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Opacity of Paradise

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Julian knows, as the runabout speeds them away from hell, that everything has changed.

With access to the emergency medical supplies onboard, Julian patches Worf up relatively quickly, while Garak and Martok sit up front, monitoring their course back to Deep Space Nine.

Worf would have been killed if they'd been there a second longer, Julian reflects. Worf needs more than Julian can give him at the moment -- he needs his infirmary and about two hours to fix everything wrong, but this will have to do for the moment.

Worf stands up impatiently when Julian is through -- it's plain that, although he knows they owe Garak their lives, he'd rather Garak weren't piloting a Federation ship if there were any alternatives.

"I will take things from here," Worf says, managing not even to look at Garak as he says it.

But if Garak is offended, he doesn't show it. "Of course," he says with a great deal more grace than Julian would have expected from someone who has just spent days wrestling terrible claustrophobic attacks, as well as watching his own father die, Tain denying him almost to the last breath.

"Doctor," Garak says. It's evident from his tone that it's not the first time he's tried to get Julian's attention.

"Yes, what is it?" Julian asks mechanically.

"I think you should get some rest," Garak says. There's some weight to his words, but Julian is too tired, too muted to begin to guess what he means. But that exhaustion doesn't stifle a beat of panic -- he doesn't want to go to the rear compartment alone. The internment camp guards put him in isolation twice, and he thinks he'll go mad if he's alone again.

"We could both use some rest," Garak says gently, and Julian is pathetically grateful for Garak's customary perceptiveness. He allows Garak to pull him up on his feet and carefully shepherd him to the rear compartment, Garak's hand warm on the small of his back.

Julian knows he should be happy that he's out of purgatory's shadow. He should be just a bit proud that Garak let him know the biggest secret of all, let him stay while Tain uttered his last words.

Before he even realizes what's happening, Garak is returning from the replicator with clothes in his arms and leading him to the small washroom. He only protests a little when Garak begins to strip him, but a little nudity in exchange for being clean sounds like more than a fair trade, and he subsides as Garak pushes him into the shower. At least until a still-clothed Garak steps in with him, and he rouses himself enough to say, "Garak, what are you--"

"You didn't sleep."

Julian blinks through the water running down his face in rivulets. "What?"

"You took care of Martok, you took care of Worf, you took care of…Tain. My father," Garak whispers, under the hiss of the shower. "Let me do this for you."

Julian supposes they're fortunate in that the shower cubicle is made of clear plastiglass, so that Garak doesn't feel shut in. He submits to Garak scrubbing his hair clean, his own hands busy trying to clean the rest of his body where he can. Their allotment of water on a runabout isn't very much, but it's enough to clear some of the ache of hopeless misery from him.

When Garak draws him out of the shower and begins to rub him down with a towel, brisk and businesslike, the strange absurdity of the situation finally penetrates the exhausted haze surrounding his brain. Because here he is, finally naked with Garak, and the man is toweling his hair dry with an air of concentration that he usually reserves for designing clothing or rewriting security codes.

Not what he'd imagined at all.

Garak wraps him in a robe of something soft before stripping off his own water-logged clothes and donning an identical robe, and leads them back out to the sleeping compartment.

Julian sits down on a bunk, although it's less like an act of will and more like the force of artificial gravity. "I don't know if I can sleep."

Garak sits down beside him. "You can."

"Do you know, I dreamt every night in that awful place that it was only a dream, that I wasn't really there. I think I'm afraid that if I go to sleep, I'll be there again," Julian confesses, almost below a whisper.

Garak doesn't look like he thinks that's a ridiculous fear, or an unimportant one. And instead of saying anything, he leans forward and softly, deliberately kisses the underside of Julian's jawline, near his ear.

It's a weird place for a first kiss, Julian thinks. Even if Garak had been wanting to give a gesture of affection more platonic than passionate, the underside of his jaw would not have been his first guess. The forehead, perhaps, or the maybe the cheek, but under his jaw? Or maybe Cardassians had vastly different ideas of what could be considered a platonic touch.

Either way, he is sufficiently distracted that Garak is able to maneuver him to lie down on the bunk next to the wall, and Garak stretches out beside him, their knees and elbows touching. Much later, he'd decide that had been the point of that strange kiss -- to let his mind chase after a problem more benign than all the others before him.

"Sleep," Garak says. "I can't sleep until you do."

And still wondering about that odd kiss, Julian drops off between one moment and the next with no difficulty whatsoever.

***

Even when they return to DS9, nothing seems real. After he treats Worf, he's debriefed by Sisko, who seems to have aged ten years in a single month.

"And Garak successfully reconfigured the coordinates to contact the runabout?" Sisko asks, a gentle prod to get Julian to move the story along.

"Yes," Julian replies, fighting to keep his mind from wandering. "We were beamed out just in time, and went to maximum warp to send you the message." He says nothing at all of Garak's acute claustrophobia -- he's fairly confident that Worf and Martok respect Garak's courage in the face of debilitating fear, and won't say anything either. He'll keep this secret for Garak -- Julian doesn't have many secrets, but those few he has, he guards fiercely.

There is part of him that worries that Tain knew his big secret -- that Tain had known, and had told Garak. But no, there was no reason Tain would have known, head of Obsidian Order or not --

"Doctor," Sisko says, and he looks a bit troubled. "I want to order you to take a week of mandatory leave, but I need you to make sure everything in the infirmary is as it should be. When you've finished, I mean it -- I want you to rest. Counseling if you need it. Understood?"

"Yes, sir," Julian says, with no trace of the defiant sarcasm that has been his constant, unwise companion for the past month.

Sisko looks concerned, but he must have bigger things to attend to in the wake of the Dominion's recent plot. "Dismissed."

Julian makes a beeline for the infirmary, because it disturbs him to think of the changeling in his domain, wearing his face and doing his duty -- or not, as the case might have been -- but he'd rather get it over with.

He's checking medical records, and is horrified to learn that the changeling actually performed brain surgery on Sisko in his absence. He isn't sure what disturbs him more -- that a changeling was poking around inside his commanding officer's skull, or that it actually did a passable job. It reminds him of something long ago, when he was too young to know what had been done to him, looking at himself as if from afar, doing things he never would have dreamt possible before.

