Julian looked around the room with astonishment. He'd never imagined that after so long so many people would show up. After all, it had been twenty years since they were all sent to DS9 and most people in the room Julian hadn't seen for at least ten. Sadly, it wasn't actually DS9 they were on, but Empok Nor. DS9 had been closed off a few years previously, after being almost completely destroyed by some violent spatial anomalies passing through from the Gamma Quadrant, so Empok Nor had been reconstructed with some reluctant help from the Cardassians and moved closer to Bajor and the wormhole.
Miles looked understandably skittish. As did Nog. Captain Nog. Julian still had a hard time believing that - the first Ferengi Captain in Starfleet. Quark frowned every time he laid eyes on his nephew, but still managed to cater for the whole event with his familiar toothy grin.
Julian was a little disappointed that Leeta wasn't there, but he knew she was busy on Ferenginar. Oddly enough she seemed to like it there and last anyone heard, she was pregnant with the seventh son of Nagus Rom. “Still trying for a daughter,” Quark had informed him with distaste.
In fact, practically everyone had had their families greatly extended. Sisko had come back from the Prophets enough times over the years to have two more children and he was currently bouncing his youngest daughter on his knee with a dreamy expression. That expression seemed to be standard for him these days, according to Kasidy. But she was just grateful for the time she was granted with her husband, unlike Keiko who had outright refused to come back to anywhere near DS9 ever again.
Molly, on the other hand had been ecstatic to see “Uncle Julian” again, even though he visited the O'Brien home at least once a year. He was starting to suspect she might be romantically interested in him, but she was like a niece to him, so he did his best not to encourage her. Besides, the age difference did bother him, no matter how young everybody claimed he looked, or how much they teased him about his younger partners. He was no cradle robber, regardless of how Dax claimed to “know all about him and his perverted ways”. Yenni Dax, now. Ezri and Julian had split amicably after two years of amazing sex and sub-standard conversation. Ezri had married a fellow Trill and had moved back home to help her mother. She had died a few years later in an accident and despite the gender change, the new Dax host was startlingly like both Ezri and Jadzia in personality, while not actually being in Starfleet.
They had all changed so much, Julian mused. And yet, in some ways, they really hadn't. Worf was eyeing Yenni with clear unease, while Quark seemed to be seriously reconsidering his sexual preferences. Dax himself was clearly more interested in the newly instated Navarch Kira, despite her insistence that she would stay faithful to Odo, who had yet to return from the Great Link. Julian had first met Yenni a few years before at a conference on Trill and counted himself lucky for having that particular awkward moment behind him.
However, nothing could have prepared him for the next person to step through the door. He knew there was supposed to be a Cardassian representative on the station, as a condition of aiding in the rebuild of both DS9 and Empok Nor, but he'd never contemplated who it might be, or whether he knew them. He never considered that they would be named Elim Garak, strutting into the room, professing to be perfectly on time and in the same breath casually remarking that fashionably late should never have gone out of style.
Sisko's dreamy expression briefly gave way to a sombre mask when he nodded at the new arrival and he wasn't the only one to visibly react to Garak's presence. Nog choked on his root beer, Miles scowled, but Kira actually smiled and greeted the Cardassian happily. Which in turn made Worf stare and Miles drop his drink.
Julian knew he looked like the robot he was often labelled as with his impassive face upon seeing an old friend, but he was so surprised at his own reaction that he hardly knew what to do with himself. Garak hadn't even looked his way and yet Julian felt like he was buzzing all over with the familiar excitement and wonder that their earliest lunches had always invoked in him. The mystery was still there. Just like it had always been. It had been over fifteen years and it still made his pulse race.
Garak took his time greeting everyone. Complimenting people on their clothes and basically being his old, smooth self. He looked odd in the severe looking suit of a Cardassian official and his hair was generously streaked with grey, but even so, Julian thought he had never looked better. Clearly a happier man and by no means burdened by his age, like his father had been. The doctor in Julian quickly spotted all the little signs of health in his friend and somewhere inside he breathed a sigh of relief. Garak was okay.
Until that moment, Julian hadn't even been consciously aware that he worried so for him. That he feared for the life of a torturer and exile, only welcomed home by the sheer need for helping hands. Clearly, he had done very well for himself. As he always had. Julian really should have known. Garak had always been a survivor.
Finally, the piercing blue eyes were directed at Julian and Garak made his way to him, widening his eyes like he always did when he wanted to emphasise anything. “Doctor! I'm so glad to see you! I trust you're doing well?”
Julian smiled at the familiar greeting and felt something slot into place that he hadn't even realised was out of sync. On impulse, he set down his drink, pulled the Cardassian into a tight hug and mumbled into the ridged shell of his ear: “Hello, Garak. I missed you.”
Miles dropped his fresh drink and Molly gasped behind him. Garak stiffened but hugged back briefly before pulling away. Clearing his throat and widening his eyes just a little more, enough to look absolutely shocked but not completely insane, Garak remarked: “If I'd had reason to expect this sort of welcome, I would most certainly have greeted you first, Doctor.”
Julian quickly picked up his drink again in a vain attempt to disguise his sudden blush. “Yes, well. It's true. I didn't know it until just now, but... I really did miss you.” Garak didn't reply and Julian got the feeling that a lot of things were being said in the pause that could very well have been awkward, but actually weren't. Miles cursed behind him and broke the moment. Garak's eyes released their hold on Julian's and he turned away to pick up a drink of his own.
Miles had apparently been witnessing the whole exchange and had shattered his latest drink with his hand, which was now bleeding. Julian quickly got his med kit and healed the small cut, while Garak made small talk some other guests and Miles sent the Cardassian filthy looks. “What is wrong with you, Miles?” Julian finally hissed.
