Eleven weeks might have seemed, to a dispassionate observer, like a great deal of time. To Julian it felt like a whirlwind of sand flowing inexorably through an hourglass, every second packed with something to do in regard to his grand (and quite possibly doomed) project of seducing Deep Space Nine's resident Cardassian spy
For one thing, he was studying every word Iroja of Prim had written concerning Cardassian customs, committing them to memory and going over them in every spare moment, lying awake in bed and turning them over and over in his mind when he should have been sleeping. For another, he was relentlessly picking Dax's memory for all relevant data on past and present Cardassian culture, meeting with her nearly every evening to hold long involved discussions which sifted through his own insecurities as much as through the information Jadzia could provide. He had Miles scouring the station's database to recreate any references to the winter solstice festival or to marriage customs, and he was personally conducting a sociological study in which he interviewed people who'd been on Terok Nor during the Occupation, asking general questions about Cardassian social behaviour and including a subset of questions about mating rituals.
Garak had naturally been the first person he'd approached for the study, a week after the lunch in which he'd suggested that he was pining for an absent Nemidian crew woman, and the tailor had declared himself pleased to take part — then proceeded to relentlessly evade the interview itself by one pretext or another. Julian had expected as much and consequently was no more than mildly and affectionately annoyed, choosing instead to concentrate on Constable Odo, his Bajoran deputies, some of Quark's Dabo girls, and of course Quark himself, who had made a lot of latinum by catering to Cardassian tastes for almost ten years. As he'd expected the Dabo girls — or at least those willing to discuss their interactions with male officers outside the confines of the Dabo tables — provided some fascinating data on the way those males had treated them, which corroborated Jadzia's earlier statement that Cardassian men had established social protocols in place for sex-only interactions that involved no long term emotional commitment. None of them, however, had been able to tell him much about male behaviour in which long term commitment was being sought, although a couple of them recalled one Dabo girl, long since departed the station, who had been courted by a handsome Gil who'd seemed genuinely fascinated by her and who had taken her with him when he'd been transferred out; alas, their courtship had taken place mostly in his quarters and nobody seemed to know much about the details.
Julian saved Quark's interview for last, anticipating that the barkeep would be an encyclopedia of Cardassian social knowledge whose responses would put the rest of the data he'd gathered into a wider context. And he was right, although Quark's remarks when they reached Question Twenty-Seven were a little disquieting, to say the least. It started when Julian was marking the response to Question Twenty-Six as complete and scrolling through to the next page on his PADD, carefully concealing his keen interest in the next set of responses. He was seated at the bar, facing Quark across it, at 0212 — Quark himself had suggested that they conduct the survey after his business had closed for the night, when they wouldn't be interrupted.
The Ferengi had been pleasant enough throughout the process, providing prompt and thorough answers, and now he put his elbow on the bar to lean a little closer and remark in the tone of one imparting a confidence: "There's something about Cardassians, isn't there?"
"Hm?" Glancing up, he saw that his subject's smile had widened to reveal even more small pointed teeth.
"All those scales… it makes you wonder where they lead, and what kind of patterns they make when they get there." He glanced round as if they weren't already alone, then leaned even closer, his voice falling to a conspiratorial murmur. "You know, if you rub the skin in between those two ridges running down from their ears…" A lecherous grin. "Well, let's just say that it puts them in a very good mood!"
"You're skipping ahead to Question Thirty-Two," Julian said crisply. "Let's take them in order, shall we? On a scale of one to ten, how important would you say —?"
"Come on, Doctor, you can tell me!" Quark wheedled, still grinning. "I had a long and, might I say, very successful affair with Professor Lang. I'd be happy to share some tips with you…"
Julian had to raise an eyebrow at that. "… for a suitable price?"
"Well, I wouldn't say no to a stipend —" He held up his other hand disarmingly. "in the interest of science, of course!"
"Of course." He answered with a smile of his own, amused and dismissive. "Sorry, Quark, but I'm not interested."
"Sure you're not," Quark purred with just a touch of goading sharpness. "That's why you've been having the Chief search for information about Cardassian marriage customs, and that's why you're conducting this 'study'. Completely uninterested. If you were any less interested, you'd have a bracelet around his wrist by now."
Julian's heart, which had just been congratulating him on his cool demeanour, leaped like a startled deer and sank like a stone. "Excuse me?"
