Twenty minutes later both Garak and Bashir were in Odo's security office, awaiting the arrival of Commander Sisko. Garak had just seated himself calmly in one of the chairs in front of Odo's desk, legs crossed at the knee and hands folded in his lap, while the Constable grimly reviewed security footage of the confrontation in the Replimat on one of the displays set into the back wall of the office. And Bashir — Bashir was pacing with barely contained nervous energy, his hands clasped tightly behind his back and his dark-haired head lowered, his gaze fixed on the floor.
"My dear Doctor," Garak repeated for the second time that afternoon, observing his friend's progress, or rather lack thereof, with an outward appearance of mild interest, "there's really no point in getting worked up over this. I'm sure it was all an unfortunate cultural —"
Bashir's turned his angry face in Odo's direction. "You can't charge him with anything?" he demanded. "Not even assault?"
"No," Odo said curtly, pausing the video footage at the moment Assok threw the broken bone onto the Replimat table. "He didn't even touch Garak, and while I might be able to make a case that he was uttering threats…" He paused, grinding his crudely formed jaw like a man tasting something foul. "The Commander will explain when he gets here."
And speak of the devil, the double doors slid open to admit the tall dark form of Sisko, wearing his habitual expression of composed authority — but Garak thought he could detect an undertone of annoyed tension. "I came as quickly as I could, Constable." He nodded at his CMO. "Doctor Bashir." A more cursory inclination of his chin toward the seated Cardassian. "Mister Garak."
Bashir leaped into it without even pause for a civil greeting. "Commander, why wasn't I informed that Assok was returning to the station? Given his behaviour during his last visit —"
Sisko help up a warning hand, and for a second Bashir looked like he was going to disregard it completely. Garak slid a warning glance his way, prompting him to close his mouth again. "If I had known, I would certainly have told you. But I didn't know, because Primator Assok and his attendants arrived unannounced on a shuttle from Bajor, where the Evorian delegation is finalizing the larinium trade treaty."
"Well, send them back again!" Bashir's color was high, his fine nostrils flaring, his dark eyes afire. Garak had to admit that he looked absolutely splendid. "He threatened Garak, and he practically assaulted me! I want them off this station before they cause any more trouble!"
"Doctor," Odo said, stepping out from behind the desk to join the conversational grouping, "I don't recall seeing Primorta Assok strike or touch you in any way, either."
Bashir looked at him in disbelief, then back to Sisko, then back to Odo again. "Well, no, but he… he wanted to! You could see it in his eyes."
Odo folded his arms in his usual stiff-backed manner. "A look in someone's eyes doesn't constitute a crime under Bajoran law — or under Federation law, either."
"Odo is right," Sisko agreed, that look of dissatisfaction deepening in a way that Garak found extremely interesting. "And the Bajoran government has made it quite clear that the Evorians are to be treated with as much generosity as we can offer. The trade agreement is in the final stages of negotiation and they do not want the Evorian delegation to pull out because we've failed to properly respect their customs."
"You didn't hear what he said!" Bashir insisted. "He threatened to take Garak apart, and then he stated that he intends to 'win' me from him in combat! It's completely ridiculous!"
Sisko simply gazed at him, and after a few seconds Bashir huffed out a small breath and visibly deflated, his hands falling to his sides. The Human CO had perfected the art of quelling people with a look to a science, and Garak couldn't help admiring him for it.
"Doctor," Sisko said at last, "I want you to be perfectly frank with me. Are you and Mister Garak currently in a sexual or romantic relationship?"
Bashir's slender shoulders slumped a little further. "No, sir," he replied in a subdued voice, with a little sigh that suggested: But not for lack of trying.
Sisko nodded fractionally. "I see. Well, the rumour mill is still under the impression that you are — and clearly, so is Primator Assok. And I want to keep it that way."
"And if the inhabitants of this station have clung to that conclusion all this time," Garak chimed in, "in spite of the fact that we've done absolutely nothing to encourage it since the Evorians departed the station three months ago, just think of how emphatically they'll believe it if we give them a few hints that an affair might indeed be taking place."
Bashir was shaking his head. "No. Assok threatened you because he thinks you and I are a couple — and if Commander Sisko can't force them to leave the station, I won't see you put in that kind of danger."
Garak blinked at him. "The choice is mine, wouldn't you say?"
Sisko interjected before Bashir could reply: "The situation is a bit more complex than that. The bone that the Primator presented to Garak is a formal declaration of a sor'tar'ka challenge, which their laws demand if the target of the challenger's affections is already the property of another male. And according to their laws, the target cannot be claimed until the challenger has beaten the current possessor in a ritual duel. However, if the target does not officially belong to another male, the challenger is free to pursue the target using any means at his disposal — including aggressive seduction, or even outright abduction."
