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Letters from the Northern Continent

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It just figured that the first time Julian Bashir set foot on Cardassia after the war, it would be halfway around the world from Elim Garak.

Julian pressed a hypospray into the neck of his most recent patient. Hopefully this batch of antiviral would counteract the latest disease that infected the groundwater. If Julian had really longed for "frontier medicine" once upon a time, he knew better now. The frontier, the place on the edge of forever, was just another way of saying not enough clean water, polluted air, and too many ill and dead.

"I'm so cold," his patient mumbled under the weight of medicated haziness. Julian tucked a heating blanket around him, thankful once again that he'd requisitioned an entire supply. Just because he stole to Cardassia like a thief in the night didn't mean he'd come unprepared.

His patient muttered something incomprehensible and slid into sleep, the heating blanket coaxing his color back to a healthy shade of grey.

"It's going to be okay," Julian said. Whether he was talking to himself, the Cardassian, or the ruined world in general was hard to say.

***

The communications relay was a sad mess, but at the moment, it was a sad mess that had been jury-rigged into actually working, so Julian was hardly going to complain.

"Three messages for you, nat'li," Kevna called. Julian would object to anyone else calling him the Kardasi equivalent of "son," but then, Kevna was old enough to be his great-grandfather. Besides which, he was a cantankerous force of nature, and Julian rather liked him.

Julian took the data rod from him, and tried very much not to act like a teenaged girl, despite the almost overwhelming desire to shut himself up in a quiet room and listen to the messages for an embarrassing amount of time. "Thank you. I'll make rounds tomorrow, shall I?"

Kevna inclined his head with a graceful, courtly nod that so reminded Julian of someone else. It was the least Julian could do -- Kevna was a capable doctor, but it was a fact that his hair had long since turned that peculiar Cardassian gunmetal grey, and that an old injury to his right knee made rounds in the rain an incredibly painful prospect. "Get some sleep," Kevna said. "If I find you red-eyed tomorrow morning, I'll be forced to draw several conclusions, all of which will no doubt prove embarrassing."

It was the little things, Julian decided, that made living in a disaster zone bearable. Little things apparently included ancient Cardassian doctors who probably already knew very well who was sending Julian messages.

Julian felt like he hadn't blushed in years before coming to Cardassia, but now he did it on a disturbingly regular basis. Kevna's mouth twitched into sly little smile, and he said, "Good night, nat'li."

"Good night," Julian said, and fled for his makeshift quarters.

***

When Julian had first arrived on the northern continent, he had sent off a quick message to Elim Garak, just to let him know that Julian had accompanied the most recent Federation convoy and had set up shop in an emergency medical facility just outside Mrenala. He hadn't really expected anything back -- after all, Garak was busy trying to put his homeworld back together, and they hadn't exactly parted under the best circumstances.

But several mornings later, there was a message for him -- a message, apparently, from the Cardassian State Archives. When he opened it, he saw Garak's familiar face, looking more than a bit exhausted. "Please forgive me for not answering earlier, dear doctor -- I spend little time at home these days, and did not see your message until much later. I confess to some surprise to hear that you are on Cardassia -- your name, I notice, was not on the convoy register."

Julian smiled, even though it was just a recording and Garak couldn't see him. Still, it was rare that he managed to surprise Garak, even after all this time.

"I am pleased to hear," Garak continued, "that more help has arrived for the northern continent. You have always had an excellent memory, so it is of little surprise to me that you would choose to focus your efforts there."

Julian did have a good memory, genetically enhanced and much better than average, but even without it, he thought he would remember a late evening, pleasantly warm and maybe a bit drunk, with Garak telling stories of his first trip to the northern continent. Garak spoke of spare, lovely architecture and terrible poverty in the same breath. There had never been any doubt in Julian's mind where he would go when he arrived on Cardassia.

"I do hope that you will keep me updated on the situation at Mrenala. I have few resources to spare at this juncture, but if you need something, I will do what I can to acquire it. Cardassia thanks you for your service, doctor...as do I." Garak inclined his head, and the message ended.

It was the first of many messages they had exchanged, and Julian found himself quite looking forward to the semi-regular correspondence. If he watched it over and over, as Kevna had accused him of doing, it was only because he wanted to be sure that he'd caught every nuance of the message.

***

Julian had taken an old administration office for his quarters. He had a cot, a monitor, and a desk that had seen better centuries. Kukalaka the bear had made the journey with him, and sat securely on the window sill. His three messages, as it turned out, were not all from Garak -- one was a lukewarm response from Federation Administration about his request for more supplies. He sighed, and vowed to send a more strongly-worded appeal tomorrow.

He settled back at his desk and played the first of the messages from Garak.

Garak still looked tired these days, but under it all, he looked -- not happy, not precisely, but in something like high spirits about his work, about being home and being able to do something. "I hope this message finds you well, doctor, especially after the band of storms that crossed the continent."

