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As it turned out, all the writers were wrong -- wrong about the temperature, anyway. Exile was certainly dark, but in Julian Bashir's case, it was warm and humid instead of numbingly cold.

"Tilt your head up, please," Bashir said with perfect professional courtesy, bracing one hand just above the man's ear, well away from any sensitive ridges or scales. He ran the dermal generator over the eyeridge, mending the last of the damage. "Blink and tell me if there's any pain."

"None," the man said, and he sounded just a bit surprised -- but then, Bashir never knew whether Cardassians doubted his medical expertise because he was human or because he was male.

Experience had taught Bashir that Cardassians -- or at least, the Cardassians he encountered on Terok Nor -- had different ideas about acceptable bedside manners. Idle questions or unsolicited advice were seldom welcome, but something made him say, "You ought to take care -- any closer, and you might have injured the eye, as well."

"And would you have found that such a pity, doctor?"

Bashir froze for a moment, looking at those undamaged, unusually shaded eyes for a beat too long. "I'd prefer you were as healthy as possible," he said, mentally shaking himself.

The man looked at him consideringly, his head tilted slightly to one side. "I wonder if you would say the same if you knew how I came by my injury."

"That's irrelevant to me," Bashir said firmly. He'd come here to whatever good he could, to fulfill his oath as a doctor. "You're my patient. That's all I need to know."

The man smiled now, plainly amused.

"Was there anything else, sir?" Bashir asked. The man did not wear the Cardassian military uniform, but his bearing suggested he was a man of some position and rank, nonetheless.

"Garak," the man corrected.

Being offered his name, unasked, wasn't at all customary -- it was a kindness, and though it was a small one, there'd been precious little of that in his life since coming to live here. "Was there anything else, Mr. Garak?" he asked.

"I wonder if you might answer a question," Garak said.

Bashir's brows drew together in confusion, but he gave a small, cautious nod.

"Have you had dinner?"

***

Bashir had something of a love-hate relationship with Quark's bar, because while it was always crowded with Cardassian soldiers in various states of inebriation, on the other hand, Quark never passed up a chance to profit and had a far greater selection of human food in his replicator than were available in Bashir's quarters.

"Dr. Bashir!" Quark said, coming up to them where they had paused in the doorway. "Come in for your usual?" he asked, though the quick flick of his eyes in Garak's direction suggested he was much more curious about the company Bashir was keeping than in his order.

"Perhaps you have a table in a quieter corner?" Garak asked, nodding his head at the second floor of the bar.

"Right this way," Quark said, expansive as always, but something about his narrowed eyes made Bashir think that he and Garak were going to be the recipients of a lot of personalized attention throughout their meal.

"Could I interest you in a drink, doctor?" Garak asked, taking up the menu.

Bashir wasn't particularly sure he should be drinking with a stranger, let alone a Cardassian of indeterminate rank, but he found himself saying, "I'm not on call this evening. What did you have in mind?"

"Oh, I'm certain our proprietor has something worth savoring hidden behind the bar," Garak said, with a perfectly civil smile.

"I'm not much for the darker varieties of kanar," Bashir warned him, anxious not to give offense.

"Never fear, I was thinking of something a little more uncommon," Garak said, and signaled Quark with a quick wave of his fingers. They had a hushed conversation about vintage and origin, and settled on something that had Garak looking satisfied and Quark looking like he was about to make a tidy sum.

"May I ask you a question?" Bashir said.

Garak inclined his head in assent.

"It's not that I'm ungrateful for the company, but why did you invite me to dinner?" Bashir asked. Cardassians found direct questions to be a bit inelegant, but more often than not, Bashir usually received some sort of response -- most likely, they thought an alien couldn't help but be a little gauche and made allowances.

"Perhaps I'm curious as to how a human ended up in your position," Garak said.

Bashir considered this. It was perfectly possible -- his was a highly unusual situation, after all. "I was passing through, and there was a medical emergency. I offered my assistance and ended up staying," he said simply.

Quark came back at that moment with a small bottle of something that was an even more intense blue than Romulan ale, and a pair of delicate-looking cups to go with it. Garak poured for them both and handed a cup to Bashir.

The cup was warm in his hand -- evidently, this was a liqueur served hot. Bashir raised it slightly, and gave Garak a real smile, albeit a small one. "To your health," he said, feeling a bit whimsical.

Garak quirked an eyeridge at that, and they both sipped from their respective glasses. He had still expected the drink to taste like kanar, and had been braced for its syrupy tartness, but the drink was disconcertingly sweet, with some sort of herbal aftertaste.

Garak was watching his reaction carefully, and smiled again when Bashir took another, more enthusiastic sip. "It's called tamarat," Garak said. "It's produced from a fruit native to Kora II."

"It's good," Bashir said, even though it was probably perfectly evident that he enjoyed it.

"I thought it might be to your liking," Garak said, but even though the comment was accompanied by another of those polite smiles, there was an undercurrent that made Bashir shift a little nervously in his chair.

"Mr. Garak," Bashir began, and Garak waved his hand dismissively.

"Oh, it's just Garak. Plain, simple Garak."

Like hell he was. "Julian Bashir," he said finally, figuring he might as well offer his full name in return, and let Mr. No-first-name-provided Garak decide how familiar he wanted to be.

"A pleasure," Garak said warmly. "Now that we have introductions out of the way, perhaps I could persuade you to let me order your dinner? Since my choice of tamarat went over so well."

Bashir noticed then that his cup was empty, and vowed to take it a little slower. Garak was still waiting, eyes fixed on him with an intentness that was frankly unnerving.

"I--" Bashir floundered for a moment, but Garak simply refilled Bashir's cup and held it out to him.

