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Quest for Peace

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PART ONE: The Price of Piece

Julian Bashir groaned when the computer announced that he needed to get up and start his day. At times like this, he pictured the computer taking on a face. It was the face of a very stern, matronly woman with no traces of a smile hovering about her mouth. Her graying hair was pulled back in a very tight bun, and her oddly colorless eyes were narrowed in constant irritation.

He smiled to himself, wondering what Ship's Counselor Ezri Tigan would say if he told her that. She'd probably give him one of her strangely tolerant smiles and then go back to nibbling on her breakfast or sipping her cup of Raktajino.

Thinking of Ezri brought the other Trill officer--Jadzia Dax--to his mind. Although Ezri was not a joined Trill, Jadzia was, and that always made her seem a little wiser than most people.

"Julian?"

He sighed. As first officer of the Defiant, it was Jadzia's job to know where all of her people were in case of emergencies. But sometimes she called him as he was thinking of her, causing him to wonder if she wasn't partially Betazoid and didn't know it yet.

"I'm up," he grumbled; standing slowly and going over to the communications unit and from there to the replicator.

"I'm glad to hear it," she said in a tone of wry amusement. "The Captain has an assignment for you," she continued. "Can you be ready to see him in a half an hour?"

"Sure," he agreed, swallowing the last of an English muffin and wiping his mouth with a napkin.

Twenty minutes later, he was standing outside Captain Benjamin Sisko's ready room door.

"Ah good, Doctor, come in," Sisko said distractedly. "Starfleet has an assignment for you. It's a bit dangerous, but the Defiant has been ordered to back you up under cloak. They want you to go to Bajor. They desperately need medical supplies as well as qualified medical staff, so I told them about your wish to go there and help. Starfleet has granted my request and agreed to send you there immediately."

Julian could not keep the grin of excitement and relief from his face. He'd never met a Cardassian or a Bajoran before, but the stories he'd heard about the brutal treatment the Bajorans received at the hands of their Cardassian oppressors horrified him. He'd been begging for a chance to do something like this for months now, and his wish had finally been granted. Sisko saw his grin and smiled back.

"The Federation has been secretly sending diplomats into Bajoran space for about a year now. Bajor has requested Federation protection against the Empire and is seeking membership."

Julian nodded eagerly. He'd known about that, of course. There weren't very many Starfleet officers who didn't. What Sisko said next, however, did shock him more than a little.

"We've managed to find a Cardassian official who has agreed to look the other way while we sneak in supplies, medical personnel, and diplomats, so we're fairly certain you won't have any problems getting in or out of there when the time comes. Do you have any questions?"

"No, Sir," he replied quickly. "Well, I guess I do. When do we leave?"

Sisko chuckled. Bashir was so young and eager that it was hard not to smile at his innocence and earnest desire to help others. "We'll be there in less than 18 hours," he replied.

Corat Damar swore quietly. He'd never been a pessimist, but his latest set of orders made him more than a little uneasy. He would now be working as an aide to Elim Garak, the chief of the Obsidian Order, and one of the most powerful men in the Empire. While most men would have been ecstatic over the news of such a promotion, he was a bit disappointed. It wasn't that he was lazy or unambitious; he was just unwilling to be so highly placed within the ranks. Those people were the ones who were killed or blamed for everything that went wrong. Damar had a wife and two sons. He didn't want a job that would put him in such constant danger. Neither he nor his wife needed or wanted the stress that went with such a position.

"Something wrong?" his friend Lyrven Madred asked as he passed.

"No, it's just that I wasn't expecting this," Damar replied. No one needed to know how he really felt about this job, not even his dearest childhood friend.

"Oh? What did you do now?" Lyrven was grinning. Damar smiled back.

"I went and got myself promoted," he replied wryly.

"I'm so sorry to hear it," his friend murmured, his sincere tone backed up by the suddenly somber expression on his face. Damar blinked in surprise upon seeing his friend's demeanor change so abruptly.

"Well, I suppose there's nothing that can be done about it now," he said philosophically.

"One would think that being elevated to such an exalted position would bring a true son of the Empire a great deal of joy," said a voice from right behind them.

Damar spun around and stared in open mouthed dread at the man who stood there, a slight smile playing about his lips and a stern expression in his eyes. It was Elim Garak.

"I'm sorry, Sir," he said. "I didn't mean... I'm not unhappy, well, not really. I'm honored to be considered worthy enough to work for you... I mean for the Empire..." Damar was aware that he was babbling like a complete idiot, but he couldn't seem to make himself stop talking.

Suddenly, Garak laughed. It wasn't an unkind laugh--there was none of the derision he'd been expecting in it--but it made him feel very small and caused his face to grow even hotter with embarrassment.

"Never mind that for now, Glin," he said, still smiling. "Pack your things and meet me in cargo bay two in an hour. We have a great deal of work to do. We'll be leaving for Terok Nor this afternoon."

Without another word, Garak left them, not bothering to wait for an acknowledgement of his orders.

"You're going to be working for him?" Lyrven asked incredulously.

Damar nodded. "That's what my new orders say," he replied, turning toward the turbo lift doors.

Less than an hour later, he was standing in Cargo bay 2, staring around him at the frantic activity of the duty officers. They all appeared to be very nervous, and Damar suddenly felt irritated by their fear. They weren't going to have to work as Elim Garak's adjutant; that job would be his to fill.

"Ah good, right on time, I see. Excellent!" Garak called to him.

Everyone in the cargo bay froze and came to attention at the sound of his voice. Rather than striding arrogantly into their midst as Damar had half expected him to do, however, Garak gestured for the men and women to continue doing what they'd been doing. His casual response to the anxiety of the officers amazed Damar.

"Glin Tora, is everything ready for our departure?" Garak asked.

"It is, Sir," a woman's voice replied.

A moment later, she poked her head out of a waiting shuttle and saluted. Damar blinked in surprise. The girl was a half-breed. Her Bajoran heritage was very obvious. She had the nose and bone structure of a Bajoran, but her neck ridges indicated her Cardassian blood. He forced his mind to concentrate on more important matters.

"Let us board then," Garak said. He glanced at Damar, who nodded in response and followed.

Once they were aboard and the shuttle had launched, Garak turned to face him. "Glin Damar, this is Glin Tora Ziyal. Ziyal, this is Corat Damar, my new adjutant."

They nodded to each other, and Garak smiled. "Well, now that the two of you have been formally introduced, here are your mission briefs. It's a routine inspection, but I'm expecting some resistance from Gul Dukat. In the end, we'll get our way of course, but if it's at all possible I'd like to do it with as little fuss as we can. It wouldn't look good for the Emperor's servants to be seen squabbling by outsiders."

Julian took a deep breath as the small shuttlecraft launched and slowly pulled away from the Defiant. This was it; this was his time to shine. He was here to do the thing he'd wanted to do since his earliest days as a Starfleet Academy graduate. His dream was finally about to come true.

The sound of grinding metal followed by the percussive impact of weapons fire rudely cut across his pleasant thoughts. Julian felt his heartbeat kick up a notch as a second barrage of weapons fire hit the starboard shields and nearly incapacitated them completely.

"Doctor! I've tried to hale them, but they aren't responding!" the pilot yelled, simultaneously trying to keep his voice calm and struggling to be heard over the sound of loud alarms and more booming sounds from their enemy's weapons. "If we don't surrender, sir, we'll be destroyed!"

Julian made a split second decision. "Turn us about! We've got to get back to the Defiant!"

The pilot tried; his valiant effort was obvious, but it was also fatal. Julian watched in helpless horror as the man died while trying desperately to repair a ruptured conduit and get the navigation console up and running once more. The arc of electricity had killed him so quickly that nothing Julian could have done would have saved him. Tears filled Julian's eyes as he realized that he couldn't even remember the man's name. For some reason, that thought bothered him. It was the last thought he had before passing out.

When he came to, his head was pounding and spots danced before his eyes. 'I probably have a concussion,' he thought ruefully. 'I am alive though, unlike... What had the pilot's name been?' Julian still couldn't remember. The thought only distracted him from his own pain for a few seconds. Once he realized that he couldn't focus on anything except his nausea, the pounding in his head, and a growing sense of dread over his current situation, Julian felt his heartbeat quicken and his breathing begin to grow shallower.

"You're awake, I see," said a voice from somewhere nearby. Julian jumped in startled surprise, and then wondered where that voice was coming from. "Welcome to Terok Nor, Doctor,” the voice continued. Julian forced himself to stay calm and analyze the situation. The voice belonged to a Cardassian male, but that was all he could tell.

"Who are you?" Julian called, irritated that his voice had come out sounding so weak.

"You are in no position to be asking any questions, Doctor," the man replied coldly.

"Well then," Julian shot back, "I guess I won't be in a position to be giving you any answers."

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that if I were you, Doctor,” the Cardassian replied, the threat of pain and suffering very implicit in his tone. “After all, human bodies are so fragile compared to Cardassian ones, wouldn’t you agree? As a doctor, you’re eminently qualified to have an intelligent opinion on this subject. If I were you, I’d start praying that your knowledge of just how frail you are in comparison to a Cardassian remain purely abstract.”

Julian didn’t know what to say to that, so he kept his mouth shut. He reminded himself to tell them his name, rank and serial number only, but deep down, he wondered how long he would be able to stay strong in the face of their torture. Cardassians were brutally efficient, he knew.

“As you can see, we’re still right on schedule. The Emperor will have all the ore he can possibly use. The roomers of unrest you’ve been hearing are just that, mere roomers.”

“These rumors were started by a group of disgruntled workers, then?” Garak asked, inwardly sneering at Dukat’s feeble attempts to cover up his obvious inefficiency.

“Exactly so,” Dukat replied enthusiastically. “I’m afraid there have been discontented individuals on both sides of the line. Bajorans and Cardassians are probably equally to blame for the small problems we’ve been experiencing lately.”

“So, you’re telling me that Cardassian officers who would otherwise be loyal citizens of the Empire are causing civil unrest in an attempt to... what? Be assigned elsewhere?”

“Who can say?” Dukat wondered aloud, raising his brow ridges for emphasis.

“Who can say indeed,” Garak murmured softly. “I do hope that your attempts to put my mind at ease won’t later lead to charges of perjury.”

Dukat’s eyes narrowed, and his effort to regain control was visible. Garak merely continued to gaze impassively at him from across the desk. Dukat looked away.

“My aides and I will do our own independent inspections,” Garak said. “I would strongly advise you not to interfere with our investigations in any way. That could be fatal.”

Without another word, Garak rose and walked out of the Prefect’s office. Bearding Dukat in his own lair was probably not the wisest thing he could have done, but it was amusing. Dukat made it so easy to bate him. Garak smiled as he stepped into a turbo lift. He couldn’t help himself. He would have to warn Damar to be very careful around Dukat. The Prefect wouldn't do anything openly to harm or otherwise incapacitate him, but his interference with Damar's efforts might be too subtle for him to detect.

His junior adjutant was by no means stupid, but he was still young. As the turbo lift stopped, he remembered something else. Ziyal would probably be the perfect person to stay close to Dukat. She was nonthreatening, so he might reveal his true colors to her.

“I’ve been told that you are the Chief Medical Officer of the U. S. S. Defiant.”

Julian didn’t reply. He wasn’t sure what they knew about him, but he had decided not to confirm or deny anything for as long as he could. His mind focused on being quiet. Staying silent would be difficult, but it would give him something to cling to; something to remember to do when things got too bad. He didn’t think things were going to stay this cordial for much longer. His guess turned out to be correct.

“What were your orders, Doctor?” the Cardassian asked. “Why were you trespassing beyond the borders of the Cardassian Empire? Did you think you wouldn’t be caught?”

Still, Julian said nothing. The Cardassian’s neck ridges darkened with rage, and he rose to his feet in obvious irritation. He walked to the door and pressed a button.

“If you aren’t going to cooperate, I’ll have no choice. The information will be forced from you one way or another. Remember, you brought this upon yourself, Doctor.”

Three more Cardassians entered the room and dragged him to his feet. He was half carried, half shoved down a long corridor. It was empty; and no matter how much he struggled, his guards continued to shepherd him along. When they reached another room, Julian noticed that the air was very hot. His clothes were brutally stripped from him and he was strapped down to a table. During this entire procedure, not a word was said.

“It’s different than I expected.” Ziyal remarked. Her wide-eyed stare might not have been convincing, but the knowledge of her parentage was enough to keep Dukat’s attention. The way she had acted in front of her superior in the hearing of several of Dukat’s people did not hurt, either. She had been almost rude to him, brutally efficient and barely civil. It was an act, but so far, Dukat appeared to believe it.

“Does that mean you like it?” Dukat asked now.

“Oh… Yes, I think I do. It makes for a nice change of pace, if you know what I mean,” she said. “Still, it must be very difficult to rule here.”

“It has its trials,” he agreed. “The Bajorans don’t seem to understand the good we are trying to do here, but I’m hoping that with a lot of patience and some time, their outlook on our alliance will change. We are only here to help, after all.”

“Forgive me if I don’t believe you,” she said. Though this might have seemed like a slipup, she did not break character at all. “One only has to look at me and people like me to know that that won’t be happening anytime soon.”

“Ah, my dear,” he protested, his expression becoming one of almost absurdly melodramatic regret, “I do understand your anger, truly I do. Yet if I can convince you, it would go a very long way towards convincing Bajorans all across the planet, don’t you think?”

Ziyal privately thought that he was slathering too much yamok sauce on a dead Frixian worm, but she didn’t say so. What she said was even more astonishing to the Prefect. “My dear Dukat, if you convince me, I might be able to do a little something for you.”

His eyes lit with an unholy and, to her mind, indecent glee. Instantly, she knew where his thoughts were going. Gasping and causing her body temperature to rise until her face grew warm; she looked away and nervously fiddled with her half-empty glass.

“Forgive me,” she said breathlessly. “I… I don’t know what I was thinking. That was crude of me. Garak will kill me if he…”

“Not at all, my dear,” he soothed. “I find you quite charming. And I promise not to say a word about this to your superior.”

His eyes were crinkled in a way that suggested playfulness. Hiding an inward groan, she looked down at her plate and lifted a fork to her mouth.

“Thank you, Sir,” she said softly. “I’ve never had Bajoran Spring wine before. I think it might be going to my head. Maybe I should leave…”

“Nonsense,” Dukat cried. “Just think of us as two comrades talking informally over a wonderful dinner. And if you’ve never had spring wine, perhaps there are other delicacies I can interest you in trying before you have to leave.”

“A little something for you?” Damar groaned aloud. “Please just shoot me!”

Garak chuckled. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking she’s a fool, my friend,” he said warningly. “Ziyal knows exactly what she is doing.”

“I suppose,” he murmured doubtfully. “I’m too much of a soldier to do things like this with any kind of subtlety. I hope you don’t expect that of me…”

“Not at all,” Garak replied. “I know your strengths and weaknesses, even as I know hers. I also happen to know Dukat’s,” he added with a predatory smirk.

“Surely you’re not going to force her to…” Damar bit his lip, aware that he might be carrying this a bit too far. His outrage could definitely be interpreted as questioning a superior officer if he wasn’t careful.

“That, my young friend, is not your concern. “Right now, I want you to just take a nice long walk, calm down, and casually end up at Quark’s bar in two hours.”

Damar blinked. “You want me to… walk?” he demanded incredulously.

Garak nodded. “It will do you some good. Besides, I want you there when I need you.”

Damar decided not to ask any further questions. The answers would probably confuse him. “Yes, Sir,” he said instead.

“There’s a good lad,” Garak teased him lightly. “Go off and have some fun.”

Julian Bashir was definitely not having any fun at all. He was aware that he’d been screaming, but his sense of embarrassment had long since given way to a desperate desire to stop the pain he was feeling. As if reading his mind, a Cardassian voice spoke softly.

“Doctor, you can end this,” the man said gently. “I do not enjoy doing things like this to anyone. Just answer my questions like a good human and I’ll let you go.”

“Not bloody likely,” Julian thought, perversely calling upon his memories of Miles O’Brien to capture that extra bit of mental sarcasm such an utterance deserved.

“Why were you trespassing along the border, Julian?” the man asked. “What were you hoping to find? Were you trying to achieve anything specific?”

“I wanted to go trick or treating,” he said inside his mind. Outwardly, he remained silent.

Another flash of white hot pain flooded his nerves and his mind went into high gear as it actually began to analyze the different forms of nerve induction he was being subjected to. He gasped and writhed, but the pain continued.

“Julian, Julian, Julian,” the voice said almost sadly. “You are making this so much more difficult than it needs to be. “My people have caught up with the Defiant and are currently engaging in battle with it as we speak. You can give me the information I need to end that battle and get your friends out of danger. Wouldn’t you like to do that? You are a doctor, after all. Your job is to heal others, not get them killed.”

Now I know what you are thinking. My words are only that; words. I can give you proof, though. This is a real-time feed of what is going on. We can watch it together while you think about the answers to the questions I’ve asked you.”

The monitor lit up over his head and bright lights stabbed at his eyes as he forced himself to look away. He caught something out of the corner of his eye and realized that another ship was sneaking up behind the Defiant and would blow it out of the sky. Their shields were damaged, and nothing would be able to prevent that shot.

“No…” he whispered aloud. “No! Oh no!”

“I’m afraid it’s too late, Doctor. You have doomed your fellow officers and your friends.”

“I only came to help,” he cried. “I’m a medic, for God’s sake! I have no reason to commit crimes against your empire. I only want to do my job!”

“Really, Julian, you don’t think I’m foolish enough to believe that, do you? Even if that is the truth, you would have had to have help from within our empire. I’d like the name of your contact. He needs to be… dealt with. Just give me his name.”

“I don’t know!” Julian shouted; inwardly kicking himself for not staying quiet. “My superior officers never gave me any names. I was just supposed to land and… start helping where I could. That’s all I know; I swear it!”

“You disappoint me, Doctor,” the Cardassian said. “I thought you were smarter than this. What were you going to do, just start walking around with your medical kit and healing the sick without preamble? If you don’t tell me everything you know I shall have to turn you over to the Imperial Inquisitors. I assure you; their methods are far more unpleasant.”

He is definitely hiding something,” Ziyal said with complete conviction. “It is something that, if it were known, would endanger the welfare of the state. This is not a supposition, Sir.” Her formal tone underlined the seriousness of the situation.

“Have you any guesses as to what it might be?” Garak asked.

“Not yet, but I’m not finished with him. I’ve been invited to another private dinner. This time it’s going to be in his quarters; and we’ll be alone.”

“Ah… Well done, my dear.” Garak’s obvious praise was warm and very welcome.

“Thank you, Sir,” she replied with another one of her small smiles. “I hate to sound crude, but a part of me can’t help but wonder how many children he has sired outside of his marriage. The way he looked at me was… disconcerting.”

“I imagine so,” Damar murmured. “Are you sure you want to go to dinner with him?”

Ziyal laughed, and Damar finally figured out that Garak was right about her ability to do exactly what was necessary to get the result they were looking for.

“I will do whatever I have to do to ensure the security of the Empire,” she said coldly.

Damar shuddered and was thankful, not for the first time, that he was not a woman.

“Don’t worry about me, my dear Damar. I am not risking anything by appeasing Dukat in this way. I’m in the middle of my infertile period right now, so I won’t have to fear for any children.”

Damar actually found himself blushing. She laughed. “Are you… You’re embarrassed!” She grinned delightedly at him. “I thought you were married,” she cried.

“I am,” he responded defensively. “That doesn’t mean I…”

“Enough, Children,” Garak scolded calmly. He wanted to keep them on track. “Damar, what did you find out at the bar? How deeply is Quark indebted to Dukat?”

Relieved by the change of subject, he answered quickly. “Quark has several holosuites in operation, and he is not being asked to pay an extra fee to keep them from being… uh… inspected. From what I was able to discover, he’s running a few gambling tables, but all of them are legal. The holosuite programs are of a salacious nature, and I believe Dukat enjoys them every once in a while. That is the price Quark pays to keep them running. Who knows?” he added maliciously to Ziyal, “He may invite you to join him in one. That seems to be his first activity of choice when he starts seeing a new woman.”

“How very charming,” Garak murmured blandly. He had spoken before Ziyal could.

“Yes, well… Quark has had several run-ins with the unusual security officer Dukat has deputized here. His name is Odo, and no one is certain where he came from or even what sort of alien he is. The only thing we know for sure about him is that he is absolutely honest. No one has ever been able to corrupt him. After meeting him, I have to say that the rumor is not exaggerated. If anything, it’s understated. The man is utterly inflexible.

“Mmm, yes, I’d heard that,” Garak agreed. “I’m glad to have it confirmed, though.”

“Will he tell us anything?” Ziyal asked. “Or has Dukat managed to secure his loyalty?”

“I think he is loyal to nothing and no one except the truth and to justice,” Damar said.

“The fact that you actually managed to say that without changing your facial expression is rather disturbing,” Garak teased gently. I take your point, though.” He added. “I shall speak to him myself. I want you to watch the station’s officers,” he said to Damar.

“What am I looking for?”

“Just look,” Garak replied. “I’m not going to give you specific parameters. I don’t want to constrain your observations. If you notice anything that may help give us a closer inside look at Dukat and his activities, let me know. Other than that, look for signs of discontent among his officers. Perhaps we can find a friendly operative inside his ranks.”

“You, my dear, know exactly what to do,” Garak said to Ziyal. “Go slowly,” he added. “Dukat is already suspicious of me. Anyone I happen to have along with me will automatically make him feel uneasy. That’s why I am so glad you decided to take the tack you did. Hinting at some antagonism between us was very smart of you.”

Ziyal nodded and smiled slightly. “Thank you, Sir,” she said quietly.

Garak nodded his dismissal, but before Damar could do more than rise, the older man motioned for him to stay. Ziyal left quickly; recognizing the look on her boss’s face.

“Tell me, Damar,” Garak said casually, what incentive were you given to look the other way in order to make sure Bajor received Federation medical assistance?”

Damar swallowed the urge to gasp and took a deep breath instead. So, he thought grimly, this is why I was promoted to work for him. I should have known.

“Before you engage in useless denials,” Garak added, “I would advise you to remember that I have been the head of the Obsidian Order for years now. Information has been my business for a long time. I am very good at acquiring and using the information I gain, and I am very sure of my sources before I reveal my intelligence to anyone; especially the instigators of such crimes.”

Damar closed his eyes and let out a long sigh. “I… I was only asked to do it once,” he said softly. “One federation ship was sent to Bajor to offer medical aid. It was the defiant under the command of Benjamin Sisko. Their doctor, Julian Bashir, was supposed to go in, offer aid to those who had nothing to lose or gain by accepting his help, and come right back out again. He was specifically instructed not to look for or return with any information regarding the security of the empire. Sisko made the deal with no hesitation. I think… We think he was sincere.”

“I see,” Garak replied. “And what would you say if I told you that this information could get you dishonorably discharged from the military and thrown into prison for the rest of your life?”

“I ran the risk and I knew the consequences,” Damar said. “I should have known you promoted me for a reason. I just didn’t think you would have found out about what I’d done so soon.”

Garak gave a mirthless laugh. “Enabran was right about you,” he said almost to himself.
Damar raised an eye ridge, but said nothing in return. Again, Garak laughed.

“Very well, my friend, I suppose I should explain why you and I are having this conversation here instead of in a Cardassian prison. The fact is; you did exactly what Emperor Tain wanted you to do. You and your compatriots have been… permitted, you might say, to drag Cardassia into a more open policy with its past enemies. Because the Federation responded so favorably to your little plan, and because the captain they sent has dealt honestly and openly with you, we allowed your dialogue to continue. Now, however, there is a problem. Dukat has never been what one might call politically astute. He has no idea what we have been doing, and has captured your heroic doctor. We are actually here to try to determine his current location so that we can rescue him and return him to his comrades. Ziyal is serving as a distraction. You and I are going to be doing the real work. We know that he is here, but we have no idea where, exactly he is. You are going to find him and bring him to me. After that, I will decide your punishment for failing to do this through proper channels. The law exists for a reason, Damar.”

The younger man winced, but nodded. “I understand, Sir,” he said contritely.

Garak looked at him for a long moment. “Yes,” he said finally. “I believe you do.”

“Sir, if I may ask; who is Gul Dukat serving by capturing Dr. Bashir?”

Garak shook his head, but not in denial, Damar noticed. He was smiling. “Very good,” he said. I am glad you caught on so quickly. We aren’t sure who wants our good Federation Doctor, but we believe that Dukat is being paid to deliver him to someone who will not serve either our interests or the Federation’s. Naturally, we don’t want him to be taken off the station. If he is, however, we will do what we can to help Sisko and his people get him back safely. It is the very least we can do after we deliberately involved him in a rather illaborate and dangerous trap. Now, I believe I gave you an assignment to complete. See to it.”

And without another word, Garak rose and left him sitting alone in the small office they’d been given upon their arrival. As the door closed, Damar shuddered uncontrollably. That had been far too close. He was glad he’d made it out of the interview in one piece.

Quark leaned forward, closing in on the security chief with a conspiratorial smirk. “I have it on very good authority that they’re here to… ah… shall we say… inspect things.”

“Really?” Odo drawled. “That’s very interesting. And just where, may I ask, did you get this information?”
“Oh, come now, Constable, if I tell you that, my customers won’t trust me to keep their secrets anymore. Now what good would that do? Trust me; I know what I’m doing.”

“From across the room, Garak watched them with amusement and more than a little respect. The constable, at least, knew enough about covert surveillance to understand the nuances of what he was doing, and Garak was sure he’d already been seen by the chief of security. The fact that the man, or whatever he was, hadn’t questioned him yet told Garak that he was patiently waiting to gain as much information as he could before confronting a possible enemy. It was a very good strategy. If what he knew about the constable held true, questioning him about Dukat’s activities would either gain him a great deal or nothing at all. In either case, speaking with him would be valuable.

After a few more verbal exchanges, the Constable shook his head in obvious disgust and walked away. He came right towards Garak.

“Good evening, Constable,” he said politely.

“Inquisitor Garak,” Odo acknowledged.

Oh, Very good, Garak thought. He’s using my title to keep a verbal wall between us. How charming. Without thinking about it further, he decided to make his first real move.

“Constable, I was wondering if I could have a word with you in private.”

Odo looked pointedly around; accenting the fact that they were relatively alone. Garak, however, would not take any chances. He merely returned the constable’s stare.

“Very well, but if you want to truly be private, we should go to your quarters.”

Garak’s eye ridge twitched and he smiled. So, Odo knew that he was under constant surveillance. This would work to his advantage. Dukat had just made his last mistake.

“The fact is; constable, I am being hampered in my efforts to properly inspect this station and all the goings on aboard it. Oh, the blocks are subtle, but they’re there.”

“And what, may I ask; do you want me to do about it? I don’t involve myself in imperial affairs. Dukat should have told you that when you first came here.”

Good, Garak thought, now the constable would know what to look for.

“My dear constable, by virtue of your employment here, you are inextricably involved in imperial affairs. You can make this inspection so much simpler. Then we can get off the station and the tension will ease. I’m sure you’ve noticed it already…”

Reluctantly, Odo nodded. Before he could speak again, however, Garak thrust the verbal dagger home. He knew that Odo would appreciate his honesty.

“I assure you, we are not welcome here by Dukat and most of his people. That doesn’t bode well; and if his reasons for not being more hospitable to me are criminal…”

Again, Odo nodded. “I get the point,” he said. And, much though I hate to admit it, I agree with you. Your officers are walking around freely. Do you think that might be just a tad bit dangerous, all things considered?” he asked.

“Ah, well, after tonight, I shall have to keep them closer. You, also, are correct. I wouldn’t want anything… dangerous… to happen to either of them.”

“I am okay,” Julian muttered to himself frantically. “I’m okay; what’s happening to me isn’t. I will not let the things that are happening right now define me.”

He had been saying this over and over again to himself for a long time. It was a very basic coping mechanism, but for now, it was working.

“That’s a charming sentiment,” human. “It’s just too bad it isn’t the truth.”

“Ah, but what is truth?” Had he said that aloud? The way the man was reacting indicated that he had, indeed, spoken the words.

“The truth, human, is that you have been caught trespassing within the borders of the Cardassian Empire. At the very least, you will undoubtedly spend the rest of your life in a labor camp for your perfidy. At worst, you will be executed as an example.”

“Sometimes… examples… have… a way of… backfiring,” he gasped.

The Cardassian had picked up that damn remote control; the one that made every nerve in his body feel as if it were on fire. He had managed, somehow, to speak even through the pain. He had nothing to lose, he realized, so he decided to provoke them into getting on with it. If he died, the Federation would not go to war. HE would merely be one more officer mourned over by a few people and a statistic in some smalltime report. And so, he had become a fatalist. It hadn’t taken very long, but he could not stop the processes that were taking over his mind. He didn’t know anything, so they were wasting their time.

“I must admit, human, you are a rare one. There aren’t very many beings that can work their way through the pain and actually speak coherently during its application.”

The burning stopped. The feeling of ice touching every raw nerve went away slowly. Perhaps one of the more terrible aspects of this sort of torture was the fact that there were no marks or scars left behind. His body would not show the evidence of it.

“I’m… so glad… you’re impressed,” he managed.

The interrogator’s mood suddenly changed. He was enraged. His fist connected with Julian’s ribs and he gasped as he heard a distinctive cracking sound.

“I am not usually given to such base methods, human,” he snarled. “There are, however, exceptions to every rule. Be glad that you are an exception if you like. Your gladness will not help you avoid this.

For the first time he could remember, Julian Bashir wished he had managed to keep his mouth shut instead of allowing it to get him into trouble.

It had been three days; three long, frustrating days of countering blocks, combating the resistance of his adversary, and getting absolutely nowhere.

Garak had told Ziyal about the rest of the mission the second night after their arrival. Usually, he was not inclined to give any information to someone who did not need to know about said information, but she had done the Empire a very necessary and unpleasant service that night. He had felt that it would only be fair for her to know.

She merely nodded, and then smiled. “Inquisitor,” she said now, “I want to report a crime against the Cardassian Empire. That crime is incest.”

If she had kissed him Garak might not have been as shocked as he was now.

“What are you telling me, Glin,” he demanded.

“I did a DNA check on Gul Dukat and found out that…” and now, her voice trembled for the first time…”he is my father. I did not go willingly to his bed.”

Rage filled Garak. Were both of his aides determined to work against him? He supposed he couldn’t blame her. Finding out who her father was had been an obsession for her throughout her entire life. It was a weakness that could have been exploited against her, but now, he realized, she was taking a huge risk by reporting her findings willingly to her superior officer to keep that from happening.

“I see,” he said. “Are you willing to go with me to the constable’s office and file rape charges against Dukat? I have the time now, if that is your wish.”

“It is my wish,” Inquisitor,” she said steadily. “Thank you.”

Garak was so proud of her in that moment that he had to take a deep breath in order to keep his emotions under control. Without a word, he rose and motioned for her to follow him. She fell into step directly behind her superior officer.

Damar watched the two of them leave in utterly shocked astonishment. These Obsidian Order types were far, far better at the game of point and counterpoint than he had ever been. He wondered if his own secrets had come to light after a similarly amazing revelation. Somehow, he doubted it. He was too uncomplicated for that.