Julian grimaced a bit over a cup of tea -- the storms in question had knocked out their communications relay for a week, but thankfully, that was the only damage they had sustained.

"Doubtless, you will be as pleased as I to hear that the recent shipments of industrial replicators have made several water-treatment plants operational once again, including one near Mrenala."

"Thank god," Julian said to the screen. The food supplies and replicators available couldn't feed the continent indefinitely -- sooner or later, they were going to have to irrigate the fields.

"By the way, dear Doctor, it has occurred to me that if you intend to stay on Cardassia longer than three months, you're going to have to come up with a better excuse than 'personal leave' for Starfleet. Of course, people who run off to other worlds willy-nilly in the middle of the night probably don't have much time to make up suitable stories."

Busted, Julian thought. Evidently Garak thought so as well, or so Julian deduced from that slightly predatory smile.

"If you intend to stay -- and I hope you will, Dr. Kevna and the citizens of Mrenala speak highly of you -- do let me know, and I will create a position with an appropriately jargon-laden title so as to pacify your nominal employers. I do so enjoy your messages, and the fact that the entire northern continent has not universally succumbed to various intestinal viruses is to your credit."

"Thank you," Julian said wryly. "I think."

"I can only suppose the local population has become more enamored of you since you traded in your perfectly hideous uniform for a more sensible Cardassian ensemble. Really, my dear doctor -- even Cardassians take extra care in the summer months. I myself would have chosen just a shade off for your skin tone, but I suppose it can't be helped. If you visit the capital, and if I ever dig myself out of this constitution-writing business, I should like to see to that properly."

Julian snorted a bit. He had to agree with Garak -- his new clothing was lighter and breathed better, and he wasn't sure if he would ever survive a Cardassian summer without it. Still, it amused him that one of the most powerful men in the interim government still fussed over the details of his former profession.

"Despite it all," Garak said, staring intently into the screen, "It's quite becoming on you, my dear."

The screen went dark and Julian swallowed. He was definitely going to have to listen to this message a few more times before bed. But maybe he ought to listen to the other message first.

"Perhaps you are merely busy, but it's been several days since I've heard from you, and your messages are usually quite punctual. I do hope nothing is amiss. My reports from Mrenala indicated that the storms did some damage, but nothing too dire." Garak was sitting at the circulation desk at the State Archives that he had commandeered, its surface nearly buried by data padds. "Please reply to this message at your earliest convenience, so that I might be reassured of your continuing good health and wellbeing."

The second message had arrived two days ago, if the relay's time-stamping could be trusted. And if the tightness at the corners of Garak's mouth was any indication, he was really quite concerned over Julian's unintentional continued silence.

"Computer, record message," Julian said, rubbing his eyes a bit. "Hello Garak, I'm alive, although I suspect you've already independently verified that fact. Our relay got scrambled in the storms last week, so I didn't receive your messages until just now. Kevna and I paid the repair person in ration bars and kanar, so I'm only too glad to hear that actual food might be available to the population in the future, courtesy of the new water treatment plant."

He paused to collect his thoughts. In the first messages he sent to Garak, he'd aimed for a sort of perfected oral report -- but as weeks went on, he stopped thinking about how he must look and just talked about what was on his mind.

"The new antiviral seems to be doing the trick -- combined with the prospect of clean water in the future, I think we can forecast some stability in the region. The loss of life has been appalling, even on this continent -- but I see things on the street everyday that seem encouraging."

Julian stopped again. He really was exhausted, but he didn't want to let Garak's blatant flirtation go unanswered. If he really thought about it, they'd been teetering on this edge for too many years to count -- and he'd never really told Garak why he came to Cardassia.

"I hope you'll have fun making up an appropriate title -- I intend to stay on Cardassia for the foreseeable future." He took a deep breath, and smiled just a bit. "But I hope that we won't spend all of that time on separate continents. Someone has to look out for my fashion faux pas, after all, and I certainly don't trust anyone with my inseam but you. Good night."

He worried for a moment that he hadn't sounded seductive, that he'd merely sounded foolish and that there was no way that Garak had finally drawn a line in the sand and jumped over it. He played the first message again, and concluded that if Garak was going to look at him like that, like he wanted to lean over his desk and pull Julian out of his chair, a little return flirtation was definitely in order.

But it was late, and he had rounds to make tomorrow. He dragged himself over to his cot and was asleep almost immediately.

***

Rounds the next morning were indeed as damp as forecasted. Added to the oven-like heat of a Cardassian summer, it was nearly a steam bath by midday.