He looks up, and sees O'Brien in the doorway. "What can I do for you?" he asks, privately hoping that the answer will be "nothing" and he can finish up and go home.

"How long have you been gone?" O'Brien asks bluntly. He looks nearly as uncomfortable as Sisko did.

Julian turns his attention back to the medical records. "Four weeks."

"Four weeks?" O'Brien explodes. "Are you telling me I've been hanging around with a changeling for over a month?"

Julian isn't in the mood for this. He doesn't know why he even expected at least a show of concern for his tenure in an internment camp. "And you never even suspected it wasn't me?" he asks, unable to keep a thread of hurt out of his voice.

"No," O'Brien says, "And the worst part is, the clues were right in front of me."

"What clues?" Julian asks. Because if even Garak hadn't known it wasn't him, he didn't think much of O'Brien's chances.

"Well, for one thing, he was a lot easier to get along with," O'Brien says.

Julian makes a rude noise. He knows he ought to take it for the teasing that it is, but it feels flat today, or maybe it's just he who feels flat. "I have to go," he says shortly, and shoulders his way past O'Brien and out the door.

He should go to his quarters, but he can't bear to see his personal space in the same condition as the infirmary -- subtly different, with nothing precisely where he left it. It's disturbing, and it's giving him a serious case of the creeps.

It's eating at him, though, that Garak might know about him. It's a secret he can't afford to be careless about. What did Garak say on the runabout? He said Julian hadn't slept. He'd slept less, it was true -- his body can take it, and it's not exactly a damning bit of evidence. Rationally, he knows he doesn't need to worry.

It's the irrational part of him that is standing outside Garak's quarters. He doesn't even know if Garak's home, but he presses the chime anyway.

The doors slide open, and Garak is there, after all. "Good evening, doctor. Please, come in."

Julian steps in, and he opens his mouth -- only to close it, because he doesn't know what to say. He's not like Garak -- he doesn't know how to ask if someone knows his secret without revealing it. He's spent nearly his entirely life not thinking about it, much less talking about it.

Finally, he says, "I didn't tell them. Tain. The compartment. None of it."

Garak's eyes widen a little -- not much, but just enough that Julian can tell he's at least a little surprised.

And because he can't bear the silence any longer, Julian asks, "Will you keep Tain's secrets, as well?"

Garak smiles a little at that, but it's a bittersweet smile. "I've spent almost my entire life keeping that man's secrets. So yes, I will."

Well, that's as good as he's going to get, he supposes. If Garak knows, he won't say. He turns to go, and Garak's voice stops him.

"What would you say if I told you that I knew the changeling wasn't you?"

Julian turned back to face him. "I'd be surprised, I think. Even Miles didn't suspect."

Garak steps closer. "Do you know, it was pretty convincing. It knew your job, your habits, and its approximation of your smile was relatively good. But one day something happened, and I was suspicious."

"What?" Julian asks. What could possible have given the changeling away?

"We were having lunch one day -- the changeling, Ziyal, and I. Although frankly, that should have been my first clue -- you warmed up to Ziyal overnight, and I was sure you'd remain…jealous for quite some time."

"Jealous?" Julian asks with a disbelieving laugh, although he knows it's true.

"We were at lunch, and Ziyal accidentally knocked her teacup to the floor. The changeling caught it before it hit the ground."

Julian still doesn't see where this is going. "So? You figured out it wasn't me because Ziyal spilled her tea?"

Garak takes another step forward, and leans to whisper in Julian's ear. "The changeling caught the cup. You would have let it fall, because you would have decided that normal humans couldn't move fast enough to save it."

Julian feels like his blood has turned to ice, and his heart is pounding too fast. Garak knew. Garak knew. And if he was telling the truth, Tain hadn't told him Julian's secret on his deathbed -- Garak had known before, and hadn't said anything.

Garak's arms close around him, and he doesn't even try to move away. "What happened to Pentroth and Venya in The Spires of V'ralia?"

Julian gives in to the impulse to rest his head on Garak's shoulder, because the game is up, all their cards are on the table, and he's sick to death of being alone. The heavy brocade of Garak's tunic feels warm underneath his cheek. "They both knew each other's secrets. They couldn't blackmail the other without risking their own secret being revealed in retaliation." Something awful occurs to him. "Garak, I would never blackmail you!"

Garak is silent for a moment, his fingers gently threading through Julian's hair, grown too long during the last month. "I propose a more formal arrangement to keep both our secrets safe."

"Like what, marriage?" Julian says, that unwise sarcasm slipping out before he realizes it.

Garak's fingers go still on his neck. "The Rite of Srata, actually."

Julian keeps his face buried in Garak's shoulder, because he's not ready to deal with Garak's all-too-knowing gaze yet. "Why the Srata? Why not just a mutual pact of silence?"

"You already know why. How many women, how many friends are you going to keep at a distance out of fear? There are already whispers about you, you know. And what if, in a moment of vulnerability, you are caught off-guard? Better to prevent the possibility altogether."

"I know," Julian says, and he does. That fear has tainted every relationship he's ever had.

"Look at me," Garak says softly, and Julian does. "Are you afraid I won't be good to you?"

"I could ask you the same," Julian asks steadily, although his heart seems to have relocated to his throat.

"Julian Bashir, you've been nothing but good to me since the day we met," Garak says lightly, but it doesn't mask the sincerity of the remark.

Julian mulls it over. "So I get freedom from vicious rumors and limit the possibility of others finding out by mistake. What do you get?"

"You," Garak says simply. "Nothing you're not amenable to, of course. But I want more than lunches once a week." It's not a shock, not exactly -- it's more like a suspicion that Julian's chosen not to look at too closely before. But if Julian has felt terribly alone in keeping his secret, Garak has kept his own secret longer and under worse circumstances. If Garak wanted more…intimacy, Julian couldn't honestly say he was opposed to the idea.

"What about Ziyal?" Julian asks, because he may have been hideously jealous, but he never had any intention of purposefully hurting the girl's feelings.

"Ziyal never purposefully concealed my greatest secret from the Federation, nor one of my greatest weaknesses," Garak says, his voice low and deadly serious.