“You’re saying that he raped you?” Odo asked.

“That is exactly what I’m saying, Constable. I admit, I was slightly intoxicated—finding out about one’s father after so many years has a tendency to make one wish for a few gulps of liquid courage, as it were. I originally went to his quarters to confront him and show him the evidence I’d found, but before I could… Well, you know the rest of it.”

Oh, my dear child, Garak thought; you are brilliant and I am proud and honored to have taken part in your instruction. I just hope this doesn’t destroy us.

“You aren’t the first person to make such a report,” Odo said heavily. “In point of fact, you are the fifth in less than two months. I couldn’t do anything about it before because the women involved were Bajorans and they had no protection under Cardassian law, but this case is different. As I understand it, incest is a very serious crime among your people. The question now is: are you going to let this be publically known?”

Ziyal actually seemed to think about it for a moment, and then she turned to face Garak directly for the first time since they had begun their day over an hour ago.

“I… I don’t know if I can… I don’t think I can bear the…” she stopped and looked away, tears filling her eyes. He reached out to her and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“I understand, my dear, I understand,” he said soothingly.

“I can’t do anything about it if you don’t let me,” Odo said steadily.

“I am aware of that,” Ziyal replied with commendable poise. “Perhaps I can talk to him… The fear of losing his job, his place of power, might be enough.”

Odo glared across the desk at them both. “Why,” he asked sharply, “Why do I get the feeling I have been fooled into doing something you two wanted me to do?”

Garak rose, so Ziyal followed suit and gave him a small smile. “Probably because you have,” Constable. “Don’t worry, though, no crime has been committed.”

“There is the little detail of blackmail,” he snapped.

“True, but undisclosed blackmail is not blackmail, is it?”

Odo’s expression did not change, but he pointedly turned away from them both.

They walked back to their quarters in silence. Only when the door was closed did she speak. “How long have you known, Inquisitor?” she asked.

He did not dishonor her efforts or pride by pretending not to know what she meant.

“I’ve known for nearly four years. About a year after you were selected to begin working for the Order, the Emperor told me the truth. He also said that I was to let you find out.”

“I understand,” she said. “May I be dismissed? Writing this report is going to take time.” Her voice was completely numb and emotionless.

Garak nodded silently and she left. “Don’t let this destroy you, my girl,” he murmured aloud. He was glad Damar was not there to hear his momentary lapse.

It took nearly five hours. Garak was surprised the secret managed to stay contained for that long. When Dukat finally came to him, however, he was ready.

“Come in,” Gul,” he said icily. “Please, sit down.”

Dukat silently obeyed and Garak had to admire the man’s outward seeming calm. If he was at all apprehensive or upset, he was doing a fairly good job of hiding it.

“You are in a great deal of trouble,” Garak said bluntly. “Surprisingly, it was not the station’s lack of production that has managed to catch my attention, however. Rather, it is something far more serious. You raped my female aide last night.”

His head shot up, and Garak knew without a doubt that he had definitely shocked him.

“I did no such thing!” he shouted. “She was willing!”

“Ah yes, the old fallback line,” Garak sneered. “It won’t work this time, however.

“Garak,” Dukat said earnestly, “I swear, she was willing!”

Garak took a few seconds to relish this moment of victory over his old enemy. He did not, however, let his pleasure show. Instead, he frowned and pushed a button.

She came in quietly, her face covered with a black veil. Garak almost laughed aloud upon seeing that. By using a very traditional Cardassian gesture of self-shame to her advantage; she was further throwing Dukat off balance. Garak smiled.

“Ah, sit down, my dear,” he said. “Will you tell our good Gul what you discovered?”

“You were seen in the company of one Tora Naprem until the night of her sudden disappearance aboard the Cardassian ship Ravinok.”

“Comparing her DNA to mine left me in no doubt, Father. How could you do this to me? How could you rape your own daughter? I can’t help but wonder if you raped my mother! Did you think we wouldn’t find out?”

Garak would have prompted her to stop talking subtly, but he didn’t have to. She had a very good sense of how far she could push things.

Dukat stared at her in disbelief. He opened his mouth several times as if to speak, but no sound came out. After a minute of this, Ziyal made her next move; she removed her veil.

“I will not be ashamed,” she said with quiet intensity. “This was not my fault. I will not be ashamed!” As she spoke, her eyes fastened on Dukat’s face.

Garak felt a chill go down his spine. She was doing it! She was getting to him. Her masterful performance would gain them exactly what they needed in no time.

“I… I didn’t know,” Dukat whispered; his voice sounding utterly defeated.

“You didn’t know, or you didn’t want to know?” she quietly demanded.

“A crime this serious will, of course, need to be reported,” Garak said.

“I’ll take my chances, Inquisitor,” Ziyal replied.

Oh, good girl! Lead him gently now, very, very gently…

“NO!” Dukat shouted and leaped to his feet. “You can’t do this!”

“I most certainly can, and I will… unless…” Garak let it hang there. Dukat slowly sank into the chair once more. He didn’t bother to hide his devastation.

“What do you want?” he asked dully.

Ziyal rose and quietly left the room. When she was alone, she smiled coldly.

“It isn’t what I want, my dear Gul,” Garak replied almost tenderly. “It is who.”

“You want the Federation doctor.” It wasn’t a question; and Garak didn’t bother to treat it as one. He merely sat there, waiting for Dukat to speak again.

“I’ll have him cleaned up and brought to your quarters in an hour,” Dukat said stiffly.

“Good,” Garak replied. “Oh, and before you go, I will have the name of the person or persons who would have come to pick him up. I want to know where they were to take him; and why. I am also curious about your reasons for doing something so stupid.”

“I wasn’t going to let him leave this station alive,” Dukat said tonelessly.

“Was there a specific reason you chose him?” Garak kept his voice calm and detached.

“I didn’t give a damn about who we grabbed,” the other man snarled. “I got tired of standing by and letting the damned Federation make incursions into Cardassian space!”

“Ah, so you decided, on your own initiative, to murder a Starfleet officer and use that murder as an example? What were you trying to prove by doing that?”

“The Federation needs to know that the Cardassian Empire is not going to allow…”

Garak nodded slowly. “Hmmm...” he murmured contemplatively; “I will have to see to the leak in my department next, I think. So, you knew that we are on the verge of peace talks with the Federation. I suppose you also knew that Bajor has been asking for membership. Did it ever occur to you that this might make Cardassia stronger?”

Dukat’s mouth dropped open and Garak suddenly felt a surge of impatience and disgust. This man’s ineptitude had nearly cost the Empire a great deal; and now, he had no idea why giving Bajor to the Federation would help them. Garak wasn’t sure he had the patience or willingness to take Dukat through the steps one by one. No, he decided; someone else would have to do that. Right now, he had a Federation doctor to help.

Pain… there was always so much pain… bright lights… too many questions and too much noise… He was confused and frightened. All at once, he felt as if he were a child before… before the change. His mind shrank back from those thoughts. He could not afford to spill that particular secret; not to anyone.

“Sir! Over here!” shouted a Cardassian voice. Julian winced and tried not to whimper.

“Easy, Doctor, you are safe,” said another, much softer voice. “You are safe now, Dr. Bashir. No one is going to hurt you ever again. You have my word.”

He felt a cool cloth being very gently brushed across his face. He almost moaned aloud at the touch. He didn’t want to be touched; not ever again!

The voice spoke once more, but not to him. “…water and a tricorder… need to reset his left elbow and… His ribs are… He needs to recover first.”

“I am not a medic, Doctor,” the Cardassian said quietly, but I will do my best to stabilize you before we return you to your ship. Just try to relax.”

Julian began to cry. He couldn’t stop it; he couldn’t control it at all. His ribs screamed with the pain of being punched and kicked. His chest hurt as he sought desperately to get enough air into his lungs. Still, he could not stop crying.

Garak was somewhat surprised at the horrible condition the man was in when Damar found him. At least, he thought, the boy was alive. The Cardassians who had done this to him were to be dishonorably discharged from the military. He would tend to that ceremony himself at dawn. Dukat had already been arrested by Odo and was sitting in prison and would be tried before a jury made up of his military peers. He would not be returning to this station. He had already been stripped of his rank. Garak would not let this embarrassing bit of idiocy be covered up by anyone.

He had seen so many reactions to so many interrogations. This officer was very, very young. He knew enough about humans to estimate that he still had over 8 decades of life ahead of him if all went well. Garak would see to it that for now, at least, all would be well with the boy. As he scanned, ran skin and bone regenerators over the boy’s body and waited for him to calm down, he found himself wondering if this had been his first assignment. It would make sense. It was a hell of a way to begin a career.

“M-My f-fault! M-My f-fault! It was all my fault!”

Garak gently but firmly took the boy by the shoulders. He could sense hysteria creeping up on the lad. He would have to avoid that, lest he hurt himself.

“T-The D-Defiant… I… The crew…”

Ah, Garak thought sadly, he has been shown a mock-up of his ship being destroyed.

“Doctor! Listen to me!” The boy gasped and shuddered and gulped back the sobs as he struggled to focus his eyes on Garak’s face. Once he was sure he had the doctor’s attention, he spoke more softly; pronouncing each word slowly and clearly.

“Doctor, your ship is safe. I promise you, the Defiant is perfectly safe. I have just spoken to your Captain Sisko and they are on their way to pick you up here.”

“S-Safe?” Bashir whispered; desperately hoping for it to be true.

“Safe,” Garak agreed gently. The simulation you were shown was very convincing, but it was just that, a simulation. The Defiant did not blow up.”

Julian forced himself to calm down and stop crying. When he felt that he had some control over his emotions, he spoke once more. His voice was barely audible.

“I… I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I’m not usually like this.”

Suddenly, he realized what he’d just said and began to laugh. He winced and stopped laughing quickly enough. His ribs were hurting too much to laugh.

Garak smiled. “I assure you; I understand completely,” he said blandly.

“You need some more rest, but I suppose being a doctor you already know that. Can you tell me what happened to you? If you are not ready, it can wait.”

“Th-they w-wanted to know what I was d-doing here. I was j-just here to help. I kept t-telling them that, but they didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe me,” he repeated.

Garak laid a gentle hand on his wrist. “It’s all right, Doctor,” he said tenderly.

“They gave me a drug,” Julian said urgently. It’s… It’s doing… It’s doing something to my… I need… Please,” he whispered. “Help me!”

Garak silently swore. He should have guessed it immediately. He had had a lot on his mind, but he should have known Dukat and his people would do something like this.

He forced himself to speak in clinical terms. “You are experiencing an increase in your sexual need. Your nerves are confused; they don’t know if you are feeling pleasure or pain. Along with your physical wounds, you are going into shock.”

“Ye-Yes,” he said tremulously. “That’s right.”

“What do you do for a human patient who is experiencing these symptoms? The drug you were given is called Kevrolazine. It is composed of…” As he rattled off the list of chemicals that went into the drug, he wondered why he was bothering. The boy would probably be completely unable to help himself using these methods. It was a lot to ask of a human. He hoped he wasn’t causing more mental damage by doing this. Julian Bashir, however, surprised him. As soon as he began listing the chemicals, the boy calmed down completely. Garak marveled at his inner strength.

“Okay,” Julian said a bit uncertainly, “we have… We have n-no w-way of counteracting the effects. I think the… The p-patient w-was g-given enough to incapacitate him for t-two days. Until then, I would recommend immediate sedation.”

Garak winced but saw no other way to deal with this problem.

“D-Don’t use a s-strong one, though. The… I… I react badly to…”

“I understand,” Garak repeated. “I’m injecting you with 20 CCs of a very mild somatic drug. Your body will have time to rest and repair itself. Sleep, Julian, sleep.”

Julian Bashir floated away from consciousness on the waves of that soft, soothing voice.

“I’m afraid our people became somewhat… emotional at the thought of the withdrawal,” Garak said to Captain Sisko seventy-seven hours later. “Some Cardassians see this as a loss; not a release. Your doctor was well within his rights to reach out to help the beleaguered Bajorans in their time of need. He was, perhaps, a few days earlier than is usually recommended, but his heart was in the right place, as they say. He cannot be faulted for doing what he felt was right. It is his job, after all; and he is quite good at it from what I’ve heard.”

Ben Sisko winced internally. He hated lying like this, but he knew that it was the only way he and his former enemies could adequately explain this to Starfleet.

“I appreciate your assistance in finding him,” he said instead.

“I assure you, it was no trouble at all. I only regret that I couldn’t find him sooner. Three days is a long time to suffer with such injuries. That shuttle crash did a great deal of damage, I noticed. I heard about his pilot,” he added softly.

This time, Sisko wasn’t quite as able to hide his fury. His jaws clenched; the muscles of his neck tightening noticeably as he forced himself to calm down again.

“Ensign Crandell will indeed be missed,” he said seriously. “If you’ll excuse me, I have many duties to attend to. I’m sure you can understand that.”

“Of course, Captain,” Garak agreed. “I promise not to overstay my welcome or exhaust your doctor,” he added. “My people will be ready to disembark in an hour.”

He stepped into the small sickbay and smiled down at the young officer lying on the bed.

“Hello, Your Highness,” Julian said. His voice was soft, but his words were audible.

“Ah, Doctor,” Garak said lightly. “I see word travels rapidly. I must say, you look much better than you did several days ago. I hope you are feeling all right…”

“It… it’ll take some time, but I should be back on full duty in ten days or so.”

“Don’t push yourself too soon, my young friend,” Garak urged.

“Oh… Believe me, I won’t. I’m glad you were officially declared Emperor Tain’s heir.”

The change of subject saddened Garak, but he went with it for the boy’s sake.

“Well, it wasn’t much of a surprise, but it is gratifying to know that my work for the Empire has granted me such a position. It does mean much more paperwork, though.”

Julian laughed, as he’d been meant to. “It’s gratifying to be able to laugh without it hurting,” he said. “Funny how such a small thing can come to matter so much.”

“It is good to hear you laugh,” Garak said. He was looking directly into the human’s eyes as he spoke. Spending the last two and a half days constantly in the boy’s presence forged a bond between them that could not be denied.

“I wonder… I mean… It might not be too safe, and your emperor would probably never sanction it since it puts you at such risk, but I was told that there will be a new liaison officer here from the empire. Would you be permitted to take that post? Would you want to? I suppose I should have asked you that first… I’m not…”

Garak gently placed a finger to his lips and smiled. “Actually, the request is being considered as we speak. Since I am someone with whom your captain has interacted, my familiarity to your people could be a major asset. I understand that Captain Sisko has been granted the command of Terok Nor. So, it looks like I won’t be leaving for very long before I have to come back here to serve the empire’s needs.

“It won’t be easy,” Julian said; turning his head so that Garak’s fingers were no longer pressed against his lips. “The temperatures most humans find comfortable will be cold for you. The lights won’t be anything like what you’re used to and…”

Now it was Garak’s turn to laugh softly. “I think I can endure it, Doctor,” he said.

“And you would?” Julian asked. Once more that hope filled his eyes.

Garak marveled at the expressiveness of this human’s face. He was so openly emotional; not something Cardassians considered an admirable trait. He was kindness and generosity embodied in a living, breathing form. He also had a strength that would have made the Cardassian Empire desperate to gain his services if he hadn’t already joined Starfleet. Garak knew that his loyalty to the Federation would never be shaken.

“I’ve been reading a little about Cardassian medical procedures and… other things,” Julian said suddenly; breaking the companionable silence between them.

Garak nodded; interested in the doctor’s opinions. “We don’t make many medical facts available to outsiders,” he said. “It’s a weakness to do something like that.”

“Well, I just hope that if you’re ever hurt you’ll let me in on it enough to help you,” Julian snapped a bit waspishly. “We wouldn’t want you to die here, after all.”

Garak’s eyes widened. “Why Doctor, do I detect a bit of frustration in your voice,” he teased gently. “Getting angry won’t help your cause, you know.”

Julian sighed loudly and then soldiered on with what he’d been about to say in the first place. “Anyway, the bits of information I could find suggested that you don’t have people to help trauma victims cope with their ordeals mentally or emotionally.”

“Why should we need such a thing?” Garak asked, genuinely interested in Julian’s answer. “If our people are traumatized by some horrible event, we aid them by putting up memory blocks or reorienting the memory so that it is, for lack of a better term, tucked away to one side. This makes it easier for a Cardassian to function and live his or her everyday life without too much trouble. If the blocks fail… Well, we won’t go into that.”

“But that’s just the point!” Julian cried. “Doing something like that isn’t healthy.” His passion had been ignited. He wanted to help heal people; even if they were merely talking about theoretical people. It was just the way his mind worked.

“Ah, but what constitutes helping?” Garak asked gently. The boy had been stuck for too long in his world where Federation idealism was the norm and anyone who lived outside such ideals was considered in need of fixing.

“I… I…” Julian was stunned. Never in his life had he stuttered after the change had been made. Never had he been so violently thrown off his train of thought by a mere question from a debating opponent. He worried about what this might mean for his mental state.

“While you are thinking about that, Doctor,” Garak interrupted, “I would also ask you to remember this. People are allowed to refuse medical aid for any reason. If they make the choice coherently, it is their choice and their right to refuse your help.”

“But what constitutes coherency?” Julian fired Garak’s question right back at him. It was a bit of a sloppy arguing tactic, but it was usually effective.

“If a person can string sentences together and speak in a manner that makes it very clear that he understands and can respond appropriately to enquiries, he or she is considered coherent. In almost every civilization I’ve read about or encountered in my life, that has been considered the acknowledged definition of coherency,” he said calmly.

“Yes, but what if said person is clearly acting against his or her usual nature even if he can speak and answer in a manner that most people would understand?” Julian demanded; sitting up and glaring at the smiling Cardassian who sat beside his bed.

“And again we come to the question of the ages,” Garak noted. “It’s all a matter of relativity, Doctor. Now then, to answer your earlier question, those people whom you could call psychologists, I believe, would be a functionless, and therefore useless, component of our society. No one wants to be thought of as a waste of space.”

“Well, I can see that we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one,” Julian said. “I do still want you to stay here, though; at the station, I mean.”

Of course you do, child, Garak thought fondly. And why should he not stay? He could just as easily aid Tain from here as on Cardassia Prime in most matters.

“I’ll let you know if the transfer goes through either way, I promise,” he soothed. “Now, I have to go, and you need some more sleep. I promised your captain that I would not exhaust you. I don’t want to be known as a man who breaks his word.”

“Oh, all right,” Julian said a little peevishly. He hated the petulance he could clearly hear in his voice. Normally he wouldn’t have reacted like that.

Garak rose, brushed a gentle hand across his hair and left without another word. As he watched the Cardassian leave the room, Julian found himself smiling. He was almost positive that Garak would be staying here once he completed his current assignment on Cardassia.

Chapter Text

Doctor Julian Bashir put a hand to his head in sudden worry. The pains had started to come more and more often of late. He couldn’t understand why, though. He’d been declared fully able to go back on duty two weeks after his ordeal with several Cardassian renegades, so he didn’t think there was a physiological reason for the headaches. He was still seeing Ezri on a regular basis for counseling, so he was almost sure it wasn’t a psychosomatic reaction. What, then, was causing him to have these headaches?

Once he had breathed slowly through the short, sharp pain, he blinked rapidly and swallowed hard before resuming his journey to the airlock. He had a newly made friend to meet.

Garak had managed to keep himself busy with reports and facts and figures during the long journey to the newly named federation space station Deep Space 9. He was usually restless during rides that took more than two hours, so he was grateful for the work. Now, as the airlock doors slowly cycled open, he smiled. His guards stepped out ahead of him to make sure all was safe, but he didn’t fear this place or these people. They were allied with the Cardassian Empire now and wouldn’t harm him.

“There you are!” cried a familiar, and very welcome, voice. Garak’s smile grew bigger.

“Doctor,” he replied to the enthusiastic greeting with equal, if less dramatic, warmth. “It is very good to see you up and about; and I am honored that you came to meet me here.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Julian asked, genuinely perplexed by the Cardassian’s last statement.

Ah, and there it was again; Garak thought. He simply couldn’t be anything other than a guileless young man. It wasn’t in his nature to be thoughtless or unkind, so he couldn’t conceive of it being in anyone else’s. Garak found this facet of his friend’s personality fascinating.

“I thought you might be fairly busy and unable to come,” he said smoothly.

“Oh, my shift has just finished. I was going to have some dinner. Would you care to join me?”

And who was he to refuse such a beautifully made offer? Garak nodded and followed his young friend down several turns and twists. Idly, he noticed that they were headed towards the part of the habitat ring usually reserved for very high-ranking officers of starfleet and its allies.

“I hope you like the quarters I chose for you this time,” Julian said happily. “They’re much better than the ones I heard you were given when Dukat was in command here. I’ll let you look around, settle in and then meet you in the replimat. Could we meet in say, a half an hour?”

“That would be very nice,” Garak replied honestly.

Julian beamed like a small child who has just been given his favorite toy for a naming day present.

“Great!” he said a little nervously. I’ll just leave you to it and see you then.”

As he changed into something far more suitable for casual dining with a newly made companion, Garak reflected on his friendship with Julian Bashir. They were decades apart in age and experience. Their political and moral ideals did not match. They probably hated foods that the other would consider quite delectable, so how had it happened? How had this charming, beautiful young man so easily and completely wriggled his way into his affections? Even as he had that thought, it felt… wrong somehow. It was wrong, he realized, because the word wriggle didn’t fit. +Julian hadn’t wriggled into his heart; he had stormed it by the mere circumstance of his helplessness and his obvious need during his recent ordeal. His vulnerability was something Garak had responded to instantly and very protectively. It’d always been that way with him, though. Tain said that such weaknesses were dangerous, but Garak simply couldn’t help himself. Whenever they argued about it, Garak would calmly and rather placidly inform his mentor, the man who had officially acknowledged him as his son, that everyone had flaws.

Naturally, this flaw had made it very easy for Julian to give his heartstrings a tug. What had been the staying power, though? During the time they’d been apart while Garak saw to the pomp and ceremony of being made Tain’s heir and the trials of Dukat and his cohorts, Julian and he had each written the other one letter. Garak’s had, understandably enough, been quite short. Julian’s had been rather lengthy, though. It wasn’t even the letter that made Garak want to get to know this young man; however. Though the tone and the words had conveyed more of his warmth and generosity, there was another reason he liked the human. He knew how to argue without letting it get too personal.

He stepped out of his quarters and made his way towards the replimat with a light heart. He and Julian had only had one argumentative discussion, but that had been enough to show Garak that his friend had an amazing intellect for one so young. Getting to know him better would not be boring, Garak was sure of that.

As they sat to order their meal, Julian found himself feeling very warm inside. Having Garak here was doing odd things to his emotions. He knew all about the psychological phenomenon called transference, but he wasn’t afraid of it. He acknowledged that Garak had saved his life, he was grateful for it, and they were now friends. What could possibly be psychologically unhealthy in that?

When he talked to Ezri about it later, though, she had pinned him with her bright-eyed gaze and simply asked: “Are you trying to convince me, or fool yourself?”

That question had not even swayed him. He hadn’t been mentally thrown off his stride when he answered readily enough that it was a little of both.

“I refuse to let myself feel guilty about it, though,” he said almost defensively.

“Okay,” Ezri had replied quite calmly. “That’s your decision. It’s good that you’ve faced this decision and looked at it in a logical manner. Lots of people find that hard to do.”

That had annoyed him a little. He knew that Ezri hadn’t meant for her remark to sound condescending, but it had; and he hadn’t been able to shake off his irritation until they ended their session.

“And what is it that has you so preoccupied this evening, Doctor?” Garak asked.

“Oh! I’m sorry,” he blushed charmingly and that made Garak smile. “I was just… I’ve got a lot on my mind. I know; that was obvious. Forgive me for my rudeness.”

“Of course,” Garak replied. His heart did a small dance inside his chest. Did this young human know what he was doing to him? Great hebitian hells, did he know what he was doing by falling in love with this boy? He forced himself to put those thoughts away for later analysis.

“I heard about the research you are doing on the Breen,” Garak said. “Quite candidly, Doctor, I wish you luck in finding out anything. A more mysterious race I have yet to meet, and that’s saying something.”

Julian laughed. “Yes, well…” he murmured nervously, “I was… getting bored while I was waiting to be released from the… to return to my duties. My mind wouldn’t shut up about it, so…”

Garak nodded and smiled again. “How do you plan on obtaining the information you will need?”

“I’ve already sent several enquiries to the Breen government regarding any moral or ethical reasons which might block my attempts to gain more knowledge about their physiognomy. I’ll have to wait until I get my questions answered before I can continue. If they have certain considerations that are going to prevent me from asking basic questions, like certain people I can name, then I won’t be able to do much. Still, it may help to ease my mind a little even if I don’t get specific answers.”

Garak chuckled. “I assure you, our reticence does not stem from a need to perturb you, my dear doctor,” he said. “It is simply the Cardassian way.”

Julian made a face, but acknowledged his acceptance of that fact with a sigh. “I’ve always been curious,” he said. “Ever since I was little I constantly asked anyone anything I could think of to ask. It drove some people away and annoyed others, but I couldn’t help asking questions. As I grew older I learned to curb it; especially when I realized that in certain circumstances it could lead to trouble.”

Their food arrived then, and they spent several minutes merely enjoying their meals. The silence that fell between them was comfortable, though. As they picked up their conversation in between bites once they had taken the sharpest edges off their hunger, they swung from topic to topic. Garak was delighted to find that his young companion was able and quite willing to talk about a variety of subjects. He had formed intelligent opinions on everything from sports played on earth to Romulan music. He could speak knowledgably on things ranging from Frunalian scientific theories to Bolian philosophy; from Cardassian literature and art to Bajoran religious practices and beliefs.

The more they talked, the more fascinated Garak became. Cardassians, as a rule, were a talkative people. They debated everything from the prospects in future investment plans to the nature and meaning of the phrase “service to the state.” They often stood on street corners or sat in outdoor cafes conversing with friends for hours if they did not have duties to perform; and he had been caught up in many such arguments. To meet one who was not of his race but was almost as experienced and passionate a debater as he was made Garak feel very content indeed.

“I’ve been talking you to death,” Julian said suddenly. He blushed once more with embarrassment.

“Not at all, Doctor,” he replied graciously. “In fact, I have thoroughly enjoyed our conversation thus far.”

Julian gave him a small, shy smile. “So have I,” he admitted softly. Then, he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “Still, it’s getting late and I have an early shift tomorrow.”

“Shall we call it an evening, then?” Garak asked.

“I think we’re going to have to,” Julian replied; honest regret filling his tone and expression. “I’m sure you’ll want to rest before facing the senior staff in the morning.”

“Indeed,” Garak agreed with a mock shudder that made Julian laugh.

They parted ways soon afterwards. Quark, the Ferengi bar tender watched them leave with a smirk. Then he turned to face the new Starfleet officer he’d met only two days ago. Jadzia raised her eyebrows at him in silent enquiry as he continued to grin his toothy grin.

“I’ll bet they end up becoming a couple in two months,” he said; leering at her.

“I’m not going to gamble on such a certainty unless I can put my money on the yes side instead of the no side,” she said calmly. “But I’m not sure it’s going to take them that long.”

Quark’s grin widened; if that were possible, and he nodded wisely. “They do seem to get along well,” he murmured for her ears alone. “So, how long do you think it will take?”

“Three weeks,” she said promptly and without shame. “I’ll put a strip of latinum on it.”

The Ferengi burst out laughing as she rose and slipped out of his bar with a smile of her own.

Discovering the wormhole that led to the Gamma Quadrant had thrust Deep Space 9 and its crew into a very sudden limelight. This, along with the alliance between the Federation and the Cardassian Empire made the station a highly important place overnight. The daily briefings, therefore, were attended by the senior staff, as well as a few representatives from other governments. This would not always be the case, of course, but the Federation claimed that it had nothing to hide with regards to the station so far. Garak, as the Cardassian representative, took advantage of the implicit invitation and started attending the briefings the morning after his arrival. He wanted to show the Empire’s interest in Federation governmental and military practices. As Tain’s heir, he reasoned that any information he could get would be useful, so he did not let such an obvious opportunity pass him by.

When he walked into the briefing room, a silence fell and all eyes turned to him. Not all of the eyes were friendly, though. He merely inclined his head politely to everyone. The rather frosty reception had not been unexpected. The new first officer of Deep Space 9 was a Bajoran woman named Kira Nerys. Her hostility was very obvious; it blazed like a supernova for all to see. Several of the human Starfleet officers, however, were looking at him with such neutral expressions that he could read their hatred. This, too, wasn’t a surprise. Obviously, rumors had been circulating about the treatment of Bajoran prisoners. He had read many reports concerning Dukat’s handling of the different situations in which Bajorans had been confined and had been disturbed by some of them. He understood that he would have to prove his good intentions to these Federation officers.

Good morning, Mr. Garak,” Captain Sisko said calmly. His expression and tone of voice were civil enough, but Garak wondered how the man really felt about him. He had, after all, rescued one of Sisko’s people from some members of his own military, but that didn’t mean that the captain liked him. No one, Garak knew, liked to have a debt hanging over their heads; especially since he would serve as a living, daily reminder of that debt. The fact that Garak felt that Sisko owed him nothing had probably not occurred to the human. Garak had merely been doing his duty.

“Captain,” he acknowledged; his voice equally courteous. He could play the civility game with the best of them; and if that was how Sisko wanted to handle things, he would go along with it.

“Let’s get started; shall we?” Sisko began. Instantly, he had everyone’s attention.

“Over the next few months, many diplomatic envoys will be coming to the station. This, of course, means that there will be people who don’t necessarily like each other living in very close quarters.”

Garak had to fight to keep from shaking his head. Why did the good captain have to say something so obvious? If this was how briefings were going to be carried out, he might just have to send Damar to them and have him take notes and report on the salient points to him later.

He smiled very slightly at that thought. Damar would not thank him for doing something so cruel. Still, it was his job. At least, it could be if Garak gave the order.

“This is going to be fun,” Jadzia Dax commented dryly.

Ah, now here was a woman who shared his sense of humor.

“I know, but we’re going to have to make things run as smoothly as possible,” Sisko responded; flashing the trill a quick smile. “Major, I’m leaving the arrangement of suitable quarters for each incoming delegation to you. If you need help with the Federation’s people, feel free to consult SecurityChief Eddington.”

Kira blinked and then nodded her acknowledgement of the order. She never said a word.

“Major?” Sisko looked right at her. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, Captain,” she replied. “Why do you ask?”

“Never mind,” Sisko replied; looking a bit startled by her silence.

Garak watched the major’s eyes flick from one officer to another. She was taking their measure, but she was blatantly refusing to be subtle about it. He liked that.

“Old man, I’m going to need you to arrange the duty roster so that everyone has a six and a half hour shift each day. I don’t want job fatigue to become an excuse for bad behavior while our guests are here. Get Odo to help; especially with his security people.”

“Right,” Dax responded.

Garak frowned. Why, he wondered, had the captain called this obviously young woman an old man?

“What did you call her?” Kira could have been reading his mind.

“Oh… Sorry,” Sisko said; smiling that flashy grin once more. “Dax’s previous host and I were close.”