From his rounds through Mrenala, he knew there were few families intact -- almost everybody had lost someone. Resources in the community were scarce, and rationing would continue for some time. But despite that, Julian thought he could see the recent tide of fortune beginning to turn -- the plagues had been subdued, and the remaining viruses were foes that could be battled and beaten. The majority of the population had been spared any significant exposure to radiation, which was nothing short of a miracle. He saw children playing intricate games in crumbled courtyards, although there were fewer children than one could have hoped for. He saw neighborhoods banding together to rebuild structures to shelter themselves.

When he returned to the emergency facility, Kevna was finishing up some diagnostics on a young woman. "The baby is fine," he assured her, and added something else in Kardasi that Julian couldn't catch.

Julian dug out some supplements she'd need in the coming months, especially on the local diet. "One a day," he told her. "Come back for a check-up in a month."

A man waiting by the door -- her father, if he had to take a guess -- was beaming from ear to ear.

"Lost her husband," Kevna murmured afterwards, his voice tinged with pain. "Her remaining family will take care of her." Kevna had sustained his own losses -- he had buried children and grandchildren, and Julian wasn't sure he could do half the job Kevna did, were their positions reversed.

"Her father was happy," Julian offered after a moment, for lack of anything better to say.

Kevna smiled at that. "Cardassians love children, nat'li. They'll be even more precious now."

Julian wondered about that. The war had left too many orphans -- he wondered if Cardassia could afford to title children as "orphans" or "illegitimate" anymore. Another question, he supposed, to save for Garak.

***

"Greetings to the future Liason Officer and Medical Research Attaché to the Mrenala Emergency Facilities," Garak said in his next message, looking pleased with himself. "That should keep you in Starfleet's good graces for now -- bad form to recall a doctor from a disaster zone, I would imagine."

"I'm sure that's just what you told them, too," Julian said to recording on the screen, trying not to smile and failing.

"I simply can't imagine where you got the notion that I have you under surveillance, my dear. It's all we can do to feed the population at the moment. Still, I'll take the idea under advisement, since you brought it up." Garak punctuated the statement with a sly little smile that did something treacherous to Julian's insides.

Stalking is not attractive, Julian tried to tell himself.

"Lest I be accused of working Federation volunteers without respite, I wanted to invite you to the capital for a bit. I know you feel strongly about your work, but as you've reported that the situation at Mrenala is stabilizing, I think they could spare you for a short while. If it is convenient, you could catch the local air transport in two days' time." Garak cast a deprecating look at the piles of work on his desk. "I can't promise to be as good a host as I should like, but I would welcome the opportunity to converse...in person."

"Converse," Julian repeated to himself. He ran his fingers through his hair and squinted at Garak's image, trying to determine if that was innuendo, and if it was, how he felt about it.

"And for my aesthetics' sake, please do not pack any of those wretched uniforms. Cardassian clothes are suited to a Cardassian capital -- you'll see what I mean. Good night." Garak ended a message with another of those courtly nods.

Julian looked down at his clothes. He knew Garak found him a sartorial nightmare when left to his own devices, but he really failed to understand how flowing trousers and a low neckline were an improvement.

***

The air transport was crowded and uncomfortable, but Julian kept his attention focused on the data padd in front of him, and tried to block everything else out. Still, he was only too glad to finally land in the capital.

When he got off the transport, he realized that Garak hadn't actually told Julian how they would find each other once he arrived. While he looked about the transport station in confusion, he registered someone pushing past the crowd in front of him.

"Dr. Bashir?" someone called.

"Yes, that's me," Julian responded, trying to see around the person in front of him.

A man appeared by his side -- young by Cardassian standards, if Julian was any judge after three months on the planet.

"Oh, excellent -- Mr. Garak sent me to meet you, he said I would recognize you by--" the young man stopped for a moment, appearing a bit flustered.

Julian blinked. "It's very nice to meet you, Mr...?"

"Peldran, sir. Mr. Garak wanted to meet you here himself, but..." Peldran gave a slight, apologetic shrug of his shoulders.

"I understand perfectly," Julian said. "Shall we?"

Peldran scooped up his baggage and gave him a good-natured smile. "Right this way, Dr. Bashir."

"I can carry my own bags," Julian protested.

"We have quite a walk ahead of us, and you're -- well, you're so--"

--human, Julian knew he would have finished if he hadn't caught himself.

"I will carry my medical case," Julian said firmly, extracting it from Peldran's arms. "Thank you for the rest -- if you change your mind and want me to carry something else, please let me know."

Peldran looked a bit amazed. "You mean this?" He hefted Julian's tote as if it were nothing at all. Then he chuckled. "That was a joke, wasn't it? Mr. Garak said you're quite funny, in your way..."

"I can just imagine," Julian said dryly.

***

The walk through the capital was rather odd. The city had clearly been spared the total annihilation experienced by others, such as Lakarian City, but it still seemed to have incurred substantial damage. The city no longer burned, but he saw Federation volunteers and Cardassians assessing buildings and doing repairs. He and Peldran wove their way around people cleaning up rubble in the streets. He could see glimpses of the city as it had been -- laid out on a grid, with orderly boulevards and waterways.