Julian takes in a deep breath. He should probably know more, before he makes a decision one way or the other. "What does the Srata specifically involve? Why doesn't such a legally-binding partnership threaten, say, marriage?"

Garak frowns a bit. "Because it's technically a mentor-student relationship, or a mutual adoption. A…physical relationship isn't a required component, although it often exists and surprises no one."

Julian thinks that through. "Did you - with Tain?"

Garak looks a little startled. "The legal contract, yes -- it was a way for him to keep me close without disclosing my parentage. But if you're asking me about -- well, you should know that Cardassians view incest as a heinous crime against the family and state."

Julian lets out a relieved breath. "Thank god for that."

"You should know, that while the Srata will afford us both with a measure of protection, it won't be without its difficulties. The Bajorans, for one, don't entirely approve of it, although Srati Cardassians during the Occupation were much less likely to…involve themselves with the local population."

"Oh. Well. Even if you hadn't been Cardassian, we would have had problems. I suppose we should consider ourselves fortunate that the Bajorans on the station have already had to get used to same-sex couples among the Federation personnel and visitors. At least Starfleet won't give us any trouble on that point. Although I do expect them to raise hell about your suspected past."

Garak smiles at that. "Just as well -- let them concentrate there, where they will find nothing, instead of looking at things we'd both prefer to keep hidden. Although, quite honestly, I find it somewhat bizarre that the Federation would take such a stern view to your particular situation."

Julian sighs. "They have their reasons, and I can't change the past. And how can we even file for Srata, when Cardassia has joined the Dominion?"

"Ah, the wonders of bureaucracy," Garak says, a sly look to his eyes. "It was one of the negotiated points of the Bajoran-Cardassian Treaty -- a reciprocal recognization of legal arrangements. I suggest we file immediately with the Bajoran government, before Dukat officially withdraws Cardassia from the Treaty. And once Bajor recognizes us, the Federation will be obliged to do so in turn."

"What if they turn us down, or delay us until it's too late?" Julian asks skeptically. "A lot of things could go wrong."

"Let me worry about that. Mind you, you still haven't given me your answer," Garak says, looking at him carefully.

Julian can hardly believe he's seriously considering this. "You really want to do this?"

"You took care of my father, you took care of me, you protected me -- let me protect you in turn. You're going to get yourself into trouble sooner or later without a helping hand," Garak scolds, although he looks suspiciously fond.

"So essentially, we have terrible secrets, we're lonely, let's get hitched?" Julian summarizes, trying to keep a smile off his face.

"I'm sure I put it much more elegantly," Garak huffs.

Julian does smile at that. "This is insane, you know that?"

"That has occurred to me, yes."

"Well, as long as you know it's crazy, too," Julian says. "But I don't -- I don't want to be alone anymore. So if you want to do it, then," he pauses and closes his eyes briefly, before looking at Garak again, "I want to, too." He won't deny that he feels nervous, because this is a giant leap - but it feels like an intuitive one, one that he trusts even though he doesn't know that he could say why, exactly.

"Then there's only one thing left before the contract," Garak says, looking quietly pleased.

"What's that?"

Garak leans forward, and kisses the underside of Julian's jawline, in the same place he had during that nightmarish escape on the runabout, what feels like a thousand years ago. Garak's lips feel soft against his skin, and he is surprised to realize how much he has been thinking about that kiss since it happened. "And you do the same to me," Garak says softly.

Julian swallows once, and leans forward. He realizes that the same place on Garak is actually the line of scales that comes down from the ear, under which runs an artery. He understands, suddenly, that this is a gesture of trust, one that Garak gave to him when Julian didn't even know what it signified.

"Could I stay here tonight?" Julian asks eventually, his question muffled into Garak's shoulder.

"If you'd like," Garak says, with a casualness betrayed by the sudden tensing of his body.

"I don't want to deal with my quarters right now," Julian says by way of explanation, and he needn't have worried, because of course Garak doesn't need to have it spelled out for him. The changeling, the isolation -- Garak knows, accepts, and moves on.

"You can have the bed," Garak says suddenly, stepping away to open some drawers. "I'll make up the sofa."

Julian looks at the sofa skeptically. "I don't think either of us would fit on the sofa comfortably. If we can contemplate the Srata, I think we can contemplate sharing your bed."

He's not entirely sure, but he thinks Garak looks a little anxious. "Could I borrow something to sleep in?" Julian asks, mostly to break the tension, but also because he'd really like to get out of his boots.

"Of course," Garak says, obviously relieved to deal with a fashion crisis, however minor. "Hideous things, those uniforms -- and they can't be at all good for your back, look at the way that fabric pulls." He continues muttering deprecations about the designer of said uniforms as he digs through a closet, only to emerge triumphant with a nightshirt that looks too big for Julian but also looks soft and warm.

And it isn't long after when they're both tucked in Garak's bed. It's a close fit, but not all that uncomfortable. Garak is just as warm as he remembers, and he can feel the slow, steady thump of Garak's heartbeat against his back. Garak is still against him, almost as if he's afraid to move, but Julian is still so very tired, and falls asleep almost immediately

***

Sometime in the hazy depths of the night, Garak comes awake so sharply that he wakes Julian up too, if only momentarily. He's facing Garak, having turned over at some point, and the hand resting casually against Garak's chest can feel the accelerated pulse.

But Garak is silent, so Julian just runs a comforting hand over Garak's arm. "Go back to sleep," he whispers. Garak probably has more demons than Julian can imagine, and he won't push. And god knows, Julian's had enough of his own nightmares where the kindest thing was to wake up, know that it wasn't real, and go back to sleep.

He closes his eyes again, and feels Garak squeeze his hip briefly as if in thanks.

***

Garak is up and about in the morning by the time Julian stirs, and has considerately left a cup of red leaf tea on the bedside table. Julian finally feels somewhat refreshed, like he is no longer working with a sleep debt so negative there's no digging his way out.

"Good morning," Julian says, after taking a cautious sip of his tea. Garak is sitting at his computer terminal, but Julian has no doubt that Garak knew the second he was awake.