Ah, Garak thought, so that explained it. The previous host had been an elderly male when Sisko had known the Dax simbiot. There was obviously a mentor/pupil relationship between them.

“Doctor,” Sisko went on, “I need you to make sure you are ready for any medical problem that might come up. Fights on the promenade and in the habitat ring are very likely going to crop up, so you’re going to be busy. Rearrange your duty roster as well.”

“Aye, Sir,” Bashir said. “You can count on me.”

Garak could not hold back the smile this time. As he glanced quickly around the table, he saw a number of reactions. The chief Operations officer was grinning with open condescension. Kira had just rolled her eyes. Dax’s lips twitched as she, too, fought to hold back a smile.

“Thank you, Doctor,” Sisko answered with the true skill of a consummate diplomat. “I knew I could.”

“Constable Odo; your job is going to be the most difficult and thankless of all,” Sisko said.

“Don’t worry, Captain, my people and I can handle it.”

Sisko nodded his acknowledgement and continued with the briefing.

The first group of ambassadors will be arriving in three days. Representatives from the Vulcans, the betazoids, the Tholians, and the Andorian group will be aboard the U. S. S. Enterprise…”

Garak rose with the rest of the staff when Sisko ended the meeting. As he did so, he caught Bashir’s eye. The young man nodded and grinned to show that he’d seen the gesture.

“So, this is it,” Julian said almost exultantly as he joined Garak.

“It?” Garak queried. “I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

“This is why I became a Starfleet officer,” he said eagerly. “The challenges of dealing with so many different races on a space station are going to be amazing!”

Garak chuckled. “There is a phrase that describes you at this moment,” he said. “I believe humans would call you an eager beaver. There’s nothing wrong with that, though.”

Julian blushed and then grinned a little. “I know,” he said. “I was called that at the Academy.”

“I have a feeling that that eager beaver is hiding a very observant young man,” he commented.

For a split second, Julian’s face became utterly serious. “They don’t… I can’t… Never mind.”

Garak was intrigued. “Do you think you’re actually going to get away with that, Doctor?” he demanded.

By now, they were on the promenade which was so packed with traffic that they could continue their conversation in relative privacy. Garak did step closer to the younger man, though.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” Julian said with a straight face.

“Speaking in fragmented sentences and stopping in the middle of a thought to leave me wondering what you were trying to say is not a good idea, my dear Doctor.”

Julian laughed. “Sorry,” he said. “I don’t intend to slake your curiosity, though.”

Garak smiled with amusement. “How disappointing,” he murmured; “and how invigorating.”

“I thought you’d like that,” Julian said blandly. “I have to go. Could we have dinner again tonight?”

“Consider it a date, Doctor,” Garak responded playfully.

Julian gave him a startled glance, blushed, and then turned down the corridor on their left towards the infirmary. He continued to grin until he reached his destination.

Most of that day was spent writing reports and taking inventory of the medical supplies he had versus the ones he would need. The ‘need’ pile was so much bigger than the ‘have’ pile that he grimaced.

It was during his lunch break that he ran into his very first complication regarding the friendship he and Garak shared. He felt her eyes on him the moment he finished his first course. Blinking in surprise, he motioned for her to join him. After a few seconds of thought, she did.

“I can’t believe you’re friends with him!” Kira Nerys said without preamble.

Now it was Julian’s turn to blink in astonishment. “Excuse me?”

“That Cardassian!” she all but spluttered. “How can you be his friend?”

His surprise turned to irritation instantly. “I don’t see why that’s any of your business, Major,” he replied. She made it sound as if he’d done something perverted.

“It’s going to become my business if you tell him anything of a sensitive nature about this station, Doctor.” Her tone made it clear that she was not making an empty threat.

Julian had to take a deep breath before he spoke again. He supposed that in her mind he had done something rather disgusting. Befriending one’s oppressor wasn’t exactly considered normal behavior.

“Major,” he said; struggling to stay calm, “I have no secrets to tell him.”

“Good,” she snarled. “You’d better keep it that way.” And without another word, she jumped to her feet and left his table to return her now empty tray.

He watched her march out of the replimat pensively. The irritation he’d started to feel blossomed into a simmering outrage. Who the hell was this woman to speak to him in such a manner?

“Oh my,” Jadzia Dax murmured as she flopped into the chair Kira had just vacated. “That didn’t look like it was a very pleasant conversation. Would you care to talk about it?”

“That… That Major…” he had to stop and take another deep breath. Speaking badly of a superior officer was not wise; and even though Jadzia and he had been colleagues and friends for almost a year now, he didn’t want to do anything indiscreet around her.

“She practically threatened me,” he said. “As if I had any secrets to tell!” His tone was indignant.

“True,” Jadzia responded in her infuriatingly bland voice. “I bet watching you talking happily to a Cardassian was probably a huge shock to her though; given everything she’s been through because of some of them. “In what way did she threaten you?” she asked suddenly.

“She didn’t really say anything explicit, but I got the feeling that she could make lots of trouble for me if she thought I was saying the wrong things to Garak.”

“Mmm,” Dax murmured. “I wouldn’t take it too personally if I were you. She’s probably going to be like that with all of us for the first few months. Remember, we have to prove ourselves here.”

“I know, but that doesn’t give her the right to dictate whom I can and can’t be friends with.”

“Oh… That; well she’s spoken her mind on the matter, so I don’t think she’ll bother you about it anymore. Just don’t be surprised if she starts watching you, though.”

Julian groaned aloud. “So every time Garak and I go anywhere together on this station she’s going to want to know what we did and said. Well, I hope she has fun wasting her time.”

He leaped to his feet and left the replimat without waiting for a reply.

The energy generated by his irritation carried him at a very fast pace back to the infirmary. Once he got there, he threw himself into doing the inventory. He needed the distraction to calm down. Counting, compiling lists, and writing down identification numbers for the things he would need soon consumed his mind. As he continued to work, however, he tried to see things from Kira’s point of view.

Bajor had suffered under the Cardassian Empire’s iron fist for nearly 65 years. A lot of damage was probably done during that time. He also knew that people, in general, tended to use past injustices, old stories and rumors to fan the flames of their hatred. In this case, he was sure Kira was not doing that. She had obviously lost some very dear people thanks to the Cardassians. To her, one Cardassian was just like any other, so her suspicions were justifiable. That wasn’t the thing that had angered him, though. Her insinuation that he would blithely start babbling about station security or the illnesses of some Bajorans to Garak had infuriated him. It implied that she saw him as little more than a child. That impression was not helped by his youth or the well-known fact that this was his second posting.

The other notion it implied was that he was untrustworthy. He hated the idea that someone hadn’t even taken the time to get to know him before making such a harsh judgment about him. He wondered if she was like that with everyone. If that’s the case, he thought wryly, I’m in good company.

By the time his shift was over, he’d calmed down enough to look at the incident with a bit of perspective. Jadzia was right; they would have to prove themselves to the Bajorans.

Two hours later, he and Garak met in the replimat for dinner. Julian debated with himself for a few minutes about whether or not he should mention what had happened. He’d just decided not to discuss it when Garak surprised him by bringing the subject up over their second course.

“I hope the lunchtime incident with the Major didn’t cause you too much trouble,” he said.

Julian rolled his eyes and shook his head. “How the hell did you find out about it so fast?” he demanded. Surely Jadzia didn’t talk to you about it, did she?”

“No, not at all,” Garak assured him. “I haven’t seen Lieutenant Dax since the briefing this morning.”

“Then how…” he began; looking very baffled and not at all reassured.

“My dear Doctor, there were plenty of witnesses.” Garak replied. Three of them were discussing it as I passed them in the corridors afterwards. If you don’t wish to talk about it, though…”

Julian stared at him and sighed. “It’s too late to stop now,” he said. “So, what were they saying?”

“They mentioned that the major expressed her distrust towards you; quite publicly and loudly. I was given to understand that some threats regarding your career were made. How much of an exaggeration was that? I hope you aren’t being posted elsewhere because of it.”

Julian actually found himself laughing. “Good god!” he snorted. “It wasn’t nearly that dramatic, I assure you. Yes, she did express her distrust, as you put it, and yes, she intimated that if I said anything of a sensitive nature to you I could find myself in some trouble, but she didn’t cause me to lose my job.”

Garak smiled and nodded. “I’m so glad to hear that,” he said. He, of course, knew exactly what had happened, but by deliberately blowing it out of proportion he had made it seem somewhat ridiculous and caused Julian to laugh it off; mission accomplished.

“Thank you,” Julian said suddenly. “I guess I needed to have it put into perspective a bit more.”

Garak’s smile softened into a pleased smirk. The boy was very quick on the uptake. “My pleasure,” he said. “I thank you, as well. Your staunch support does mean a great deal to me.”

Julian ducked his head and blushed. “You’re welcome,” he muttered to his shoes.

For the remainder of their time together that evening, they talked about Federation politics versus Cardassian rule. Most of their discussion involved explaining things back and forth, but the occasional argument did crop up. Each time they disagreed on something, Garak became even more fascinated with Julian Bashir. The boy had so much passion and zest that he practically glowed with it.

For his part, Julian found their time quite enjoyable. The arguments made him feel several complicated emotions. Exasperation was uppermost in his mind as Garak’s biting tone got to him. The man could express so much contempt with effortless ease. His arguments were couched in terms of absolutes and scorn. Julian tried to be objective, but he found it difficult when they argued about the basic rights of an individual citizen versus the obligation of the state to maintain its security.

When they eventually agreed to disagree on that one, Julian had to take a deep breath and give himself a mental shake. They were only talking about theory and explaining their differences to each other, after all. He had to remember that and not let Garak’s distaste for Federation ideals get to him.

Garak felt pleasantly stimulated and content when he returned to his quarters. Underneath the boy’s starry-eyed belief in the Federation’s values lurked a young man who possessed an amazing ability to change the minds of many. If he got the chance, Garak was sure that Julian Bashir would make history. Garak hoped that the young man would have that chance.

“Did you have fun?” His aide, Corat Damar, was smiling ever so slightly.

“As a matter of fact, I did,” he replied blithely. And what of you? Please don’t tell me you spent all of your time in here. I would be very disappointed if you did that.”

“Well, I’m afraid you’re going to have to be disappointed then, Your Highness,” Damar responded; amusing Garak even more. “I did eat here. What’s more, I ate alone.”

“Now I can’t help but feel sympathetic.” Garak was only half joking about that. A few spins of the Dabo wheel and a drink or two would not hurt this oh so serious aide of his.

“I have the report on the Tal Shiar you wanted,” Damar said; heading off the entreaties to go have a little fun. He had heard them before on any number of occasions.

“Ah, good,” Garak said; pleased that he could have something informative to read when he went to sleep. He smiled at that thought. He probably would fall asleep reading the report. The Tal Shiar were like Ben Sisko and his Federation. They expressed in far too many words a thought or idea that could just as easily be discussed in very few words.

“This alliance we’ve made with the Federation is definitely making the Romulans nervous,” Damar said.

“And well it should,” Garak replied with a smirk. “They will soon be on the outside looking in, as it were. I imagine they are getting a bit upset over it,” he added playfully.

“The poor Romulans,” Damar murmured, sending Garak into fits of laughter which he soon joined.

As Julian waited for sleep to claim him, he found himself thinking about Garak. How, he wondered, could one person be so damn infuriating one moment and then turn around and be kind in the next? Julian understood that a person had many different facets to his or her personality, but he was constantly amazed at the complexity of Garak’s. Even when they weren’t in the same room, Julian could hear his voice. He could guess what the man might say to remarks that were made by other people with some accuracy. That in and of itself shocked him.

Julian hadn’t had many friends when he was a child. His very high intelligence caused people to become jealous or intimidated, and even at Starfleet Academy he hadn’t gone to much of an effort to seek out companions very often. He had never brought anyone home to meet his parents—a fact which still distressed his mother-- nor had he formed any attachments to a specific partner. During his last two years at the Academy he reached out to people more often, but he had never met anyone like Garak. It never occurred to him that making a friend could happen so quickly.

Now, as he lay in bed, he wondered how much more grief he would get because of that friendship. Major Kira had spoken her mind on the matter, but there would be other people, he was sure, who would want to tell him just how offended they were by such an attachment.

“Oh well,” he muttered aloud. “I don’t care. I won’t let myself care.”

Before he could think about anything else, he fell into a deep sleep.

Ben Sisko’s warning that they would be busy was almost an understatement. In spite of the shortened shifts, small fires popped up everywhere in the next few months. The captain did his best to put the diplomatic ones out as quickly and smoothly as possible. Doing this without giving anyone offense proved to be very complicated. Often, Sisko could be seen strolling along the corridors and observing the people around him. He wanted to be known as a hands-on, approachable commander, so he nodded and waved to as many people as he could. When he wasn’t doing this, he was communicating with Starfleet Command or writing up the numerous but all too necessary reports that had to be sent to them. Though he hadn’t wanted this assignment at first, he found himself enjoying it, for the most part.

When his entire crew was re-deployed to Deep Space 9, he had been furious. He hadn’t wanted to go anywhere near the political mess that was Bajor. As far as he was concerned, that post put him too damn close to Cardassia. So many members of his crew had suffered or lost someone to the depredations of the Empire that he’d dreaded the idea of showing up for the assignment.

The person he worried about the most, however, was his young doctor. Bashir was 27 years old. The Defiant had been his first post and he had been kidnapped by Cardassian dissidents less than a year after coming aboard her for the first time. Being posted to the very station where he had been forced to endure three days of torture would spook anyone, and Bashir was no exception to that fact.

Sisko had raged and argued for hours with Admiral Ross over it, but the only way the admiral would reassign Julian was if he left the Defiant altogether. He had refused. He’d told his commanding officer that he wanted to get back on the horse, so to speak. Sisko had been so proud of the boy that he’d smiled and given his consent with a great deal of warm affection.

Now, three months after they’d been posted here, Sisko was very glad that Julian Bashir was still with him. He had been instrumental in saving over 70 lives when a poorly executed attack had been made by Bajoran resistance fighters who didn’t want the Federation coming in to take over where the Cardassians left off. The attack had damaged part of the habitat ring. He had led his medical team right into the thick of the chaos and started working as if he were taking an exam or calmly demonstrating how to perform a complex operation on someone.

Sisko had given him a commendation officially, then he’d turned around and blistered his ears about his inability to wait for security teams to catch up with him and declare the area safe before he started. Amazingly, Sisko was not the only person who was furious about Julian’s reckless dash into danger.

“Are you mad?! You could have been killed! You nearly were, you heedless, reckless… human!” Garak’s rage was something to behold. If he hadn’t been the focus of that rage, Julian would have been impressed and a little amused. Since he was the reason Garak was so upset, however, it wasn’t nearly as fun to watch. He’d had no idea until that day that Garak cared about him so much.

“I’m sorry…” Julian said in a small voice. He had stood up to Captain Sisko and argued back. He had pointedly reminded his captain that waiting for the security teams could have cost lives. He had accepted the unofficial reprimand with dignity. Now, however, he was just tired. He was tired of being scolded. He was tired of being treated like a thoughtless child. He was tired of people being mad at him for simply doing his damn job!

“Sorry? You’re sorry? You… Damn it, Julian! What possessed you?!”

Garak paced back and forth; making sweeping gestures with his hands. His neck ridges were dark gray with rage. He pierced Julian with his angry, penetrating gaze one moment; only to spin away from him and start yelling in the next. Never had he been so emotional in Julian’s presence.

“Garak,” he said suddenly, “please don’t…”

His tone caught the angry Cardassian’s attention instantly. His voice had been on the verge of breaking; his eyes were bright with unshed tears, and his face was very pale with emotional strain.

“Oh, my dear, foolish boy,” Garak murmured. He crossed the room in three strides and pulled him almost roughly into his arms. “Julian, Julian, my dearest Julian…” Garak murmured over and over again.

Julian was utterly stunned. He had never, ever dreamed that Garak would do such a thing. The man was so much more self-possessed than this. Was this gesture a Cardassian show made by a concerned friend reaching out to display platonic affection? Or was there something more to it?

They stayed locked in one another’s arms for a few tense seconds, and then Garak pulled away; looking almost as surprised as Julian felt. When he spoke, there was no sign of his earlier rage in his voice.

“It has been a long day for us both, I think,” he said softly. “Let’s get some rest and see each other in a few days. I fear my emotions got the better of me. I apologize if I made you uncomfortable.”

Julian had nodded and slipped out of Garak’s quarters in complete silence. He’d wandered back to his own quarters in a daze. His mind simply refused to work it was so shocked.

That had happened nearly a week ago, and they hadn’t sought each other out since. Now, as Benjamin, Jadzia, Ezri and O’Brien watched the doctor, they exchanged worried glances.

“I know I got angry, but I didn’t think he’d take it this hard,” Sisko said ruefully.

Ezri and Jadzia looked at each other over his head. Sisko knew that look. They were not so subtly telling him that he’d missed something very obvious. He glared at them.

“I don’t think he’s upset because of what you said to him,” Jadzia commented quietly.

Sisko became instantly alert. She’d stressed the word ‘you.’ Why had she done that?

"Did someone else--“he started. He got no further, though, before both women began to laugh.

“Ben,” Jadzia’s voice was full of mock disgust. “Who does Julian spend so much time with besides us?”

O’Brien, who had been taking a sip of synthehol, choked as the truth hit him. When he could finally speak again, he swore incredulously and stared at Jadzia in amazement.

“Bloody hell!” He didn’t shout, but he came very close. “Are you saying that he’s been walking around like a cloud of doom because of something that damn Cardi said to him? I’ll be damned! I’ll fix him,” he muttered angrily. “What the hell gives him the right to yell at Julian anyway?”

Ezri began banging her head on the table. Jadzia dissolved into helpless laughter again, and Sisko sat with his mouth and eyes wide open. For a long time, Jadzia’s laughter was the only sound at their table.

“I wouldn’t say or do anything if I were you, Chief,” Sisko finally said.

“But Sir, what if this funk that he’s in starts to affect his job?” O’Brien asked worriedly.

“We’ll worry about it then. Give it a few more days. I’m sure it’ll work itself out.”

“Well, maybe I could cheer him up a little with a game of darts,” O’Brien said.

“That could work,” Ezri agreed; struggling not to start laughing again.

“Yeah, that’s what I’ll do,” O’Brien decided. Nothing more was said about it after that.

Garak stepped back further into the shadows and struggled not to scream with rage. How dare these damn Federation ehlarai do something so tactless as to discuss something so personal?! Bad enough that they were speaking of Julian behind his back; they then had to chat so openly and in a semi-public area about problems that were none of their damn business! Garak seethed with fury.

The thing that made his anger all the more acute was the obvious fact that he would not be able to do anything to stop the rumors and gossip from flying. If he did, the Federation bastards would know that he had been spying on them. He would lose his edge. As much as he loved Julian, he could not afford to let something that disastrous happen; it would jeopardize the alliance.

Suddenly, his thoughts came to a complete stop. He backed up mentally and re-examined what he’d just thought. Yes, he had consciously thought the words 'love' and 'Julian' in the same sentence.

“Damn,” he muttered aloud as he slipped into another corridor from a hidden panel in the wall. He had better decide what he was going to do about this now. Putting it off any longer could be unwise; especially if his enemies found out about his feelings for the young man.

Julian tried to shrug it off; he really did. No matter how hard he struggled with it, however, he could not stop thinking about Garak. His mind would not quit going over and over their many conversations. His emotions would not stop coming to the surface of his mind at odd moments during the day.

Not for the first time, he silently cursed the genetic enhancement of his brain. Because of it, he could recall perfectly every word that he and Garak had spoken to one another from the moment they’d met. He could bring up the setting, the look; even the smell of a place where they’d talked if he wanted to. The problem was; he didn’t really want to think about any of these things.

He’d waited for a week for Garak to calm down. He’d spent that whole week fretting and wondering about the Cardassian’s motives. He’d struggled to decipher his own feelings towards the older man. Still, he hadn’t come to any conclusions. He frowned and glared at the PADD he’d been trying to read.

“Well, idiot,” he muttered to himself aloud, “what are you waiting for? If you want to know what he’s thinking, ask him! If you want to start setting things straight between you…”

He shook his head. I’m talking out loud to myself, he thought. A small smile of amusement briefly came to his lips. Wasn’t that one of the first signs of insanity? Where had he heard that? Had he read it somewhere? He gave himself a mental shake and jumped to his feet.

“There’s no time like the present, I guess,” he said to the empty room. Then, he left.

Garak was on the upper level of the promenade watching the wormhole when Julian found him.

“Hello,” he said softly. He watched the man turn to face him and nearly gasped aloud. Garak looked utterly exhausted. 'God!' Julian thought. 'If I look that bad, I’m not surprised that my friends have been so worried about me lately.' He forced himself to stay calm as he asked: “Could we talk in private?”

Garak was impressed in spite of himself. The boy had courage in spades; that was certain. He smiled and looked into his bloodshot eyes. “Of course,” he replied quietly. “Where shall we go?”

“Would your quarters be okay?” Julian ventured almost hesitantly.

Garak nodded and then fell into step beside him. Together, they made their way through the corridors. They acknowledged the few people they recognized for the sake of courtesy, but they did not speak until they closed and locked the door behind them. Julian broke the silence first.

“I… I had no idea you were so worried about me that day,” he said. “I’ve only dated two women in my life, so I’m not sure, but I think we should talk about the hug.”

Garak sank onto the sofa with a quiet sigh. “I would understand if you decided to cut back on our lunches together,” he said. “This can be awkward and I don’t want you to feel…”

“No! No,” Julian interrupted almost frantically. “No, that’s not it. “I mean… I don’t know how I feel about you, but I wasn’t angry or uncomfortable when you did that. I was shocked, but not uncomfortable. The thing is, we’ve only known each other for a little over three months, and I’m not sure if it would be considered… proper to… go further than that and…”

He was blushing mightily. He could feel his face burning. Oh god, he thought, find me a hole I can crawl into. He didn’t know what else to say. Hell, he didn’t know if he’d said too much.

“Julian,” Garak said, and the tone of his voice was one he hadn’t heard before. He stepped closer to the couch, and then sat beside him when Garak motioned for him to do so.

“Dear Julian, I will not lie to you. I care a great deal for you. I know you probably wouldn’t want to take things further, and I will never, ever do anything to hurt you deliberately, but I want you to know that I do love you. I’m not sure when it happened or how, but I know that my feelings for you are… intense.”

Julian looked up and straight in to Garak’s eyes. He simply stared at the older man in wonder. “I… Oh god, this is going to sound so stupid, but I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.”

Garak’s lips twitched. “Someone has been reading too many sappy Earth romances, I think,” he teased.

Julian laughed and the feeling of awkward nervousness fled. He was with Garak. This man knew him in a way that few others did. He understood him. There was nothing to be nervous about.

“I think… I think I love you too,” he said. “I just… don’t know what to do about it.”

Garak gently, slowly reached out and cupped his face in between his hands. He pulled him forward, bent his head, and kissed him tenderly. “Is that a good enough start?” he murmured.

“I think so,” Julian whispered back. “I definitely think so. Do that again?”

Garak happily obliged. For this moment, at this point in space and time, this beautiful young creature was completely his. He tossed all other thoughts and worries aside and let that be enough.

Chapter Text

Julian Bashir had to bite his lip to keep from whimpering aloud. This headache was much, much worse than any of his previous ones had been. He realized amidst the haze of pain that he was going to have to stop self-medicating and get a second opinion to help diagnose this.

He struggled to take deep breaths in order to stave off the pain, but it didn’t make a difference. The ache pounded relentlessly behind his eyes and forehead. It wrapped around the sides of his head like a vice and made him wonder if his skull would simply be crushed beneath the waves of pain.

Rising as quietly as he could so as not to wake his bed partner, he stumbled into the living area of Garak’s quarters and collapsed onto a couch. He did not want to wake his lover up because of something this insignificant. Garak needed his sleep. Aside from participating in and reporting to Cardassia about the Federation presence on the station, he was carrying out as many of his duties for the Empire as possible. He was so exhausted, and Julian would feel horrible if he were to wake up now.

“Oh, you foolish boy,” Garak murmured from directly behind him, “let me help you.”

Julian’s expression filled with dismay. He had roused his lover after all. His head was hurting so much, however, that he couldn’t really make any objections to his presence.

Garak rounded the couch and sat down beside him. He reached out and gently eased him into his arms as he spoke. “How long have you been having these headaches, Mahaialani?”

The word Garak had used was not just any term of endearment. It was the Cardassian equivalent of calling him something like 'beloved forever.' Julian was surprised that he would use such a term when speaking to him. They had only been lovers for a week now. Hell, they had only known each other for a little over four months. He wondered if Garak was trying to use the word to soothe him.

“They’ve been… getting… worse,” he whispered between gasps as the throbbing began to assume the rapid rhythm of his pulse. He started to catalog his symptoms in his mind as he talked.

“They… I’ve been getting them… since Dukat…” He stammered.

Garak stiffened, but quickly forced his own emotions to the back of his mind. Right now his foolish boy needed him. He tightened his arms around him as he reached for his comm badge.

“Garak to Infirmary, please send someone to my quarters immediately,” he said softly.

“Doctor Bremerton here,” came a crisp, confident female voice in return, “I’m on my way.”

Julian did whimper this time. He couldn’t help it. Doctor Jane Bremerton was a very formidable woman. At 78, she somehow managed to do daily exercises that would have made a woman half her age tired, pull a double shift, and then come to work after a rest period looking as freshly fit as ever.

“I know, dear,” Garak chuckled in spite of their current situation, “but you need her help. She is a very capable doctor; you’ve said so yourself on many occasions.”

Before Julian could answer, the door chime sounded. Garak draped a robe around Julian’s shoulders that matched the one he was wearing, and then called: “Enter.”

“She came in quickly but quietly. Without a word, Garak pointed to Julian’s supine form.

“What’s the problem, Julian?” she asked softly.

He was grateful that she’d called him by his given name. He didn’t think his pride could have handled it if she’d addressed him as ‘Doctor.’ Right now, he felt far too frail to think of himself as a doctor.

“Headache,” he managed to say as another wave of pain crashed inside his skull.

“He says they’ve been getting worse. They started after he was captured and tortured by Cardassian renegades several months ago,” Garak supplied helpfully.

She raised an eyebrow, but didn’t delay the examination with any further questions. As she ran the scans, Julian closed his eyes and concentrated on not wanting to blow his head off. The only sound in the room was the steady beeping of the tricorder as it obtained, compared and accessed data on him.

“There’s a pressure buildup in your cerebral cortex,” she said. “The basilar arteries are being blocked off for some reason. I’m not going to ask why you didn’t report this sooner.”

“That’s not… a good thing,” Julian whispered. “If it… builds up… too far…”

“Yes,” she agreed quickly, cutting him off before he could utter the words.

“I am… aware of some of Cardassia’s… ah… methods for obtaining information,” she said to Garak. “Did he have an implant put in him? Even if it’d been removed he could still have problems.”

“Yes, they placed a nerve induction implant in his chest. It connected directly to the heart, the spine, and the brain. One of Cardassia’s finest medics removed it as soon as possible.”

“May I have the name of that medic?” she asked calmly.

"His name is Doctor Parmak,” Garak said blandly. “I’m sure you know of him…”

“Yes,” she replied with commendable dignity. “I do. He has a fine grasp on human anatomy and physiology, so I’m not too worried about the job he did, but I’m going to run a scan to see if there’s any residual scarring just in case. I don’t want to miss anything.”

She quickly ran the necessary scans as she spoke; but when the results came up negative, she frowned.

“Doesn’t make… sense,” Julian whispered. “There’s not any… cerebral… tissue damage, either.”

“Hmmm,” she murmured. “So I noticed. Are you feeling any numbness, or tingling in your joints or extremities? Are you experiencing any dizziness or blurred vision?”

Julian shook his head and then winced. He regretted the move the moment he’d made it.

“Minister, I’d like a few words with you in private,” she said suddenly.

“Of course,” Garak replied courteously. Then, he led her into the bedroom and left the door half-closed.

“I almost didn’t come when I heard your voice over the comm,” she said. “I’m very glad, now, that I didn’t go through with such a petty act. My oath as a doctor was the only thing that brought me here until I saw Dr. Bashir’s condition. I will do anything and everything that I can to help him, but I want you to know that I’m not doing it for you. I’m going to do it for his sake.”

“I appreciate the distinction,” he replied. “I also am relieved that you went against your baser nature. If you must know, I care a great deal for that young man out there. I will also do anything I can.”

She stared into his eyes for a long, intense second. Then, she nodded. “Rahinyala,” she said.

He watched her return to his lover in silent astonishment and gratitude. She had just thanked him, but the word she had used was very formal, and considered to be the most heartfelt expression of thanks that a Cardassian could give anyone. Clearly, her suffering under Cardassian torture and the traumatic agony that had come afterwards were being conquered here and now.

When he rejoined them, Garak heard the woman say: “I’m going to write it up right now. You know the recommendation I’m going to make; sick leave until further notice. I mean that,” she added.

“Elim will… help you… enforce it,” Julian murmured.

“I had no doubt of that,” she said. She hit him with several hypo sprays and then nodded.

“Your readings are returning to normal slowly, but it’s only a temporary fix. Get some sleep.”

When she left, Garak crossed to the couch and helped his lover to sit up.

“Put your arms around my neck,” he said quietly.

Julian made a face. “I can walk to the bedroom by myself,” he muttered.

“I do not doubt your ability,” Garak replied. “I’m telling you to do it. Trust me; you’re going to be very sleepy in a few more minutes. Just let me take care of you now.”

Julian sighed and wrapped his arms around Garak’s neck. The Cardassian rose to his feet and carried him to the bed. He laid him down on it gently and covered him up with all the tenderness of a parent tucking in his or her child. When he pulled the covers to Julian’s chin, he leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “Sleep well, my foolish boy,” he said affectionately.

“And no one knows exactly what’s wrong with him?” Ben Sisko asked Garak nearly four hours later.

“Not yet,” Garak confirmed. He was gladdened by the concern he saw in Sisko’s face. He didn’t think the captain was such a good actor that he could fake being so worried.

“It’s a good thing that Dr. Bremerton is still here,” Dax commented. “If anyone can help him it’ll be Jane Bremerton. She’s found the causes of so many abstract symptoms over the years.”

“Didn’t she get some sort of surgical procedure named after her?” O’Brien asked.

“Actually, it’s a cure for a very rare case of Andorian plague. She almost won the Carrington award for discovering the vaccine nearly forty years ago. Don’t worry, Ben, Julian is in good hands.”

“It’s good to hear that, Old Man,” the captain said. “Thank you for coming to tell us this yourself, Mr. Garak,” he added. “I know how busy your days have been lately.”

“It’s the least I can do, Captain,” he replied. “Be assured that if there is anything else you need to help him, anything at all, you shall have it if it is in my power to give.”

After the briefing broke up, Garak made for the door. Sisko hadn’t been speaking for politeness’s sake when he’d mentioned how busy Garak had become. The Cardassian Empire, having allied herself with the United Federation of Planets, was now being forced to restructure certain priorities. He and his contacts back home were constantly debating over what information they could feel secure giving to the Federation. This was only a small part of what he was required to take on as the newly named Heir to Emperor Enabran Tain. He also became the whipping boy, for lack of a better term, for the many people his empire had wounded or somehow insulted over the decades.