"Here we are," Peldran said. They were on the steps of the Cardassian State Archives, which Julian suddenly realized must have been chosen as a site for the interim government by the simple expediency of being the only building still whole in the city's center.

Once inside, they climbed a large staircase to what appeared to be the main floor of the archives.

"Mr. Garak is this way," Peldran said, leading Julian around clusters of people. But he needn't have said so, because Julian could already see his familiar face looking thoughtfully at a computer console.

He didn't realize he'd stopped in his tracks until Peldran said his name. "Sorry," Julian said, giving himself a small shake before continuing forward.

"Hello," he said softly in Kardasi, stopping in front of Garak's desk.

Garak looked up, and Julian's throat tightened with something like anxiety and relief, all bundled together in one uncomfortable contradiction

And then Garak smiled at him, not one of his customer-pacifying smiles, or his gently-mocking smiles, or even one of his mysterious smiles that made Julian crazy. It was something altogether new, and Julian was seized with the urge to do something insane and totally human, like embracing the interim government minister right where he sat.

He restrained himself, but only because he'd spent three months among Cardassians. And so Julian inclined his head, just as he'd done for months, and said, "I'm still learning Kardasi. I apologize for my atrocious accent."

"Far from atrocious, my dear," Garak said, rising. "I daresay the northern lilt you've acquired is quite...charming." His eyes looked as warm as his smile, and Julian felt himself flush a little in response.

Rather than fidget like the greenhorn he'd been all those years ago when he'd first met Garak, he turned to glance at Peldran. "Thank you for sending Mr. Peldran here to collect me from the airport -- I might have gotten lost, otherwise."

"I apologize for not being able to meet you personally," Garak said, circling around his desk. "I've been rather busy, I'm afraid. You must be starving, spending your day on that transport. Shall we go to dinner?"

Pleased at the anchor of familiarity in a new world, so to speak, Julian embraced the suggestion eagerly. "I'd love to. Is there some place I could leave my baggage?"

Peldran, having watched the conversation with barely-disguised interest, finally snatched the medical kit from Julian's hand. "I'd be happy to take them on to your residence, Mr. Garak."

"Thank you, Peldran," Garak said, not taking his eyes off of Julian. "Shall we?"

"Let's," Julian said, and Garak hustled them both out the door and back down on to the street below.

***

Julian knew enough by now not to be overly surprised when Garak took Julian's hand and tucked it in the crook of his arm. He'd seen pairs of Cardassian men walking arm in arm among the streets of Mrenala, with the same sort of measured, stately stride as Garak now employed.

Still, just because he knew and accepted it as normal behavior didn't mean that he wasn't aware of the warmth of Garak beside him.

"You seem to be making progress here," Julian said finally.

"The wonders of interstellar aid and our own colony worlds," Garak said lightly. "It will never be what it used to be, of course." He was silent for a few paces, before bringing up a hand to cover Julian's on his arm. "It may be something better."

Julian managed not to flinch or do anything to give away the fact that he knew their body language had abruptly gone from intimate friends to courting couple, all with the placement of Garak's hand. He wondered, dizzingly, how much he had missed before, what he might not have seen out of cultural ignorance.

"Last I left you on DS9, you were in the arms of Starfleet and Ezri," Garak said, his tone still deceptively light. "I've been wondering what brought you to Cardassia."

"Perhaps DS9 wasn't enough of a frontier for me anymore," Julian offered just as casually.

"Perhaps," Garak said, although he plainly didn't believe it.

***

Dinner was comforting in its familiarity, but just different enough to keep Julian on his toes. The restaurant in question bore no resemblance to their old haunts on DS9; where the Replimat had been sterile and bland in atmosphere, this place virtually groaned under the weight of its history and secrets. The walls were a dark red and the lighting was low, but Julian could still see Garak's bright eyes fixed on him.

He ate hot tojal and zabu meat so tender it almost melted on his tongue. And though he thought his Cardassian table manners were passable enough, he couldn't figure out why he kept feeling eyes on him.

"Why is everyone staring?" he finally asked irritably. "Surely they've seen more than a few Terrans by now."

Garak dabbed at his mouth, not quite concealing a little smile. "I don't think that's it, my dear. It's true that your features are quite striking among a sea of Cardassians, but most would ordinarily not keep looking."

"Then why?" Julian demanded.

"All in good time," Garak said. "You really should eat that yan'aka while it's still hot."

Julian would have grumbled more, but the yan'aka really was good.

When they finally made their way out of the restaurant, night had fallen and the city was lit by sporadically operative streetlights. Julian felt pleasantly drunk from the sweet, syrupy kanar they'd had after the meal, and combined with the warm night air, he felt more relaxed then he had in quite some time. It seemed altogether natural to wrap his hand around Garak's elbow as they made their way down the steps on to the street.