"Good morning, doctor," Garak says, turning his seat around to catch Julian's eye. "We have an early appointment with a certain acquaintance of mine on Bajor. Would you be so kind as to request a runabout for us?"

Julian throws the covers back and makes his way across the room, yawning. He leans over Garak's shoulder and taps a few keys on the terminal. "And done. I suppose I should make myself presentable."

Garak gives a polite little cough. "I took the liberty of leaving an outfit for you in the washroom."

"You're never going to let that go, are you?" Julian asks.

"I wasn't the one who decided that red Evoran velvet went with my complexion," Garak says, his eyebrows raised in apparently remembered dismay.

"I thought you said red looked good on me!"

"Under no circumstances did I mean that red, I assure you," Garak says firmly.

"All right, all right," Julian mock grouses. "I'll defer to your wisdom on the subject."

Garak sniffs and makes a shooing motion in the direction of the washroom.

***

What is early morning on the station is late afternoon in the city of Lasuma on Bajor. Garak seems to know exactly where he's going, and leads them to a small ward office. Inside is just one man, wearing the yellow robes of the civil bureaucracy. "Magistrate Nain, good afternoon," Garak says, at his most charming.

Nain looks up from terminal at his desk. "I hadn't thought to see you again," he says. He doesn't appear suspicious or hostile, which is quite often the case when Bajorans are confronted with Garak.

"And but for the need to file a little bit of paperwork, I assure you I wouldn't have disturbed you."

Nain smiles at that, and it's clear to Julian that Nain is at least a little familiar with Garak -- he seems slightly amused. "And what, may I ask, is so important that you have to come to a backwater city in a backwater province to file it?"

Garak hands him a data padd. "We'd like to file for the Srata."

Nain nearly drops the padd on the floor. "The Srata? You?" He looks back and forth between Garak and Julian.

Garak nods, still wearing his most polite, customer-pacifying smile.

"Well. I can understand why you didn't go to the capital," Nain says, reading through the contract. "It's rather an odd coincidence that you're able to file through the Bajoran government -- as far as I knew, the particular subsection in question was meant to apply to Cardassian war orphans."

"Ah, but as it merely says, 'Cardassians on Bajor', I think I still qualify. After all, I am a Cardassian, and I am on Bajor, am I not?" Garak inquires, although the sharp look in his eyes is at odds with his pleasant tone.

Julian has absolutely no doubt that Garak's going to get his way. Garak splits hairs like it's a fine art, and in another life he probably could have been a lawyer par excellence.

Even so, Nain gives in quicker than Julian had thought he would. "Well, you both need to affirm that you have read and will abide by the contract, and then register your retinal scan."

Garak, probably already having it memorized, steps forward to read through, sign his name, and have his scan taken.

Julian takes his time to read through the contract. Cardassian legalese gives him a headache on the best of days, but the contract seems fairly straightforward -- it does indeed, as Garak had said, read more like a mutual adoption than marriage. As essentially caretakers for one another, the contract specifies rights and obligations, all things that would be useful if either of them were in trouble or under investigation. He can see now why Garak had been so insistent -- the Srata really does give them the means to protect each other, in a legal fashion that the Federation, Bajor, and Cardassia would be obliged to respect.

He takes a deep breath before signing his name and having his retina scanned. And then it's done.

"Is it proper to congratulate you?" Nain asks dryly.

"Well, you must admit I'm a very fortunate man," Garak says, his earlier smile melting into something more sincere.

Nain gives Julian a long look. "Congratulations to you both," he says.

Julian feels tongue-tied for a moment, but manages to stammer out a thank you.

"If anyone asks, I was steamrolled by your Cardassian nitpicking," Nain says as they turn to leave.

"No one will have any difficulty believing that," Julian says cheerfully, and Garak all but pulls him out the door.

***

"He didn't seem to put up much of a fight. And how did you know him?" Julian asked on their way back in the runabout.

Garak smiles. "Let's just say that Magistrate Nain has not always gone by the name, and has sympathies with those who choose to…cohabitate with a member of the same sex."

Julian rolls his eyes. "Are there any people you don't know?"

"Tragically, I only know the Galipotan designer M'thek by reputation, although I hope to someday make his acquaintance."

"Tragically," Julian echoes, more amused than annoyed. "Was there anything more to the ceremony, or was that it?"

"That was essentially it. Although there are one or two things that I thought we'd leave for later," Garak says, as they wait for permission to dock at DS9.

Julian's reasonably sure he knows what those things might be, but then again, it never pays to make assumptions where Garak is concerned.

***

When they return to the station, they've just missed the lunch crowd at the Replimat, so Julian suggests that they take advantage of their good timing.

It's a little difficult to believe they first met here five years ago. He's quite sure that his younger self, so flustered when Garak introduced himself, would never have imagined sitting down to lunch not as strangers, but as friends and now Srati.

He doesn't have anything to compare it to, this feeling of not hiding, for once. He could see that it frustrated Garak and Dax before when he let them so close and no farther, that it drove Palis and others away from him when he didn't talk about his childhood or his parents or anything truly personal. It was like they knew he was holding out on them, and they were never going to have all of him, only the fraction he wanted them to see. Miles, for his part, didn't seem interested in knowing much more about Julian than what was required for simple company, and he was both thankful and resentful for that.

And even though he and Garak are alternating between eating their meal and casual conversation where they say nothing of any real importance, he's struck again that someone knows -- Garak knows, and he hasn't turned away out of disgust or fear. Garak had known, and he hadn't cared.

He wonders if Garak feels the same way, knowing that someone was a witness to his last conversation with Tain.

He stops in the middle of whatever idle observation he was making, and lowers his voice to say, "You know, I can't help but feel…well, naked."

Garak raises one eyeridge, looking over Julian's outfit. "I assure you, I took all necessary precautions."

"That's not what I meant," Julian says affectionately, and lets the subject lie.

They move on to a celebratory piece of chocolate pie, which Garak argued for and which Julian didn't really argue against, even though chocolate isn't always one of those things the Replimat does well. And no sooner is the first bite in their mouths -- surprisingly good today, actually -- when Kira and Odo come stalking toward their table with intent.

Actually, on second glance, Kira appears to be the one doing the stalking -- Odo's just trying to keep up. She all but slams a data padd down on their table. "What do you think you're doing?" she demands.