“Garak?” She came towards him purposefully. “Do you mind if I walk to your office with you?”

“Not at all, Lieutenant Dax,” he responded with genuine warmth.

They let the others go past before falling into step and walking side-by-side to the turbo lifts.

“So, we know that Julian is in good hands at least. But what about you? How are you doing?”

He had known she would ask this and was ready with an answer that wouldn’t exactly be an answer. What came out of his mouth, however, was not what he had been planning to say.

“I wish he had told someone about this sooner!” he cried. “It would have bought us some more time that we may badly need before… Well, you know. I suppose you could say that I’m furious, anxious, and not doing very well at all. Thank you for asking.”

“You’re welcome,” Dax murmured calmly. She hadn’t expected him to be quite this open about what he was feeling, but it touched her very deeply to realize that he’d spoken from the heart, as it were.

Garak gave a soft laugh that almost verged on hysteria. He stopped it before it could, however. Maintaining some self-control would be important right now.

“The very idea that my people could have done this to him just… sickens me! By acting against the Empire’s interests, Dukat has possibly doomed an innocent man for absolutely no reason at all.”

“One man doesn’t matter if he dies in service to the state,” another voice said almost mockingly.

Kira Nerys had come up alongside them and was glaring at Garak with hate-filled eyes. Her words froze Dax and Garak in mid-stride. “I don’t believe your little show of concern for a minute,” she sneered. “It isn’t very… Cardassian to be so worried over the fate of one man, after all. Isn’t that right, Garak?”

“Kira!” Dax cried; shocked by the Bajoran’s heartlessness.

“Oh please, Lieutenant,” the major snapped, “don’t let his little act fool you.”

Garak forced himself to breathe deeply. He could understand this woman’s hostility towards him and his people. He could endure the silent glares and mutterings he heard every day as he walked through the too cold, overly bright corridors of this bustling space station. He could even put up with being a sounding board for the angry people who felt that the Empire had wronged them in some way or another. He would not, however, have his true feelings impugned by anyone. Though he was furious, he spoke quietly.

“I appreciate your reasoning, Major,” he said. “It is, after all, backed up by more than enough evidence of the horrors your people have been forced to endure at the hands of mine. This time, though, you have it all wrong. It doesn’t matter to me how you feel about my concern; I know it’s real. Dr. Bashir and Lieutenant Dax also know that it’s real. I don’t have the time or the energy to convince you.”

He turned away from her before his fury allowed him to say something regrettable. “If you will excuse me, Lieutenant Dax, I have a great deal to do today.” And not bothering to do more than incline his head to Kira for courtesy’s sake only, he left without saying another word.

“I can’t believe you just did that!” Dax hissed angrily once they were alone. When she got a good look at Kira’s face, however, some of her own fury eased. The Bajoran was as pale as Dax had ever seen her. She stood in one place staring at the spot where Garak had been moments before.

“I… I can’t believe I did it either,” she said finally. “Oh, Prophets! What the hell was I thinking? The minute I got a really good look at his face I realized… I had no idea he… you know… cared so much for the doctor. Damn it; how am I ever going to fix this? Is it even fixable?” she asked almost desperately.

Dax took her elbow and started walking her towards the turbo lift. After a few steps, she pulled away and continued to walk in a daze beside her. “I think it’s fixable,” she said softly. “It’s going to take some time for him to calm down. I wouldn’t go to him and apologize just yet.”

Kira’s face took on a hard, rebellious edge. It was obvious that the very idea that she would have to apologize to a cardassian for any reason at all did not appeal to her.
“I guess you’re right,” she said, sounding disgusted with herself. “Prophets, will I ever learn to think before I open my mouth? It’s always been one of my worst faults!”

Jadzia had no answer for her. She shook her head; knowing that the question had been rhetorical.

Julian woke up and stared at the clock in horrified dismay. When he tried to sit up, however, his head pounded and he remembered the previous evening and everything that had happened. He forced himself not to lie back down. Since he was already halfway up, he slowly moved to a complete sitting position. The dizziness made him pause, but once he felt that he could walk without falling over he rose, keeping his movements slow and smooth, and made his way into the living area.

Both external and internal movements caused his head to throb, but he shuffled to the replicator and ordered a small bowl of flendeha. The oatmeal looking substance, encased in a glass bowl the size of his palm, slid out of the food slot. He sniffed it and then picked it up carefully. Carrying his breakfast over to a nearby chair, he set the bowl down and then wandered over to his medical bag. He wanted to take some preventative measures before consuming this Terellion grain that he had come to love over the years. There was no sense in wasting it; replicated or not.

He hit himself in the neck with a hypo spray which, in turn, injected a small amount of an anti-nausea drug directly into his system. Feeling a bit steadier after that, he sat down to eat his food.

When he’d finished eating, he took a sonic shower and went back to bed. He knew better than to do too much too soon. If he overdid it, his lover and his doctor would both yell at him. As he thought about that, he wondered if the crew had been told about his condition. He decided that he wouldn’t be too upset if they knew everything. The Captain would have been told by Dr. Bremerton for sure, but what had he said to the others on the senior staff? Did they know that the call had been made, not from his quarters, but from Garak’s? Of course, he suddenly realized, if anyone checked the comm logs for last night, they would be able to figure it out quickly enough. He analyzed how that made him feel. He and Garak had been very discreet. They hadn’t spoken of it, but each of them understood that their relationship would not have been condoned by very many people. They had both instinctively made sure to keep their trysts as private as possible. He snorted at that thought.

“Is anything private on board this damn station?” he murmured aloud to the empty room. He curled up on his side and closed his eyes as his mind continued to wander along in many directions.

What was causing him to have these headaches? Would they be curable? What if he had waited too long to get help? He hadn’t seen signs of brain damage on any of the scans he or Dr. Bremerton had performed, but what if he’d done just enough damage to make finding a cure impossible? ‘Steady there,’ he told himself firmly. ‘Don’t go looking for trouble unless you want it to find you.’

His thought turned towards the different theories he had developed for his headaches. He had written them all in the notes he’d shared with Bremerton, but they were only theories. How much stock could he put in any of them? The only idea that seemed even a little valid to his mind was highly unlikely, so he wasn’t sure if his notes would help or hinder her. For someone who was genetically enhanced, the idea of having a memory block forcibly put into place was almost laughable. His mind was so much more complex than most human minds, but only he and his parents knew the reason why.

Ought he to tell his parents? He wondered suddenly. He hadn’t really spoken to them in years. How long had it been now; 6? 7 years? He wasn’t really sure. If he was going to die, he supposed that his parents should be told. But what if he told them and then found a way to fix things? His father would undoubtedly think that he’d been over-reacting to scare them. His mother would send him recorded letters which would show the unmistakable signs of her crying. That, in turn, would make him feel guilty. Somehow, his parents always seemed to find ways to make him feel inadequate.

He groaned out loud and forced himself to stop thinking about them. It would only make his headache worse if he continued to run in circles down that particular mental path. Once this headache passed, he could take the time to write to them about what was happening. For now, that would have to suffice.

Garak was doing four things at the same time. He was drafting a letter to his operatives in the Obsidian Order to find out if anyone could be placed here, he was arguing with Damar over the merits and flaws of a Cardassian writer who had become quite popular recently, he was setting up a covert link which would then be tied to his Julian’s DNA, and he was drinking from a cup of Tarkalien tea. He smiled as he continued to work on the link. The small ring looked very discreet and would fit Julian’s finger quite nicely. He just hoped he could convince his stubborn, foolish boy to wear the damn thing.

“Either way it doesn’t matter,” Damar was saying wryly. “He’ll be all the rage for the next few years, and then he’ll fade out of existence. His writing is too… intense to last.”

“That’s an interesting point,” Garak agreed as he finished up the letter to the Order. He handed it to Ziyal who immediately bent to read it so that she could propose any changes.

“So you’re saying that Kaulak has no chance of winning the award from the Academy of Fine Arts?”

“Oh, I think he’ll win or place highly once, but no one can sustain a career on such fast-paced action novels for very long. Unless he changes his style, he’s going to fall rather quickly and very hard from the heights. Of course, I could be wrong,” Damar added mendaciously.

Ziyal laughed, and even Garak found himself smiling as he finished programming the tracking locater in the ring he planned on giving to his lover tonight. He glanced at the empty cup, went to slide it into the replicator where it disappeared, and then turned to the next few things on his list.

They took their lunch in the small offices they’d been given. Ziyal handed him the finished proposed suggestions, and Damar sat frowning over a tactical map.

“What are you looking at?” Ziyal asked curiously as she slipped behind him to the replicator.

“It’s just a thought I had,” Damar replied. “The Romulans would have to cross the neutral zone and a lot of open space belonging to the Federation before they could arrive here. We all know they’re eventually going to find a way to get here without offending anyone, but I’m wondering what they’ll do once they reach the station. They’re not going to send any of their own people into the Gamma Quadrant to do any reconnoitering, so how are they going to obtain information if we and the Federation are allied against them? They’re going to be desperate; and dangerous.”

“Ah, an exercise in logic and precognition,” Garak said brightly. “So, my children, give me your thoughts. How would such a thing happen? What would the Romulan Empire do in order to make it a reality?”

Ziyal spoke first after a long, contemplative silence. “They’ll have to find a way to watch anyone they do end up sending in order to be sure that the information they get back is accurate,” she said. “Getting and sifting through the information they do find, assuming they are successful, is going to take time and resources they don’t have. They know better than to ask the Klingons for help…”

“Wait,” Damar interrupted, “what if they don’t bother to ask anyone? What if they try to sneak something or someone aboard one of the Federation ships? They’re going to be headed that way with the blessing of Starfleet very soon, and considering their… um… optimistic view of people and their motives, they might not know what to look for; or even that they should look for anything at all.”

“Don’t underestimate the intelligence of Starfleet,” Ziyal countered immediately.

“Why not?” Damar demanded. “They’ve been so easily fooled by some of our people in the past.”

“They have a saying: ‘fool me once; shame on you. Fool me twice; shame on me.’ They’ll be careful, even if it’s because they want to save face in front of us and not be caught… um… with their pants down.”

Garak burst out laughing. “My dear, you have been spending far too much time with Jadzia Dax.”

Damar looked equally amused, but he didn’t allow his mirth to distract him for long. “All right; assuming that they don’t manage to get someone on board any of the ships, what would stop them from covertly following them with some sort of remotely controlled probe?”

Ziyal frowned. “Surely something like that would put out a noticeable power fluctuation.”

“It would, unless the Romulans used a very small cloaking device to conceal it.”

“That would be a waste of resources. Besides, what are the chances of a probe safely making it to a planet in the Gamma Quadrant without sustaining a lot of damage?”

“The Romulans don’t give a damn about the resources they waste when they want to get something done,” Damar said scornfully. “As for the probe, who says there has to be just one?”

Ziyal blinked and tilted her head to the side. “All right, so let’s say they get someone or something to report back to them. What are they going to do about the information they receive? They already feel threatened by our alliance with the Federation. They’re going to jump to the immediate conclusion, especially when one considers the alarmist senators who are in power that we are going to try to lock them out of a huge opportunity. They wouldn’t necessarily be wrong about that, either.”

“Maybe you’re right, but let’s continue the argument to its farthest point. The Romulans feel threatened. What does someone do when he or she feels threatened? They fight back. They crouch in a corner and wait to see if any enemies will come to them first so that they can pick some off immediately and thus have fewer to deal with later. Once they’ve decided that no one is going to stick their heads around the nearby… whatever they’re hiding behind, they’re going to try the age-old tactic of divide and conquer. Our alliance with the Federation is not very strong. One little shift could shake it to pieces. One well-publicized, brutal act of atrocity will destroy it.”

As Damar spoke, he gestured with his hands. He reminded Garak of his father Colvryn when he did that. He smiled fondly at his aide and inclined his head; signaling for the younger man to continue.

“So, they’re sneaking in and out of places, off and on planets, and killing people as they go. When they do divide us up, whom are they going to want beside them when they start to carve up the Gamma Quadrant? We all know that they’re going to have no choice but to seek out the cooperation of others if they want to do anything that takes time. They’re impatient, after all.”

“They’re going to ask the Federation to join them,” Ziyal said immediately. Starfleet ethics will prevent them from going on a slaughtering spree for the sake of vengeance, but the Romulans know enough about our people to realize that if they do something this stupid, we’ll either kill them all or get wiped out completely. Cardassians are far too dangerous to leave alive after they’ve been betrayed.”

“Excellent points, both of you,” Garak congratulated them. “There is, however, a third option that you may not have considered. Romulans, as a race, can be quite childish. If they find that they cannot, in fact, join the fun and take everyone else’s toys away when they do, what do you think they’ll do?”

“Shoglehyteh!” Damar swore passionately. “They’ll destroy the Wormhole!”

Garak just nodded his head in silent agreement. He smiled almost tenderly when he saw that both of them were staring up at him with slightly panicked expressions on their precious faces.

“Oh… Oh my,” Ziyal whispered. “Should we tell someone what we think?”

Damar shook his head and snorted. “No one would believe us,” he said disgustedly. “There go them bloody Cardies again, being’ a bunch o’ paranoid bastards,” he snarled in a very passable imitation of Miles O’Brien. “They won’t want to believe us. Who would, after all?”

“Have you ever given any thought to becoming an orator when you retire from the military?” Garak asked Damar in a half amused; half serious tone of voice.

Damar blushed and looked down at his shoes. “It hadn’t occurred to me,” he mumbled.”

Ziyal sniggered. “Actually,” she teased, “it wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

Damar rolled his eyes and said something in response, but Garak was no longer listening. The intensity of the moment had been broken and had dissolved into the playful banter these two often engaged in to break up the monotony of their days. He, however, was thinking about what had been said. His ‘children’ were both fine examples of Cardassian education and refinement. That was quite ironic when one considered the fact that one of them was the half-breed illegitimate child of a Gul who was in permanent disgrace from his people and a Bajoran woman of no account, and the other was the son of a Cardassian scientist and a career military Legate. The universe was a very odd place sometimes.

“Sir?” Damar was looking almost anxiously at him. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Garak replied calmly. “I was just thinking about you two.” He smiled slyly when he saw them both go still. Their expressions blanked out almost simultaneously.

“Do you realize how lucky you are?” he asked them suddenly. The intensity of his voice caught their attention instantly. “Both of you are walking through the corridors of power at one of the highest levels,” Garak went on. “You have opportunities that you never, ever would have had twenty years ago. You have the ability to change Cardassia’s history.”

“That’s true,” Damar murmured seriously. “It’s a little terrifying,” he added.

Ziyal nodded emphatically. Garak was satisfied by their responses. These two had their priorities in good order. If they kept their heads and stayed calm, they would go quite far. Garak had no doubts about their abilities or their loyalty to the empire. The fact that they looked directly to him and thus chose him as their living symbol for the empire made him very proud of them; even as it slightly terrified him.

Julian awoke to the feeling of fingers gently running through his hair. He stirred and sighed when the hand moved to tenderly stroke his cheek. As he struggled to open his eyes, he smiled.

“How are you feeling?” Garak asked once he was sure Julian was awake enough to answer.

“Mmm,” the younger man grumbled as he rubbed his eyes and stretched. “My head feels… better,” he said. He blinked in surprise; for the constant pain was almost completely gone.

“I’m glad to hear that,” Garak responded warmly. “I have something for you.”

Julian looked up at him with his usual curiosity. It was mixed with an almost childlike excitement over the idea of getting a new gift. Garak found that look rather endearing.

“What is it?” the younger man asked eagerly. “You didn’t have to get me anything,” he added.

“I know,” Garak replied whimsically. “But that’s part of the beauty in giving gifts; is it not?”

Julian laughed and sat up slowly. You’re right,” he agreed.

Garak pulled the small box out of his breast pocket and handed it over. He watched as Julian’s eyes widened at sight of the ring. The boy stared at it, and then removed it from the box. As he slipped it onto his right middle finger, Garak nodded in satisfaction.

“It’s… lovely,” he breathed. “Is this some sort of Cardassian gesture I’m not aware of?”

Garak chuckled and sat down beside him on the bed. “It’s a custom I believe humans share with Cardassians,” he said. “It’s called loving someone. If you’re asking whether the ring has some sort of cultural significance or deeper meaning, I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you.”

Julian blushed, and then smiled. “Well, I appreciate the gift. In some human cultures, something like this could be seen as a promise of future fidelity.”

Garak’s eyes took on a look of such tenderness that Julian was slightly taken aback by it. Before he could ask about that look, however, the older man slid closer and took him into his arms.

“So,” he murmured; pressing his lips to the side of Julian’s neck and kissing the spot softly in just the way he knew his young lover found most pleasurable, “if the ring of promise is taken off one’s finger, what does that indicate?”

“Hmmm?” Julian asked in a slightly dazed voice. “Oh,” he struggled to regain his lost concentration. “It… It just means… Um… that they don’t want to stay together anymore.”

“So you’ll wear this ring constantly then?” Garak asked; still kissing Julian’s neck.

“Uh huh,” he mumbled; tilting his head back to give Garak better access to his throat.

“I’m so happy to hear that,” Garak murmured. “You have no idea how glad it makes me.”

Julian sighed softly and slid his hands down Garak’s back. He finally found the bottom of his lover’s tunic and slipped both hands beneath it to caress Garak’s skin. There was no more time or desire to do any more talking on either of their parts after that.

“He wants to what?!” Kira Nerys stared incredulously at her commanding officer.

“Minister Garak wants to have a separate set of access codes so that he can isolate the computer in order to make it more difficult for terrorists to attack ops and put the entire station out of commission. Essentially, we’d be building a secondary backup system for Ops.”

“I thought that was what you said,” she grumbled irritably. “If he thinks we’re that stupid, he needs… You’re not actually thinking about granting his request, are you?”

“I’m considering it,” Sisko replied calmly. “He has a very good point.”

“That’s crazy! If you grant him that kind of access, do you know what he could do with it? He could lock you out of the computer completely! He could use his separate codes to fire on incoming ships! He could decide to take over the station and…”

“Major, I hardly think he would risk our alliance by doing something that obvious. We have to extend him some trust,” he continued earnestly. “If we don’t, our newly signed agreement is nothing more than a mockery. If this is going to work, we need to show him that we are willing to take his words at face value. The fact that he’s asking instead of doing it behind our backs should ease your mind. I think his courtesy is quite sincere.”

“Well, I’m not sure I am willing to trust him, Sir,” Kira snapped angrily. “After sixty years of living under Cardassian occupation, my people know enough to think twice before we do that.”

“I understand how you feel, Major.” And now Sisko’s voice was taking on an edge of annoyance, “but Bajor is asking for Federation protection and since this station is under Federation command, we have to take a few risks in order to meet them halfway. Your government is free to file an official protest, of course,” he added.

“An official protest? An official protest?! You bet we’ll do a hell of a lot more than protest!”

“Major, I don’t want to be forced to take your words as a threat,” he responded coldly. Sisko knew that he and Kira were practically polar opposites in personality and temperament. As her fury caused her to shout, his voice got quieter. As she raged and waved her arms around, he sat still and implacable. As she glared heatedly at her opponent, he stared straight ahead.

“I see,” Kira said suddenly; and all the energy seemed to flow out of her. “So, if you’re going to do this, why bother to consult me at all? It’s obvious that you’re not going to start listening to the wishes of the Bajoran people. Or were you just letting me know what you and your federation friends are planning to do as a matter of courtesy?”

Sisko winced. He had been expecting her to be angry about this, but he couldn’t see any way to say no to Garak’s very reasonable request without offending the Empire and weakening their alliance. He’d actually wanted her opinion on the risks of agreeing to the request versus denying it. When he explained this to her, however, she got angry all over again; much to his frustration.

“Fine, I consider myself duly notified that you’re going to do the most insane thing you’ve done since the station was turned over to us after Cardassia withdrew. Is that all, sir?”

Sisko pinched the bridge of his nose and decided that this was the best he was going to get out of her on the subject, so he nodded his dismissal and watched ruefully as she stormed out of his office in high dudgeon. He scowled as he realized that his ears were still ringing a half an hour after they’d finished arguing. He’d been expecting her to be angry, but not that angry. She definitely had a penetrating voice; and she wasn’t afraid to use it.

“The request was granted this morning, Sir,” Damar said as he walked into his superior officer’s inner sanctum. He was struggling very hard not to smile, but he could tell that his face wasn’t obeying the stern commands of his brain because of the look Minister Garak was giving him.

“I can appreciate your amusement, my friend,” Garak said; his voice expressing only the slightest amount of displeasure, “but until you can get your glee under control, I would strongly advise that you stay away from Major Kira. I highly doubt that she was in favor of giving us so much access to their computer and security codes. It probably infuriated her to do it.”

“Didn’t we have it already?” Damar blurted, realizing too late that his words were indiscreet.

His boss didn’t answer, and Damar was waved out of the office quickly after that. Thankful for some mercies—he had been expecting a huge dressing down over his tactlessness—Damar made his way back to the small outer office; wincing and mentally kicking himself for his idiocy.

“Oh dear,” Ziyal murmured softly, “what did you say now?”

Damar muttered something unintelligible, but instead of ignoring his obvious wish not to rehash the most recent conversation he’d had with the minister, she tilted her head at him and frowned.

“I didn’t quite catch that,” she said; her expression one of innocent confusion.

“I said I don’t want to talk about it,” he snapped. “It’s not your business anyway.”

“My, aren’t we prickly today,” she observed slyly. “Any particular reason for that?”

“Leave him alone, my girl,” Garak said sternly from directly behind them.

Ziyal’s eyes widened, and then she stared down at the floor. “Sorry,” she murmured before moving back to her side of the office. Damar nearly collapsed into the chair behind his desk.

Garak watched the two of them for a long second, but when he noted that they were both working industriously once more, he closed his office door with a nod of satisfaction. He wasn’t in the mood to deal with their playful insolence, delightful though it usually was, not today.

He quickly brought up his communications console and began scrambling a channel directly to Tain’s office. He didn’t really think about it, his mind was on autopilot until Tain’s face appeared on the screen. His concerned frown made Garak feel better for some odd reason.

“You aren’t getting enough sleep, Elim,” his father said. “Mila won’t like that, you know.”

That was all it took to have Garak pouring his heart out across the light-years. He spoke in High Cardassi, feeling reasonably certain that no one, not even his ever-inquisitive and often too worried children would understand what he was saying. This particular dialect was only used in ancient literary texts; and not very many people knew how to read, much less speak it.

“I can’t believe I did this to myself!” Garak ranted. “He has become such an integral part of my life in such a short time. It’s… quite frightening,” he confessed; his voice softening at the end of the sentence. “I fear this is getting out of control.”

“Ah, love does have that terrible tendency sometimes,” Tain said; also speaking in the ancient dialect. “So, what do you plan on doing about this?”

“I think he’s becoming a weakness,” Garak continued. “I’m wondering… He’s been having headaches. They seem to be a revenant of Dukat’s attentions. Part of me is considering just… letting them kill him in order to rid myself of that weakness.”

“We both know that you are not going to do such a thing,” Tain answered immediately.

“Damn it, you know me too well, Father,” he murmured disconsolately.

“Elim, you’ve placed a ring on this boy’s finger. You can instantly be aware of his whereabouts, his vital signs, and his general morale. These things alone indicate the strength of your feelings for him. If you were to cut that part of yourself that is Julian Bashir out of your life, I would then be dealing with a shell of a person as my heir. Your usefulness would be at an end to me, politically and strategically speaking. Neither of us would want that, now would we?”

It was just the slap in the face Garak had needed. His pupils contracted and the scales along his spine grew warm as his emotions intensified. “This is so… dangerous! What can I do?”

“I cannot believe I’m going to say this,” Tain responded; “but I will. What do you do? Love him, my boy; love him. Fear no more the chances of misfortune; damn the fates and love him.”

Garak found himself blinking back tears as the screen went completely dark. He turned off his console; his movements very slow and deliberate. His father was not usually given to such sentiments; so there had to be a reason—beyond the one he’d been given—for this completely unexpected advice. He didn’t bother trying to determine what the reason was, though.

He stared into the infinite depths of his soul; desperately seeking for that answer and finding the reserves of strength he knew he would need in the coming weeks. Hearing those words from his father’s lips was like a benediction. His mind eased as he realized that Tain had given his blessing to a relationship which, under any other circumstances, he would have rather seen end. He decided that the ‘why’ of it all didn’t matter. He couldn’t, he wouldn’t, deny his feelings for the boy anymore. If he did, he’d probably go mad.

Julian resumed light duty two days after his most recent headache. He was careful not to spend too much time at a stretch reading; he didn’t use any of the equipment that would require a sharp eye and long hours of constant use. He stuck to treating the injuries of others and reading up on Cardassian literature. He’d been showing Garak so many of Earth’s finest works written by some of the most well-known authors, but his own knowledge of Cardassian forms of art were woefully inadequate. He sought to change that at every chance he got. He didn’t want his lover to get bored with him too soon, after all.

He frowned irritably when, a day after his return to duty, he received a letter from the Breen government. It explicitly stated that he was not to continue his research for any reason at all, lest he run the risk of offending them. ‘They didn’t even thank me for the enquiry,’ he muttered.

He felt the familiar pain begin in his left temple. Grimacing, he injected himself with a pain-killer and tried to continue working. The pain eased after a long, tense moment, much to his relief. Idly, he wondered if Bremerton had come up with anything regarding his condition yet. He supposed that if she had, she would have said something. But what if she’d discovered… no, he wouldn’t think that way. He couldn’t afford to think that way. He’d kept his secret this long.

The sudden shrieking of the Red Alert claxon startled him. “Ops to infirmary,” Sisko’s voice called calmly over the comm, “wounded are coming your way, Doctor; lots of them.”

Julian’s mind went into immediate overdrive as he acknowledged the call. In some part of his soul, he was able to admit to himself that these were the moments he lived for. Battling death and saving the lives of wounded people always made him nearly giddy. Each time he saved a life, his energy only seemed to increase along with his sense of joy. The highs of being a doctor were almost addictive for him. He didn’t stop to think about the implications of that fact.

The first group of wounded patients arrived along with a security squad which was laying down fire to help make it easier for the wounded people to reach him and his staff. Julian’s eyes widened when he saw the fighting. He’d been expecting a damaged conduit, or a bar brawl in Quarks to be the cause of this latest disaster. He hoped that his fellow senior officers were all right. He spared a tense, frightened moment to wonder about his lover’s condition, and then fiercely put aside his worry and began doing his job. He had to maintain his professionalism. If he didn’t, people would die.

The Bajoran security officer nodded his thanks as Julian finished patching him up and sent him back into the fight. He barely felt the impact of percussive weapons fire as the station was hit over and over again by unknown assailants. He heard the very distant rumble of walls and floors being destroyed or damaged, but he refused to think about it. There was nothing he could do to help except what he was doing right now. The human ensign he had been working on went into cardiac arrest, and he started fighting to keep her alive. She was so young; it didn’t seem fair that she might… No, damn it! Julian, think positively! Your patient needs you! He stimulated the heart and sighed with relief as it kicked in and began to beat on its own once more. Handing the ensign’s fate to one of his many capable nurses, he spun towards the opening door to face the Starfleet chief of Security, Commander Michael Eddington.

The man was not wounded, Julian realized; he was guarding the door. He didn’t hinder the entry and exit of people who needed medical attention, but he wasn’t going to let anyone else come through the main doors of the infirmary. Sensing a short lull in the fighting, Julian walked up to him urgently. He’d been so busy working that he had no idea what had actually happened.

“We aren’t really sure,” Eddington said; sounding almost disgusted. None of the ships are carrying identification transponders, and hailing them did no good, of course. All we know for sure is that the ships they’re using to attack us are Cardassian warships; Keldon class, no less. When the ships started the assault on the station itself, various groups of people started fighting on DS 9. Sisko thinks it’s a coordinated attack on two fronts. They’re hitting us externally to distract us from something that’s being done inside, but we have no idea what that might be.”

“Was Ops attacked?” Julian asked anxiously. “Did someone try that?”

“No, but only because Sisko and Minister Garak were prepared for that particular move and warded against it. All of the senior officers are fine, as is the Minister. We’re not sure about his assistants, though. If they’re hurt, they can’t call for help. That could mean anything.”

“Do you think they’ve been too badly wounded to communicate?” Julian demanded quickly.

It’s either that, or they’re in one of the damaged areas and simply have no ability to communicate. Of course, it could also mean that they’ve been taken as hostages and have been… ordered not to call for help unless they want to be killed. There’s no way of knowing.”

It took two more hours and the lives of six people to bring the station back to a state of calm. The fighting had abruptly ended when the last of the warships was blown out of the sky by the U. S. S. Enterprise, which had been the closest ship in the area. The Flagship of the Federation was now docked at docking bay 7, and its crew was being toasted by the besieged combatants in Quark’s. The Enterprise’s response to the station’s distress call had been the fastest, but it hadn’t been the only response they’d gotten. Two Cardassian warships were also docked, but Julian had no idea what their crews were doing. No one on any of the responding ships was hurt.

“Julian!” The glad call came from directly behind him. He turned and had just enough time to notice that it was Garak before the older man had him by the shoulders and was staring intensely into his eyes. The look of relief on the older man’s face warmed Julian.

“Hi,” he said, feeling rather abashed but touched by such a public show of concern.

“Hi? Hi, he says!” Garak stepped back and raised his eyes to the ceiling.

“I’m glad you’re all right,” Julian replied calmly. Now, he was smiling at his lover.

“Minister, I hate to interrupt, but…”

“Chief Eddington,” Garak responded, turning to face the man who was still standing in the doorway. His demeanor was businesslike and professional. “Have you any news?

“I just got a call from the new Klingon restaurant. It was in one of the damaged areas so they couldn’t talk to us before, but they’ve told me that Glin Damar was found just outside their door buried under a pile of debris. They’re bringing him here now. Glin Tora was uninjured, but since her quarters were in another damaged part of the station, she couldn’t call out. She stayed in her quarters until the crisis was over. She’s unwounded and on her way here to report to you.”

It was obvious to Julian what Eddington thought of a person who would stay in hiding when he or she was able to fight. The contempt in his voice was so thick that it made everyone wince.

“Thank you, Chief,” Garak said coolly. “And lest Tora be thought a coward, you should know that she was following my explicit orders. Just because she didn’t fight; it does not follow that she twiddled her thumbs and did nothing at all. Ah, here she comes; let us find out what she has discovered, shall we? I’m sure you will find her report very interesting.”

“You were right, Minister,” Ziyal said without preamble when she was within speaking range of them. “They were after the… uh… You know.”

“I’m glad one of us knows,” Sisko’s voice said from directly behind her. “Now would you care to let the rest of us in on the secret? We were in this together, after all.”

“Indeed,” Garak said, appearing to make up his mind. “But I don’t think we should discuss this where just anyone can hear us. Shall we take this conversation to your office, Captain?”

“Of course,” Sisko said instantly. “Come with us, Doctor, Mr. Eddington…”

Once they were sitting in the office just above Ops, Garak spoke again.

