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On the one hand, twenty-five hours was almost an entire Bajoran day. On the other hand it was really scarcely any time at all in the grand scheme of things, and for Garak the hours flew by quite swiftly, all things considered: his tailor shop was busier than usual, as curious station residents stopped by to get a good look at the resident Cardassian expatriate before he was bent, folded, spindled and mutilated by a man who topped him by a good forty-five centimetres and outweighed him by at least twenty-two kilograms. 

Physical dimensions aside, there were, of course, multiple reasons for Garak to meet Primator Assok in ritual combat. For one thing, it would settle once and for all the matter of Assok's supposed claim on Bashir; Lieutenant Dax had assured Garak that if he won, Assok would clear off for good. For another, if Garak won the Evorian delegation would be embarrassed — to a lesser degree than Bashir outright refusing Assok's overtures, true, but the loss would still sting. Assok was the son of one of the lead ambassadors, and there was a slight chance that the offence would be great enough to damage the trade negotiations, which would greatly please Cardassia's Central Command. The Central Command had not forgotten the high-handed way the Evorians had treated Cardassian representatives during the last attempt to trade larinium, nor had they forgiven the insult: nobody in the galaxy had a memory as long or as sharp as a Cardassian who perceived that they'd been wronged. Garak's victory in the challenge ring would only improve his standing in the home from which he'd so long been exiled, since it had the potential to harm both the Evorians and the Bajorans who were hanging so many hopes on the successful signing of the trade agreement. 

And if Garak lost… well, there was nobody on Cardassia who would shed many tears, and quite a few people who would doubtless open a vintage bottle of kanar in celebration. So really, it was a win-win situation all the way around.  

It had been a matter of an hour to craft a spoken response to the sor'tar'ka challenge the previous evening, have Lieutenant Dax approve it, and memorize it; to have Chief O'Brien replicate an animal thigh bone suitable for the gestural aspect of the ritual acceptance, a matter of seconds. At twelve minutes to the twenty-fifth hour since Assok had thrown the broken bone onto his lunch plate Garak was walking briskly down the corridor leading to the Primator's guest quarters in the habitat ring, dressed in his most stylish black ensemble and feeling rather pleased, truth be told. Given the Evorian's previously expressed opinion of him, he fully expected laughter to greet his stated intention to meet the much younger, taller, broader and more obviously muscular man in combat — laughter which he looked forward to making Assok eat raw, without salt or yamok sauce, when they stepped into the ritual combat ring in a few hours.  

Quark was already busy making arrangements to set up a holosuite with the appropriate trappings, his beady eyes alight with the prospect of profits to come, and no doubt running a brisk betting pool as well, with most of the money probably falling on the side of the more physically prepossessing combatant. Garak would have expected no less, and also suspected that come this evening the holosuite would be packed with far more spectators than Commander Sisko had officially approved, given Quark's habit of "accidentally" selling too many tickets to any event guaranteed to fill the house. 

He had almost reached Assok's suite when he heard a swift stride approaching him from behind, accompanied by a sharp voice pitched low: "Garak!" 

Of course. For a heartbeat he considered simply stepping up his own pace, but with a sigh he resigned himself to the inevitable confrontation, stopping and turning to face his pursuer. "Doctor, please —" 

"Don't 'please' me," Bashir snapped, closing the last of the distance between them and standing aggressively close, right in Garak's face. "You know full well that I'm against this, but you're going to do it anyway, aren't you!" 

Garak held up the thigh bone he carried in his left hand, politely but pointedly. "I can't think of another reason I'd be carrying bits of dead animal around the station, can —?" 

"There you go again, trying to deflect the point of the conversation!" More thunderclouds gathered on his furrowed brow. "I'm not joking, Garak — I want you to let the challenge lapse, if you won't refuse it outright. Believe me, I can take care of myself." 

"Can you?" He studied Bashir's face with keen interest, impressed when the younger man didn't back down a millimetre. He could remember a time, not so long ago, when such scrutiny would have provoked at least a blush and a stammer. "Believe me, I have no intention of standing aside and letting that darktok'ta treat you like a ripe piece of fruit to be snatched off a low-hanging branch, if for no other reason than that it would do your reputation, which is already questionable in certain quarters, no favours whatsoever." 

His forehead smoothed marginally. "Then you do care." 

"You've been a good friend to me," Garak admitted, as much as the truth pained him at the best of times. "I think that such steadfastness in the face of my… difficult position deserves some small repayment." 

"You're not an easy man to be friendly with, I'll admit that much," Bashir grumbled. "You're evasive, you're duplicitous, and you don't scruple to tell outright lies simply, as far as I can tell, for the sake of entertaining yourself." 

"An accurate assessment, all in all." Garak rewarded him with a smile. "I'm impressed, Doctor! Your powers of observation are definitely improving." 

"But, if you're going to do this…" An element of something warmer entered his hazel gaze, and he leaned a little closer, his voice falling to a more intimate murmur. "…I mean, if you're going to put yourself at risk on the premise that we're… together… don't you think you should at least receive the benefits of that supposition as well as hazarding the dangers?" 

Garak stared at him for a long moment before bursting in a bright peal of laughter. "Oh, my darling boy — you simply don't give up, do you?" 

Bashir's gaze never wavered. "I've made no bones, so to speak, about the fact that I want you. And more importantly, that I want to be with you." He reached out to lay his hand on the left arm of Garak's elegant tunic. "Garak, please… let's go to Assok together, as the couple we've been pretending to be." 

He continued to smile, but could not deny that there was an element of sorrow behind it now. "That's quite impossible, and I think you know it." 

The young human shook his head, frowning again. "If you got injured tonight, I'd never forgive myself. And if you got killed…" 

"There was a time, you know, when you thought I was the most dangerous spy in the quadrant." 

There was consideration in his dark eyes now. "I still think you are — but being a spy doesn't mean you've been trained to engage in hand to hand combat with a man the size of a small shuttlecraft." A keener look. "Does it?" 

He took a slight step back, away from the Doctor's hand. "While I normally find playing Twenty Questions with you to be a most entertaining diversion, I'm afraid I don't have time right —" 

"Garak. Please."  

He'd started to turn away, but paused long enough to turn a fond gaze on his friend. "There are reasons behind my decision that you wouldn't understand, even if I tried to explain them. The differences between our cultures are simply too great. But accept this much as the truth: I know what I'm doing, and why." 

Bashir shrugged, glancing briefly away. "I've learned that trusting you is a mug's game. Do you really expect me to fall for that?" 

"Yet you want to take me to your bed?" 

His gaze locked onto Garak's face again. "Yes. In a heartbeat." 

He couldn't quite suppress a sigh. "Go back to the Infirmary, dear Doctor. And this evening bring a full med kit to the holosuite, because one of us will be leaving the arena on our shield, not with it." And with that he turned on his heel and set off down the corridor again, half expecting the Human to follow him, perhaps even to catch hold of his arm… 

…but Bashir did not, and when Garak reached Assok's quarters and snapped the bone in two before the Primator's face and threw it on the floor at his feet, reciting his fine ritual speech, the Evorian did indeed roar with merriment, as did his entire entourage.  

Garak simply smiled in a way that made some of them stop laughing cold — not Assok, the overconfident fool — and silently took his leave, already composing his mind for sleep. A nap was definitely in order, because in five hours he would be stepping into an arena full of people avid for the sight of blood, and he would be fighting for his life — and more importantly, for the freedom of the only man he could truly call a friend in his lonely exile.