieved penetration he stepped away from Bashir a little and ran his other hand around front to take hold of the Human’s erection, slowly stroking it and running his thumb lightly over the swollen head; the combined stimuli made Bashir briefly dizzy. He sank carefully to one knee and Bashir transferred both hands to the wall in front of him to steady himself in the face of the coming sensual onslaught, letting his head fall forward as Garak lapped daintily at his testicles. A shudder ran through his thighs, the finger was joined by a second and slid deeper, and he heard Garak’s smile — “Just breathe, dearest.” — before the Cardassian leaned back and began to apply his tongue to Bashir’s very obvious arousal.

“Oh, God.” He had to open his eyes to see that, and the sight nearly short-circuited his brain: his urbane and witty lunch companion, always so elegant and poised, licking and nipping his cock with a refined delicacy that neverthless conveyed undeniable sexual heat. He concentrated on the first few centimeters of his friend’s prick, gripping the base tightly to deny him any chance of thrusting forward, and the constant teasing arousal transmuted the penetrating strokes of his index and middle fingers from uncomfortable to borderline pleasurable — but Garak had always been a master alchemist, turning truth into lies and lies into truth just as skillfully. Bashir, mindful of any fellow inn tenants in the next suite over, tried not to moan too loudly when Garak periodically guided the throbbing glans into his cool, agile mouth and dragged his sharp teeth over the delicate skin, but when a third finger twisted up into him during such an interval he couldn’t suppress a yelp and a wiggle and a curse: “Damn it, Garak...!”

Garak hummed in an admonishing tone, the vibration of his mouth around Bashir’s cockhead making Bashir temporarily forget his point. The thick wedge of oily fingers forcing open his anus and his internal sphincter muscle was harder to lose track of, driving him to close his eyes and gasp sharply in near-protest — until Garak began to gently suck as his tongue traced intoxicating circles, and then it was back to moaning again as the Cardassian’s mouth slid down and his fingers slid up, relentless on both fronts. He wasn’t delving deeply enough to directly stimulate Bashir’s prostate but for the first time Bashir felt a surge of pleasure purely from the penetration: a white-hot coil of fierce lust suddenly took root in his ass and flowed through the erectile tissue buried deep in his pelvis, down his cock from base to tip, settling in his tightening balls. He grabbed the back of Garak’s head with one hand and let him know in inarticulate but nevertheless uncertain terms that he now thoroughly approved of what was being done to him.

Another hum, this one distinctly smug — and then he pulled back completely, leaving Bashir’s cock feeling cold and forlorn. Incredulous, Bashir opened his eyes and looked down to see a merry smile on Garak’s face and a fully everted penis attesting to his own continued interest in the proceedings.

“Are you ready, my dear?” he asked, and slid the wedge of fingers slowly in... and out... and in again. Deeper, opening them just a little. Bashir almost came from that alone.

It took him a moment to find his voice again: “Yes.” So hard to think straight with his cock throbbing this way, enhanced intelligence or no. He drew shuddering breath, silently amazed that he'd gone his entire adult life without even once thinking about exploring this particular set of sexual possibilities.

“Well, then.” The fingers withdrew, leaving him throbbing in an entirely different way, but he had the presence of mind to extend a hand to help Garak back to his feet. “Thank you. Ah...” He rested his hands on Bashir’s hips and caressed them unhurriedly, appearing to just enjoy the closeness as he pressed another kiss to Bashir’s throat. He was still smiling. Bashir caught hard hold of his upper arms, the better to resist the urge to make him pay for such blatant teasing, especially when he said in a tone that was pure distilled sexual heat: “You’re very hot, you know, and so deliciously tight. If my back weren’t liable to go out I would take you right here, up against the wall. But alas,” he sighed dramatically, “those days of youthful exuberance are far behind me!”

Based on their brief encounter in the cave at Nargal Tor’iv, Bashir had no doubt that if Garak really wanted to he’d have his Human lover spun round and slammed against that wall in two seconds flat — and that he, Bashir, would have a Cardassian cock in his ass less than two seconds after that. The prospect was startlingly appealing, but for his first time being penetrated he preferred a gentler and more gradual experience; therefore he didn’t challenge Garak’s self-characterization as an old man incapable of vigorously fucking his youthful partner in the upright position. No doubt the Cardassian would make a lie of his own words sooner or later anyway.

“The bed it is, then,” he agreed breathlessly, and Garak rewarded him with another brilliant smile and a kiss that took his breath away completely.

Chapter Text

The shower that followed was among the quickest Bashir had ever taken: just long enough to soap off most of the oil, rinse, then stumble out of the stall. Well, he was nearly stumbling, anyway — Garak was perfectly poised, although his eyes were very bright as he picked up a towel and began to dry off his Human companion. Bashir returned the favor, finding it a little difficult to concentrate on getting Garak perfectly dry when he wanted to do several other things to him simultaneously. He was so hard it was almost painful and the way Garak kept kissing him — slowly, deeply and thoroughly — wasn’t helping matters, although doubtless that maddening continued stimulation was completely intentional. He gave Garak’s erection a couple of deliberately provoking strokes to even the score and received only a Cheshire Cat smile in return.

“Take one of the lamps to the bedside table, would you?” Garak asked when they were finally done, stepping away as casually as if the air between them wasn’t on fire. He was a little damp in places but didn’t seem to mind. “I’ll be with you momentarily.”

Still feeling slightly dazed — but oh, so alert, and roundly cursing Garak’s inperturbability — Bashir dropped the towel and fetched a lamp from its shelf while Garak returned to the main room. When he emerged he found his friend beside the bathtub, down on one knee amidst their discarded clothing. He stopped in his tracks, staring. “What are you doing?”

Garak ignored his tone of disbelief and went about his business: gathering up the scattered clothes, folding each article with the swift ease of long practice and placing it neatly on a pile graduated by size. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

“Folding clothes.” When we could be rolling around on the bed fucking like rabbits went without saying as far as Bashir was concerned.

“To place in the hallway to be freshened,” Garak clarified, serenely continuing with his task. “Surely you noticed that others have done the same thing?”

There had indeed been piles of clothing beside a few of the doors they had passed on the way in, all of them far less orderly than the collection Garak was assembling. Bashir decided that for the moment it was best to proceed as if the sight of a naked and very erect Cardassian getting shirts ready to be laundered was not in the least remarkable. He continued on to the bed and set down the lamp as requested, on the table to the right of the headboard. It was now fully dark outside and the light from the fire reached this end of the room only dimly; the lamplight cast a very attractive yellow glow across the expanse of indigo bedding, all of which looked soft and inviting. Bashir didn’t hesitate to stretch himself out on it, supine, sighing at the warmth of the blankets and the thick comfort of the pillows.

“This is wonderful!” He had to consciously resist the urge to roll like a cat, confining himself to a long sensual stretch — only to remember something. “Damn! I forgot the oil. Could you —?”

“Of course, Doctor. In a minute.”

Bashir smiled widely and closed his eyes, his whole body pulsing with muted heat that had nothing to do with the ambient temperature. Some of the edge was off his urgency but he still wasn’t in the mood to suffer unnecessary delays. He brought his knees up and opened his legs and placed his hands high on his inner thighs. “Garak?”

“Hm?” Bashir could tell he’d turned to look. He stretched sensually, splaying his long fingers and running them slowly down toward his groin, lifting his hips and spreading his thighs a little more in an act of wanton display.

“Hurry,” he commanded, blending hunger with pleading.

“My dear!” Garak sounded mildly scandalized, then sly. “Why? You’re not planning on going anywhere, are you?”

“I’ve slept with the o’wnli before.” Knowing that Garak was looking at him like this, seeing his cock stand up stiff and yearning between his legs, made him even hotter. He wondered at this new exhibitionistic aspect of his sexual self. “I could do it again.”

“Now, now,” Garak rebuked, and Bashir heard the soft whisper of cloth being folded again, “what did I say about patience?”

“You also said that was a lie.” His hands reached his erection and closed around it, slowly stroking for his audience. New indeed. If Garak wasn’t watching, at least out of the corner of his eye... well, it felt amazing, at any rate. He moaned softly to make the point clear.

“I'll remind you that lies, especially, are true. I must congratulate you, however, on making it rather hard to concentrate.”

“Good,” Bashir said with satisfaction. “I hope to do so quite frequently in the future.”

Garak gathered the pile of clothing, rose, and went to the bathroom, then to the door to the hallway. “What a perverse creature you are,” he remarked as he opened it to set the articles down outside.

Bashir remained where he was, still stroking himself, as the door closed and Garak finally approached him. The Cardassian came like a shadow, on totally silent feet, and Bashir found that exciting too. “Fortunately for you,” Garak continued, sitting down at Bashir’s right side and placing the oil on the table without a lamp, then leaning over him and laying his right hand lightly on Bashir’s exposed throat, “I enjoy a little perversity now and then.”

Opening his eyes, Bashir looked up into his friend’s intense gaze and briefly wondered what coded meaning that touch carried. I also enjoy your vulnerability, perhaps? Or maybe it meant: I could kill you so easily like this. There was something more than sexual interest being conveyed, that was certain, but it scarcely mattered because he was sitting up, supporting himself on his right elbow and pushing his way past Garak’s hand (which ended up braced on the bed to his left) to kiss him open-mouthed, wrapping his left hand around the base of the Cardassian’s skull and pulling him down on top of him — or trying to.

Garak let himself be drawn about ten centimeters and then slid his left arm arm around Bashir’s shoulders and halted their mutual descent. Bashir groaned against his mouth and, letting Garak take his weight, freed his right hand to fumble into Garak’s lap; the alien erection was copiously slicked in his grasp, almost dripping with lust. He ran his fingers over it, paying special attention to the head, and nipped impatiently at Garak’s tongue and wondered just what the hell his lover was waiting for: he was primed, stretched, ready for fucking, and if he had to wait much longer he felt like he’d fly apart.

“Garak!” he finally protested when the spy shifted his attentions to his jawline, nuzzling his caramel skin with obvious enjoyment and humming low in his chest. “If you don’t —” The hum became a sharp growl and an even sharper bite on the sternomastoid muscle, demanding submission that Bashir wasn’t ready to give. He elected to change tactics, pitching his voice to a throaty whisper: “Elim — I’ve had enough teasing.” Tightening his grip on Garak’s shaft, stroking it persuasively. “Please... I want you, inside me. Now.

The subliminal growl became deeper in pitch, and more resonant. “So impetuous!” Another bite, this one close to Bashir’s collarbone, then the stroke of a cool tonguetip over the sore spot that lit up Bashir’s nerves like an isolinear circuit on overload. Garak's tongue flickered, reptilian, up to his right ear, and he murmured into it: “I see you give sex no more due care and attention than you’re inclined to grant to your meals.” The words were mocking and reproving, but the lusty vibration against Bashir’s skin told a far different story.

He ran his left hand down to Garak’s right neckridge and began to massage it with the sole intent of provoking a strong sexual response. It darkened instantly under his touch. Leaning up to the fall of raven hair that half-covered Garak’s right ear, he whispered again: “You can torment me later, as much as you like. Right now I need your cock so far up my ass it makes me scream. Just —”

One second Garak was beside him: the next the Cardassian was over him, between his spread legs, braced on hands and knees and looking down on his rather surprised Human partner with one of those smiles that concealed much more than it revealed. He leaned a little closer, gazing directly into Bashir’s wide eyes. “We really must do something about your salacious mouth, my darling. Perhaps some more soap would help?”

Bashir’s hands were still roughly where they’d started out. He squeezed with both. “Or you could stick your cock in it. Later.”

“That would shut you up, wouldn’t it?” His smile was nearly threatening now. “It’s something to keep in mind, anyway.” He lifted his right hand from where it had come to rest, beside Bashir’s shoulder, and stroked the Human’s cheekbone with a delicate thumbtip, then ran his grey fingers back through Bashir’s hair with surprising gentleness. “Lie back, Julian,” he commanded softly, “and close your eyes.”

Pulse suddenly accelerating, Bashir obeyed. The lamplight burned warmly beyond his closed eyelids as Garak’s hand took charge of him: circling his right wrist and transferring his hand to the Cardassian’s left neckridge, then lightly taking hold of his throat again and running slowly down the centre line of his body, pausing over his rapidly beating heart. Garak murmured something under his breath — “L’ss’ar terak,”, a Kardasi phrase Bashir did not recognize — and then continued on, briefly caressing his heavy erection and taut balls with a touch like muted fire before pressing each thigh in turn, spreading them even wider and guiding them back until Bashir’s feet were off the bed and he felt scandalously opened, more exposed than he’d ever been in his life. He concentrated on keeping his breathing deep and even and not gripping Garak’s ridges hard enough to leave bruises.

He could hear the thrumming start in Garak’s chest, subtly texturing every exhalation. Back at Etarr Nor’iv a similar vocalization had sent thrills of electricity over his skin as he’d listened and imagined this moment: now it felt like a web of sound connecting him to his Cardassian lover, a shared frequency, shared lust. He wished that he could respond in kind, but being Human he did his best to communicate in other ways, wrapping his arms around Garak’s shoulders and back as he settled over him and moaning eagerly when Garak positioned himself and pressed forward and down.

The sensation of being penetrated was not precisely pain and not precisely pleasure: it fell into a third catagory, almost intolerably intense and intimate, almost enough to shatter Bashir’s control completely. He gasped and trembled and forced himself to endure it, to keep his thighs opened wide as Garak slid in and out shallowly, slowly, no more than three centimeters deep, letting him adjust. The Cardassian was petting his flank and murmuring against his throat — “Yes, my darling, like that, oh, just like that,” — and he could hear in his subliminal vocal shiver the tenuous grip he was keeping on his own self-control: he wanted to take what he’d been waiting so long for, without reservation. Bashir certainly appreciated his restraint.

The tapered glans, heavily slicked with natural lubricant, was doubtless easier to bear than a human cockhead would have been. Still, Bashir’s body was reluctant, full erection notwithstanding, and he drew long deep breaths, willling himself to relax. He opened his eyes to look into Garak’s face and saw closed eyes, the narrow snarl of white teeth, an expression of complete enthrallment. The sight brought home to Bashir all that this moment contained: Garak above him, adored and desired, finally being granted his own desire after so many months of wanting and demurring and dancing around the issue. The thought amplified Bashir’s already intense lust, and suddenly the tense guardian ring of inner muscle relaxed to let his friend in.

“Yesssssss,” Garak hissed fiercely; triumph infused his features, and then he was moving with smooth and devastating power. The penile ridges ran against Bashir’s inner walls, the texture of every scale clear and searing, and the first full stroke over his prostate felt like being hit with a bolt of lightning: he cried out and tilted his hips upwards, instinctively increasing the angle of penetration. With the small part of his mind that was still capable of coherent thought he realized that he’d only thought he’d been yielding himself before: this was what it truly meant to be open to a lover, to be unfolded at the deepest possible level. He’d delved into the bodies of many women: he knew what it was like to be the one who parted and penetrated, a joy both tender and predatory. In comparison being fucked by Garak was an act of submission, another permutation in the dance of power they’d been engaged in from the moment Garak had first introduced himself in the Replimat — but Bashir wasn’t the tentative young officer he’d been two and half years ago, and submission wasn’t all there was to it.

He wrapped both legs around Garak’s waist, tightened his grip on Garak’s sturdy back, and simultaneously clenched his inner muscles, grinding his hips in a circle as best he could. Garak growled lustily and bit his shoulder almost hard enough to break the skin; Bashir gasped at the sheer unexpected eroticism of the pain. Another layer of tension and resistance within him abruptly unwound, leaving him even more open, increasing both the degree of his surrender and the intensity of the raw sexual sensations flowing through him with every thrust against his prostate. Garak had said he wanted to see him writhe, and oh, he was writhing, eyes closed hard, trying unsuccessfully to choke back the cries that each invasion threatened to force out of him.

“Talk to me, my dearest.” Oh God, that voice, the elegant inhuman sibilance of the Serpent tempting Eve to the Fall. “Am I doing well? Am I pleasing you?” A thrust so deep that it seemed to pierce Bashir’s very heart. “Please, express yourself!”

Bashir struggled for words, certain that Garak was enjoying the helpless scattering of his usual eloquence just as much as any sentences he might manage to piece together. “I — never...” The words were rough-hewn from panting exhalations, hard-won in the face of mounting, obliterating heat. “Oh, God, never... never like this...”

“Nor I, l’ss’ar a’latli,” Garak hissed, and tenderly kissed the place he’d just bitten, still thrusting hard and deep into Bashir’s heat: “Nor I.” His breathing was now one deep rumble, vibrating in Bashir’s ears and against his chest and belly: Elim Garak, former agent of the Obsidian Order, overwhelming his body in ecstasy and purring for him like a great cat. William Blake had written a relevant word or two on the subject of tigers; the poem skittered beneath the surface of Bashir’s mind and yielded a bright fragment:

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

Fearful symmetry indeed, alien flesh filling him so perfectly that when his orgasm hit eight strokes later, swift and sudden and catastrophic as a tsunami, it felt like being sexually complete for the first time in his life, in ways he's never imagined existed. Lost in its storm, on fire, he heard himself scream and felt Garak’s teeth at his throat again, biting the base of the large tendon in his neck as the Cardassian pinned him down hard and kept thrusting, thrusting... slowing... stopping deep within him, as Bashir’s final shudders faded and he lay gasping and temporarily spent with a thin ribbon of ejaculate cooling on his stomach.

“Ohhh.” A long shivering sigh. He released his death-grip on Garak’s back and returned his hands carefully to the sensitive neckridges, opening his eyes to find them still of a shade that indicated profound sexual excitement — but not sexual bliss. Garak’s face was buried under the angle of the Human’s jaw; Bashir laid his left hand to that grey cheek and gently but firmly persuaded Garak to look him in the face, noting that the alien’s facial ridges were likewise unflushed. While he looked quite pleased with himself, Garak was still thrumming -- and certainly not post-orgasmic.

Bashir frowned, the glowing haze of his own pleasure rapidly clearing. “You didn’t...?”

Chapter Text

Garak smiled, a potent mixture of amusement and affection and sexual burn, and leaned down to administer another lingering bite to the highest point on Bashir’s throat that he could reach. “Not yet,” he purred with a smirk, “but I’m getting there.” He tensed his gluteal muscles, and Bashir felt the scales inside him flex the way they’d flexed in his hand earlier, making his eyes widen with amazement and his panting breath catch in his throat and his softening cock twitch with interest: a new personal record as far as refractory time was concerned. “Ah... you like that, do you?”

“You’re... that’s...” He hadn’t been this tongue-tied since the first time he’d met this man, although he certainly wasn’t complaining, even if he couldn’t seem to find the words to tell him to start thrusting again, please, and the harder the better, because he could already feel the first stirrings of his third orgasm of the evening. Instead he settled for “Oh, yes,” and for running his hands over the neckridges all the way up into Garak’s hair, sinking his fingers into the silken blackness.

Garak laughed softly and pushed himself up enough to insinuate his right hand between them.“Let’s try that little experiment I suggested, shall we?”

“Garak —” That focussed Bashir’s attention immediately. He reached down to push the Cardassian’s hand away. Garak rumbled menacingly, his blue eyes narrowing as his fingers enclosed Bashir’s penis with light and masterful precision. Bashir froze instinctively.

“You really must learn,” Garak hissed, “to trust my expertise.” He unleashed the gaze of a snake hypnotizing its prey, his voice low and seductive and menacing, while Bashir’s exquisitely sensitized flesh all but quivered in his grasp. “I know a thing or two about the administration of pain.”

“That’s —” Bashir swallowed, and managed a joke: “That’s what I’m afraid of.” But his hand came to rest flat on the side of Garak’s stomach, forebearance implying consent. Garak smiled thinly, visibly shifting into a persona that was not quite that of a sexual partner. This was colder, darker, more... businesslike.

“A wise concern.” The scales on his cock not-quite-rippled, sending more shivers of eagerness up Bashir’s spine. “But one that you, at least, need never experience in the future.” His hand stroked down... then up... then down again, the tactile equivalent of his whisper. “There... that’s not entirely unpleasant, is it?”

Bashir’s head fell back as fire flared within Garak’s grasp. “N-no,” he gasped, grimacing, and wondered at himself: pinned, penetrated, letting himself be sexually tortured by a professional. He should be doing everything in his power to get the hell out from under this Cardassian, not spreading his legs wider and gladly surrendering to the way Garak was touching him, a way that he had never dared to touch himself so soon after an orgasm. The cool grey fingers continued their caress, tightening slightly around him, and he choked back a cry at the burst of bright searing sensation, right on the ragged edge of being painful — but the presence of the threat of pain somehow only heightened the growing sweetness of the stroking over his raw nerve endings. He started to pant again.

“Garak — Elim — please...” He didn’t know what he was pleading for: he was too busy concentrating on what that slow skillful hand was doing between his legs, coaxing him back to full hardness, riding the edge of suffering. He hadn’t thought it was possible for this evening to get any more intense. He’d been wrong. As always, Garak had a way of cracking him open, of challenging his preconceptions, of stretching his limits in every sense.

“And yet,” Garak mused in that strangely resonant version of his silky voice, “you do not resist.” He squeezed just a little and Bashir arched his back, whimpering as pleasure became the dominant sensation. “Could it be that you actually trust me?” Garak’s pale gaze held him. He couldn’t look away, and he couldn’t hide the answer in his own eyes. “You do, don’t you?” As Bashir watched something more than cool command infused his expression, although the sense of danger was still present: something solicitous, something joyous.

“Oh, my love,” he said tenderly, “how exquisite you are like this, more beautiful than I’d ever imagined,” and his hand tightened again, milking Bashir’s cock gently and relentlessly, picking up speed. He leaned a little closer with the slightest curve of his lips, as if he were sharing secrets. “Now you are ready,” he confided as he began to rock his hips, his lubricated length gliding in Bashir’s tight heat —

— and suddenly, less than two minutes after an earth-shattering orgasm, a new firestorm of lust roared up from the ashes to consume him all over again. This time it was both hotter and wilder, as if the brief interval of flirting with agony had shaken something loose inside him: he grabbed Garak’s ass, stroking his thumbs aggressively over the gluteal ridges before pulling hard, trying to force the Cardassian’s ridged shaft deeper as it settled into a swift pounding rhythm both faster and harder than his previous efforts. The rumble from Garak’s variak organ underwent another leap in volume and intensity, rough and explosive. When he let go of Bashir’s cock the Human groaned a savage protest, but then Garak wrapped one arm around his back and gripped his hip hard with the other hand and pressed their bodies together, the better to brace him for the fucking, and he decided he couldn’t hold a grudge — not with the pattern of silky scales on that grey stomach rubbing him so deliciously, trapping him between friction above and slick ridges below. He thrashed once, testing the limits, and Garak’s strength contained him easily, pinning him down with renewed determination and uttering a louder hiss of dominance. No further attempt at conversation: he was apparently beyond words now, a loss of control that felt like a gift to the man spread open beneath him.

Even without speaking they moved in a field of urgent noise: Bashir’s demanding moans and eager cries, Garak’s continuous rumbling vocalizations, the creaking of the mattress beneath them as Bashir bucked and thrust, trying to get even closer. He couldn’t kiss Garak — their height difference was too great with the shorter man buried so far between his legs — but the spy was biting his shoulder again and again with bruising force, ranging up onto his throat and down the other side, barely refraining from tearing the more delicate Human skin. Tilting his head to grant access, Bashir dimly wondered if he was holding back because his lover was not Cardassian. It didn’t matter, because this no longer felt like submission: he was both penetrated and devouring, an equal participant in the final steps of their dance as the dark perfume of Garak’s skin swirled around him and two and a half years of foreplay reached its culmination.

When the scales stretching his inner walls began to flex steadily he wailed without restraint, urging his lover on and not giving a damn who might hear him: the whole world was down to the sturdy body above him as it reared up, tensed, thrust deep, shuddered, then erupted with a full-throated roar that was, for the first time with Bashir, completely uninhibited. The thunderous sound, beautifully and purely animal, shook Bashir to his core; looking up, he saw the charcoal patterns of sexual completion reach Garak’s face, which was twisted and transcendent, and words rose to his lips that he didn’t quite dare voice even in this moment of supreme feeling, when Garak might not hear them anyway. Cool liquid pulsed into him, soothing his rawness as the roar surged in Garak’s throat... ululated lyrically... and faded to a low throbbing murmur as the Cardassian sank down on top of him, turning his face away against Bashir’s shoulder and drawing ragged, nearly soundless inhalations.

For several long seconds they lay quiet, luxuriating the sudden silence. Bashir, his erection still burning pleasantly between their bellies, ran both hands slowly up the small of Garak’s back to trace the ridges at the lower arc of his ribcage, savouring the slight dampness of his leathery skin and the scent of his hair, so smooth against his jawline. At last a shiver ran through Garak’s stocky frame, intimately shared where their bodies were still joined, and he stirred enough to push himself up onto one elbow and look down into Bashir’s eyes.

“Well, my dear,” he said evenly without any trace of passionate vibration, surveying what were doubtless obvious bite marks on his friend’s honey-colored skin, “I didn’t make you bleed, anyway.” His hand, still on Bashir’s hip, began to stroke it soothingly, and his expression, while distinctly satisfied, was otherwise unreadable. “Shall we be grateful for small mercies?”

It took Bashir another full breath to find his voice. He wasn’t surprised that Garak had closed himself off after what, to the secretive Cardassian, must have been an interval of almost unheard-of intimacy, but he himself had no such issues to inhibit his response.

“I’m grateful for a lot more than that,” he grinned, letting everything show on his face: his happiness, his gratitude for what Garak had just given him in every sense, the glow of sensual heat that still suffused his entire body and the essence of the words of love he’d deemed it unwise to speak. He opened his hands against Garak’s back and pressed gently. “Come up here.”

After a moment Garak sighed and pulled his still-erect cock out, making Bashir wince fractionally — oh, he’d be sore in the morning, no question, and probably bruised as well — and allowing his Human companion to guide him onto his side as Bashir turned to face him across the pillow. Bashir moved in again, pressing thigh to thigh and torso to torso, and curved one hand tenderly around Garak’s cheek, looking deep into his guarded blue eyes. “That was... incredible,” he whispered, still smiling, then kissed the cool grey lips in a way that, he hoped, silently communicated everything. He caressed Garak’s face, tracing the ridge around his left eye with a light but firm touch. “If this was a taste of Cardassian sex, I definitely want more of it.”

Gazing at the spy through half-lowered lids, Bashir saw the stealthy tension that was lurking behind his eyes begin to fade, although he still looked wary around the edges. His arms encircled Bashir more tightly, stopping on the verge of drawing him even nearer, so Bashir took the initiative and cuddled closer. He was rewarded with the sensation of Garak’s body relaxing, letting go of something unspoken but clearly present. Lightly he said: “How.... gratifying. You’re obviously stronger than you look.” But he was still studying Bashir’s face closely.

Bashir kissed the delicate scales on his chin, then bit them, deliberately offering a Cardassian caress before stating his suspicion: “You thought you were going to hurt me.”

“Didn’t I?” The question had no emotional inflection and seemed quite academic. Under Bashir's fingers the pulse in his temple still raced, but it was declining as he recovered.

Bashir closed his eyes and smiled again, this time ruefully. “Just don’t ask me to sit on anything hard tomorrow,” he joked.

He reached up and laid his fingertips delicately to one of the bite marks that were starting to ache on Bashir’s shoulders. “These are going to bruise,” he said with clinical detachment.

Bashir leaned back a little to look him directly in the eyes. “And I’ll wear them proudly,” he asserted, “because they came from you.”

The wall that Garak had thrown up between them crumbled visibly, although traces remained. “Oh, my dear Doctor,” he said with a hint of both sorrow and admiration, caressing the Human’s throat, “you really are far too trusting.”

“If being bitten is the price of —” He caught himself. “— being with you, it’s one I’ll gladly pay.” And he had to admit, the throbbing sensation of the wounds was far from unpleasant.

“I promise I’ll be less... forceful, next time.”

Bashir reached down and curved his hand around the ridged, slick, still-firm erection nestled against his own half-hard penis. “I like seeing you lose control. It’s very, very sexy.”

Garak actually looked disquieted, a rare crack in his armor that he quickly glossed over. “Be that as it may,” he said briskly, starting to pull away and sit up, “perhaps we should —”


The soft question stopped him in his tracks. He looked down at the Human, who still had hold of his cock, and his expression was once more unreadable. “Yes, Julian?”

Bashir gazed up at him with deliberate and unmistakable frankness. “I love the way you look,” he stated. “I love the way you smell, I love the way you taste, I love the way you feel when I touch you, and I certainly love the way you touch me.” He squeezed lightly and heard Garak catch his breath. “I may never say it again, not in so many words, but I never want you to doubt it for an instant. Now,” and he removed his hand, “what were you about to suggest?”

“That we get cleaned up,” Garak responded smoothly, “and then that we have a glass of wine before we proceed.”

Bashir grinned. “That sounds like an excellent idea.” He started to get up, but Garak raised a hand to forestall him.

“Ah, ah — no, let me take care of it,” he admonished, then added with a gleam of wicked humor: “I doubt you’ll feel much like walking at the moment, either.”

“Mm. You have a point.” He settled for rolling onto his back and extending both clenched fists above his head, indulging in a whole-body stretch as Garak left the bed and headed for the bathroom. Various parts of his anatomy checked in: bitten shoulders and throat, well-fucked ass, the hip that Garak had clasped so forcefully... oh yes, tomorrow he was going to be one solid ache.

At the moment, however, he felt absolutely bloody marvellous.

Chapter Text

Garak took his time, obviously cleaning himself thoroughly before returning to sit on the edge of the bed, still everted and fully erect — Bashir couldn’t help but marvel at Cardassian sexual endurance — and bearing a towel with two wrung-out wet ends. One was soapy, and he used it to wipe off Bashir’s belly and half-hard cock with tender expertise before rinsing off the soap with the clean end and drying him with the towel’s middle; Bashir was content to lie back and let himself be taken care of, stirring only to reach for the towel and clean his own hands. Then Garak took hold of his waist and guided him onto his stomach so that he could inspect the cleft of his ass, gently parting it with two fingers.

“You’re not bleeding here either. Funny, I’d always pictured Humans as far less resilent than you’re proving to be.”

“Should I be —” He hissed a little as Garak carefully applied the wet, slightly rough fabric to some highly sensitized flesh. “— insulted, or complimented?”

“A little of both, perhaps.” But the warmth and moisture were soothing, so Bashir chose not to pursue the issue. He settled his head on his folded arms and closed his eyes, and a comfortable silence fell as Garak finished with the towel, set it on the floor, and picked up the ikara oil to dribble a little onto the spot he’d just cleaned. The cool lubricant felt even better on his raw anus and Bashir made no effort to suppress a little moan as Garak ran an oily finger over it. “That feels good, does it?”

“It feels wonderful.” He found himself pushing his hips back a little and opened his eyes to find Garak smiling at him with an odd predatory tenderness. “But I don’t think I’ll be up for anything else tonight, as far as that goes.”

Garak’s expression was so dramatically disappointed that Bashir nearly laughed. “Nothing else?”

“Not at that end, no.” He flipped over onto his back and reached down to guide Garak’s slick hand to his cock, which was clearly far from over. “But as you can see, I’m very versatile.”

“I’ve never doubted that for a second, my dear Doctor.” Eyes gleaming with good humour, he indulged Bashir with a couple of slow strokes before withdrawing and reaching for the towel again to wipe his fingers dry. “You’re getting oil on the comforter, you know.”

“I’m sure it’s seen a lot worse. From the room’s last occupants in fact, if Erebak is to be believed.”

“Nevertheless I think another towel is in order, as well as that wine.” He rose and returned to the bathroom, while Bashir followed him with appreciative eyes. He’d never imagined that he’d ever be attracted to a male body, much less one like Garak’s: the Cardassian wasn’t conventionally handsome or obviously muscular, but something about his sturdy form projected both power and efficient grace, qualities that made Bashir want to get even closer to him. In particular the lower curve of his scaled spine and the twin ridges that framed his glutteal cleft...

Bashir’s cock lengthened and lifted more at the prospect, but was still far from ready for penetration. A pause to rest and regroup was definitely in order. When Garak came back with the clean towel he took it and arranged it under his hips, turning onto his side and propping himself up on his left elbow while the spy went to the large windowside table and poured some of the mulled wine into a single glass. He snagged a couple of small pieces of dried fruit while he was at it, popping one into his own mouth and, when he reached the bed, leaning over to offer the other to Bashir. Smiling, Bashir accepted it directly from his fingers, sneaking in a lick of his tongue over the grey fingertips. Garak waved a reproving finger at him, then stretched out on the bed in his turn, mirroring Bashir’s posture and leaving perhaps thirty centimeters of space between them. He passed the glass to his Human companion and glanced around casually while he enjoyed a sip of the wine. It was cool now, but still deliciously spicy.

“So!” His gaze returned to Bashir’s face with a twinkle of amusement; even though the lantern was behind him, casting his face into shadow, the blue of his eyes still shone. “No viewscreens, no computers to provide music or other diversions — whatever shall we do to pass the time?”

“Not too much time,” Bashir promised, offering the glass. Garak took it with a little bow of his chin. “Well, we could always try conversation.”

Garak looked amazed. “What a novel idea, Doctor!”

“I do have them from time to time.”

Garak drank a mouthful of wine, pausing to savour it. “What say I tell you a story? I promise you, it will contain no truth whatsoever.”

Bashir laughed. “Why am I not surprised?” He wasn’t, although it was a bit troubling to realize much how he’d come to appreciate the masterful nature of Garak’s lies. “All right, then. As long as you also promise to make it highly entertaining.”

“Don’t I always?” Garak seemed wounded that he’d even suggest otherwise. He took another sip and passed the glass back to Bashir, letting his fingers linger against the Human’s for a moment before settling down with one hand resting casually atop the other on the comforter. “It’s called The R’sarrn's Bride, and it’s very old, far older than The Fall From Shadows. Apparently the Hebitians used to tell it to their children, although no Cardassian parent today would consider it fit to impose on an impressionable young mind.”

His voice fell into a lilt both formal and musical that only enhanced the persuasiveness of his natural tone; Bashir wondered if it was some Cardassian oratorical form. “As I’m sure even you in your innocence know, there are creatures that are born in darkness, live their entire lives in darkness, and die in darkness. The old Hebitian myths tell of such beasts, similar to your Terran wolves, which as a species were called r’sarrnli. They were said to be servants of the goddess Nasar, queen of the underworld, and to bring nightmares to the unrighteous and to execute those whom she marked for death. Some say that they were once Cardassians, since they can wear the shape of a man if they choose; others, that they have always been ruthless animals in body as well as in heart. But that’s neither here nor there for the purposes of our story.

“Long ago there was a r’sarrn who committed an act considered unforgivable even by a race which committed atrocities as a matter of course. He was banished from the ranks of his brethren and sent to live on the edges of the mortal world, where he eked out a living stealing the cattle of one particular Cardassian village and providing them with a terror to tell stories about on long winter nights. Mothers threatened their children with him if they didn’t do as they were told, although in fact he was rather fond of children and did no more than look in their windows at night while they slept, taking care to stay well outside the circles of lantern-light. He listened to the stories the villagers spun around their fires and they provided him with considerable amusement, although before dawn each day he slunk back to his hidden cave and hid from the sunrise. He knew his place, you see, and although he could have taken the form of a Cardassian and posed as a traveller to join the villagers by the warmth of their hearths he knew that his proper realm lay in the shadows. And he was content to remain there, sending bad dreams as he deemed appropriate and, on occasion, dealing death to the unjust. So you also see that he had never forgotten what he had once been and still did his best to carry out his original purpose.