He took it, looking helplessly at its contents for a second, and then said, "Please."

***

"You had a interesting companion last night," Odo said over breakfast the next morning.

Bashir looked up from his bowl of Bajoran breakfast grain. "You saw?"

"I heard," Odo said, and his mouth creased a little more in an expression that Bashir had learned to interpret as grudging amusement. "Quark gossips more when he's pocketed an unexpected profit."

"Oh," Bashir said. "He came into the infirmary in the evening and then invited me to dinner."

"And you agreed? I thought I was your only dining companion, doctor," Odo said, harrumphing a little in mock severity.

Bashir rolled his eyes. "Don't worry, Odo -- I've no intention of deserting our weekly breakfasts. I'd never abandon my fellow outsider on the station."

He'd said it airily, but Odo regarded him solemnly, seriously. "I know you wouldn't, doctor. Abandonment is not in your nature -- as more than one person here can attest."

"Odo," Bashir said, ducking his head a little in embarrassment.

"Speaking of which, I believe you're going to have some patients in need of attention shortly."

Bashir frowned slightly at his breakfast and sighed. "Same cause?"

Odo nodded.

"And there's nothing you can do about it," Bashir said softly.

Odo snorted. "And what should I charge him with, doctor? You know how this sort of thing is regarded." He paused for a moment, and looked to the side. "Perhaps you might be able to persuade someone that this is...inefficient. You know how the Cardassians feel about inefficiency."

"Oh, indeed," Bashir said with bitter sarcasm. "Why not? I love taking my life into my own hands first thing in the morning."

Odo stood and patted him on the shoulder in a studied, slightly awkward motion. "I know you won't abandon them," he said, and then left.

Bashir stared at his empty bowl for a moment, and then cursed under his breath.

***

He treated four Bajorans that morning, and it took effort to keep the simmering anger off his face. The smothering heat of the ore processing facility, the exhaustion of working with little respite and no comfort -- these were things to which he had nearly become resigned to treating, in that they were constants in his life and at least he could usually get away with giving the Bajorans a stealth vitamin and nutrient hypospray when their overseers bothered to have them hauled in for collapsing.

These injuries, however, were not the product of terrible working conditions -- these were deliberate, repeated, and cruel, and he hated how hopeless it made everything seem.

The rage was enough to make him act, despite his fear.

He did not often go to Central Operations, but security let him through without any fuss, and he nodded politely to a junior officer to whom he usually gave his medical supply orders before heading up the stairs to Gul Dukat's office.

"If I might have a moment?" he asked, looking straight at Dukat instead of keeping his eyes respectfully lowered. Dukat seemed to like that from him, for some reason.

"Certainly, certainly," Dukat said, lowering the isolinear padd he'd been reading onto his desk. "What seems to be the trouble, doctor?"

"Trouble?" Bashir repeated, trying to keep himself still and calm.

Dukat gave him a knowing, condescending sort of smile. "It hasn't escaped my attention, Dr. Bashir, that you only come to me when there's something amiss. Why, some whisper that you still retain soft, Federation sympathies for the Bajorans, but I know that your medical concerns aren't restricted by race. Indeed, I think you'd find a certain Cardassian engineer would be willing to do you a number of...favors if you only asked."

"That's not why I did what I did," Bashir said. "I did it because it was the right thing to do."

Dukat chuckled at that. "Still clinging to those odd ideals, doctor? What a strange creature you are. Fortunately for you, I'm willing to entertain these little concerns of yours in exchange for past services. So, who is it this time?"

"An overseer by the name of Pathak," Bashir said. "I'm not contesting his right to punish, but the extent. It's disruptive."

"Hmm," Dukat said, leaning back in his chair. "How so?"

"There's no sense in rendering perfectly good workers incapable of doing their jobs."

Dukat's eyes narrowed. "Order must be maintained, my good doctor. Offenses must be addressed."

"I'm aware of standard disciplinary procedures," Bashir said evenly, "but I'm unfamiliar with the protocol that would necessitate prolonged correctional sessions in private."

"In private?" Dukat said, sounding genuinely puzzled. "Discipline must be public, doctor, to set an example. Are you sure?"

"I believe so," Bashir said, still tense.

"Be certain, doctor," Dukat warned him, and Bashir fought not to swallow nervously at the implication. "Be very, very certain."

"I am. Odo will confirm it."

It was like flipping a switch. "Well, then," Dukat said, the sudden genial smile on his face all the more terrifying for what it promised the overseer in question. "I'll attend to the matter."

Bashir stood and gave him the customary half-bow. "Thank you," he said, and meant it.

"Don't thank me, doctor. Why, if I'd known you were in the habit of occasionally dining with Cardassians like last night, I might have invited you before now as a show of my appreciation."

Bashir froze. "That's kind of you to say, but unnecessary."

"I'll decide what is necessary, doctor. Don't forget that," Dukat said, a stern reprimand that was also a dismissal, and Bashir fled his office with all the speed decorum allowed.

***

When he'd first assumed his position, he had thought that the senior Cardassian military doctor would assign him all routine, ordinary business in the infirmary, leaving more exotic cases and research for herself. He was wrong.

"You're brighter than you look," Dr. Denalli had said flatly. "Cardassians don't believe in wasting talent."

So that was that. Bashir was grateful -- no matter how terrible Terok Nor could be, he appreciated Denalli's no-nonsense approach to both medicine and their professional relationship.

"It mutated again," Denalli snarled at her scope with the newest virus sample. "Bashir, come look at this insanity -- no wonder we can't keep on top of it, not at this rate of change."

He obediently looked at the scope, and saw immediately what she meant -- but something else occurred to him as well. "What if we target therapy to the sequence at the middle instead of the end?"

