"To become a thing is to know a thing—"
Julian's head pounds as he blinks around, brings a view of a slate grey wall into clearer focus, and the voice keeps talking—carrying on these soft, lilting syllables that sound so familiar, but that Julian can't quite place—
"To assume its form is to begin to understand its existence…"
The voice trails off into a sigh, and Julian winces at the too-bright light that finally registers for him as he tries to sit up. Wherever he is, it's cold, and the air feels slimy up against his skin, and it's lit like an interrogation room—grimly, Julian supposes that Garak would love it here. There's so much potential assistance that a former operative of the Obsidian Order could find in everything about this place.
"That is a saying among my people," the voice says. "I have always known it to be true, and a fascinating thing to experience. The way that something so simple as changing one's physical shape changes one's perception of the universe, of reality"—and finally, it hits Julian, where he's heard these words before. He's heard Nerys saying them, repeating something that she heard from Odo, which must mean that—
A Changeling. Whoever took Julian has to be one of the Founders. There isn't any reason for an unaffiliated Changeling to kidnap him—and he can hardly fathom why the Founders would want him, either. Nor why they would bother to knock him out with… some persuasion of medicine in order to take him prisoner. He can't tell what it is just from the side-effects; he can't even count on it being anything that he knows. It could be Dominion science.
And it still fails to answer why the Dominion would want to take him in the first place.
After all, Julian's just a doctor. Chief Medical Officer, yes. And a doctor who tried to save a certain group of Jem'Hadar, but nevertheless: just a doctor—he has no information that the Changelings couldn't potentially find from someone who would have more strategic advantages. He isn't Captain Sisko, or Nerys (the station's First Officer). Or Miles (who'd know better than anyone how best to sabotage Deep Space Nine). Or Jadzia (with her comparable knowledge of the mechanisms for doing so).
He isn't Quark (not especially trustworthy as an individual, but trusted not to poison anyone, as it would be exceptionally bad for business). Or Commander Worf (who'd know how to sabotage the Defiant). Or Garak (not particularly noteworthy on paper, but that's only if one isn't looking at the right pieces concerning him and his past, his connections). He isn't even Jake (who isn't in any position of power himself, but would put an enterprising Changeling in an advantageous position for emotionally compromising Captain Sisko).
"But no one has ever impressed me so much in this regard as you have, Doctor. No one. Your mind… is an unexpectedly fascinating place to be."
Julian snickers, bitterly. Perhaps this Changeling's only taken him because leaving the station made him an ideal target—someone who's all but outright presented himself to them, wearing a sign that reads, here is Julian Bashir, please experiment on him as you see fit.
Julian's head is still more than a little fuzzy. Trying to push through it makes the pounding worse and brings pangs along with it besides. Even just to sit up. But he's not to be floored by anything that this Dominion agent's gone and done to him—until he's sitting up and blinking… at himself. At the same face that he sees every morning in the mirror. At a Changeling who's taken on his shape, anyway, and has decided to crouch next to him—
And to do so without any protective forcefields keeping Julian back, at that. Julian gasps, quietly so, as his hand encounters no resistance, as he moves it towards the Changeling (who doesn't flinch), as his fingers brush up on warm skin, fine cheekbones, his own features. So familiar, just on a face that can't be his. The Changeling sighs like a contented housecoat, leaning into Julian's touch, moving xyr face so it's as if Julian's caressing xer, ghosting his fingers along the Changeling's face intentionally.
"You solids," the Changeling whispers in a voice that's so… warm. So kind. So nearing affectionate, even as xie flings out xyr species's favored slur for other humanoids. "You go through life limited to one shape, one perspective. I've often thought of how lonely that must be for you. How awful—but I thought, for certain, that my current state of separation from the Great Link was rivaled only by our dear Odo's pain. The pain of constantly missing something and not knowing what it is. Not to have any idea who you are or what you're capable of… but your pain, Doctor—"
"And what, exactly, do you know about my pain?" Julian snaps, but he doesn't withdraw his hand from the Changeling's face. They blink at each other, this time—staring at each other with the same bemused expression. The vitriol in his voice surprised Julian, and the Changeling looks similarly perplexed by it. It's the same sort of expression that Garak gives Julian when he's trying to play at ignorant confusion, save that it lacks his usual sense of slipperiness.