“One autumn night the village was in turmoil: their chief was very ill with a fever, and without a poultice made of certain night-flowering herbs he would die. However, the villagers remembered that a r’sarrn prowled the shadows around their settlement and one after another the warriors and the healers refused to go out and gather the herbs in the moonless darkness. At last the chief’s niece arose and simply said: I will go. She took a lantern and walked out into the night, and went to a clearing where the medicinal plants grew at the verge of a spring-fed pool. And the r’sarr’n, coming to drink as he did every night, saw her as she knelt there in the small circle of light, picking herbs and putting them into her basket.

“He had never beheld such beauty, and he, who had loved the shadows all his life, suddenly loved the light with equal devotion. He watched her, unseen, as she finished her task, and then he veiled himself in mist and followed her back to the edge of the village, silent as the dead, never revealing his presence. All the next day he dreamed of her in his cold lair, and when she returned to the pool to gather more herbs the following night he watched her and followed her yet again. More dreams followed, deeply disquieting him, and on the third night, unable to bear separation from her any longer, he shifted into the shape of a handsome young man and approached her where she knelt, speaking soft words to soothe her and convincing her that he meant her no harm. He told her that he could help the village chief, and in the end persuaded her to let him return to the village with her, althought she never saw the fire in his eyes as he finally walked at her side.

“The r’sarrn kept his promise. He used his powers to heal the chief, and at the behest of the grateful villagers remained among them, living for the first time in the light of day. Because of his graceful manners and fine clothes they believed him to be a noble from some distant land, an assumption which he did nothing to discourage. He could tell tales and sing songs the likes of which they’d never heard, and no stag was ever born that could escape him when he rode out to the hunt. In time the chief’s niece grew to love him in return, and on an autumn day a year after he first appeared to her they were wed in the village square amid dancing and feasting and the greatest joy.

He fixed his eyes on Bashir’s with new intensity. “The first night they lay together, however, the r’sarrn told his bride that he could remain with her only if she agreed to a certain condition: that after the lamp was extinguished on the five nights of the dark of the moon, she must on no account light it again to look upon her husband. For he knew that in those hours of perfect darkness, when only the stars gave their faint cold light, he must return to his true form while he slept.

"Now, another woman might have started asking questions at this point, but not the r’sarrn’s bride! She was besotted with him, and part of the reason he'd fallen in love with her was for her trusting nature, more the fool he. She agreed, and for another year they lived happily and without any inconvenient doubts.

“The girl, however, had friends who were both more curious and more suspicious than she. When, over their spinning, she let slip the condition her husband had imposed — for you see, she was a little foolish as well as trusting, isn't it funny how the two often go hand in hand? — they immediately began to ask questions and plant doubts in her mind, asking her what her husband was trying to hide from her and wondering at the strangeness of such a request. At last they persuaded her to disobey him and light the lantern one moonless night after he fell asleep. She did, and of course she at once saw the sharp fangs and long claws and sleek hide of a beast of prey lying beside her in their marriage bed.”

Garak fell silent and reached for the wine; Bashir passed it to him, and waited while he took a long sip. And waited, while Garak gazed into the middle distance over his companion’s shoulder, apparently deep in thought. “And?” he finally prompted.

Garak’s voice left its stylized narrative mode. “Oh, the story has two different endings. In one, the r’sarrn’s bride is too terrified even to scream. She flees their home and goes straight to her uncle, who as you can imagine is none too pleased. He rouses the village to fall upon the beast and kill him, or alternatively, to burn the house down with him still inside. In the other, she continues to love him in spite of his nature, or perhaps even because of it — but the r’sarrn’s fellows learn what he has done and slay her and all her kin, driving him back into exile again. Neither outcome being ideal, I’m sure you’ll agree, at least from the point of view of the r’sarrn.”

Bashir took a moment to consider all the implications buried in the tale he’d just heard, studying Garak’s smile and seeing an underlying grimness there. He considered saying outright that he knew what he was getting into and that the analogies of The R’sarrn's Bride were irrelevant, but in the course of their friendship he’d learned to approach arguments from oblique angles. So instead he said:

“Humans have a similar children’s story, although it ends quite differently. It’s called Beauty and the Beast. Would you like to hear it?”

“I’d be delighted,” Garak replied at once, so Bashir borrowed the glass for a preparatory sip of wine, then handed it back and continued.

“There are several versions of the tale, but the one my mother used to tell me went like this:

“Once upon a time there was a merchant who had to go on a long journey. He had three daughters, and before he left he asked them what they would like him to bring back for them when he returned. Two of the daughters, being vain and greedy, asked for jewels and fine dresses; but the youngest daughter, named Belle, asked only for a red rose, since none grew in their part of the country.

“The merchant had many adventures and overcame many dangers, but on the way back to his home he encountered the greatest challenge of all. As he travelled through a dense forest he became lost, and had just given up all hope of finding his way out when he came across a magnificent palace with its gates open. Riding inside, he found everything laid out for his comfort — food, drink, a fine fire, a warm bed... but no servants and no hint of who had prepared such a welcome for him. Nevertheless he was grateful, and he ate and drank and slept very well.

“The following morning, as he prepared to leave, he saw a magnificent rose bush in full bloom in the palace gardens and remembered his promise to Belle. Since such generosity had already been shown to him he had no doubt that a single flower would be granted to him as well, but as soon as he picked it he was confronted by a terrible Beast who told him that for taking the Beast’s most precious treasure he must now die. Terrified, the merchant begged for his life, pleading that he had only taken the rose as a gift for his youngest daughter. The Beast, after some thought, agreed to spare his life — but only the merchant vowed to return or to send Belle herself to live with him, forever.

“The merchant agreed, and made his way safely home again. Belle wept bitterly when she learned of the Beast’s demands, but in the end she agreed to go to his palace in her father’s place. When she arrived she found the palace arrayed as if for a wedding, and all manner of dresses and jewels and riches laid out for her — and the Beast himself, gracious and welcoming. His invisible servants tended to her every need, and every night at dinner he very courteously asked her if she would marry him. Each night Belle refused, because the ugliness of the Beast horrified her, although as time went on she came to appreciate his inner qualities more and more.

“For over a year she lived with him, and they became friends, but at last homesickness began to make her genuinely ill. The Beast saw this and offered to let her return to her father and her sisters for a week’s visit, an offer she gladly accepted. Before she left he gave her a ring and a mirror: the mirror would allow her to see what was happening back at the palace, and the ring, if twisted on her finger, would return her there instantly. They parted amicably and Belle returned home, to the delight of her father and... well, I wish I could say to the delight of her sisters, but they were wicked girls and they were jealous when they saw Belle’s expensive gowns and heard her tell of the Beast’s great wealth. Working together, they convinced her that she was lucky have escaped the clutches of such a hideous creature, and that she would be a fool to return. So Belle took off the ring and put away the mirror, and for a month she lived with her family and put the Beast out of her mind.

“But one night she had a horrible dream: that the palace was in flames and the Beast was inside, being burned alive. When she awoke she hastened to put on the ring and gaze into the mirror, where she saw the Beast lying beside the rose bush, sick unto death. At once she repented of leaving him alone for so long. She twisted the ring on her finger and was transported instantly back to the palace, where she ran to his side and begged him to tell her what had happened. Weakly, the Beast replied that his love for her was so great that he could not bear being separated from her; he would rather die than go on living without her. Weeping, Belle told him that she loved him in return, and when her tears struck his face he was instantly transformed into a handsome Prince, and fully healed. He explained that he had been living under a curse, doomed to wear the aspect of a Beast until he found someone who would love him in spite of his horrible appearance. They were wed, and lived happily ever after.”

Garak offered him the wine, and, while he sipped it, said: “I think the Cardassian tale has more verisimilitude, don’t you?”

He frowned. “Meaning?”

“Beasts pretending to be something better than what they really are, are unmasked on a regular basis, while horrible individuals very seldom turn out to be Princes in disguise.”

Bashir made no effort to hide the wry twist of his mouth. “You have no sense of romance whatsoever, do you?”

“Romance is a handicap when it comes to being practical," Garak countered. "And my original point still stands. Besides, there’s really no comparison between the two stories, except insofar as they’re complete mirror images of each other.” When Bashir raised his eyebrows questioningly, Garak continued: “Well, for one thing, the Prince was never really a Beast, was he? He was only wearing a mask imposed by the curse, and it’s no surprise that anybody with half a gram of sense would eventually see through it. Whereas the r’sarrn was a Beast entirely, who only wore the mask of a Prince to get what he wanted.”

“But could he have pretended to be a Prince for over two years if he wasn’t, on some level, exactly that?”

“Never underestimate the ability of creatures of darkness to conceal their true intent, my dearest. I suspect that even when he lay in the arms of his lovely bride the r’sarrn still remembered what it was like to tear out the throats of his victims. Was the Beast in your tale doing the same while making dinner conversation with Belle?”

“The story doesn’t say — and neither does yours.”

Garak shook his head. “Any Cardassian could read between the lines perfectly clearly. Although," he sighed in manifest disappointment, "I suppose I can’t fault you for not seeing subtleties that your species simply isn’t capable of perceiving.”

Bashir knew an insult when he heard it. “Just for that, I’m drinking the rest of this wine.” And he did.

“No need to sulk, Doctor,” Garak soothed. “You told a very fine story — much better than most of the substandard fare you’ve foisted on me as the classics of your civilization.”

“If you liked that,” Bashir retorted, “you’ll absolutely love Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It features an evil queen who’d no doubt meet with your full approval in terms of her methods for disposing of unwanted stepdaughters.”

Garak smiled thinly, a sliver of hot insinuation. “Another time, perhaps.”

Looking into his eyes, Bashir found their allegorical argument about the destructiveness of love versus its redemptive powers suddenly subsumed into the broader category of essential desire. Without another word he passed the empty glass to Garak, who leaned back to set it on the table beside the lantern while Bashir caressed the extended ridge of his throat as he swivelled his head. The texture of the scales, catching slightly against his fingers, filled him with a pang of lust so intense that if Garak had tried to continue the discussion he would have resolutely kissed him into silence.

Chapter Text

Garak was indeed in the mood to talk — just not about that.

“I must say,” he remarked as he turned back and kept going, taking hold of Bashir’s right shoulder and pushing him down underneath him, “that you look absolutely ravishing like this.” He leaned in to nip one of the bruised bites over Bashir’s sternomastoid muscle, then lap delicately at another over his jugular vein.

Bashir lay back and relaxed, permitting the obvious dominance. He suspected it was a form of compensation, or a challenge meant to put him off what he planned to do next if he wasn’t serious about it. “Like... what, exactly?”

“Marked.” The growl of dark possessiveness brought to mind sharp claws and curved teeth and a predator’s rough pelt; Garak bit him again, higher under the jaw than he’d been able to reach while he’d been buried in Bashir’s heat, and established further proof of ownership. “You’re free to mark me in return, you know,” he murmured, pressing hip close to hip and his own length against Bashir’s rapidly hardening shaft. “Or do Humans not do such things?”

“We do.” He let his head fall back and ran both hands up the Cardassian’s sides, exploring again the patterns of scales and ridges. He doubted he’d ever tire of it. “But your skin is thicker than ours. I’m not sure it would work.”

Garak chuckled. “Yes... you are very delicate, in comparison. That’s another thing that’s exciting about you: you look as if I could break you in two easily, but you’re really surprisingly durable.”

Bashir grinned. “I think you just described Humanity in a nutshell,” he said, guiding Garak to slide up his body a few centimeters and leaning up to kiss the right side of his unscaled throat... then bite, harder than he’d previously dared... then suck aggressively, stroking the kid leather skin with his tongue. Garak paused, lifting his chin and tilting his head to grant better access, and remained in that position when Bashir drew back a few seconds later.

“Well?” he inquired, as if requesting his friend’s opinion on a new tunic.

Bashir examined the irregular purple mark on the grey skin, reaching up to run his left thumb lightly over it. It looked quite dramatic in the lantern’s glow. “Did that hurt?”

Garak’s breath was coming a little more deeply. “Actually, we rather like that sort of thing as a rule.”

He frowned. “What, being hurt?”

“Being bitten hard enough to feel it and to carry the marks for days. It’s considered —” He broke off briefly as Bashir applied his mouth to the shadowed left side of his neck, repeating the process. “— intensely erotic. If you...” An audible swallow, muscles flexing under Bashir’s lips. “My, you’re a fast learner, aren’t you?”

Bashir smiled, still sucking. He adored that slightly distracted tone, the one that told him that he was derailing Garak’s usually eloquent brain. “Mmmmm,” he purred, and released the abused flesh to examine his handiwork with great pleasure. “Tell me more. You know how I love cross-cultural studies.”

He didn’t need to see Garak’s eyes to guess that they had drifted closed. “It’s considered intensely erotic,” he repeated a little breathlessly, “on a number of levels. First, of course, there’s the — ah! —” as Bashir’s mouth attached itself to his prominentia laryngea, “— immediate stimulation. There’s an entire genre of literature devoted to the niceties of how to bite, and who, and how forcefully, but I can see you need no instruction in...” He trailed off as Bashir transferred his attention to the thicker scales of his right neckridge, then hissed and rolled his hips, rubbing his cock against Bashir’s erection and lower belly as more lubricant leaked out in response to the way the Human was biting him, almost tearing at the thick hide. “And then — there’s the pleasure of the marks themselves — of seeing them after one’s lover has departed and recalling to mind — every — my dear, if you keep that up I will take you again!”

“Oh, no.” Bashir administered an even harder bite and moved decisively, rolling Garak over beneath him with his teeth still locked onto the darkening scales. He worried them for a moment, listening to the faint rumble starting in Garak’s upper chest, then shifted higher up his broad neck to sink his teeth into the top line of aural scales. As Garak arched beneath him, clutching at the small of his partner’s back and turning his head to the left to expose his throat fully, Bashir whispered in his ear: “It’s my turn now. I’m the one who’s going to have you. Tell me, do you like being bitten... everywhere?”

Garak opened his eyes and glanced sharply sidelong at the Human straddling him. “You certainly have an inflated opinion of your own prospects, don’t you?”

Bashir smiled, letting Garak feel it against his cheek but not pulling away. He tightened his grip on Garak’s waist with his left hand and bore down with his shoulders, pushing the Cardassian into the mattress in much the same way that Garak had controlled him earlier while enthusiastically penetrating him. “If you’re in the mood for a fight, I’m up for that,” he murmured, “but I’d much rather spend my time and energy doing other things. Are you going to answer the question or not?”

Garak hissed a long exhalation full of resistance. His fingertips dug into Bashir’s back with punishing pressure; they’d surely leave bruises of their own in the morning, but Bashir didn’t allow himself to flinch. Instead he moved his hips in a slow glide, stroking erection hard against erection as he began to suck on that sensitive aural ridge with enough force to hopefully leave a mark. A muted growl rumbled against his chest, and Garak spoke on its wave: “I don’t think you’re ready for fightplay yet, l’ss’ar terak, nor would Erebak appreciate the collateral damage that might result.”

Fightplay. The images that word brought to mind — strikes and blocks, strength striving against strength and skill pitted against skill, lunging and grappling, slamming against walls and furniture, overcoming each other’s defenses and ending with someone getting forcefully fucked — went straight to Bashir’s sexual core and tweaked a kink he’d had a small taste of when Garak had turned the tables on him at Nargal Tor’iv. He moaned low in his throat and bit down aggressively on the ridge leading up to Garak’s right ear, provoking a clear shiver.

“Answer. The. Question!” he demanded around the thick scales.

Beneath him, Garak stiffened. “Mind your manners, Doctor,” he said flatly, no longer growling, but he wasn’t trying to get out from under and he was moving his hips slightly in turn, stroking back. It was an action at complete odds with the new note of menace in his voice. “Need I remind you that I’m no comfort woman to be ordered about at your pleasure?”

Bashir felt sudden tension gathering in the stocky body beneath him, grey legs shifting to brace feet firmly on the bed, and realized that he was seconds away from being overthrown in his turn. More foreplay, or a sincere expression of annoyance? While the idea of being manhandled by an irritated Cardassian — in particular, this irritated Cardassian — had undeniable appeal, he was going to be sore enough in the morning as it stood and he sensed that the balance of power between them was teetering on a razor’s edge. If he was going to get what he wanted out of Garak — or rather, into Garak — he needed to retrench without sacrificing his advantage.

“You’re right.” He didn’t loosen his hold on Garak’s waist or relent in the downward pressure he was applying or cease the caressing of cock against cock, although he spoke slightly more softly. “You’re not, and I shouldn’t have spoken to you like —”

“You misunderstand.” Each sibilant was clearly emphasized. “I’m certainly —” A pause, then a quality entered his voice that Bashir had never heard before: something briefly breaking open, revealing an unsounded depth. “— capable of taking orders, as Tervek himself could amply attest. But you...” His right arm wrapped tightly around Bashir’s waist, trapping their erections together between tense bellies; his left hand ran up to enclose the nape of the Human’s slender neck in an iron grip as he turned his cheek fully against Bashir’s and dominance returned with a hiss: “You are not Cardassian. I could break you in two. So you see, there really isn’t any incentive to —”

“Yes. There is.” The mention of Tervek, Garak’s former colleague, arrested his attention, but he set it aside for the moment. Instead of asking that set of questions he relented physically, pulling back a fraction of a centimeter; Garak’s grip allowed him that much. Quietly he asked: “Do you trust me?”

Another pause. “I don’t...”

“Trust me? Or understand the question?”

His hands shifted, almost seeming nervous, then tightened to the point of pain. “This is no time to play games, my little foross, or to concern yourself with irrelevancies.” He moved as if to roll Bashir back onto the mattress, anger clear in the pace of his breathing. He sounded positively draconic. Fear prickled up Bashir’s spine but did not take control of him.

“Wait!” He didn’t raise his voice, but Garak heard and refrained for a moment longer. “You’re right again: I can’t overpower you and I have no authority to command you to do anything. All I have is what you freely give me. If you —”

Garak laughed, a harsh growl. “Such a Human point of view!” he mocked, and Bashir thought: If he gets me under him again I can forget about being on top tonight, or maybe ever. His peremptory command seemed to have provoked the Cardassian almost to fury, darkened ridges and everted penis notwithstanding; he felt that every nuance counted now more than ever, and that a misstep could prove catastrophic, but he had to remain decisive. He spoke again before Garak could go any further.

“If you don’t trust me, there’s no way I can force you.” He kissed the scales under his lips and then took the ridge in his mouth, biting gently, then with sharper force, causing Garak to exhale through clenched teeth, his spine rippling. “But what you did to me was incredible,” he whispered, “and I want to give you that same pleasure.” He bit again, much harder this time, but did not press down with his shoulders. “If you’ll let me touch you that way. If you’ll let me have that much of you.” He stroked a slow soothing hand over Garak’s hip. “Will you let me, Elim? I promise you, I’ll —”

“Is that what you think?” He sounded almost pained now. “It isn’t a question of trust. It was never a question of trust.” He reached up and took Bashir’s face in his hands and pushed the Human away enough to look him directly in the eyes. Gazing back, Bashir wondered what alien concepts lay behind that intense stare. Cross-cultural studies indeed: the sexual politics of intercourse were neither consistent nor immutable across different species. Was Garak playing one of his innumerable games, or had his non-Cardassian lover inadvertently triggered a behavioral minefield? Bashir knew that he had to figure this puzzle out, and quickly.

What defined the individual within Cardassian society? Obedience to the State, certainly, but that didn’t seem pertinent at the moment. Political power, relative rank, the gaining and defending of status... his readings in Cardassian literature had left Bashir with the impression of intricately interlocked packs of wolves acutely aware of who was alpha, who was beta, and who was in a position to move ahead or fall into obscurity. Was that the problem here? Had he violated some sort of dominance protocol?

The more he thought about it, the more likely it seemed. He decided that honesty was the best policy. “You’re confusing me,” he admitted. “I don’t understand what you want, and I’m sorry if I’ve said or done something wrong. But if you tell me, I’ll —”

Garak hissed, this time impatiently. “Of course you don’t,” he said almost indulgently. “And of course you would.” He ran his fingertips back into Bashir’s hair and stroked his cheekbones with his thumbs, the contact strangely tender given the annoyance lingering in his gaze. “Tell me, what do you think the r’sarrn would have done if his bride suddenly dropped onto all fours and started snarling and growling, running around chasing prey animals and trying to sink her teeth into his neck like one of his own kind?”

That gave Bashir pause. “Been very surprised?” Garak just looked at him as if waiting for him to reach an obvious conclusion. Perplexed and making no effort to hide it, he asked: “Are you saying that you don’t want me to make love to you like a Cardassian?”

“I’m saying that you can’t make love to me like a Cardassian.” He still seemed irritated, which could well mean that he was actually furious, but there was an element of conciliation in his tone as well. “You have neither the physical strength nor the social instincts for it.”

Relief made Bashir smile. “I’ve surprised you before,” he reminded him, briefly wondering how his enhanced strength and speed would stack up against Garak’s abilities; then he turned serious. There’d be time enough to try fightplay later. Right now he had to figure out the basic rules of engagement. “What if I decide that I want to be on top? Human males do that too, you know.”

Garak gave him a look of puzzled exasperation. “You are on top.”

Bashir shook his head as best he could within the prison of the Cardassian’s hands. “It’s a Human expression. It means to be sexually dominant.”

“I’d guessed as much. And at the risk of repeating myself: you are. For the moment.” A pause, while Garak’s gaze pinned him with commanding sternness. “But I’d advise you never to forget where that power comes from.”

Rank. Dominance. Bashir thought he could read the coding now: The only power you’ll ever have over me is the power I grant you. If I submit to you it’s by choice, not from obligation. Perhaps it really didn’t have anything to do with trust and everything to do with him usurping a privilege Garak hadn’t offered: the right to give orders. Even a playful command had been enough to suggest, to a Cardassian mind, that unforgivable liberties were being taken — especially when that command was issued by someone who Garak felt was incapable of backing it up with raw physical force.

He thought I was implying that he’s weaker than I am — and of lower status. Bashir almost winced; apparently he hadn’t lost his ability to put his foot in it at the worst possible moments. No wonder Garak had reacted with anger! Making love with aliens held both joys and perils, discoveries and misunderstandings. “I didn’t mean to —”

“Of course you didn’t.” Garak smiled thinly. “We did just establish that you’re not Cardassian, did we not?”

Bashir exhaled slowly. “So. No orders, ever?”

Garak looked both startled and a tad disappointed. “I didn’t say that.”

Irritation was rapidly overtaking passion. “Garak —”

“My dear.” Garak pulled him down and kissed him in a way that drove the irritation out of his mind like dust before a sharp desert wind and brought his cock back to full and aching attention. When he was finally pushed back a couple of centimeters, almost gasping, Garak was smiling more widely. “You’re really quite clever,” he said with manifest fondness, “but sometimes dreadfully lacking in subtlety. I can see that there’s still a great deal to teach you.” He leaned up to whisper in Bashir’s ear: “The answer to your question is ‘yes’, by the way.”

Bashir closed his eyes, discovering that his annoyance wasn’t entirely gone. Damn your twisty Cardassian mind! Can’t you ever say anything straight out? “’Yes’?” he echoed inpatiently, tightening his grip on Garak’s waist and shoulder. “’Yes’, what?”

“Yes, I do enjoy being bitten.” His voice fell to a register that sent a hot little shiver through Bashir’s body: “Everywhere.”

Chapter Text

Bashir found his heart rate increasing again, driven by more than desire. They’d come full circle, and for what? For Garak to tell him what he’d wanted to know in the first place?

Looking down into those blue eyes, which now seemed bright with barely suppressed laughter, Bashir spoke through clenched teeth: “You have one hell of a nerve, accusing me of playing games.”

Garak blinked, the picture of wounded innocence. “Why, Doctor!” he protested, “I have no idea what you’re —“

Bashir kissed him hard, stroking and probing aggressively with his tongue — anything to silence that frustrating, tempting, lying mouth, even if only for a few seconds. Garak responded with enthusiasm, still smiling: Bashir could feel it in the curve of his lips, and found it even more infuriating. “The hell you don’t,” he gasped when he finally relented. “You could have just told me!”

“Told you what, exactly?” Garak’s body, which had been stiff with disapproval and outrage only moments ago, now writhed subtly beneath him, lively and reptilian. “Nothing you couldn’t figure out for yourself, obviously. Where would the —?”

Enraged both by Garak’s evasiveness and by his own obtuseness in what had just taken place, Bashir sank his teeth into Garak’s jawline, just to the right of the scales that adorned his chin. The Cardassian ran his fingers deeper into Bashir’s hair and hissed through parted teeth but offered no further resistance, even when Bashir reached up and caught hold of his wrists and pushed them down onto the mattress on either side of his shoulders, holding them there just hard enough to make his will clear. He felt Garak’s spine arch and saw, in the yellow lamplight, a darker infusion flush the scales that ran down from his left ear. The upper aural ridge was already bruised from Bashir’s earlier attentions: he attacked the lower ridge, determined to leave a matching mark, and was rewarded with more upward yearning and an almost Human moan.

A sense of intoxicating power flooded him, mingling with his annoyance and amplifying the deeper pulse of lust. He gripped harder and breathed hotly into the elaborately adorned shell of Garak’s ear. “I see that’s more to your taste.”

Garak pushed up with his hips in a rocking motion, his fully everted penis sliding slick against Bashir’s hardness in unequivocal response, yet still he prevaricated: “Not quite, but you are getting closer, my gentle friend.”

“Gentle?” Bashir smiled. He was fairly sure it was not a particularly pleasant expression. It was occurring to him that the man under him was anything but fragile, and he’d spent his entire adult life handling women with tremendous care, conscious of the delicacy of even the strongest of them in comparison to his own enhancements. He’d been thinking in terms of Garak getting rough with him, but perhaps…

He couldn’t offer savagery. Garak was right about that: he didn’t have Cardassian instincts, and outright violence had never been part of his nature even in Human terms. But he could certainly be… aggressive. Oh, yes, that much he could manage to provide, and gladly.

He moved down, hungrily kissing and biting his way along the corded muscle leading to his lover’s lightly scaled clavicle, never loosening his hold on Garak’s wrists. There: that gorgeous rumble started again, vibrating faintly under his lips as he lingered for a few seconds, tasting the textured hide over slender bone, before moving lower yet. The first transverse ridges crossed the plane of the grey chest where a Human male would have had nipples; Bashir devoted his attention to the one on Garak’s right side, starting where it tapered to a point beside his sternum and working his way back with forceful caresses of his mouth. The rumble deepened and increased in volume when he applied his teeth to the seventh scale, which he knew from past experimentation was the beginning of a sensitive portion of the ridge.

He took his time, biting and licking up and down that sensitized stretch of hide as the scales darkened and Garak’s breathing quickened under his ministrations. There were two sets of ridges in particular that he intended to thoroughly torment when he reached them: one was currently hidden under Garak’s pelvis, but the other was easily accessible — pressed against his belly, in fact, and nearly dripping with natural lubricant. His mouth watered at the thought of tasting it again, but he wanted to play a little more before giving Garak that much satisfaction.

The Cardassian twisted his wrists experimentally. Bashir bore down harder, raising his head long enough to command: “Stay still!”

“How can I?” Garak asked plaintively, squirming. “That tickles!”

“It does, does it?” Bashir flickered his tonguetip along the ridge, provoking another jerk and wiggle. “Somehow,” and he bit down sharply, pleased when Garak confined himself to a shiver this time, “I rather doubt that.”

“You’re too beautiful to be this merciless,” Garak observed in a distinctly pleading tone. Bashir was not fooled.

“And you’ve been teasing me from the moment we met.” The way the ridge was swelling under rough stimulation, slight but noticeable, was a most pleasant surprise. “It’s only fair that I get some of my own back. Now lie still, Elim.” He gave Garak’s wrists a final squeeze and released them, moving his hands down to take hold of the Cardassian’s waist. "And don't make me tell you again."

For a moment he thought his friend was going to have a lot more to say on the subject. He administered another hard bite, tightening his grip, and with a shivering exhalation that was nearly a laugh Garak lay back and…

… submitted? Garak? It could be nothing else, and it was somehow sweeter for being given rather than taken. Bashir had to pause, drawing a slow deep breath: the urge to slide back up the bed and move on to the endgame was almost overpowering, but he overcame it and returned to his passionate yet methodical assault. He wanted to prove to Garak that yielding control to a weaker Human had very tangible rewards, one of which was being driven half-mad with arousal before finally being fucked. After the incredible experience Garak had given him he felt it was the least he could do in return.

He moved across to the uppermost ridge on the other side and set about repeating the entire process; he was, after all, a scientist first and foremost, and any experiment hinged on repeatability. Garak’s responses — swift indrawn breaths and taut trembling when he worked hard enough to leave a mark — confirmed his hypothesis that the central set of scales on each ridge possessed more sensitivity than the scales on the terminals. It was a result which held true as he alternated his way down the four sets of ridges on each side, kissing and biting and sucking forcefully with the occasional pause to run his tongue teasingly over the abused skin, the constant low thrum produced by Garak’s variak organ sheer music to his ears.

He kept his belly and chest pressed to the Cardassian's torso, providing him with a solid surface to rub his everted erection against. Twice, while Bashir worked particularly hard on a ridge, the pace and force of Garak’s slow thrusts against him suddenly increased as a wave of tension surged through his body and the pitch of his rumbling deepened; he reached up and clutched at the pillow, his back arching and a more feral growl breaking free. But he stayed supine with his eyes closed, and when Bashir caught hold of his hips and held him down, pulling away enough to deny him the friction he so clearly craved, he stilled himself and confined his protests to a few untranslatable hissing words in what was probably Hebitian. More phrases from The Fall From Shadows, the work of art that seemed to have informed this new phase of their relationship? Now was certainly not the time to have that particular discussion, although Bashir's curiosity was piqued.

Heart pounding, he watched as each surge of lust peaked and shuddered and ebbed beneath him: the cues were all reptilian, cool grey skin and serpentine spine and darkening scales, but he recognized them as if he'd been waiting for them all his life and they made him burn even hotter in response. Seeing Garak's cock flex and lubricate made him throb with answering heat; he longed to plunge right into the spy's body, to make him roar and convulse and fill Bashir's hand with pulses of dusky semen. Would the Cardassian permit that without putting up a fight? Or was penetration, like dominance, a right that had to be won?

Or granted. He bent his head again, keeping his torso elevated, and resumed the caresses that were obviously intensely pleasurable to his lover. I didn't fight him for this, or talk him into it, but if I asked him why he'd never —

Garak's hips pushed against his confining hands with just enough force to make his desires known. "Please," he hissed, barely loudly enough to be audible.

For a moment Bashir couldn't believe what he'd heard. His head came up again. "I beg your pardon?"

"Unlike you, Doctor, I remember my manners." He opened his eyes to look down at Bashir resentfully. "Even when I'm being cruelly treated," he added pointedly.

He couldn't help but smile at that. "You think this is cruel?" He went back to work, starting on the lowest left transverse ridge that framed the base of the ribcage.

Garak began to pant. “And they call me a torturer!” he lamented, pushing his hips upward again to no avail. "Are you trying to make me beg?"

"Mmmmph." Bashir's mouth was too busy for words, but his non-verbal response was emphatic and hopefully conveyed how much the prospect appealed to him. He let his right hand slide inward to finally run his palm over the ventral penile ridges — once — and was rewarded with a long torrid hiss.

"Cruel," Garak reiterated with a growl, dropping his head back onto the pillow and clutching it harder with both hands.

Bashir removed his hand and paused long enough to remind him: "You said something about begging…?"

Garak laughed low in his throat. "You'll be waiting a very long time, my ingenious darling. However, if you've no objections, I do have a little… proposition for you." Bashir made a questioning sound against swelling scales. "Not for tonight — you seem to," another hiss as Bashir marked him again, "have your own agenda firmly in place — no, this is something to consider if we ever get back to the station…"

"Mmm?" He wondered if the ridge under his mouth was aching as urgently as his own cock: the sound of Garak's voice was a powerful aphrodisiac in itself, especially when underlaid with that passionate alien vibrato. God, how he wanted to move right along to giving him what they both wanted, no matter what negotiations might be required to get his cock inside Garak's ass… but he still had a point to make and Garak didn't sound quite —

The Cardassian's next words blew him right out of the water.

“A little toy,” Garak continued in that sibilant hiss. “Nothing too imposing, you understand. Just something you could wear under your uniform, all day long. Something to remind you of what you really want. Something I could put in place in the morning before your duty shift and slowly remove after a long leisurely dinner in the evening...”

The images Garak's silky voice brought to mind were irresistible: the morning, and himself bent over a table or the bed, his uniform around his thighs and his breath quickening in his throat as Garak caressed his cleft and slowly, teasingly inserted a slim ridged rod into his willing body… the course of the day, walking around the station with a dildo secretly and snugly buried in his ass, rubbing and pressing, flexing inside him with every step, making him throb as he prepared reports or sat in meetings… the night, when Garak's hands would finally touch him again, working the artificial shaft skillfully in and out of his sensitized rectum until he cried out, until he was the one who begged —

The prospect was so wildly arousing that the head of his cock started throbbing as if on the point of orgasm, scattering his thoughts. “I’d —” He had to take a moment to try to get his voice, and his body, back under control. He'd been outmaneuvered. He didn't care. “I’d never get out of my quarters... the uniform is too tight...”

“Yesss, it does reveal everything, doesn’t it?” He sounded triumphant, the bastard. “I’d just have to make sure that I’d thoroughly exhausted you the night before. That should keep you from getting hard for at least half the morning, shouldn’t it?”

The scent of Garak's natural lubricant, less than fifteen centimeters away, was suddenly maddening; he moved toward it, barely resisting the impulse to take the wet shaft into his mouth. It glistened so beautifully in the lamplight, chased with intricate black patterns along the ridges. “And after that?”

“Hm." He seemed amused now, filling Bashir with the need for vengeance. "I might have to pay you a visit at —" He took hold of the base and plunged his mouth down over the head. To his satisfaction Garak's tone changed at once, growing harsher, although he didn't stop talking. " — at the Infirmary. Or of course you could always stop by my shop. I’d be more than happy to accommodate you.”

He slipped lower to bite the upper terminals of the penile ridges, taking no care to be gentle. Garak thrust upward, almost howling, and Bashir raked the ridges with his teeth as the ornate cock sank deeper into his mouth. He savoured the flow of lubricant for a few seconds — he knew that he’d never get enough of that texture, that taste, the cool slickness of the shaft hard against his tongue — before pulling free to demand:

“By letting me fuck you?” He looked up, his eyes full of challenge.

Garak looked back at him with one of his mysterious sleek smiles. “Perhaps,” he allowed in a somewhat ragged tone, “if you could come up with a sufficiently persuasive argument.”

Never dropping his gaze, Bashir moved in again and played his tonguetip around the tapered glans, then applied his mouth to the underside, sucking hard enough to mark. The sound Garak made, and the new fire in his eyes, were most gratifying; for a heartbeat Bashir thought that he was going to abandon the game and make a grab for him.