Garak put that proprietary hand over Julian's again, and Julian fought to keep from saying something that would give the game away.

"It's lovely here," Julian said.

"The view is unfortunately improved when you can't see it, yes," Garak said, wry amusement coloring his voice.

Julian squeezed his hand around Garak's arm in reproach. "That's not what I meant."

Garak didn't respond to that, and instead guided them around some debris in the street. The rest of the walk to Garak's residence was spent in companionable silence, the sounds of the water flowing next to the boulevard filled the air, as did the slow clicking of their boot heels against the pavement.

"Here we are," Garak said, stopping in from of what looked like a townhouse. "It's just you and I," he said, opening the door.

"It's nice," Julian said, even though he could only see the entryway.

"It's mine," Garak said with a note of quiet pride. "I bought it when I was a young man, although of course I ended up leasing it for a good number of years."

"While you were exiled?" Julian said thoughtlessly.

"Well, then too," Garak said, not seeming to take any offense at Julian's casual mention of his disgrace. "But even before, there were years when I spent little time in the capital."

Julian realized his luggage was sitting at the bottom of a flight of stairs. "Looks like Peldran came by," he said.

"Oh, excellent. If you're tired, I'll show you up to the guest room," Garak offered.

"I think I am, a bit," Julian admitted, even as a yawn escaped him.

Garak smiled again, that new, intriguing smile, and led the way up the stairs. "My room is right across the hallway here," he said. "Do you need anything?"

"No, thank you," Julian said. Then he paused. "You were going to tell me why everyone's been staring at me." He peered at Garak's face in the dim hallway light.

"Ah, that," Garak said. "I have told you how much I enjoy your new apparel, haven't I?"

"Yes," Julian said impatiently.

Garak delicately traced one finger over the shoulder seam. "Eminently suited to a Cardassian summer, of course, and the color rather flatters you, as well. But I believe they were staring because of this." His fingertips hovered over Julian's collarbone.

Julian blinked. "What?"

"It may have escaped your notice, my dear, but a Cardassian male's clothing typically closes at the throat and displays the neckridges. The absence of neckridges means that this tunic drops quite a bit lower on you, and exposes your..."

"My collarbone?" Julian answered disbelievingly.

Garak seemed to be standing quite a bit closer. "It's quite daring for a man to reveal his in public."

"And you couldn't have told me this sooner?"

Garak's smile turned a bit predatory. "My dear, it's the equivalent of a plunging neckline on a woman. There isn't a Cardassian alive who doesn't appreciate a shapely theniaz, even one without scales."

"Oh my god," Julian said, a bit mortified. He'd been wearing tunics like that for weeks, now.

"Well, as I used to say in my former profession, if you have it, flaunt it," Garak said. They still weren't actually touching, but Garak had moved in close enough that Julian could feel the heat from his body.

"I didn't mean to -- did you think I was --" Julian trailed off as Garak bent forward, his lips close to Julian's ear and his breath warm against Julian's neck.

"Julian," Garak said softly, his tone more intimate than Julian had ever heard. He traced one fingertip along Julian's collarbone, and it made Julian shiver with the knowledge of how close they were to something completely different, made him want to press forward into Garak's arms and end this teasing dance. But he did none of these things, and Garak's lips brushed Julian's earlobe as he murmured, "Julian, why did you come to Cardassia?"

He could barely think straight. "I -- I came to help...with the --"

And Garak took a full step backward, abruptly shattering the moment. "And very commendable, too. Well, you must be tired, so I'll bid you a good night, doctor," he said lightly.

Julian stared at Garak's closed bedroom door and slumped against the hallway wall. His hand stole to the neckline of his shirt and he wondered, not for the first time in regard to Garak, what the hell was going on.

***

The next morning was such a whirlwind that Julian had no time to formulate questions for understanding Garak's recent behavior -- if anything, he only had more questions before the day was done.

In the morning, he had accompanied Garak back to the State Archives, so that Garak could finish up some pressing business. For lack of available seating, Julian hoisted himself up on to the circulation desk and read through some proposed medical legislation that Garak had asked him to take a look at. He was mostly successful in not swinging his feet as he read, although he occasionally felt the stilling pressure of Garak's hand on his knee.

One of Garak's aides came up with files from the archives, and looked disapprovingly at Julian. "Sir," he said, his nose wrinkling a bit, "could I interest you in a chair?"

Garak didn't even look up. "That won't be necessary. I happen to like Doctor Bashir's posterior right where it is."

Julian tried not to grin, and the aide left in a huff. "Not worried about the dignity of your office?" he asked.

"It's an improvement on the décor," Garak said blandly, although his eyes did linger on the anatomy in question.