Denalli opened her mouth once and then snapped it shut, thinking it through. Finally she rubbed her knuckles against against his shoulderblade in that odd, encouraging gesture of her people and said, "You know, you're really quite good at this. For a man."

"You're too kind," Bashir said, and didn't bother to hide his smile.

"I still think you should submit that paper to the Ministry of Science," she said, getting up to work at a terminal. "I know you say you're not interested in promotion" -- plainly she thought this was patently ludicrous and probably false -- "but don't you want to share your knowledge?"

He shrugged, and looked back through the scope again. "I'm not opposed to it. If you think it should be submitted, why don't we just put your name on it?"

"Because it's not my work, and your Federation is stupid for throwing you away."

He looked up at her sharply, and sighed. "Nesla," he said gently. "Nothing will induce them to take me back. Nothing."

She looked frustrated, and then finally grumbled, "Cardassia's gain, I suppose. Bring me that portable sequencer, would you?"

***

He honestly hadn't expected to see Garak again, and especially not in his quarters after he got off his shift.

"I hope you don't mind that I dimmed the lights and raised the temperature while I was waiting," Garak said, coming to his feet as Bashir froze just inside the door.

"I didn't think I'd see you again," Bashir said after a long pause, because the alternative involved yelling and demanding how the hell Garak had gotten in.

Garak gave him a smile that made a little shiver go up his spine. "My duties take me many places, but they will most likely include regular stops here at Terok Nor for the foreseeable future."

"Is that so," Bashir said, taking a few hesitant steps closer. "And what duties might those be?"

"A Finance Ministry official's work is never done," Garak said with an air of martyrdom.

"You're a tax collector?" Bashir asked, unable to keep the disbelief out of his voice.

"I do hope you won't hold it against me."

"Not at all," Bashir said, bemused. "I hope I'm not in any sort of trouble."

"My dear doctor," Garak said, taking a few steps closer, "You may be the most upstanding Federation exile who ever paid taxes to the Cardassian Union."

"Thank you, I think," Bashir said, trying not to step away. He felt wary again -- Garak could have gotten that information from anywhere. His exile was hardly a secret aboard Terok Nor. "May I ask why you're here?"

"To give you this," Garak said, and pressed an isolinear rod into Bashir's palm.

It was warm to his touch -- it had probably been in Garak's pocket. "What is it?"

"You told me you'd read that terribly pedestrian novel and I couldn't stand for it, doctor -- all the literature Cardassia has ever produced, and you'd read that insipid fluff."

"I liked it," Bashir protested mildly.

"I chose to believe that's because you don't know any better. Read this one, doctor, and then tell me what you think."

"Thank you," Bashir said softly, because it was kind -- somewhere in the middle of dinner last time, they'd gotten onto the subject of literature, and Bashir had confessed to not really knowing where to start with classical Cardassian novels.

"Now then, perhaps you'd do me the favor of joining me for dinner again?"

***

The bread at the Klaestron restaurant reminded him of roti, and he said so, almost absently.

Garak looked fascinated. "Something from your homeworld?"

"From a warmer region on Earth, yes," Bashir said, and then could have kicked himself -- Garak might not have known his planet of origin before Bashir just confirmed it for him.

"You're a long way from home, doctor," Garak said, pouring them both a glass of the Klaestron wine the waiter had brought them.

"Comparatively, so are you," Bashir said dryly.

Garak laughed. "So I am, doctor. So are we all," he said, his voice lowering a bit, and there was something to his tone that raised the hair on the back of Bashir's neck.

"Have you been to Bajor before? I mean, before last time."

"Oh, I've traveled to many places, doctor -- including Klaestron IV. Have you sampled their cuisine before?"

"Only a little," Bashir said, and smiled self-deprecatingly. "I don't eat outside my quarters often -- going to a restaurant by yourself is a bit--" he broke off, embarrassed.

"Lonely," Garak supplied gently, and Bashir felt himself blush even more.

"No, I'm not -- I mean, there's Odo," he said.

Garak tilted his head to one side, and his lips quirked into a smile that Bashir wasn't sure he would describe as friendly. "A...particular friend of yours, doctor?"

It took Bashir a moment to get it, and once he did, he stammered, "Oh! Oh no, we're just -- he's a shapeshifter, we're just -- outsiders together, you could say."

Garak's smile melted from sharp into satisfied. Had all Cardassians perfected that cat-with-the-cream look? "A friendship built on exclusion, then? I do hope, doctor, that our relationship will be built on different grounds."

"I'm sure," Bashir said uncertainly, and Garak just laughed softly and refilled Bashir's glass.

***

"Am I boring you, doctor?" Odo said dryly after Bashir yawned again.

"No, I'm sorry," Bashir said. "I stayed up later than usual the past couple of nights." He took another sip of his red leaf tea, hoping the caffeine would kick in soon.

"Entertaining a certain visitor?" Odo said, and for someone with a really limited range of expressions, Odo did sly insinuation very well.

"He was teaching me how to play kotra," Bashir told him, exasperated.

"I'm sure he was," Odo said, and watched Bashir eat his breakfast for a few more moments. And then he said, his tone lowered, "Just the same, doctor, you ought to take care."

"Odo, it's fine. He's not any bother."

"I've heard some disquieting rumors about him. I think he's a member of the Obsidian Order."

Bashir nearly choked on his tea, and Odo pounded him helpfully on the back for a moment. "Oh really, Odo, don't you think that's a little paranoid? He's a finance official, not some sort of...spy."

"Are you sure?" Odo said, and Bashir wanted to laugh at how preposterous it seemed, but Odo's expression was far too serious for that.