Not quite daring to smile — he didn't want to risk a misunderstanding that he wasn't taking this seriously — Bashir took a moment to soothe the sore place with a kiss before replying. "How about this: I'll take you into one of the changing stalls, then use my fingers until you hiss and my cock until you roar. Would that be sufficient persuasion?"

"And to think," Garak breathed, "that I once considered you innocent." He opened his thighs more widely and pushed himself up into Bashir's grasp. "Yes, my love, I believe that would do quite nicely — if you have the courage to go through with it."

Chapter Text

Bashir missed neither the warning implicit in that statement nor the clear physical signals the Cardassian's body was offering: one advising him to keep his distance, the other inviting him in as deep as he could go. How paradoxical, and how typically Garak! he thought with a rush of hunger; his arms could never fully enclose this mystery, but all he wanted to do was try.

He offered the man open beneath him a smile full of sexual heat. "Oh come now, Garak — you know me better than that." Stroking slowly, he turned his gaze back to the glistening erection in his hand. "I never shrink from a challenge." He dipped his head and began applying sharp teeth to the scales along the penile ridges, working them over thoroughly from base to tip, starting with the left ventral ridge and addressing each methodically. The result was everything he'd anticipated and confirmed his hypothesis that Cardassian cocks enjoyed rough treatment… or perhaps Garak had a taste for pain that he'd simply been very good at concealing. He could hear Garak restraining louder vocalizations every time his Human lover applied harder pressure and suction, and the increased flow of lubricant was impossible to miss. Bashir lapped it up eagerly with long strokes of his tongue, savouring the embossed texture of the scales as they flared to release more liquid; it ran down over his encircling fingers from the ridges he wasn't attending to at any given moment, a potent indicator of the intensity of Garak's arousal.

By the time he finished Garak was nearly trembling, his eyes tightly closed and his breath coming hard between clenched teeth. He uttered an aggressive growl when Bashir suddenly sat up and let go of his shaft completely, opening his slate-blue eyes to fix his friend with a demanding glare. Bashir smiled and ran his hands up and down the grey inner thighs as if to soothe him, provoking a threatening whisper: "My, you believe in living dangerously."

"That's what comes of Starfleet bravado." Looking into Garak's face at this moment was like watching a sidewinder gathering its coils, preparing to strike — Bashir suspected that this was no act, that he'd actually provoked Garak right to the breaking point. If his next move backfired… “Hand me the ikara oil, would you?”

Garak studied him. Bashir could almost hear the cold metallic clicking of his mind, debating whether to continue their little game or cast aside all pretence of compliance. He braced himself to be seized and thrown over and fucked into the mattress all over again… until Garak growled once more, this time grudgingly, and rolled onto his right side away from the light, reaching for the bedside table. Before his hand could close around the requested bottle Bashir caught hard hold of his hips and pushed him fully onto his belly, pinning him down — and then, before Garak had time for more than one hiss of outrage, he attacked the left gluteal ridge with a bite almost hard enough to draw blood.

The hiss became a throaty yowl. Garak bucked; Bashir pinned him with as much strength as he dared to reveal, continuing his assault on the sexually sensitive scales. Working his way up to the place where the ridges joined just above the gluteal cleft, he felt Garak pushing his hips up off the bed, and when he took the risk of loosening his grip slightly he discovered that it was from a yearning for more contact, not a struggle to escape. He uttered a purr of approval and sucked harder on a scale, making Garak shudder and writhe.

"Oh!" It was a moan of rueful protest. "Oh, now that was scarcely fair, was it…?"

Bashir smiled against the ridge. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," he murmured before returning to the task of licking, sucking and biting with force enough to leave bruises. The cries that Garak had been suppressing before now broke free, urging him on; he released the Cardassian's right hip and rubbed the anterior surface of his penile sheath with firm wet fingertips, running his lubricant-slicked thumb up and down the gluteal cleft itself and provoking even more delicious sounds. Was it his imagination, or had the quality of submissiveness changed? Was Garak offering him something deeper now, something more fundamental?

Or was it all an elaborate act of manipulation?

No: with this man he made the choice to believe moment by moment, following the trail of clues, and every instinct now told him that there was no falsehood in this. Garak wanted his touch, and he wanted it like this: rough, urgent, aggressive. 'Not make love like a Cardassian' indeed, Bashir thought as the spy undulated lasciviously beneath him: I wonder how far gentleness would have gotten me? But that was a question for another night — right now he had a different sort of promise to keep.

When he'd tormented both ridges thoroughly, stimulating them almost black, he shifted up a little to let the heat of his breath warm the base of Garak's spine where the gluteal scales merged and tapered upward. “The oil?" He pressed his thumb further inward, teasing the anus. "Unless you'd prefer this to happen dry?"

A more resonant hiss vibrated in Garak's variak organ as he pushed back to meet the touch. “A xenophile I may be — a masochist I am not.” He leaned over to complete his original mission and passed the bottle back, then returned both hands to the pillow with a grip that suggested he desperately wanted to be doing other things.

"Really?" Bashir let a smirk enter his voice as he accepted the bottle. "You could have fooled me." Ignoring the Cardassian's annoyed mutter, he moved onto his knees and pressed Garak's pelvis down flat on the mattress before dribbling a little oil into the cleft of his ass and using the index and middle fingers of his right hand to spread it up and down, then pushing inward. Garak's buttocks tightened; he pressed his face into the pillow, and Bashir spoke softly: "Easy… I don’t want to hurt you. I want to give you all the pleasure you just gave me.” Stroking deeper, pressing, feeling resistance. “I want to experience every centimeter of you that I can reach. I don’t want there to be any more secrets between us." He rubbed briefly, then pushed again. "Will you let me?”

“Oh, Doctor...” Garak stiffened and inhaled sharply as Bashir’s slicked forefinger finally breached him, then shivered as it slipped inward to the second knuckle. He sounded terribly distracted. “You can't hurt me, my n'sar'arah… and there will always be secrets. Always.”

“Maybe. But not this.” Evidently penetration itself was not a culturally sensitive issue. The term n'sar'arah was unfamiliar to him, but Garak's tone made it a caress and that was good enough for Bashir. He worked the finger carefully in and out for a few strokes, watching the Cardassian's broad neckridges darken even more at the intimate stimulation, then introduced a second finger, his voice suddenly husky with lust. The sight of Garak like this, thighs spread and body signalling readiness in every flushed scale… “You feel wonderful — so tight and cool. I want to feel you all around my cock.”

A fierce exhalation: “Then take what you want.”

He'd have liked nothing better than to plunge ahead and bury himself, but — “You're not ready yet.”

Garak laughed aloud. “I assure you, my dear, that I’ve never desired this more avidly than I do at this moment — and that a little directness is appreciated in these things.” The look he cast back over his left shoulder was full of such demanding heat that Bashir was immediately convinced. He withdrew his hand to pour more oil onto it, hastily setting the bottle back on the bedside table as he began to thoroughly coat his erection.

“Turn over, then.” He wanted to caress, to kiss, to see Garak's every reaction face to face. He wanted to be seized and pulled close. He wanted to be marked in his turn.

“No." A deep passionate rumble. "It wouldn’t be safe.”

He blinked down, frowning as he worked the oil over the head of his cock with quick strokes. “Why not?”

Bared white teeth gleamed in the shadows of his face, not quite a smile. “A Cardassian male being dominated can claw — and bite — quite fiercely." His voice held a brief ripple of private amusement, then steadied. "Far too fiercely for your delicate skin. Until we know how I react we’d best err on the side of caution.”

That gave Bashir serious pause. “You’ve never done this before?” That certainly wasn’t the impression he’d received, but Garak had been known to tell worse lies.

“Until we know how I react to you,” Garak clarified with a flash of irritation. He laid his head back down on the pillow and looked sidelong at the Human about to possess him, his impatience clear. "Unless, of course, your courage isn't what it once was?"

Bashir reached out with his left hand and stroked the backs of curved fingers down the smooth skin of Garak's cheek, just below the eyeridge. “Turn toward the light, then,” he said quietly, his heart swelling with a tenderness as profound as it was unexpected. “I want to see your face.”

“Mmrrrn.” He complied, stretching a little as he shifted, more dragonlike than Bashir could ever recall. He could almost see the scales rippling, revealing pulses of inner fire through their ebony embellishments, sparks flickering along the gliding contours of each sibilant word: “I just hope you appreciate this privilege.”

"I do." He ran his hand over the ebony fall of hair, smoother than silk, then down and under it onto the nape of Garak's neck. He closed his fingers around it tightly and pressed down, and Garak's twilight back twisted as a vibrant hiss of defiance escaped him — but his hips tilted up, an ancient gesture that Bashir recognized even across the species divide. He took hold of his cock and leaned forward, whispering again: "I do. Let me in, Elim." He pressed the cool slick orifice, a shock like a bolt of sensual lightning racing back through his body at the contact, and he moaned with eagerness and need: "Let me…"

He kept his eyes open in spite of the urge to close them to intensify the tactile input of the experience. He wanted to witness every detail of Garak's yielding: the way the Cardassian tensed beneath him and around him as he slipped inside, the way his strong fingers sank deep into the pillow, the way his powerful neck arched against his friend's restraining hand. Seeing that Garak's gaze was focussed narrowly on the middle distance straight ahead of him, Bashir paused with just his glans inserted. It took every ounce of his self-control not to proceed. "Do you need more oil?" he asked, suddenly concerned. "I can —”

“Deeper,” Garak growled vehemently, his variak organ fully engaged, “and don’t hold back — or I will claw you, beloved, to within an inch of your miserable life!”

Joy swept through him, even sweeter than lust. He obeyed without hesitation, gripping the Cardassian's right hip and thrusting home in one swift stroke, revelling in the guttural cry it drove from Garak's throat and the way every muscle in his sturdy body tightened, resisting and surrendering at once. In the clear lantern light he could see the charcoal patterns of arousal infuse the more delicate scales of his face, earlier and deeper than in any previous encounter, and that signal of uninhibited passion only inflamed him more. He did not hold back: he had never used more of his strength while pounding into a lover's body, and Garak's expression — eyes tightly closed, teeth clenched, savage tension alternating with pliant, nearly amazed surrender as that impassioned rumble mounted, punctuated with explosive hisses — filled him with emotions almost too great for his spirit to contain.

"Elim." He managed a breathless gasp, striving to connect their minds as their bodies were connected. Lowering his full weight, knowing that Garak could take it, he slipped his left arm under those broad shoulders and locked it tight, gripping his right shoulder and applying lingering kisses and bites to the ridge leading up to his right ear. A more resonant vocal vibration and a wanton pelvic thrust backwards were his reward, urging him even deeper. "Elim, oh God, you're so —"

"Julian," Garak groaned, "a'latli, n'sar'arah, if you…" Another shudder, this one full of new resistance. Something like despair broke cover in his voice. "If you knew, if you —"

"I'm here." He spoke without thought; his mind was submerged, almost lost in their union. He reached under Garak's belly with his right hand and wrapped it around the erection that wept for his touch, pumping it in time with his thrusts. Garak cried out as if wounded. "I'm here, a'latli, and I'm not letting go." The alien word, full of such rich meaning, seemed to unlock a layer of feeling previously untouched; he buried his face against the darkened ridge with a sound that was almost a sob, offering it as a gift, his unshielded heart. "Never," he whispered, "never…"

The resistance in Garak's body crumbled. He felt it go, replaced with a rush of abandoned motion, that scaled spine flexing powerfully as he pushed himself back onto Bashir's plunging cock. A few strokes later Garak convulsed, his right hand clamping onto the Human's forearm hard enough to leave bruises as the slippery weight of alien semen flowed over Bashir's fingers; his roar of consummation had barely begun to fade when Bashir, with a full-throated shout, followed him into a mind-melting orgasm. He had only a few drops of semen left to give, but that did not diminish the raw power of his release. It seemed to last forever, carrying him to a place he'd never known before, a fusion of physical pleasure and emotional intensity that left him sweat-drenched and trembling, coming to rest at last in the sensation of Garak's body rising and falling beneath him with gulping breaths as deep as his own.

Chapter Text

For a long time Bashir lay too breathless to speak, concentrating on pure sensation as his heart rate subsided; around his cock, softening but still embedded, he could feel Garak's pulse likewise returning to its normal range. The Cardassian didn't seem to object to his weight — in fact he was emitting occasional velvety little hisses that might have been expressions of primal satisfaction — and Bashir wasn't inclined to roll off him. The closeness of their interlocked bodies, so warm and intimate, was too pleasant to abandon before he absolutely had to.

But at last Garak chuffed a little snort and murmured: "You can let go of me now."

"Mmm." His right hand had slipped off of Garak's penis, which had begun to retreat back into his body, and ended up clasping his hip; his other arm was still under Garak's shoulders. He squeezed lightly with both and smiled against the back of the right neckridge, its scales slowly fading back to default grey. "Do you really want me to?"

"Eventually." He stretched, the silky scales that lined his spine gliding against Bashir's chest and belly. "I doubt you'll want to end up sleeping on me all night."

"Don't be too sure about that." But he pressed a slow kiss to the ridge where it joined Garak's throat and, with a soft sigh of regret, levered himself up and withdrew. The sharper hiss Garak emitted, combined with another long shiver and the enigmatic smile that curved his lips, was most gratifying. "But I suppose you're right. Besides, I should get cleaned up."

"Bring me some more wine on your way back, would you?" His eyes were still closed and he seemed utterly relaxed, almost on the verge of sleep. Bashir grinned, suspecting it was mere pretence: after all, he knew about n'assa tevar.. Garak was probably feeling more awake than he was himself, considering that he'd sustained four orgasms in something less than an hour and that the last one had involved some fairly vigorous fucking on his part. Sleep was going to play a very big part in his immediate future…

… but not just yet. He patted the side of Garak's right buttock. "After all that exertion, I think we both deserve it. Stay put."

"Hrmph." Garak didn't seem inclined to argue and Bashir left him where he was, eyes closed and legs lazily spread. A trip to the bathroom sufficed to freshen Bashir up and supplied another clean dampened towel; he elected to forgo getting the wine for the time being in favour of taking care of his lover, who simply smiled as he used the soft fabric to soap him up and wipe him down, followed by an application of a little more ikara oil to sooth sensitive tissues unused to penetration. Bashir was pleased to note that Garak's anus seemed none the worse for the experience, and by the time he was finished his ministrations he was wearing a fond little smile of his own.

"So," he teased, kneeling between Garak's thighs and unhurriedly massaging what was left of the oil on his fingers into the spy's rounded buttocks, "is this all I have to do to get you to stop talking for more than thirty seconds at a time?"

"Hm?" The Cardassian finally cracked an eye open and glanced back at him in a way that was quite unreadable. "As a matter of fact, yes. Let me be the first to congratulate you on finally figuring it out."

"Well, as much as I enjoy our long conversations…" He ran his hands slowly up the broad back, lingering over each group of muscles. "I think I could get used to this. Very."

Garak's eyes drifted closed. He shifted enough to fold both hands under his left cheek and settled down again. "Or we could combine the two. Did you know that there is — or used to be — a Cardassian erotic practice in which verses of The Hebitian Orations are chanted during intercourse?"

Bashir's hands paused as he considered that. "Now you are making that up!"

"I assure you, I'm perfectly serious. The goal is, or was, to cover the maximum number of verses before orgasm is achieved."

He started massaging again. "Sounds a bit like the Terran practice of tantric sex."

"And what poetry do they recite?"

"None that I'm aware of." Stroke, glide, rub, the scales beautifully textured in graceful curves. "But the goal is to hold off one's sexual climax for as long a period of time as possible."

"No poetry at all?" Garak scowled, then looked ironic. "How disappointing, and rather pointless if you ask me. At least The Hebitian Orations are edifying, and if the walls of the bedroom are thin the performance is entertaining to anyone who ends up overhearing."

Bashir shook his head, silently debating how much it was wise to believe and coming up with no certain answer. "I should know better than to talk to you about… well, anything."

"You've been doing it for over two and a half years. I should think you're getting something out of it."

Garak's tone was lightly smug, but for an instant Bashir felt the sting of tears rising into his eyes at the thought of what he had gained, and of all the nights to come that would only add to the store of his riches. "You make me work for it though, don't you?" he asked quietly, running the palms of his hands over the subtle embossing adorning Garak's shoulderblades.

"Nothing truly worth having is easy to attain," he countered, then frowned and opened his eyes and raised his head to look back quizzically at his Human lover, who met his gaze and offered a somewhat watery smile in return. "My dear…?"

Bashir shook his head again, this time in reassurance. "I'm fine. I'm just…"

Garak pushed himself up onto his elbows and rolled onto his left side, now looking manifestly concerned. "You most certainly are not 'fine'. Your eyes are watering!"

That made Bashir laugh aloud. "No, really. It's nothing. Don't try to tell me that Cardassians never shed tears of happiness?"

"What a curious notion. As a matter of fact no, we don't." He reached out his right hand and took hold of Bashir's, his gaze strangely intent and searching. "Are you certain I didn't hurt you?"

"I've never felt better in my life." Which was true in so many senses of the word: his heart soared, although he wished it was safe to share half of what he was feeling. But knowing Garak, what he was trying to hide was already seen and known. Oh, how he hoped that it was seen and known, for all that it would be a terrible weapon if ever turned against him!

A gentle tug on his hand and a soft command: "Come here, Julian." And Bashir came, letting Garak guide him to lie down facing him at a range close enough to easily kiss. Garak, however, offered no such caresses, but instead drew Bashir into his arms and studied his expression closely. Bashir tried to gaze back evenly, hoping against hope that everything he was feeling wasn't showing on his face; he'd gained a lot of maturity and self-control since his early days on Deep Space Nine, when he was sure that Garak had been able to read every single thought and emotion that crossed his mind, but… well, Garak still had a gaze that felt like it went right through him. How odd that he had never felt threatened by that incisiveness, only accepting of it, as if it were a quality as natural and immutable as Garak's blue eyes or black hair or dove-grey skin.

After what felt like an eternity of seconds the Cardassian finally spoke, his eyes never leaving Bashir's and his voice as soft as velvet: "My pretty love, I have no choice but to believe you. Your face is positively radiant. If only…" He fell silent, his expression tender but otherwise unreadable.

"No." He would brook no denials. "No 'if only's, Elim." He laid his left hand on the hard breastplate that shielded the slow alien heart beneath. "You have me, for as long as you want me. I hope I have you, and that I will for a very long time to come. And I promise you," he added as he ran his hand down over the softer scales on Garak's belly, tracing their elegant shapes as his voice fell to a sensual murmur, "that when we get back to Deep Space Nine I'm going to take a great deal of pleasure in memorizing every ridge and pattern of scales on your body."

For a long moment Garak did not respond — at least not with words. His eyes, though, and for a fraction of a second his expression, communicated a depth of silent joy and inexplicable sorrow that struck Bashir to his core. Before he could question it Garak kissed him, slowly and deeply, then again when he tried to speak, then again when he made another attempt. Bashir took the hint, even if he didn't understand the reason behind it, and when Garak shifted onto his back and drew him close to his side he rested his head on the ridged shoulder and closed his eyes and let his left hand continue its slow explorations: the sharp ridges across Garak's chest and side, the softer scales in between, the long hard line that traced down the external oblique muscles of his belly and curved over his hip, the subtle embossing that patterned the hollow of his pelvis. His touch come to rest there, where the concave curve seemed shaped to perfectly fit the rotation of his thumb, and he began to doze, the unanswered questions Garak's behaviour had raised fading to the middle ground of his mind. They had weeks ahead of them, months, years — time enough to request answers, to tease the solutions out of this enigmatic man, to win his trust and at least some of his jealously kept secrets.

Time enough…

After a long span with only the soft rush of their mingled breathing and an occasional crackle from the fire, Garak softly spoke. "Tell me… have you ever heard the Cardassian expression, 'when the farsei blooms'?"

Bashir came almost fully awake at once. "I can't say that I have, no." He was deliciously exhausted and content, for the moment, with what truths he'd won, but if Garak wanted to administer a lesson of their usual sort he certainly had no objection. He settled closer against the Cardassian's cool side and stifled a little yawn.

Garak's voice fell back into the musical oratorical lilt he'd used in telling The R'sarrn's Bride. "On the southern continent of Cardassia Prime there grows a tall and beautiful tree known as the farsei. For most of its life the farsei contents itself with putting forth silver leaves whose healing virtues are well known and greatly valued for their invigorating properties. But once every generation, when conditions are just right... ah, the simple farsei becomes a thing of wonder! It flowers, and the scent is as intoxicating as the blossoms are exquisite. For a few precious days everybody celebrates with wine and song and dances in the groves. It's a time of pleasure and recreation, with not much thought for the morrow."

"That doesn't sound very Cardassian to me," Bashir murmured.

"It's a local custom, surviving only where small groves of farsei remain in the countryside. That, however, is not the point of the story." His arm tightened briefly around Bashir's waist, silently but warmly rebuking him for the interruption. Bashir took this hint too, although it made him smile. "For that short span of days the flowering trees are fully experienced and treasured, and loved even more dearly than before. But it isn't meant to last. It cannot last. The conditions of time and weather that permitted the flowers to open come to an end; the rains return, and the petals are cast to the winds. The farsei blooms for the briefest of seasons. Only a fool would pass the opportunity by, and the memories endure for a lifetime. But when it is gone, my dear Doctor... it is gone."

Bashir pondered the allegory for several seconds, the inevitable conclusion striking the breath out of him, like an arrow to the heart. Then he spoke quietly, not trusting his voice for anything above a whisper: "You don't want this to continue when we get back to the station."

Chapter Text

"On the contrary," Garak corrected him, "I would like nothing better." The Cardassian sighed and brought his right hand to Bashir's cheek, cupping the line of his jaw, fingertips caressing the places where a member of his own species would have had sensitive aural ridges, but he didn't seem inclined to say anything more.

Feeling a little sick, Bashir raised his head and looked at Garak's profile: the serenely closed eyes, the faintest hint of a smile. His mind was a whirl of savagely contesting emotions, with fear and anger rapidly winning the day. "But you just said —"

"— that the conditions for rare moments of perfect bliss seldom endure." A pause. A light sigh. He opened his eyes and looked down into Bashir's face, that trace of a smile lingering. "For all your sometimes exaggerated sense of self-importance I don't believe you realize how truly enchanting you are," he said with fond indulgence. "But on Deep Space Nine we are on opposite sides of a political divide, as much as we may enjoy one another's company. No — it would be most unwise and quite impossible."

"Unwise?" Bashir sat upright, extricating himself from his friend's embrace to stare down at him incredulously. "Impossible?" He was sure his mouth was wide open but chose to leave it that way: at the moment he wanted to project every signal of disbelief in his power, as he looked up and down their mutually naked bodies. "I can't... if you felt that way, why on Earth would you —?"

"We're not on Earth," Garak pointed out, looking vaguely reproving. "And I find it difficult to believe that you're not familiar with your own culture's oft-used phrase: Seize the moment."

"That's not what I meant and you know it!" Oh, definitely anger: he could feel the outraged flush burning on his cheekbones and pounding under the angle of his jaw. "My God, Garak, I can't believe you'd — that you'd actually think that —!"

Garak uttered a double-edged sigh, combining wistfulness and annoyance, and shifted onto his left side, propping himself up on one elbow to look intently up at his agitated bedmate. "My dear... I'd ask if you seriously believed that we had a future together as lovers, but the answer is painfully obvious. Think things through for a moment. A Starfleet officer — a senior Starfleet officer, no less — and a Cardassian operative, forming that sort of alliance? Neither government would be exactly pleased."

"There's nothing political about this!" Then doubt struck him, recalling his own repeated analysis of The Fall From Shadows with its multiple layers of meaning. "... is there?"

"Certainly not when we're busy moaning and hissing, but at any other time?" He had that look that he wore when he was patiently instructing his young Human friend in the niceties of politics and subterfuge. "We can't escape it. It's part of the air we breathe, or rather it will be, if we ever make it back to Federation space."

Beyond the windows a bell rang in the frosty blackness and a voice called out in the distance: male, brusque, chanting some culturally significant hour of the night. It imposed a concept of time and its passing that Bashir found most unwelcome. "You're right," he granted the point. "Commander Sisko will take some convincing. But Starfleet isn't in the habit of dictating who its officers choose to sleep with — well, not in the case of well-documented species, anyway. He didn't object to us having lunch together on a regular basis; I'm sure he won't —"

Garak threw back his head with a quick snort of dismissive laughter. "Please! He threatened me with deportation off the station if I refused to help him with Major Kira's rescue only a couple of months ago. Do you think he'd hesitate to do exactly that if he thought I was corrupting his Chief Medical Officer?"

"He knows I'm capable of keeping the secrets that need keeping," Bashir said with conviction.

That prompted an expression of polite disbelief. "Does he now?"

Bashir bristled. "Of course he does!"

He grew serious again, although the air of condescension remained. "Given how easy the solution to his dilemma would be, I have no doubt I'd be on an outbound shuttle within twenty-six hours of our little affair coming to his attention. His entire senior staff would be behind the move, I'm sure — especially Chief O'Brien. Tell me, would you be willing to sacrifice his friendship on top of everything else?"

"Miles wouldn't..." But the protest faltered. O'Brien's feelings about Cardassians were well known, and he'd made it clear that he disliked and distrusted Garak for reasons that had little to do with his species.

"Wouldn't he?" Garak had his teeth well into the argument now, his eyes gleaming with his typical joy of engagement in debate, no matter what the subject. "He's seen what my kind are capable of — do you think he'd stand by while his dear friend took one to his bed? At the very least he'd be tempted to put me out the nearest airlock without the benefit of a ship being docked on the other side. At worst he'd shun you entirely." Garak paused to let that sink in. "As would many others."

Bashir knew it was true. "Not the people who matter," he insisted, rejecting the suspicion that he was losing ground. "And Miles — he'll be angry of course, for a while, but he'd come around when he saw how..."

Garak gave him a count of three seconds to finish that thought, then prompted: "How...?"

"How well we're suited for each other." He glanced away, hiding the surge of his emotions as best he could — frustration, anger, adoration he was powerless to fight anymore — then looked directly into the Cardassian's curious eyes. "I'm not willing to give up on this just because some people won't approve!"

Garak searched his face for a long moment, letting the silence spin out between them. Bashir gazed back defiantly, refusing to succumb to the temptation to fill that silence with unnecessary words while trying to read whatever lay behind Garak's placid expression.

At last Garak blinked and said, "But you know nothing about me. Nothing but the tales I've told you, and I assure you that all of them were lies."

"Lies are especially true," Bashir countered. "You said so yourself. And where you're concerned it's always been what's between the lines that's really important. You've been scattering crumbs for me all along the way, waiting for me to pick them up. Or are you saying that every minute we've spent together for the last two and a half years — including the last eight days, hell, the last hour! — has been an elaborate performance?"

"And if I told you exactly that?" Something broke cover in Garak's eyes, moving toward Bashir with smooth and primal power, trying to outflank him. "If I said that every word I've ever spoken to you, every glance I've ever given you, every smile we've ever shared, was camouflage for something entirely different?"

"Then I'd know that you were telling the truth, but that, as usual, you were trying to misdirect me to the wrong conclusion." Now Bashir recognized what shone in Garak's eyes: it was a species of despair.

The Cardassian reached out and curved one grey hand around the back of his neck, drawing him down again. Bashir let him, settling onto his right elbow as Garak leaned close enough to kiss him or to bite him but did neither. He seemed to be holding him steady, forbidding him to look away while he spoke.

"Do you think that I want to deny you?" The honesty — or at least a simulacrum sufficiently compelling that it seemed like truth — was so unexpected that Bashir suddenly felt like he was falling into that pale unblinking gaze. "But when we return there will be far too many eyes on us to take such a risk. Lies are my stock in trade, but you... oh, you'd give the game away with a single unguarded expression, and what then? I'd be exiled a second time, and we would never see each other again." His hand tightened on the nape of Bashir's neck. "Is that what you want? Or are you willing to embrace what we can have: a friendship that contains the memory of this?"

"Why are you assuming we'd never see each other again?" Bashir persisted. "Even if Sisko did send you off-station, you could always let me know where you —"

"My dear Doctor," Garak said firmly, "a Bajoran station controlled by the Federation is the one safe place in the galaxy as far as I'm concerned." He closed his eyes briefly, as if gathering his strength or asking some deity for patience, then looked at Bashir with new determination. "If I were forced to leave it I would be branded as a failure by the Central Command, and as a traitor when the reasons for the Commander's actions became known. I'd be dead within a week of deportation, assuming I cared to evade my executioners that long."

Bashir closed his eyes in turn. He thought of Garak cast out and on the run, alone and friendless, until another Cardassian agent took him down with poison, or a blade, or a blast from a disruptor — and he rejected the possibility utterly. He knew he couldn't live with that prospect, or worse, that reality. And now that it had been presented to him he recognized it as nothing less, paradoxically, than the truth.

Sorrow rose in his heart, a pain surprisingly sharp. Garak was right. He usually was, the wily old serpent. With so much at stake there was only one choice to be made: even if he was willing to risk his own career in Starfleet, Garak's safety and life could not be endangered, not that way.

And if that was the case...

"I love you, you know." No more time. He blinked away the unexpectedly bright sting of tears, then opened his eyes to look at Garak directly, to show him that he felt neither doubt nor shame in the admission. "As a friend, but even more than that. Looking back on things now, I realize I've loved you for a long time — since the incident with the implant, at least. Maybe I even loved you from the moment we met." He slipped his own hand around the back of that powerful grey neck and leaned forward to press his forehead to Garak's, never breaking eye contact. "But you're right: I can't risk your life. I want more than this — I want a life with you — but if this is the only chance we ever get... it'll have to be enough."

Garak listened to his confession in silence, and when he responded his voice was soft but even, his eyes unreadable. "A life — with me. You have no concept of what that even means."

"Whatever it meant, I would have taken each day as it came and been grateful for the privilege. Bites, bruises and all." He drew back a few centimeters and managed a smile. Garak did not seem amused. "Are you sure I can't persuade you to change your mind?" he asked with affected lightness, already knowing the answer.

"You are exceedingly beautiful," Garak replied in that same gentle voice, "and to wake up next to you each morning would make my sentence far more pleasant, but not at the cost of my own life. Remember the fate of the r'sarnn when it dared to take too much?"

He frowned slightly. "That was only a story, Garak."

"Ah, but stories are lies, and all lies —"

"— are true. I remember." He kissed the false mouth that held such unexpected joy for him and managed to whisper through the choking weight of his own emotions: "Will you promise me something, then?"

Garak looked wary. "If I can."

"That we'll make the most of the time we do have." He stroked his fingers up into the fall of midnight black hair, his heart almost breaking at the sleek texture that called him to bury his face in it, to breathe its clean scent. "That we won't let a single touch or kiss or look be lost. That you'll let me love you, and that you'll —"

He interrupted, smiled narrowly. "We'd scarcely have time for anything else."

After a moment Bashir nodded, accepting the evasion, then continued as if nothing had happened. "If I can only have you for a few more days I don't want to miss anything along the way. Then maybe — just maybe — it will be enough."

The words seemed to strike Garak strangely. He looked at Bashir as if he'd never seen him before, as if he were surprised to find him in the same bed. Softly he replied: "That much I can promise you, yes. For whatever it's worth."

Bashir had to drop his gaze and close his eyes as the stinging threatened to become a fall of tears. No! I won't — he deserves better than that, to have me sobbing on his shoulder like a child. When he thought he'd gotten his voice back under control he dared a whisper: "Thank you. And it will be worth it, I promise you." He opened his eyes again to meet Garak's gaze with defiance and sorrow and the full depth of his devotion. "We'll make it worth it, won't we? We'll make it enough to last the rest of our lives."

Garak closed his eyes in turn, his expression aloof, almost grim. Only his voice betrayed any tenderness. "Dearest heart... you do me a far greater honour than I deserve. I'm pleased to hear that you have no regrets."

Bashir uttered a bitter chuckle. "Oh, I have plenty of regrets. But only a fool would try to keep the petals on a farsei tree."

Garak reached up and took the Human's smooth chin in his fingers, raising the golden face to his. His kiss was slow and savouring, and when it was over he whispered with barely contained fire:

"My Julian. My a'latli, my n'sar'arah."

Bashir's heart swelled with a dizzying blend of joy and grief and pride, choking his voice in his throat. "My Elim…" He had only partial comprehension of one of those alien words and knew nothing of the other, but they both seemed to be cloaks concealing love, so he answered in kind: "My a'latli, my n'sar'arah…"

With a little groan Garak seized his waist and pulled him close, enfolding him in an embrace that was, for a heartbeat, nearly desperate in its intensity. Bashir kissed him again with equal passion and wound his arms around his friend, surrendering himself wholeheartedly to the moment.

It would have to be enough to last a lifetime.

Chapter Text

Pitch blackness. Cold silence. Emptiness. He stood alone in the entrance to the unseen unsounded space and drew a deep breath, seeking any sensory clues to guide him in his quest. The darkness remained resolutely enigmatic, the only scent that of unyielding stone.

He could hear the voices of his friends, far behind him where warmth and light awaited him, calling him to turn around and come home again. He heard the voices of his parents, full of fear and sorrow, telling him not to be a fool. And he knew that they were right. He had no business being here, in the heart of the maze where only mystery awaited.

But had come too far to return empty-handed.

It had started in his father's garden, a place of earthy silence and polychromatic sweetness and golden light where he'd played so often as a child. He had walked long and far, crossing fields of grass and of stars, until he came to the dark fastness of Deep Space Nine, from Ops to the Infirmary to the Promenade, and from there into the hallways of the habitat ring, where the corridors had led him in circles until he realized where he truly was: the Labyrinth, walking ever deeper into illusions that would entrap him if he didn't keep his wits about him. Every so often he stopped to carve a marking into the wall or the floor with his phaser, trusting that they would be enough to save him since even his enhanced mind couldn't seem to construct a straight floor plan of his wanderings: it was as if the architecture itself was constantly changing, trying to keep him off-balance.

He could have gone back. He should have gone back. He had responsibilities, people who needed him and cared about him. But he'd kept going into deeper darkness until he found himself here, at the threshold of the Minotaur's lair and poised on the verge of taking that final step.

Half animal was the Minotaur, with a legendary appetite for the flesh and blood of young women and men — and Bashir certainly qualified. But it was also half man, and Bashir was certain with every ounce of confidence he possessed that the man, at least, loved him. What he wasn't sure of was what awaited him in the cavern before him: a Prince with jewels and roses, or a Beast that would tear him to pieces? All he knew was that whatever lurked in the shadows drew him with the power of one star calling to another across the void of space, and he had no choice but to answer.

He took another deep breath and advanced. The blackness was so complete that it seemed to press on his eyeballs and his skin.


The name fell dead on the icy air and garnered no response. By choice or by instinct? Heart pounding, he continued his journey.

When the ceiling and the walls closed in around him he moved forward at a crouch, then on his hands and knees. He was chilled to the bone, his skin abraded by the gravelly shifting ground and an occasional encounter with a sharp projection of rock. The voices behind him were still audible but irrelevant; he ignored them, concentrating entirely on what lay ahead. When he heard the faint but distinct sound of breathing he paused for a moment, struggling to listen over the backbeat of his own pulse.

There. No more than three meters in front of him. Almost close enough to touch.