And then the Changeling throws everything off in one simple action: xie chuckles. Xie reaches over and cards xyr fingers through Julian's hair, rests xyr palm over his cheek, in a mirror of his own position. Xie's so intent on paralleling Julian, and he can almost see the gears turning over in xyr head, the thought processes all coming together as xie shifts xyr hand. Prods at Julian and tries to perfectly mimic his position, to place xyr fingers in exactly the same arrangement as his. Xie even slips down onto the floor, sitting with xyr legs half-curled as his are, resting xyr weight on a palm pressed into the floor.
"Weren't you listening to me, Doctor?" xie says after a long while of silence, and if Julian didn't know any better, he'd think xie was pleading with him. "No, not Doctor—we're closer now than all of those tedious formalities. …Julian, I know everything about your pain. Taking your shape allows me access to all of these… thoughts and feelings that you wouldn't ever share with anyone else."
"Ah, but I'm such a talkative man," Julian points out, fully aware that he's channeling Garak, in this moment. Not just because he's using one of Garak's choices of words for him, either. But because he's doing so with the intention of proving that some behavior would be anomalous, in the context of him doing it. "I don't keep secrets, I share everything with everyone—"
"And yet, your closest friends were shocked—absolutely shocked!—to find out that you have a fondness for mid-twentieth-century spy novels. Of all the smallest, oddest things…" The Changeling sighs, and gives Julian a small smile. One that could be fond or condescending, but isn't quite clear. "It's so strange that you would choose to keep something so frivolous hidden from the people you care for, Julian. Even Leeta and Jadzia didn't know about it until they heard Garak mentioning it during one of your lunches—and didn't Garak only know it because he broke into your holosuite?"
"Yes. He is rather unpredictable like that…" Julian ought to have more to say to that accusation—if it's even an accusation; it sounds too fond to be one…
But his head's clearing up slowly, and in the wake of the medication's haze, Julian's only left with shock. It sounds as though the Changeling really does believe that they're getting close to each other because of this. As though xie could actually get inside of Julian's head just by looking like him.
"He's more than just unpredictable; he's fascinating. You wanted to know so much more about him, too, didn't you, Julian?" The Changeling tilts xyr head, leans in closer to him, and Julian finds himself doing the same—he can't help it, when in his mind, he thinks—no, he knows that he should try to run; it'd be more of a risk, but it would be the braver thing to do, the right thing to do, the thing that the Doctor Julian Bashir his friends all know would do—but every fiber of his body and being just want to get closer to the Changeling.
"What are you doing to me," he hisses, narrowing his eyes to slits and trying his damnedest to seem serious, and hardened, and aggravated when he's anything but. For all he wants this just to be some form of mind control, for all he wants the Changeling out of his head, Julian wants something else more.
He wants to understand. He wants the Changeling's hand to stay on his cheek—all warm and soft; he's never thought of his hands as being so, but he supposes that they must be—and he wants to pursue this. Whatever this is. He wants to know what this is. And then he doesn't want it to stop, even though he knows it must. There's no way that they can stay here forever. Even ignoring the part where he'll eventually die, there's the current state of affairs between their respective governments.
Still, he demands of xer: "What makes you think that any of this is accurate and not some fantasy of yours."
"I keep telling you that I know you, Julian," xie says, sounding… hurt. Of all the damned things for xer to sound. "What about this is so hard for you to accept? Is it because I'm offering you something that you don't want to accept?"