"Just remember — when you're ready to shop for one, or better yet two, I can set you up with a reputable dealer… in exchange for a small consideration." Even closer, gazing directly into Julian's eyes with a conspiratorial air combined with wide-eyed earnestness. "And I can make sure that Garak doesn't know a thing about it."
"I'm sure you can." A fraction of a second later he realized his tactical blunder in using a definitive verb rather than a potential one: can instead of could. "But that's neither here nor there. Can we get back to the survey, please?"
Quark leaned back and opened his hands with a friendly smile. "I'm all yours, Doctor. Ask away!"
And Julian did. But neither of them, he suspected, was fooled for another second concerning the real subject of their conversation.
"But if he knows," Julian fussed to Jadzia and Miles in Jadzia's quarters two nights later, after he'd had time to let the prospect stew for a while, "who knows who else he's told? My God, half the station could know by now! And sooner or later, someone's going to say something that will get back to Garak!"
"Don't worry so much, Julian," Jadzia advised, pouring him another tiny glass of Risan dara-fruit cordial. "I don't think it's in Quark's best interests to let the cat out of the bag just yet. If he did, he'd lose the opportunity to sell you a set of aroja bracelets at a vastly inflated price."
"But you know him," Julian protested, not comforted in the least. "He'll start a betting pool based on who's going to fall off their barstool first on a Tertal night! What's to stop him from making even more money by setting one up for — oh God, I can't even say it. It's too awful to contemplate!"
Miles, who'd been drinking in silence while he watched his best friend spin further and further into panic, piped up for practically the first time all evening: "We could bribe him to not set up a betting pool in the first place. And point out the part about making more money off the bracelets and the betrothal party than he would from setting you up for a fall."
Julian turned a frown in his direction, but there was a glimmer of hope there too. "Really?" Another frown at Jadzia. "You think he'd go for that?"
Jadzia shrugged. "It can't hurt to ask."
"Of course it can hurt to ask!" Julian snapped. "It would let him know what's up beyond a shadow of a doubt! And with that kind of information he could decide to do just about anything!"
Miles shared an amused glance with Jadzia. "He's kind of cute when he gets paranoid, isn't he?"
Julian set his glass on the table in front of the couch he and Jadzia were sitting on and put his elbows on his knees, then his head in his hands. "He could tell Odo. He could tell Kira. And if the Bajorans get wind of this —"
"Julian." Jadzia's firm voice made him pause, although he was too miserable to look up. "When it comes to Odo, Quark wouldn't yell Fire! if his pants spontaneously combusted."
"Wonderful. Which only leaves Kira, who'd raise a stink that would make —"
But Jadzia was already talking to Miles: "How much money could you put toward a bribe?"
Miles got the expression that indicated mental calculations in progress. "Five, maybe six strips of latinum."
"And I've made at least ten times that much from Quark playing tongo. I'm sure he'd be happy to get some of it back again. Julian, how about you?"
Julian glumly picked up his glass again and took a sour sip of the cloyingly sweet contents. "Eight strips. Unlike you, I don't play card shark on a regular basis."
Jadzia nodded, rising from her seat and heading for the science console on the other side of the room. "I'll get in touch with Quark and make the offer right now. Will that put your mind at ease?"
He rubbed his face with his free hand and grimaced. "I won't rest easy until I get a bracelet on Garak's wrist — and maybe not even then."
Miles was shaking his head slowly and mournfully. "What's that old saying: The course of true love never does run smooth?"
"Please," Julian groaned, "don't tell me I'll look back on this ten years from now and laugh."
Miles leaned over in his armchair and clapped Julian companionably on the knee. "That's another saying: Time heals all wounds. Drink up, boyo. A couple more glasses will make things a lot rosier, I guarantee it. Tell you what — how's about I teach you an old Irish folksong from the early twenty-first century? It'll strike the right note, 'cause it goes something like this…"
One glass of cordial later Jadzia had negotiated Quark into accepting the bribe. Two glasses later Miles had both Julian and Jadzia singing along lustily with his offering of music, which Julian heartily approved. And three glasses later Miles was supporting Julian on the way back to Julian's quarters, both of them giggling and humming the tune, catchy enough that Julian was still murmuring it under his breath after the Chief had dumped him on his bed and left him to sleep things off:
And I ask you, friend, what's a fella to do
If her hair was black and her eyes were blue?
See, I've travelled around, I've been all over the world,
And I've never seen nothin' like a Galway girl…
[TO BE CONTINUED]