Miles at least had the good grace to look embarrassed. “It's just... I thought you'd remember that he tried to kill you... to kill all of us, once.”
Julian rolled his eyes and packed away his medical wand. “We talked about this years ago, remember? Had either of us been given that same choice, could you really be sure you wouldn't have made the same decision?”
“I know, Julian. I s'pose I just sorta hoped you'd be over the whole Man of Mystery thing and maybe settle down. You wouldn't be the worst son in law, y'know.”
“Oh, not you too!” Julian groaned.
Just then, Garak returned and favoured them both with the very best of his customer pleasing smiles. “Is everything all right, Doctor?”
“Yes, I'm fine, thank you.” Julian quickly replaced his frown with a smile and packed up his med kit. “And since Cupid here is now fully healed, I think I could use a little air. Too many people in here. Care to show me around the station? Being the official Cardassian Representative, and all?”
Garak's smile changed subtly and Julian couldn't help a little shiver up his spine as he let himself be guided out of the conference room.
As the door closed behind them Julian heaved a sigh of relief. He was expecting Garak to start talking immediately, being chatty as usual, but to his surprise Garak kept a steady silence all the way down the corridor. When they reached the turbolift he remarked: “You know, there's a replimat here as well. Care to see it?” Julian smiled and followed Garak into the lift and onto the Promenade.
When they got there, it was closed. The lights were out and the replicators off, but the chairs and tables were out and Julian gladly sat down when Garak indicated a table with his hand. Julian realized with another little shiver that it was “their” table. On DS9, they'd had a regular table. It hadn't always been free, but when it was, they sat there. This Replimat was practically identical to the one on DS9 and Julian looked around with wonder.
“I suppose you also helped getting Empok Nor up and running again?” He asked. Garak started, as if he'd been miles away. “What? Oh- yes. As a matter of fact, I made sure there would be a replimat here as well.”
“Couldn't live without the replicated delights of a mediocre Federation/Bajoran menu, enjoyed in an overcrowded room every day?” Julian joked.
“Something like that,” Garak replied and Julian felt the joke fizzle as their eyes met and the mood suddenly turned serious.
“Garak... why did you come back here? You had a horrible experience here and you could have stayed on Cardassia. That's what I thought you always wanted. To go home.”
Garak's eyes never left Julian's, even as they widened and took on a slightly manic expression. “Well, Doctor, ironically, home wasn't quite the way I left it and I suppose this means my punishment is complete. My exile will last forever, because the home I was banished from simply doesn't exist anymore.”
“I'm so sorry, Garak, “ Julian replied sincerely. Garak tore his eyes away and sighed. “Not as sorry as I am, I assure you.” Not sure how to respond to that, Julian remained quiet and for a minute, there was complete silence. The Promenade was empty, the night shift had begun and all the shops were closed. Many were the same as they had been on DS9 and Julian was surprised at how sad he was when he realized that there was no tailor's shop on Empok Nor. Garak's voice jerked him out of his thoughts, even though he spoke unusually calmly.
“You wanted to know why I came back here? It's actually a tragic comedy worthy of your tacky Shakespeare. You see, when I realized that my home was gone, I didn't move on like any sane person would do. I could have stayed on my home world, rebuild and do my part. Make it feel like home again.” He sighed in a way that was so unlike him that Julian tensed and leaned closer over the table.
“Garak-” he began, but he was interrupted.
“But... alas. I left as soon as I could and headed back out here. For the longest time, I had no idea why.”
By now, Julian was pretty worried. Garak not knowing himself? There had to be something serious up with him. “Garak, are you all right?”
The blue eyes closed half way and for a moment, Garak seemed almost sad. “No, Doctor. I am not. I never will be, and do you know why? I keep looking for a home that doesn't exist. That never can or will exist.”
“What do you mean? Never can or will? I don't understand,” Julian said.
Garak smiled weakly and carried on. “When I heard Deep Space Nine had been almost destroyed, I rushed there, hoping to find you alive. To my relief I found that you had left without my knowledge - I really must commend you for that level of secrecy, my dear - but my relief quickly turned sour when I realized that what I was really looking for... was you. And you... never came back.”
Julian slowly let his jaw drop. Was this a trick? Was Garak playing games with him again? Before he could ask, Garak continued as if he had read his mind.
“I'm sorry to be so blunt, Doctor, but you will be leaving again tomorrow and as much as I regret this, I have no time for games. As it turns out, fate is even more cruel than I ever thought possible. Especially considering I actually don't believe in fate! After seven years of knowing you, apparently you have become more important to me than anything else. Even after almost twice that time has passed without seeing you just once, the feeling is as strong as it ever was.”
Garak's eyes met Julian's and suddenly it felt like the air crackled between them. “You're my home, Doctor. But you are not here to stay and I will not ask it of you.”
Julian was stunned and sat frozen for a moment, thinking it all through. His mind was a mess of opportunities missed and possibilities ahead. He tore his eyes off Garak and got up from the chair, making a quick decision. “Mr. Garak. Would you care to join me for a drink in my quarters? I hear the guest quarters on this station can feel quite... homey.”
Garak blinked, but rose smoothly as he replied. “I'd like that very much, Doctor. Very much indeed.”
As they made their way to Julian's temporary home, he pondered the meaning of the word. Perhaps the old proverb home is where the heart is did have some merit. He would never tell Garak, though. Not unless he wanted a thorough dressing down for his sentimental Federation naïveté.
Then again, perhaps he should mention it...