Do I really want to do this? He remembered the sunlit garden and the familiar rooms of his home among the stars. Whatever I find, it's going to take me beyond that, whether I want to go or not.

If I didn't want this, would I have come this far?

The breathing grew deeper and harsher the closer he got. When he squeezed through the final fissure in the wall of stone he immediately reached out with his right hand and felt his fingers sink into long sleek hair, blacker than the night that enwrapped him.

Or was it fur, bristling under his touch?

Before he could decide — beast, or man? — he felt Garak turn with an explosive growling hiss, and then the white-hot agony of sharp teeth sinking into his throat, drinking deep of his willing heart's-blood.

It was so dark that for an instant he was confused and pierced with fear: was he still in the cave, locked in the clutches of a predator? But no — the fire in the hearth had sunk to embers, plunging the room into shadows, and while Garak's face was indeed buried in the angle of Bashir's neck and both the Cardassian's arms were holding him close he was clearly asleep, his body relaxed and his breathing slow and deep, one thigh insinuated between those of his Human bedmate. As Bashir was getting his bearings, heart subtly pounding, Garak emitted a soft grumble and pulled him even closer, nuzzling against his throat; the air outside the covers was chilly, and Bashir realized that Garak's embrace wasn't indicative of affection so much as a reptilian imperative to seek heat.

Well, that was easily remedied. His first attempt to move ended with a sharply indrawn breath as muscles all over his body protested: bitten neck, stressed back, pounded ass and tightened thighs, not to mention the internal burn to be expected after such an energetic fucking. He paused for a few moments, letting himself become accustomed to the overall ache before trying again to shift backwards. His efforts to extricate himself from the spy's clutches only earned him a greedy hiss and an even tighter grasp.

"Garak." He managed to keep the wince out of his voice, running his fingertips over the veins that patterned the Cardassian's right temple, then his palm back over the cool sleek hair. "Garak, I know you're cold but I need to get up and stoke the fire."

"Hmrph." The mutter contained nothing but skepticism.

He smiled, pressed a kiss to the spoon in the middle of the grey forehead, then took hold of Garak's uppermost arm and began to unwind it. "Come on, let go. I'll be right back, I promise."

Another guttural sound indicative of displeasure, but at least his grip was loosening. Bashir slipped out from under the blankets with due care not to let in too much cold air, shivering as it closed around his nakedness; Garak, for his part, hugged the covers to his chest and curled into a fetal position.

"I'm going to want those back, you know," Bashir told him fondly, tucking the top blanket in around his jawline. Garak only burrowed deeper and turned his face toward the pillow, obviously already asleep again.

Still wearing a foolish little grin and moving with marked stiffness, Bashir crossed to the fireplace, retrieved more wood from the small closet set into the wall and put it on the fire, using the poker to coax the flames back to liveliness. In spite of both his dream — nightmare, really — and the inescapable knowledge that what they had at this moment couldn't be allowed to last, he felt almost absurdly happy. His joy was somehow amplified by the perception that it was private: the inn was silent around him save for the patter of thick show against the black windows, the shift and pop of the fire, and the slow susurration of Garak's breathing from the bed. The latter sound filled Bashir with tenderness, leaving him both charmed and a little heartbroken at the thought that if they succeeded in getting back home they would never be this close again.

Enjoy it while it lasts, Julian. What was it that Garak said? "Seize the moment" indeed… and some of that mulled wine along with it, I think.

It was the work of a few seconds to get himself a half-glassful and sit down cross-legged on the thick carpet in front of the hearth, sipping the cold tart-sweet liquid and pondering his own future in the dancing flames. The room was already starting to warm up and suddenly he wasn't feeling sleepy at all; his enhanced mind was racing, in fact, with cascading probability calculations and all the possible outcomes of the current situation. Most of the time he did his best to ignore or offline those abilities — he was, after all, doing his best to pass as "normal" and it would just add another level of complexity to the task to be constantly weighing the results of his augmented brain's mathematical conclusions — but every so often they pushed themselves to the forefront and would not be silenced, and all he could do was sit back and let them run their course.

Like tonight, for example. And all the results he was generating agreed: if he and Garak went back to live on Deep Space Nine they would have to do so as friends only, with no hint that anything else had ever existed between them. The Starfleet manual on intimate contact with alien species was three centimeters thick and contained very stern directives concerning sexual entanglements with persons under the jurisdiction of non-Federation governments. Of course the fact that he was CMO on his own posting eliminated one problem — the issue of consent from said CMO — but Sisko would have been much harder to convince, and as Garak had foreseen the probability that the station's CO would have solved the difficulties such a relationship presented by getting rid of the Cardassian in the equation was so high as to approach certainty.

And then there were the political considerations: to see a high-ranking Starfleet officer take up with a Cardassian expatriate suspected of spying for his homeworld would have severely shaken the confidence of the Bajoran government in the Federation presence so close to the wormhole. Even if there hadn't been the matter of Garak's safety, that alone would be enough to give Bashir serious pause. His oaths to Starfleet were very clear on several points, among them the fact that he was, in all that he said and all that he did, a representative of the organization as a whole. He couldn't for an instant consider betraying those oaths…

…unless I were to leave Starfleet altogether.

Which was both possible and utterly impossible. He'd devoted his life to everything that Starfleet had to offer: adventure, service to the Federation, a chance to make a difference out on the wild frontier. He'd even given up the love of his life when it threatened that commitment; he could hardly think of turning his back on it now, after so much hard work and sacrifice.

But the calculations were relentless, streaming through options that he wouldn't normally have considered. If he made it clear that he was resigning his commission due to conflict of interest and potential security breaches there was a 78.7% probability, rounded up, that Sisko would accept his resignation and pass it on to Starfleet… a 97.4% probability that he'd be discharged within two months… a 99.2% probability that his parents' screams would be audible all the way from Earth…

… and a completely incalculable factor in play: whether or not Garak would consent to continue a relationship with him even if he were miraculously free of all political entanglements.

All he had to go on was the last eight days of almost constant interaction, every minute of which had confirmed his intuition that whatever Garak's depths concealed, it suited him down to the ground. That he and Garak fit together into one whole that pleased and satisfied them both, in spite the challenges of meeting across a sizeable divide of culture and temperament.

That if circumstances permitted, they might have a chance to be happy together for a very long time.

I love him, and I'm damned sure that he loves me. He had another mouthful of wine, watching an older piece of wood at the bottom of the fire collapse into embers. But he also loves Cardassia, and he still has a duty to it even in exile. If I offered him the choice between us, which way would he go?

Do I really want to find out?

The answer, of course, was: not really. His heart was already going to be badly bent out of shape — why break it completely?

He’d learned to stop loving Jadzia. He could do the same thing with Garak.

But immediately an inner voice protested: It’s not the same thing at all. You didn’t know Jadzia when you were infatuated with her, not the way you know Garak now. And besides, she never reciprocated your feelings. Garak does, and that makes all the difference.

He took another sip of wine. Did Garak feel the same way? Cardassians were an enigmatic species and Garak was a master dissembler. He’d used the word “love”, certainly — but did he mean it? This could all be an elaborate game, a way to amuse himself while they were stuck on this —

He found himself shaking his head. Garak wasn’t lying, not about this. Every instinct told him so.

But he could be, and so smoothly that you’d never know the difference.

That much was undeniable. Which was another reason why any involvement after their rescue would be a spectacularly bad idea. Partnering with a Cardassian whose personal loyalty to him was beyond question would have been one thing: at least he could stand up in front of Sisko and argue his case with absolute conviction. But Garak... there was no way he could claim that he was Garak’s only love, or even that Garak loved him in the first place when you got right down to it. Instinct and intuition would never constitute sufficient proof to his superior officers. The only claim he could make was that —

He sighed and closed his eyes, feeling abruptly alone in the silence of the night. The only claim he could make was that he loved Garak, and Sisko would never accept that as sufficient reason to allow him to pursue the relationship under his command.

Nor should he, the voice of common sense whispered. But you're not going to take that route anyway, so speculation is pointless.

The calculations didn't get the message. They continued to flow through his mind, their pristine sequences riddled with a repeating question mark: Garak himself. Insufficient data. Invalid element. An inexorable enigma that cast all his predictions into doubt.

What are you even doing in this position, anyway? common sense demanded. You have something of a history of falling for people you haven’t got a chance with, but this — this is...

“Hopeless?” He heard the bitterness in his own low tone, hopefully quiet enough that Garak’s spy-sharp senses wouldn’t pick up on it. “Pointless? Foolish? A lost cause?”

You don’t even know him.

Gazing into the flames, Bashir had to concede that point. When it came to Garak all he had were hints and shadows, innuendos and folktales, crumbs of truth and lies scattered in his path...

… and the sense that sometime during this evening past, Garak had not lied to him. Scarcely enough to hang one's future on. He finished the wine and sat turning the glass between his fingers, looking down at the spice-flecked dregs lingering in its depths with his mind a million light years away.

The numbers mattered, but at the same time they didn't. The last time he'd paid serious attention to them he'd ended up with Palis weeping on his shoulder, her sweet voice choked with grief as she begged him to stay. But he'd turned away and left her behind, the woman he'd loved so much that for months afterwards the thought of her could induce emotional pain that left him utterly heartsick… so he'd avoided thinking about her as much as he could, throwing himself into his work and his studies. That wouldn't be the case with Garak. They'd be living on the same station, neither of them able to withdraw to a safer distance except insofar as they could stop seeing each other socially altogether, which might be more practical but certainly would not be merciful. He knew that he was Garak's only friend, and in a purely selfish way the prospect of never again sitting across their regular lunch table from the charismatic Cardassian was unbearable.

A friendship that contains the memory of this… The thought of Garak's earlier words was both hurtful and healing. We can have that much at least, can't we? Even if our careers permit us nothing else.

Perhaps. Or perhaps it would end up tearing him apart. There was a 36.5% probability that he'd be unable to bear the cognitive dissonance of loving someone to this degree and being utterly unable to indulge it or even express it. From there the scenarios ranged from finding ways to avoid encountering Garak at all, to throwing himself into the romantic pursuit of every female he could find, to applying for a transfer to another post. None of which promised a happy career on Deep Space Nine, or a particularly bearable life in a more general sense.

And even if he resigned his commission and remained on the station or on Bajor, close enough for easy access, what then? The Cardassian government might not believe that he was truly no longer a member of his government's military, and to enter an intimate relationship with him would still place Garak's life in danger. The solution wasn't going to be anything so straightforward.

But what remained was heresy. Or we could say to hell with probabilities and to hell with everything else, and just — go. Find a place where those factors didn't matter. Make a whole new —

Another voice arose, sounding very much like his father at his most outraged: You’re not actually thinking — you can’t — your whole career, the life you gave up Palis for, for God's sake — thrown away without a backward glance?! Have you lost your genetically augmented mind?

Bashir didn't answer it immediately. The numbers were already there, after all, with that unknown element still in play, silently mocking him, but now he took them a little further, factoring in the potential responses of the Cardassian government to Garak's desertion of his post. It would have to be desertion: surely they'd never let him go willingly. The conclusions were grim: 99.7% probability that they'd pursue him, 42.4% probability that they'd try to capture him for trial on Cardassia, 53.9% probability that they'd instruct their agents to kill him outright if he was apprehended — and a high probability, fuzzy due to Garak's own incalculability, that they'd succeed in their efforts.

We'd have to head for the Gamma Quadrant. That dropped the odds of Cardassia's success down into the low double digits immediately. It's largely unknown territory and the Dominion's in play, but they'd be easier to evade in civvies than in uniform and my skills as a doctor would be useful on many worlds. And Garak… well, he's said himself that everybody has need of a good tailor from time to time. I'm sure a top-notch spy would be even more in demand.

All it would take was leaving behind everything else he loved and everything he'd worked for… but no, that wasn't quite true. An appetite for adventure and the desire to see new worlds was a large part of the reason he'd joined Starfleet and a life in the Gamma Quadrant would amply meet those needs. And he'd still have his skills and his training whether or not he wore science blue.

But at what price? Abandoning his family and his friends, probably forever. Gambling that Garak could be trusted enough to make a partner worth sharing one's entire life with. Picking up the dice and throwing them boldly, knowing that they might all be weighted against him.

The streams of equations concerning a future outside of Starfleet reached their end sum: the unknown element named Garak introduced too much uncertainty into the results to come to any reliable statistical conclusions. Bashir, exasperated but not particularly surprised, committed them to his better-than-Human memory and placed them firmly on a mental shelf. The voice of reason was right: they were ultimately pointless because that wasn't the path he was going to take. He could just imagine Garak's reaction to the suggestion that they resign their respective commissions and set off together for a lifetime of adventure halfway across the galaxy: when he stopped laughing long enough to get a word in edgewise, the Cardassian would doubtless remind his Human friend that they both had jobs to do and a duty to their respective governments that couldn't be set aside for the sake of a moment's passion.

This is going to last a lot longer than a moment. His heart was suddenly rising his his chest, choking him with something very much like fear. I won't be able to elude this the way I eluded my love for Palis, running until I managed to outdistance it. This already has my throat in its jaws and it's not going to let me go, not until I admit that —

— that his love was hopeless and doomed? Or worse, that it was impossible to resist forever?

Pushing the dread back down again, he set his glass aside, then put another large piece of wood on the fire and got to his feet as quietly as possible. He wasn't going to solve the emotional ramifications of this situation tonight, or in a day, or in a week or a month or possibly even longer. But since he'd come to the decision that Garak's proposal was the only workable one he could afford to defer processing his feelings in favour of doing things that would soon be beyond his power to enjoy.

The air around the bed was slightly but noticeably warmer. With a bit of coaxing and a couple of murmured endearments he convinced Garak to give up his death grip on the blankets, allowing him back inside. "Mmmf," the Cardassian protested drowsily as he slipped between the sheets and tucked them both in well again. "That took a while."

"I thought you were asleep." He pressed close to Garak and slid his left arm under the ridged neck and his right arm around the broad back, entwining their legs and drawing him even nearer.

"I was," Garak groused, returning the embrace and nuzzling into his throat again, his eyes never opening, "but it's much colder without you."

Contrite, Bashir kissed one of his forehead ridges. "I'm sorry. Here, get as warm as you like."

"Thank you, I will." He paused, then wiggled a little closer with a soft grunt of contentment. "Ah! Perfect."

There was that silly smile again, tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Comfy?"

"Mm." A tiny purr. He didn't seem inclined to say anything more for once, so Bashir closed his eyes in his turn. The calculations and his fears for the future stayed where they were supposed to, out of sight and out of mind. In time, he slept once more.


Later he awakened again to find the fire burning low, the room pleasantly warm, and Garak still facing him but separated from him by a few centimeters, apparently soundly asleep. He lay silent, studying the Cardassian's shadowed face and marvelling at how peaceful he looked, and how unguarded. The level of trust implicit in that depth of relaxation was not lost on him and he found himself awash in tender feelings; his impulse was to wake Garak up and make love to him all over again, but there was something just as satisfying in this moment of wordless intimacy, so he simply gazed until some inner impulse caused him to change position slightly.

At once Garak was awake, his head coming up slightly and his blue eyes instantly open and alert; Bashir wondered if all Cardassians awoke as swiftly and as completely, and if his earlier drowsiness had been mere dissembling. Then, seeing who was beside him, his wariness gave way to a slight but blissful smile. He closed his eyes again, resting his head back on the pillow and moving closer to drape his arm over Bashir’s waist with a sigh of seeming contentment.

“I love you,” Bashir confessed in a whisper, reaching up to caress the line of scales that framed the left side of his jaw with light fingertips. It was hopeless, this feeling, but it was also his.

“And I love you, my jewel,” Garak responded at once with the voice of one already dreaming. “Never has rest been more peaceful than surrender in your arms.” He shifted nearer and leaned in to press a brief kiss to Bashir’s smooth forehead. “A wise being, that Leroc! Now go back to sleep, my beautiful child.”

Bashir tried to remember if he’d ever been so happy in his life, even with Palis. No occasion came to mind that compared to the emotional radiance of this moment. They were doomed, unquestionably fated to part at this level, but that made his joy in their union no less sweet.

He tucked his nose under the curve of Garak's chin and drifted down again into warm peaceful darkness devoid of dreams.

Chapter Text

The sound of brisk booted footsteps and an empty glass being set down on a wooden tabletop finally roused Bashir from light sleep. 

“Hmmm?” He opened his eyes and raised his head from the pillow he was hugging, blinking at the blocky shape of Garak moving against the light from the windows. The Cardassian was dressed in his travelling clothes, which had obviously been delivered without ever waking his Human lover, and he wore his new sword belted around his sturdy waist. The morning outside looked clear and bright, the three-story yellow brick building across the wide street decked in last night's fresh fall of snow; beyond it, streamers of white and grey smoke rose into the cloudless sky from a multitude of chimneys, and from below arose the rattle of passing carts and the faint babble of various conversations.

Bashir felt marvellously rested but deliciously languid, parts of his body still aching wonderfully. He indulged in a slow whole-body stretch, smiling as sensual memories of the previous very busy night reasserted themselves along with little thrills of delectable pain.

"Ah! Good morning." The Cardassian’s tone was cheerful. 

Bashir smothered a little yawn in the pillow. "Wha' time's it?"

"Oh, quite early yet. Go back to sleep, my tousled darling. I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Wh’re —” He rolled over onto his back under the covers, rubbed his eyes, yawned more widely and tried again. “Where are you going?”

“To purchase some supplies and ask some questions.” He crossed around the foot of the bed to the hall door, reaching for his winter coat where it hung on its peg. 

Bashir frowned drowsily. “About?”

“About the ‘ship that sailed the stars’." A quick shrug settled the coat on his shoulders and he fastened the buttons with nimble fingers. "If the transmitter isn’t functional it's certainly our next best hope. I’m also wondering about the least obvious ways out of the city, although of course I won’t be asking both questions of the same people.”

Bashir blinked and sat up in bed with some difficulty due to his stiffened muscles, the sheet and blankets slipping down around his naked waist. “You’re thinking about stealing a starship?” Suddenly he was much more awake.

“Not stealing, per se, but... well, yes, when you put it that way, stealing just about covers it. But I’m not actually considering stealing it — yet.”

“I should hope not!" Propped up on both hands, he scowled at the benignly smiling spy and fixed him with as stern a glare has he could muster while unclothed from the waist up. "For God’s sake, be careful who you ask! If the ash’uar get wind of it —”

Garak tilted his head impatiently. “My dear, I think I know a thing or two about being discreet. People will never even remember having met me.” He studied Bashir’s implacable expression and his own annoyance softened. Coming to the bedside, he sat down on the bed's edge and reached out to cup the Human’s chin in his hand, lightly caressing the smooth golden skin with the curve of his forefinger. “Is this excessive protectiveness toward one’s lovers a trait of your species?” he asked more gently.

“Yes.” He ducked his head to kiss the palm of that cool grey hand, then looked up sternly. “I mean it, Garak. At least let me come with you as backup.” He reached down to take hold of the covers and throw them off, but Garak tightened the grip on his chin in admonition.

When Bashir paused, the Cardassian shook his head. “Out of the question. I want to go unnoticed, and all you’d do is attract attention.” He stroked his fingers back into Bashir’s hair, offering a fond smile. “Stay, and sleep. You’ll need your energy when I get back.”

“Mm.” Garak had a point about a Human being impossible to miss on this world, and the sensual tone of his voice was sufficiently persuasive that Bashir grinned, his cock stirring against his leg. “Is that a promise?”

“As good as any you’ll ever receive from me.” Still smiling, he leaned in to press his lips to Bashir’s in a light caress that was far too brief from Bashir's perspective. His fingertips stroked down to the Human's throat, tracing the red imprints of last night's bites. "Your money pouch is on the table where you left it. I'd advise you to ring for breakfast and k'rahl rather than hazarding the dining room: your presence was tolerated there yesterday, but —"

"— but I was with you," Bashir concluded ironically, "and people probably assumed that I was under your control."

"Precisely." His hand curved around the back of Bashir's slender neck and lightly squeezed it. "I don't want you getting involved in another riot in my absence."

"I can take care of myself, Garak." He was getting awfully tired of making the point.

Garak seemed to take the declaration seriously. "Oh, I have no doubt of that. But the city guard might have a slightly different perspective on the matter." He released Bashir and rose to his feet, heading for the peg where his cloak hung. "Besides, I should think you'd want to enjoy the luxury of a real bed for as long as you possibly could."

"It's just not the same unless you're enjoying it too." He turned onto his right side and settled down on one elbow, watching his friend with eyes hooded and sultry. "Are you sure I can't persuade you to bring me breakfast in bed? Or at least share it with me?"

"I'm afraid not, although I assure you that I'm seriously tempted by the offer." He donned the cloak and closed the frog, his tone deceptively mild. "And you know, I haven't forgotten the matter of the ten tiorli."

Bashir didn't bat an eyelash. Instead he assumed his most winning expression and patted the mattress beside him. "We could discuss it right now if you like."

"When you have the almost insurmountable advantage of both nakedness and charm? What kind of a fool do you think I am?" He laid his hand on the door handle, flashing Bashir a final smile. "Be good, my dear Doctor."

"If I can't, I'll at least be careful."

"Hm!" Garak departed, his mouth still wearing a slight enigmatic curve, and when the door had closed behind him Bashir slumped back onto his pillow and stared at the ceiling, a look of dreamy satisfaction on his face. 

He was certainly entitled to it. After all, last night — for the first time in his life — he’d been fucked to a standstill, and it had been utterly glorious. Even Garak's statement concerning their lack of a shared future hadn't extinguished his desire for more. Their final sexual engagement of the night had been slow and almost leisurely, involving no penetration but plenty of cock-to-cock friction; he'd found the weight of his alien lover comforting, their kisses and bites infused with a passion that burned even hotter than their earlier lovemaking in spite of being less physically demanding.

When Bashir finally climaxed it had drained the last of his remaining energy; clinging to Garak, feeling the Cardassian stiffen and growl into his mouth only seconds later as dusky semen painted their bellies, he'd barely been able to keep his eyes open long enough to register Garak wiping them both clean with one of the towels and wrangling the covers out from under him. Nestled between clean sheets with his left arm and shoulder draped across Garak's chest, he didn't so much fall asleep as pass out, dimly aware that the Cardassian was fully alert and wide awake in the state of n’assa tevar — and accepting that vigilance as a manifestation of Garak’s attachment to him. His last thought had been a rather fuzzy sense of regret that Garak wasn't enjoying a similar state of delicious languor…

And yet this morning the older man, in spite of having been awake longer, had clearly been up for quite some time before Bashir so much as twitched. Nor was he inclined to rush out of bed to make up for lost time. With a happy sigh he rolled over and embraced the pillow again, burying his face in its softness: the point about a distinct lack of beds where they were going was a valid one, and he was determined to take advantage of every creature comfort he could before their departure.

The morning passed in a pleasant haze of warmth and sensual enjoyment, and the sun was mid-sky by the time Bashir's eyes finally opened and resolutely refused to stay closed. He indulged in a long hot shower with plenty of soap and a luxurious drying-off, the Naievirl slaves having evidently replenished the supply of thick towels as well as bringing back their cleaned clothes, which felt wonderful against his freshly bathed skin. As he dressed he weighed his options for the rest of the day and came to the conclusion that he wasn't going to hide in their room like a pariah: for one thing it wasn't the sort of cowardly conduct one engaged in when one was a Starfleet lieutenant, and for another he'd promised Al’liel's parents that he'd check in on her before he and Garak took their leave of Zio Araga. Thus the second afternoon chant from the street timekeeper found him pattering lightly down the stairs to the ground level of the inn with his new sword belted around his waist, still savouring a slight pull in certain muscles and in the mood for a hearty lunch. 

His attempt to enter the common room, however, was thwarted by the innkeeper herself. Ebarak was sitting behind her counter in the front hall, writing in a large book with a red pencil, and her casual glance at footsteps on the stairs became much sharper and less friendly when she saw who was making an appearance. Her silent glare, which Bashir could only call intimidating, became a sharp cry when she realized where he was headed: "Stop right there,koraka! Just where do you think you're going?"

For an instant Bashir considered replying To meet my master just to speed things up, but lying wasn't conduct becoming an officer either. He stopped in front of the entry arch to the common room and turned to face her. "To get some lunch." She continued to glare. He cocked his head and frowned back. "Is there a problem?"

"Korakali aren't allowed in my common room without their iravli — and uncollared impertinent korakali even less!" Her nostrils visibly flared. "Wearing a sword in public! For shame!" She rose from her stool and came out from behind the counter, making shooing motions at him as if he were some dirty street cur who'd managed to wander into her fine respectable establishment. "Back to your room with you! Your master should have made arrangements if he wanted you to get fed!"

Bashir stood his ground, fixing her with a look of amused disbelief. He opened his mouth intending to inform her that she was badly mistaken — he was no slave, and furthermore he had money — but a soft voice from behind him spoke before he could: "A hundred apologies, durtaka! I will take him to the kitchens, if it is your will…?"

Turning, Bashir found a relatively short Naievirl man with a maroon leather collar gazing at him with eyes of a surprising milky hue. The alien's expression was unreadable but seemed to contain an unspoken warning, so Bashir closed his mouth again and, when the Naievirl backed away bowing without waiting for a response from his mistress, followed his unlooked-for saviour out of the front hallway and down a corridor leading toward the back of the inn. A glance over his shoulder revealed Ebarak watching after him with narrowed eyes, her mouth twisted in a scowl, but the innkeeper allowed them both to take their leave without further incident and when they were out of earshot (Cardassian hearing being notoriously poor in comparison to Human acuity), Bashir spoke in a low voice: "Thank you, but that really wasn't necessary."

The Naievirl, who had turned away as soon as they were out of Ebarak's sight, glanced back with large solemn eyes as he led the way into a stairwell descending into the basement of the building. "She could have ordered you whipped, or worse. What were you thinking, neiassa?"

"About having some lunch," Bashir stated dryly, although his hopes for one were fading rapidly. The stairs under his feet were stone and the air that washed up from them considerably warmer than that in the rest of the inn, carrying the sound of conversation and clinking metal and a slow rhythmic ratcheting thud. At the bottom was an open archway, and beyond that a glow of heavy yellow firelight. The Naievirl led Bashir through it into a large busy kitchen where various slaves, all wearing the same style of red collar, were chopping vegetables and pounding dough and stirring pots in rows of fireplaces arrayed along one wall. At the largest stone arch, a muscular male slave was walking on a wooden treadmill that turned two huge chunks of meat on a spit over the coals: this was the source of the thudding sound, and as Bashir walked across the room behind his new acquaintance he saw a child slave come running up to the treader with a cup of water which the male downed in one gulp. 

Bashir's guide led him to a long table against the far wall where four other slaves, three female and one male, were sitting with cups and plates. A long narrow window above, quite mud-spattered, admitted a wash of thin pale light from street level. He gestured the Human onto the bench next to the male and said: "Sit. I will bring you food." Without another word he turned and walked away toward one of the hearths, leaving Bashir to reflect that maybe the Naievirl lacked the custom of introducing newcomers around. A little awkwardly, he sat.

The three females ignored him, concentrating on the mixture of grains and shredded meat on their plates. The male offered him a tiny nod and a sip from his cup; cautiously, Bashir accepted and found himself drinking what tasted like very thin beer. He handed the cup back and the male, apparently having satisfied custom, went back to his lunch, leaving Bashir to watch his rescuer get two plates of the stew from the serving woman manning the pot and make his way back. He slid one plate in front of Bashir and took a seat next to him, gesturing toward one of the women, who passed two spoons down the table from a basket against the wall. Then he tucked in, and Bashir, still feeling out of place, joined him.

The food was uncomplicated but filling, and after his very busy night Bashir was mildly ravenous. He finished off his plate in record time, feeling certain that Garak, had he been present, would surely have rebuked him for bolting his meal, and without a word the milky-eyed Naievirl took his plate and rose and went to get another serving, which he deposited in front of Bashir equally silently. Bashir confined his thanks to a nod — perhaps it was Naievirl custom not to speak while eating? — and polished off that pile of food as well, although somewhat less swiftly. He finished his second serving at roughly the same time his companion finished his first, and looked up from his empty plate to find the Naievirl regarding him with the stoicism Bashir was coming to associate with his species, but also not without a certain amount of friendliness.

"Do you require more?" he asked.

Bashir set down his spoon and shook his head. "No, thank you. It was lovely. I really appreciate it."

The Naievirl bobbed his head. "I am Half Nineea," he said, tapping his chest lightly with his closed right fist. "And you are the neiassa who spared the daughter of R’rials of the Fallen Leaves a journey to the Red King's court."

Bashir nodded and mirrored the tapping gesture. "My name is Julian Bashir."

"J'liian?" Half Nineea cocked his head, birdlike. "What a curious name. Where do your people nest?"

"Ah… very far away from here. It's a place I'm sure you've never heard of."

One of the women, a stout (for a Naievirl) older female with bands of white in her variegated hair, pushed away her own empty plate and picked up her leather cup. Before she drank from it she slipped in a remark: "Far away indeed if we've never known tales of men like you, etai irav." After setting the cup down she tapped her chest with her left fist, then fixed her gaze on Bashir's exposed throat. "Black Iellila of the Fallen Leaves. Your durtak used you badly, I see. We have siella bark tea if the pain is bad."

"What?" The change in topic caught him briefly flat-footed before he realized that she was referring to Garak's love bites. "Oh, no — thank you, I'm fine. And he's not my master: he's my friend."

All the Naievirl at the table cocked their heads at him simultaneously. The effect was so similar to a cage full of finches that Bashir almost smiled before suppressing the reaction. Black Iellila's ebony eyes narrowed and she looked like she was about to say something unpleasant, but Half Nineea shot her a glance and spoke first: "We know the Roughshod are cruel even with their own mates. Would they be any gentler with an artor n'sar'ara?" He twitched his chin to the left — "L'lessa tiernai t'sorl!" — then touched the hollow of his throat with the forefinger and middle finger of his right hand (they were, Bashir noted clinically, of exactly the same length), and his fellow aliens repeated both the gesture and the unknown Naievirl phrase. Bashir thought of trying to reciprocate but decided that the risk of inadvertently offering offence was too great.

One of the younger Naievirl women, barely more than a girl, finished her meal and flashed Bashir a very pretty smile beneath lively eyes the color of a ripe field of wheat, then offered him her cup. He accepted it and drank gratefully while Half Nineea continued his train of thought. "That explains why you wear no collar, then. But it was very foolish of you to risk durtaka Erabak's displeasure. She preens the feathers of her guests while their faces are toward her, as sweetly as you please, but she'll peck their backs to pieces if given the chance. Did you leave anything of value in your room?"

Bashir passed the cup back, offering the girl a smile that he hoped was half as sweet as the one he'd received, before replying. "No, nothing. Everything we brought is packed in our luggage." Too late he noticed the change in atmosphere at the table: the slight but visible stiffening of shoulders, the subtle rise in tension following the shared cup. It seemed that he'd violated some protocol in spite of himself.

The young woman piped up: "The torask will keep that safe enough!" Then, as her fellow Naievirl turned flat gazes on her, she bobbed her delicate head nervously and whistled low in her throat, tapping her chest in formal greeting. "Shining Tisiira, neiassa. May your paths be blessed with sweet water."

"Thank you," Bashir replied, wondering how best to let her down gently. He'd seen that look in women's eyes before and was somewhat flattered to realize that his handsomeness translated across the species divide, even if he wasn't in a position where he was inclined to do anything about it. "But I'm afraid I don't know that term. What is a torask?"

"An agent assigned to keep track of the valuables of inn guests," Half Nineea explained. "Too many innkeepers are like our twice-braided Erabak, quick to line their own holts with shining baubles plucked from the nests of others. The feilla of the city created the toraskli to enforce honesty."

The big male swallowed the last bite on his plate and pushed it away, but didn't seem inclined to offer his name before offering advice. "You're perched on a thin branch, etai irav. When are you gone?"

"Tomorrow morning," Bashir replied, meeting the man's emerald eyes steadily.

He grunted and rose to his feet, his eyes lingering on Bashir's face before darting sidelong to Shining Tisiira, who was watching him with almost palpable anxiety. "Sweet water to you!" he said curtly, stepped over the bench, and strode off across the kitchen toward the stairs leading up into the inn. Bashir stared after him, wondering what all that had been about and suspecting he already knew the answer. It wouldn't be the first time someone had taken umbrage when a woman they fancied found a certain Starfleet physician attractive; perhaps in accepting the cup from the girl he'd given a signal entirely unintended. It was too late now. He could only hope that the problem had just taken care of itself.

Black Iellila warbled softly behind clenched teeth. "Thin branch indeed!" she smirked, an expression echoed by the third woman at the table, who was still eating. Shining Tisiira's attention seemed to be focussed inside her leather cup, and Bashir decided that the best thing he could do for her was to take himself someplace else. 

He nodded to Half Nineea. "Thank you for the lunch," he said, "but I really should be going. I promised R’rials of the Fallen Leaves that I'd have a look at Al’liel before I left, and there's really no time like the present."

The little Naievirl bobbed his chin and rose to his feet, ignoring their empty plates. "Let me take you there," he said, and Bashir nodded again, suspecting that he might also want an excuse to walk away from an awkward situation. 

Chapter Text

As Half Nineea led them away from the table back toward the stairs leading up into the inn, Bashir said quietly: "I apologize for any offence I offered — it was entirely unintentional, I assure you."

The short Naievirl briefly fluffed the feathers at the back of his head and whistled softly before replying. "Then you shouldn't have accepted the cup from her, neiassa."

"I'm unfamiliar with your customs." He tried to strike just the right balance in his tone between apology and firmness. "I had no idea that sharing drink had that meaning in your culture."

Another whistle and a keen sidelong look from those white eyes. "What do women do in your country when they want to learn more of a man?"

"They…" Smile at him and eat with him, but that wasn't going to help his case at all. "The customs are different. I hope I have't made things difficult for you."

They started up the stairs, Half Nineea in front, and the slave waited until they reached the top and were side by side again before responding. "Not for me. But it's of no great consequence. Shining Tisiira is often too forward. If Great Asiet takes her down a branch for this it will be all for the better."

"Great Asiet?"

"The man who wanted to clip your wings," Half Nineea said dryly as they headed down the dark hallway toward the rear of the inn. "I'll say you should stay clear of him while you're here. He is known for striking first and thinking later."

"I'll keep that in mind," Bashir said, wincing a little at the thought of what Garak would say if he got into a fight with one of the inn's slaves. Nothing good, and probably a few things that would strip paint of off walls.

Half Nineea bobbed his head. "He is a stable hand. As long as you stay clear of it you should be safe." They passed through another archway into a narrow room full of crates and bundles, then out an iron-banded wooden door into the open yard between the stables and the slave tenement. Bashir resisted the temptation to glance to his right, looking for any sign of the ham-fisted slave who might well be out to cause him harm. "You know your way from here?"

He nodded. "Yes, thank you. I appreciate your help."

He was rewarded with a thin smile. "Thank R'rials of the Fallen Leaves, who directed that you be shown every kindness." He crossed both wrists in front of his chest. "Shade and sweet water to you, J'liian of lands unknown."