Bashir's hazel eyes had widened considerably, his upper lip curling in disgust. "Surely you're not suggesting that that smelly Evorian brute would —?"
"Not on my watch he wouldn't," Odo growled.
"But he might try," Sisko concluded. "And any interference by station security might be interpreted badly by the Evorian delegation, and thus derail the trade negotiations."
Odo nodded the way he did when reaching a conclusion in agreement with those of his colleagues. "Whereas if the Primator believes that you are a possession of Garak's, he'll leave you alone."
The Doctor's eyes had narrowed again, his slim shoulders stiffening. "I'm not going to use Garak as a shield! You've seen the size of Assok: he could take him apart with one hand!"
Garak shot a look of reproof in Bashir's direction, and a ripple of laughter: "Oh, please!" Which prompted a more searching glare from Odo. Garak smiled back and concentrated on looking as innocuous as a semek dumpling; he got the distinct impression, however, that Odo was not fooled.
Sisko sighed, his gaze shifting from his CMO to the Cardassian tailor. "Mister Garak, I'm in no position to ask you to take this kind of risk. The sor'tar'ka challenge demands an answer within twenty-five hours. If you refuse, the Primator will consider himself in a position to pursue Doctor Bashir with impunity. But if you accept, he'll expect you to take part in a ritual duel within twelve hours after your acceptance."
"And the duel is to the point of...?"
"Incapacitation. Usually. Or to the death, depending on the mood of the participants."
"Well then," Garak said, still smiling, "the solution is perfectly clear, isn't it?"
Bashir smiled in relief. "Good. I'm glad you see it that —"
"I'll take the duel. How does one go about responding to a —?"
"Garak!" A nearly pained yelp, and he turned his attention from Sisko to a pair of warm pleading eyes whose gaze slipped into his heart like spring rain into a crack upon weathered stone. He ignored the thrill of penetration.
"And tell me, what is the alternative?" he queried, cocking his head inquisitively. "That you go hide in your quarters until the Primator gets tired and goes home? He really doesn't seem the type to give up that easily. Or that you go around under armed guard, to keep him at a distance? I imagine that would offend him even more. No, Doctor, the simplest and most elegant solution lies in my acceptance of his challenge, which will keep him off your back — among other things — for at least thirty-seven hours. And who knows? By then the trade negotiations might have been concluded, rendering the whole thing moot."
Sisko looked grave. "I'm afraid they promise to stretch on a good deal longer than that."
"I see," Garak nodded. "And is there a way to extend the window of the sor'tar'ka challenge?"
"Not without conceding."
"No!" Bashir shook his head decisively, taking a reflexive step toward Garak's chair. "I won't allow it! We'll just have to come up with a different —"
"Garak is right." Odo ground each word out as if over broken glass, his gaze parsing Garak's body thoughtfully. "And I wouldn't worry so much, Doctor. If Garak has been half of what I suspect he's been in his long and misspent life… well, let's just say that I wouldn't give even the Primator good odds against a member of the Obsidian Order."
"Constable!" Garak laid a hand to his heart, looking scandalized. "Why must you persist in believing those malicious — and entirely unfounded — rumours? Have I ever given you the slightest cause to —?"
"Yes," Odo said flatly.
Sisko was studying Garak as well, his expression neutral. "I'll have Lieutenant Dax provide you with information on how the properly answer the sor'tar'ka challenge, although I'd advise you to delay doing so as long as possible. It may turn out that something distracts the Primator's attention, or even calls him off Deep Space Nine entirely."
Garak nodded. "Understood, Commander."
He turned to look up into Bashir's face, and for a fraction of a second a crystal-clear image flashed to the forefront of his mind from his eidetic memory: the look Assok had turned on Bashir when greeting the Doctor, an expression of hungry tenderness that had left no doubt in Garak's mind that the Evorian wanted nothing more than to reach out and seize what he'd come for, and to devour it. And the prospect of seeing Bashir manhandled against his will — his darling Doctor, violated…
… well, it certainly gave Garak plenty of incentive to meet the Primator in combat. Cardassians had evolved away from their savage saurian roots into a cultured, poised and self-assured people, but that didn't mean that the thought of someone laying hands on what was his, even if he couldn't take full advantage of Bashir's attentions, filled Garak with a nearly overwhelming desire to hiss, and bite, and inject his rival with the lethal fury of his venom.
The smile he offered Bashir now carried no hint of the ferocious instincts thrumming behind every scale. "My mind is made up, Doctor. And I'm afraid that's all there is to it."