"Even if he was, it's not like I know anything," he told Odo eventually, and drained the last of his tea.

***

"You're a quick student," Garak said, looking over the kotra board.

"I'm a doctor," Bashir said by way of explanation.

"Yes, I suppose a physician who can't apply new information quickly would not be a very adept one," Garak said, reaching out and leisurely destroying Bashir's left flank.

"I can't take all the credit -- you're a good teacher," Bashir said, sitting back for a moment to contemplate his strategy. His chances for winning looked dismal at best, and under his irritation at his predicament, he was actually glad that Garak wasn't going purposefully easy on him -- at least, not too easy.

His next move had Garak raising an eyeridge. "But perhaps you have some unnatural advantages," he said lightly.

Bashir froze.

Garak was still leaning forward over the board, but he looked up. "Ah," he said. "I thought as much. You really mustn't worry, doctor -- Cardassians take a different view of these things."

"I know," Bashir said tightly. It had been a year since his enhancements had been exposed and he had been ousted from both Starfleet and Federation territory, but his nerves still felt raw.

"Really, my dear," Garak said soothingly, holding Bashir's gaze. "You can't think it makes any difference to me? I assure you, it doesn't lessen my regard for you. Quite the opposite." He reached across the board to make his move, bisecting Bashir's remaining defenses and removing his last avenue for escape.

"I don't understand," Bashir said hollowly, surveying his defeat.

Garak took Bashir's fingertips and gently tugged them forward to rest over his last bastion on the board. "I told you, we take a different view of these things. Do you know how many different rumors there are on the station as to the reason for your exile? You needn't have done so, but you did effectively hide something that anyone could have unearthed with a little patience. Cardassians appreciate talent, doctor."

His fingers were warm against Bashir's, the raised surface of the minute scales rubbing against smooth skin. "So I've been told," Bashir said slowly, and did not draw away.

"Yield," Garak said, but it sounded more like an entreaty than a command. His fingers, still entangled with Bashir's, flicked over the remaining kotra piece.

***

The third bomb that exploded in Ore Processing in as many months had the infirmary crowded for hours.

"I have some questions to ask him, doctor," Odo growled at him.

"And you can ask away," Bashir said, "when he's no longer actively bleeding." His patient, a Cardassian engineer, looked profoundly grateful for at least temporarily escaping Odo's inquiries.

"I want to talk to all of them," Odo said, and stood next to the infirmary door to wait, just in time for Dukat to come storming in.

"Odo!" Dukat said, although his gaze was directed in Bashir and Denalli's direction. "Where are the rebels responsible for this?"

"It's too soon to say who is responsible," Odo said. "I will inform you when I find the guilty party. Not before."

"I want a name. Soon," Dukat said. "Find who did this, or my security will."

Bashir traded an unhappy look with Odo -- Dukat's security would obediently produce a name, but they both knew it was unlikely to be the actual perpetrator's. "You'll know as soon as I do," Odo said finally, and Dukat stalked out of the infirmary again.

After a long, long day of clearing shrapnel out of wounds and healing plasma burns, Bashir dropped by Odo's office on his way to his quarters.

Odo didn't look tired, exactly, but his features seemed less precisely defined than usual. "Doctor," he said, and waited.

Bashir didn't take a seat, but remained standing, leaning against the wall next to the door. "There's something different about today's bombing," he said.

Odo just tilted his head to one side. "I inspected the site. The device seems to have been set in a manner similar to previous ones. Only the site of attack was noticeably different." His statement had the air of observation only, not a direct contradiction.

"My patients were different, too -- no Bajorans were killed. This was done very carefully."

Odo snorted dismissively. "No Bajorans were killed last month, either -- the Resistance does try to avoid that as much as possible."

Bashir pursed his lips for a moment. "But for an attack that was timed to harm so many Cardassians, my question is: why were there no fatalities?"

Odo had no answer, but he looked just as disturbed as Bashir felt.

A few days later, Odo caught a Bajoran man who had sabotaged a shuttle, killing eighteen Cardassian soldiers. Dukat claimed that the man had obviously also been responsible for the recent bombing, but as Odo had confessed to Bashir in a quiet moment, he'd never found evidence either way.

***

He was paged in the middle of the night, and threw on some clothes before grabbing his medical bags and heading for the usual shuttle.

Dukat was sitting in the pilot's chair, fingers expertly dancing over the keys to prepare for their departure. He'd asked Dukat once if he'd ever been a helmsman on a Cardassian starship -- it surprised a rare, honest smile out of Dukat, who had sighed a bit and said nostalgically, "It's been years, but it stays with you."

The trip planetside was a brief one, but as always, Dukat took pains to make sure they were not followed. On this side of the planet, it was the dead of night, too, and they slipped, unnoticed, into the home of Tora Naprem.

"Oh, thank goodness you were able to come so quickly," she said, and led them to the baby's bedroom.

Bashir opened his medical case and took out his scanner, switching it to the calibrations he had specially designed. "When did the attack begin?" he asked, noting the girl's labored breathing even as the scanner gave him the readings he expected.

"Yesterday morning," Naprem said, clinging to Dukat's side. "I did just what you said -- the stimulant and the herbs, and it seemed to help, but then it got worse."

Bashir brushed his hand across the girl's forehead, taking note of her temperature. Finally he snapped his scanner shut. "I need to ask you a few questions," he said in a low voice to Naprem, trying not to disturb his patient's fitful rest.

Naprem nodded, and Bashir followed her as she left the room.

"I'm sorry to ask you about this, but it's important," he said, trying for as much empathy as possible. "I need to know about the child who died -- would you say these symptoms are similar?"