“Computer, this is Elim Garak. Confirm voice print,” he commanded.

“Vocal print confirmed and verified. Intonation and inflection indicate that the subject offering vocal verification is not under any undue stress. Audio analysis indicates that the voice of the subject is not recorded but live. Continue with verification codes,” the computer responded.

Garak then proceeded to rattle off several Cardassian phrases so quickly that none of them could catch what was being said. The computer, however, didn’t seem to be having any trouble.

“Codes for subject Elim Garak have been confirmed and verified. Secondary codes from another operative are needed in order to proceed,” said the computer voice.

Garak looked pointedly at Ziyal and waited. As Julian, Sisko and Eddington watched in shock, she rolled her eyes and shook her head. The face she made wasn’t a refusal to follow orders.

“Computer; this is Tora Ziyal, member of the Bajoran militia and Commander of the Obsidian Order,” the girl said. “Confirm vocal print and run program khelani Baarycah, Ziyal 1.”

Voice print confirmed and program implemented,” the computer informed them matter-of-factly.

“You’re using Khelani’s name?” Garak asked Ziyal. He had an odd look of sadness and regret on his face. Julian wondered about it, but didn’t ask. Now wasn’t the time.

“It’s a reminder to me, Sir,” she replied. “I’m more careful now.”

Garak sighed, and then seemed to gather his thoughts. “Well, setting that aside for now,” he said briskly, “let us turn to the matter at hand. What did you find out?”

“They had the cloning material hidden away in a wall just outside the Bajoran temple, of all places,” she began. “I’m not sure if they’d started working on one yet, but the machines have been destroyed along with the notes I could find on the processes being used. I also have a list of names that will need to be examined. Many of them were directly involved in the fighting. Two of them are dead according to the tracking locators I’ve been monitoring. Seven others are still under our good doctor’s care, and I’m not sure where the other four are at this moment in time.”

“Cloning?” Sisko demanded loudly. His voice was filled with irritation at the way the Cardassians seemed to be ignoring him and his staff members. “Just what the hell is going on?”

“Hell indeed, Captain,” Garak murmured grimly. Then, shocking Julian, Garak reached out and laid a hand on his arm. He looked straight into Julian’s eyes for one long moment before turning once more to face Sisko. “Hell indeed,” he repeated. “When Doctor Bashir was captured by Dukat, I was able to free him and question Dukat at the same time. He lied to me about a few things. The Central Command had chosen Julian specifically. He was their target from the beginning, and it’s partially my fault that he got caught.”

Ziyal twitched in obvious annoyance when Garak said this, but the Minister ignored her reaction.

“Julian has a great deal of talent,” Garak said. “He’s also young and impressionable. Since he has recently been so highly placed aboard the station, our common enemies worked up a plan whereby he would be captured, his DNA obtained, and replaced with a clone.”

“Then people could accidentally die without it being noticed until it was too late,” Julian breathed; horrified and feeling more than a little sick at the very idea.

Garak nodded wordlessly. “Using this leverage, we believe our enemy was ordered to destabilize the situation aboard DS9 and leave it open to further attack from the outside.”

For a long, long moment, Sisko sat staring into the middle distance. When he finally did speak, Julian felt a shudder of primal terror go down his spine. His voice was low, deadly in a way that left no doubt of his fury, and his words were very clipped and precise.

“Let me make sure I have this completely clear,” he began. “The Cardassian military, or factions involved with them, were going to kidnap Dr. Bashir and replace him with a clone programmed to assassinate key people in power here, including, I presume, you. Is that right?”

“That’s correct, Captain,” Garak confirmed. “I began to wonder if Dukat was finished with us when Dr. Bashir started having his headaches. That, and the fact that Dukat gave up too easily for my peace of mind caused me to do a little digging; with the help of Dr. Bremerton.”

Julian began to tremble inside as he realized what his lover had undoubtedly found out about him. Garak was nothing if not thorough. Would he give the secret away, though?

“We found a secondary implant buried so deeply in his cerebral cortex that it would never have shown up on normal scans; no matter how many times said scans were made. Once we’re finished here and the infirmary starts to see less traffic as a result of the fighting, Dr. Bremerton can remove it and stop the headaches for good. Please believe me,” Garak continued, “I had no idea this was the problem. If I’d known sooner, I’d have spoken before now.”

“I do,” Julian whispered without thinking. “I do believe you,” he repeated a little louder when Sisko stared at him. “What I want to know, though, is why the fight broke out,” Julian added.

“Ah,” Ziyal murmured with an almost savage glint in her eye, “that question is easily answered. I’ve been a… what do you humans call it? A busy bee. They started the fight because they panicked. The fear was brought on by some things I was doing deliberately to make them come into the open too soon and thus, unprepared. Nothing illegal was ever done, but several people discovered that their activities were not being as cleverly concealed as they’d hoped. If you check the recent communications logs, you’ll notice that I’ve been making lots of calls to Odo.”

“I did see that,” Eddington murmured distractedly. “You were telling him things you found out and getting them arrested or otherwise detained to keep them on edge.”

His words were not formed as a question, but Ziyal nodded to confirm his guesses anyway.

“So the people inside the station were involved in this, too?” Sisko demanded with frustration.

This time it was Garak who made a face. “No,” he admitted. His tone was full of chagrin.

“Oh… Wonderful! We have two disparate forces, one trying to kidnap the doctor, and another just… taking advantage of the situation? That’s great!” Eddington snarled sarcastically.

Before anyone could make another comment, the door chime sounded. Sisko called: “come in.”

“Captain,” Kira stuck her head in and blinked at the people sitting in chairs around the office. “I’ll make this quick,” she continued. “We found out that some of the people who were fighting today, the ones on the inside at least, were part of a Bajoran terrorist group. They’ve been seeking to rid us of our ‘Federation oppressors’. “Sorry, Sir, those aren’t my words.”

Sisko gave her a faint smile. “I understand, Major,” he responded. “And thank you for telling us this. It was the missing piece of the puzzle I needed in order to solve everything.

Again, Kira blinked. “I’m… Glad to help, Sir,” she said; looking bemused.

As she left, Eddington nodded and chuckled softly to himself. Then, he rose.

“If you’ll excuse me, Sir, I can go write up the report immediately.”

“That would be much appreciated, Mr. Eddington,” the captain replied.

Once the chief of Starfleet Security had left, Sisko turned to his remaining guests.

“What were they going to do with the real Dr. Bashir if their plan had succeeded?” he demanded suddenly. “Did you manage to find that out, Commander?” he spun to face Ziyal.

“As a matter of fact, Sir, I did,” she replied with commendable poise. “They were going to try to turn him against the Federation. Failing that, they would have killed him.”

Another long silence followed as Sisko and Julian struggled to digest this latest bit of knowledge. Julian opened and closed his mouth several times, but nothing came out. Finally, Sisko spoke.

“Well, I’m just glad the plan didn’t work,” he said; looking more than a little stunned. “Thank you, Commander, for your help stopping it,” he added. “Forgive my irritation earlier. I’m just not used to meeting intelligence agents who are so… young.”

“I understand completely, Sir,” Ziyal responded. “I’m sorry we couldn’t tell you sooner, but I couldn’t be sure if my own activities were being as closely watched. The only secure place I can talk is… somewhere… other than in this office.” Her sudden reticence and slight blush made Sisko smile. It was obvious that she’d been about to say something else.

“Well, now that we’ve answered all of your questions, I hope you’ll excuse us, Captain,” Garak said. “We have our own reports to write; and I’ve no doubt that you also have other business.”

Sisko nodded and rose with them as they took their leave. When they reached the promenade, Ziyal nodded to Julian and Garak, then went in a separate direction; leaving them alone.

“Your quarters or mine?” Garak asked lightly.

“Yours,” Julian said instantly. There was no answering playfulness in his voice.

Garak locked the door and then turned to face his lover. The Julian Bashir he was suddenly facing, however, was not the compassionate, sometimes very young doctor he had come to know and love. This young man was furious; and very serious about it.

“How long have you known?” Julian demanded. He was in deadly earnest.

“Dr. Parmak reported it to me as soon as he’d removed the first implant from your head,” he replied honestly. “I knew that the Federation frowned on it, so I decided to… forget I’d heard a thing. That is, until the plan of our enemy was revealed. After that, I was much more careful.

“The ring is a tracking locator?” Julian asked numbly.

“Yes,” Garak said simply. He couldn’t lie to this man; not when the details involved him.

Suddenly, Julian moved. He lunged passed Garak, spun on one heel and flung open a door just to the right of the bedroom. Garak spun as well, and was stunned to see his lover glaring down at his father. Tain sat in a chair in the smaller secondary room of the suite looking back at him.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you at last, Your Majesty,” Julian said tightly. “Forgive my abruptness, but a certain amount of paranoia is in order, all things considered.”

“I can see why you love him, my son,” Tain said to Garak. “Doctor Bashir, it’s good to meet you as well. And never mind the circumstances of our meeting. I understand completely.”

He rose and reached across to grasp Julian’s hand in his for a brief moment. Then, he walked toward the door; still smiling. Garak stepped back and then led them into the main room.

“Human hearing is very acute,” Tain noted as he accepted a drink from his son. “Or is that also a result of the enhancement?” He tilted his head inquiringly at Julian.

“It’s the enhancement,” he said softly. “By the way, how did you get here?”

Tain laughed delightedly. “Clever, clever boy!” he said; still chuckling. “I arrived aboard a Cardassian supply ship two days ago. Only Garak, Odo, Commander Eddington, Captain Sisko, and now you, know that I am here. For the moment, I’d like to keep it that way.”

“Shreivaac Borrennye,” Julian murmured; making a face. This time, both Tain and Garak stared.

“Bad timing, I think,” Julian said wryly. “At least, it was bad timing for your cover story since I’m reading “Meditation on a Crimson Shadow right now. When I saw that name on the passenger list Kira showed the senior staff, I nearly laughed aloud. I hope you’ll pardon my asking this, Sir, but are you always so… perverse?”

Tain burst out laughing once more. Soon enough, Garak had joined him. They both collapsed into their chairs; howling with uncontrollable mirth like a pair of fools. When he could finally speak, Tain’s voice still held the remnants of his amusement and he was genuinely smiling.

“To answer your rather bold question, yes, I do have a bit of a… flair for the absurd. But if you think I’m bad, my friend, you should hear some of the stories I can tell you about your beloved.”

“Mmm,” Julian drawled; feeling more than a little brash, “and I bet some of them might even be true. But it would be mean of me to look forward to seeing him at such a disadvantage.”

“I definitely approve, Elim,” Tain said seriously. “He’s a perfect match for you.”

The three of them talked far into the night. As Julian struggled to recover his mental balance, he listened with fascinated amusement to the two Cardassians talking about everything from the latest novel in a series Garak was apparently reading, to the goings on back home.

After the first hour, Julian remembered that Damar had been found and was in the infirmary. He winced guiltily as he called the nurse on duty.

“Lieutenant Elson here, Sir,” she said instantly.”

“What’s the status of Glin Damar?” he asked.

“He’ll be fine, Doctor,” she said. “He has a few broken ribs which are healing nicely, and the two children he saved are only bruised and a little scared. He was throwing them out of the way of a falling wall, but he didn’t get out from under it quickly enough. I recommend that he be placed on light duty for at least the next three days.”

“I’ll advise the Minister of that,” Julian said. “Is there anything else I need to know about?”

“No, Sir,” she responded. “Everything is under control. We should have most of the wounded out of here by Oh 7 hundred tomorrow morning. Dr. Bremerton stopped by and wants a word with you whenever you have a moment; but she said it’s not too urgent.”

“Thank you,” Julian responded. She signed off with a cheery goodbye.

“Throwing children out of the way? I’ll kill that boy,” Garak muttered darkly.

Julian frowned. “Why? I think that was a noble thing he did. He saved their lives!”

“Nearly at the cost of his own,” Garak snapped back. “That damned idiot! I ought to demote him and send him on the next transport back to Cardassia Prime for more training!”

“How can you say that?!” Julian was livid now. “You’d honestly punish someone for saving the lives of two children? What if they’d been yours?! Would you be so ready to discipline him then?”

“Yes!” Garak shouted. “Yes, I would! Damar has information that I need. For him to do something so damned irresponsible before I could discover that information is criminal!”

“I don’t believe I’m hearing this!” Julian roared. “Is the Empire that much more important to you than the loss of lives? Did it ever occur to you that the lives he probably saved were the lives of Bajoran children? By doing that, he makes our alliance stronger!”

Garak had jumped to his feet in order to pace back and forth across the living room. Julian was glaring at him from the relative safety of a chair. Momentarily forgotten by them both, Tain sat on a sofa watching the byplay. He had a very slight smirk of amusement and pride on his lips.

“Strengthening our emotional ties to the Bajorans one family at a time, hmmm?” Garak asked suddenly. He stopped pacing when he stood in front of the chair Julian was sitting in.

Julian swallowed and rose to his feet. He would not let his lover intimidate him by looming over him like a predator. “Something like that,” he responded to Garak’s last statement.

“Mmm, I should have realized you’d take that tack,” he said softly.

The change in Garak’s attitude was so abrupt that it caught Julian off guard for a moment. Then, he realized what they were doing. He blushed and glared into his lover’s eyes with irritation.

“Cardassians argue when they’re courting,” he said. “You’re a devious bastard.”

Garak pulled him into his arms and smirked. “And you love it,” he replied. Then, he cupped Julian’s face between his hands and kissed him very gently on the lips. Before he could reciprocate, Garak pulled back and smiled into his eyes.

“I believe you gentlemen need some privacy,” Tain said; bringing Julian back to the present with an abrupt shock. He stared at the Emperor of Cardassia and blushed hotly with embarrassment.

“Goodnight, Julian,” Tain said as he left. He was still chuckling as the door closed.

“I… I do not believe… I can’t believe we did that in front of him! Julian cried.

“Oh… He didn’t mind,” Garak replied casually. “Matters of the heart are nothing to be embarrassed about, my love. He understands what we mean to each other, and he approves.”

“I know, but…” Julian struggled to put his feelings into words. “It felt like… I don’t know; it was like exposing one’s less than savory state secrets publicly for everyone to see.”

Garak’s eyes suddenly darkened with some intense emotion Julian could not define. “DO you truly feel that badly about it? He demanded. “Are you that ashamed of us?”

“No!” Julian cried. His own eyes widened. “I’m not ashamed of anything having to do with our relationship. It’s just… we’ve been so careful for so long that I guess I’ve gotten used to it.”

Garak thought about that for a long moment, and then nodded his understanding. Before he could ask Julian anything else, the younger man slid back into his arms and sighed. “Now, where were we again?” he murmured; slyly tilting his face up for another kiss.

The following morning, Julian reported to the infirmary to have the secondary chip removed. He couldn’t help but feel a bit nervous. Did Dr. Bremerton know about his little secret? If so, Julian knew her well enough to be almost completely certain that she’d report her findings to Starfleet. His lover walked beside him to the infirmary. He had told Julian that he was visiting Damar, but Julian knew that he was also going to lend moral support. He was touched by that.

“Oh good,” Jane Bremerton said contentedly, “you’re both here. Minister, your officer is awake and has just been given his final pain reliever. The ribs are a bit tender right now, but they’ll be as good as new by the end of the day, as long as he doesn’t do anything too strenuous.

Julian glanced anxiously at Garak as he crossed to the partition and stopped beside Damar’s bed. Before he could go over there too, Bremerton took him by the elbow and steered him in another direction. She pushed him down onto a bio bed and just stared at him with a raised eyebrow.

“All right,” Julian grumbled, “all right. I’m ready.”

She smiled a bit and then injected him with an anesthetic to make him sleep.

When he woke, he was surprised to find that Enabran Tain was sitting at his bedside.

“Dr. Bremerton said that you are going to be dizzy for a while yet,” he said gently. “Don’t try to move right now; and don’t touch your head until the bandages are ready to come off.”

“If you weren’t already an emperor, I’d recommend you for medical school,” Julian mumbled sleepily. I’d even write you a reference letter to get you into one.”

“Thank you, I think,” Tain responded with obvious amusement.

“You’re welcome,” Julian said. “You have a natural bedside manner that a lot of doctors lack.” He babbled on; his tongue loosened thanks to the drugs still running through his system. “No one knows how to be nice anymore,” he murmured. “Maybe if people went to the Bajoran temple or places like it more often, there wouldn’t be as much fighting and dying. But then, if that went away, I wouldn’t really have much of a job. That sounds so horrible. I like it when people live, but it’s just that I’m supposed to keep them alive, so wanting them to stop fighting makes what I do now a little less important in the grand scheme of things, you understand?”

“I do indeed, my young friend,” Tain said gently. He reached out and took Julian’s hand.

“Where’s Elim?” Julian asked. His voice had taken on a slightly fretful tone.

Elim is on his way here,” Tain soothed. “As soon as you showed signs of waking I called him.

At that moment, the doors to the infirmary slid apart and Garak hurried through them. Julian’s face lit up, but when he would have struggled into a sitting position, Tain held him down.

“Elim,” Julian cried happily. “I’m so glad you’re here! Your father is such a kind person and so easy to talk to, but I missed you. He would’ve made a wonderful doctor,” Julian rambled on.”

Garak exchanged a startled look with Tain. The older man was smiling, though, so he didn’t think anything serious was wrong. He stepped up to the bed and took Julian’s free hand.

“He’s fine,” Tain said; his voice sounding very amused. “There’s an anesthetic still running through his system so he’s going to be… entertaining for a while. We’ll just remember not to use what he says against him later. Not that anything he says is going to make much sense…”

“I make sense,” Julian cried with obvious outrage. “I do! Don’t I make sense, Elim?”

“Yes, my love, of course you do,” Garak replied. He too was on the verge of laughter.

When he finally felt the last of the drugs fading from his mind and body, Julian winced. How much of an idiot had he made of himself? He vaguely remembered Tain being beside him, and Then Elim came… Elim was still sitting in a chair at his bedside, he saw.

“Feeling better, Doctor?” Jane Bremerton’s voice was soft, but not at all patronizing.

“Mmm,” he agreed happily. He covered a huge yawn and sat up slowly. “What time is it?”

“12 hundred hours,” Jane replied instantly. “You can eat lunch here and then you’re free to go.”

“Please, my dear, for the sake of my appetite, let’s eat elsewhere,” Garak said softly.

Jane Bremerton laughed; not at all offended by the suggestion. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll let you take him anywhere you like if he can stand up and walk a straight line to that bed over there.”

Garak cocked his head to the side in a silent challenge. Grinning, Julian rose and executed a perfect walk to the bed across the room and back again without wavering in his step once.

“All right then,” she said. “But when you have a moment, I need to talk to you, Julian.”

They ended up in Elim’s quarters. Tain was already there, and when he looked up to see that Julian was with his son, he smiled. “Welcome to the land of the living, Julian,” he said.

“Thank you,” Julian replied; blushing a little. Had he said anything utterly ridiculous to this man? Had he babbled out his secret? But Tain already knew about the enhancements. Had he said anything to anyone else, though? And what did Bremerton want to talk to him about?

“You look worried, my friend,” Tain noted shrewdly. “Would you care to talk about it?”

“I dunnow… it’s just… Dr. Bremerton wants to talk to me when I have a few minutes, but I’m not sure why. What if she knows now? How am I going to fend her off? I can’t lie well when someone is direct with me. I’ve never really had to do it before. What if…”

“Don’t borrow trouble, Julian,” Tain cautioned seriously. “Just stay calm and wait. Use silence as often as you can. Don’t confirm or deny anything, but don’t go into the conversation looking as guilty as you look right now. If you do, she’ll tear you to pieces, my friend.”

After that, they both worked in concert to make sure he ate lunch. They distracted him with stories, filled his glass often with some of his favorite fruit juice, and sent him several subliminal cues to keep him eating until he’d finished everything on his plate. He blinked in surprise and then stared at them when he realized what they’d been doing all that time. Their actions had been brilliant, if a little ruthless, but he couldn’t blame them. They cared about him quite a lot.

Jane Bremerton sat down across from him at a small table in her temporary office. She gave him a long, hard look before hitting him head-on with her words.

“I found some things in your brain that didn’t make much sense to me,” she began. “They were little things, oddly thickened neural pathways, strangely curving synapses, relatively unimportant things usually. If they’d been individual oddities, I wouldn’t have done any digging. Everyone’s brain, after all, is different. When I began putting the anomalies together, though, I started to come to another conclusion. I think we both know what I’m going to say next, don’t we?”

Julian blinked and then frowned. “Is it… Did I do some damage? Did I wait too long to…?”

“Don’t play the fool with me, Doctor,” Jane Bremerton snapped suddenly. Though her voice was not loud, he could hear the fury in it. “I am not stupid. Unless… Were the enhancements done without your… No… that doesn’t make any sense. Surely you would have known…”

Julian suddenly felt scared. A part of him, the small child who had barely been able to distinguish letters from numbers when he was six years old, wanted to cry. He found himself longing to be with Elim. He wished he could crawl into his lover’s arms and forget about this.

“I can’t shrug this off,” Bremerton went on mercilessly. “Furthermore, I intend to tell Starfleet about your lover’s collusion in this disgusting little secret of yours. After reading the reports on the Cardassians capturing you, I realized that they would have had to know. Why else would they want you specifically? You’re young, this is your second posting; you’ve hardly done anything worthwhile in the field of medicine, so why you?”

She was speaking almost to herself, but these devastating words hit him like a ton of bricks. His hands began to grow numb. He realized that he’d gripped the arms of his chair so tightly that the knuckles were completely white. His face seemed to be flushed; and his eyes felt dry and gritty.

“Before you say anything,” she continued in an eerily calm voice, “I should let you know that I’ve already sent a copy of my findings to Starfleet Medical. Now, even if your lover does decide that I need to be killed for knowing too much, he won’t be able to control who else finds out about everything. My Priority One message will reach Starfleet very soon.”

“How… Why are you doing this?” Julian could no longer keep silent.

“Why am I doing this?! Why am I doing this?!” she shouted suddenly; jumping to her feet and glaring at him. “I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do! You and your parents broke the law! There are reasons those particular laws were put in place, you know.”

Julian began to shake. So many things were going through his head right at that moment that he couldn’t organize his thoughts. He was about to lose everything; his job, his medical license, his place in Starfleet. His friends would probably not want to be his friends anymore once they found out. What would he do? How could he live without being able to practice medicine?”

“There are some people in my group of associates who think that everyone who has been genetically enhanced should be killed. I like the idea of destroying them from the inside better.”

“You’re mad,” he whispered. He couldn’t think of anything else to say. The look in her eyes terrified him. For her, the things she was doing were perfectly all right. The expression in her eyes made it seem like she was just carrying on with a normal day. Behind that placid outer shell, however, was a woman who was laughing gleefully and howling her triumph for all to see.

Julian fled from her office and raced out of the infirmary. People who saw him running through the halls assumed that he was on his way to some medical emergency, so they didn’t ask questions; they merely stepped out of his way as quickly as they could.

“Damn,” Elim Garak murmured softly. “Julian was coming towards them at a very fast speed. “His heart rate and blood pressure were sky-rocketing, and his body was pumping so much adrenaline that the ring Garak was wearing began to turn red. Silently, he showed it to his father.

“Oh dear,” Tain responded with a false calm that made Garak’s pulse jump up a bit, “that is not a good sign at all. She knows, then,” he added softly. “What do you want to do next, Elim?”

“I’m going to postulate that she’s sent her findings to Starfleet already. Why would she run the risk of telling him if she hadn’t done something to keep herself safe from me?”

“That’s a reasonable conclusion,” Tain agreed. “So, do you want to wait it out here, or do you want to leave for Cardassia? It’s up to you; and him, of course,” Tain said gravely.

“Rahinyala, Robi Haan,’ Garak murmured softly.

Tain nodded and squeezed his son’s shoulder. “You’re welcome,” he said.

The doors to Garak’s quarters parted and Julian flew across the room and into his arms. He was trembling so violently that his knees could barely support his weight. His face was very, very pale and his eyes had glazed over in horror. Garak fought to keep his concern under control as he guided his lover to a nearby couch, carefully urged him to sit down and knelt in front of him.

“Julian,” he said; speaking calmly but firmly. “Try to slow your breathing. Relax; you’re safe.”

It took nearly five minutes for Garak to calm his lover completely. Once he had, Tain went into gentle interrogator mode. He handed Julian a cup of chamomile tea and sat down beside him. Garak sat on his other side; watching anxiously as his father began to speak.

“Tell me what she said when you first walked into her office,” Tain started calmly.

Julian took a large swallow of the tea and began to talk. He struggled to remember exactly what had been said at Tain’s urging. Perfect recall was definitely something he could do.

“Take your time, dear boy,” Tain said at one point, when Julian started to describe the look in her eyes after she’d started screaming at him. “Breathe in… And let it out slowly.”

“The look in her eyes! She was… It was like… I’ve never seen that look before,” he practically whispered. “She could have been walking through a park or something. But Behind that… Underneath the calmness… Oh, god! Underneath that she was… laughing insanely.”

Garak was deeply disturbed. He knew that the woman had spent nearly six months in the hands of Obsidian Order operatives as they sought vainly to implicate her in an attack on one of Cardassia Prime’s learning centers. She’d confessed to her part in the attack, but she never gave any other names to those who had questioned her. He, himself had not been in on the questioning. He’d been on Romulus looking for some other information for Tain that had nothing to do with the crime Bremerton and her associates had committed. He hadn’t returned to his home until nearly two years after her departure.

“It drove her over the edge,” Tain said quietly; as if he’d read Garak’s mind. “This latest revelation has driven her mad. I wonder if we could use that against her…”

“Julian shook his head. “No… No you don’t understand!” he said; his voice taking on a slight edge of panic. “She… She knows how to hide her… problem.”

Garak grimaced but nodded his head slowly. Tain sighed. “So, what now?” He asked.

“They’ll… Starfleet will want to do tests on me and… It’ll all come out.”

“I could have the Traigar ready to leave in one hour,” Tain said quietly. “If you come back to Cardassia Prime with us, I can fast-track your application for citizenship. Our alliance with the Federation will not allow anyone to legally touch you after that. They will revoke your commission and your medical license, but You can take the necessary examinations under Dr. Parmak and become a medic under the jurisdiction of Cardassia. As for your friends, I wouldn’t give up on them just yet, Julian. They care a great deal for you.”

“Father is right about your friends,” Garak said. “You have been through far too much with most of them to lose their affection for you as easily as all that.”

“I… I guess you’re right,” Julian whispered. He wasn’t aware of the tears streaming down his cheeks until he felt Garak pull him gently into his arms. It was suddenly as if he were a small child again. He shuddered with silent sobs as Tain rose to make the necessary arrangements.

Tain returned less than ten minutes later. He looked furious. “We’re too late,” he said to Garak.

“They can’t have gotten the news that quickly,” Garak objected; feeling a little astonished.

“Apparently, she sent it as a priority 1 message marked urgent, for Admiral Judge Advocate General Galen Hartman. He received it about an hour ago; then he called Sisko and ordered him to warn us that he is not to leave. They’re also bringing your parents here, Julian,” he continued.

Julian nodded but could not speak. His mind seemed to be sluggishly wandering in circles. He wondered suddenly if the people who had wanted to make a clone of him were in any way connected to Bremerton and her supposed associates. When he hesitantly suggested this, however, both Elim and his father shook their heads. The small flame of hope died inside his chest at their certainty. It was quickly replaced by a strong bout of depression.

“I’m sorry, Julian,” Garak said softly. “We had already followed that lead.”

Again, Julian nodded. He turned his head and looked up into Garak’s eyes; offering him a wan, shaky smile of thanks. Tenderly, Garak leaned down and kissed his forehead.

The Starship Callahan arrived two days later. Admiral Hartman was aboard her, as were Julian’s parents. As soon as they stepped onto the station, a strange, almost frightening silence fell. Waiting for them in the docking bay were Tain, Garak, Sisko, Kira, Dax, Eddington, Ziyal, Damar, Odo, and Julian. Everyone had solemn, thoughtful looks on their faces.

Without even bothering to make introductions, Captain Sisko led them all into the Ward Room for this very important conversation. He did not want any rumors to start flying.

“Admiral,” Sisko said softly, “welcome to Deep Space 9. Mr. and Mrs. Bashir, I’m glad to meet you both. I’m Captain Benjamin Sisko; and these are my officers.

Once he’d introduced the Starfleet contingent, Tain stepped forward. “I’m sure you all know that I’m Enabran Tain, Emperor of the Cardassian Union. This is my heir Elim Garak; and these are his associates, Glin Corat Damar and Glin Tora Ziyal. I wish this meeting could have happened under better circumstances. I am here to extend an offer to Dr. Bashir.”

“An offer?” Richard Bashir asked bluntly. “What kind of an offer?”

“You two broke the law when you deliberately stole to Adigeon Prime and had your son illegally altered for the purposes of increasing his mental and physical abilities,” Tain said.

Kira twitched and her mouth tightened noticeably, but she said nothing.

“It doesn’t matter why you did it; what counts was that it was done. You then falsified documents and tried to hide your wrongdoing behind a facade of lies and concealment. Now, though, it has come out; and the consequences must be dealt with.”

“You’ve got no right to judge us for what we did!” Richard shouted angrily.

“I am not judging you, Sir,” Tain responded so calmly that it made Julian shiver. “I am merely stating the facts as they stand. I have offered to take Dr. Bashir to Cardassia Prime. He can apply for citizenship in the Cardassian Union, take the Cardassian equivalent of your medical exams and continue to practice medicine. Everyone in this room knows that it is his passion.”

Sisko’s eyes lit with an inner joy that was obvious to everyone there. When he spoke, however, there was no sign of it in his voice. “Doctor, are you sure you want to go to Cardassia Prime?”

“What other choice do I have, Sir?” Julian asked quietly. He was amazed at how steady his voice sounded. “I can’t stay here any longer; not after this.”

“Minister Garak,” Sisko said then, “It has recently come to my attention that you aren’t exactly safe here. We want to keep this alliance as stable as possible, but if Dr. Bashir has to leave, I won’t have any physicians with the knowledge that might prove necessary to treat you or any of your people if you are wounded on the station. I agree that Dr. Bashir can no longer serve in Starfleet. That is the law, after all. But there is yet another solution that you might not have thought of until now. I hope you’ll consider it, at the very least.”

Tain’s expression did not change; neither did Garak’s. Julian’s, however, became so desperate with hope that it was painful to watch. He looked anxiously at the admiral.

“I’m afraid you’re right, Captain,” Hartman said gravely. “Julian Bashir can no longer serve as a Lieutenant in Starfleet. His Starfleet Medical license must also be revoked. There’s more at stake here, however, than a mere flouting of the law. Richard Bashir, I sentence you to two years in a penal facility to be determined upon our return to earth. When your two years are over, you may then resume your life as a rehabilitated citizen of the Federation. Hopefully, the time you spend away will give you the chance to reflect on the part you had in doing this young man such a disservice. Perhaps you will leave the prison a wiser man. I hope that will be the case.”