"Eating pie?" Garak offers innocently.

Julian can see Kira contemplating violent uses for said pie, and decides to intervene. "May we help you, Major?" he asks politely.

"When were you coerced into this -- this --" Kira uses a Bajoran word that makes Garak wince.

"If you're talking about the Srata, I wasn't coerced," Julian says, trying to keep his tone mild. "I fully consented."

Odo is watching Garak with narrowed eyes. "You're very lucky your application was accepted at all, Garak. Although, it does appear to be legal." Only Odo can pack that much grudging respect into one word.

"Aren't you going to congratulate us?" Garak asks with a sunny smile. Of course, it's patently false, which only makes Kira grind her teeth more.

Odo snorts. "Congratulations, Garak. Although I fear for Doctor Bashir's mental state."

"My mental state is just fine," Julian snaps.

"You're up to something," Kira accuses Garak.

"Only the obvious, Major," Garak says, and Julian thinks it's the first time that he's ever heard Garak's voice drip sex like that.

Kira has been good about the same-sex couples on the station, but apparently the combination of the station's doctor and Cardassian tailor is too much for her. She looks back and forth between them, before she throws her hands up in disgust and stalks off again.

Odo watches her go. "I'm afraid this is gossip that will travel rather quickly."

Garak shrugs amiably. "Well, it does save us the trouble of telling Quark so he can tell everyone else."

Odo harrumphs again and leaves without another word.

"Odo has a point," Garak says meditatively. "This will spread quickly. It will be better if we tell Captain Sisko first, rather than letting him hear it from Major Kira, who seems convinced that I'm going to gobble you up at the earliest opportunity."

Julian isn't sure that Garak means that in any sort of sexual sense, but he can still feel his ears burn a bit at the images that suddenly run through his head. "He's probably not going to like this," he says, and he knows it's true. "Security's even tighter since the war started. What are we going to tell him?"

"Why, that we realized our feelings for each other under harrowing circumstances? That danger and a bleak situation brought us together?" Garak says, affecting a saccharine, melodramatic air.

"I suppose that's true enough," Julian says wryly.

"'True enough', my dear doctor, is my favorite kind of lie."

Still, though, Julian has to wonder if it really is a lie, and if it is, which part?

***

"And this…relationship began after your escape?" Sisko asks carefully, his expression giving away nothing.

Julian doesn't need to see Garak's quick look to know that Sisko needs more than that. "No, sir," Julian says, ducking his head like a schoolboy caught in the act. "We were on the verge before I was kidnapped, but nothing…official."

Garak snatches up the thread and runs with it. "Of course, Captain, I was confused when Julian no longer seemed to be interested, but when I found him in the internment camp, I knew. I couldn't let him go again."

Julian wonders if that's a bit overdone, but Garak seems intent on selling this as a forbidden romance, separated by the cruelties of war.

Sisko rubs his temples in slow circles. "And why, may I ask, did you choose to creatively interpret the Bajor-Cardassia Treaty, as opposed to entering into a Federation union?"

Garak affects a prim look. "Well, I've always been something of a traditionalist at heart, Captain."

Sisko just looks at Garak, his jaw twitching slightly. Julian wonders if he ought to offer Sisko a painkiller or three.

Garak turns slightly and beams at Julian, although the brief poke at Julian's arm warns him he'd better say something else fast.

"Well, it mattered so much to Garak, you see, and I didn't really care so long we were able to be together," Julian says, aiming what is probably an altogether too-convincing fatuous look in Garak's direction.

Finally Sisko sighs. "I swear you do these things just to make my life difficult. But if you were going to get married, you didn't have to elope. I would have wanted to come," he says.

"We're not married," Garak says.

"You wanted to come to the ceremony?" Julian asks at the same time, surprised and frankly touched.

"You're not married?" Sisko asks in confusion, but the look he aims at Julian's way lets Julian know his question was heard.

Garak delicately clears his throat. "We're Srati, which is a little different."

Sisko doesn't seem enormously interested in the finer points of Cardassian law. "If you want to apply for larger quarters, there are some suites available."

"You're most kind, Captain," Garak says, and he actually looks like he means it.

"Your timing is terrible, Starfleet is going to raise hell about possible security risks, and it's going to put the Bajorans even more on edge," Sisko says bluntly after a minute. "But it's done, and I have bigger fish to fry at the moment."

"We're sorry to have caused any trouble, Captain," Julian says sincerely. He had really expected to fight Sisko over this, but it seemed it was much easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission, after all. Still, he honestly hadn't wanted to add any more issues to Sisko's already overflowing plate.

Sisko's nod is a clear dismissal.

On their way out the door, Sisko says, "When this all dies down, you should have a party."

Garak and Julian turn to look back at him, and Sisko has a bittersweet look in his eyes as he says, "Occasions like this really should have witnesses."

There's something about that -- witnessing -- that seems to strike a cord in them at the same time. After all, this whole affair began with Julian witnessing Tain's death. It only seems right that DS9 should witness their Srata.

***

"Can we go back to your quarters?" Julian asks, a little annoyed to hear a plaintive note to his voice.

Garak gives him a sidelong glance. "You're going to have to deal with it at some point, you know. Do you want me to help?"

"I know, and I wouldn't mind some help, but not tonight. If you thought the Captain was a tough audience, you should have seen my staff this afternoon."

"Then a quiet dinner is in order, I think," Garak says, touching the pad outside his door and waving Julian in.

The lights are turned down to Cardassian standard, not that Julian minds. He's had much better than average eyesight for a quite a long time now. And with the lights down, he's starting to see, for the first time, a little bit of the Cardassian aesthetic. The room is muted shadows, but broken up by deep, vibrant reds and plum so dark it's almost black.

"What about something Cardassian?" Julian asks as Garak goes the replicator.

Garak cranes his head around at the question, and he's plainly amused. "Something Cardassian?"

"I'm in a Cardassian kind of mood," Julian tells him, feeling a little playful all of a sudden, and trying not to rock back on his heels.