Her eyes welled with tears. "Ziyal? She was prone to fevers, but she didn't -- I don't think she--"

"Think carefully," Bashir urged her. "Swelling at the neckridges? Difficulty breathing?"

She drew in a deep breath, obviously trying to calm herself. "I -- I think so. The swelling, at least -- I asked Skrain once if it was normal, but I don't think it was anywhere near as bad as Jalise's."

Bashir nodded. It was not the answer he had been hoping for, but at least it gave him some ideas. "I need to run some tests, but I think it's clear that it's an autoimmune disorder, exacerbated by the hybridization. I want to try a different corticosteroid tonight -- it should help the symptoms pass, but it's important to keep her resting until she's recovered."

Naprem pressed her lips together and nodded, and Bashir went back into the bedroom. He administered the hypospray, and moments later, Jalise's breathing smoothed and evened out.

"Oh, thank you," Naprem said, her voice wavering as leaned against the side of Jalise's crib.

"Let me know if there's any change," he said, and looked at Dukat, who dipped his head slightly in acknowledgment.

Back on the shuttle, Dukat said, "To Cardassians, doctor, family is everything. Don't think I'm not grateful."

"I took an oath to heal," Bashir said. "It's my duty."

Dukat let it go at that, but Bashir knew that his gratitude only extended as far as Bashir's silence.

***

Garak walked into the infirmary at the end of his shift the next evening.

Bashir might have wondered just how Garak knew when he would be done with work for the day, but from the way Denalli was studiously avoiding looking in their direction, he thought he could guess.

"Are you free for dinner, doctor?" Garak asked, smiling warmly.

Bashir put his hands through the sterile ray and said, "Yes -- do you mind if we stop by my quarters first? I'd like to change."

"By all means," Garak said, nodding his head cordially at Denalli before taking Bashir by the elbow and gently leading him out of the infirmary.

Once in his quarters, Bashir said, "I'll be just a moment," and went into his bedroom to strip out of the Cardassian civilian medical clothing and into a more casual suit. When he came out again, however, Garak was waiting just by the door and caught him by the arm.

"I came by to see you last night, but you weren't in your quarters," Garak said, his eyes narrowed.

"What were you doing, coming to see me so late?" Bashir said, unnerved by the implication that Garak might be watching him.

Garak stepped closer still. "Were you with someone else?"

"Only in the strictest sense of the word. I don't see why it should matter to you," Bashir snapped.

Garak made a low sound that Bashir had rarely heard from a Cardassian before, a staccato kind of hiss, pushed him against the doorframe and then kissed him.

He should have pushed Garak away, should have halted this -- what, a jealous fit? -- in its tracks and had a firm discussion about cross-cultural cues, but it did feel good and he'd thought they might cross this line sooner rather than later. So he kissed back and carefully slid his fingertips up Garak's neck, which seemed odd and reckless after a year of scrupulously avoiding touching any Cardassian's ridges in any situation.

Bashir broke the kiss and said mildly, "I was gone last night on a medical emergency. I wasn't -- stepping out on you or anything." He glared at Garak a little. "Generally speaking, humans have to make a few promises before either party is entitled to fly into a jealous rage. Just so you know."

Garak stroked his thumb softly just below Bashir's ear, where a ridge and a nerve cluster would have been located on a Cardassian. "I'm sorry if I alarmed you," he said, and there was the Garak he had gotten to know over the past months, all generous civility and charm. "Just so you know, my dear, a Cardassian would assume a few of those promises were already implied."

"Really," Bashir said faintly, and gasped when Garak leaned down to kiss his neck. "I thought we were -- aren't we going to dinner now?"

"I'd hate to be accused of not seeing to your needs," Garak said against his skin, biting down gently before releasing him.

***

Bashir ordered for them this time, and Garak pronounced curry to be "delightful," as Bashir had hoped he would.

"So tell me -- does everyone else assume we are--" Bashir waved a hand between he and Garak, in lieu of actually applying any sort of label to their relationship.

Garak's sly glance indicated that didn't escape him. "You have been keeping largely to my company these past months, haven't you? With the exception of your weekly breakfasts with Odo and a few outings with Dr. Denalli, who thinks quite well of you, by the way."

"I'm not even sure I want to know what she's been telling you," Bashir said mock-grumpily, but he really did like Denalli, and the secondhand compliment pleased him. "When have you had a chance to talk to her, anyway?"

"Oh, I've stopped by the infirmary some days to find that you're in surgery or conducting research," Garak said. "We've chatted a few times."

"Gossiped, more likely," Bashir grumbled, because Denalli and Quark had some sort of unholy alliance going on, and Denalli's access to details of various people's personal lives was a little obscene, considering that as far as he knew, she wasn't given to abusing her position for gossip's sake.

Garak laughed. "These are close quarters, doctor -- gossip is inevitable. And everyone wants to know the latest news from Cardassia."

"Oh? So what is the latest from Cardassia?"

Garak waved a hand dismissively. "Various political matters, which would take entirely too long to explain, and if you hated that book by Isana Il'Dor, you probably wouldn't find it of much interest."

"I didn't hate it!" Bashir protested. "I just thought it was overly convoluted. I think I was missing a lot of cultural context."

"As we've already discovered once this evening," Garak said, his eyes going half-lidded. Bashir swallowed, feeling a bit of warmth rise in his cheeks in memory.

The rest of dinner passed in pleasant conversation, but the frisson between them stayed, so that when Garak walked Bashir back to his quarters, Bashir said, "Won't you come in?"

Garak looked honestly regretful. "I would like nothing better, but I really do have a shuttle to catch."