“As for Young Mr. Bashir,” the admiral continued, “I have no further legal recourse with him. He is free to achieve a life as seems good to him; and if that means he will study to become a human medic inside the Cardassian Union, I can only wish him the best of luck. I would, however, recommend a full emersion program for a period of up to one year on Cardassia Prime to ensure that he receives the full benefit of a Cardassian education in the art of medicine. After that, if the Emperor or the Minister decide to post him on DS9, it will be their decision. It will also be their responsibility to see to it that he doesn’t break any more Federation laws.”

As they headed back to Garak’s quarters, Julian stared into the distance in utter shock. It had all happened so fast. He could barely bring himself to fully understand what had just occurred.

“Would you care to join us for lunch, Admiral?” Julian heard Tain asking.

“I would be honored, Majesty,” Galen Hartman replied with equal solemnity. “Shall we meet in one hour at the replimat? Oh, and feel free to bring all of your associates,” he added.

Once they were alone inside Garak’s quarters, both Tain and Garak began to laugh.

“Elim! You failed to warn me that Captain Sisko was so… devious! I think I like him.”

“I had no idea he was, Father,” Garak protested; still grinning with helpless mirth.

“I… I don’t… What just happened?” Julian asked almost plaintively.

Elim and his father burst into laughter all over again. After another couple of minutes, they managed to get themselves under control and Garak explained. “Neither of us had any idea that Sisko would do something that… sneaky. We were prepared to smuggle you off the station if it became necessary. Thankfully, it didn’t, or there’d have been trouble.”

The door chime sounded before Julian could comment. “Enter,” Garak called.

“Gentlemen,” Captain Sisko addressed them as he strode into the room, “how did you like it?”

“Captain,” Tain said, rising to his feet and bowing with real respect, “I salute you, Sir. That was an absolutely brilliant bit of obfuscation. You have our deepest thanks.”

“Yes,” Julian agreed quietly. “Thank you for your help, Sir. I really appreciate it.”

“No problem,” Sisko assured them; his voice full of intense satisfaction. “I’m just glad it worked. The admiral’s ship is leaving tomorrow afternoon, Julian, I hope you’ll take the time to say goodbye and patch up some obviously old and painful wounds between you and your parents.”

“Mmm,” Tain agreed. “I was going to advise him to do that very same thing. Family is very important to my people; and I would hate to see your family shattered by this, dear Julian.”

Julian looked down and took a deep breath to keep back the sudden tears that nearly escaped his self-control. “I will,” he said softly when he could speak passed the lump in his throat.

“Good,” Sisko said; nodding and smiling as he turned to leave. “Oh, and Minister Garak,” he added, turning back to face the waiting Cardassian, “take good care of him.”

Without another word, he exited Garak’s quarters; leaving three shocked men behind him.

Chapter Text

Elim Garak, heir to the Emperor Enabran Tain of the Cardassian Union, sat gazing out at the almost colorless plain before him. He was happy here, he realized. He had been for some time now. His lover was also happy here, Garak knew. Cardassia Prime might not have been ideal for most humans to live on, but Julian, his beautiful Julian, had somehow managed to make it his home. Soon after the secret of his genetic enhancements had come out, he, Garak, and Tain had left Deep Space 9. For now, his two most trusted assistants, Corat Damar and Tora Ziyal, were on the station representing the interests of the Cardassian Empire. Biweekly messages were sent back and forth in order to keep Tain and his son apprised of all that was happening on the station, so Garak did not feel the need to be there in person.

A year had gone by since their departure, and his beloved Julian was about to sit for the most difficult medical examination that the Cardassian Academy of Medicine had to offer. If he passed this huge test, he could work anywhere within the empire. Indeed, many of the heads of the noble houses and not a few Cardassian war ship guls had begun to beg for his services as soon as he was judged to be qualified.

Garak had quietly sat back and watched his young love work miracle after miracle with the Cardassian people. Barely able to tolerate the very thought of a human living on their home planet, most Cardassians had gone out of their way to avoid him. Julian, however, had merely pushed steadily forward; always keeping his goal in sight and never letting anything or anyone get in the way of his achieving that goal. No matter what happened, he would pass his exams.

And a lot had happened. Several times crucial information was conveniently forgotten in an attempt to prevent him from succeeding at one task or another. Pranks were often played on him, but Julian had weathered the constant trials and tribulations with grace and a dignity that made Garak proud. He had even, on several occasions, returned the rather vicious favors of some of his more virulent opponents without getting caught doing anything wrong.

All the while, Garak had watched protectively over his lover; ensuring that his emotional and physical well-being were intact. Julian still wore his tracking ring much to Garak’s constant relief, for although he was safer here on Cardassia Prime, neither Garak nor his father were arrogant enough to assume that he was completely out of danger. When Julian agreed with their assessment, Garak allowed himself to relax just a little. He was glad Julian didn’t resent their over-protectiveness. His beautiful, foolish boy would be fine as long as he wore the ring.

“What are you thinking about, my love?”

The quiet voice right behind him startled Garak a little, but he did not allow it to show. Instead, he turned with a delighted smile to face Julian who stood in the doorway watching him.

“I was thinking about you, actually,” Garak replied affectionately. “Am I that obvious?”

“Only to someone who knows you,” Julian teased as he came out onto the balcony of their home. “You’re not worried, are you?” he added anxiously. “I’m ready for this, you know.”

Garak rose and pulled the younger man close. “I know you are,” he said tenderly. “I admit I am a little concerned, but not because I think you aren’t going to succeed. I suppose my anxiety stems from the idea of being forced to wait for the results. I hate waiting.”

Julian grinned and kissed his lover’s lips. “So says the man who once waited for a confession from a murderer for over six hours without saying a word,” he joked.

“That was different, my love,” Garak protested with mock irritation. “That was something done in service of the Empire. This is something that hinges on my lover’s future; a much more personal investment, I assure you. Either way, I’m glad you feel confident in your abilities.”

“I always feel confident when I remember that you’re here to back me up,” he murmured contentedly. He smiled into Garak’s eyes and then snuggled deeper into his lover’s embrace.

“You’re such a foolish, sentimental boy,” Garak murmured wryly. “I love you.”

Julian laughed and slid his arms around the older man’s neck. “I love you, too,” he said. “I need to get some sleep; the tests start early tomorrow and I want to be ready.”

“Mmm… are you sure it’s sleep you want right now?” Garak asked seductively.

Julian blushed, and Garak marveled yet again at how easy it was to make his lover do that.

“Well, now that you mention it…” Julian responded as he tilted his head up for another kiss, ‘sleep can wait for a little while. I need to get rid of some excess energy first.”

Garak smirked and lifted his lover into his arms. Julian allowed himself to be carried up to their bedroom. Once they had undressed, they started kissing passionately. By the time they reached their large bed, Julian was frantic to have his lover inside him.

Hours had gone by, but Elim Garak was not sleeping. He gazed down at his human lover with a small smile. Cardassians had an amazing amount of stamina; and no matter how often he’d brought his lover to orgasm, he’d managed to control his own need enough to enflame his lover all over again. A smug part of him was very glad that Julian was young and strong enough to keep up with him. As Cardassians got older, their craving for sexual release became more acute. After they’d had their fill, however, Cardassians were left feeling energized and very clear-headed; unlike humans. It wasn’t that much of a surprise, therefore, that he’d exhausted Julian.

He reached out and very gently laid a hand on his sleeping lover’s forehead. He carefully brushed back Julian’s sweat-soaked hair and caressed his cheek. When the boy only sighed and snuggled deeper under the covers, Garak smiled again and leaned down to kiss his temple.

“Sleep well, my dear,” he whispered. Then, moving slowly, he rose and left their bedroom.

It was nearly midnight on the side of the planet where he was. His father, however, lived in a region which was six hours ahead of him. He knew that Tain would be up by now, so he decided on a whim to call; knowing that the older man wouldn’t be busy right at the moment.

“I hope Julian is in bed,” were the first words out of Tain’s mouth when he saw who was calling.

“Of course,” Garak responded breezily. “He went to bed hours ago. The first exam starts in a little over seven hours from now, after all. DO you truly think he’s ready for this, Father?”

“I know he is, my son,” Tain responded with no hesitation whatsoever.

As he walked into the building that housed the medical complex for the capital city of Lakat nearly seven hours later, Julian reflected on the past year. It had been extremely difficult and emotionally draining. He had been left feeling frustrated, furious, discouraged and stubbornly determined by turns. He had made friends, learned a great deal both in and out of the classroom, and had somehow managed to reach this point with his sanity mostly intact.

He smiled as he thought about the one constant in his life; the one person who had made it possible for him to come as far as he had. Elim had been there for him through everything. While he helped to run an empire, he managed to find the patience to put up with Julian’s ranting and the hours and hours of studying he’d had to do to keep from getting kicked out of the program. He’d always been there to encourage his lover in many ways; both verbally and physically, and he’d stayed with him in spite of the many times Julian had neglected his own personal needs in order to spend that time studying.

By the time he’d gotten up nearly an hour ago, his lover had already left for Lakarian City. Feeling a little disappointed, Julian struggled against the rising tide of nervousness. Garak had, however, left a note for him. He’d stared at the padd with a small smile; wondering what his lover had written that he couldn’t have stayed to tell him. He’d waited until he was completely ready to leave before taking the time to read his lover’s words.

“My dearest Julian,” the note began, “I know you’re disappointed that I’m not there to see you off, but I needed to go to Lakarian City in order to check on some shortages they’ve been experiencing lately. Still, though I am not there with you physically, know that my heart is always with you. I have no doubts that you will do well on your final tests, and I’m not just saying that because I love you more than life itself. I’m saying it because it’s true. You have the capability and the drive and ambition to pass with flying colors. Last night you said that you were ready for this. Keep that feeling in your heart no matter what happens today; and when you’re finished with the last question on the last test, come home to me and we can celebrate your victory. Even if you don’t pass with perfect grades, a scenario that I do not expect to happen, you will still have a victory to celebrate. You’ve come so far during this last year, my darling, and nothing can change that. No one can take away the many achievements you’ve made. Most of all, remember that nothing and no one can change the fact that I love you, dear one. I love you and I always will. Now, before I start weeping like the hopelessly lovesick fool that I am, I shall close by saying this. Do not hold back, Mahaialani. Don’t strive to maintain your secret behind that perception of normality which you’ve tried so hard to cultivate for far too long. Let your genius shine through today. Let your full potential be seen; and don’t be afraid of your gifts.”

Garak had ended on that last, encouraging word. He had been smiling as he broke the connection; and as Julian saved the note on his personal computer he felt tears running down his face. He’d had to take several long moments to get his raging emotions under control before leaving their home. Now, he stepped into the building, walked with confidence to the first room where the testing would begin, nodded to several of his classmates, and sat down at one of the cubicles with Garak’s words still ringing in his ears and mind.

Nine and a half hours later, eight of which had been spent writing, orally answering questions, and operating on simulated patients with any number of diseases, wounds, and medical conditions, he was finished. As he staggered out of the building, he was shocked to realize that the suns were beginning to set on Cardassia Prime. Their fiery red glow filled the northern sky completely. Though the harvest season was ending, he hadn’t expected to be inside for that long.

“I didn’t realize it was that late,” he murmured aloud. The sound of his voice was weak. He wondered if he looked as exhausted as he sounded. He hoped he didn’t look as utterly shattered as he felt. If he did, his lover would be worried and start fussing over him.

“Exams will do that to your sense of time,” said a voice from directly behind him.

Julian whirled and nearly fell over. He was dizzy; thanks to the many hours he’d just spent pummeling his brain for the knowledge he’d struggled to recall and apply.

The person who had addressed him reached out and caught him before he could crash to the ground. “Steady there, my lad,” Doctor Cyraale Parmak said; his voice full of amusement.

“What?” Julian mumbled confusedly. “How did you get here?”

“I’d tell you that, my boy,” Parmak teased, “but then I’d have to wipe your memory or kill you.”

Julian blinked, and then started laughing. That had been an idiotic question. Why; he wondered -- had he asked such a thing? Had he truly exhausted his mental faculties so completely?

“Come with me and I’ll show you the secret to my transportation success,” the older man joked. He took Julian’s elbow gently and propelled him down the sidewalks and towards an area where several personal transports were parked. They climbed into his air car and the older man set a course directly for the house where he and Garak lived. Julian, feeling relieved that he would not have to fight the crowds at the public transportation terminals, sat back with a deep sigh and closed his eyes. Within mere moments, he was sleeping soundly.

The next thing he knew, he was being nudged in the ribs by a grinning Dr. Parmak. “You might want to wake up, lad,” he said. “We’ve reached your house and I have no intention of carrying you inside. I’m getting too old for such activities.”

Julian opened his eyes and blinked. Then, he slowly stumbled out of the car and landed in Garak’s waiting arms. As he gently guided Julian inside, Garak spoke over his shoulder.

“Join us for a drink,” he invited. “My father would be honored if you could.”

“And who am I to chance compromising your father’s honor?” Parmak replied merrily.

Garak laughed, and even Julian found enough strength to smile somewhere deep inside him.

“I’ll just put our boy to bed here and be right with you. Father is in the main parlor.”

Julian half stumbled, half crawled up the stairs. Once they reached their bedroom, his lover began helping him to undress. He glanced into the bathroom suite and saw that a hot bath was waiting for him. He nearly whimpered aloud in pure relief at the very idea.

“Bath first, and then you need to go to bed and sleep,” Garak said sternly.

“You’re not going to join me?” Julian murmured; offering him a sleepy smile.

Garak chuckled; the sound low in his ear. “No,” he replied in an uncompromising tone.

The bath did indeed feel wonderful, even though his beloved didn’t end up bathing with him. He took time to wash his body and hair thoroughly before rising and wrapping a towel around his waist. It took a great deal of his remaining energy to dry his hair.

As he shuffled wearily to the bed, he stifled a yawn. He quickly put on some underwear and then crawled under the covers, not even bothering to return the towel to the bathroom. He was asleep just after his head hit the fluffy pillows. He remembered nothing for the next 12 hours.

Downstairs in the parlor, three Cardassians sat sipping from glasses of kanar and talking quietly.

“I don’t remember ever seeing a student so thoroughly exhausted after those exams in my entire medical career,” Cyraale Parmak noted. From what I was able to observe, though, he did well.

“I trust that you have no regrets taking him on as a student, my friend?” Tain asked. “Do you think he’s lived up to your very high expectations?”

Parmak smiled; “no regrets at all,” he answered.” “He quite surpassed my expectations.”

Tain and Garak shared a pleased smile. Their pleasure deepened when Parmak continued.

“I made it a little harder on him than I might otherwise have done if he’d been a Cardassian, actually,” he confessed. “No matter what I did, though, he struggled through. I wasn’t the only one who tried to make things nearly impossible for him. Several of his classmates went out of their way to make sure he wouldn’t pass his exams. Some of their methods were positively vicious. None of that made any difference as far as I could tell, though.”

Garak stilled; his glass of kanar halfway to his lips. Instead of taking the sip, he set it down slowly and regarded the medic with an intense glare.

“I don’t suppose you’d care to elaborate, would you?” he asked quietly.

“It matters not,” Parmak shrugged; his manner easy and unconcerned. “Ezoryl stopped the three worst offenders before anything could happen. You will recall that four of our students didn’t make it to the point of the exams, I hope. Three of them were very close, but their actions against your young man were deemed to be unethical and unworthy of the profession by the board of medical instruction. They were dismissed; but the incident was dealt with privately.”

“That’s most gratifying,” Garak responded lightly. “But can you be sure that they won’t come after Julian? Can they connect their dismissal to him in any way at all?”

“Evidentially, they cannot,” Parmak said seriously. “Circumstantially, though… I’m sorry, Minister, I didn’t think about that. Even if they have no proof, they could use it as an excuse.”

Tain frowned; then seemed to toss his worry away with a careless gesture. Garak noticed, however, that it had taken some effort for him to do so. That worried Garak more than anything Parmak had said. He resolved to keep a closer eye on his beloved over the coming weeks.

Later that evening, Garak woke Julian up long enough to make sure that he ate something. His beloved was so exhausted, however, that he could only open his mouth when Garak pressed something to his lips. He would chew and swallow the vegetable soup, but he didn’t appear to be completely awake. As soon as he’d finished feeding him, Julian fell asleep again.

It was Oh seven hundred hours the next day when Julian finally roused enough to think coherently. He propped himself up on one elbow and glanced around the room. His lover was still asleep beside him; and Julian decided to watch his face. It wasn’t often that he got the chance to see his lover looking so relaxed. Only in deep sleep would his beloved relinquish his iron-hard control over his inner defenses. Julian loved watching him.

It was the knowledge of what lay behind those defenses that had made Julian fall so deeply in love with him. Elim Garak was a very complex man. Most Cardassians kept outsiders at a polite but definite distance. Even he had spent some frustrating hours wondering about Elim’s motives and the meaning behind every word he spoke. More than once, Julian had found himself wondering about Elim’s true feelings for him. He’d known that the Cardassian cared about him, but there had been times when something he said or failed to say caused Julian to start worrying again. That had all changed about three months ago; however. He and one of his classmates, a Cardassian named Ezoryl Dailon, had decided to go rock climbing. They’d spent the morning studying and getting their supplies ready for the journey they were taking that afternoon. Julian had told Elim where he was going to be, and that, he realized later, was the only reason he was alive today.

They had taken a small air-sled to a hiking trail just outside the walls of Qelvak, the city where Ezoryl lived, and parked it at the base of the mountain. Then, with packs on their backs and a glint of excitement and challenge in their eyes, they had begun the long, hard climb to the top.

Ezoryl had led the way, but Julian had not been very far behind him. In spite of the heat and the air which was getting thinner and thinner the higher they climbed, he had no trouble keeping up at first. Ezoryl had set a steady, but constant pace that would allow them to cover a great deal of ground if they’d been on flat land. Since they weren’t, however, it took longer to reach their destination.

“How are you holding up, Julian?” Ezoryl asked as they stopped at a point about a third of the way from the bottom. “Do you want to stop and rest for five minutes or so?”

Julian clambered up to stand beside him on a small plateau of rock. “I think… that would be… advisable,” he gasped in between breaths. “It’s hot up here.”

Ezoryl plopped down right where he’d been standing and grinned up at his companion as he did the same. “I imagine it’s hot everywhere you go on this planet, human,” he teased.

Julian laughed. He didn’t take offense at his friend’s tone. Though most of the people he’d run into on the planet had made their distaste for his presence known openly, Ezoryl had responded with an almost Starfleet-like open-mindedness that Julian had found reassuring.

“That’s true,” he agreed, “but I thought that it would cool down the higher we climbed.”

“The air will get thinner, but it won’t lose its warmth until dark. It’s because of the convection winds or currents or… something like that. Krixun would know.”

Julian smiled and nodded. Ezoryl’s casual mention of his older brother made him happy. The fact that he finally felt comfortable enough in Julian’s presence to speak of one of his family members by name was very significant. As an outsider, Julian wouldn’t ordinarily know the members of any Cardassian family. Julian was definitely an outsider by reason of his species and way of life. That fact was indisputable. In spite of his “outsider” status, however, Ezoryl had honored him by deciding to reveal a bit about his family.

“He’s a meteorologist?” Julian asked. He was careful to keep his tone as casual as Ezoryl’s had been. He didn’t want to make his friend uncomfortable. At the same time, he longed to learn more. If he showed too much of an interest, though, Ezoryl would clam up and never speak of them again. Being too curious about someone else’s family usually led to arrests and disappearances on Cardassia. Julian definitely did not want Ezoryl to think that he was going to betray him to the Emperor, or his heir.

“Mmm,” Ezoryl replied. “Actually, he’s a student still. In about a year he’ll be taking his degree. He’s one of very few Cardassian men to enter the sciences.”

“Yes, I’d noticed that most of the geologists and other scientists that were coming and going in and out of the building next to the medical complex were women. Why’s that?”

Ezoryl shrugged and flopped onto his back. “Who knows?” he replied carelessly. “Most males just don’t have a head for that sort of thinking. We’re too busy being devious and fighting each other to concentrate on such things.”

Julian gasped; he couldn’t help himself. That shocking statement had come very close to blasphemy according to Cardassian standards. It was almost as impolitic as discussing one’s family affairs in public for all to witness. He lay back slowly, wondering why his friend had said that.

“I surprised you,” Ezoryl observed gleefully. “It is the truth, though.”

“That may be, but… but…” Julian couldn’t organize his skittering thoughts into coherent sentences.

“Julian,” Ezoryl said seriously, “Cardassians are much less totalitarian than you have been carefully led to believe. Yes, we are an imperium under the rule of one man. Yes, we have a strict system in place to punish criminals. And yes, the Obsidian Order does keep a very close eye on us and on outsiders who have attracted our emperor’s interest. But we don’t go around arresting each other for simply speaking with friends in a less than politic manner about life both on and off planet.”

Julian had nodded, but still couldn’t say anything. He covered his closed eyes with one arm to shield them from the blazing sun and sighed. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make it to the top.”

His tone was rueful and slightly embarrassed. Ezoryl refrained from teasing his friend, though.

“That’s all right,” he said instead, “we can stop at about the halfway point and have our picnic at the mouth of some huge caves I know of. The view from that point is absolutely amazing.”

Julian had readily agreed to this plan and, feeling renewed with excitement, he jumped up and shrugged his pack over his shoulders. Ezoryl groaned theatrically and rose as well. “Oh… I guess I have to go on now,” he said; sounding put upon and playfully indignant. “If I don’t, the scandalous rumor that I was outdone by a human will forever follow me like a bag of bricks.”

Julian burst out laughing; delighted by his friend’s sense of humor. Ezoryl took up the lead position once more, but before they started out again, Julian had noticed that he too was grinning.

The view had definitely been gorgeous. Below them as far as the eye could see lay the city of Qelvak. The houses looked as small as toys; and the people reminded him of dolls. As he stared; spellbound and happy that he’d made it as far as he had, the ground had opened up beneath his feet.

The last thing he’d heard before his head hit something and he lost consciousness was Ezoryl screaming.

Julian had awakened with a pounding headache. He felt something warm and sticky running down his cheek and knew that he was bleeding. “Oh no,” he whispered aloud, “I’m probably concussed. Temple wounds look worse than they are because they bleed a lot, though.”

Even as he whispered, his mind struggled to find its way passed the pain and general drowsiness. He had to think. He needed to keep his mind as clear and organized as possible to prevent a lapse into unconsciousness and a possible coma. Instead of trying to sit up, Julian struggled to roll over onto his other side. The dizziness that assailed him nearly caused him to pass out again.

That, however, was nothing compared to the incredible pain that shot up through his chest, into his arms and shoulders, and down to his belly. Some of his ribs had been broken, he realized.

“Well,” he muttered aloud, “so much for turning over to look around.”

“Yes,” said a falsely pleasant voice which had a very hard edge to it, “I wouldn’t recommend doing it again. It could very well kill you; and you wouldn’t want to die, now would you?”

Julian felt a violent shudder wrack his body. He had finally managed to make it past the nightmares and had even convinced himself that the possibility of hearing that hated voice again was highly unlikely. Yet here it was; the embodiment of his worst nightmares; standing in front of him. Gul Dukat grinned viciously. His eyes glittered with intelligent madness and hard-edged joy.

“I may have to kill your little friend,” he said calmly. He spoke as casually as if he’d just said that the weather was hot for this time of year. Another shudder hit Julian.

“Or maybe I won’t,” he mused aloud. “After all, inflicting pain on you didn’t work last time; so perhaps if I harm him instead, you just might remember something I would like to know.”

“D-Dukat,” Julian whispered in a raspy, dry throat. “I d-don’t know anything.”

Ah, here we go again,” the Cardassian said disgustedly. “Well never mind; just watching you while I torture him should be amusing. Then, after he dies at my hands, you and I can… talk.”

Julian knew exactly what he meant. It had been something he had begged Parmak never, ever to tell Garak. Julian feared that if Garak or Tain had discovered the truth, they wouldn’t have rested until Dukat was dead. Besides, the truth was so humiliating and frightening.

“I see you remember my… attentions.” Dukat leered. “It’s flattering to be remembered; don’t you think? It makes life worth living if one is remembered fondly by another.”

The knowledge that Dukat had been caught in the middle of trying to rape him did not lessen Julian’s fear at all. In fact, it increased. He knew this man well enough to realize that being stopped had humiliated him. Dukat hated to be humiliated; and he would make the people who had done so pay dearly. His sexual conquest of Julian would be much more brutal than it otherwise might have been.

If he did manage this time, Julian would not be able to conceal it from his lover. And then Garak would go mad with rage and pursue vengeance with an almost insane fervor until Dukat and everything he cherished was dead. Thinking of Garak suddenly made Julian’s heart leap with desperate hope. Garak knew that they’d gone rock climbing. Julian had been wearing the ring he’d given him, so he had a vague idea where they were. He glanced down and realized that his finger was bear.

“Looking for this?” Dukat asked almost playfully. He tossed the ring into the air and caught it neatly in the middle of his palm. “I suppose this is a gift from Garak, hmmm?”

Julian stared at the ring; letting a desperate expression of longing come over his face. Inwardly though, he was cheering. Dukat hadn’t destroyed the ring yet. This meant that Garak would still be able to track him. He knew that he would have to play this carefully to keep it from being damaged in any way. It needed to stay in one piece long enough for his beloved to find them.

“Oh, did you want this back?” Dukat asked; looking at him with an expression of mocking concern.

“D-Dukat, Gul Dukat,” he added, “please don’t do this. You can turn back from your chosen path even now. If you let us go, Emperor Tain won’t kill you; and neither will Elim.”

Dukat started to laugh. Julian heard the madness in his laughter and began to tremble uncontrollably. The laughter echoed and re-echoed around the walls; making the effect it was having on Julian ten times worse. He began to hyperventilate as he panicked.

A cry from Ezoryl stopped Dukat’s laughter cold. He looked dispassionately down at the younger Cardassian; and it was as if he hadn’t been laughing like a madman mere seconds before.

“J-Julian? You all right?” Ezoryl asked softly.

“I assure you, young man, our dear human friend is just fine; for now.”

“I take it you’re not here to help us,” Ezoryl sniped at Dukat.

“That, my brash friend, depends on what you define as helping you.”

“Oh… you know; medical aid for a broken arm, skin regenerator for the scratches and the huge cut on my knee; and a pain killer for my possible concussion… that sort of help.

Julian was impressed. In bantering with Dukat, he had given him all the information he needed to assess their physical condition. Wanting to return the favor, he spoke before Dukat could.

“Hey… I get… first dibs... on the… medical supplies. I have… broken ribs… after all.”

“That’s enough of that,” Dukat sneered. He glared back and forth between the two of them. “Do you think I’m so stupid that I missed what you just did?”

“Is that a trick question?” Ezoryl asked. “Because if it is, I hope it won’t be on our final exams.”

Dukat screamed with fury and kicked Ezoryl in the ribs. Julian heard the sickening snap of bone and realized that he had kicked the younger Cardassian very, very hard indeed. Ezoryl coughed and groaned as he tried to gasp for air. He vomited up his lunch; and Julian was perversely pleased to see it splatter all over Dukat’s shiny boots. Dukat, however, was not pleased at all.

“You will pay for that, you little bastard,” he whispered.

The fact that he was whispering instead of screaming made Julian start to shake again. He wasn’t sure, but he knew that some people got quieter as their rage built. If Dukat was one such person, they were in serious trouble. He whimpered aloud to attract Dukat’s attention.

As the former military commander turned back towards him, however, Ezoryl spoke again.

“You don’t… play fair… my friend,” he rasped. “We’re just… a couple of… medical students.”

“Shut up!” Dukat roared as he stomped on Ezoryl’s left wrist; shattering several bones and making the younger man scream again. This time, Julian couldn’t help it. He screamed as well.

Ezoryl’s pain must have been incredible; because he lost consciousness again. Dukat crossed to stand over Julian and kicked him until he stopped screaming.

“Now then,” he said almost jovially, Where were we? Ah yes… I was just about to… renew our acquaintance again.” His face twisted into a sickening, frightening approximation of a smile.

“If that means what I think it means, Dukat,” said a very familiar voice, “you are going to be in a great deal of trouble. Don’t worry, though. It won’t last long. I do intend to kill you in the end.”

Garak stood in the entryway of their cave. Dukat spun to look at him and stared in stunned surprise which quickly turned into insane rage. With a roar of primal fury, he launched himself at Garak… and was brought down by a single phaser shot to the chest courtesy of Garak himself.

“Garak to rescue team,” he said; speaking into a communicator, “I’ve found them. They’re both wounded; and you were right, Father. This wasn’t an accidental rockslide. Our dear friend Skrane Dukat is also down here. He’s been stunned and I have the situation under control, though.”

“Garak, repeat your last statement. The son of Procal Dukat is down there with you?”

“Confirmed,” Father,” he replied calmly.

There was a long silence; and Julian started to wonder if something had gone wrong with their ability to communicate with the people on the surface. Just when he was about to ask, Tain’s voice spoke.

“We estimate that you’re about fifty meters below the surface,” he said. “We’re coming down now.”

Then, Garak was beside him. Gently, he touched the side of Julian’s face.

“My dearest boy,” he murmured tenderly. “I am so sorry.”

Julian stared at him; unable to sort out the huge knot of emotions he was experiencing.

“You’re going to be all right soon, Mahaialani,” Garak whispered.

It took nearly a half an hour for the climbers to reach them. They had had a much harder time getting down than Julian and Ezoryl had because the rocks were still shifting; making it extremely dangerous to put too much weight on them for too long. Thus, the rescuers had taken their time.

Julian remembered very little about the first few days that followed. He was almost sure that he’d been carried in a sort of sling up to the surface. He’d fought to stay awake until someone had found his ring and Garak slipped it back onto his finger. He vaguely remembered wanting to know where Ezoryl was; and if he was all right. The only other thing he could recall was pain.

Dr. Parmak had been at his bedside when he finally regained his wits three days later. He had laid a very gentle hand on Julian’s shoulder and asked the one question Julian had hoped he would not ask.

“Did he finish what he tried to start?” Parmak whispered.

Julian had shaken his head and then burst into tears. His ribs had been fused back together thanks to the regenerator, but they were still quite tender. His sobs turned into gasps of pain; but no matter how hard he tried, he could not stop crying. As he continued to gasp for air, Parmak began urging him to breathe deeply. His voice had been very calm and reassuring—an anchor amidst the raging storm of his emotions, but it had taken nearly ten minutes for him to get his tears under control.

When Garak came into the room, he looked ready to kill someone. Julian’s soft whimper diverted him; and the anger went out of him like water flowing out of a broken cup.

“I’m here, Mahaialani,” he whispered as he gently took Julian into his arms. “I’m here.”

As he thought back on the weeks that followed, he remembered the constant presence of his beloved at his side. He was there when Julian woke gasping and shaking after the nightmares. He stayed with him whenever Parmak examined him. He had even gone with him to the medical complex and walked with him to his first class when he returned to make sure he would be all right. On the day Dukat was executed, Garak took him to a small cabin he owned high in the mountains of Kruynaale and spent the day making love to him. Slowly, tenderly, he helped his young lover forget the horror of Dukat’s words and even the sound of his voice.