"I'm not entirely sure I want to know what kind of mood you think that is," Garak teases, and Julian's happy that he knows for sure that it's just teasing. There was a time, years ago, when he couldn't make heads or tails of Garak's responses, and ended up taking a few stray remarks entirely too much to heart.

Garak fusses with the replicator and then says, "If you'll open that cabinet over there, you should find a green bottle - if we're going to go Cardassian tonight, we might as well go all the way."

Julian doesn't wrinkle his nose, even though kanar is really not his favorite drink, not by far. Still, he's not going to ruin what seems to be a belated celebratory dinner by turning his nose up at what looks like a fairly ornate bottle of kanar.

Garak has set a number of dishes on his small dining table, and Julian snags two glasses and brings the kanar over.

"May I?" Garak asks, and Julian hands the bottle over.

Still standing, Garak opens and pours the kanar. "There's a little ritual that goes along with the Srata. I'd like to observe it, if we could."

Julian smiles. "A traditionalist, you said."

Garak inclines his head politely, but Julian can see the amusement in his eyes. "Just so. An affirmation of promises, if you will. I'll start, shall I?" He takes a long mouthful from his glass, and says, "I'll protect you." He hands his glass to Julian, with the nod that says he should drink from it. As he does so, a strangely pomegranate-like taste filling his mouth, he hears Garak mumur, "I'll serve you." And when he hands the glass back, Garak knocks back the rest, and says, "I'll hold you dear."

Julian admits that he's a little moved. Who wouldn't be, with Garak saying things in such a serious, soft voice? "Do I do the same?" he asks after a moment.

Garak hands him the other glass, and waits.

After another swallow of the tart kanar, Julian says, "I'll protect you." He watches Garak's throat work for a moment after he hands him the glass and says, "I'll serve you." And when the last syrupy drops of the kanar are empty from his glass, he says, "I'll hold you dear."

And not so strangely, perhaps, he finds that he means it.

The alcohol is a little bit of a shock to his system -- kanar is potent and he already feels a little warm. Still, in this warm, dark room, it seems natural to feel Garak's fingertips sliding along his jawline, and he doesn't even need to be coaxed into the kiss that follows.

There's something about the kiss that reminds him of that escape in the shuttlecraft, dreamlike but no longer aching and hollow, no longer numb but free to trace his fingers gently across the ridges on Garak's face. Garak, for his part, has his arms gently around Julian, and his kisses seem almost hesitant -- as though he thinks Julian is going to bolt at any moment, as though this is just another dearly desired thing that will be denied to him in his exile.

Julian doesn't know how to say, You can have this or I want you as much as you want me without sounding like a callow youth, without sounding like he's having Garak for pity when nothing could be further from the truth. Julian's the one who can't believe this is really happening, who feels bare and exposed and honest for the first time since he was fifteen and found out what had been done to him.

So when Garak undoes the fastenings of Julian's uniform and gently urges him to lie down on the bed, he knows that Garak wants him, but the striking thing is that Garak really wants him, flaws and engineered perfections and all.

Garak murmurs a command to the computer for lights out, but Julian says, "Computer, disregard that."

Garak looks at him, quizzically at first and then with a sort of sad understanding. "I didn't mean to remind you of--"

"It's not that," Julian says, and pulls Garak down to him. "I just want to see. Everything."

Garak's eyes widen a bit, and then they don't talk for quite some time.

***

Julian wakes up slowly the next morning, registering the warmth beside him and the arm around his middle before his brain catches up and his eyes fly open to see Garak watching him carefully.

"Did you sleep well?" Julian asks around a muffled yawn.

Garak dips his head in nod, a motion that dishevels his hair further as it rubs against the pillow.

Julian yawns again. "You keep waking up before me. Do Cardassians need less sleep than humans?"

Garak appears to consider this, and then says, "I suspect we're similar enough. Let's just say that it's been quite some time since I've shared a bed with another person."

Julian doesn't probe further, since Garak's tone is one he's identified as being as honest as possible, but not wanting to discuss it. "Are you opening the shop today?" he asks instead.

"I fear being murdered by Ensign Chadderdon and her six bridesmaids if I don't," Garak says, heaving a theatrical sigh.

"Speaking of murder, you realize my parents are likely to be less than happy with us," Julian says, snuggling a little closer into his pillow.

"Ah," Garak says sympathetically. "Well, Cardassia was at war with the Federation for a number of years, so I suppose it's to be expected."

"Well, it's not exactly that. I mean, maybe -- I've never really asked their thoughts on the subject. But the thing is -- we did kind of elope."

Garak appears fascinated. "Was I to ask for your hand, like that dreadful novel you made me read?"

That brings up a really odd image in his head. "Oh god, no. I'm not even close to my parents, we haven't spoken for many years -- but this isn't the sort of thing I'd like them to find out from anyone else."

"Hmm," Garak says. "Well, we hardly need concern ourselves with informing my family."

Julian doesn't think Garak is making a joke, although he said it lightly. "Is there no one else left?" he says delicately after a moment.

"Mila will already have found out," Garak replies, and it's another piece of the puzzle sliding into place.

"Oh," Julian says, and tries not to look too pleased that his suspicions have been confirmed. And for that confidence, he gives Garak one of his own. "My parents and I don't talk anymore. Because of -- well, you know."

"You blame them?" Garak asks softly.

"For a lot of reasons," Julian says stiffly.

Garak mercifully lets the subject drop. "Well, I have to be getting up if I'm going to open the shop."

Julian nods. "If you'd like, I can go investigate larger quarters -- I think we could use a bigger bed."

"My back would thank you sincerely," Garak says, and disappears into the washroom.

Julian rolls over in bed and winces a little. "So would mine," he mutters, and resigns himself to walking a little strangely for the rest of the day.

***

Julian goes out looking at a few suites before he settles on one in a quiet area of the habitat ring, not so very far from the infirmary and with a pleasant view of stars around them, without the brilliant distraction of the wormhole. He stops by Garak's shop to discuss it with him, but Garak is up to his neck in satin and moody bridesmaids and says simply, "Whatever you think is best, my dear," which makes every woman in the shop melt.

Julian knows far better than to attempt any kind of interior decorating in their new quarters without Garak's input, so he finds a seat in the Replimat and attempts to catch up on some reports. It's true that Sisko told him to take a week of leave, but he thinks he'll feel better the sooner he reviews what happened in his absence.