"You know nothing," he tells xer—again, the harshness in Julian's voice takes him by surprise, but xie gives him a look he hasn't seen in years. The sort that he hasn't gotten from anyone since his genetic resequencing. "You can hardly claim to know me when you don't even know that there is no way I would ever accept anything from a Dominion agent."
"I think we both know that that's not entirely true, Julian. If you were truly desperate, you'd even rely on Weyoun or one of the Jem'Hadar, so long as you thought doing so would get you out of your tight spot alive." (He opens his mouth to deny this, but the words die in his throat.) "And you are truly desperate now, despite not fully realizing it. Despite all of the work you do trying to convince yourself that you aren't."
Xie sighs, brushes xyr fingers down the length of his face, tracing a fine curve from his forehead down to his chin. "You don't need to put so much energy into denying it, Julian. Not with me."
"I'm not denying anything," Julian snaps, and only realizes the self-contradictory nature of that statement once he's said it. "Nor am I any kind of desperate. Desperate for answers maybe, but I'm beginning to think I should just give up on getting any straight answers out of you."
The Changeling huffs, trying (and failing) to stifle an amused snort. Xie shakes xyr head and sighs, leans in closer still, even when it seems that there should be no more space to close between them—and then xie kisses him. Their lips are smooth, both sets of them, with just the slightest bit of chapping—it chafes along Julian's mouth as the Changeling slides xyr lips through a slow, deliberate, uneasy motion. The quiver would be imperceptible to anyone else—but Julian knows his own mouth, and he's felt this same trembling when he's kissed other people—and it's always a question. Wondering if he's allowed to make the kiss less chaste.
For now, he doesn't. He barely moves his mouth under the Changeling's, barely reacts at all, and when they separate, he stares at xer. All he can manage is muttering, "But why?" And then tacking onto it, "Why are you doing this to me," when the Changeling looks at him as though their universal translators are broken.
"I'm not doing anything to you," the Changeling replies, xyr voice soft and barely audible without resting his forehead on xyr's. "I'm doing all of this for you—"
"That still doesn't answer my question of why me—"
"Because your position makes you strategically advantageous, Doctor." Xie says this with a bored drawl, rolling xyr eyes in the same way that Julian's pulled out on Garak countless times, over innumerable different stunts of his. "The Link and the Vorta chose to replace you because, as Chief Medical Officer aboard Deep Space Nine, you have access to everywhere on the station, to almost every file in the records—and while I can hardly tell you what we're planning, I can say that that sort of access, and the sort of trust that people put in you, will make itself invaluable to our cause."
Xie smirks a bit after that, half-fondly and half-amused with… Lord only knows what. "As for my actions here, with you," xie whispers, "they are my own, not anything sanctioned by the Great Link or the Vorta. The rest of the Link will know of this, when I return to them. Some elements of us might disapprove—the way that you solids experience intimacy is so pale an imitation of the Link, of what we feel and how we exist within it. More importantly, we're not meant to lower ourselves to your level, and after Odo choosing you over where he truly belongs…"
Xyr sigh is heavy, exhausted, the sort that Julian saves for after one of his impossibly long shifts, or arguing with an exceedingly uncooperative patient. "But I couldn't let you go where you're headed without attempting to offer you something comforting… Without trying to reach out to you and cure this loneliness that… Well, I, for one, would have thought it impossible until I assumed your form."
"I'm not lonely," Julian insists, even as he reciprocates the Changeling's kiss, moving his lips to accommodate xyr's, knocking his tongue into xyr's and against xyr teeth. He bites at the Changeling's lip, but it's softer than he intends. More tender. His heard isn't quite in it. "I have plenty of friends," he says. "I've had lovers. My parents and I might be estranged, but I like to think that I've found myself a rather nice family, in addition to my biological one. When Miles and Keiko's new baby is born, I'm going to have a godson—"
"But they don't even know the first things about you, Julian," the Changeling insists. "They have no idea who you really are—oh, no, please don't mistake that for me calling you dishonest. It isn't dishonest to attempt to survive any way that you have available to you… but they don't know about your genetic enhancements. They don't know about your childhood, save for how fond you are of Kukalaka and a few tales you've spun. They know only what you tell them about yourself, which isn't very much at all. Or very earnest."