“He and Ezoryl had grown closer in the months that followed their adventure as well. Both of them had managed to catch up to their peers in spite of the week they’d spent recovering from their ordeal. Rumors about what had actually happened to them ran rampant through the learning center, but neither he nor Ezoryl confirmed or denied anything.

“Are you going to watch me all day, beautiful boy?” Garak asked without even opening his eyes.

Julian ducked his head and blushed. He was still blushing when Garak’s eyes opened and met his. The warmth of real affection in his gaze made Julian smile.

“You’re thinking about it again.” Garak said. Both of them knew what ‘it’ was.

Julian nodded and snuggled down into Elim’s arms. He felt them tighten and let himself relax.

“I can’t help it,” he confessed. “It’s like the place where a tooth used to be. You’re not supposed to play with it, but you can’t help it because it’s a hole in your mouth that wasn’t there before, you know? Oh… Never mind, it’s not all that important.”

Garak gave him an odd look. “Well,” he said finally, “stop putting your tongue in that hole and kiss me before I get bored. I’ve thought of other things you can be doing with your tongue.”

Julian sniggered and then tilted his head up to oblige.

“This is the part I hate,” Ezoryl muttered for the fourth time. “Waiting makes me crazy!”

Julian endured his friend’s agitation with good humor. He felt it too, but his anxiety was more self-contained than his friend’s. In point of fact, he knew that he had nothing to worry about. He knew that he had passed the exams; not because the emperor or Elim had told him so—they had both sworn not to reveal his scores to him before everyone else got theirs—but because he had known and answered all of the questions correctly. He just wanted to know how well he’d done, and if he’d made it to the top of the class this time. A big part of him hoped that he had.

During the exams, he kept remembering Elim’s last words to him. ‘Don’t hold back,’ he had said. Julian had thrown himself into the tests after that with complete abandon.

“Here they come!” The tense whisper went around the quadrangle where the medical students were all sitting; waiting for their scores to be announced by the head of the medical school.

The prefect of the school must have sensed the mood of the crowd because the speech he made was short and to the point. Then again, Julian thought almost giddily, he’s done this before, so maybe he knows enough to put us all out of our misery as quickly as he can.

“And now,” the prefect said, “I am honored to welcome the following students into the ranks of the Healers guild. This profession is a noble calling. There are few who make it this far. For those of you who have successfully done so, however, I say: well done!”

There was another round of applause; and then the prefect spoke again. “When I call your name, please approach the platform and stand beside me,” he instructed.

Julian could barely remember the order of events later. The only thing he was sure of was his growing anxiety as each student was called. The seats grew emptier and emptier as he sat; heart pounding, and hands growing icy with sudden dread. When Ezoryl’s name was called, he cheered just as loudly as everyone else. He was very glad that his friend had made it.

Suddenly, the quadrangle became very, very quiet. Julian looked up and saw, to his utter astonishment, that Prefect Breylan was descending the platform and coming right towards him.

“It is a rare day indeed when these halls are blessed with the footsteps and uncanny ways of an outsider,” he started to say. By now, he had reached Julian, who was the only student still seated amongst the graduate rows. “When it happens, however, the prefect continued, “It brings us a sense of joy. As the empire strengthens itself through alliances with the United Federation of Planets, among other groups, we become as strong from without as we already are from within.”

He helped Julian to his feet and laid a warm hand on his shoulder as he went on. “When said outsider is as successful, determined, and fair-minded as this young man has proven to be, what else can we do but welcome him with open arms? Ladies and Gentlemen of the Cardassian Union, Your Imperial Majesty, Your Highness, I am very proud and honored to present before you all the newest and most successful member of the Cardassian medical center. Doctor Julian Bashir!”

The crowd went absolutely wild. The newly made students had begun clapping and were stamping and chanting something he could not catch. People all over the stands were rising respectfully to cheer for him. The Prefect actually clasped his hands between his own and looked directly into his eyes.

Julian could read the man’s lips and he was glad for that, because there was no way he could have made himself heard at the moment. “Congratulations, Doctor. Well done,” he said.

It took nearly five minutes for decorum to be restored in the quadrangle. When silence had fallen once more, Julian realized that he was shaking and that Elim had an arm around his shoulders.

He looked up into his lover’s eyes and saw the expression he had never, ever thought he would see in public. Garak was telling everyone here that he loved him and wasn’t ashamed of that fact.

“I love you too, Elim,” he whispered in his ear.

Tain congratulated the students in a final speech which was listened to with grave intensity by everyone there. When the formal part of the ceremony had concluded, Garak kept Julian beside him as he did his duty by mingling with the students, their families, the instructors and guests.

Ezoryl had, at one point, come running up to him and grabbed him in a huge hug. Julian gasped but returned the unusual gesture happily. Cardassians rarely embraced one another in public.

“Don’t do that for too long, Julian heard himself saying; a silly grin lighting up his face. “If you do, someone might start to get twitchy.” At that, they both started laughing.

When he had gotten himself back under control, Ezoryl spoke again. “There’s going to be a party after this one is over; you know, just the students. Want to come with me?”

Julian thought about it, but he had forgotten that Elim was beside him and had the ability to keep track of several conversations at once; including the one he was having.

“Of course he’s going,” Elim said good-humoredly. “He wouldn’t miss it, would you, love?”

Julian didn’t think he could get any happier than this. “If you don’t mind,” he replied; struggling to maintain some self-control. He didn’t want to look into Elim’s eyes for too long; because if he did, he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from kissing the man breathless right here and now.

“I don’t mind at all,” Elim said gently. “Go have a good time with your friends.” Then, he leaned down and whispered for Julian’s ears alone: “We can celebrate later; in private.”

They ended up in a bar on the opposite side of the learning center. The music and laughter were loud and filled with joy. The kanar flowed like water, people danced in pairs or small groups, and everyone had a wonderful time. When the music stopped at one point so that the live band could take a break, everyone started singing what Julian assumed were bawdy songs. And that, too, was fun.

By the time the party was over nearly five hours later, Julian was thoroughly drunk and as happy as he’d ever been. He clung to Ezoryl—who was nearly as drunk as he was and could barely stand on his own much less support his human friend—and did a lot of laughing and talking. Somehow he had made it back to Elim’s house. On the way, though, he had continued to cling to Ezoryl’s arm.

“He saved my life,” he babbled at anyone who would listen. “He’s a good friend!”

In point of fact, Ezoryl was not drunk at all. He was on duty; so getting drunk was not an option for him. If he had, the emperor would have rightfully flogged him to death. He acted drunk because he wanted to maintain his cover and because Julian was truly intoxicated.

“You know wha , Julian?” he said suddenly, hiccupping, “ish’not mornin’ yet. “Wha’s that mean you think? Ish that all right? Why’d we need t’wait for mornin’ an’ways?”

“I dunnow,” Julian murmured; frowning as he tried to find an answer to his friend’s question. “Were not makin’ too much noise are we?” he said in a harsh whisper. “Cause if we are, it’d make people mad.”

Ezoryl’s eyes widened. “Oh yeah! Tha’s why we're supose’t wait,” he agreed enthusiastically.

The communicator hidden inside Ezoryl’s ear buzzed. “You’re not really drunk, are you? Just shake your head no in response,” Emperor Tain said.

Ezoryl did as he’d been told.

“Good,” Tain’s voice sounded amused. “I just hope our boy will weather this storm and end up in one piece when it’s over,” he drawled. “If he doesn’t, Elim will be terribly disappointed.”

Ezoryl began to sing loudly. At first, Julian started to frantically shush him, but then his sense of fun overcame his caution and he laughingly joined in the song.

“I vow to the imperium my loyalty and pride; for when I serve I serve with love though all my friends have died. I vow to keep my spirits high and not to feel despair; for all I know my fate shall show those left how they should fair!” He managed to sing it without bursting into laughter.

Inside his head, he heard a huff of exasperated amusement and disgust. “Bring him in here, boy,” Tain said; and then there was a click, signaling the end of the transmission.

Julian could not remember a time when his head hurt as much as it did at this moment. Well… now that he thought about it, yes he could. But the implants had only made his head hurt. Right now, he felt dizzy and very, very nauseated. His hands shook whenever he tried to hold them out in front of him and his mouth tasted as if a taspar had crawled inside it and died.
“I will never… drink… kanar… again,” he moaned.

Garak laughed and injected him with a hypo spray which cleared the toxins from his blood in three seconds. Even after he’d recovered, though, Julian was still feeling disoriented.

“Oh… Oh my,” he mumbled. “That was… That was amazingly fun.”

“I’m so glad you enjoyed yourself,” Elim said. Julian could tell that he was trying not to laugh.

Suddenly, Julian remembered his friend. “Did you see Ezoryl? I remember walking home with him,”

“Indeed you did,” dear one,” Garak said. “He is still here, but I’m sure he has been given an injection as well, so he’ll probably be coming to join us here soon.”

Right on cue, the door opened and Ezoryl walked slowly into the room.

“You know what?” He asked Julian; his voice full of misery and conviction.

“What?” Julian responded; feeling a little nervous.

“I am never, ever going to drink that much ever again!”

“I hear you,” Julian replied fervently.

“Ah… the idiocy and quickly forgotten vows made by the young are so refreshing to hear again,” came another voice from the doorway. Julian looked up to see Enabran Tain standing behind Ezoryl. He was smiling, much to Julian’s relief.

“No…. Really! I mean it!” Julian protested. “I’m not going to do that again!”

As the others started to laugh and tease him, Julian felt something inside his heart loosen. He had finally found a place he could call home. He had finally found the one person whom he loved above all others. Best of all, that person loved him in turn. Life didn’t get better than this.

Chapter Text

Julian Bashir stretched and winced slightly. Even as he did so, however, he smiled. He and his lover had celebrated long into the night last evening; and his body was definitely experiencing the results of that celebration. He was sore, but he definitely would not be complaining about the reason for that soreness anytime soon. He could feel the silly grin that’d plastered itself to his lips at that thought. He could also feel his face blushing.

“And just what is so amusing?” enquired a voice beside him.

Julian actually giggled; though if anyone had asked him about it later he would have denied it.

“I’ll give you three guesses; and the first two don’t count,” he said.

Elim Garak laughed softly and pulled him close. “Oh? And if I get the answer correct, do I get a prize? If that’s the case, you’d better make it a good one since the rules of this game are so arbitrary. Or perhaps I might be permitted to pick my prize…”

Julian snuggled close and ran one hand down his lover’s back. “Mmm,” he murmured, “I suppose I could do that,” he replied with smug self-satisfaction.

“Anything for me, hmmm?” Garak teased as his hand crept into Julian’s hair and caused a shiver to run down his spine as he massaged his scalp and tugged lightly at the strands.

Soon enough, they were kissing and Julian lost track of the thread of the conversation as Garak pinned him beneath his heavier body and proceeded to drive him mad with pleasure.

When they finally wandered downstairs nearly three hours later, they were both relaxed and so completely contented that their joy radiated from them in waves. To Julian’s surprise, Enabran Tain, emperor of the Cardassian Union was sitting in their parlor; sipping from a glass of vintage Kanar and smiling slightly as he watched them.

Julian blushed when he saw the older man’s amused expression. Although he knew about and approved of the relationship his son and heir shared with Julian, the young human couldn’t help feeling a little awkward in his presence. Tain did not do or say anything that would make him feel uncomfortable at all—quite the contrary; but Julian was very aware and a little cautious of the older man’s position as ruler of the Cardassian people.

He and Elim had been together for over a year now, but Julian continued to tread lightly around Tain. Any man with good sense did so, he knew. Enabran Tain was a very dangerous man not only because of his powerful position, but because he still managed to maintain a very high level of physical activity in spite of his advancing years. Now, as they entered the parlor, he rose to his feet with an affectionate smile. His vitality and magnetic personality filled the room.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” he drawled; his amusement making Julian blush again.

“Father,” Garak responded; his poise wasn’t shaken a bit. “I didn’t expect to see you today.”

“I hadn’t planned on coming here, but I changed my mind when I started receiving messages from starships and other facilities in need of a physician this morning. They’ve apparently been coming in since the day after your achievement, my boy,” he added; smiling at Julian.

“That bad, hmmm?” Garak asked; not bothering to hide his delight.

Indeed,” Tain said warmly. “I decided to bring them all here and let the two of you pick the one that best suits your desires. I finally had Mila put out an official proclamation stating that no more messages regarding the placement of Dr. Bashir were to come in after midnight your time tonight.”

“So, how many did reach you?” Garak asked; and the pride in his voice was unmistakable.

“Over 250,” Tain replied seriously. That should keep you two busy for a day or so.” His bland tone was at odds with the twinkle in his eyes, and Julian cursed the fact that the older man could make him blush so damn easily. As he felt his face grow warm again, Garak and Tain both laughed.

“I’ve taken the liberty of uploading them all onto your main console,” Tain remarked to Elim once he got his mirth under control. “Take your time deciding, Julian,” he said seriously.

They talked for about another half an hour before Tain took his leave. “I’m on my way to Mrenala,” he said to Garak. “The words had been spoken casually, but Julian knew his lover well enough by now to notice the change in his expression. Something significant had just been said, he realized.

He didn’t ask until the emperor had left, though. Even as he raised the question, Julian did not expect an answer. His lover sometimes couldn’t tell him something regarding the security of Cardassia. Of course, there were times when he simply wouldn’t answer Julian’s questions because he enjoyed driving his beloved mad with curiosity. Julian knew from the moment he asked the question that Elim’s refusal to reply had nothing to do with teasing him this time. Elim’s expression had gone completely blank; an indication that meant that no amount of begging would cause him to divulge any information on the subject. Julian didn’t even try to wheedle an answer out of him after seeing that look.

Forcing himself to set aside his curiosity, Julian turned to the task of reading the many requests for his services Tain had brought. Reading them and making the decision would keep his mind busy for a while. Each time the question of what had been said popped up, he shoved it away and continued to read.

As he sorted through message after message, he became aware of the hope that had started to bloom inside his mind the day after he found out that he’d successfully passed his exams. It wasn’t something he wanted to tell anyone, though, for fear of it not happening. Also, he wasn’t sure if his lover wished to go with him if he did get asked to fill the post he really wanted. He didn’t think he could stand to live so far away from Elim; not yet, anyway. And it was that thought that kept him silent. He was aware that it was immature and more than a little petty to have such a thought. Many Starfleet officers who were involved in relationships served aboard separate vessels and managed to make things work.

He shook off the growing desire and forced himself to really look at each message as a possibility. Even if he didn’t get the post he wanted, he realized, he would be serving somewhere away from his lover. The emperor would not allow personal preference or favoritism to get in the way. Julian suddenly realized that, as a Cardassian citizen with a new degree in medicine awarded to him by the best medical learning center in the empire, he was subject to the emperor’s final say in the matter of where he was to be posted. If Enabran Tain decided that he was to be placed on a station or ship on the opposite side of the empire, there would be little or nothing he could do or say to change the man’s mind.

“He felt the arms of his lover slide around him and leaned back into them gratefully. Somehow Elim always seemed to know when he needed consolation in the form of physical closeness.

“What are you thinking about, beloved?” Elim murmured in his ear.

The low, soothing tone of his voice made Julian shiver and relax. When Elim’s hands gently began to massage his temples, he closed his eyes and blurted out what was on his mind.

He heard Elim’s soft laugh and turned his head quickly to glare at him. Before he could say anything that he would later regret, however, Elim pressed the button to scroll down through the messages.

“Ah, here we are,” he said; a note of satisfaction entering his voice.

Julian stared in delighted disbelief. There, flowing across the screen were the words he had been desperately hoping to see. Written in formal language which nevertheless conveyed the message Julian had wanted to read, was the request he’d hoped Captain Sisko would make.

“If you’re amenable to it, and if you can spare him, I would like to have Dr. Bashir posted aboard Deep Space 9 again,” Sisko had written. “His knowledge of Cardassian medicine would be invaluable to us since we now have so many of your people visiting the station more and more often.”

Julian’s eyes were shining with happiness as he smiled at his lover. Then, the thought of being so far away from Elim washed over him and dampened his joy a little.

“What?” Elim asked; looking at him with concern. “This is what you wanted, is it not?”

“Yes,” Julian asserted definitely. “Yes it is, but… Well… it’s just… I’m being an idiot,” he broke off lamely and looked away from Elim’s eyes as his face grew warm with sudden embarrassment.

“Well?” Elim murmured, gently taking his chin and turning him to face him once more, “what’s the problem, then? Let me decide whether or not you’re being an idiot.”

“I’ll miss you,” Julian blurted; closing his eyes and grimacing.

“Elim started to laugh as Julian had half expected him to do. “My dear,” he said finally once he’d stopped chuckling, “what makes you think we’ll be so far apart from one another?”

Julian blinked and frowned; struggling to figure out what his lover was saying.

Elim leaned further down and kissed his forehead gently. “I’m going to need to return there as well,” he said softly. “Having Damar and Ziyal there has worked as a temporary measure, but I need to go back and actively help make the decisions that will represent Cardassia’s interests.”

“Really?” Julian whispered; hardly daring to hope that he’d heard correctly.

“Really,” Elim confirmed with a smile. “So, shall we tell Father what you decided?”

Suddenly, a suspicion grew inside Julian’s mind. His eyes narrowed as he stared at Elim’s smiling face.

“You knew that they were going to ask for me, didn’t you?” he demanded.

“Of course,” Elim replied; not even bothering to hide his smirk of satisfaction.

Julian opened his mouth and closed it again as he tried hard not to splutter. He wasn’t sure if he should be feeling elated, outraged by their willingness to let him stay on the emotional roller-coaster he’d been on for days, or just plain ecstatic over the fact that he would be getting the assignment he’d so desperately wanted for so long.
Elim kissed him, ending any thought of protest or outrage he might have wanted to express. And, as always seemed to happen, he lost track of his concentration beneath the waves of pleasure and joy brought on by that single kiss. Then, Elim kissed him again, and soon enough, they were celebrating the love they shared in the oldest, most primal way known to living beings.

Jadzia Dax grinned as the message came scrolling across the screen. She laughed aloud when she saw Miles O’Brien throw his fists into the air in gleeful excitement. Ezri cried out: Yes!” as the entire senior staff celebrated a huge achievement by a man who, though he was no longer one of their own, meant so much to them. As the recorded account of the ceremony came to an end, a spontaneous, heartfelt cheer burst forth and filled the ward room.

“I can’t believe he did it!” Ezri Tigan gushed happily. “I really didn’t think that he would pass; what with all the trouble he’d been having. I’m so happy for him!”

Me, too, Keiko O’Brien replied with a smile.

“I hear Quark is running a bet on whether or not he’s going to come back here, working for the Cardassians, of course,” Commander Michael Eddington said with a smirk.

“Of course,” Kira repeated. But even as she huffed in slight exasperation, she could not deny the fact that she missed the young, exuberant doctor.

“What I don’t understand is why Captain Sisko is letting that criminal run bets here on the station at all,” Odo groused. “Quark may be running a place that helps boost morale, but he’s still a criminal. No amount of morale boosting will ever change that fact.”

“True,” Eddington said; struggling to reign in his amusement; “but if he left, there’d be others to take his place. Besides, you shouldn’t complain. It keeps you and me in a job.”

“Humph!” he grunted; and then he moved off to speak to Major Kira. Ezri and Michael both laughed. They had long since gotten used to Odo’s ways.

“He’ll never change,” Michael said wryly. “But maybe that’s a good thing.”

“It’s definitely a good thing,” Ezri replied; looking right into her lover’s eyes. “If he were to change, it might just cause the station to bounce out of orbit.”

The O’Briens and their two friends all laughed at that thought.

“I heard a little of what happened to him three months ago,” Captain Sisko said to Ziyal. “How did Dukat escape from prison? And how the hell did he find him?”

“We believe that he bribed two of the guards to look away when he walked out to take his daily exercise. He just… kept on walking, according to my sources. As for how he found Julian, it would have been very easy to do. He knew about the relationship between Minister Garak and Dr. Bashir, so he simply started frequenting areas where he learned the information he needed to search for and follow him. Thankfully, one of our operatives was with him.”

Sisko’s eyebrows shot up in surprise; though he knew he shouldn’t have been shocked by the fact that Bashir was being so carefully watched. Garak would have made sure of it.

“So, have you decided if you’re going to have a ceremony to welcome them back when they get here?” Ziyal asked. “Even if it’s a small one, it might make them feel at home.”

“Oh… We’re going to have something; but I have to make sure he’s going to choose to work here first. From what I’ve been told; hundreds of offers have been coming in for him.”

“Oh don’t be silly,” said another voice behind him. “Of course he’s going to come here.”

Sisko turned to greet Dax and exchange a few comments with her and Ziyal took the opportunity to move off and mingle with others. As she smiled, nodded and exchanged a few words with people here and there, she found herself struggling to hold back her laughter. She wasn’t sure if Sisko’s doubt over Julian’s decision was an act. She hoped it was; for if he truly doubted it, her estimate of his intelligence would have to drop a small notch.

“What’s so funny?” Damar murmured; his voice low in her ear.

She told him and was amused to see an answering grin curve his lips upward.

“He really isn’t sure,” Damar said; causing her to laugh aloud.

“So, he’s… hedging his bets, I believe the humans would say. Wise of him, I guess.”

“I thought you just said that his refusal to let himself be assured of the doctor’s return made him less intelligent,” Damar teased. “Make up your mind, would you?”

They bantered and mingled for another half an hour or so, and then excused themselves to return to their work. Soon after they left, the rest of the party broke up and the ward room emptied.

“You certainly are in a good mood,” Odo snapped suspiciously at Quark four days later.

“Of course I am, Constable,” the Ferengi agreed jubilantly. “I just made a lot of money on the last bet I ran. I mean… really! The fact that people didn’t think Dr. Bashir would come back if given half a chance were such idiots. I’m not complaining, mind you,” he asserted. “After all, those self-same idiots just made me a bit richer!”

“Humph!” Odo muttered as he glared at the grinning bar tender.

“I’ve asked our Captain if they’re going to have a party here to welcome our guests back. He just told me that he wanted to do it tomorrow night when they get here; so I’m going to be busy.”

Odo’s usual frown deepened, but Quark ignored him and began giving orders to his staff. They started setting things up for the party as the security officer left.

“Are you nervous?” Garak asked as the ship started to perform docking procedures.

“Yes,” Julian answered honestly. “I know that everyone on the senior staff knows me, but how many of them are going to welcome my return? Since I’m working for you instead of Starfleet, there are probably going to be people who will resent my presence. And of course; there are the people who might have found out about my genetic enhancements to worry about.”

“Dr. Bremerton left the station soon after we did, my love,” Elim reminded him with a reassuring smile. “She wasn’t forced to leave, so it isn’t as if you’re coming to take her place.”

“I know, but I can’t help wondering if she told anyone else about me before she left.”

Before Elim could respond to that, the docking procedures were completed and they moved to leave the ship. It was too late to turn back now; Julian knew.

“Welcome back, Minister Garak, Dr. Bashir,” Captain Sisko said when they reached his side. He was smiling warmly; much to Julian’s relief. “I know you must be tired from your trip, but there’s something we need to do before I show you to your quarters. Don’t worry about your things; I’ve had them transported there already.”

Garak raised an eye ridge, but then smiled as if he’d just figured something out. “Of course, Captain,” he agreed amiably. “The Doctor and I are completely at your disposal.”

Sisko’s smile only got bigger as he gestured for them to follow him. They were halfway to Quark’s before Julian got an inkling of what was going on. He smiled; thinking that the people who had served with him on the Defiant were probably waiting to welcome him.

When they entered the bar, a cheer went up from many throats. Julian turned his head from side to side; staring at the very large, very happy group of people who were clapping and grinning as they cheered his return. He found himself having to blink back tears at the sight.

“Welcome home!” came the cry from everyone in the room. And then they sang ‘For He’s a Jolly-good Fellow and gave the traditional three cheers afterwards.

As he began to grin with pure delight, he felt himself being guided forward to the center of the room. He blushed as several voices started to call for him to make a speech.

“Speech!” he heard Miles O’Brien shout in a teasing voice. “Speech! Come on, Julian, we all know how much you like to talk…” His grin was positively wicked.

Julian laughed and stepped up onto a small platform. Behind him, a table had been laid with a huge cake. It was positioned in such a way that everyone could see it.

“I… I don’t know what to say.” Julian began; his voice filled with genuine emotion.

“That’s a first!” Eddington called playfully; and everyone laughed.

“Thanks for that,” Julian bantered back. “No… really… I am stunned. I had a feeling that the old crew from the defiant would be here to welcome me back, but this is… so much more than I could have imagined. Thank you all for coming to do me and my beloved such an honor. I definitely feel like I’ve come home now after such a wonderful welcome.”

He stepped back and smiled as the cheering renewed itself. Then, he heard another cry go up; and his jaw dropped. Surely she had not said… But she had! Major Kira Nerys nodded firmly and grinned at them both before yelling again: “Now it’s your turn, Minister!”

That idea was greeted enthusiastically; so Elim stepped up to his side and put an arm around him.

Another silence fell as the crowd waited to hear what the Heir to the Cardassian Empire would say. There were, as far as Julian could see, no hostile faces anywhere.

“I thought I was prepared to face anything,” Garak began. “And indeed, my life has certainly not been dull, but I fear you have caught me completely off guard.”

A laugh followed that was every bit as joyful as any Julian had gotten.

“I suspected you would all be here to welcome my beloved,” he continued. “He has achieved a great deal in the last year, after all. I never would have imagined that such a warm welcome would have extended to me, though. It is very humbling and deeply touching to know that one such as I am made welcome in a place where the opposite was true for so long. I thank you all sincerely for your warm reception and kindness,” he concluded.

The cheer that followed was just as warm as the one that had been made earlier. Then they cut the cake and stepped back so that Quark’s staff could start serving it. As their friends ate and socialized, Julian wallowed in his joy. All of the senior staff and all of the Cardassians posted on the station came up to give them a personal greeting at one point or another.

“Quark won a great deal of money off of it,” Damar said; sounding amused.

“He what?!” Julian cried almost indignantly.

“Oh come now, my dear,” Garak said putting a placating hand on his lover’s arm, “if one looks at it a certain way, it could be perceived as a sentimental response.”

“Definitely,” Ziyal agreed, her eyes danced with merriment. “I’m sure he didn’t want anyone to know that, though. He doesn’t like admitting that he cares about us, you see.”

Garak laughed; and after a moment Julian began to see the humor in it, as well. It was good to be back here, he decided. Idly, he wondered how many people had bet against his return.
“Mmm,” Damar responded with a solemn expression that was a bit out of place with the joking tone Julian had used to make the enquiry. “We’re watching them very closely,” he said.

Julian blinked; startled by the sudden change in the mood of his three companions. What did I say?” He asked; not sure he really wanted to know.

“There were a few people who bet a lot of money that you wouldn’t come back,” Ziyal said.

“So they lost money,” Julian said. What makes you so suspicious of them?”

“Are they going to take the loss of that money personally?” Damar shot back, looking right into Julian’s eyes as he struggled to make the young doctor see the seriousness of the situation.

Julian’s jaw dropped. “Oh… Really! That’s just… No one is going to hurt me over that!”

“Damn right they won’t,” Ziyal snarled. “We won’t let them get that close.”

Julian went very pale as the implications of what they were saying registered in his shocked mind. He knew that people had once done many horrible things to slake their greed for money and power, but surely they’d gone beyond that by now, hadn’t they?

“Most of the member planets in the Federation have developed philosophies that make such corrupt thinking a thing of the past,” he argued. “I highly doubt I’m in any danger on that front.”

“Of course you’re not in danger,” Elim said; sliding an arm around him. “We’re just working to keep it that way. Ah, there’s the new Chief Medical Officer; shall we greet her?”

Julian was more than willing to follow his lover’s lead and change the subject. He glanced back at Ziyal long enough to smile; just in case she thought he was angry at her, and noticed the look she exchanged with Elim and Glin Damar. He determinedly ignored their worry.

“Oh good,” Jadzia cried as Julian strode towards her with a smile. “Now is as good a time as any,” she added. “Dr. Julian Bashir, meet Dr. Katherine Pulaski. She’s our new CMO.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Julian said; his smile genuine and warm.

“Doctor,” Pulaski nodded and smiled in return. “Congratulations on your major achievement. I’ve been reading up on some of the requirements and curricula you had to meet; and I can truly say that I’m impressed. Cardassian medicine seems very complex.”

“It was a demanding course,” Bashir agreed, his smile widening, “but it was fun.”

“Learning and healing are two of my favorite activities,” she said; her own smile blooming into a warm grin. “If you can, and whenever you have the time, I’d love to compare notes and learn more about Cardassian curative and surgical practices.”

Suddenly, her eyes slid passed him. Before he could turn to see what or who she was looking at, he felt Elim’s arm go around his waist. His smile softened into a contented grin.

“Minister,” Pulaski acknowledged; “of course, I understand that there are going to be certain… ah… areas of medicine that need to remain… classified, but whatever your people are willing and able to give me in the way of knowledge will be helpful.”

Julian saw his lover’s smile and knew, just knew that he was amused. No sign of it showed in his voice or the words he spoke in return. “Of course,” he said simply.

The party continued for several hours. Time seemed to fly for Julian as he greeted old friends, bantered familiarly with his crewmates aboard the Defiant, and generally had fun. By the time most of the senior staff had left, Julian was beginning to feel a bit worn out. The Bajoran contingent left soon afterwards, and then there was the crew from the Defiant. Eddington, O’Brien, a few ensigns and Julian sat at one table laughing and drinking.

The Cardassians stopped by briefly to say their goodnights, and Elim stole a quick kiss from Julian; ignoring the stares of most of the people at the table.

“Don’t wait up for me,” Julian whispered; blushing. “I might be a while.”

Garak smiled; nodding his head and squeezing his shoulder before turning to follow his people out of the bar. Julian watched after him with a fatuous smile plastered on his face.

“So, he really means a lot to you,” Eddington noted. His voice was so bland that Julian couldn’t read anything in it. He couldn’t tell what he was thinking by the expression on his face, either.

“Yes; he does,” Julian replied without shame. “We mean a lot to each other.”

“That’s a good thing to see, I have to say,” Jadzia commented; breaking the tension in the group.

After that, Julian lost track of time. All he remembered was singing the words to the song ‘Jerusalem’ at least three times; though it could have been more than that as far as he knew. His weariness mixed with the amount of alcohol he imbibed, but somehow he managed to make it back to their quarters before the first shift of the next day started.

It was much harder for Julian to settle in than he’d thought it would be. When he plaintively mentioned that to Ezri in passing, she calmly told him that it was normal.

“Did you really think you were going to just come back here and feel at home in less than a week?” She asked. “Give it at least another two before you start worrying about that, okay?”

He’d nodded, feeling a little foolish for brooding over something so silly.

Working for the Cardassians had its advantages, but when he took on a duty shift, he was conscious of the fact that Katherine Pulaski was his superior officer. That confused his sensibilities in a way he had not been expecting. She wasn’t overbearing by any means; nor did she deliberately go out of her way to either ignore or put too much pressure on him to see if he would fail at any given task. She treated him with respect and courtesy, and consulted him on several matters pertaining to everything from Cardassian medicine to their culture and ways of thinking. In short, he was very nearly her equal in the eyes of the entire medical staff.

