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The babble of the spectators as they waited for combat to officially begin was a constant background murmur, like waves endlessly washing up over a gravely beach. Garak resolutely ignored it, concentrating instead on carefully and methodically stretching every muscle group in his body. 

Sisko had, as predicted, been incensed to discover that although the combat was supposed to be a private affair, with an audience consisting of Primator Assok's entourage, Bashir and an assistant physician, Kira, Odo, Sisko himself, and a small security force, the holographic arena Quark had prepared sat at least a hundred — and it was packed to the walls. Quark allowed that he "may have sold a few tickets" but insisted that he couldn't revoke them now, not when the entire station was buzzing with anticipation: did Sisko want to cause a riot? The Commander had not been impressed and had threatened to clear them all out regardless, but Assok had intervened and insisted that the audience remain: their presence, after all, would only enhance his own prestige when he won… and Sisko, with Kira's gaze intent upon him and the Bajoran government's request that he cater to the Evorian delegation doubtless ringing in his ears, had agreed with barely civil good grace. 

Garak clasped his hands in front of him and extended his arms to their full length, giving his shoulders and neck ridges a sinuous twist. He did not look across the ring at Assok, who was clad in a flowing costume that could only be described as both tacky and ostentatious, all purples and yellows with gleaming black knee-high boots, scarcely suitable for combat in Garak's considered opinion. For his part Garak had settled for a comfortable outfit of short tunic and tight pants, both in dark earth tones, with low-heeled brown ankle boots that incorporated a good gripping sole: a combination that would give his opponent little to catch hold of when things got hot, while concealing the worst flaws of his own rather rounded figure. 

Speaking of which… he could sense Assok's gaze upon him, smirking and contemptuous, and he was fairly certain that he knew what the Primator was thinking: that in comparison to his own broad sleek frame his opponent was old and slow and stout, about as threatening as a potato dumpling — which just went to show how little the Evorian knew about Cardassian physiology. What he didn't realize was that Garak embodied a truism of his species' metabolism, which was that males in middle age tended to develop a layer of subcutaneous fat that effectively concealed solid muscle beneath, and that was exactly what Garak possessed. During his years in exile he had kept up a strict exercise regimen in the privacy of his own quarters, including strenuous combat exercises, and the training of the Obsidian Order was not something that faded over the course of time. Assok might think that he was getting into the ring with a turtle, to use a Terran metaphor, but…  

Garak smiled to himself, extending one leg behind him to properly warm up the tendons. He had never been the combat machine that some Cardassian males carefully honed themselves into becoming, but he still anticipated that Assok would discover, to his sorrow, that what he'd thought was a turtle was in fact a rattlesnake — or more accurately, a crocodile with thick skin and a devastating bite.  

He was aware of another pair of eyes turned in his direction from another quarter of the ring's periphery, wide and hazel beneath a visible frown: Julian Bashir. His Julian Bashir, even though he might never touch that honeyed skin with anything more than an outward show of casual friendship. The five hours since he'd accepted Assok's challenge had been interesting in another intriguing respect: he'd awakened from his nap both refreshed and keyed up in a whole new way, with unwonted possessiveness singing deep within his saurian bones. Evidently the posturing dance he and Assok had been performing had woken up glands that had been dormant within him for decades, and with them ancient instincts which had clearly marked Bashir as his own. He was now looking forward to bloodying his claws on Assok's big cornfed body for reasons that had nothing to do with politics between Evor, Bajor and Cardassia, oh yes, and deep within his jaw dwelt a yearning ache, as if the poison glands his species had evolved away millions of years ago were longing to inflict mortal wounds on his rival. 

Finishing his stretches, he straightened again and turned his gaze to Sisko, who stood in a little group with Bashir, Kira, Odo and the Evorian referee, evidently deep in conversation with all of them. Garak could feel that he wore a smile and was mildly perturbed that it wasn't an expression he had deliberately chosen: rather, it was a baring of teeth in the presence of the man who dared to threaten his lovely Doctor. He wondered exactly which hormones were currently coursing through his system; Bashir could undoubtedly have told him, but Garak was in no mood to be fussed over at the moment. His attention was rapidly narrowing to Primator Assok, whose gaze had now locked with his across the ring and who was paying little attention to his earnestly talking companions. There was venom in that shared regard that fired up Garak's blood even further, and he felt a low growling hiss struggling to break free of his chest. Judging by the Evorian's smile, which was likewise devoid of either humour or friendship, Garak judged that he was operating under some hormonal imperative of his own. 

When the referee called the crowd to order and held up the elaborately carved and beribboned challenge rod a hush fell over the audience, a hundred bodies leaning forward with bated breath. This was the moment they had been waiting for, and that most of them had money riding on: Quark had obviously built this fight up into the sporting and betting event of the year. Garak was only peripherally aware of that factor, his usual multitasking frame of mind constricted to the tension of waiting, the sharp descent of the challenge rod as the referee swept it down and sprinted out of the ring — and then the first advance, circling and evaluating, calculating every detail of his much larger enemy's physical motions and psychological markers. Conclusion: Assok was supremely confident, and he had reason to be, for he was supple and immensely strong — but not quick. Not as quick as Garak, at any rate, and that was all that mattered. 