"Then you must know that I can't tell them very much at all," he says. And when a spark goes off, before he can stop himself, he adds, "Besides: everything I've told them is true—especially the lies. Truth, in this case, is simply in the eye of the beholder."
The Changeling smiles, presses that quirk of xyr lips against the corner of Julian's mouth, "Your Garak would be proud of you, though perhaps not for the reasons that you'd like. Or that he would expect. I haven't taken his shape, so my insight into his psychology is limited to what I've learned through your memories—but I would bet that he might find something so very Cardassian about your line of thinking here. The way that you're so willing to bend the truth on this count, to deliberately create a mask in order to survive—"
"It isn't a mask, though. It isn't covering up anything but my genetic status." He wants to believe this—he's believed it for so long—but this all tastes more like a lie than usual. "I'm honest about myself; I simply avoid that one element. Everything I do, everything I say that I am… It's simply a necessary distortion of the image that I present. One designed to cover up my parents' illegal actions so that my entire career—or worse, my entire life—will not slip out of my fingers—"
"Just because it's a mask doesn't mean that it can't also be a self-portrait," says the Changeling, tracing xyr lips up Julian's jawline and cheek, coming over to place a feather-light kiss by his ear, then another just above his pulse. "Or that there isn't any truth in it… The way you attempt to imitate their behaviors is so intriguing, in light of the way you exaggerate some of your own personality defects. Have you ever considered the sort of statement you're making about all of these normal solids? What sort of commentary you're making with the image of yourself that purports to be normal?"
"Not extensively," Julian sighs, telling the entire truth and, for the first time, stealing a kiss of his own. He's not sure if he wants it or not—he can't be, when his mind remains in conflict with the rest of him—but, nevertheless, he sucks on the Changeling's lips and tongue. Huffs at the lingering taste of scones and jam and red-leaf tea that xie's managed to mimic. "At the moment, all I'm considering is the degree to which your assessment of me is informed by psychological projection. Perhaps you only think that I'm commenting on humanity because that's what you do when you assume a solid's form."
"To an extent, you're right—and to get that insight without being one of my people? Without taking on my shape?" Xyr sigh comes out in some warm mix of besotted, affectionate, and overjoyed, and xie pulls back, for just a moment, so he can appreciate the sight of this perfect mirror image smiling at him. "You truly are gifted, Julian—and this makes your loneliness so much worse, doesn't it?"
"I wouldn't know." Julian huffs. He's getting quite tired of all the stripping back of pretenses. There's only so much of this that he can handle. "Why don't you give me the privilege of hearing further analysis."
He means that—this conversation must be a privilege; he doubts that xie (or any other Changelings) would do this for too many others—but he doesn't give xer the chance to make good on that. Not just yet.
Instead, Julian finally hazards taking a new chance. And, as he kisses xer again (as does so deeper than either of them have before, as he holds on to this kiss and tries to suck the air out of xer throat), he takes his hand off the floor. He drags his fingers over xer collarbone, up to the collar of xer uniform—it feels so much like fabric, but xie gasps when one of his nails catches on a seam—xie winces, drops xer hand from his cheek to the back of his neck, whines in a way that Julian himself hasn't done in… ages, it feels like.
Right, of course—how could he forget? The Changelings create their clothes as well as their faces, their bodies. The clothing feels like fabric, but it's a part of xer. Julian mutters an apology and rubs his thumb over the seam—but shortly thereafter, he picks up where he left off. Curls his hand up in xer collar, allows himself to topple backwards, drags xer down with him so that they're a tangle of identical, gangly limbs. Kisses xer with brief pauses for breath, but only so that they can kiss each other longer. Only so that they have more time for this.