Bashir carefully replicated the gesture. "Shade and sweet water to you, Half Nineea of Zio Araga." Evidently this was the proper response, for the small slave's smile widened fractionally before he took himself back into the inn, leaving Bashir to make his way across the snowy yard, through the wrought-iron gate and over to the rickety wooden stairs leading up the side of the tenement. An older Naievirl boy was sitting on a stool on the landing of the second level, watching the approaching Human intently, and when Bashir came up that set of stairs he rose to his feet and bobbed his head, then leaned over the railing and directed a complex whistle upwards. Bashir heard light hurrying footsteps overhead as he nodded to the child and paused, but the boy indicated that he was to go on with a twitch of his pointed chin, and by the time Bashir reached the third level Al’liel's mother was standing in the doorway to their room, gazing at him with clear eyes the color of rowan berries. 

"Neiassa," she greeted him with an up-and-down dip of her tapered head. "May the winter sun always show you his brightest face."

"Thank you." Bashir smiled at her, slipping into his "friendly but professional physician" persona with the ease of long training and practice. "And how is Al’liel this morning?"

Another head-bob and the woman stood aside to let him pass. "Her fever has broken. She slept well and woke when Kieral whistled just now."

"That's good to hear." He stepped again into the narrow wooden room and smiled more widely when he saw the little girl lying on her narrow bed, covered with a warm blanket and looking at him alertly. "Hello, Al’liel. I hear you're feeling better."

A solemn bob of the small head. "My leg still hurts, but not as badly."

"That's wonderful." He knelt beside the low mattress and extended his hand toward the top of the blanket, pausing just short of taking hold of it. "May I have a look at it?"

She studied his face; it was often hard to read alien expressions, but he thought she looked a little afraid. "Are you going to use that big knife again?"

"No, sweetheart," he soothed, "not if the medicine I gave you is doing its job."

After a moment she bobbed her head and he drew back the blanket and her short tunic to reveal her bandaged thigh. Probing the covered flesh with strong but careful fingers, he noted that she barely flinched. "How badly does it hurt, compared to yesterday before I came to see you?"

Al’liel considered the question, her feathery eyebrows drawing close together. "Less than half. It's not as hot either."

"Very good," Bashir assured her, glancing back over his shoulder to include her watching mother in the conversation. "Have you been giving her the medication as I instructed?"

The woman, whose name Bashir had never learned, gestured in the affirmative. "Every eleven clockturns, neiassa, with plenty of food and water and regular doses of lio’el tea."

"And when did her fever break?"

"In the middle of the night, while she slept."

Bashir nodded again and covered the child up warmly again. "Excellent. I'd say she's well on the road to recovery."

Al’liel spoke up: "When can I go out and play with my friends?"

Smiling at the irrepressible energy of childhood, Bashir laid a warm hand on her delicate shoulder. "In a few days, after you've finished all the medicine. In the meantime your friends can come and visit you here."

"It's not the same thing at all," the girl complained.

"Al’liel!" Her mother sounded shocked and angry. "To a neiassa!"

"He doesn't mind." She looked at Bashir with confidence, and he offered a final smile and gave her shoulder a squeeze before rising to his feet.

"She's right — I don't. I'm just glad to see that she's feeling more energetic." He was turning away and opening his mouth to ask her mother about the uses and benefits of lio’el tea when Al’liel spoke up again:

"Where is your friend? The blood man?"

Surprised, Bashir turned to look down at her with a mildly puzzled frown. "He's out doing some shopping."

The child's eyes, a yellower shade than her mother's, gazed at him unblinking. "No he's not. He's asking questions. And some big men are asking questions about him."

Bashir's frown deepened, remembering her uncannily accurate statement of the previous day concerning Garak. "How do you know that?"

Al’liel's mother stepped in: "She's always pretending that she's a miiala, honored neiassa — pay her no mind." 

"You'd better be careful." Al’liel was ignoring the woman completely, still staring up into Bashir's eyes. "They're asking questions about you too."

"Al’liel!" Her mother stepped forward to Bashir's side, flaring her feathered hair and whistling through her nose in a display that, judging from her tone of voice, indicated near-fury. "If you weren't ill, I'd —"

"No." Bashir held up one hand, never taking his eyes off of the intent little girl, who did not seem in the least intimidated by her mother's anger. "No, it's quite all right. I think she's trying to help."

Al'liel head-bobbed, then shifted her gaze past the two adults standing at her bedside and towards the open doorway. Her mother turned sharply, cocking her head, and a couple of seconds later Bashir heard a faint but piercing warble from down in the middle yard. A heartbeat later the boy on the second level repeated the call, and Al’liel's mother hastened to the doorway with Bashir close behind her. 

Half Nineea was sprinting across the trampled snow of the middle yard with impressive speed; as Bashir watched over the wooden railing, he pushed through the iron gate and threw himself at the tenement steps, clattering up them with a careless noise that made Bashir suddenly aware of just how lightly the Naievirl usually stepped. He glanced at the woman beside him, hoping for clarification, which she promptly provided: "The signal means danger, but of what sort?" She looked puzzled, but neither she nor Bashir had to wait long for clarification. Seconds later Half Nineea came around the corner of the stairs to the third story, calling out as he hastened up them:

"J'liian! Agents of Hassarl House — talking to the mistress — looking for you!"

"Hassarl House?" It only took Bashir a moment to place the name, and another name associated with it — Esa Kassar — and Aslel's grim prediction back at Etarr Nor'iv: She’ll be looking for a chance to take him… I’d bet my badge on it. While there was a chance that Kassar or her representatives were here on legitimate business, it was infinitesimally small. "Did they say what they wanted?"

Half Nineea twitched his chin to the left, panting. "I only heard a little of it — but they're big men with big swords and they've offered her money to hand you over." 

Bashir's heart sank. Based on what he'd seen and heard of Erebak thus far he could readily guess what her response would be to such an incentive. His enhanced mind raced in cascading sequences of variables, all of them leading to distressingly unlikely possibilities of success. "I've got to get out of here," he concluded after a couple of seconds, voicing the only conclusion that offered a prospect of success that cracked a double digit percentile. 

Another twitch of Half Nineea's chin, this one more decisive. "Where would you go? Word of you would spread faster than the ries'lai flies. No — come with me. Hurry!"

With a final glance at Al’liel's mother, who offered an anxious head-bob, Bashir followed the Naievirl male down the stairs, taking them two at a time as Half Nineea did. It was a trick that a non-augmented Human would have risked his neck attempting on the rickety stairwell, but Bashir's coordination and reflexes were more than up to the challenge and they reached the bottom with a haste which did not abate as Half Nineea led him around the side of the tenement to the rear of the building, where three sets of wooden doors not unlike the entrances to old Terran storm cellars stood against the foundation. Half Nineea wasted no time in hauling open the nearest set and urging Bashir down the narrow ladder leading into the darkness. Descending, Bashir could see that he was entering an underground space perhaps four meters by five meters with wooden crates and piles of empty rough-woven cloth bags set against the walls. Seconds later Half Nineea joined him at the bottom and, reaching down to catch hold of an iron ring set into the wooden floor, pulled on it to reveal the presence another door set flush to the boards. Under the door, leaving perhaps a foot and a half of clearance, was what looked like a flat mass of large grey root vegetables similar to Bajoran etaras or Terran parsnips, although the smell that rose from them was pungent and far less pleasant.

"Get in," Half Nineea urged, glancing back over one shoulder toward the open cellar doors.

"In there?" The odour was growing more overpowering by the second.

An impatient bob of his head and a slight flaring of his head-feathers. "Do you want to be caught? By them?"

The implication was not lost on Bashir, who hesitated only a second longer before jumping down onto the tubers and cautiously sliding himself under the floor feet-first. The root cellar turned out to be only about five feet long, a fact that Bashir was confirming with little kicks of his boots while Half Nineea ran to grab a ragged basket and some of the large cloth bags from beside the nearest wall, which he dumped on the floor beside the root cellar door. "Move over, neiassa," he said apologetically, and when Bashir realized that he was scooping out a depression in the pile of vegetables for the Human to lie in he hastened to help. Perhaps fifteen seconds later he was settling himself into the hollow on his back and Half Nineea was laying the cloth bags over top of him, then shovelling tubers on top of it to act as rough camouflage. By crooking one arm over his face Bashir was able to maintain enough of an airspace that he didn't feel like he was slowly being suffocated.

"Lie still," Half Nineea directed unnecessarily, his voice muffled by the intervening sacks and roots. "I will return for you when it is safe." Bashir heard him scooping some vegetables into the basket, and then the thud of the root cellar door being lowered back into place — and more worrisome, the sound of a crate being moved to sit on top of it, in a position that hid the iron ring. It was a good strategy — Bashir would never have suspected that the door was there had he not seen the ring itself — but it also meant that if he had to get out of here on his own, that task would be rendered considerably more difficult.

Lying on the lumpy mass in darkness that became pitch blackness when Half Nineea climbed back up and closed the main doors to the cellar, Bashir tried to breath shallowly through his mouth and not to think about what else might be down here with him. So much for having my clothes freshly laundered, he thought ruefully: at least his cloak, still hanging in the inn's room, was safe from the stench currently surrounding him, although getting it might prove to be a real trick unless one of Erebak's Naievirl slaves was willing to sneak in and snatch it for him. 

He had to find a way to get word out to Garak, and then they'd both have to find a way to get their o'wn and luggage out of Erebak's clutches before getting the hell out of Dodge. Squirming his shoulders in a futile attempt to relieve the discomfort of the roots digging into his back, Bashir wondered where Garak was right now and what he was doing. Surely a trained agent of the Obsidian Order would be savvy enough to spot trouble when he approached the inn… or would he be ambushed before he even got there? 

He's asking questions. And some big men are asking questions about him. Al’liel's words sent a shiver of cold down his spine that had nothing to do with the chill of the subterranean cellar. Did the girl have something like the ability that Lieilii had demonstrated, and perhaps the aid of an transdimensional being of her own? Could she see what was happening and what was going to happen? Would it be worth consulting her when he got out of this infernal mess? 

Damn it, something was moving among the roots close to his left boot. He kicked out and heard the little animal scurry away, but now he was left with the lingering question of whether or not it and its brethren found flesh just as tasty as tubers. He made a mental note to ask Garak later if the Cardassian had ever been in a spot as tight as this, then turned his attention to figuring out how to warn Garak if possible. When Half Nineea came back (or whoever was assigned to rescue him from being rescued), perhaps he could ask them to send out someone to find the spy and let him know what was happening back at The Azure Reaches. But where would he himself be in the meantime? Locked in this cellar until Garak could come and fetch him? Oh, wouldn't that be rich, and something he was sure he wouldn't hear the end of for days: My dear Doctor, I must confess myself utterly astounded. I thought that Starfleet officers had a reputation for bravery and daring and decisive action, and yet there you were, lurking in a root cellar! Let us hope that the Tal Shiar never gets word of it…

He was considering how best to stop that line of conversation — perhaps with a sound kiss, followed by some tactics even more diverting — when he heard one of the last things he wanted to hear under the circumstances: the upper doors of the cellar opening, and a voice both loud and blustering.

"I'll tell you this, koraka — you'd better be telling the truth about the red-skinned hissar being gone, or by Gart you'll be swinging over a fire before the night is out!"

Chapter Text

Bashir froze, not even daring to breathe, as heavy boots clumped down the ladder into the cellar and landed on the wooden floor. He heard a fluid Naievirl voice answering the Cardassian but through the layers of cloth that covered him and the door that separated him from the room's newest occupants he couldn't make out what the birdlike alien said, or even if it was Half Nineea speaking.

The Cardassian grunted; Bashir heard him turn in place, then walk across the floor toward the rear of the storage space. A metal blade hissed out of a scabbard as the bootsteps passed almost directly over his head, then circumnavigated the room: Bashir guessed that he was checking behind the crates, and judging from the pauses perhaps giving the piles of sacks a poke with his sword. Concentrating on drawing shallow soundless breaths, Bashir was tempted to send up a fervent prayer to whatever local Gods might be listening — Gart, perhaps, or Nasha — that he didn't spot the door set into the floor, because if he did open it and stick the point of his sword down among the tubers there was nothing that Bashir could do about it in his current position. He was the proverbial sitting duck.

From just beyond the open cellar doors came another Cardassian's shout: "Check every corner, Purtak! He's a skinny perujo!"

Another grunt. "Not skinny enough to hide in a crack." It seemed to take an eternity to the hidden Starfleet officer, but Bashir only counted off forty-two seconds before Purtak uttered a sour growl and resheathed his sword. "All clear. Bastard must've taken off, like they said." 

"There's two more cellars," his compatriot pointed out.

Purtak grumbled a laugh. "Aye, and then it's a mug of ale for me." He stumped back to the ladder and heaved himself up it, barking an order: "Close up!"

Another soft liquid murmur from the Naievirl and the bang of the doors falling into place, and Bashir dared to draw a deep breath again. It seemed he was safe — for the moment. But if the Cardassian soldiers saw doors in the floors of the other two cellars and were smart enough to extrapolate what they were seeing…

He waited. It was all he could do. But nobody came back, and after an internal background count of ten minutes he relaxed fully. There were still rustlings among the tubers around him that alerted him to the presence of other life forms — at least seven others, from the sound of it no larger than mice — but it appeared he was going to be undisturbed by anything Cardassian.

There was, however, another enemy to consider: the cold. The subterranean root cellar was considerably chillier than the outside air and although Bashir was wearing the gorgeous coat Garak had bought for him back in Zio Tevar'in his pants were thin enough that his legs were feeling the effects. If he stayed here long enough hypothermia could be a real possibility. He closed the buttons on the coat with his free hand, then tucked that hand into a pocket; his right arm, which was tenting the sacks over his face, would just have to fend for itself.

Silence. Blackness. The beating of his heart was slow and sonorous. He'd have to listen to it carefully if he started to feel much colder: tachycardia was a classic symptom of hypothermia. His mind, casting about for something to occupy itself, settled on a peculiar topic: the lack of representational art in this planet's culture, or for that matter in the Cardassian culture he was familiar with back home. In all the time he'd spent on this colony he hadn't seen a single statue, painting, portrait or other example of "art for art's sake", and now that he thought about it his experience with mainstream Cardassian society was quite similar. The Cardassians seemed to believe in beauty in functionality, creating lamps and chairs and display panels and space stations that were gorgeous in their own right, but even Garak, as a tailor, produced lovely clothing that was made to be worn rather than tapestries meant to be displayed on a wall. It would make a worthy topic of discussion when next he and Garak had a spare hour to devote to one of their customary debates —

— which from the look of things would not be taking place in a well-appointed room, at least not in The Azure Reaches. Bashir bit his lip and bit back his disappointment simultaneously. Last night had been so wonderfully sensual and so erotically explosive that he desperately wanted to repeat the experience. Having a warm comfortable bed to roll around in, and the option to shift from an intellectual engagement to a sexual romp if the mood seized them, had been utterly glorious… but could they even afford to remain in Zio Araga another night if Esa Kassar was actively searching for him? Did Garak already have a plan in place to get them out of the city, or would they both be spending tonight in a root cellar to avoid being hunted down?

Thinking of Omar Khayyam's immortal lines:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness — 
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Bashir reflected that if he were snuggled up next to Garak even a bed of lumpy roots would take on a certain cachet. And wasn't that one of the most fundamental qualities of love: that the presence of the beloved made any place that much brighter and more pleasant?

For the moment, however, he was alone and growing colder by the minute. He closed his eyes against the pitch blackness and called to mind the most recent medical journal he'd read before leaving the station, then began to compose responses to points in several articles that he'd found questionable. In the back of his mind the minutes were relentlessly counted off, independent of his efforts at composition and his concerns for the immediate future and the occasional heartfelt curse at the uncomfortable shapes of whatever type of roots he was lying on (and the resultant squirming), and it was a full hour and three-quarters before he heard the cellar doors being opened once more.

Bashir, who'd been polishing up the phrasing on his seventh letter, came fully alert and tensed, but the fact that he heard no footfalls before the the crate overhead was moved away told him that his visitor was Naievirl. The root cellar door was pulled open enough to admit a faint wash of daylight, then Half Nineea's quiet liquid voice reached him: "J'liian?" 

"I'm still here," Bashir called back, his voice sounding very loud under the insulation of the sacks. He tightened his back muscles preparatory to sitting up, but the Naievirl's next words, still spoken in a near-whisper, stopped him.

"It is not yet safe. The durtaka is making her own passes, thrusting her beak into every nook and cranny. If she finds you it will go very badly for us."

He laid his head back on its lumpy pillow and drew a deep breath. "Well, what do you suggest?"

"That you remain here until she tires of the task and returns to her office." Something of Bashir's dismay must have communicated itself even through the burlap and root vegetables that covered him, because Half Nineea whistled with an upward inflection. "It should not take long, and then you can come up where it's a bit warmer. You'll be safely hidden here. Nobody ever comes to this cellar unless it's for dara roots." A pause, then a tone that conveyed something close to laughter: "If you like, I could send someone to lie with you for warmth. I'm sure that Shining Tisiira would be eager to lend aid…"

"No," Bashir said quickly, "thank you." In truth his legs were now cold enough to feel tremors close to shivering, but his coat was still providing good insulation for his upper body and he didn't judge himself to be in serious danger of hypothermia — yet. That might well change if these conditions continued for another hour. "But I can't stay down here forever! Are Kassar's men still here?"

"Four of them, yes. Two are patrolling the yard and the others are in the common room, all with their hands on their sword hilts."

"Has Garak returned yet?"

"No, neiassa, although goods were delivered under his name shortly before I hid you. The swordsmen in the stable tried to lay claim to them but the torask would have none of it and had them safely locked away." Another pause. "The largest niraktat also offered the durtaka gold to lure your friend in with soft words so that his men could seize hold of him."

Bashir heart sank, then strengthened as steely resolve stiffened his spine. A threat to himself was one thing. A threat to his lover prompted feelings of an entirely different — and more martial — kind. "What do they want with him?"

"I do not know."

"I've got to warn him!" He started to push the sacks away, only to have a bird-boned Naievirl hand find his chest and press down on it with considerable strength.

"No!" Half Nineea's tone was urgent enough to give Bashir pause, even with fierce protectiveness surging in his veins. "I vow the truth, J'liian: if the niraktatli catch you your artor n'sar'ara will never see you again."

"I can defend myself," Bashir insisted, feeling that his assertiveness was somewhat diminished for being communicated through layers of cloth and a scattering of dusty tubers.

"One man against four, with swords? You'd die, or be taken, and either way Gar'aik would still walk into the snare they've set for him."

"You don't know him like I do," Bashir muttered, but he lay back and allowed the little slave to rearrange his protective covering. "All right — but someone has to find Garak and warn him that there's trouble here. Can you arrange that much, at least?"

A lower whistle. "The mistress would notice if one of the adult slaves went missing — unless it were Rain Tirtierri. She often slips away to the market to look for delicacies for Erebak's own table."

"If you could send her right now —"

"He could be anywhere, honored one, and it grows dark. Few Roughshod remain in the streets once the cold comes down."

"That should make him all the easier to find, then." And if Garak was on his way back to the inn there was even less time to lose. He quickly considered how best to convey a description of Garak without a common system of length and weight. "She'll only have to patrol the closest streets and keep an eye out for him — he's middle-aged, rather stout, perhaps a half finger-length shorter than I am, with a roundish face and blue eyes and a coat cut similar to mine in shades of red under a dark green cloak. His sword sheath is a slightly darker brown than the one I'm wearing. Tell her to tell him that Odo's men are hanging around Quark's and things are too hot at the bar. I'll meet him at the Replimat instead."


"Repeat it back for me, please." Half Nineea did so, word-perfect in spite of the unfamiliar terms, and Bashir nodded even though he was out of sight. "Excellent. He'll know where to go to find me." If she can find him in the first place… if she recognizes him… if he doesn't see her approaching him and pull a vanishing act… "Now it's just a matter of me getting safely to The Orova's Nest — and then getting hold of our o'wn and our luggage."

Another pause from above. "When night comes it will be easier for you to move about in the streets, as long as the city guard doesn't catch you in flight." 

"That's a chance I'll have to take." Every minute they kept talking was another minute that Garak remained unwarned. "Thank you, Half Nineea — for everything. I'll be fine, but try not to leave me here too long. I think I'm starting to turn into a dara root myself." I certainly smell like one, he thought bitterly, but didn't feel it was worth saying aloud.

The Naievirl whistled again and lowered the root cellar door, then departed for the upper world, leaving Bashir in complete darkness once more, alone with the weight of his worry and helplessness. Half Nineea had been right: an untrained healer against four, or even two, trained swordsmen wouldn't last long at all, and surely a slave trader had ways of locking someone away so that rescue was next to impossible. He couldn't risk being captured. The only hope, as uncertain as it was, lay in hiding out until he could somewhat safely sneak away.

And what if Garak fell into the trap that had been set for him? 

Well then, Bashir thought grimly, he'd have to test just how impregnable Esa Kassar's security actually was for himself, even though it might well end up getting him killed. Garak wouldn't thank him for it, but surely Garak would understand that his friend — and now more than friend — couldn't simply walk away and leave him to whatever fate the slave trader had in mind for him.

Bashir only hoped that he'd have the opportunity to hear Garak complain about it in person, even if the conversation consisted of only a couple of hurried sentences before they both fell in combat. Yes, it was selfish. But it wouldn't be the first time that Garak had accused him of the apparently mammalian sin of being entirely too self-concerned for his own good. 


Even in the absolute darkness of his hiding place, the quality of the blackness changed subtly from day to night and the temperature fell slowly but steadily. At the two and a half hour mark Julian was shivering intermittently but his heart rate was still regular. He was uncomfortable, certainly (including increasing pressure in his bladder), but not in the danger zone, and his mind was still clear. He moved on to another medical journal and another set of responses, reflecting that if they got safely back to DS9 at least he'd be caught up on his correspondence. He also did some serious thinking about what to do if things didn't work out according to his spur-of-the-moment plans. One advantage of an augmented mind was that he could pursue both lines of thought more or less simultaneously.

Two hours and thirty-seven minutes brought the return of Half Nineea with grim news. As soon as he'd opened the root cellar door he said: "Rain Tirtierri failed, honored neiassa. Gar'aik arrived without our knowledge and was taken in the stables by the niraktatli waiting there."

Bashir's heart leaped in his chest. "Is he all right? Did they hurt him?"

"I did not see it myself, but one of the stable boys told me that he went with them quietly after they threatened him with their weapons."

He released a long slow breath. Of course Garak would be smart enough not to put up a fight if the odds were that clearly stacked against him, but his acquiescence took their situation to a much more dangerous level. He tried to sit up and found that the muscles in his lower back were too stiff to comply. Grimacing, he shifted his pelvis in an attempt to loosen them up a little. "Right. Then we'll have to —"

The Naievirl interrupted him. "The carriage which took him away belongs to the family of Far Tiesla of the Bright Hand. They will tell us where it went and where theniraktatli are holding your friend. Hassarl House makes use of inns in the Ritara Quarter for its business here in Zio Araga. Most likely he will be held there. No, J'liian," and his voice fell even softer as he laid his hand on Bashir's chest again, "you must wait here a little longer. The remaining swordsmen are conducting another search."

"Another one?" He couldn't quite keep the frustration out of his voice. "Damn! I really need to urinate. Do you think I could —?"

"It's too great a risk. Hold it a little longer."

Bashir didn't have much choice. He wasn't about to piss on someone else's food supply. "Well, if you won't let me out to empty my bladder, will you at least have a message conveyed for me?"

"A message?" He could almost hear the cock of the tapered head. "To whom, now that Gar'aik is taken?"

"I need someone to go to the Yolin Guild and find a yolin named Noress Borik. Tell him that Bashir is alone and in bad trouble, and needs him and his partner to come to The Azure Reaches right away." A shiver raced up his spine and settled in the muscles over his jaw — not a good sign, but he ignored it for the moment although it put a brief hitch in his speech. "T-tell him to hurry. There's not a moment to lose."

"It will be as you ask," Half Nineea replied. "Are you sure you don't want a child to warm you?"

Bashir shook his head before remembering that he couldn't be seen. "No. I-if they're found with me, you'd b-be implicated."

A moment of silence followed. "I will return as soon as it is safer," Half Nineea promised, and closed the door again and pushed the crate back into place.

Gritting his teeth, Bashir resigned himself to the little tremors that were now racing through various muscle groups all over his body. He could hold out a little longer. He had no choice.


Eleven minutes later a pair of Cardassians came to search the chamber again, and once again they missed the existence of the root cellar, although Bashir was certain that they'd be able to hear his teeth chattering in his head. After a couple of ill-tempered remarks about the bitterness of the night they took their leave.

Twenty-seven minutes… or was it twenty-nine? His heart was skipping restlessly in his chest at intervals and the cold, which his coat had held at bay, was now piercing him to the bones. Shaking, he readied himself to try forcing open the root cellar door — and got distracted by a thought. The thought of how wonderfully warm Garak's embrace had been, even for one so cold-blooded. He closed his eyes and recalled with breathtaking clarity the tickle of the tiny scales at the tip of Garak's nose as they brushed against his throat, the masterful pressure of those grey-skinned hands on his back and sides and belly, the delightfully solidity of the stocky body and the lilt of the spy's perfectly modulated voice… the beautiful voice that hadn't been persuasive enough to talk him out of being abducted… with a start, Bashir jolted back to reality and realized that he was shuddering all over. Out. He had to get out of this deathtrap! He fumbled the sacking aside and pushed himself directly under the door and braced himself to apply all his strength upward, but his muscles didn't want to operate at full energy output. He couldn't budge the weight of the crate.

Eyes wide, he stared up at the boards he couldn't see and tried to think of what to do next. Move. He had to keep moving. But how? There wasn't enough room to swing a dead Altarian fox in this confined space. His hands dropped to his chest as he tried to get his mind working. Think! Why was it so difficult? Thinking was what he'd been engineered to do, the trait that defined him above all else. Garak was counting on him. But thinking wouldn't get him out of this. He needed better leverage. Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world, Archimedes had said — and he didn't have to move a planet, he just had to move a single box. A box on the other side of a door. It might as well have been a hundred light years away.

He gathered himself again, trying to ignore the uncontrollable shivering and the racing of his heart and the now painful fullness of his bladder. There wasn't even room in here to turn over onto his belly. If he couldn't accomplish the task in this position he was doomed. He pressed his hands flat to the underside of the door and tried, futilely, to budge it. Too cold. He was going to die in here, and Kassar would —

No! He summoned up the image of Garak being ordered into a carriage at swordpoint and held it in his heart like a warming flame. "I'm c-coming, G-Garak," he muttered, and pushed again with all his waning strength. "C-coming for you, a'l-a'latli…"

He was still straining, his tachycardic heartbeat hammering in his ears, when the crate was pulled clear of the door and his efforts thrust it explosively upwards. He half sat up before a spasm in his lower back laid him out flat again. The door was pulled fully open and lamplight dazzled his dark-adapted eyes as a voice from behind it cried out: "Bashir!"

He was shaking too hard to reply. Borik caught one of his fumbling hands and clutched it tightly. "He's colder than Nasha's nethers! Get him out of there, quick!"

Chapter Text

A longer and bonier set of hands than those of the smaller yolin took hold of Bashir's other forearm — Aslel, he realized through the numbing shroud of cold enveloping his body and mind — and together the two Cardassians hauled him stumbling up out of the root cellar and stood him on his feet, supporting his shuddering frame between them. Half Nineea, standing off to one side holding the small lantern that had blinded Bashir a few seconds earlier, sounded downright perplexed. "Is he ill?"

"Ill?" Aslel sent a piercing glance in his direction and spat each word. "You nearly killed him by shoving him in that hole, koraka perujo!"

"With cold?" A low whistle. "But his heart is as hot as our own! I do not understand —"

"Be silent!" Aslel snarled in a voice even colder than Bashir's balls. He was surveying the dusty root-stinking Human with a more critical gaze than usual, his frown becoming an outright scowl when Bashir tried to get out a coherent sentence about needing to urinate, couldn't manage it though his shuddering jaws, and started to fumble open his coat instead. Aslel batted his hands away irritably. "Stop that! You need to conserve heat, not —"

"P-p—" Bashir squeezed his eyes closed in frustration and finally succeeded: "P-piss!…"

"Oh!" The penny dropped for Borik. "Hold him up, would you, Aslel?" He stooped and and proceeded to undo the buttons on Bashir's coat and open his trousers and pull down his underwear with admirable speed. "He needs to water a stone! Easy, Bashir, there we go… it just makes sense. If he's been down there for Gart knows how many clockturns, he's probably dying for a good — eck! Is it supposed to look like that?"

Bashir nodded as best he could, trying not to feel self-conscious. The chilly night air on his penis was causing it to shrivel up even more, but Borik, with an expression of manful bravery, propped it up with a gingerly forefinger to save Bashir from splashing his pants and Bashir, with a shuddering sigh, finally let go in an enthusiastic yellow arc that steamed as it struck the wooden floor of the cellar. Aslel, lip curled, was staring down in a sort of appalled fascination, while Half Nineea was deliberately averting his eyes toward the open doors leading up into the frosty blackness.

It seemed to take forever, but at last Bashir sighed again, this time with sheer physical relief. "Th-thank y—"

Borik was already yanking up his briefs and closing his trousers. "Nothing to it," he said cheerfully but with a visible shudder. "Aslel would have charged you an extra three tiorli for that, you know."

"I'm ready to charge him three tiorli just for having to witness it," the taller Cardassian said wryly.

Bashir wished that he had the wherewithal to make a tart comment about free alien anatomy lessons, but his mouth wasn't quite cooperating with him yet. He settled for something more basic: "N-n-need w-warmth-th…"

Borik finished closing up the Human's coat and was pulling off his own cloak to drape it over Bashir's shoulders, having to reach up to fasten it. "We'll get you somewhere warm," he said firmly, casting a severe expression toward the still-puzzled Naievirl. His tone turned it into a command, and Half Nineea bowed low in response. "This way — easy, take it slowly, we've got time to —"

"N-no!" Bashir's mind seethed with frustration, but he knew that Borik was right: until he raised his core temperature there was a risk of inducing cardiac arrhythmia by moving too quickly. As it was his heart was racketing in his chest. "G-G-Garak — h-he's —"

"We know," Borik soothed, keeping firm hold of his upper left arm. "The slave told us everything, but we can't do anything for him until we get you warmed up. First things first! That's it, up the ladder…"

Bashir made it up with the plump yolin pushing him from behind, but had to brace his forearm against the side of the building and lean on it while Borik climbed out to join him, followed by Aslel and then by Half Nineea. The air up here felt keener but less piercing than the chill of the root cellar; however, he'd have to get under cover fairly quickly if he didn't want his condition to worsen. His muscles wouldn't stop trembling, the shivers spreading outward from shudders deep in his core. He'd had hypothermia induced twice during his Starfleet training so he was able to judge his own condition with some accuracy: he was on the border between a mild and moderate condition, and had been perhaps ten minutes away from slipping across that thin dividing line. Given half an hour under optimum conditions he'd be out of danger and able to proceed — the problem was that he didn't have thirty minutes to spare, or even fifteen. Garak could be in chains, or undergoing torture… or dying, but without access to standard Federation pharmaceuticals Bashir couldn't hasten his own recovery. He could only hope that the yolinli had some idea how to treat the condition he was currently suffering from.

Once Half Nineea had closed the storm doors Aslel addressed the Naievirl in a low contemptuous tone as Borik moved in beside Bashir again and helped him to stand upright: "Get us indoors beside a fire, koraka — someplace where we won't risk getting our throats slit by the bastards seeking this niorva traska!"

Half Nineea pressed his left forearm to his chest in the best nod to the crossed-wrists salute he could manage with one hand holding a lantern, then turned and led the way not toward the inn, but down a narrow walkway leading between two tall wooden fences into a dirty much-used back alley dimly lit by the buildings that crowded around it. The sky overhead was clear and sparkling with multitudes of sharp stars. Bashir kept his head down and concentrated on not tripping over his own feet, fixing his eyes on the rear edge of the sparkles of light leaking from the lantern and trusting Borik's arm around his waist to keep them on a straight line of travel. Aslel fell in behind them with sword drawn, and his shorter friend kept up a steady encouraging murmur at the level of Bashir's shoulder as they made their way through the shadows. "One step at a time — that's it — easy does it — not too fast — I know we have to hurry, but you can't, not until you're warmer —"

His mind refused to keep accurate count of the seconds, but it couldn't have been more than a minute before the short Naievirl was leading them into a small yard where the snow was dusted with a thin fall of ashes and the mingled tang of metal and woodsmoke hung in the air. Half Nineea whistled at the stout wooden door at the rear of the stone building and pushed through it into a space yellow with firelight, and Bashir found himself being guided into what looked like a small dark kitchen with a large square fireplace filled with — thank the local Gods! — a hearty fire crackling over several pieces of thick black wood. An iron pot was suspended on a tripod near the flames and there were two benches in front of the source of light and heat, one parallel to the hearth and one at right angles to it. Standing in front of a battered heavy table against the far wall were one person Bashir recognized — R’rials of the Fallen Leaves — and one he did not, the heaviest-set Naievirl Bashir had yet encountered. The community leader and the burly male appeared to be deep in confrontational conversation although their voices were low enough that they didn't reach Bashir even when Borik led him straight to the bench facing the fire and lowered him onto the center of it. 

"— that ugly elai-Naievirl?" The muscular Naievirl's voice finally rose enough that Bashir could make out words, and he listened closely while Borik started to open up his coat again. "This is an egg with no yolk, feilla! If the Roughshod find him here —"

R’rials spoke with fierce authority, also at slightly increased volume. "When have we ever turned a neiassa over to be broken? Peace, S'iarli! As strange as he looks, he is a true ally of the People."

A whistle through S'iarli's nose signified anger. "I should never have let you bring him here."

"I w-w-won't be here long, I assure you," Bashir interjected, closing his eyes briefly as Borik pulled open his shirt and the heat of the fire struck his bared chest and belly, making the bite-marks Garak had left tingle and burn with the change in temperature. As the yolin stripped off his cloak and started to open the coat underneath it, Bashir glanced to his left and saw Aslel standing by the now closed door with his sword still in hand, his head tilted as if listening intently for anything approaching from the other side although his green eyes remained fixed on the Human. "M-may I have so-something hot to drink, p-please?"

S'iarli flared his feathers under Bashir's unblinking gaze, then whistled again and stomped over to join them at the fire. While Borik let cloak and coat drop back to the floor and went down on one knee with a little grunt to remove Bashir's boots, the large Naievirl dipped a mug of liquid from the pot and all but slammed it down beside Bashir's left hand. He picked it up, grateful for the heat that immediately began to infuse his aching fingers. "Th-thank you." Cupping it in both hands to still their shaking, he raised it for a cautious sip and found it just cool enough to drink. The hot tea slid down his throat and nestled in his stomach with a tendril of warmth that quickly took root against the full-body chill. Definitely only mild hypothermia, he thought as he took another mouthful, although quite debilitating enough. It could have been much worse.

R'rials was speaking again: "Why do you think we waited to bring him to your hearth? The niraktatli are well settled by Erebak's fires: they'll not go abroad unless they're compelled to. He came unseen, didn't he?" The last sentence was addressed to Half Nineea, who had moved to a corner out of Bashir's line of sight. 

"He did, feilla. The swordsmen ceased to walk the property half a clockturn before these esteemed iravli came to his aid."

Aslel's dry voice interjected: "They probably thought he'd gone undercover for the night. Which is where we should be." He directed his next words directly at Bashir: "You got us out of bed with the Tortal Sisters, hissar — you're blasted lucky that Borik here likes you so much! Myself, I'd have left you to freeze among the dara roots."