Bashir tried not to feel too disappointed. "Well, duty calls, I suppose." He leaned forward and pressed his lips against Garak's, and for one anxiety-producing moment, he didn't respond. Garak then pulled back just enough to say, "Really, my dear, in the corridor," and then kissed him anyway, and it almost made up for his precipitous departure.

***

It was another three weeks before he saw Garak again, by far the longest stretch of silence since they'd met. Bashir walked into his quarters, intent on nothing more than dinner, a shower, and sleep after a heartbreaking shift in the infimary, when he saw Garak sitting in one of his two chairs with a reader in hand. Garak rose to his feet and looked ready to say something, but Bashir just strode forward and flung his arms around Garak's waist.

"You could have at least sent a note," Bashir muttered into Garak's tunic.

Garak wrapped one arm around his shoulders and brought up the other, oddly hesistant, and began to stroke Bashir's hair gently. "Another human custom, doctor?"

Bashir looked up at him. "You think I haven't lived here long enough to be suspicious when someone disappears?" he asked, and then said in a lower, quieter tone, "I was worried."

"That wasn't my intention at all, my dear, I assure you," Garak said. He leaned in to catch Bashir's lips in a kiss, and it was warm and comforting after weeks of trying to talk himself out of fearing the worst. And then something changed -- maybe he moved closer, maybe Garak held him a little tighter, but the kisses went from soft to a little desperate, and it wasn't long before Bashir was tugging Garak toward the bedroom.

Garak was efficiently stripping Bashir of his clothes, undoing the Cardassian fastenings with an ease that had taken Bashir a month to achieve. "Did you finish the book I lent you?"

"Yes, and remind me to make you read Animal Farm some day," Bashir said, hunting for the closings to Garak's tunic and finding them after a bit of searching.

"That sounds like a children's story," Garak said, sounding baffled.

"Do you really want to talk about this now?" Bashir asked, clad only in his trousers.

Garak's gaze went down his body slowly, and when he brought his eyes back up, he said, "Not particularly, no."

"Oh, good," Bashir said, and pulled him down to the bed.

***

His bed wasn't really designed with two people in mind, but it worked well enough with Bashir half draped over Garak as they caught their breath. Garak's fingers trailed lazily up and down Bashir's spine, and it was some time before Bashir said, "Now, about that book--"

With his head resting on Garak's shoulder, he couldn't see Garak's expression, but he thought he heard a smile in Garak's voice. "What interesting taste in pillow talk, my dear."

Bashir refused to be deterred. "You're the one who wanted to talk about it during the preliminaries. My timing is much more practical."

He felt the huff of laugher shake Garak's chest. "So it is. Well then, what did you think?"

"It's a much more recent publication than anything else we've read so far," Bashir said, keeping his tone idle and light.

Garak hummed in agreement.

"Of course, all this ancient Cardassian history is totally new to me. I'm afraid I'm confused on a few points." He stroked his fingers lightly down a ridge on Garak's stomach, at least until Garak flinched a little and made a sound that Bashir would have to classify as a squeak. "Sorry. Ticklish?" he asked, stilling his hand.

"Nothing of the sort," Garak said, threading their fingers together and moving them away from the ridge in question.

"Anyway, these ancient Hebitians from the main continent -- am I supposed to understand that they're different from the people on the northern continent that they enslaved?"

"Different? Of course they were. The Hebitians of the main continent had a rich culture and a developed civilization. By contrast, the denizens of the northern continent were barbarians."

"I see," Bashir said neutrally. "So would you call the Hebitians' conquest a civilizing influence?"

"But of course. The Hebitians brought order to the northern continent. How could the northerners not benefit?"

"Hmm. But in the end, it seems the Hebitians themselves didn't benefit as much as expected, if they were forced to withdraw."

Garak's touch on his back became a little firmer. "Empires do overreach themselves from time to time. Prioritizing the main continent in a crisis was the responsible thing to do, wouldn't you agree?"

"I can see why the decision was made. But everyone would have been better off if they had never invaded the northern continent in the first place."

Garak's breathing stilled for half a moment, and then he said, "The Hebitians raised the northerners up, taught them everything. You're suggesting this was in vain?"

"The Hebitians destroyed the northerners' native culture and consigned them to ruin when the occupation was no longer profitable. They may have been from a different continent, but they were all Cardassians, weren't they? Do you mean to tell me that they deserved it?"

Garak's finger tapped against his spine a few times, but otherwise, he said nothing.

Bashir let the silence go, having said his piece. Garak would either consider it and respond or he wouldn't -- Bashir could only wait.

"Such interesting taste in pillow talk," Garak said after some time. He didn't sound offended or dismissive, just thoughtful.

Bashir shifted a bit into a more comfortable position, turned his head to press a kiss against Garak's shoulder, and called for lights out.

***

Shortly into his tenure at Terok Nor, Bashir had persuaded Gul Dukat that a little bit of routine medical care among the Bajoran workers would go a long way toward efficiency and increased production output, and sufficinently flattered Dukat's ego by telling him how generous such a gesture would make him appear. From then on, Dukat allowed him to do rounds among the workers once a month, and it wasn't enough -- it would never be good enough, the only thing that would be was a cessation of forced labor under terrible conditions -- but it was better than nothing.

Garak accompanied him down to the Bajoran community quarters, claiming a bit of business with Glinn Boheeka, who usually escorted Bashir around the area.

"Good morning, doctor," Glinn Boheeka said pleasantly when they arrived. His expression changed when he saw Garak, though, and any congeniality disappeared from his face as he gave Garak a sharp military nod of respect.