Only so he has more time to lose his hands in xer hair, in the fine, familiar texture of it. More time to inhale the taste of xer mouth—even under thorough examination, even when he's had his tongue everywhere inside of it, he can't find anything that isn't a flawless imitation of him. He finds all the slight rough patches where he's had cavities filled, the same little sore that's plagued him for ten days now and that he can't stop licking, the patches of chapping on their lips are in the exact same places—and the faint taste of his breakfast still manages to linger there, over top of it all.
They toss and turn throughout the kissing, but almost never break it off. As soon as Julian manages to get comfortable on top of the Changeling, xie knocks him down again, ends up straddling his hips—so he waits and then knocks xer over—and he loses count of how many times they repeat this process. It doesn't entirely matter, anyway: they end up on their sides, face-to-face with each other and still fixed at the mouths, still stuck together and refusing to separate, refusing to even acknowledge any space between their mouths. What little bit there is, they try their best to close.
"Do you understand yet, Julian?" xie asks after a long while, when Julian finally needs to fall into xer and properly catch his breath. He shakes his head, nuzzling at xer neck as he does so, and with an impatient sigh, xie drops xyr hand from his the back of his neck, trails xyr fingers down his spine, spiders out to brush his. "I've known community for my entire life. I've only gone wanting for that when I've taken on assignments away from my people, or taken time out to exist as other things and to attempt to understand them—but I've always had something to return to, with the Link."
"I have something to return home to," Julian starts, but he can't finish the thought. Even without the Pointed Look that the Changeling gives him, even considering how tiring it is to have this all laid bare, Julian can't say it. Not when it's so deliberately ignoring the point of what xie's trying to say.
"Perhaps you do, in some way," xie says. "But consider a certain case-in-point: your relationship with your Garak. You thought that it would be fun, getting to know Elim Garak, this perpetual man of mystery—a retired intelligence operative, the only Cardassian on a Bajoran-and-Federation station—an outsider, like you've always been, underneath that guise of fitting in—so knowledgeable about so many things. Yes, Garak everything that you find the most fascinating…"
Xie pauses as though xie expects Julian to say something—but what can he even say to this? What can he say to any of it? He shakes his head because he can't even draw out the words, No, no, by all means, do go on, and just in case xie misinterprets that action, he kisses xer—briefly, gently, as encouragingly as he can manage, under all their current circumstances.
Xie goes on, caressing his cheek, curling xer other hand up in the fabric around his collar, and whispering right into his mouth: "Maybe you even fancied dear Mister Garak, in your way. It's so hard for you to tell, sometimes. You didn't realize it with Jadzia, at first. You flirted with her because you thought that you should, and it became something more than that. And Garak was just supposed to be a friend, for all you knew that you would do so much more with him.
"They were both potential lovers, Garak and Jadzia. You wanted so badly to know them in every aspect—and that's what made you try so hard to resign them to the realm of just friends. They came to expect the same. They wanted the same thing that you wanted…" Another pause, but this time, it's the Changeling who starts the kiss. Xie throws xerself headlong into it, as though trying to wake Julian up from some bad dream, to make him realize some secret message lurking underneath xyr words.
He's not sure what that message could be, but the thought of it manages to free up his tongue and throat, if only slightly. If only enough for him to tell xer that he doesn't understand how the disparate elements of xer analysis all fit together.
"What I mean to say is: you were comfortable until they tried to get to know you," xie explains. "Until they tried to stop catering to your desire to understand them without being understood in turn. To make you feel safe in their company. Because you knew, then, that you needed to keep up your façade, your personal walls, or else you would feel safe with him, and let something slip. Give all the things you keep hidden a foothold to potentially ruin your life, ruin you. And what was it that Leeta said about you? About how you come on so warmly, then turn out to be so closed-off, in private?"