"Well, we're here now," Borik said staunchly, draping his cloak over Bashir's shoulders again and spreading it out to catch the heat of the fire and pool it around the Human's slender shivering body. "There! Is that better?"

"M… much." His muscle tremors were already starting to decrease in frequency and severity. He drank half the mug of hot tea at one pull, wincing slightly at the taste, which was tart and smoky and seemed to cling to the inside of his esophagus. The smell of metal was stronger in here, and it occurred to him that S'iarli's well-developed muscles might be the result of blacksmithing. A glance at the hulking alien, who had seated himself on the other bench where he could keep an eye on his unwanted Human guest, convinced him that such a question would probably not be well received, so he held his tongue in that regard. "B-but we've got a b-b-bigger problem. Erebak h-has our o'wn a-and luggage. W-we won't get far witho-out those."

Borik had doffed his own coat and opened his own woolen vest; now he sat down on Bashir's left and wrapped his arm around the Human's back, snuggling up against his side to provide some of his own body heat. It was a measure of how chilled Bashir was that the Cardassian's skin actually felt radiantly warm even through the layers of intervening clothing. "You leave that to us," he reassured, rubbing Bashir's right bicep briskly. 

"To me, he means," Aslel grumbled. "I've dealt with Torask Litalat before: if he's still on duty he might be open to persuasion. How much money do you have on you, Bashir?"

"F-forty-seven tiorli. Garak has th-the rest, b-but he bought supplies — I'm n-not sure how much he —"

"Won't make any difference," Aslel interrupted. "His money pouch might as well be on the far side of the moons."

Borik, who had rested his head almost on Bashir's shoulder, glanced back toward his compatriot. "The old 'unpaid debts' trick?" he asked.

Aslel nodded grimly. "He probably saw Garak being taken — if not, he's surely heard about it by now. And he saw us come in together yesterday. It shouldn't take too much grease to slide him over to the conclusion that I'm here to collect on what Garak owes us."

Bashir scowled at him. "So wh-why do you need the m-money?"

The tall Cardassian barked a humourless little laugh. "Because Litalat is going to make a note in his books that I took Garak's ow'n and luggage and send a copy of that note to the Guild. And then the Guild will want its share of the profits from the sale of the confiscated goods. I'll have a better idea after I see what's been added to the packs, but that should work out to forty tiorli, more or less."

"Alsel!" Sounding appalled, Borik raised his head and glared, his nostrils flaring and a tiny hiss starting deep in his chest. "We're not going to gouge —"

Aslel raised his free hand and his voice fell to the least harsh inflection Bashir had yet heard from those often sneering lips: "I did say 'more or less', artor p'tak! I won't cut the whole tail off your pet foross, but I'm entitled to at least a few hairs, aren't I?"

After a moment of ferocious gazing, Borik subsided and his variak organ disengaged. "A few hairs, yes," he agreed, and then a soft but shrill whistle from just outside the door made everybody look up. Aslel squared his shoulders, raised his sword a little, and stepped to one side — just in time to avoid the door banging open and the hasty entrance of a slip of a Naievirl female, carrying a familiar dark green cloak over one arm — Bashir's own, the one he'd left in their room at The Azure Reaches — and a covered wooden bowl in the other hand. She wore the same rough earth-colored tunic and pants as the rest of Erebak's slaves, but her broad cheekbones and wheat-yellow eyes above her dull red collar were instantly recognizable.

"Neiassa!" Shining Tisiira cried, her face lighting up when her gaze fell upon Bashir. Then, as if remembering her manners, she head-bobbed respectfully to R'rials and S'iarli and cast a nervous glance at Aslel, who loomed dark and grim with his long blade gleaming in his hand, before pushing the door closed behind her and hurrying over to the bench.

Half Nineea spoke sharply: "Where did you get that cloak, girl?"

"From his room," she replied with an air of humbleness, laying it carefully across the end of the bench to Bashir's right before sitting herself down next to him and holding out the covered bowl, dropping her gaze in a way that would have been interpreted as shy in a Human. "Here is food, honored one, for your —"

"His room?" Bashir could hear the disbelief and anger in Half Nineea's liquid cadences. "Who told you to take such a risk? If the Roughshod had seen you —"

Shining Tisiira's submissiveness vanished in the blink of an eye, replaced with a flash of those golden eyes and a spirited tone: "Niellai of the Fallen Leaves came with word that he was being hidden from the men who took his friend. It was clear as Lake Tiiril that he would be leaving us, and how could he travel without his cloak? We have none to offer him that would compare." 

Borik was regarding her with puzzlement rapidly turning to admiration. "She's got a point. It would have been a pain in the ortek to get him another one."

The stern voice of R'rials rumbled from the shadows: "It was a foolish chance to take, girl-child — but…" He gestured at Bashir's cloak. "The egg has hatched."

S'iarli twitched his chin to the right. "And may the ennialal shield us from the charges of thievery that will follow!"

Shining Tisiira had cast down her eyes again and was still holding the bowl out to Bashir. Accepting Borik's wordless offer to take the cup, Bashir accepted the bowl; the girl deftly removed the cover, revealing a mass of beige cooked grains with some sort of brown gravy on top. With a neat gesture Shining Tisiira detached from the outer curve of the lid a curved spoon beautifully carved to fit, which she passed to Bashir. "Eat, J'liian," she invited with a gleam of small white teeth, and he complied: hot food would surely hasten his recovery.

"It is a fine cloak," Half Nineea suggested. "With so many niraktatli pushing through, it may be thought that one of them took it." His tone turned bitter. "Surely no slave would dream of daring to touch it!"

"Except one who dreams too much," S'iarli said with a whistle-inflection that Bashir had come to recognize as laughter. His dark eyes were fixed on Shining Tisiira, whose melting gaze was tracing the lines of Bashir's face and lingering on his bare chest and belly, and Bashir fervently hoped that Great Asiet would not choose this particular moment to come barging in. 

Chapter Text

Aslel snorted scornfully and resheathed his blade. "Gart's mirtek! Half the city'll know he's here by moon's-height. If I'm going to get that o'wn and its baggage I'd better do it now."

Bashir couldn't have agreed more, but Borik set aside the cup he'd taken from Bashir and turned a worried look on his fellow yolin. "For Erit's sake, be careful! Kassar's men are keeping an eye on —"

"I heard the koraka's account just as well as you did." The rangy Cardassian was pulling his cloak tight around him and drawing its hood over his head. "Never fear, I'll be out of there like a korkal on fire if things turn sour. But a flash of the badge should do it. Even a slaver's bully boys are likely smart enough not to cross the Guild!" He met Borik's frowning gaze and smiled thinly. "The bigger trick will be finding a place to stash the beast while your pet here gets warm enough to travel."

R'rials bobbed his head in a way that managed to be both subservient and proud. "The master of this house is on pilgrimage, honored irav. There is room in the stable." And S'iarli, although his expression was dark as a storm cloud, head-bobbed in silent confirmation. 

"Well then," Aslel said with his hand on the door, "let's just hope that Kassar's niraktatli can't count. Two of us came, and only one of us will be leaving leading two mounts. If they decide to follow me I might need to lead them a merry chase, so don't be surprised if I take my time coming back."

Bashir nodded to him. "Good luck." He was pleased to find that most of the shiver had left his voice.

"If you're not back in a clockturn," said Borik, "Bashir and I will head for the market fountain along the back roads, and wait for you there. Now that he has his cloak back we'll be warm enough." He was doing his best to sound brave but Bashir could hear a trace of uneasiness in his voice: the night was cold indeed and would be no pleasure for a Cardassian to take a long walk in no matter how thick his cape.

Aslel nodded and departed without another word. No sooner had the door closed behind him than another whistle heralded the arrival of a Naievirl male almost as short as Half Nineea, with a similar pattern of rusty bars in his feathery hair. Bashir suppressed a wince at the thought at Aslel might well be right about the lack of secrecy concerning his location, but the stranger's words after he'd head-bobbed to the other male Naievirl present and saluted Borik with crossed wrists provided much-needed intelligence: "I bring news, esteemed iravli. The thick-set Roughshod was delivered to The Black Claws half a clockturn ago. Long Etiala drove the carriage and reports that he was unharmed, or at least unmarked. He went inside without cry or struggle, flanked by the two niraktatli who'd ridden with him."

Bashir had been concentrating on getting hot food inside him and was feeling much better in consequence, but now he lowered the half-empty bowl and addressed the messenger directly. "Do you know what happened to him once he'd entered the… inn, was it?"

The Naievirl nodded. "The Black Claws is widely known for its comforts and its excellent food. No, irav, I do not know what became of him after that, only that he arrived under guard."

"Then we'll have to move quickly." Bashir spared a quick smile for Shining Tisiira and started to pass the bowl back to her, but Borik stopped him with a hand on his wrist and a decisive shake of his head.

"Eat up," he said firmly, and laid the palm of his left hand briefly on Bashir's left cheek. "You're better, but still cold enough to chill ale. You'll do Garak no favours if you're barely strong enough to walk by yourself!"

Looking into the shorter man's concerned eyes, Bashir had to admit that he was right. Fear for Garak's safety was urging him to leap up, pull on his clothes and rush out into the night, but unless he'd stabilized his body temperature he'd be setting himself up for collapse — and then there was the not-so-small matter of lacking something to ride, plus all the gear he and Garak would need once they got out of the city. Necessity and circumstance were both compelling him to wait.

"All right," he nodded, which earned him a smile from Borik, and turned his attention to the bowl of grains, mixing them around with his spoon and listening to the messenger take his leave, refusing to think of what Garak might be going through right now. He'd been trained, both as a physician and as a Starfleet officer, to sideline his emotional responses to any situation in order to act rationally and calmly, but setting aside his feelings was far easier when he was in the middle of doing something constructive. At the moment he was biding his time, and his mind kept racing in all sorts of non-productive directions. Flashes of grey skin now so intimately known… of blows and bruises and blood… of that melodious voice crying out in pain… he thrust away each possibility, only to have it return with equal force, and he knew better than to be surprised at his own weakness.

Half Nineea was addressing Shining Tisiira. "Get you back to the inn, girl-child! If the durtaka misses you it will surely set her on the hunt again." 

Her gaze, which had remained fixed on Bashir while she smiled a secret smile, turned not to Half Nineea but to R’rials of the Fallen Leaves. The elder bobbed his grizzled head and she rose reluctantly from her seat, extended one hand toward the Human, fluttered it in the air for a heartbeat, then laid it on his shoulder where only a layer of linen separated her touch from his bare skin. Half Nineea's angry whistle did not abate the intensity of her expression as she looked down into Bashir's face as if committing his strange features to memory; then she smiled widely and spoke almost fiercely: "Farewell, fairest neiassa! May your paths be ever blessed with shade and sweet water and all your heart desires!"

Before Bashir could respond she hastened to the door and exited into the black starry night, leaving him staring after her — and Borik staring at him with a puzzled expression.

"Have you been up to something Garak wouldn't like?" the little yolin asked with a hint of a mischievous smile. The look R'rials was levelling at him posed a similar question with considerably less amusement.

"What? No!" Bashir could feel himself blushing, which was a positive sign in terms of his overall body temperature. "She's… I mean, she's a lovely girl, but I don't…" An appalling thought struck him. "I didn't mean anything by accepting food from her! Where I come from that's considered an act of kindness, nothing more."

"As it is here," Half Nineea assured him. "Even if she is as promiscuous as a hisieela in the spring rain, you bear no blame for that, neiassa." Bashir got the impression that he might be speaking primarily for the benefit of R'rials, whose feathered hair had visibly flared at the woman's display of familiarity.

S'iarli rose without a word, pausing long enough to bob his head respectfully at R'rials before exiting by a door at the rear of the kitchen. When he was gone the Naievirl leader advanced to stand at Bashir's left side, looming over him and gazing down with intense eyes the color of honey. His next words, however, were clearly addressed to Half Nineea: "Send word to The Black Claws that our guest is coming and that I invoke my third iela tissiir with Tall S'sarl. He is to be lent appropriate aid to regain hisartor n'sar'ara, for my name's sake." 

Bashir, returning that direct regard, heard the door open and close. "Thank you," he said to his benefactor, and passed the bowl to Borik so that he could cross his wrists over his chest. "Without your help things would have gone much worse for us."

R'rials head-bobbed, then took a seat in the place S'iarli had just vacated. Resting his lean mahogany-colored hands on the knees of his stripped trousers, he sat with spine erect and never let his eyes waver from those of the Human, who was paying very close attention. "This will erase the debt between us, J'liian of the Southern Lands," he said solemnly. "My daughter is destined to be a miiala — it was her ennialal who told me that you would come to us, although I did not hear the message with both ears when she spoke it. The words are fully hatched now. That is why the life of a girl-child is worth so much. The lives of you and your artor n'sar'ara are only fit repayment."

Honesty compelled Bashir to assure him: "I would have done the same thing in any case. I'm a physician. I couldn't have allowed her to die if there was anything I could do to prevent it."

The Naievirl inclined his head in a surprisingly Human gesture. "So you have said. But the account remains to be balanced, and when Gar'aik is reclaimed it will be done."

"Thank you. And please, thank all of your people who've helped us. I know they've taken a great risk."

R'rials whistled softly, one corner of his mouth quirking upward, and his gaze slid briefly to Borik who was listening intently. "The Roughshod think us slow and foolish," he said, "and lazy and stupid into the bargain. They do not see half of what sits in front of them. Where will you go from here, neiassa?"

There was only one answer to that question: "North, out of the city. Toward the Temple of the Distant Towers."

"That's a long road and a hard one, and our brethren in the forest will not welcome you half as kindly as I have."

"I have a promise from Lieilii of the Red Hand that we're to be granted safe passage." Thinking back to a feverish Cardassian, healed to be tortured, and a dead Naievirl warrior still made Bashir feel sick on an ethical level. "I hope it holds true, even with the war now on."

R'rials cocked his head. "Was he a feilla? Or a miiala?"

"A miiala, if I understand the term correctly." Bashir felt Borik tremble slightly, presumably at the memory of being so close to one of the dreaded Naievirl shamans. "He had a familiar, a… spirit that spoke to him."

A head-bob. "The word of a miiala carries great weight. If he sent a message north, the tribes may well obey it."

Bashir drew a deep breath and slowly released it, testing the stability of his core muscles. The breath came and went smoothly, no more shivering resulted, and although his back still felt chilly his feet and hands were now nicely warm. "I certainly hope so, because there'll just be the two of us."

"If your friend is still alive." Bashir conceded the point with a nod and R'rials rose to his feet once more. "I bid you farewell, neiassa, and wish you shade and sweet water on all your paths. Thank you for the life of my daughter. Your name will never be forgotten in our songs."

Bashir nodded and offered the salute of the crossed wrists again. "And I will never forget the people I've met here, or their actions on our behalf."

That seemed to be an acceptable response, for R'rials looked pleased before crossing his wrists to Borik, turning away and heading for the door S'iarli had used. When it closed behind him Bashir found himself alone with the shorter guide, who wordlessly passed him the bowl again and got up to ladle more tea into the pottery cup while Bashir concentrated on finishing off his meal: after all, he had no idea when he'd next have an opportunity to eat again.

The yolin sat down arm-to-arm with Bashir to sip his tea but made no attempt to snuggle closer, having evidently decided that the Human was now warming up nicely on his own. The silence between them was companionable until Bashir set the spoon into the remaining few mouthfuls of cooked grains and offered the rest of the meal to Borik. "Oh, no, thank you — we ate well at the Guild before the Tortal Sisters came calling. I'm still stuffed with hassak roast and plenty of fresh evetar roots." He licked his lips at the memory, a gesture that made Bashir smile fondly in spite of himself. "The Tortal Sisters, though… oh, Aslel was fit to be spitted when word came that you were in trouble! He wasn't happy to toss them out of our bed, let me tell you."

Bashir considered that turn of phrase while he took care of what was left in the bowl. In between bites he asked: "Your bed?" Borik nodded. "Singular?" A puzzled expression, so Bashir clarified: "You shared it?"

"Well, yes." 

"And the Tortal Sisters…?"

"We shared them, too. We share a lot of things. Don't you?"

"Ah." He placed the spoon in the empty bowl and set it at his feet, calculating how best to proceed with this conversation. It was an unparalleled chance to gain some insight into how the Cardassian society on this planet functioned. "Men don't usually do that where I come from."

Borik blinked a blink not unlike the one Garak sometimes offered to give the appearance of perplexity, although Bashir suspected that in this case it was sincere. "That's curious…" Then his expression brightened. "But you wouldn't anyway, would you? You and Garak are artor n'sar'ara, aren't you?"

Thinking back to Garak's words of the previous night, Bashir felt safe in responding: "Yes… as far as I can tell, anyway."

Borik looked both delighted and sly. "I thought so! Anybody could see you couldn't wait to get your hands on each other once we reached the city." Bashir must have been looking a little puzzled himself, because the plump Cardassian passed him the tea and continued: "Aslel and I are artor p'tak'ara — friends who share women and take care of each other on the road, in every sense of the word. You really don't have anything like that in the southern lands?"

The tea tasted just as vile this time around, and now that he didn't need it medically speaking Bashir wasn't inclined to drink much. He took a tiny sip to be polite and passed the cup back. "Not in the country I come from. In my culture you and Aslel would be considered lovers."

"Lovers?" Borik shook his head decisively. "Don't say that in front of Aslel! He'll rip your hide off and stick it on backwards." In response to Bashir's concerned glance he added: "Oh, don't worry, I'm not offended, but he likes things to keep neatly in their proper stalls." He gazed down into the cup, rolling it between the palms of his hands, and smiled wistfully. "I know he's been about as friendly to you as a grok'ar in heat, but — well, as I said, he likes things tidy, and you're neither fish nor bird nor o'wn."

"So you're saying that it's not me he dislikes, but rather what I represent: the strange and the unknown."

Borik nodded. "But he still came out to help you tonight," he pointed out.

The corner of Bashir's mouth quirked upwards. "Oh, I think he did that entirely for you."

"Maybe." The smile turned warmer, like the sun breaking from behind thin cloud, before his round face grew troubled. "I wish I'd gone with him. If those niraktatli are giving him trouble an extra sword would come in awfully handy."

Bashir hesitated but a moment before putting an arm around the guide's shoulders and hugging him briefly close, then leaving his arm where it was. The silence returned, even more friendly now, a shared space where two men dwelt together in concern for those dearest to them, and Bashir enjoyed it for a little space before speaking up again.


"Yes, Bashir?"

"What does n'sar'arah mean, exactly? It's not a word we use where I come from."

The yolin looked up at him in surprise, his dark eyes filled with firelight. "You come from a strange place indeed if you don't know — I'm sorry, of course, you're from very far away." He rested his cheek comfortably on Bashir's shoulder and paused as if thinking things through. "Well, two people who are p'tak'ara are blood-bonded with ceremonies that make them brothers for life: no matter what, they're sworn to protect each other and take care of each other and treat each other as family-away-from-family. As you can imagine, yolinli favour it because we're always away from home and the road can be long and lonely. But two people who are n'sar'arah… there's no ceremony in the world that can create that bond. It's either there or it's not, and if it is, no power can destroy it." 

Bashir waited, heart subtly pounding, while he thought a moment more. "They sell a toy down in Zio Betal: a wooden or metal ball, made in two halves. Each half has spines and holes and ridges and grooves that only match up with the other half that's made to fit it, and no two viretka n'sar'ara are exactly alike." He held up his hands as if turning and fitting together the two halves he'd described. "An artor n'sar'ara is the person Gart Himself made just for you, the one person under the sky and above the stones who matches you in every way: blood and bone, heart and mind, to fill all the empty places inside you." His hands came together firmly, palm to palm, in a gesture of completion. "Your perfect fit. And I may not be as smart as Aslel, but even I can see when things line up the way they do between you and Garak."

Thinking of R'rials' use of the term, Bashir pressed: "But that can't be the only meaning, can it?" Or is it really that obvious how I feel about him? The thought was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure, especially when it came to the prospect of returning to Deep Space Nine.

To his relief Borik nodded. "The Savages sometimes use it to talk about people who are really passionate about each other in any sense — but… well, they're Savages, aren't they? They don't know any better. They can't be expected to use the High Tongue, or even the Low Tongue, the way we do."

Bashir was opening his mouth to respond that just because the Naievirl were alien it didn't mean they were stupid, when the door to the back yard crashed open and Aslel all but tumbled in, his green eyes blazing. "Get dressed! We've got to go now!"

Borik straightened and frowned at him, already rising to his feet, and Bashir saw that there was a streak of red across the taller yolin's right forearm. "Aslel!" He hurried toward his friend, reaching for what might be a wound. "What —?"

Aslel jerked away from his touch and barked another order at Bashir, who was already shrugging into his coat. "Move, you miserable hissar!" He turned his gaze on Borik and said in a voice softer but no less fierce: "I'm not cut, but I had to kill one of Kassar's niraktatli to get out of there. Come on! I don't have time to beguile you both with an enigma tale!"


Chapter Text

The icy night air struck Bashir's face as they exited S'iarli's kitchen at great speed, but did not chill him deeply: evidently he was recovered enough to withstand being outdoors, although only time would tell if he was more susceptible to long-term exposure to the cold. Three o'wnli stood nose-to-tail in the alley, dark hulking shapes in the dimness; the middle beast was heavily laden with packs, and Aslel mounted the unburdened o'wn in front while Borik nimbly climbed the saddle of the one at the rear.

That left the pack-loaded o'wn for Bashir, who approached it quickly and bravely because he had no time and no choice about doing otherwise. To his surprise the o'wn did nothing more than shift its weight and chuff out a deep breath as he pulled himself up into Garak's position on the saddle and picked up the reins: he'd expected at least an ill-tempered growl and perhaps a snap of those long fang-packed jaws without Garak's presence to steady the creature. But he didn't have much time to enjoy this unexpected turn of events: Aslel was moving forward, and when Bashir flicked the reins and applied pressure with his lower legs as he'd seen Garak do his o'wn obediently started walking, breaking into a lumbering trot when Aslel's mount increased its pace. 

They rode in silence, with Aslel leading the way down long dark alleyways and keeping well clear of the better-lit main thoroughfares. Every so often Bashir couldn't resist the impulse to glance behind them, but all he ever saw was Borik riding close on his tail. He wanted to ask Aslel exactly what had happened back at The Azure Reaches, but carrying on a shouted conversation was definitely contraindicated under the circumstances so he held his tongue. All he could do was trust that the yolinli knew where they were going and the most unobtrusive route for getting there. 

The smaller moon, nearly full, had risen above the crowded buildings, its dusty grey face veiled with scuds of light clouds moving in from the south. It seemed to Bashir that the ambient environmental temperature was rising, although it was impossible to tell for certain without a measuring device. The streets of Zio Araga were practically deserted, at least as far as Cardassian traffic went: as they passed lit intersections he could see occasional tall slender figures, but all the exposed skin was dark brown and the variegated hair of the pedestrians fluttered in the occasional stiff breezes that kicked up gusts of untrampled snow. He saw nothing that looked like a city guard and was grateful for their conspicuous absence from the urban landscape.

His inner chronometer had counted off eighteen minutes of brisk riding when Aslel turned sharply to the left and led them all into a space bordered by what appeared to be warehouses, perhaps thirty meters by thirty meters on a side, full of empty wooden stalls surrounding a large round fountain under a shingled roof. The stone structure was partitioned into pie-shaped sections, each with its own elegantly carved spout on the exterior curve dispensing water at a rate that kept the ice from forming in its immediate vicinity; Aslel rode his o'wn right up to the rim, and Bashir's mount, with an eager rumble deep in its barrel chest, moved up beside its compatriot and lowered its scaly head to noisily suck up the clear liquid. Borik moved in on Bashir's right and let his beast drink as well, putting the humanoids in a perfect position to carry on a relatively quiet conversation.

"The Black Claws is two streets over," Aslel said without preamble, "with a wide alley in the rear. We'll ride in that way and leave these fellows where we can get to them quickly. Gart willing, Kassar's boys haven't already raced back to her with the news that I stuck one of their friends."

"What happened back there?" Bashir finally asked, and Aslel snorted, pulling his cloak more tightly around him before replying.

"The niraktatli had their own plans for Garak's possessions: they'd ordered the o'wn already loaded, and one of them was arguing possession with Torask Litalat when I came walking in. Long story short, Litalat was willing to hear my claim but not theirs, so the niraktat pulled his sword and tried to make his case that way." He uttered a quick dark laugh. "The bastard had already scuffed Litalat's scales so badly that the torask didn't say a word, just watched while I fought him and cut him down. It didn't take long for us to cook up a story: that the niraktat and I had argued, that Kassar's man had stepped out to water a stone, that he didn't come back, and that Litalat and I came to the usual agreement and he allowed me to leave with the o'wn. With Gart's blessing they'll think that you cut down the niraktat yourself, Bashir, when they find him out back of the stable with his pants around his knees." He paused significantly. "By the way, you owe me fifteen tiorli."

"Fifteen —! What for?"

"For greasing Litalat's palm, what else?" He smiled wolfishly in the moonlight. "I won't even charge you extra for the ordeal of learning how your kind takes a piss."

Bashir swallowed his objections — after all, Aslel had put his own life at risk — and opened his money pouch, quickly counting out the correct amount and leaning over to place the coins in Aslel's gloved palm. As the taller Cardassian tucked them away in his own belt Borik spoke up from Bashir's other side: "You're sure you're not cut?"

"Not a scratch," Aslel assured him. "Kassar obviously picks her boys for strength, not skill. He was dead before he even knew I'd spitted him."

Bashir had another concern to voice. "Do you have any idea where we could go after we've rescued Garak?"

This time it was Borik who spoke up: "I've been thinking about that. Kassar will have a lot of feet on the ground looking for you and you're impossible to hide, but there's a night barge that takes military supplies to a wharf a couple ofsiss’ar north of the city. If we can get Garak back in the next clockturn or so we should have time to make it there and bribe the captain to take you aboard." His tone turned apologetic. "After that I'm afraid you're on your own."

"If we can get out of Zio Araga that will put us in a better position," Bashir replied, his mind racing ahead and finding the probability calculations more favourable than what he'd come up with based on the assumption they'd try to hide out in the city itself, although there were still enough unknown factors to make the results dubious. "That's a splendid idea, Borik. Let's go with that if at all possible."

Aslel's o'wn raised its head, snorting loudly, and the yolin started backing it away from the fountain. "It's either that or hide you, Garak and a fully loaded o'wn in a pile of straw all night. Come on, let's get this over with."

He lled them all back out of the square, setting the trotting pace once more. Even Bashir, in his state of anxiety and eagerness to do something concrete to help Garak, found it no time at all before they were reining to a halt out back of a three-storied building clad with dark timbers and pale plaster. Before they'd even brought their mounts to a full stop an immensely tall figure in dark rough-spun clothing, clearly Naievirl, detached itself from the shadows beside the structure and came smoothly to meet them, crossing his wrists and bowing to each of them in turn. 

"You are J'liian of the Southern Lands?" he asked in an unusually deep voice, speaking almost at a whisper.

Bashir nodded, glancing at his Cardassian escorts. "I am, yes. And these are —"

"Don't," Aslel interjected sharply. "I don't want my name tied into this. What the perujo doesn't know he can't reveal under torture."

Another bow of that feathered head. "I am Tall S’sarl, esteemed iravli. Your mission is known, and I will offer you all the aid I can. Come. Let me show you where the Roughshod you seek is imprisoned."

Bashir's heart leaped into his throat and he swung quickly down from the saddle, followed by the yolinli. The o'wnli stood placidly as the little group walked away from them, into the middle of the shallow yard behind The Black Claws inn, where the Naievirl came to a halt and pointed upward. 

“There.” Tall S’sarl was indicating a third-floor room at the eastern end of the building; unlike the suite beside it, which was full of light and happy noise, this room seemed to be lit by a single lantern placed close to one of the windows. “That is where he was taken.” The window next to the one containing the light source was open about ten centimetres, just enough to let in a little fresh air. “The Roughshod woman is there also, with two guards in the hallway on either side of the door.”

“Gart’s blood!” Borik whispered in dismay, and Bashir was pretty sure he knew what he was referring to: the fact that the only way in appeared to be through the interior hallway itself.

Bashir studied the half-timbered wall, vertical and diagonal planks of wood embedded in pale plaster. “I can get up there,” he mused, “and in that open window, if you can provide a distraction in the hallway to stop her guards from interfering.”

“Up there?” Borik surveyed the wall with disbelief. The half-timbering started a little over three and a half meters up and ran another two and a half meters to a sturdy metal box beneath the window in question. Presumably it held flowers during the warmer summer months. “How? There’s nothing to hang onto!”

“Actually, there is.” He pointed. “That pile of lumber there will give me a leg up, and the timbers in the wall are slightly elevated in relation to the plaster. It’s climbable, and it’s only about a meter and a half from the top of the woodpile to the first timbers. I can do it.”

Borik looked even less convinced after hearing Bashir’s plan. “Climbable by a foross, maybe! That pile won’t hold your weight!”

“He is a foross, remember,” Aslel snarled. “Pretty tail and all.”

“My f’lais will lend us aid," Tall S'sarl stated. "They’ll take care of the bodies of the guards if you can slay them.”

“But they won’t help themselves?” Aslel hissed.

“N’nailla and S’lienn are willing to come up the back stairs and throw old crockery at them," Tall S’sarl offered, "if that will help.” In response to Aslel's sour expression he added: "The iela tissiir of R'rials of the Fallen Leaves is with me alone, honored iravli. By rights you could depend on no one's help but my own."

"And we appreciate every bit of it, I assure you." Bashir was laying out the floor plan in his mind. “You say there are two approaches to that doorway?”

Tall S’sarl head-bobbed. “The back stairs and the front stairs.”

“And the back stairs are closer to that particular room?”


Bashir turned to Aslel and Borik. “If you creep up the front stairs — the noise from the party at that end of the hallway should cover you — and rush the guards while their attention is occupied by an attack from the rear, you’ll stand a better chance.” To Tall S’sarl he said: “Before you throw the crockery, wrap the pieces in open sheets. The shapes made by the flowing fabric will confuse the guards even more.”

Tall S’sarl nodded while Aslel blew out a sharp breath between clenched teeth, then looked up at the slave. “There’s two of them, you say?”

“Only two warriors,” the slender Naievirl assured him, “and a third male who went into the room a few n’lail ago, but he was wearing only a knife.”

Aslel and Borik exchanged a glance. “It stinks,” Aslel said flatly.

“It does,” Borik agreed. “But what else can we do? Send them wine enough to get them drunk?”

“As if they’d drink on duty,” Aslel sniffed. “Eleven Hells! Pray to Gart they don’t have reinforcements waiting in another room, artor p’tak, or we’ll be up to our eyeridges in o’wn korak, and make no mistake.”

Tall S’sarl glanced up at the windows. “Those warriors are the only members of her group in the inn. The rest left almost two eil liela ago and have not yet returned.”

“Looking for you, not doubt,” Aslel said to Bashir, then grimaced. “Wonderful! Something else to pray for: that those ones take their sweet time coming back.”

“Then we’d best get started,” Bashir said. “Go with Tall S'sarl and I’ll get up to that window. Give me a full count of at least three hundred. I’ll wait to hear that you’ve engaged the guards before I make my move on Kassar and whoever else is in there with her.”

Aslel nodded sourly. “This is insane,” he said, as if he just wanted to be on record as lodging a formal complaint.

“I’ll agree it’s not ideal,” Bashir stated firmly. “But it’s what we’ve got. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

Tall S’sarl led the two yolinli away into the shadowy gap between the buildings while Bashir sprinted back to his o'wn to stow his cloak in one of the packs, then walked quickly back to a point at the base of the wall and looked up it, calculating his next moves. The pile of lumber looked very unstable: he’d have to go up it at top speed, trusting to his augmented balance and reflexes to get him safely over it, then catch hold of one of the narrow lips of wood and haul himself up. He studied the woodpile for a few seconds, calculating the physics of it, then took five long steps back, drew a deep breath, and sprinted forward.

Long boards sank and shifted under his boots: he compensated with instinctive skill, running up the layers with catlike grace and certainty. Even O’Brien, who had seen him make the occasional impossible move during their racquetball sessions, would have stared in disbelief, but he was unobserved and there was no need to hold back. Within a couple of seconds he was climbing the half-timbered wall, catching the edges of the wood with long fingers and pulling himself up to dig the points of his boots into the interstices, scaling the vertical surface like a Human spider. He went almost silently, but it was a strenuous activity and by the time he reached the broader timber that underscored the window Tall S’sarl had indicated his forearms were trembling with the effort and his breath was coming in muted little chuffs that the sounds of the party were fortunately enough to cover. He was glad to get a more solid grip on the edge of the flower box and hang from that instead after assuring himself that it could take his weight. He found secure places for his feet and listened intently. 

“Well?” he heard a female voice say: Esa Kassar. “Has the injection taken?”

Soft footsteps, then a pause before an unknown male voice responded: “Yes, mistress. He’s ready.” 

“Excellent. Wait out in the hall. He may require a second dose.”

More footsteps. A door opened and closed. Silence then, except for the sound of Bashir’s own breathing and the muted gaity from the party further down the hall, until Kassar spoke again a few seconds later: “Tell me your name.” He heard her start to move... to pace?

“Garak.” The response was immediate. Bashir wasn’t quite prepared for the way the sound of Garak’s voice made his heart leap into his throat on a wave of fierce protectiveness; there was something wrong about his tone, a discordance conveyed even in two single syllables. Have I come to know him that well? Yes, I suppose I have.

“You have a first name,” Kassar said evenly. “What is it?” Bashir could track her change in spatial location by following her voice.

“Elim.” Bashir’s heart constricted: Garak wouldn’t give that away so easily, unless... unless he was being coerced. The injection. Some sort of truth serum? Or unless he was playing some sort of game with his captor. But that strange note in his voice — 

“Well, Elim,” she said gently, “I think you know now that you should have sold me your slave when you had the chance.”

“He was not for sale,” Garak said contemptuously, and then he coughed a harsh laugh full of scorn. “He was never for sale, because he was never a slave.”

“If he is not a slave, then what is he?” She was walking in a tight circle. “You told me one lie — I assure you, you won’t tell me any more.”


Kassar stopped pacing, her voice turning sharp. “Did you not hear me, hissar?”

“I heard you.” Matter-of-fact.

“Then answer!” Even more annoyance.


“So you’re going to make this difficult, are you?” She resumed her predatory circling. “Another dose of r’hik’har could permanently damage your mind, although it would certainly shake loose your tongue. Are you going to make me resort to that?”

“No.” There was an undercurrent of — fear? Yes, faint but definitely present. Bashir felt shaken: how much damage was the drug in question doing to Garak’s usually icy mind?

“Then answer the question.”

A trace of his old wryness: “I’m afraid you’ll have to repeat it, and you have nobody to blame for that but yourself.”

Kassar had come full circle. She stopped, and a second later Bashir heard a soft hiss of indrawn breath. Garak’s, making Bashir’s shoulders stiffen even more. Her voice was low but commanding: “What is he then, that creature you brought to this city?”

“A Human.” Bashir could hear him fighting whatever it was they’d given him. He didn’t sound afraid anymore; now he sounded almost pained.