Bashir did his best to tune out their conversation, which did indeed seem to be financial in nature, and concentrated on his patients. Heat exhaustion, stress fractures, viruses that plagued battered immune systems -- but he worked on one patient at a time, doing as much as he could under Boheeka's watchful eye with limited resources. Actually, he'd have to thank Garak, later -- Boheeka was sufficiently distracted that Bashir dared to do a little more than was strictly sanctioned.

It was all routine until he saw an soldier dragging in a Bajoran child. "Where is your mother?" the soldier demanded.

The boy shook his head tearfully, and said nothing. The soldier growled once and unholstered his shock stick, and a voice croaked, "No!"

Everyone in the room turned to see an obviously ill Bajoran woman huddled on the floor. She'd been hidden from Bashir's immediate view by several people, but no one blocked her now.

The soldier grabbed the boy by the shoulder and shoved him forward in his mother's direction. "Your child was caught stealing medicine from the chemist's shop."

"No," the woman said, although it had the sound of a plea and not a denial.

"This is how you repay our generosity? We feed you, clothe you -- why, even send a doctor to care for you," the soldier said, throwing a glance in Bashir's direction. "The both of you will come with me."

"She can't! She's sick!" the boy shrieked.

The soldier casually struck him across the face, and Bashir was up on his feet immediately. He didn't know what he intended to do, besides stop this immediately somehow, especially as the soldier began to beat the boy in earnest.

He was held back by a tight grip on his bicep. He looked behind him at Garak, who shook his head minutely, his expression warning. Bashir heard the boy cry out again and again, and he said hoarsely, "Stop this. Stop this," and for the first time since they had met, Garak looked terribly conflicted.

Finally Boheeka called out, "That's enough."

Bashir yanked his arm free of Garak's grip then, and darted forward to the child, who was bloody and unconscious on the floor. He worked as quickly and thoroughly as he could, and Boheeka said nothing at all after ordering the solider out, not even when Bashir went above and beyond the usual maximum limit of treatment.

When he was finished, he looked at Garak.

For someone with such an impassive expression, his eyes looked remarkably haunted.

***

Bashir returned to the infirmary after he finished his rounds. He worked mostly in silence, and he thought he was reasonably good at concealing his emotions, but from the glances Denalli was sending his way, he wasn't entirely successful.

An unasked for cup of tea was placed in front of him, and Bashir looked up in surprise -- the person lowest in rank in the room was the one whose duty it was to see to refreshment, and though Bashir had regularly done so for Denalli out of respect, she had never done it for him before. "Thank you," he told her, his voice a little rough.

She sat down next to him. "Something happened this morning," she said, and it wasn't a question.

He took a careful sip of his tea, and nodded.

Denalli sighed, and it sounded sad. "We can only do what we can do," she said after a moment, and it sounded like a maxim she was trying to convince herself of.

He smiled without humor. "Terrans say, 'you can only do your best.'"

"That's different. More depressing."

"How so?"

Denalli gestured to the empty air around them. "Is this our best?"

The words hung between them for a few moments, and then Bashir said, "You're right, it is more depressing."

They drank their tea together in silence, and then Denalli said abruptly, "Don't start any new projects."

"What?" he asked, brow furrowed in confusion.

"Budget issues," she said, and he couldn't have said how he knew, but he was certain that she was intentionally lying and meant for him to know it.

"The problem of governments everywhere," he agreed, keeping his tone mild.

She drained the last of her tea, rubbed his shoulder briskly, and went back to work.

***

He woke alone in his bed when the comm system beeped at him. "Bashir here," he said, after tapping his comm link.

"Doctor. Your assistance is required," Dukat said tersely.

"Of course," Bashir said, already rolling out of bed and grabbing his physician's tunic.

"I'm unable to accompany you, but you'll find everything is in order," Dukat said.

Bashir's eyebrows went up at that, but he merely said, "On my way," and hurried to the usual shuttle. Although he hadn't had a lot of practice with flying the shuttle by himself, he was quite familiar with Cardassian computer systems, and felt he did a passable job flying to the surface.

His knock on the door was answered by Tora Naprem almost immediately, and when he arrived at Jalise's crib, he could see that his suspicions were correct -- he'd been doing research for the last week on Jalise's condition, and knew there was no time left to delay. "Listen to me," he said to Naprem, projecting every bit of calm, professional confidence that he could muster. "I've been working on a treatment for her -- it's experimental and there's no real roadmap for us to follow, but I believe it will help. Will you allow it?"

He was unprepared for Naprem to reach out and cradle his face in her hands. "You brought her into this world -- I might have lost her like I lost Ziyal without your help, and I -- please, anything you can do to save her, do it."

"I will do everything I can," he said, and it was a promise -- the same one he'd made when he was a stranded stranger a year ago.

The treatment was unorthodox, and he'd worked on it with every spare moment at the infirmary. He wished he'd had more time to do testing, wished he could have refined his computer models even further, but the longer he delayed, the more the baby's condition worsened.

He applied a succession of hyposprays, and then waited, one eye on his medical scanner and the other on Jalise's face. Naprem was on the other side of the crib, and he knew she wanted nothing more than to hold her child, but he needed Jalise to remain undistubed while the treatment worked.

Jalise's face scrunched up and she began to cry fitfully, just as the readings on Bashir's scanner gave him the result he'd hoped for. "Go on, you can pick her up," he told Naprem gently, smiling.

Naprem carefully scooped Jalise up, who hiccupped a few times before settling down and dozing against her mother's chest.

"What did you -- how did you --" Naprem said, her eyes wide with wonder.

He packed up his equipment quietly, not wanting to disturb Jalise's rest. "I was considering how I would correct the problem if I were able to reengineer the genes that were responsible for the autoimmune disorder, and once I was thinking about it that way, the solution suggested itself."

"Did you? Reengineer them, I mean," Naprem said uncertainly.