"Doctor, do you have a moment?" Odo asks, interrupting a riveting report on malfunctioning subsystems.

Julian gives him a polite smile. "Please, sit down."

Odo sits, although it seems like he's still looming over Julian somehow. "I wanted a chance to speak to you without Major Kira," he says after a moment.

Julian nods, although he's not quite sure where this is going. Odo didn't seem as enraged as Kira the other day, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything.

"I know some will be…surprised by your alliance with Garak, but I'm not one of them," Odo says.

"You're not?" Julian says, his eyebrows slightly raised.

Odo makes a harrumphing noise. "Please. Anyone with a brain and even a passing understanding of Cardassian culture could tell that Garak wanted you from practically the moment you stepped on the station."

Julian's voice cracks a little when he says, "Really?" Because he'd always been a little confused about Garak's intentions, but he didn't think that Garak had been interested in him from the beginning.

Odo doesn't quite roll his eyes. "I'm only surprised that it took him this long. I assume he had his reasons." There's something in Odo's eyes that makes Julian suspect that Odo thinks Tain was the cause of Garak's supposed delay. "And I assume you had yours," Odo continues. "But I hope you're sincere, doctor."

Julian gapes at him. "I -- Constable, I assure you, I would never --"

Odo cuts him off with a wave of his hand. "I only mean to say that Garak's life is hard enough here as it is. Try to not make it any more difficult than you need to."

Julian belatedly realizes that what passes for Garak's only other friend on the station is asking about his intentions. "I'll do my best," he promises, holding Odo's gaze for a moment.

"That's all I needed to know, doctor," Odo says, and then leaves again without another word.

Julian stares after him, then shrugs and goes back to his reports.

***

Julian and Garak are packing up Julian's quarters when the door chime sounds.

"I'll get it," Garak says, by virtue of being closer to the door.

The person hovering on Julian's doorstep is someone he's never seen before, a balding man wearing a Starfleet medical uniform.

"May we help you?" Garak inquires politely.

The man looks a little confused, but he recovers and says, "Dr. Julian Bashir?"

"Yes?" Julian says.

"I'm Dr. Lewis Zimmerman of Holographic Imaging and Programming, and I have a proposal for you."

Julian trades a look with Garak, and then says, "Sorry for the mess -- please, come in and have a seat."

Zimmerman picks his way through stacks of crates before he finds an available chair. "Perhaps we should discuss this alone," he says, eyeing Garak.

Garak smiles sweetly. "I'm sure anything you have to say to dear Julian can be heard by me, unless it requires a Starfleet security clearance."

Zimmerman shifts uncomfortably in his seat. "Ah. Well, if you're certain."

Julian sits down next to Garak, who promptly wraps one arm around Julian's waist. "We don't keep secrets from each other, do we, Elim?" he says, giving Garak his best adoring smile.

Garak returns the smile, and then shifts his gaze back to Zimmerman. "You were saying?"

***

Julian can't deny that he's flattered that Zimmerman wants to use him as a template for the new Long-term Medical Hologram program, but he feels sufficiently uneasy about the situation that he sits back and lets Garak work.

"It's quite an honor," Zimmerman says, clearly trying to butter Garak up. "Starfleet Medical has chosen Doctor Bashir out of hundreds of potential candidates."

"He's extraordinarily gifted, it's true," Garak says, giving Julian a doting look that almost makes Julian burst out laughing. Neither of them miss Zimmerman grinding his teeth -- it's clear that he's not happy with being passed over in favor of Julian, not at all.

"The new LMH is designed to be as realistic as possible, so I need to document as much of Doctor Bashir's personality and background as possible, through interviews and such," Zimmerman says. He pauses, and then adds, "I wasn't aware that you were…involved."

"We're really a very private couple," Garak says smoothly. "We prefer to keep things that way."

Julian is grateful for Garak's arm around his waist, because his heart jumped somewhere up in his throat at the mention of interviews.

Zimmerman's mouth compresses into a thin line. "I'm afraid that won't do. I'll need Doctor Bashir's complete cooperation for this to be a successful project. Assuming you can speak for yourself," he adds caustically.

"I think it's a very interesting project," Julian says, "but I'm afraid that I'll have to refuse. Elim's such a big part of my life, and I really couldn't, in good conscience, answer questions about him."

Zimmerman looks more and more irritated. "And why not?"

"I have a sordid and tragic past," Garak says, straight-faced.

"And it's our honeymoon. I'm on leave and we're going to be busy," Julian says, and smolders at Garak.

"Very busy," Garak confirms, his hand wandering from Julian's hip down to his thigh.

"Right. Perhaps we can discuss this further at another time," Zimmerman says, and all but trips over himself making his escape from the room.

***

"He's likely to go to Sisko," Garak says as he unpacks a box in their new quarters. "If Sisko asks you about it, stay firm and repeat that you won't do it because of me. Under no circumstances do you want Zimmerman to start nosing around your personal history and discover things he shouldn't."

"Thank god you were there with me," Julian says, shuddering a little. "I don't know how I would have refused if you hadn't been -- it is such an honor, and I don't think I could have justified my refusal if I didn't have you to think of."

Garak gives him a sly little smile. "I wonder how high the doctor's security clearance is. I'm sure whatever files on me that he has access to will keep him sufficiently occupied."

Julian snorts. "And all of them will be filled with contradictory information, I bet. With any luck, he'll pack up and go home immediately."

"In the meantime, we'll have to do our best to look like we're making the most of your time on leave," Garak says, and when he meets Julian's eyes, the atmosphere between them changes instantly into something dark and coiling and intense.

They barely make it to the new bed.

***

Julian sends a tersely worded announcement to his parents the next morning -- he's not really expecting them to respond, since this will be just another way in which he has disappointed them. A male Cardassian, much less an exiled tailor, is probably not the match they've dreamed of for their perfect son. But there are obvious advantages to his relationship with Garak, and Julian would even hazard to say that they're happy together, so he's not inclined to waste much time thinking about his parents' reaction.

The news is all over the station now, and Jadzia corners him as soon as she sees him. "Julian!" she coos. "Congratulations! Why didn't you tell me? We have to throw a party!"