“And what is a Human, pray tell? Where do they come from?”

“A species from the planet Earth.”

Kassar paused. “Another planet. He’s an offworlder?” Her voice held a note of eagerness. “And you, Elim? Where do you hail from?”

“The planet Cardassia Prime.” 

For a long moment she was silent. Then, almost to herself, she said: “This changes everything. The ash’uar will pay well for you, and your — is he your friend?”

“Yes.” He was prevaricating: Bashir knew that tone too well.

“Your friend will make an even finer addition to my catalogue.”

All trace of anything like fear or helplessness departed Garak’s voice, replaced by a menace that ran down Bashir’s spine like ice water. “Lay one finger on him and you’ll die choking on your own blood.”

“By whose hand? Yours?” She seemed amused by the threat. “What can a merchant, an offworlder, alone, do to me?

Garak’s voice was a cold hiss. “Things you could not even begin to imagine. I will hunt you to the ends of this world and never rest until I’ve taken your life. That is my trade, and I’m very good at it.”

“So.” She sounded interested, which was not a reaction Bashir would have envisioned in response to that serpentine malice. “You're an assassin?”

“Among other things.”

“I’ll have to have you put down, then,” she said with obvious regret. “A pity. You’re comely enough, in your own plain way. It would have been good to bed you.”

Bashir heard her take two steps, and she said quietly: “He’ll be treated kindly, as long as he submits to me.”

Garak drew a low shuddering breath. “Don’t,” he ground out, just before a burst of noise from the hallway interrupted him: a yell, running footsteps, the clash of metal against metal — the moment Bashir had been waiting for. 

Overstressed arms notwithstanding he was up on the flower box in less than a second, and the sight that met his eyes as he pushed the window fully open filled him with unexpected fury: Garak in shirtsleeves, his head bowed, securely bound to a sturdy wooden chair, and Esa Kassar standing perhaps a meter and a half in front of him, her face turned toward the door beyond which her guards were clearly engaged in combat. She didn’t notice the window opening, and Bashir slipped through it as silently as a night breeze. Three strides brought him to her side, drawing his dagger on the way and reversing his hold on it; she was just starting to turn toward him when he struck her hard on her left temple with the pommel, a blow calculated to knock her unconscious without causing permanent damage. She didn’t even get a chance to look at him before her legs folded. He caught her under her upper arms and lowered her to the floor, then turned his full attention to his friend.

“Garak!” He sheathed his dagger to free both his hands, and in two steps crossed to the chair and knelt in front of the bound Cardassian. Garak raised his head and smiled, the expression far too open. There was a bruise on the left side of his face, near the chin. The sight transmuted the rage in Bashir’s heart to something closer to tenderness.

“Julian,” he whispered with obvious pleasure. “I knew you’d come.” His voice was wrong too, full of undisguised happy conviction. Bashir laid one hand briefly to his cheek, careful to avoid the bruised tissue, and found him too warm to the touch; his blue eyes were almost black, the pupils greatly dilated.

“You’ve been drugged,” he said, deliberately stating the obvious: he had no idea how clear Garak’s mind was at the moment. As he spoke he caressed his lover’s cheekbone with a gentle thumbtip. “I’m going to cut you free, but I want you to stay seated. Do you understand?”

“Of course I do.” He scowled. “I’ve been drugged, not lobotomized.” Outside in the hallway Bashir heard a male voice raised in terror, pleading loudly for his life. He ignored it: right now, Garak needed his help. As he drew his knife again Garak frowned down at him, wrinkling his nose. "What is that smell?"

"Dara roots." He glanced up and smiled before turning his attention back to the ropes binding Garak's legs. "Don't ask. I'll explain later."

"I'm sure you will, preferably from a hot bath, although that's looking less and less likely…" His voice faded out and he sagged against the ropes that held him, mumbling incoherently. 

It was the work of seconds to slice through the bonds. By the time he’d finished that task the sounds of shouting and combat in the hallway were over, and he was going around the rear of the chair to free Garak’s upper body when the door opened and Aslel stepped inside, looking characteristically grim. His naked sword, still clutched in his right hand, was streaked with blood. 

“So he’s still alive, is he?” The muddy green eyes surveyed Garak curtly. “We didn’t undertake this fool’s errand for nothing, then.”

“Yes, but he’s been drugged. I’m not sure yet if he can walk.”

“Nor am I,” Garak piped up cheerily, “but I assure you, I’ll be trying my very best.”

“Find his cloak and coat and sword belt,” Bashir instructed, working carefully on the cords at Garak’s wrists so as not to cut the exposed skin. “They should be around here somewhere.”

Alsel snorted and went back out into the hallway, calling sternly: “Don’t take that away just yet! I need to clean my sword.” Borik popped up in the doorway from the other side, already sheathing his own blade. 

“We killed both guards,” the shorter yolin said, his face a little anxious, “and the Savages are taking them away. They say they won’t be found.” He shivered. “Probably going into a cooking pot, or worse.” His eyes went to Kassar slumped on the expensive rug. “Is she —?”

“No, just unconscious.” Bashir sliced through the last of the cords holding Garak to the chair and caught hold of the Cardassian’s shoulder as he swayed. “Just sit for a minute,” he ordered.

“We may not have a minute,” Garak countered a little drunkenly. “There was a doctor with them too.”

“He’s dead,” Borik said. “Aslel ran him through.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Do you want me to grab his kit?”

“Yes,” Bashir said immediately. Borik darted away, presumably to intercept the Naievirl before they took the doctor’s equipment away with the corpse. Next door, the sounds of the party continued unabated.

“At the very least,” Garak murmured, still swaying slightly, “you’ll have the means to compel the truth out of me whenever you wish.” He giggled, a most surprising sound. “What a pity we couldn’t have kept him alive long enough to ask him about —”

“Garak.” He tightened his grip on his friend’s shoulder, and after a moment the spy looked up at him with a more solemn expression.

“I apologize,” he said with grave courtesy. “It must be the r’hik’har.”

“Let’s see if you can walk.” Bashir shifted his hand to beneath Garak’s upper arm and helped him to his feet. He stumbled as he came fully upright and Bashir had to put a quick arm around his waist to support him.

“Evidently not.” His voice was suddenly blurry.

“We’ll manage,” Bashir assured him.

Aslel strode back into the room, closely followed by Borik carrying a large leather satchel on a long strap. At once Aslel went to the tall wardrobe in one corner of the room and started to dig through it, while Borik closed the door behind him and then stood looking awkward. He held up the doctor’s bag. “I’ll just keep hold of this...?”

“Please.” Bashir loosened his hold on Garak’s waist just long enough to determine that he still wasn’t capable of standing on his own. “I’m going to have to help him down the stairs. We’ll figure something out when we get to the o’wn.”

“I doubt I can manage the reins either,” Garak interjected, closing his eyes. “Oh, my. Everything’s spinning.”

“We can tie you on behind Bashir,” Borik offered. “I’ve ridden that way a time or two after a hard party.”

“And I was able to drive the o’wn here on my own,” Bashir assured his skeptical-looking lover. 

“It actually obeyed you?” Garak asked, now incredulous.

Bashir shrugged. “I suppose it’s gotten used to me, and I had nothing to do for five days but watch how you did it.”

“You’re a quick student,” Garak said with earnest if somewhat spacey admiration. “I must say that —”

“Found them,” Aslel interrupted, pulling coat, sword belt and scabbard out of the wardrobe. “Let’s get him clad and get the hell out of here. There’s no telling when more of her niraktatli will show up.” As Borik deposited the doctor’s bag on the bed and came to take Garak’s things from his hands he cast a speculative eye on Kassar, who was still out cold. “And speaking of which...”

“If you’re thinking of killing her too,” Bashir snapped, “forget it. She’s not a combatant.”

“But she does have her eye on the two of you, and look at what she’s done so far,” Aslel countered. “You think she’s going to just sit back and take this? She’ll drum up every man she can to —”

Bashir, occupied with the logistics of supporting Garak chest-to-chest while Borik got the coat onto him, responded firmly: “We’ll be gone before she —”

“He’s right, Julian.” Garak sounded more alert and focussed, looking up at him intently as Borik wrangled his other arm into the coat. “As long as she’s still alive, she’s a danger to us. She has to die.”

“And I refuse to have her murdered!” Bashir glared down at him, undaunted. “Look, we’ll tie her up and gag her — with a little luck nobody will find her for hours, and by then we’ll be long gone.”

“I see,” Garak slurred, one eyeridge rising. “And I presume you have a plan for this great escape?”

“We do,” Aslel interrupted, “but,” and he looked at Kassar again, “not here.”

After a moment Garak nodded. “Wise,” he remarked, then closed his eyes and seemed to briefly fade out again, his chin dropping to Bashir’s shoulder; it took both the Human’s arms locked around his waist to keep him on his feet, but fortunately Borik had finished putting on the coat. Without a word the little yolin slipped the cloak onto the drugged Cardassian’s shoulders and deftly closed the frog. 

“What’d she dose him with?” Aslel asked, watching with a combination of amusement and disgust. 

Bashir just held Garak steady, giving him time to rally. “Something called r’hik’har.” Judging by the look on the yolinli’s faces it wasn’t a term familiar to either of them. “Aslel, why don’t you take some of that rope and start tying her up? You know how to tie a good knot, don’t you?”

“Better than you do, healer.” He moved to obey, looking sour, as Garak stirred and raised his head again.

“Welcome back,” Bashir smiled at him.

“This is most annoying,” Garak grumbled, and tried to push free of him. Bashir stepped back, keeping a close eye on him, but he seemed able to stand on his own — for the moment. He looked down. “You didn’t put on my sword belt.”

“You’re in no condition to use it,” Bashir said, and Borik nodded emphatically. “We’ll take it with us. Now sit down on the bed for a moment while I give Yolin Aslel a hand.”

In short order they had Kassar bound hand and foot and gagged with a piece cut from the hem of her skirt; she appeared deeply unconscious and Bashir checked her pulse, relieved to find it slow and strong. Her breathing was also normal, although she groaned weakly as they picked her up and hauled her to a point beside the bed where she wouldn’t be visible from the doorway if anyone glanced in. They had just straightened up from doing that when a birdlike warble outside the door heralded the appearance of Tall S’sarl. 

“The three Roughshod males have been taken care of,” he informed Bashir. “They will never be found.”

Bashir nodded, coming back around the bed to stand beside Garak. “Thank you,” he said; although he wasn’t thankful that three men had died and were likely going to be eaten, gratitude was appropriate under the circumstances.

His dark eyes scanned the room. “And Esa Kassar?”

“Has also been taken care of,” Bashir said. 

“He’s lying,” Garak announced. “She’s still —”


Tall S’sarl’s gaze settled on Bashir’s stern face. “She escaped? Then we must leave quickly.”

“No,” Bashir said, turning his attention to the Naievirl again. “She’s unconscious and out of the way. She isn’t a danger to anyone.”

“Where is she? Her death would be a great boon to our people.”

Garak opened his mouth again. Bashir put a hand over it and said: “Enough people have died here today.” He cast a warning glance at Aslel, who sneered and seemed ready to speak until a pleading look from Borik quelled the impulse. Bashir drew a deep breath and looked around the room. “Thank you — all of you. Without your help, Garak would have been lost to me and I’d have been captured. I wish there was something more I could do.”

Tall S’sarl bobbed his head. “The life debt is paid,” he said simply, then turned and disappeared into the hallway.

Aslel hissed. “By Nasha’s nethers,” he said almost wearily, “you’ve got a gold t’rekta in your ass, Bashir. Fine — leave her alive, if it suits you, but let’s get out of here.”

Garak made a muffled sound of protest behind Bashir’s hand. When he removed it the Cardassian smirked up at him affectionately and purred: “You impudent boy!”

“Later, Garak.” He allowed himself a trace of a smile. “Can you stand?”

He could, but only with great difficulty; the effects of the r’hik’har seemed to come in waves. It took Bashir on one side and Borik on the other to get him out the door of the room and down the narrow back staircase, having to turn almost sideways to do so. They were halfway down the first flight of stairs to the back hall when Aslel, coming down behind them, suddenly turned and started back up.

“Where are you going?” Bashir asked sharply.

“Borik forgot the doctor’s bag,” Aslel said, and the shorter yolin looked properly chagrined; indeed, it wasn’t slung over his shoulder, although he had Garak’s sword belt. Fully occupied with supporting Garak from in front and below, Bashir had no choice but to continue down the stairs. By the time they crossed the stone threshold into the alley Aslel was back with them, silently carrying the leather satchel and looking rather pleased with himself. Bashir chose not to ask him about the state of Esa Kassar’s health, because the tall yolin was right: they had to get away from the scene of the crime as quickly as possible, before her other guards returned. 

“Are either of you injured?” he asked Borik as they proceeded toward the waiting o’wnli.

The smaller yolin shook his head. “Those thrown sheets worked — the guards were gaping at them like a pair of niokli all the while Alsel and I were charging up the hallway. One of them got his sword arm tangled in one and that gave me enough time to get in a good hit before he could draw his blade.”

“And he needs all the help he can get,” Aslel remarked.

“I’m glad to hear it.” Bashir was also glad to feel Garak walking a little more steadily: he’d need to be alert in order to climb up onto the o’wn. “Can you support him for a moment?”

Borik nodded, and Bashir slipped his arm from around Garak’s waist before retrieving his own cloak from the largest saddlebag and swinging it onto his shoulders. Then he turned his attention to mounting the tall reptilian beast; once again it tolerated his actions, and he shifted as far forward in the saddle as he could before leaning down to extend his hand to his drugged friend half-slumped against the little guide. “Come on, Garak — I’ll give you a hand up.”

Garak peered owlishly up at him. “That’s most kind of you,” he said with great precision, and accepted the offer. With Bashir’s help from above and Borik’s help from below he managed to slide into position behind the Human, although he swayed alarmingly before locking both arms around Bashir’s waist. “I don’t recall these things being so tall...”

“Borik, there’s a length of rope in the green saddlebag, could you fetch it?” Bashir sat very still and upright so as not to unsettle his less-than-stable companion. In the end Aslel, who was so much taller than his partner, had to wrap the rope tightly around Bashir and Garak’s waists and tie it off in front, using a slipknot that could be easily undone with a quick tug and looping the excess length across the o’wn’s withers; he managed to hide part of the rope under Garak’s cloak but couldn’t manage the same trick when it came to Bashir. If anyone looked too closely they’d present a rather strange and suspicious picture, but it couldn’t be helped. 

“I must say I’m impressed,” Garak murmured in his friend’s ear as Aslel constructed the knot and Borik stowed the late doctor’s kit and Garak's sword away in the saddlebag that had held Bashir’s cloak. He sounded proud indeed, and like he was smiling again. “You’ll have to tell me all about your adventures later...”

“I will,” Bashir promised, “when we’re safely out of the city. There’s a night barge that takes military supplies downriver to a wharf a couple of siss’ar to the north. Apparently the captain is open to bribes.”

“Is there? How convenient for us! And how much blood do you suppose he’ll demand for the privilege?”

Aslel, securing the long loose end of the rope to one of the equipment hooks, snorted. “About the price of a sickly slave girl,” he said, “if you’re lucky. How’s your asshole feeling, Bashir?”

“Like there’s still a little gold left inside it,” Bashir retorted. “Let’s find out, shall we?”

Borik had already mounted up; Aslel followed suit and led the way down the dark alley to another dimly lit back thoroughfare, heading for the river road.


Chapter Text

The night wind definitely seemed less chilling now, Bashir decided as they rode through the deserted alleys — but that might only be because he'd reclaimed his lover and they were leaving their mutual enemies further behind with every step of their o'wn's heavily clawed feet. Aslel was holding the group's pace to a walk, perhaps in consideration of the fact that the see-sawing run of the riding beast might cause Garak to slide sideways: the grip of his arms around Bashir's waist wavered in strength and every so often he swayed alarmingly, making Bashir catch his breath and lay a steadying hand on the Cardassian's forearm. He could almost feel Borik's worried gaze on the backs of their heads, anxiously watching to make certain that the drugged man didn't start to fall and pull Bashir down along with him.

Was Esa Kassar still alive? Or had Aslel killed her as pragmatically as he did everything else? Did it matter? Of course it did. The woman had been unconscious, or at the very least tied up and unable to defend herself… yet Bashir couldn't deny that alive she presented a clear danger to them that would, if they were unsuccessful in finding the transmitter at the Temple and had to remain on this world, potentially make life here exceedingly difficult. Her death at the edge of Aslel's blade would have neatly eliminated that threat. Tactically it made perfect sense; morally it was an appalling act that Bashir couldn't have permitted unless his life or Garak's was in immediate danger. If Aslel had indeed killed her, arguably Bashir bore no responsibility for it even though he found it a troubling prospect. 

You wanted to kill her yourself, a small voice whispered deep in his heart. For a fraction of a second as you were preparing to strike her, seeing Garak like that, you would have happily cracked her skull wide open for having caused him harm. He tried to push the thought away only to find that it was not so easy to banish, and he wondered at this change in himself, at when it had happened and why.

But the practical and ethical concerns of the present, and the uncertainty of the future, dimmed in light of the warm glow that infused Bashir's core and filled his entire body with joy and vitality. Garak was with him again, miraculously recovered alive from the jaws of a dangerous opponent — and nobody had been injured in the process. It seemed almost too good to be true, especially given that Aslel and Borik were probably not considered professional swordsmen in this culture. By rights Kassar's men should have dealt some nasty wounds before they were killed, but if either yolin bore so much as a scratch Bashir had seen no sign of it. 

He tried to put the thought out of his mind and enjoy the simple fact of their success, but the probability calculations refused to be silenced and repeatedly spit out the same result: that the chance of an outcome with no combat damage to any member of their group of four was immensely small, 5.23% at the outside. Perhaps Aslel and Borik were really that much better than he was giving them credit for, or Kassar's men were that much worse…

Let it go, Julian, He drew a deep breath, savouring Garak's embrace even though the Cardassian, clearly intoxicated, had buried his face against the back of Bashir's hood and was softly humming off-key one of the songs The Golden Tarneks had performed in Erebak's common room the previous day, something about the girls of Zio Betal and how they'd rob you blind while they stroked your — Bashir pushed away the lyrics before they could spring fully to mind and hoped that Garak didn't actually start singing them, although the spy's voice, even slightly out of tune with r’hik’har, seemed doubly sweet to him after facing the prospect of losing it forever.

Cold and darkness lay over the city around them like a physical force that all resident Cardassians and most of their slaves had gone under cover to avoid. The lanterns that blazed on wrought-iron poles created only isolated pools of yellow radiance on the snowy streets, and even those were viewed by Bashir from a distance at each crossroads as Aslel led them down straight unlit back alleys in a line tending steadily north. The few Naievirl they glimpsed seemed intent on business of their own and ignored the three o'wnli completely, walking with heads down against the occasional gusts of biting wind. Nor did the yolinli seem inclined to speak, and Bashir, awash with warm gratitude for Garak's safe recovery, was inclined to enjoy it in silence as the grid of city blocks fell away behind them.

"Do you know," Garak suddenly remarked as they turned toward the almost-full eastern moon and crossed an urban boundary into a district of low stone warehouses, "that I've never introduced you to the works of Tiorka?"

"Haven't you?" He kept his voice low, mindful of anyone who might be listening in the dense shadows. The road Aslel had chosen was narrow and this area of the city lay black between two lanterned zones: the lit stretch they were heading toward was, he guessed, where the docks were located. "We'll have to remedy that when we get back home."

"Home?" A bitter chuff of a laugh. "I'll never go home, my dearest — and Cardassia is the only place you'll find Tiorka's public…" His voice trailed off, and Bashir laid a warm hand on the spy's wrist in a gesture that, he hoped, communicated both tenderness and reassurance. He was just opening his mouth to tell Garak to conserve his energy when the Cardassian spoke again in a much sharper and more focussed tone: "We're being followed."

"Yes, by Yolin Borik. Don't worry, he's keeping an eye on —"

Ahead of them Aslel hissed in the moonlight and reined his beast to a halt, guiding it sideways to stand at a right angle to the nose of Bashir's mount, which also came to a stop and stood with its head down, showing no sign of alarm. There was barely enough room in the alley for Aslel's o'wn to fit across the width even with its tail cocked to one side. At once Borik turned his o'wn to match the position of Aslel's, facing it in the opposite direction. Both yolinli drew their swords and Aslel called out boldly, addressing the dark walls that closely surrounded them: "Who's there? Show yourselves, you cowards!"

Bashir was still pondering whether or not to try drawing his own weapon — which would be a neat trick with a rope around his waist and Garak holding on for dear life — when he heard Borik draw a quick breath. Tugging on the reins and applying pressure with his right leg, Bashir coaxed his own mount to the left enough to see what the shorter Cardassian was looking at: a tall thin figure that had stepped out of the intersection they'd just passed, clad in a ragged dark cloak and layered robes beneath a flare of white feathered hair that stirred restlessly in the fitful wind that whistled in the eaves of the wooden roofs two stories above. One hand was buried in the robes; the other, thin and black in the moonlight, was wrapped around a pale wooden staff adorned with tassels of fabric and beads of what looked like teeth and bones.

"Ayya!" Borik's voice quavered on a high note and he made a swift gesture that Bashir remembered from a fireside conversation on the road out of Zio Tevar'in: tapping his left shoulder three times with the palm of his right hand, his fingers curled inward at the second knuckle. "A miiala!"

Garak was silent, although his arms tightened protectively around Bashir's waist and a muted growl vibrated deep in his chest; Bashir could sense the intensity of his gaze fixed on the lone Naievirl confronting them. Aslel's voice rang out again, with less volume this time but with more commanding arrogance: "What are you doing out here, koraka perujo? Be off with you before one of us rides you down and runs you through!"

Borik had frozen in place, staring at the shaman less than six meters away, and Bashir knew that if Aslel expected his artor p'tak to do the riding and the skewering he'd be sorely disappointed. But themiiala was ignoring both yolinli. His huge eyes were fixed on Garak and Bashir, and as Bashir watched his hidden hand emerged and rose to shoulder height, palm outward, before inscribing a slow circle in the air. 

"Return." The shaman's voice was soft but seemed to set the chilly air to subtly vibrating. He repeated the gesture while almost chanting: "Return, ennialal Al’liel, fly to your hearth, to the fires that sustain you. Return, brother, to the warmth of your nest. Ride the feathers of your glory to the heart that beats your name."

"Al'liel?" Bashir's eyebrows drew together and he addressed the Naievirl respectfully but with a note of clear authority. "What about her? Is she all right?"

The shaman's eyes flickered closed and he repeated the gesture one final time. It seemed to Bashir that the moonlight slanting into the alley dimmed briefly, and glancing up he saw what appeared to be cloud-shadow crossing the face of the planet's satellite, although it moved far faster than any cloud he'd seen so far this night. It lasted but an instant, and then the Naievirl opened his cold red eyes and looked Bashir directly in the face.

"She sent you a blessing, neiassa," he intoned, and his voice now sounded merely mortal. "A power to grant you aid. That power has departed. Depart you likewise, to wherever the road may take you." And with that enigmatic statement he turned and slipped away to his left, into the blackness of another alley. He had disappeared before Bashir could open his mouth to ask another question, and the silence was broken only by the shuddering exhalation of Borik's deeply bated breath.

After a moment Bashir turned his head slightly toward Garak. "Is he gone?" 

"Yes, Doctor, I believe he is." Garak sagged against Bashir's back and rested his chin on his cloaked shoulder, breathing raggedly. 

Bashir nodded, trusting Garak's Obsidian Order-trained instincts even in his presently drugged state, and applied more pressure with his right leg, guiding his o'wn up next to Borik's until he could reach out and touch the yolin's upper arm through his cloak. Borik's head snapped around and Bashir offered him a reassuring smile.

"Oh, Bashir," Borik whispered, giving himself a little shake, "that was too close! Did you feel it? The evil spirit? It was right here with us!"

"If it was," Bashir assured him, "it's done nothing but help us." He patted Borik's arm and gave it a quick squeeze, widening his smile until the shorter yolin smiled tentatively in response. "Come on, let's find that barge captain and offer him some of what's left of my money."

"Oh!" Borik's eyes widened, as did his smile. "You've got more than you think. You saw they took Garak's pouch, but both the niraktatli and the doctor had money of their own. We collected it before the Savages took them away. I don't know how much there is, but we'll take our forty tiorli out of it for the Guild —" That last sentence was directed beyond Bashir to Aslel, who was already turning his mount back around, "— and you can have the rest."

An ill-tempered snort from Aslel was the only response the taller Cardassian saw fit to offer. For his part, Garak mumbled something against the back of Bashir's neck about it likely being his money anyway, but the r’hik’har seemed to be playing havoc with his mind again and Bashir didn't judge him capable of truly appreciating a reply. He guided his o'wn back around, as did Borik, and they set off again with one of Bashir's many questions — that of probability and luck — answered at least mostly to his satisfaction. 

Chapter Text

Mercifully Garak was silent for the rest of the trip, a heavy weight against Bashir's back with a grip around his waist that waxed and waned in strength. He didn't rouse when they crossed back into a lighted zone of paved roads leading to the river, which had broadened considerably from the relatively narrow course Bashir had observed upon first entering the city. It must have been at least a hundred and fifty meters wide at this point judging by what he could see through a gap between the buildings directly ahead, and in the stillness of the frosty night he could hear its restless lap and rush against the rocky banks that constrained it. Far off to the right at the city's northernmost edge rose the high cliffs that the river carved its path through, looming black against the star-dusted sky; atop them Bashir could see a few isolated lights, indicating the presence of what might well be watchtowers.

As soon as they entered the first patch of good illumination from a street lantern Aslel stopped their little train and, with typical ill grace, produced the pouches of coins Borik had mentioned to count up what they'd gained from the soldiers and the physician they'd killed back at The Black Claws. The final tally was encouraging: seventy-eight tiorli and a handful of niorli, which, once Aslel's fictitious amount for the selling of Garak's o'wn and equipment had been extracted, left thirty-eight of the square silver coins. When Aslel put forward his case that he and Borik were entitled to half the remaining amount for risking their hides in Bashir's fool's enterprise, Bashir fully expected Garak to speak up in strong opposition — the tailor, whatever he'd been in a past life, was now a businessman with all the mercenary instincts that implied — but Garak said nothing, leaving his Human friend to do as he thought best, which was to agree to Aslel's proposal over Borik's plaintive protestations that friends didn't require payment for helping friends, and divide the profits of the night equally.

"They're no friends of mine," Aslel concluded brusquely, ignoring Borik's crestfallen expression as he and Bashir finished settling up. He closed up his now much heavier money pouch, tossed the empty ones carelessly aside, and turned his o'wn's head back toward the west with a sharp tug on the reins. "Come on, let's get this over with. The sooner we're back in our warm bed the better pleased I'll be!"

Borik, still looking mournful, fell in behind Bashir, who was wondering just what it was the shorter guide saw in the tall arrogant yolin he'd chosen to throw in his lot with. It was, Bashir reflected, a mystery that would provide something to chew over during the long hours on the road to come — assuming that they could get out of the city in the first place, or were allowed to disembark at the military supply point. He suppressed a worried sigh, mindful of Garak behind him: although the spy seemed unresponsive at the moment, that could change in an instant and the slightest sign of perturbation on the part of his companion might rouse him. Given Garak's current mentally compromised state Bashir was hoping that he'd keep his mouth shut at least until after they'd gotten onto the barge and away from anyone who could ask awkward questions that the drugged Cardassian would be inclined to answer with perfect truthfulness.

A few more minutes of riding brought them to the river itself, flanked by warehouses and wooden docks on both sides, empty of traffic at this late hour. As the o'wnli emerged onto the wide paved road that bordered the wharfs Bashir could see a few boats moored here and there on the water, mostly small light craft — and one huge flat barge less than a half-minute's travel to the south, a shallow craft forty meters wide by sixty meters long, which was the focus of the only visible activity along the entire waterfront: about thirty heavily clad Cardassian males were offloading large wagons full of crates onto the dock beside the vessel, then hauling them up a wide gangplank onto the top deck of the barge, which was bordered by a strong railing of plain wood. The absence of Naievirl slaves was striking to Bashir's eyes after over a week of seeing the avian aliens doing all the hard work in this culture, but on brief reflection it made perfect sense: if these supplies were intended for a military action to the north, the last thing the Cardassians wanted was to provide members of the enemy species with an opportunity for sabotage. 

Aslel held up his left hand, bringing everyone to a halt. "Stay here," he said sternly back over one shoulder, casting an even darker glance at Bashir's ridgeless face. "I'll do the talking with the captain. I don't want your looks putting him off."

Bashir simply nodded, conceding the point. With a haughty flick of his head Aslel set off toward the barge, leaving Borik to apologize: "He doesn't mean anything by… well, hedoes, but don't worry, Bashir! Aslel could talk a Savage witch out of his ennialal if he put his mind to it. The captain'll take you on board, I'm sure of it."

Watching after Aslel, who was approaching the workers at a sedate and unthreatening walk, Bashir shook his head ruefully. "I certainly hope so. If he doesn't, we'll have to find a safe place for the night and hope that Garak's recovered in the morning. I'm sure he has several plans of his own, if only he were in a fit state of mind to tell us."

Borik nodded sympathetically. "How's he doing?"

Bashir laid his fingers to Garak's inner left wrist for the eighth time that night and counted for ten seconds. "His pulse is good and his breathing is steady. I just wish I knew more about the physiological impact of r’hik’har, or even how long its effects are supposed to last."

Borik guided his o'wn up alongside Bashir's and peered into Garak's face, which was resting against the back of Bashir's neck. "His eyes are closed," the little yolin reported, "and he looks calm enough."

"Of course I'm calm," Garak announced, startling Bashir — and Borik too, given the way he jumped. "I'm in excellent, if rather inexperienced, hands." He gave Bashir's waist a squeeze that was intended to be affectionate to judge by the widely smiling tone of his voice. "My dear Doctor would never abandon a friend, much less a lover, in trouble — would you, my darling n'sar'arah?"

"Never." Bashir couldn't help but smile in return as he rubbed Garak's forearm with his right hand, his gaze still focussed on Aslel, who had now caught the attention of the Cardassian crew working around the barge. One of them, a short thin man in a long mustard yellow leather coat who was carrying a forearm-length tablet and a stylus, had detached from the group and was going out to meet him. "It's that damned Federation loyalty you've lectured me about in the past, remember?"

"A loyalty that's greatly appreciated," Garak said in a voice that was starting to blur around the edges, "now that I find myself in… in need of…"

Bashir slid his hand over to cover the back of Garak's right hand, entwining their fingers. "Don't try to talk," he ordered gently, watching Aslel engage in conversation with the man in yellow. "Just let me take care of everything."

"A'if I had a choice," Garak mumbled against his shoulder, and gave his fingers an answering squeeze before falling silent again. 

Borik too was watching his artor p'tak'ara, who was now gesturing back toward their position as he and Yellow Coat talked intently. "It looks good," he said hopefully, half in the tone of one offering up a prayer. "It's…" The man in yellow turned away and Aslel looked back, holding up his right hand and sweeping it forward. "Yes! I told you he'd do it!"

"Maybe." With Garak out of the running Bashir felt that it fell to him to be the voice of pessimism. He urged his o'wn forward with a brief pressure of both knees. "Or maybe he's just negotiated a chance for me to talk with the captain. If that's the case it could still go sour."

"Not Aslel," Borik said with confidence, falling in at Bashir's left side. "You'll see."

The Cardassian crew had continued working all during Aslel's conversation with the smaller man, but a few of them stopped and outright stared when Bashir got close enough to be seen by the light of the pole-mounted lanterns and the open-work iron braziers full of burning charcoal which they doubtless used to warm themselves up between bouts of activity in the cold. A few sharp words barked by Yellow Coat, who was on his way to one of the far wagons with his tablet slung under his arm, got them moving again, but Bashir was still profoundly conscious of being, as Garak had remarked several days earlier, a foross in a patch of clavita — too smooth, too brown, and certainly alien enough to provoke feelings ranging from curiosity to hostility. 

Fortunately the reactions among this group seemed to tend toward the former rather than the latter. Even Yellow Coat, who turned keen eyes on them after he'd set his tablet and stylus aside on the wagon's seat, didn't seem aggressive as he walked back toward Aslel, who had remained in position and let Borik and Bashir come to him. They converged at roughly the same time and Aslel, with that strangely formal sweeping-arm gesture of presentation, indicated the offworlders on his left to the unmounted man before them. "Furesk Nineket, captain of the Splendour Elisat," he intoned ritually, "these two seek passage through the northern pass to the military supply post of —"

"Aye, aye," Yellow Coat — Nineket — said in a low growl, "it don't deserve a name, that eil’liall-cursed piece o'ground!" He was studying Bashir closely now that they were within three meters of each other. "What're ye, torva? I've ne'er seen your like before."

"A traveller from the southern lands," Bashir replied, feeling almost graceful in the lie by now and grateful that Garak was apparently incapable of responding. "I have silver enough to pay you to take us out of the city."

"Where he's going anyway," Aslel interjected, dropping the appearance of formality and getting down to business.

Another growl from Nineket, this one with the inflection of a chuckle. "An' it'd be worth my hide to carry enemies of the Legates a tisktek closer to 'em. What's your business up there, flatface?"

Bashir saw no reason to dissemble. "We're going to the Temple of the Distant Towers."

Nineket paused a beat. "An'?"

"We have business with the Legates there. And that," Bashir said firmly, "is all you really need to know."

Nineket chewed the inside of his cheek, studying the mounted Human with unblinking eyes so black they appeared to be all pupil. "Maybe so," he said at last, slowly and with an air of consideration, "an' maybe not. But a flatface and a drunkard won't be no mind to 'em even if you were bound to do 'em a mischief." He held out his left hand. "Show us your silver, then."

Bashir reached for his money pouch, thinking of Garak's haggling techniques. "Eight tiorli?" he asked.

The barge captain almost howled. "Are y'mad? Fifteen!"

"Nine, then."

"With that face? Fifteen, I said! And you're lucky at that."

Bashir opened his mouth, then caught himself when he saw Aslel's dark expression and Borik shaking his head emphatically. A second later Garak announced, pleasantly but in a voice that carried far too easily: "Take it, Doctor, or he'll ask a price even higher."

"Fifteen," Bashir sighed, and counted out the coins into his own hand. At a gesture from Aslel he hesitated, then cast them onto the clean-scraped pavement at the captain's feet; evidently this satisfied some ritual form, for Nineket nodded, grunted, and gestured a worker who'd been hovering nearby to pick up the scattered coins and take them away. 

"Ye'd best come aboard now," Nineket informed them, "'fore we load on the last round o'crates. You can stow yourselves aft port on the upper deck, between that stack of long black boxes and the railing. Is that beast water trained?"

"I…" The question caught Bashir by surprise. "I don't know."

"I'll help them on board," Borik offered at once.

"Oh, he will," Aslel said as the captain's skeptical eye turned on his unassuming artor p'tak'ara. "My friend can coax an o'wn to do everything but dance."

"Maybe," Ninetek countered, "but who'll get 'er off again, that's what I'd like to know?"