Bashir shook his head. "No. Although I understand that not everyone feels the same way the Federation does about it." He shrugged one shoulder and smiled. "Fortunately for me, I suppose."

Naprem was smiling through her tears. "You know, I'm so sorry they made you leave, but I -- I've never stopped thanking the Prophets that you came here to us."

He reached out and smoothed one gentle fingertip across Jalise's muted Cardassian ridges at the temple, and it was only then that he realized his cheeks were wet, as well.

***

Bajor's lower moon cast enough light to navigate his way back to the shuttle. Despite that, he hadn't known he was being followed until a hand clamped down on his shoulder. He took a deep breath, muscles in his arm tightening as he prepared to use his medical case as a bludgeon if necessary, when he turned around and looked into Garak's eyes.

"How the hell did you find me?" he asked without rancor.

"I'm not without my resources," Garak said, and let his hand drop.

The path to the field where he'd landed the shuttlecraft was gravel, surrounded by tall grass, and as far as Bashir could tell, there was no one else around -- Naprem's isolated villa was far behind them.

"What do you want?" he asked.

The faint light available cast interesting shadows on Garak's face. "I'd like," Garak rephrased, "to fulfill my orders."

Bashir smiled self-deprecatingly. "So I guess you're not plain, simple Garak after all, are you."

"You never thought I was," Garak said, and he sounded both approving and somewhat dangerous at the same time, and in the darkness, Bashir flashed to the moment Garak had buried his face in Bashir's shoulder, a strange growled hiss in his ear as Garak's body shook in orgasm.

"What are you going to do?" Bashir asked.

"Well, that is the question, isn't it. Tell me, doctor, were it in your hands -- would you see the Occupation ended tomorrow?"

Bashir looked around them at the empty field, the wind rustling the grass around them. He'd guarded his words for so long that it felt wildly exhibitionist to say them now. "You must know my answer is yes."

"Congratulations -- members of the Detapa Council, the Obsidian Order, and various civilian factions agree with you. But you see, my dear, it isn't in your hands -- it's in mine. I can stop all of this--" and Bashir thought of his voice pleading with Garak -- "just by revealing the secret you've kept this entire year. The Occupation is all but over, and this would be its death-knell."

Bashir's eyes widened. "That's it? Do this and it's over?"

Garak laughed, and it was not pleasant. "Simple, isn't it? All I have to do is let evidence slip to the right parties, and the weight of Dukat's successive failures and scandals will crush the Occupation utterly."

"Then what's stopping you?" he demanded. "Didn't you tell me you thought the Occupation was a drain Cardassia couldn't afford?"

Garak's expression hardened. "Oh, indeed. And what, my dear, do you think will happen to Tora Naprem and that child you just saved?"

Bashir stared at him, suspicion making his stomach churn. "You think Dukat will kill them to cover it up."

"Oh, my dear, I know he will. And you've known for a year that your life would be worth nothing to him without your silence."

"And would you find that such a pity?" Bashir asked, parroting back the question Garak had asked him when they first met. "Are you going to tell me that you didn't -- that you didn't use me? That you didn't plan this?" He felt overwhelmed, having it all called into question, and couldn't deny that the betrayal gouged as deeply as being exposed and repudiated by almost everyone he'd held dear.

"I planned this," Garak said, and then his voice softened. "But I didn't plan for you."

"I don't understand," Bashir said, shaking his head.

"Don't you? I swear to you, however repugnant you find it, I would have left those two to their fate a year ago. I would have done my duty without question, without hesitation, for the good of Cardassia." He stepped in toward Bashir, and brought his hands to rest on Bashir's hips.

"And now?" Bashir asked, in barely more than a whisper.

Garak shook his head, an expression of faintly bewildered astonishment on his face. "I could never bear the look on your face if I did so."

"If you expose them, I don't think I'd live long enough for that to be problem," Bashir said, and knew it was the truth.

"And that I could not bear at all," Garak said, and pulled him close. They kissed, and it felt desperate and bittersweet and he never, ever wanted to let go.

"So what are you going to do?" Bashir asked after they broke the kiss.

"I told you, the Occupation is all but over. It's just a question of time," Garak said. "Dukat knows it -- I think most of Terok Nor feels it coming. He'll send his mistress and child away to someplace safe as long as he can be assured of discretion. But I'm afraid he would most certainly be tempted to tie up all his loose ends -- and you, my dear, definitely qualify."

"Wonderful," Bashir said, rolling his eyes. "Is there no place in the quadrant I won't have to flee from?"

"Come with me," Garak said, and though he said it lightly, his hands gripped Bashir tight with urgency. "Come to Cardassia with me."

It was a mad idea, and Bashir sputtered, "What would I do there?"

Garak smiled. "You seem to have a talent for persuading Cardassians to see things your way. Although I would request that you please reserve some methods of persuasion for me alone."

"Garak!" Bashir said, half-laughing in disbelief.

"Elim," Garak said, and it had the air of correction.

"What?"

"If I'm going to betray Cardassia for you, you should at least call me by my given name," Garak said.

Bashir frowned at him. "Are you really betraying so much as just...interpreting your orders a little differently?"

"Some parties, I fear, would not see it that way if my -- inaction, shall we say? -- was discovered. At the rate I'm going, we may be exiles together before this is over."

Bashir tugged gently at Garak's hand, and they began walking together toward the shuttlecraft. "Well, I'm a doctor. I'm pretty sure we'll get by, somehow. I don't suppose you know a useful trade of some sort."

Garak was silent for a moment. "Well, I'm a fair hand at hemming trousers."

"Now you're just making fun of me," Bashir accused, but was unable to keep the smile from his face.