And despite the distracting banter, Julian could see how at home Garak was here. The mystery and the maddening contradictions that colored his perceptions of Garak in the past had become muted -- whether that was because Garak was hiding under one less façade or because Julian had learned to interpret better was anyone's guess. The people on the main floor of the archives moved in strange, sinuous patterns, but they all converged on Garak at one point or another.

Garak, Julian slowly realized, put out diplomatic fires with the same equanimity as he had once used with customers who really, desperately wanted something that was entirely the wrong color for them. It was actually rather entrancing to watch Garak direct, suggest, maneuver, and otherwise politely strong-arm all manner of people into doing what he needed them to do.

Garak was not afraid to ask people to do things for Cardassia. He was his people's strongest advocate, someone who understood the ways of the Federation and had bought, borrowed, and begged all the help he could get to save his people and his world. But in the aftermath of the war, when medicine was scarce and doctors more so, he had never called on Julian.

Julian came anyway.

***

"My patients might complain," Julian said. "They've been ogling my collarbone for weeks now."

Garak looked at the outfit critically. "My dear, there are times when you have to ask yourself what kind of image you want to present," he said, giving the shoulders a bit of a tug before circling around.

"What happened to flaunting it?" Julian asked, apparently incapable of keeping his mouth shut.

Garak gave him a look in the mirror that Julian would not have understood half a year ago. The slight darkening of the scales near the end of the nose and the narrowed eyes might not have registered on his radar before, but Julian had seen the look on too many husbands when Julian treated their wives not to know it for what it was.

That Garak should feel that kind of protectiveness for him was a strange eye-opener, like another decoded clue to the nebulous thing between them.

"I like the green one," Julian offered in an attempt to break the tension.

Garak rolled his eyes. "I once read of a medical condition in humans. Perhaps you're familiar with it -- it's called colorblindness."

"Hilarious."

"This, on the other hand -- just look in the mirror."

Julian did, and Garak skimmed his hands down Julian's sides and rested on his waist. "Look at what it does to your eyes," Garak said softly.

Their gazes met in the reflection and Julian swallowed, feeling the not-quite-so professional touch of Garak's hands slide down to his hips.

"I -- I like it," Julian said, his throat feeling dry.

"I see," Garak said, an ambiguous smile curving his lips before he turned away.

***

Garak couldn't see him off to the air transport -- he was needed back at the Archives, but he packed Julian off with a new wardrobe and Peldran to carry everything.

"I do hope you won't be stingy with your correspondence," Garak said as they stood in the foyer of his house.

"I'll do my best," Julian said. The lack of physical distance between them made him hesitate -- would it be unfriendly to offer a nod? Considering the fact that Garak had backed him up against a wall last night, he felt a bit unsure.

But Garak solved the dilemma for him by cupping Julian's face in his hands and gently touching their foreheads together. Julian could feel the warm press of ridges against his own skin, and was unable to look away from the intense expression in Garak's startlingly blue eyes.

"Take care of yourself," Julian whispered, loathing the fact that Peldran was not a few feet away, pretending not to listen as they did their leave-taking.

Garak brushed one thumb over Julian's cheek before he pulled away. "You as well," he said.

They parted on the street in front of Garak's house, and Julian headed back for the northern continent.

***

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who one asked), years of exposure to Garak had instilled a certain sense of paranoia in Julian. He spent the early years of their association being more or less constantly broadsided by the fact that Garak was always more devious than Julian imagined. As the years passed, he became more generally suspicious, although it seemed he always jumped to the wrong conclusion.

He felt unsettled, anxiety dogging his footsteps around Mrenala. His visit to the main continent only seemed to have muddied the water -- sometimes he was almost sure that things had definitely changed between himself and Garak. But the next moment, his mind was reexamining conversations and body language and dismissing it all as wishful thinking. Frankly, the emotional see-saw was a little nauseating.

He attended to his work and made his rounds, but he couldn't help but wonder how much of what he understood was only in his head. The rational side of himself said that Garak had nothing to gain from an elaborate charade, not when he was returned to Cardassia and a life of influence instead of exile. A smaller part of him insisted that if he were misinterpreting, Garak would notice and set him straight with that calm civility.

He trusted Garak in general, but the specifics always worried him.

***

"I think it's broken," Kevna said.

"It's not broken," Julian insisted. "It's just a little--"

The power surge knocked him back a few feet.

"Broken," Kevna said.

Julian shook himself a bit, trying to clear his head. "All right, it's broken," he admitted.

"Well, cheer up, nat'li -- a cooling unit isn't strictly necessary," Kevna said in a remarkable display of fortitude.

"Says you," Julian grumbled, although mostly for show. "I, for one, can't imagine how anyone drinks varanthi syrup warm."

"It is a bit of an acquired taste," Kevna allowed. The look of repressed good humor in his eyes reminded Julian so much of Garak that he felt a small pang of longing.