"Let's see how she goes on," Borik said in a conciliatory tone, offering his best look of wide-eyed appeal as he swung out of his saddle and slid down to the dock. While Nineket turned toward the dock crew and started issuing loud and colorful orders to stop the loading process, the smaller yolin came up beside the long toothy head of Bashir's mount and took hold of the bridle, rubbing the animal's prominent eyeridge and murmuring something in a voice too low to be distinctly heard over Nineket's shouting. The o'wn uttered a low rumble when Borik touched it but promptly quieted again, and when the wide ramp onto the barge was clear and Nineket waved them toward it the beast followed with apparent docility as Borik led it forward, although Bashir could feel muscles in its back twitching under the saddle as they got close to the water's edge. At the foot of the ramp it briefly balked, uttering a cross between a whine and a growl, but Borik murmured something singsong into its ear and kept rubbing the eyeridge, and after a heartbeat's pause the o'wn allowed itself to be led up the echoing unbending span of thick wooden planks and onto the deck of the barge.

"Good girl," Borik crooned, pausing to scratch the top of its head at the base of its bristling mane. The o'wn growled again and shifted uneasily, evidently not much liking the slight motion of the boat under its feet, but when Borik started walking again it let itself be led to the location the captain had indicated. Borik backed it into the narrow space of open deck right up against the pile of black boxes, which were stacked to a height several centimetres over Bashir's head as he sat in the saddle and left about two meters between the o'wn's left flank and the meter-high railing. The creature's long tail tip projected over the railing behind it, but now that it was facing the length of the barge rather than the flowing expanse of the river it seemed to be more at ease and stood placidly where Borik guided it to a halt, uttering the occasional grunt.

"Good girl!" Borik patted its neck, gave it another rough scratching under the mane, then turned his attention upwards toward Bashir and Garak, his mobile face becoming infused with a wistful plea. "Are you sure you won't reconsider?"

Bashir offered him a reassuring smile. "We have the promise of Lieilii of the Red Hand that we won't be attacked, remember?"

Borik shook his head. "The word of a miiala!" His shoulders twitched in a little shiver. "Aslel's right about one thing: you're a fool if you trust that!"

"We can't stay here anyway, not with Esa Kassar looking for us." 

On the other side of the crates the sounds of the barge being loaded had resumed. The o'wn grunted again and shifted its weight, but settled when Borik applied another rub to its eyeridge. "I know. You're between the fire and the pan, no doubt about it." He hesitated, then asked in a rush: "Why are you going to the Temple, anyway? There's nothing there but the ash'uar — well, there was nothing there but the ash'uar, and now it's a war zone with Savages crawling all over it. It's an egg with no yolk. If you headed south you could hide yourself in one of the bigger cities, or settle down in some small zio'iv where she'd never find you." A glance back toward where Aslel waited. "We're heading to Zio Darrak ourselves in a couple of days. You could come with us —"

Bashir shook his head decisively. "The Temple is —" He paused, looking down into the small Cardassian's anxious and almost pleading eyes. "It's our only hope of getting home, Borik. I can't explain it any further than that, but we don't belong here." Even though if we did stay, Garak would have no reason to deny me. He pushed the thought aside, but it lingered. "We have no choice but to head north." He smiled, thinking of the adventures of the last several days, of Borik's kind generosity and Aslel's willingness, however grudging, to help the people his partner cared about. "And we couldn't have done it without you and Aslel. All the money in the world couldn't repay the debt we owe you."

A grin broke through the sorrow on the yolin's face. "Aslel would take that offer gladly!" he said, and for the space of a breath Bashir felt the bond between them glowing warm and strong. He hadn't expected to make any friends on this hostile world, but here one stood before him, his lively eyes sparkling with delight in the darkness that gathered close around them all.

A shout from the shore shattered the moment. "Get ashore," Nineket bellowed, "all as don't want to be boxed in!"

Bashir leaned down as much as he could while supporting Garak, extending his left arm. "Warmth and safe haven to you, Yolin Borik."

Borik swallowed visibly, blinked as if banishing tears, and reached up to clasp Bashir's forearm. "Warmth and safe haven to you, Julian Bashir!" He paused as if he wanted to say something more, then gave Bashir's arm a final little shake and turned away. He disappeared around the stack of crates at a brisk walk, leaving the Human in silence to ponder the past, the present, and the future.

"You get attached far too easily, my dear." Garak's slurred voice in his ear was a surprise.

Bashir reached back to lay his hand on the Cardassian's cold cheek, and simply repied: "I know."

A little over twenty minutes later Nineket's bellow called for his crew to cast off. Bashir's heart leaped in his chest. They were now heading into the truly unknown, with no one to guide them and nobody else to rely upon but themselves. It was a lonely but exhilarating feeling: Bashir had always sought adventure, and took satisfaction in it even when it came without the seeking — and in this quest to return to the stars he wasn't truly alone. Garak was with him, and he had a quiet but adamant feeling that nothing but death could part them now. 

As the ship started to move out into the current a faint cry from the shore — "Hala!" — caught his attention. Looking back over his shoulder toward the distant stretch of wharf visible beyond the crates that hemmed him in, he saw two o'wn far down the docks, their heads pointed toward the barge. The smaller, rounder figure mounted on one of them raised his right fist and pumped it in a gesture Bashir recognized. He smiled, although he knew it couldn't be seen at that distance, and returned the salute.

The taller figure reined his beast around and set off at a gallop toward the nearest street leading back into the city. His partner turned and followed, and within seconds they swerved away between the warehouses and vanished from Bashir's life forever.

The last stage of his journey had finally begun.


Chapter Text

On either side Zio Araga slipped by, silent and seemingly empty, illuminated by rows of street lamps and innumerable fires gleaming through its many windows, sending up plumes of smoke from its hearths to be whipped out of existence by the wind that was driving scattered clouds before the rising moon. The vessel Bashir and Garak rode was large enough that the choppiness of the water, which increased as they were carried slowly but steadily closer to the break in the cliffs ahead, was audible but did not translate into greater motion under the o'wn's clawed feet. The beast was quiet save for the slow deep rush of its breathing, and although the temperature couldn't have been lower than −5 C Bashir was grateful for the warmth that rose from its massive body for Garak's sake.

They were almost inside the stone gorge when Garak, in a tone surprisingly sharp, abruptly said: “Untie me. Now.”

“Garak, I don’t think that’s —”

“I’m going to vomit.”

Bashir hastily pulled the slipknot and extended a hand to help Garak slide down, then dismounted himself as the Cardassian lurched across to the railing, bent over it, and retched loud and long. Bashir took the water skin down from the o'wn's withers and approached him cautiously, stopping a good meter away to give him space and a measure of privacy.

“Oh.” He fell to his knees and slowly turned to sit propped up against the railing, tilting his head back and drawing in deep gulps of the cold night air, his eyes tightly closed. “Oh, that was most unpleasant!”

Bashir came to his left side and knelt, laying a soothing hand on his arm and handing him the water skin. “I wish I had an antiemetic to give you.”

“I think it’s over.” A pause as he considered that. “Yes, I believe it is.” He drank a couple of mouthfuls of water from the skin, took another to rinse his mouth out, then swallowed again. "Thank you." Bashir took the skin back and set it to one side as Garak wiped his lips with the back of one shaking hand and groaned softly: “You should have let Aslel kill that s’sharl g’tarn when he had the chance.”

“I think he may have done it anyway, while Borik and I were getting you down the stairs.” Bashir pulled Garak’s cloak more tightly around him, tucking in the edges to protect him from the chill and drawing the hood close to his face.

“Well, that’s a relief.” He smiled cheerfully. “It means we can come back this way if we need to without having targets painted on our backs.” He opened his eyes to look at Bashir with unguarded exasperation. “Your Federation ethics are more trouble than they’re worth, you know.”

Bashir answered in kind: “They’re my ethics, Garak. The Human species isn’t a moral monolith. And I refuse to kill someone just because —”

Garak reached out, undoing all Bashir’s work in wrapping him up snugly, and caught the Human’s face in both hands. “Julian, I love you dearly, but now is not a good time for me to engage in a lengthy debate.” He winced as if suddenly catching what he'd just said. “For that very reason.”

Bashir nodded. “I understand.” He reached up and gently removed Garak’s hands from his cheeks, laying them back down on his stomach and wrapping him up in the cloak again. “Just rest, and try to stay warm. I’ll help you back onto the o’wn when you’re ready.”

“Thank you. That’s most kind.” He closed his eyes again and continued in a conversational tone: “I’ve never known anyone with your remarkable combination of kindness, brilliance, strength and beauty. In fact —”

“Garak.” Bashir touched quick fingers to his lips. “You’re still under the influence of the r’hik’har. Try not to talk.”

When he removed his hand Garak continued: “I should think you’d welcome to opportunity to have some of your burning questions answered.”

He shook his head. “Not like this. I refuse to take advantage of you while you’re drugged and incapable of controlling what you’re saying.”

The Cardassian let his head fall back against the railing and smiled again, this time tenderly, his eyes falling half-closed. “I think I appreciate your ethics most when they work in my favour.”

“Don’t make me kiss you to shut you up,” Bashir threatened with mock-sternness.

“I’d like a kiss anyway, if you please.”

Bashir leaned in and obliged him. “As many as you like,” he promised, then sat down beside him against the railing and put an arm around the Cardassian’s broad shoulders. He drew him close against his side and rested his cheek against one grey-scaled temple as Garak leaned into the embrace. “Are you comfortable like this?”

“Well, the back support is marginally better than what the saddle provides.” A pause. “Not really, but having your arm around me is a tremendous compensation.”

He couldn’t help but smile, even as the light of the moon was eclipsed by the eastern cliff face, plunging them into blackness. “I’m glad to hear it.” He ducked his head to kiss the little scales on the bridge of the Garak’s nose. “See if you can get some sleep. I’ll keep watch.”

N’assa tevar doesn’t really suit you,” Garak quipped, but he settled his forehead against Bashir’s neck and shifted into what the Human hoped was a more comfortable position. Bashir tilted his head back and stared up into the shadows, listening to the slow rush of his friend’s breathing and the rhythmic lapping of the water against the sides of the barge. He thought regretfully of the warm soft bed they’d left behind in Zio Araga, and of Esa Kassar, probably dead by Aslel’s blade. What she’d done was ruthless and morally reprehensible but she hadn’t deserved to die for it. 

Nor had the guards, or that doctor. Bashir tried not to think about the wives and children they might have left behind, but he couldn’t stop himself. Who would care for them now that their males were dead? Was it really worth destroying so many lives to save one man? 

Garak would have said “yes” without hesitation, he knew, but he was not Garak. And yet when he weighed everything in the balance he knew that he would have killed a guard himself, or two, or more, if that had been the only way to prevent his friend’s death. He found himself wondering precisely when this shift in his moral compass had occurred, and having no good answer: it wasn’t that he lacked compassion for those who had died — the awareness of their loss ached keenly in his heart — but the prospect of facing life without Garak was so much darker and more terrible that it evidently made him capable of new and troubling things. Holding the Cardassian close, he felt a simple joy in his presence that made his grief for the deaths back in Zio Araga more than bearable. 

I’ve changed, he thought ruefully. My love for him has changed me. And perhaps not entirely for the better…

He closed his eyes and let his mind drift, consciously relaxing every muscle in his body after the various tensions of the evening past, only to have Garak speak up again. “I find myself wondering... if you could ask me one question under the circumstances, any question, what would it be?”

Bashir opens his eyes again. “If I tell you, won’t you be compelled to answer?”

“I’m feeling generous. It must be a combination of the r’hik’har and your loveliness.”

Bashir hesitated, then shook his head firmly. “No. I can’t.”

“I assure you, it’s freely offered." He sounded far too cheerful. "And I am curious.”

Bashir refused to look at him in the blackness. “We can talk about this tomorrow, if you’re fully recovered.”

A note of teasing challenge entered his voice. “Come now — you can’t tell me you really intend to let this opportunity slip by?”

Bashir drew a deep breath and reconsidered his options. One question. How could it hurt? Especially if he chose one that didn’t strike too close to the innermost truths of Garak’s secretive heart. After a final moment of fierce internal debate he gave in to the cumulative weight of all the mysteries this enigmatic man had ever presented him with… and if Garak were really driven to tell the truth, he had nothing to fear in terms of consequences, since Garak was being truthful now in wanting to provide answers.

“All right.” He paused, considering which of the many such questions he had was the key question, the one he most wanted to learn the answer to. "Of all the stories you told me about the reason for your exile when the implant malfunctioned, which one was closest to the truth?"

“They were all allegories,” Garak responded immediately, “poetic metaphors for things that really happened. So the short answer is: none of them. The answer more in keeping with the spirit of your question is: the one about the orphans, although the story about betraying Elim also contained elements of relevancy.”

Bashir released the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. It was enough. “Thank you,” he said sincerely. “And now I really mean it: rest, and keep your mouth shut.”

Garak lowered his head again, but Bashir could sense his lingering smile. “You know how difficult I find that prospect, my dear, especially around you.”

“Hm.” He almost laughed. “Well then, I suggest you call on that vaunted Obsidian Order training and do your best!”

“How ironic, that a drug concocted on a backwater colony could do so much damage.” His vocal control was starting to blur again. Either he was suddenly very tired or another wave of r’hik’har-effect was overtaking him. “The Disciplines render us capable of resisting a Vulcan mind meld if we have to, but a couple of cc’s of green liquid and I’m no better than Morn in his cups.”

“We’ll be back home soon,” Bashir soothed, rubbing his far shoulder. “Home, and safe.”

“I hate that place.” A hiss full of startling venom. “Better a lifetime on this miserable planet than another day on that hideous station. Another day of sewing women’s dresses and hemming the trousers of a race my species once conquered.” He shivered, perhaps with revulsion, or perhaps with the effort of trying to resist the r’hik’har. His tone shifted to a softer cadence full of sorrow. “You’re the only thing that makes it even passingly bearable, the one person who extended your hand in friendship without reservation. If...”

He fell silent, clearly struggling, and Bashir stepped into the breach: “Come on, it’s not that bad! You seem to genuinely enjoy your work, and —” He hesitated again, then went for broke. “— when we get back, we could still see each other. It would take some work, but surely if we were careful —”

“No!” He’d never sounded more certain, his voice resonant with a strange depth of emotion. “I won’t risk your life. I can’t risk your life, not for the sake of something as petty as my own happiness!”

“Your happiness?” Bashir found himself suddenly almost angry. “What about my happiness? Or doesn’t that factor into your calculations?”

“It still isn’t worth the price you’d pay when my enemies found out about you,” he said with absolute conviction.

The anger phased into something closer to sympathy. Of course a man like Garak would think in those terms: it was to be expected. “I can take care of myself, Garak,” he said more warmly, “and I have Starfleet to back me up. I’m not an innocent child, completely defenceless.”

“A child? No. Innocent? Oh, yes — beautiful and tender and ready for the blade. An Obsidian Order operative would take your life before you ever knew what hit you. Enabran Tain would make your death last for days.”

“Funny, I thought he rather liked me.”

“Which almost certainly means that you’re in danger.” Garak seemed to think for a moment. Slowly he said: “I don’t think you can conceive of how strange it feels, to know that there’s someone in this universe willing to risk his life on my behalf.”

Bashir hugged him briefly closer. “That’s part of what ‘I love you’ means, when a Human says it.”

“Really? I was given to understand that some Humans use that phrase with people they’re just interested in having sex with.”

He shrugged, conceding the point. “It can be used that way, yes. But that wasn’t how I meant it last night. After all,” he joked, “I’d already had you, hadn’t I?”

Garak was silent for a long few breaths. Bashir had just started to hope that he’d drifted off when he quietly said: “I would die for you, you know. And of course I’d kill for you — that goes without saying.” Another pause. “If the Central Command ordered your death, they’d have to find someone else to carry out the sentence. I wouldn’t do it. In fact I’d —”

Bashir kissed him again, finding his lips with ease even in the darkness that enveloped them. “Don’t,” he whispered, although his heart was choking up into his throat with happiness. “You’ll only regret it when you recover.”

The Cardassian sighed. “You’re right, of course — for once.”

“Thanks,” Bashir said drily.

“Not that you’re —”

Another kiss. 

“— that you’re —”


“If you —” 


“Julian." He scowled warningly. "Would you please stop doing that?”

He stroked the Cardassian’s cold cheek and offered his most winning smile, trusting that its brilliance would be visible to a Cardassian's keener eyes. “Why, don’t you appreciate me protecting your secrets?”

“To quote that dreadful piece of sentimental drivel you once made me read: I’m half sick of shadows, said/The Lady of Shalott.” His eyes gleamed up at Bashir in the darkness, catching the thin light of the moon that was shining ahead of them as the exit to the rift drew closer. “You’ve changed so much,” he said queerly, then closed his eyes and turned his face against his friend’s shoulder, his voice falling to a soft, almost drunken moan. “About me, I mean. What have I become? Oh, make it stop, my love — make it stop...”

The raw pain in his voice went straight to Bashir's heart. “I can’t. I’m sorry. All I can do is love you in return.”

Suddenly he started to sob. “It’s not enough!”

Alarmed, Bashir turned to face him fully and put both arms around him, cradling the shaking Cardassian and resting his chin atop the rough wool of Garak's hood as the shorter man buried his face in the curve of his neck. “It’s the drug, Garak,” he whispered, “it’s all right, it’s only the drug... I’m here, I’ll take care of you...”

“I know you will.” His voice was choked with the tears he didn’t seem to be shedding. He shrugged free of his cloak and wrapped his arms around the Human, holding him tightly, then uttered a shuddering laugh. “You are my salvation and my damnation at once, Doctor. Ballad Forty-Seven, Verse Three... there’s no end to the wisdom of Leroc, damn him to the nine Hebitian Hells!”

Bashir was silent for a second or two, recalling the reference through the wretched sound of Garak's sobs:

3 You are a flood that casts my resolve into ruin,
An unlooked-for song that shatters the silence of sacred duty.
How shall I cleave again to the core of my oaths? 
How shall their sanctioned comforts nourish me 
In the aftermath of your eyes?

He closed his eyes and felt the sting of hot tears. What have I done? he wondered in amazement, but the answer lay in a different poetic reference, the one Garak had first introduced into this conversation, so he answered in those terms:

"Listen to me, Garak. Don't talk, just listen." He hugged him briefly to drive the point home. "I appeared on the road beside your tower, and you chose to see me, didn't you? To really see me as a person, as something more than a pawn or an element in some larger game you were designing. It shattered the mirror and destroyed the web and forced you into a world that's new to you -- but I'm not Sir Launcelot, completely unaware of what I've done. I won't leave you alone, I promise you that. No matter what happens --" He infused his voice with determination, demanding to be heard. "No matter what happens, I will always be your friend. I'll..." For a moment the power of the emotion stilled the words in his throat. "I'll always love you, and I'll never abandon you."

"You have no idea what I've done," Garak said with bitter misery. "If you did --"

"Stop." It was an non-negotiable order. "I forgave you. I forgive you. It didn't matter to me then, and it doesn't matter to me now." He began to stroke the Cardassian's sleek hair through the hood, trying to ease his shivering. "We've talked long enough. I want you to get some sleep while your body flushes the r’hik’har out of your system. We'll pick this up again tomorrow, when you're in your right mind."

“You’re right. This is insanity.” The words were a hiss between tightly clenched teeth, but at least he didn’t seem to be shivering anymore. “You’ve driven me mad, Doctor. Are you proud of yourself? Oh, you should be... I, who have broken men’s minds with the mere force of my will, reduced to chasing my tail in circles over a pretty mammal!” His voice was beginning to weaken, sinking into the darkness around them as he nuzzled even closer. “A toasty little mammal with silky skin and enchanting eyes... how I wish I could believe you! I wish...”

Bashir experienced an almost overwhelming urge to make love to Garak right here and now, to reassure him in the most direct way possible that he’d meant every word he said. But having sex with a mentally and emotionally compromised person was an even more ethically dicey prospect than having this conversation, so instead he ran one hand slowly and soothingly across his friend’s shoulders. “You can believe me, Garak — I promise you that. I’ll swear any oath you care to name. The choice to stop being lovers when we get off this planet isn’t one I’d have made if your life wouldn't be put in danger by our continuing. But even if I’m not allowed to share your bed I’ll never stop caring about you.” He reached up to cup Garak's jaw in the curve of his hand and bent a little to whisper against his right cheekbone: “You know I love you, Elim. I know you do. Don’t push me away.”

“I have no choice,” Garak murmured against his shoulder, sounding so very weary. “Proximity is danger when it comes to man of my profession. If only...” A long pause, then an even softer whisper, full of bleak hope: “If only I dared to take you away. Someplace where the Order would never find us. But your life would be broken. Your career, your friends... you would never forgive me. Nothing would be gained.”

Bashir’s breath caught in his throat, his heart leaping, then soaring. He kept his voice steady. “Is that really what you want?”

“I want you.” No hesitation whatsoever. “But I also want you to be safe and happy, and those are mutually incompatible states.”

The effects of the r’hik’har were clearly wreaking havoc with Garak’s ability to reason, so Bashir pointed out the obvious: “If you ran away with me, you could never hope to return to Cardassia. You’d be a fugitive as well as an exile.”

After a moment Garak simply said: “I know. It’s only a dream, my dear. And dreams are meant to be broken.”


Chapter Text

Bashir was still absorbing that astounding statement when the moon reappeared from behind the shield of the cliff face, bathing the deck of the barge in cool silvery light. His amazed silence was filled with a savage blend of anguish and joy: His dedication to Cardassia isn't absolute! He would —

 The interrupting thought was far colder than the wind that flowed around them. He wants to. That's not the same thing at all.

Garak's arms still tightly enfolded him, but as the water lapped against the wooden hull behind and beneath them his grip began to loosen, his hot breath driving less urgently against Bashir's neck. To Bashir's relief the pained tension in his stocky body was steadily draining away. He continued to rub the Cardassian's back, closing his eyes and letting himself feel the sweetness and the bitterness of it: Garak wanted him enough to fantasize as he'd fantasized, to craft a dream of a life that was entirely theirs. He might never hear another word about it after tonight, but he would never forget that for a moment the truth had existed between them. 

The trouble was, it was a truth that planted the seed for even more difficulty and doubt. It set up the possibility that a day might come when they would look at each other on the station, the protocols of mere friendship safely re-established between them, and cast those protocols — along with common sense and self-preservation — to the winds of space. It was pure unrealized potential. It had the power to change everything.

Nothing with Garak was ever simple. Wearily, he wondered at the fact that he evidently hadn't yet learned that particular lesson.

"Tervek," Garak murmured after almost two minutes without speaking.

"Hm?" Bashir came back to himself with a little start, realizing that he'd been drifting toward sleep. He gave himself a mental shake and roused enough to start getting Garak's arms back under cover, a manipulation that the spy did not protest.

"I mentioned him earlier. Surely you remember?"

"The one you... took orders from?" 

"Among other things." He let Bashir tuck him up warm and tight, never even bothering to open his eyes. "Aren't you the least bit curious about him?"

"Not particularly."

"Oh, you should be. He was a fascinating man, with a fascinating tale attached." He chuckled in a deep throaty register, almost purring. 

Reaching past Garak's hip for the water skin, he retrieved it and set it in his own lap, where it wouldn't freeze while they sat talking. "Garak, I really don't think you should be —"

"Julian." His tone was solemn, his eyes glancing upward very bright. "I feel compelled to talk, and this is the safest story I can tell you. Just listen."

"Won't Tervek mind you giving away his secrets?" He wrapped his arms around Garak again, quietly but deeply satisfied with the way his friend snuggled close and nuzzled into the curve of his throat again without a nanosecond's hesitation.

"Tervek isn't here," Garak murmured, "and given the odds of our being killed before we can even reach the transmitter I'd say he has very little to worry about."

"Point taken."

"Now pay attention, there's a good boy, while I tell you that Tervek and I worked together on a number of missions during my early career.” Garak sighed with an air of happy nostalgia. “Anyone who succeeds in becoming an operative must be possessed of a rare combination of merits, but Tervek was also an artist in the more conventional sense, an actor of tremendous natural talent. I’ll never forget his performance ofT’ross Nok Chaldar — the man had a voice that could beguile a raging k’sarlit. When he walked into a room all eyes turned in his direction — even mine, I'm sorry to say. I knew he was trouble from the moment I saw him, but I was young and invincible and thought myself impervious to the charms of anyone, male or female." A thoughtful pause. "He was much like you in that respect, my dearest: his beauty was like a blade, so keen that it could strike to the heart without being felt for some time afterwards. Next to him I was a candle in the face of the sun, and I was wise enough to know it, and therefore I thought myself safe from his predatory impulses."

Bashir found himself holding his breath. This was the sort of tale he'd never hoped to get out of Garak in a million years, something both personal and intimate. But he had to protest: "Don't. You'll regret telling me all this in the —"

"I was going to tell you anyway, when the best opportunity presented itself. You're just hearing it a little ahead of schedule. Now, are you going to shut your pretty mouth and let me finish?"

Bashir's eyes narrowed in the dimness. "After an insult like that I should get back up on the o'wn and leave you here to freeze your arse to this deck."

"But you won't, will you?"

His resentment crumbled in less than a second. How could he blame Garak for anything he said under the circumstances? "No, of course not!"

A sly kiss was pressed to his throat. "Your charming compassion will be your undoing one day, but that's neither here nor there. I was talking about Tervek, whose first name I never knew, and how we worked as a team on several missions where the ability to lie theatrically was the key to success. And we were both exceptionally good at it, as I'm sure you can imagine, with him playing the charismatic star and me playing the business-minded associate, his manager or suchlike." His voice took on a gloating note. "We developed quite a line of patter, and we could slip into character at a moment's notice — as we had to, on more than one occasion. Oh, he was brilliant, a true master of spycraft and sabotage! Most of the time his victims were so mesmerized that they never knew what hit them."

Bashir started to speak, to ask And your victims too?, but he caught himself just in time. 

"Oh, my naive child," Garak said kindly, and he knew it hadn't been missed. "In my line of specialization, the target never sees me coming — ideally. On the occasion I'm going to tell you about, the target did — and so did his mistress, whom I offered the chance to slip away, only the foolish girl didn't take it. Instead she attacked me with a vase — a Chaldaran original, of all things! — and smashed it over my head, in the mistaken assumption that it would knock me out, I suppose. It didn't, of course — it only made me bleed, and less than two seconds later she was very dead."

"And you were still bleeding." He couldn't suppress the icy shiver that raced up his spine: to strongly suspect that Garak had killed in the past was one thing, but to hear it from his own lips, impelled to tell only the truth…

"At least I'd vaporized her, and the senator shortly thereafter — all very tidy, not that it would have mattered once the bombs Tervek had set went off and the mansion burned to the ground. We were well away by then, of course, on a shuttle back to Cardassia Prime. Tervek teased me about my injuries, which were really more annoying than incapacitating, but he was kind enough to apply a dermal regenerator to them and clean up the worst of the blood before he moved in for the kill — figuratively speaking, of course."

"He betrayed you?" Bashir knew he should have felt more deeply perturbed at the revelation of two murders committed in cold blood, and horrified by the knowledge that this man he'd lain with had doubtless extinguished many other lives besides. But this murderer was also the man he loved, and forgiving him his sins was as inevitable now as drawing breath: worse still, he could feel his adoration take root more deeply and truly, its radiance shining all the more brilliantly against the blood-drenched darkness beneath.

"Betrayed me?" Garak laughed low in his throat, a sound both sensual and bitter. "Oh no, he did far worse than that. He was already sitting close beside me, having just finished closing the cuts in my face, and when he was finished that task he looked at me for a long moment — I'll never forget his expression, and I'm a man not easily frightened, as you well know. Then he reached out, and scented my shoulder, and —"

“He what?” Bashir interrupted, his interest piqued even more by the previously unknown term.

“Ah." He raised his head enough to look at the Human with eyes that gleamed in the moonlight. "Something your Federation database doesn’t include, obviously.” He freed one hand from the confines of his cloak and held it up close to Bashir’s face so that he could see the palm, then laid it gently to the Human's cheek. “Cardassian males possess glands in the pads of the fingers and heels of the hands that are capable of releasing pheromones during sexual contact. We ‘scent’ our mates to discourage other males from using them — although as I’m sure you can imagine, some men find it more of a provocation than a deterrent.” He let his hand drop down to rest open against Bashir's chest, returning his head to its former position. “As I was saying, Tervek shamelessly scented me, and intoned in that magnificent voice of his: Nersa h’sar leross, l’ss’ar terak?

Bashir frowned again, and heard Garak smile. “It’s a reference to an ancient Hebitian dialogue on the nature of attachment and destruction. Loosely translated, it means Shall we resist the storm that rises within our hearts? The overtones are unmistakably sexual.”

After a moment Bashir nodded, signalling acceptance of something that had, after all, happened decades ago. “So you...”

“I did what anyone with a trace of sense would have done: I fell into bed with him without a moment’s hesitation.” Another sigh, this one full of wistful satisfaction. “And oh, it was worth it! As I’ve said, the man was an artist — his body was like a sculpture, his skin was like silk, his mouth was like wine, and he was even more dominant than I! He left me amazed and shaken and utterly his, at least until we got back home and our superiors sent us our separate ways.”

Jealousy would probably be an appropriate reaction, Bashir reflected, but all he felt was a rather clinical curiosity. “Was it because you’d had sex together?”

“Oh, no — they never knew about that.” Garak's tone suggested wondering exasperation. “I should think that two Obsidian Order agents are capable of keeping a secret!”

Bashir pondered the story he'd just been told, trying to imagine a much younger Garak, blindsided by passion and unable to disobey the orders that parted him from its source. He could have asked any number of questions about tragedy, or loss, or loneliness, or the kinds of commands Tervek had seen fit to give. Instead he said: “So whatever happened to him?”

“He disappeared during an assignment on Voress III two years later." Garak's voice was softer now, with what sounded like sleepiness creeping in around the edges. "I never heard anything of him again, but of course that means nothing. He might be operating in deep cover somewhere.” A final exhalation, warm and weary. “Wherever he is, I sincerely hope he’s not being forced to perform one of your Shakespearean plays. That would be a punishment far too cruel even for his many misdeeds. But I was going to tell you this story in the first place because you wanted to have sex with me face to face. Tervek insisted on doing the same, and ended up with wounds that I’m afraid he had to spin some rather elaborate tales about later.” He stroked Bashir's chest with gentle fingertips, the tenderness of the touch obvious even through his coat. “I didn’t want to risk marring your tender skin the same way, not after you'd been so generous with your favours.”

Remembering the savagery in Garak's eyes and the obviously conflicting impulses that had raged within him while he was being fucked, Bashir curved a sheltering hand around the back of his head and murmured: “I hope the urge wasn’t too overwhelming.”

“If it had been, we’d have spent the rest of the night patching you up.” He bestowed another kiss on the skin over Bashir's carotid artery, warm and soft and lacking in his usual precision. “Next time we’ll try it your way, n'sar'arah… I suspect you’ll be safe enough… as long as you don’t mind a few nips and bruises…."

“I’m bruised already. And bitten.” He pressed his lips to the rough woollen curve of the Cardassian's hood, trusting that he'd feel the caress intended for his sleek black hair. "And I'll gladly risk more of the same."

"Mm." A little bite. He turned his head slightly and let the full weight of it settle against Bashir's neck. "So beautiful… and so brave… or perhaps merely foolhardy, I haven't quite —"

"Wait a minute." The full implication of what Garak had just revealed about Cardassian mating practices suddenly made itself clear. “So you’ve been scenting me while we’ve been making love?”

Sleepiness turned sly. “What do you think I was doing the first time we met?”

Bashir, thinking back to the unexpected weight of the Cardassian’s hands on his shoulders, felt his eyes widen. “You didn’t!”

"Of course I did. There you were, so lovely and open and simply begging to be taken — how could I resist?“

In light of recent events it all made perfect sense. Still, Bashir couldn't keep a trace of exasperation out of his voice. "And of course you didn't see fit to mention this at the time."

“It was only a little joke, my darling, mostly at my own expense." His voice was blurring, fading back into the darkness. "I knew you were quite unattainable… Though I must admit, it was pleasantly thrilling to mark you — it had been so long since I’d last had an opportunity…” He shifted his head enough to nudge the tip of his nose under the line of Bashir's jaw, breathed in deeply, then murmured: “And the scent was still clinging to you when we met again later that evening, did you know that? No… but it made me want to pin you up against the nearest wall and start biting… ”

Bashir realized that his heart was beating faster, thinking of all that he'd missed in his ignorance and naivete. He wouldn't have been ready for it, wouldn't have had the first idea what to do with it, but — 

"I'm sorry." The words were paltry things in the face of the secret that Garak had kept for so long, but they were all he had to offer under the circumstances. "If I'd known, I —"

"You would have run." Barely more than a whisper now, as if sharing so many truths had drained him dry. "And…" A final sigh, full of regret. "You would still be wise to do so, my poor, bold, sweet little fool… as far and as fast as you could, and never look back…"

"You won't get rid of me as easily as you did Tervek." It was half in jest, half in malice — for there was indeed a trace of jealousy underneath, as he was just discovering. 

Garak didn't miss a beat. "He was a fellow operative, quite capable of taking care of himself — and besides, I never loved him. Had he died…" A long pause. "He is dead, almost certainly. And I feel nothing. But if you were to come to harm…" Cold steel unsheathed itself in his voice. "I would kill and kill, until those who'd hurt you had paid the full price for their malice. They would never…"

"Even if I didn't want you to?" He found that his mouth had gone dry, and had to lick his lips before continuing. "Even if I forbade it?"



Slightly deeper breathing, as the last trace of tension passed from the body resting in his embrace. 

"Elim," he whispered, and when Garak did not respond he closed his eyes in turn and rested his cheek atop the sleeping head of his lover, and wished that he could permit himself the luxury of weeping.


He stood at one of the tall windows on the second floor of the Promenade, gazing out toward the wormhole as it unfurled its ethereal glory against the eternal night like a banner of war. It was very late and the wide hallway was silent. He knew that a ship was waiting to take him through that gateway to a new life, but he was waiting for —


Bashir turned to see Garak standing at the railing, one hand resting upon it. He had approached without making a sound. His style of clothing was one that Bashir had never seen him wear before: no exuberant colors or patterns, no playful stitching. He was no longer advertising his skills as a tailor. Instead he was dressed in trim and simple black, from the high collar that shielded his neckridges to gleaming knee-high boots. It made him look like a dark soldier, and his demeanour was that of a sheathed and lethal blade. 

“Are you ready?” he asked with a reptilian tilt of his sleek head. His bright focussed gaze said: 
There’s still time to change your mind.

Looking at him, Bashir felt pride and love in equally fierce measure. 
Me, he thought: This remarkable man has chosen me over everything else.

He turned from the window. He crossed the silent floor. He put his hand to Garak’s cheek. For the first time he realized what he himself was wearing: not a Starfleet uniform, but the clothes of a civilian. His heart shattered and was mended in a single instant. 
And I’ve chosen him.

“I’m ready.” Looking deep into those brilliant eyes, he saw down to the unquenchable fire that lurked beneath the cold grey skin. It burned for him, but still he asked: “Are you?”

Garak allowed himself a slight smile, and replied: “
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough/A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, - and Thou/Beside me singing in the Wilderness -/Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!You see,” he concluded as Bashir’s eyes misted over, “I’ve been paying attention to your lectures on Terran literature after all.”

Bashir stepped into the embrace that would be his for the rest of his life and tasted the clever mouth that for once was telling the truth, and he knew not whether he shed tears of grief or tears of joy.