Circle. Feint, tiny sharp motions, testing each other's reflexes. When Assok lunged forward to grapple the crowd gasped, but Garak ducked and darted out of range — and within a minute they were booing and roaring, disappointed with Garak's way of evading Assok's attempts to come to grips and dodging his thunderous blows. A similar rage was mirrored in the Evorian's green eyes and the wider snarl of his bared teeth, but he threw no taunts, and Garak had to grant him a measure of respect for that forbearance.  

The overhead chronometer stood at 0:42 when Garak, having sized up Assok's maneuverability and tactics to his satisfaction, darted in, delivered a precise blow to the Evorian's flat belly, and darted out again — and Assok doubled over, momentarily stunned at the amount of pain he was in from a targeted nerve cluster strike. A hush fell over the audience as Garak followed up with another rabbit-quick punch of bladed fingers and wove back out of the giant's enraged reach... and then a new roar broke out, this one excited and exultant, as the spectators realized that they were in for more of a show than they'd anticipated when they'd thought that Assok was going to take Garak down in the first thirty seconds of the fight. Garak could almost hear Quark calculating his profits, but he was too busy keeping an eye on his opponent to fully appreciate the niceties of all the external factors. 

From the sidelines, from the cluster of watching Starfleet and Bajoran representatives, a sharp intake of breath that he heard and recognized even over the howling of the masses. You see, my dearest Doctor, he thought as he balanced on the balls of his feet, ready to move in any direction, you should have trusted me after all. 

The Primator recovered quickly from the agony of the nerve cluster strike — much too quickly for Garak's taste — and the fire in his eyes blazed to new heights with rage so incandescent that Garak could practically read his thoughts: how dare this half-empty grain sack seriously challenge him, the son-heir of the First Procurer of the Sevarn Consortium! He waded into the battle, determined to take a certain Cardassian tailor apart like a cooked chicken, and evidently he hadn't been living up to his full potential before — because now his blows started to connect, and every one of them inflicted spectacular amounts of damage. Within two minutes Garak was sporting cracked ribs and bruised internal organs, along with a broken nose, a fractured cheekbone, a cracked orbital socket, two loose teeth, and a badly sprained right wrist, along with probable broken bones in that hand — but he was still on his feet, because his fury burned just as fiercely and an enraged male Cardassian, particularly an Obsidian Order operative, was capable of working through a tremendous amount of pain to get the job done.  

Nobody had asked him — nor, as far as he knew, his opponent — how far they intended to take this duel. But it was to the death. He could see it in Assok's coldly narrowed eyes, and he was certain that equally lethal intent shone in his own gaze. Had he ever doubted that the Evorian prince was ready to kill to gain his prize? Certainly he had never doubted that determination within himself. 

To kill for his Julian, so innocent and idealistic, always willing to believe the best of anybody. He could sense Bashir only metres away, staring in dismay, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Sisko close a quick hand around the Doctor's upper arm to stop him from running to his friend's aid, the laws of the ritual be damned. Savage exultation burned in Garak's breast alongside his ruptured hassak organ: when he finished with this presumptuous blowhard he'd show the Human boy what devotion really meant, he'd take him in his arms and growl against his neck and mark his sweet brown skin with tender bites that held no poison… he'd give him what he so dearly desired, and the cost be —

The staring eyes of the cheering crowd faded from his awareness as Assok's ham-sized fist ploughed into his upper belly, pain exploding beneath its impact as his liver took critical damage. Internal bleeding, probably catastrophic. He'd have to wrap this up quickly. Instinct guided his counterstrike, stabbing his fingers into the Evorian's corded throat — the fool had gotten too close in order to land his fatal blow — and they broke apart again, glaring at each other beneath the harsh lights, both nearly stumbling as they retreated. The Primator was looking rather the worse for wear himself, his broad white face bloodied and bruised, one eye swollen shut… and to Garak's profound satisfaction his sway suddenly turned into a swoon, and he crashed to the floor like an ardak tree felled by a final critical blow to its massive trunk. 

Gazing down at his fallen foe, at the crumpled limbs and the white dreadlocks splayed wildly around his shoulders, Garak bit back a primal roar of triumph and lunged in to finish the — 

"Garak, no!

Only one plea in the quadrant could have stopped him from falling to his knees and breaking Assok's neck. He turned on his heel, barely cognizant of the referee breaking the challenge stick over one upraised knee, to see Julian rushing toward him with tricorder already out, narrow expressive face full of dismay.  

He managed to remain standing. He was smiling again, but this time with happiness as his eyes shone at the beautiful man whose freedom he'd won. He took an unsteady step forward and opened his mouth to say something, he knew not what — 

— and promptly passed out, unconscious before he hit the floor, only dimly aware of Julian leaping forward to catch hold of his arms as he went down.