Julian realized he'd been silent for a moment too long, breaking the pattern of their banter. He cleared his throat. "Well, perhaps I'll have to make an effort to acquire it," he said, forcing a smile. "It's late -- hadn't you better be getting home? Your wife will worry."

Kevna narrowed his eyes. "Dr. Bashir, are you trying to hustle me out the door early?"

"Of course not," he said innocently.

"I've raised children and grandchildren, and I can assure you that you're not fooling me. You want me out the door so you can moon over that message on the relay."

Julian flushed a little.

Kevna's expression gentled. "You didn't have a very long visit to the main continent. You could put in for a transfer, nat'li -- I would never think less of you. You're wasted here, now."

Julian bit his lip. "I -- I don't know if he --"

Kevna gave out a short, dry laugh. "Trust me, nat'li, I know when a Cardassian man is serious. If the frequency of his messages is any indication, he's been pressing his suit as strongly as the distance between the two continents would allow."

Julian looked out the window. "He wants to know why I came here."

"Why did you come here?"

"I didn't know myself, at first," Julian admitted.

***

He wished he had some tidy answer, something that made sense. Something that sounded like he had some degree of foresight, and not like he had figured out as he went along.

It sounded mad. To wake up with the utter certainty that he could not go back to his old life as a station's resident physician of a simple infirmary after a dreadful war, to realize that the woman he had loved was dead and another wore her name, to read a sentence in a novel given as a farewell gift and know that his place was on a ravaged planet light-years away -- it was some form of insanity, he was certain.

And months later, as he grew to suspect that an old complicated friendship had contained more nuance that he'd ever dreamed -- how could he possibly explain it?

"Computer, record message," Julian said, and took a deep, steadying breath. "Hello, Garak. I've been thinking how much I've missed our lunchtime discussions about literature. We haven't had them for years now, but I find there's a novel in particular that I want to talk about."

There was no need to be nervous, he told himself. Slow and easy, lay it out.

"You gave me one last novel before you left. Letters from the Northern Continent. I read it shortly after your departure, and I -- I did genuinely want to help here. I wanted to go someplace to put my skills to good use. And I want you to know that I count my time here as one of the most professionally satisfying experiences of my life."

He licked his lips as he paused, but then continued onward.

"But until I came here and lived among Cardassians, so many things never would have occurred to me. I never would have guessed, for example, that Letters from the Northern Continent was a romance, because the events in the novel bore such resemblance to our time together." He smiled a little ruefully at the screen. "I never understood anything."

He hesitated for a moment. "You wanted to know why I came to Cardassia, but that's not the same as the reason I stayed."

He stared straight at the computer screen, as though he could see Garak right in front of him.

"Elim, I stayed for you."

***

"Another message for you, nat'li," Kevna said, squinting a bit at the display. "It's marked priority."

Julian's eyebrows rose a bit, and he felt a certain sense of both curiosity and trepidation. There were no patients at the moment, so he went to a side monitor. "Computer, play message."

Garak's face came on screen, and he looked furious. Gloriously angry, in fact, in that primly outraged manner that only Garak was ever able to pull off. "Julian Bashir, I have waited seven years for you, and you have the impudence to do this with an ocean between us. If you're not on the transport tonight, I will be forced to come extract you from that continent myself, and I really do not have that kind of time to spare." The message ended abruptly, and Julian rocked back on his heels in amazement.

"Seven years?" Kevna said incredulously, obviously having overheard. "What in heaven's name were you doing all that time?"

Julian flushed. "We...had lunch frequently. We had discussions about literature."

Kevna stared at him. "And he never put his hands on your shoulders?"

He squirmed a bit. "No, he did that."

"He never brought you gifts?"

"He did that, too."

"He never argued with you or begged your forgiveness?"

"He did all of that," Julian said, feeling his ears burn.

Kevna shook his head. "Nat'li, what were you waiting for?"

"I really had no idea. I thought we were just friends," Julian said, wincing at his past ignorance.

"Well, you'd best pack your things," Kevna said. "Whatever you can't take with you, I'll have shipped."

"I don't know that I'll be staying there permanently--"

"Nat'li, if you come back for anything other than a visit or consultation, I will kick you back to the capital myself," Kevna said firmly, and then said something in a derogatory mutter that sounded suspiciously like, "Seven years."

***

It was late evening when he knocked on Garak's door, but he didn't even get a chance to say hello before Garak pulled him inside.

Garak looked intently in his eyes for all of five seconds before he shoved Julian against the closed door and kissed him.

Julian never even heard his bags drop to the floor from his hands. Garak gasped into his mouth when Julian put his hands on Garak's neckridges, and clutched Julian closer.

When they broke for air, Julian said, "Garak -- Elim, I --"

Garak interrupted him with another kiss. "Julian, my dear, please don't take this the wrong way, but I really am sick to death of just talking with you."

"Well, when you put it that way," Julian said, not so much meekly acquiescent as eager.