Julian squirms a little. "Ah, well…we were thinking about having a small reception."

Jadzia brightens further. "You have to tell me all about it! How did it happen?"

"That's what I'd like to know," a voice says from behind them, and Julian winces when he realizes that O'Brien is glaring at him.

"I'll explain everything," Julian promises, a sinking feeling in his stomach.

***

"Miles is furious," Julian bemoans to Garak later. "And Jadzia is already planning some out-of-control reception."

Garak offers him a sympathetic smile. "Ziyal didn't take it much better -- she nearly cried and then asked an hour's worth of questions about the Rite of Srata."

Julian flops onto their new sofa. "Ugh. And Captain Sisko commed me today to ask if I wouldn't reconsider the LMH thing. There's only one thing that could make this day worse."

"What's that?"

And then the door chime rings.

***

"Jules!" Richard Bashir says expansively. Amsha is quiet beside him, looking curiously at Garak.

Julian twitches. "Did you get my message?" he asks, mentally calculating the time between its dispatch and the time his parents would have had to leave Earth to arrive here.

His father looks confused. "No, we just received a notice from a Doctor Zimmerman, and we came as quickly as possible."

The Dominion prison wasn't hell -- this is. Julian looks helplessly at Garak.

Garak steps forward with his most endearing smile. "I'm sorry we haven't had the opportunity to meet before now. My name is Elim Garak," he says.

Richard and Amsha murmur, "Pleased to meet you."

And Julian knows he's just going to have to get this over with, so steps next to Garak and takes his hand. "I didn't have the chance to inform you before you arrive, but Elim and I are…that is to say, he's agreed to share his life with me."

The last time he'd seen his parents so shocked and dismayed, it was when he confronted them about a lockbox of documentation in the attic.

His mother is the first to recover her ability to speak. "Jules, darling, this is so sudden," she says, darting an anxious glance at Garak.

"We've been involved for five years now," Garak says gently, and Julian can't help but marvel at that bit of obfuscation. It's sort of true, but not false enough that anyone can confirm or deny.

"Oh my," Amsha says, and sits down. Richard is still rooted in place, and Julian can see the gears grinding in his head -- how much does Garak know? Is Julian's secret in danger?

Serves him right, Julian thinks viciously. They didn't want the son they had, and now they'll have to spend the rest of their lives worrying about the one they engineered in his place.

All of a sudden, he wants out of this room. He knows what will happen -- his father will yell and be unreasonable, and his mother will just look at him and make him feel guilty. He squeezes Garak's hand, and Garak takes one good look at him before he seems to arrive at a decision.

"I think we ought to have an utterly private conversation," Garak says. He rattles off a sharp series of commands to the computer in Kardasi. "Now we may continue undisturbed," he says, his voice businesslike. "You may think you have no reason to trust me, but to a Cardassian, family is everything. I assure you, I have nothing but your son's best interests at heart. As far as I know, I'm the only one outside the three of you who knows his secret, and I'd like to keep it that way."

Julian really doesn't think his parents' hearts are going to hold out if they keep getting surprised like this.

"You know," Richard says slowly. "How did you find out?"

Garak smiles, and there's something very dangerous in the urbane civility of that expression. "Let's just say I'm a keen observer, and that I was the only one Julian let close enough to put the pieces together."

His parents look even more worried. "Jules," his father says, "this isn't safe. No one else was supposed to know -- how could you stay here once he found out?"

Julian's jaw clenches at the accusation in that statement, yet another demonstration that his father thinks him witless and foolhardy. "Because he knew for years and didn't say anything, because it doesn't matter to him -- unlike the two of you, who were so ashamed by my defects that you had to resort to illegally modifying me down to my DNA." He spits out the last words with years and years of pent-up anger and frustration, and it feels good until he sees the expressions on his parents' faces.

"Jules!" his mother says in a low cry. "We never -- oh honey, we were never ashamed of you. We only wanted to help -- we only wanted what was best for you."

Julian feels a discreet push at the small of his back, and his mother takes him in her arms just like she had when he was a gangly teenager all those years ago, and he feels the weight of his father's palm on his shoulder, and knows without seeing it that Garak is smiling slightly.

***

"They're never going to leave," Julian mutters into Garak's shoulder as they lie in bed together. "They're going to stay here and annoy me for the rest of my life."

"Oh, I'm sure they'll be off after the reception," Garak says blandly. "After all, your father has his park designing to get back to."

Julian frowns. "You're enjoying this, aren't you? Don't bother lying to me. And quit baiting Miles -- we're never going to patch up our friendship if you keep taking digs at him."

"I'm sure I'm doing nothing of the sort," Garak says primly. "Surely you're not going to blame me just because the good Chief can't reconcile himself to how much I…appreciate you."

Julian groans and rolls over on to his back. "See, this is what I'm talking about. And on top of that, Ziyal came to me today and told me that she hoped we'd be very happy together."

Garak clucks his tongue. "Probably writing bad poetry as we speak. It's that Bajoran background -- they're prone to that."

"Hmph," Julian says. He stares at the ceiling a bit more. "Do you think it's okay like this?" he ventures after a moment. "You don't think Zimmerman is suspicious?"

"Oh, he's suspicious," Garak says, "but of the wrong thing entirely. And if he isn't, rest assured that I've gathered a little insurance against him talking even if he did know."

Julian digests that for a moment, and wonders briefly how many people Garak's collected "insurance" on to protect his secret. "What if something like this happens again?"

"That, my dear, is presumably why you agreed to join with me in the first place," Garak says lightly. "I told you, you'll get yourself into trouble without some dedicated help."

Julian turns over to nuzzle the scales running under Garak's jaw. "Well, that's a reason, certainly. But it's not the only one."

"Oh?" Garak asks, sounding casual even as his arm tightens around Julian's shoulders.

"Can you keep a secret?" Julian says, fighting to keep the stupidly sentimental smile off his face.

Garak pulls back to look him in the eye for a moment, and then says tenderly, "I already know them all."

"Just as long as you keep them safe," Julian says, and when they kiss, he thinks he knows more than a few of Garak's secrets, too.