Even more of a shock than what the Changeling's saying and how xie could get access to this kind of information? Xie's starting to sound more like Julian, now—not just borrowing the tone and tenor of his voice, but picking up his speech patterns, too. And his facial expressions. Xie's getting better at approximating them, as well, and Julian can't help thinking that this whole conversation has only helped xyr learn to emulate him. At first, xie blinked too rarely and hardly moved xyr face, but now xie's twisting and scrunching up xyr face into an expression that Julian knows he's worn before. He's seen himself making it in the mirror.
Most recently, he made it while he prepared for a date with Leeta—his last date with Leeta, for that matter—a date that he went into expecting an argument. And he got an argument, too. His concerns became a self-fulfilling prophecy. He expected Leeta to bring up the issue of meeting his parents, since she'd introduced him to her mother, brother, and sister. She did bring it up. She brought up how, when they had sex, Julian took charge of it all and wouldn't even let her do anything for him—not that she didn't appreciate the attentiveness to her desires, because she did… but she's not some porcelain doll and she could take care of him in the same way that he's done for her.
"For so long, Odo didn't know who he was. You had the same problem, until you were fifteen, and then you couldn't share it, or escape it, or anything you've ever wanted to do. I believe that's one reason why your pain is so great, so palpable…" the Changeling whispers, brushing xyr thumb down Julian's cheek once, and twice, slowly falling into a gentle rhythm. "You know exactly who you are, and you can't reveal it to anyone. Oh, you can blame the practical concerns—your career, for example, and the Federation's ban on genetic engineering… but the simple fact of the matter is…"
Xie sighs, but only pauses long enough to give him a brief, gentle kiss. "The truth is, Julian: even if you didn't have them, you still wouldn't share yourself. You can get so close to people, you can put yourself into their positions and assume their viewpoints so very well—but you don't trust anyone to know who you really are and still love you. You can't even find companionship with anyone over that shared anxiety because you can't admit it to them. Because you think that your genetic status means you ought to be more capable of handling things on your own. That you ought to be more able of withstanding such absolute loneliness."
Another kiss, one that xie holds until Julian has to whine by way of reminding xer that he has lungs and that they need oxygen. "No beings in the whole creation can survive without true companionship," xie tells him, voice so soft that, for a moment, it doesn't sound like his. Everything's right about it, but he still can't recall sounding so gentle himself. "Julian, you'll drive yourself into an early grave if you don't learn to open up to people, if you don't ease all of the loneliness you carry with you… but, of course, I can't make you do anything differently."
Something about the way xie says that sounds like a lament. Something else about the way xie says is sounds as though xie means to say, I would force you to change if I could guarantee that it would work. It ought to remind Julian of how different they really are, despite all their matching appearances and despite everything that the Changeling knows about him. It ought to remind him not to trust this impostor—
But he only recognizes the subtext of that tone because he's used it himself, in talking to more patients than he wants to count.
"All I ask is that you don't run from me, Julian," xie whispers next, brushing xer lips over his cheek and up against his ear again. "You waste so much of your life running from other people, not trusting other people—but I know you. I know everything about you, and I would take you back to the Great Link with me if I could. I would divest you of this single form and let you know the purest love, the unconditional acceptance that you so desperately want…"
A sigh. A gentle kiss. "But I can't do that, so… trust me, Julian. Trust me, and don't run. Just for now. You'll be going to Internment Camp 371 after this, so it's probably your last chance to trust anyone—and I promise you: there is absolutely nothing you could do to make me deem you unworthy of what I want to give you."
Julian answers xer with a kiss, with dropping his hand to xer hip and digging his fingers into xer fabric-flesh. Even knowing that this isn't going to last—he has no idea what waits outside of this room, but he assumes that it involves Jem'Hadar and being shunted off to the prison camp for the rest of his life, or at least a lengthy, undetermined amount of time—but even with that knowledge? Julian kisses the Changeling full on xer mouth.
He whispers that, whatever xie's offering, he wants it, and he trusts xer to give it to him well.