They made it up the stairs before Garak stripped off Julian's tunic, letting it flutter to the floor in a puddle of fabric before kissing along his collarbone. There didn't seem to be enough air in the room when Garak pushed him firmly against the wall, one thigh riding between Julian's legs as his teeth gently caught the lobe of Julian's ear.

Julian, for his part, was trying to touch everywhere he could, pulling fruitlessly at Garak's ensemble before stroking the scales of his neck. Gently, gently, Julian tried to remember, but when Garak sucked at the skin on Julian's neck, he inhaled sharply and accidentally pressed down hard with his fingertips.

Garak's heartfelt groan sounded like the accident had been a fortuitous one. "Should I..." Julian asked, sliding his hands up to touch the delicate scales behind Garak's ears.

Garak actually shivered under his fingertips. "Please," he said, his voice a little raspy.

Julian kissed the scales under one ear gently, stroking them with this tongue, but when he grazed them with his teeth, Garak ground his hips against him. "Good?" Julian whispered in his ear, feeling Garak's erection against his hip.

"What did I say about talking?" Garak asked in mock reprimand.

Julian ignored that. "I want to see yours," he complained, pulling at Garak's clothes again.

"Anything you want," Garak said, busy undoing Julian's trousers.

"Your theniaz," Julian whispered, pressing fingertips against Garak's cloth-covered collarbone.

Garak shivered again. "As if I'd say no," he said, and pulled Julian into the next room.

Garak had managed to pull off his own clothing while backing Julian up toward the bed. Julian managed to shimmy out of the rest of his clothes, and Garak gave him a long, appreciative look before pushing him down on the firm, decidedly traditional Cardassian bed.

Julian had barely touched Garak's collarbone when the expression on Garak's face caught him. He knew, suddenly, what longing looked like on Garak, even if he hadn't realized it before.

"I don't want to wait anymore," Garak said softly.

"So don't," Julian said, equally serious.

He should have known that Garak would know what to do -- the finger that slid into him was slick, and Garak watched Julian's face raptly as he added another finger and thrust them slowly in and out.

Julian relaxed the muscles in question. "Don't wait," he said, although it was closer to pleading.

Garak finally pushed in, hiking Julian's legs around his waist. If Julian had secretly wanted for years to see Garak less cool and collected than he always seemed to be, he couldn't have hoped for better than this -- mouth slightly open, hair in disarray, looking like he couldn't decide between either savoring the slow slide into Julian's body or fucking him into the mattress.

Julian solved the dilemma for him by grasping Garak's buttocks in his hands and pulling, hard.

There wasn't time for thinking after that, particularly when Julian realized that the soft, supple scales that wove across Garak's lower torso provided delicious friction against his own cock. He knew he was making all manner of noise but he couldn't seem to stop, and Garak didn't seem to mind. Garak gasped out fragments in Kardasi, and Julian tried to understand, tried to listen, but Garak was snapping his hips forward at just the right angle, and anything Julian wanted to say was lost when he stiffened as he came messily between them.

Garak's thrusts slowed but didn't stop, and when he came, Julian thought he could hear that deep, resonant groan down to his very bones.

Minutes later, he heard Garak say, "Julian, are you going to sleep?" He sounded strangely alert.

"No," Julian mumbled, but sleep claimed him a moment later.

***

When he woke up, he realized to his chagrin that it was already morning.

"I don't know how we're ever going to have decent pillow talk if you always drop off like that," Garak said softly, sounding amused rather than critical. He was sitting up in bed, a reader in his hand.

"I don't always," Julian said. "We could just say that I was overwhelmed last night."

Garak's lips curved into a small, intimate smile. "Such a sweet talker," he said, although he looked a bit smugly pleased.

Julian moved close. "What are you reading?"

"Ah, an old favorite. I gave it to someone as a last ditch effort in a seven-year pursuit."

Julian smiled wryly. "Let me guess: Letters from the Northern Continent?"

"The very same. Although, I want you to know that I didn't think it would actually work."

"It didn't, at first," Julian said, running a lazy finger over Garak's arm. "I didn't know what it meant until later. And you know, it wouldn't have been seven years if you'd just said something."

Garak looked at him seriously. "Not for what I wanted. Do you think we would be here if I had simply declared my interest and took you to bed, as others did?"

Julian thought about it. "No," he admitted.

"Not that I wasn't tempted," Garak said, "but I do find our present situation to be much more desirable."

"Why didn't you ever ask me to come to Cardassia?" Julian said after a moment.

Garak smiled again, that new, secret smile that was just for him. "Because I would have had to ask you another question, as well."

"Which is?" Julian said, looking at him in confusion.

"Stay," Garak said, not a command but a heartfelt request.

Julian smiled, not even needing to think about his reply. "You know I will," he said, and pulled Garak down for another kiss.