Still, there was something distinctly odd and not altogether welcome about the idea of working in a secondary role. He chided himself for arrogance and having too much pride for his own good, but it didn’t change the way he felt about his job. Instead, it left him feeling more depressed and started chipping away at his sense of self. How much had he really matured if he couldn’t even feel good about not being the chief medical officer on the station?

“He’s not happy here,” Garak said quietly. “He doesn’t say anything, but I can tell.”

Across from him, Jadzia frowned. “I thought it was just my imagination,” she said worriedly.

The replimat was fairly quiet at this time of the afternoon, so they sat at a small table out of the hearing of most of the other patrons who were enjoying a late lunch.

“No,” the Cardassian murmured; “it isn’t. I’m not sure if anyone else sees it, but I certainly do.”

“Ezri has mentioned something about it to Kira and me, but she put it down to him being shocked because he didn’t settle in as fast as he’d thought he would. That was nearly a week ago, though, and things don’t seem to have changed very much.”

“I thought that same thing, but I’m sure it’s more than that now. It isn’t anything external, though, so I’m not sure whether we can fix it; or even where to begin helping him fix it.”

Suddenly, Jadzia smiled ruefully at him. “Do you hear your own words?” She asked him in perfectly accentless Cardassi. “A year ago you would never have been able to wrap your mind around some of the concepts we’re talking about now.”

Garak laughed and then swallowed a mouth full of bread. “I know,” he responded; speaking in the same language. “It amazes me almost constantly to notice some of the changes he’s made in my life and my way of thinking just by being a part of it.”

“And I know you wouldn’t have it any other way,” Jadzia teased.

“No indeed,” he concurred adamantly. “Still, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s troubled.”

“After 8 lifetime’s worth of memories, you’d think I could come up with some answers, wouldn’t you?” she said; her expression registering self-deprecatory amusement.

“Not necessarily,” Garak said; his own smile letting her off the hook.

“There are well over a hundred Cardassians on the station now, so it isn’t as if he doesn’t have anything to do,” she mused. “I know that Dr. Pulaski also has him helping whenever and wherever it’s needed, but maybe that’s not enough. Have you mentioned your concerns to him?”

“Naturally,” Garak replied. “He just says what you and Ezri believed. I noticed that he has to work a little harder each day to convince himself of it, though.”

Jadzia shook her head sadly. “I guess all we can do right now is give him more time and keep letting him know that we’re here for him when he’s ready to talk to us.”

There hadn’t been anything else they could really say about it, so the issue was dropped.

The weeks passed and turned into months. Julian reconciled himself to his duties and even started to enjoy life aboard the station. He knew, though, that if Elim hadn’t been there with him, he wouldn’t have wanted to stay. His days were filled with writing papers and doing research, as well as treating the many Cardassians that came from all over to see and even pass through the wormhole. When peoples from within the Gamma Quadrant began visiting the station, he helped Pulaski to document their medical knowledge and basic anatomical specifications. He assisted her to record it into Starfleet’s data base and also made note of the knowledge for the empire’s use. This kept him far too busy to brood as much.

“Julian?” Katherine Pulaski’s voice was bright with casual, but definite warmth. “You’re getting a priority One message. We’re not busy right now. Want to take it here?”

“Sure,” he replied instantly. He hoped it wasn’t an emergency, but even as he thought about that, the knowledge that it’d been marked Priority One filled his mind with a low-level sense of dread. He wondered if something was wrong on Cardassia. “What if it was the Emperor?

He stepped into Pulaski’s office, thanking her in passing and sat down in her chair. “Computer,” he commanded; “this is Dr. Julian Bashir. Play Priority One message.”

“What in the name of the Pah-wraiths…” Kira Nerys swore as a message overrode all of her controls and jammed every single communications channel in Ops.

“What’s that?” Dax demanded as she stepped up beside her friend. “Who the hell…”

“Sir!” Damar couldn’t keep the shock and worry from his voice as he caught Garak’s attention.

“Oh… Oh, Prophets!” Ziyal, normally so composed that Damar sometimes envied her, swore loudly as the screen came on and a message began to play.

“Now this should be interesting,” Garak murmured. Soon enough, however, he was racing through the halls and grabbing a turbo lift in a desperate bid to reach his beloved before he could watch the horror that was playing out before the eyes of hundreds of people.

“Richard and Amsha Bashir, you have been brought before this tribunal to answer the charges for illegally augmenting your son’s DNA for unnecessary purposes. You stand convicted by the indisputable evidence of your son’s very existence!”

Julian watched in stunned shock as his parents were dragged forward by two heavily dressed guards of unknown origin and species. Each guard was wearing a mask that concealed everything except their lips and eyes. His parents were chained at wrists and ankles.

“Have you any final words to speak before this court passes sentence?”

The voice was not recognizable. The speaker could not be seen and the audio was being distorted and patched through a public address system which meant that the person doing the talking could have been anywhere at all. Julian couldn’t even tell if it was a male or female voice. He had no idea if it was a human or an alien one.

“Jules,” Amsha whispered softly; “We love you very much, son.”

“Love him? You love him? If you loved him truly, you wouldn’t have done such a disgusting thing to him!” The voice screamed harshly. “Don’t lie to the boy you damaged!”

“Your mother and I aren’t lying to you, Julian,” his father said. “We love you and are very proud of you. Stay gold for the rest of your life, son. Stay gold for us.”

“That was very touching,” said the voice; and though it was artificial, Julian thought he could hear the mocking tone in it somewhere. “Never mind that,” it continued. “This court finds you guilty of illegally enhancing your son without purpose or need. Your sentence is death.”

And as the senior staff watched in horror, as Damar and Ziyal stared at their consoles in stunned silence, as Garak flew into the office of the CMO and grabbed Julian in his arms, his parents were killed with a single phaser shot to their heads by the heavily dressed guards.

“Noooooooo!” Julian screamed. “Noooooooo!”

“Oh, my god,” Eddington whispered, his eyes huge with disbelief.

“Oh… Holy Prophets guide and protect him,” Kira prayed as tears began to trickle down her cheeks. “Dear Prophets, give him the strength to endure this grief and let him know that all who love him are grieving along with him. Help him to find eventual peace.”

“Dax,” Sisko rumbled in his deep, basso profundo voice, “Get me Starfleet Command.”

“Yes, Sir,” Jadzia responded as her fingers moved to obey the order.

A sort of numbness settled over the people in Ops. Dazed confusion filled their minds and hearts. Shock slowed their reflexes and made them feel much older than they were. No one seemed willing or able to break the silence except to give very basic orders and acknowledgements. Even those were cut short, though. The quietude seemed almost sacred.

Garak stood, holding his lover who was shuddering violently and sobbing. His weeping was done in an almost eerie silence; and that unnerved Elim Garak more than a little.

“What… Who was that?” Katherine Pulaski’s voice brought Garak back to the here and now.

“That, Doctor, was the work of an insane woman who should have been slaughtered along with her cohorts months ago! I can’t believe I let that slip for so damn long!”

“Sisko to Garak,” the captain’s voice stopped him in mid-rant.

“Captain,” Garak acknowledged, “I got it in my office too. It’s my belief that all of the senior staff got to see that message whether they wanted to or not.”

“Is he with you?” Sisko asked, and the wealth of deep concern in his voice was very audible.

“Yes,” Garak said softly. “I’m taking him back to our quarters for now.”

“Very well; I’ve got my people trying to trace the origin of that message. When we find something, I’ll be sure to let you know. If you can spare anyone to help in the search right now, though, I’d appreciate it. I’m sure we’ll miss something if we don’t work on this together.”

“Indeed,” Garak responded. “I’ll have Ziyal report to Ops immediately and give you whatever assistance you may need. Thank you for your willingness to keep me in the loop.”

“It’s the very least I can do, Minister,” Sisko said sadly. “Ops out.”

“Damar, come to the infirmary. Ziyal, go to Ops and do what you can. I want hourly reports; even if they tell me that you haven’t found anything,” he called.

Only when both of his assistants had acknowledged his orders did he guide Julian out of Pulaski’s office. When Damar arrived, he helped get their grief-stricken friend to their quarters.

“Bloody Hell,” Miles O’Brien whispered as he stared at the screen. Seeing the message the second time hadn’t lessened its impact on him at all. He supposed that, morally speaking, that was a good thing. Forcing himself to put those thoughts aside, he spoke.

“All I can say is that this wasn’t a simulation,” he began softly. “The message itself has been bounced through so many communications relays that it’s going to take days to trace it. By then, we’re sure that the people who did this will be gone.” His voice was heavy with regret.

“Starfleet medical has also confirmed that it was real,” Pulaski said. “A package containing their bodies arrived less than an hour after we got the message.”

“Julian knew it was real,” Garak said quietly. “His father’s words confirmed it for him. Apparently it’s a code of some sort, but what it means I can’t say right now.”

“Is he coherent at all?” Dax asked; her voice laced with sympathetic tenderness.

Both Garak and Damar shook their heads. Everyone suddenly seemed to be having difficulty meeting everyone else’s eyes. Several moments of silence followed.

“The Prefect of the medical school where Julian was studying also received a copy of the message, as did Emperor Tain. Apparently, these people were covering all their bases,” Ziyal said. “Getting through the Cardassian communications net takes a hell of a lot of technical knowhow. Therefore, we believe we’re looking for someone in a high-level security position.”

“Whoever that is, he or she will certainly not be the only person involved in this,” Sisko murmured. “There are small groups of people on earth who believe that genetically enhanced people should all be killed. Starfleet Intelligence is looking into their recent activities as we speak. So far, no one has come forward to claim responsibility for this.”

“Do you really expect someone to do something like that?” Ziyal demanded.

“Some people are so mentally twisted that they’ll do anything to make their point and catch the attention of others. They take pride in causing grief and pain just so that they can say that they were right,” Eddington said bitterly. “We’re just keeping that possibility open for now.”

“Let’s get back to that code,” Ezri suddenly spoke up. “Stay gold… What does it mean?”

“It means that the message is genuinely coming from my father, not a hologram or an imposter,” Julian said from the doorway of the ward room. “It’s in reference to the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” by Robert Frost. That’s all the significance it has though, I’m afraid.”
“You should be in bed, dear one,” Garak said; rising to go to his lover and pull him close.

“Going to bed won’t take away this grief,” Julian argued. “Besides, your father called me.”

“Did the emperor say anything to you about the message?” Sisko asked.

“They got an accurate voice print on the speaker,” Julian replied; a sudden, hard edge entering his words. “When one speaks, one should not be so vain if one doesn’t want people to know who he or she is. Talking too much gets people in trouble; and Jane Bremerton is in trouble.”

“Ah,” Garak murmured with satisfaction as he pulled Julian to the table to sit beside him.
“Now just a minute,” Sisko began. “You can’t go after her for vengeance’s sake.”

“I have no intention of doing that, Captain,” Julian replied. “I’m going to kill her with her own law. She’s a doctor, you see. Murdering someone means that she’s broken her oath to do no harm. She tried to destroy me; but she has only doomed herself.”

“I hardly think that matters to her anymore,” Damar said. “I mean, she’s so caught up in justifying what she did as the right thing that practicing medicine isn’t a priority.”

“Jane Bremerton self-identifies,” Julian said calmly. “She’s a doctor in her mind. She’ll continue to think she’s a doctor; until she realizes that I’ve just sent copies of that message with her face and voice superimposed over it to every single planet in the Federation. Now, she won’t be able to practice medicine at all. She’s ruined; and she did it to herself.”

“Quid pro quo,” Eddington agreed; his eyes taking on a glint of malice.

“Yes indeed,” Julian said. “Once she finds out what I’ve done, she’s going to come after me. That will bring her out into the open; and justice will deal with her.”

“And just what form do you think justice will take?” Sisko demanded.

“Who knows?” Garak responded before his lover could. “Though all our feelings we may deride; let fate and justice be our guide.” He quoted.

Then, without another word, he rose, pulled his lover to his feet, and left the ward room.

“What’s that quote from?” Eddington asked; feeling like an idiot as soon as he’d asked the question. “I know it may not seem relevant, but… You never know.”

“It’s an old poem by a Cardassian poet who lived during the time of the second “Kyaahon Dynasty,” Ziyal said immediately. “And there’s no relevance to it.”

“Well, putting poets and morality aside,” Sisko said briskly, “let’s break this up for now and get back to what we were doing. As terrible as this has been for us, we still have a station to run.”

“I was writing them a letter, you know,” Julian said dully. “I hadn’t finished it yet. I wanted to give them the news that I’d returned to DS 9.”

Elim said nothing; merely held him a little closer. There wasn’t much that anyone could say to him, so his friends just let him talk or weep as the grief moved him. He begged for it not to be true, he ranted about the unfairness of it all, he raged against the brutality of his parents’ death, and he plotted violent retribution against Jane Bremerton and her group.

Through all of this, Elim stayed with him. He held him, cried with him, woke to soothe the nightmares he started having, and patiently listened to what he said without judging him or censoring his words. He was constantly with him. When he couldn’t be, Ziyal was. If she had duties to attend to, Jadzia or Ezri sat with him. Every time he woke from sleep, whether it’d been natural or induced, someone was with him to help him get through the pain.

“You don’t have to say anything to us, you know,” Ezri had said during her first visit. We can just… breathe together. Or if you like, you can just sit and let whatever happens happen.”

Some days he talked, others he stared into space or cried; and on still other days he struggled to regain some sense of normalcy in a world which, for him at least, had nearly shattered.

He lost track of time after a few days; He’d stopped caring about such small things. He questioned the meaning of life, death, and the motives behind such violent crimes. He alternately paced and made sweeping gestures with his hands and curled up into a ball and cried like a small child. Food stopped mattering to him, so his friends had to make sure he ate something at least once every day. He didn’t fight their care; much to their relief.

“I almost wish he would fight us,” Ezri confided to her lover Michael Eddington one day. “I hate seeing this passivity in him; and although I know it’s a normal part of grief, I’m worried by it. If it goes on for too long, I’m afraid he’ll never regain any emotional ground.”

“But it’s only been a month since it happened, Darling,” Eddington responded; trying to reassure her. “He just needs more time to recover. Everyone grieves differently, you know.”

She nodded and gave a resigned sigh. “Is there any new news on the whereabouts of Bremerton or her people? I think hearing something new on that front might help him.”

“I wish I had news to give,” he said sadly. “About the only thing we’ve been able to find out is that one of the guards where his father was incarcerated was working with her. He was bribed to get Bashir into a ground car and leave the prison. They picked up his mother by telling her some story about her son being in danger. Once they had both of them, they left Earth altogether.”

“How did they find out about the guard?” Ezri asked; amazed by Starfleet’s ability to investigate the case so quickly and efficiently. “Did he confess or something?”

Michael shook his head and swallowed the mouthful of soup he’d been eating. “Witnesses saw him bring Bashir to the car. No one questioned it because they figured that it was an officially sanctioned transport. He just walked out; bold as you please.”

“I bet Garak wasn’t too thrilled when he found that out,” Ezri winced.

“My ears are still ringing from the shouting he did when we told him. He managed to get Starfleet Security to promise that when they find Bremerton—if she’s still alive—she’ll be extradited to Cardassia Prime where she will be executed.”

“How in the name of the worm did he get them to agree to that?” Ezri demanded incredulously.

“I’m not sure; but they did. Orders have gone out to every Starfleet vessel. They’re to continue their missions, but if they just happen to see Bremerton, they are to capture her and bring her to the nearest star base. The Cardassians will pick her up from there.”

Silence fell between the two of them. They were so comfortable in one another’s presence by now, however, that it didn’t become awkward. Instead, it allowed them both to think.

After a month, Julian slowly began to resume light duties. He finished several papers, continued helping Dr. Pulaski with the organizing and cataloging of the new species they were being introduced to from the Gamma Quadrant, and read the latest medical journals.

Whenever he did find the strength to leave his quarters, he was never alone. Three guards followed him constantly. There were always two guarding their quarters as well. Damar made sure of it. Odo had also begun checking the passenger lists and faces of as many people who came and went to and from the station as he could. Nothing and no one was going to find it an easy job to get anywhere near Julian Bashir to harm him.

The members of Bremerton’s group were found and captured one by one. When Starfleet Intelligence caught the two guards who had actually pulled the triggers, one of them had readily confessed to the deed and said that he couldn’t live with himself anymore. He had then yanked a hidden knife from somewhere inside his clothing and plunged it into his heart; killing himself instantly. The blade he used had been dipped in poison, so he couldn’t be saved.

“The next place Bremerton turned up was, ironically enough, the very facility where Julian and his parents had gone to get the genetic re-sequencing treatments done. She was recognized fairly quickly, but by the time security arrived to detain her, she had detonated a bomb and blown up the clinic; killing everyone inside it. There were over a hundred and sixty people in the building.

Security acted quickly to attempt to apprehend her, but she had already been beamed off-planet by the time the building blew up. Naturally, security was tightened again.

“When Garak got this latest piece of intelligence, he was livid. He stood; reading the memo he’d gotten from Sisko with narrowed eyes. His neck ridges darkened, his jaws clenched, and his temper flared. He hurled the padd across the room and watched it shatter into thousands of pieces from the force of the blow as it hit the opposite wall.
“I don’t believe this!” He screamed at the members of the senior staff. “That was the first place you should have expected her to go! She’s a terrorist! She is trying to make her point, and, by all the gods in all their heavens and hells, she’s succeeding!”

Kira was the only one who moved. She nodded emphatically. Having been a member of a resistance group herself, she knew a lot about how fighters like that tended to think. She’d suggested the possibility to Starfleet, but they had ignored her; stating that Bremerton wasn’t foolish enough to show her face anywhere near the planet. Kira had insisted that she was right; however, knowing that for Jane Bremerton life wasn’t about being foolish or smart. It was purely about destruction of the thing she hated. She would pursue that goal at any cost.

“Major,” Garak’s voice was a little calmer as he addressed her. “I would like your thoughts on where she’ll try to go next, if you please. Feel free to tell me here or later in private.”

“I think she’s going to try to come here,” Kira said with absolute certainty.

Sisko shook his head; but more in shock than denial. Eddington was outraged and stubbornly refused to believe that the woman was that insane.

“I happen to agree with your assessment, Major.” Garak said; breaking into an argument between O’Brien, Kira and Ezri. “Of course she knows that we’re ready for her here, so what do you think she’ll attempt to do once she arrives?”

“She’s on a suicide run,” Kira said quietly. “Part of her can’t live with the crime she’s committed, but the other part of her is insisting that she had to do it; that it was the right thing to do… She’s so confused between those two warring parts of herself that she doesn’t care about her life anymore. I think she’s going to throw herself—shuttle and all—into destroying or at least damaging this station. In her mind, that’ll get rid of Dr. Bashir for good.”

Garak nodded. “Thank you for bolstering my supposition,” he said softly.

Sisko, Dax, and the other members of the senior staff all stared at them in openmouthed horror. They had never had reason to think like that, so it was completely foreign to them. Such violence coming from the very center of the Federation shocked them.

“But…” Ezri stammered; her voice and expression full of sick anguish; “what if you’re wrong?”

“If we’re wrong, we’re wrong,” Garak said. Eventually though, we’ll be right; and I think you all know that deep down in your hearts. It may take her a week or a month or even two months to work up to it, but I don’t think so. She wants to see an end to this.”

“Very well then,” Sisko said gravely, “we’ll double security at all the docking bays, the transporter rooms, the airlocks, and on the promenade. Mr. Eddington, see to that.”

After Eddington acknowledged his orders, Sisko broke up the meeting. There wasn’t much more they could say or do at the moment, so they all went back to their regular duties.

“Elim?” Julian heard the almost plaintive note in his voice and hated it. His lover, however, didn’t seem to mind. He responded quickly by giving him his undivided attention.

“I want to go home,” Julian murmured unhappily. “Can we go back to Cardassia?”

Garak took a very deep breath in an effort to get his emotions under control before answering.

“Of course we can, Mahaialani,” he said quietly. Of course we can.”

“I can’t blame him for that,” Sisko said when Garak made the request to have Julian’s transfer papers ready as soon as possible. “Do you think you’ll ever come back here again?”

“Once in a while I will need to,” Garak replied, but I doubt Julian will want to.”

“I understand. I’ll have everything ready for you in one hour. After that, you can leave whenever you like. Just be careful,” he added unnecessarily.

Less than 26 hours later, they were on their way. Garak, Damar, and Julian were the only ones who left. Ziyal had been put in charge for a time, but the Emperor—after hearing that his son was returning to Cardassia Prime—had decided to send two more people to help her.

Damar was going back as their pilot. He was grateful for the chance to spend some time with his wife and sons; but he restrained his excitement for Julian’s sake. He was touched by Garak’s ability to remember even the little things when it came to the morale of his people.

“So,” Julian said to him; “I finally get to meet your family. I’m looking forward to it.”

“They’re looking forward to meeting you, too,” Damar replied. “They know of you through your achievements, of course, but my sons are especially excited to meet their very first human.”

Julian laughed; delighted by the innocence of youth. “I hope I make a good first impression on behalf of my people,” he said; grinning as Damar chuckled.

The ship bounced and shuddered, but she ignored it. Keeping her eyes on the flashes of plasma lightning made her stay awake. If just one of those bolts hit her shields, she could be dead before she’d completed her mission; and that would never do. She had to finish what she’d begun for the sake of her dead great grandfather. James Bremerton had been a great man. His last living relative would do everything she could to make sure his war was finished.

The ship came towards her and she smiled. A lifetime ago, someone had told her that she had a beautiful smile. ‘It makes others around you want to smile,’ he’d said. Now, though, her smile was anything but beautiful. It would have chilled the heart of the man who had once complimented her. The reason for her smile would have horrified him.

“Ship coming up on our port bow,” Damar said. Though his voice was calm, Julian saw his shoulders tense. Elim stirred beside him and nodded.

“Wait until she gets closer,” he ordered. I want her to be in transporter range.”

Julian stared in shock as he realized whom they were talking about. “Bremerton?” He cried.

Both Garak and Damar nodded grimly. “She’ll be in range in 45 seconds,” Damar said.

Julian watched the ship creep closer and closer. Just before she put up her shields, Garak cried: “Energize!” The sparkling effect of molecular cohesion made him blink.

Jane Bremerton looked around her in confusion. She’d just been trying to put her shields up, hadn’t she? Then, she caught sight of who was standing in front of her and where she was.

“You!” She screamed. “You freak! Die, you unnatural monstrosity!”

She launched herself straight at Julian. Before she could reach him, however, Damar grabbed her from behind. He wrapped a hand around her throat and cut off her airway until she passed out. Then, Garak blindfolded and bound her to one of the seats. It was all over in less than 15 seconds. They’d been some of the longest seconds in Julian’s life.

Sisko, Kira and Dax were waiting for them when they docked at landing pad C. Though they had removed the blindfold, they did not untie Bremerton’s wrists. She was given into the custody of Odo’s people. She went with them quietly, much to everyone’s relief.

“Emperor Tain and I have decided to let the laws of the Federation prevail here,” Garak informed them half an hour later. All we ask is that she be kept in a very secure place for the remainder of her days. We hope that she will live a long life; so that she can be reminded every day of the fact that she failed to complete her mission.”

Kira’s eyes widened, but then she nodded her head; a small smile of satisfaction curving her lips upward. It was just the sort of punishment she wouldn’t be able to stand.

“Thank you,” Minister,” Sisko said softly. “The U. S. S. Ares will be here in 27 hours to pick her up and take her to Earth’s moon base. The prison there is rarely used these days, so she won’t be getting a lot of company outside of her guards. She has no family, so there won’t be any mail coming or going from the facility. Guards assigned to see to her needs will commute daily and be changed randomly so that she won’t have a chance to try bribing anyone again.”

“That satisfies us,” Garak agreed. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a trip to make.”

Chapter Text

Heat was the first thing Julian noticed when they touched down at the landing pad on Cardassia Prime. He gasped, but then his body began to remember and adapt to the environment. The doors parted and they stepped out into the cargo bay. Emperor Tain was waiting there with an honor guard of 60. Garak bowed; and Damar and Julian followed his lead.

“Welcome home to you all,” Tain said warmly. “It’s good to see you safely back among us.”

They all thanked him, but before they could move to grab their personal belongings, two small boys flew at Damar from somewhere crying: “Papa! Papa!”

Damar’s face lit up as he bent to catch his sons up in a hug. A woman followed the boys with much more dignity; but her love for her husband and children was obvious.

“They were so good for so long,” she said wryly. “I knew they couldn’t keep it up forever.”

Everyone including Julian laughed. Damar turned to his human companion.

“Doctor Julian Bashir, this is my wife Rekellen. These are our sons Shaavri and Kulvaan.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you all,” Julian said. He winked at the boys who grinned back.

“Papa says you’re the best non-Cardassian physician ever,” Shaavri said.

Damar rolled his eyes but smiled with some embarrassment. Julian chuckled.

“My, that’s a huge compliment,” he said gravely. “I hope I can continue to live up to it.”

“Mama says you will,” the boy replied; speaking with the brash confidence of youth and innocence of a child who has never had his faith shaken by anyone.

“Well,” Garak said suddenly, “I’m starting to feel left out.”

“Uncle Elim!” Shaavri yelled. He launched himself straight out of Damar’s arms and into Garak’s. Kulvaan soon followed his brother’s lead. And while his lover began to tease and make the boys giggle, Tain led the group to a large vehicle. Somehow, they all managed to fit. The fact that Shaavri and Kulvaan had to sit on their parents’ laps suited them just fine.

Tain’s driver didn’t take them to the house he and Elim had shared for the last year. Instead, they drove further into the mountains. Suddenly Shaavri cried: “We’re going to Kropul! We’re going to Kropul!” His excitement energized both boys once more.

Julian raised a silent eyebrow at his lover. “Kropul?” he mouthed; feeling puzzled.

“KoraaPul,” Garak said; pronouncing it properly. It’s an old family estate.”

“You can relax there,” Tain agreed. There are fish in the lake, the stables have been made ready, and Mila is already waiting for us. I thought we’d spend a couple of weeks here.”

Julian was deeply touched. Though he knew that Tain’s concern for him probably wasn’t his only motive, he felt warmed by the fact that he was included in this group.

Uncle Elim?” Kulvaan’s face had assumed a very solemn expression.

“Yes, taspar chick?” Garak used an old nickname; making the boy blush.

“When you gonna marry Dr. Bashir?” The question shocked Julian.

“We haven’t decided on a date yet, fleetfoot,” Garak said with mock sternness in his voice. “And if we had, it’d be a state secret for a long while yet for security reasons.”

“Because there are people who wouldn’t like it if Uncle Elim married someone who isn’t a Cardassian,” Shaavri said seriously. They could ruin the wedding if they knew when and where it was. Plus, there are still people who want to hurt Uncle Julian running around out there.”

‘When did I become Uncle Julian?’ he wondered; feeling bemused.

“That’s correct,” Tain said; surprising him out of his thoughts. Rekellen smiled when she saw the startled look on his face. She decided to explain a few things to him.

“Our children may be young, doctor,” Rekellen said; “but their perspicacity is quite the norm; I assure you. Shaavri already attends the Junior Military and Tactical Training center. Kulvaan is set to start at the Children’s’ Academy of Fine Arts at the beginning of next year.”

“I see,” Julian said; feeling amazed and a little off balance mentally.

“I’m gonna be a Gul one day,” Shaavri said. “That way I can guard Uncle Elim and be with him all the time. Papa says that’s a good goal to reach for.”

“It certainly is,” Julian agreed. “And what about you, Kulvaan? What do you want to be?”

“Me? I’m a musician and a singer. I’m in this year’s Kran’de’lepauw.”

“Are you?” Elim’s interest had been peaked. “That’s wonderful.”

“I have to work really, really hard to get a spot in the big choir. I want to sing the Anthem.”

“They get all this ambition from their father,” Rekellen teased.

“Mama’s an engineer,” Shaavri informed Julian with pride. “She fixes the ships that go all over the empire. She’s really, really good at it. ‘Course,” he added, “Grandpa says I’m biased. What’s that mean? I tried looking it up, but I can’t spell it.”

“It means you’re always going to think the best of your mother because you love her; even if things don’t go the way they always should on one of her ships.”

I applaud your tact, Julian,” Tain teased. “Ah, here we are at last!”

The vehicle stopped outside the gates of a huge house. Tain and the driver both got out; said something to the guards, and then returned. The gates were opened and they drove into a large driveway in the shape of a half-circle. No sooner had the vehicle stopped than the boys were pelting out across the yard; yelling and laughing at the tops of their lungs.

“I wish I had a quarter of their energy!” Rekellen sighed; making Julian laugh.

A woman came running out of the house; smiling and radiant with joy. “Oh… Elim! I’m so glad you’re home! Come inside; all of you. We have refreshments waiting in the den.”

Elim embraced the woman and addressed her as Mother, and Julian realized that she was Mila; Tain’s housekeeper and beloved confidant. He smiled as Elim pulled him forward to face her.

“Ah, so you’re Julian, are you?” she asked; her gaze locking onto his.

“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied. “It’s an honor to meet you.”

“Oh… Now enough of that Ma’am nonsense!” She said with mock gruffness. “You can call me Mila. In fact, I insist on it. Now, you come along with me and I’ll get you freshened up…”

Julian felt himself being pulled into the whirlwind of her orbit. In the midst of happy chaos, she was organized and efficient. He found her to be a marvelous woman.

“And again she conquers another soul,” Tain murmured wryly to his son.

“Indeed,” Garak replied, smiling as he watched his lover’s eyes start to glaze over. “I just hope she doesn’t overwhelm him. He isn’t exactly on stable emotional ground yet.”

“Don’t worry,” Tain said; placing an affectionate hand on his son’s shoulder; “Mila knows exactly what she’s doing. She has been told about his situation, so he’s safe with her.”

The first night they spent at Tain’s estate was loud, disorganized, amusing and enlightening. Julian learned more about his lover in one evening than he’d learned in over a year. What made it even more precious, as far as he was concerned though, was the way everyone included him in their fun quite naturally. He got a chance to play with the children, feed some of the biggest hounds he’d ever seen in his life, and help Mila cook dinner.

Damar and his family weren’t the only ones there. Dr. Parmak and his wife greeted their emperor with far more informality than Julian had been expecting. His biggest and most delightful surprise, however, came in the form of Ezoryl. He and his older brother had also been invited to spend a fortnight with the Imperial Family.

Ezoryl had waited until Mila handed Julian a drink; put a plate of Tojal with Yomak sauce in front of him, and bustled off to see to her other guests before making his presence known.

“What are you doing here?” Julian cried; happily returning his friend’s embrace.

“I’m here for you, Fraayaalani,” Ezoryl’s tone was very sincere and solemn.

Julian stared at him in astonishment. The term of endearment was the Cardassian equivalent of heart brother. Suddenly, his eyes filled with tears. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“Don’t thank me, Heart Brother,” Ezoryl said. “It’s what brothers are for. And just think; you get to have a brother without going through the sibling rivalry and the part in life where we inevitably end up detesting each other or betraying one another to the State.”

“Ezoryl!” Julian cried; shocked and very amused by his friend’s impudence.

“I know, I know,” he said. “I’m being impolitic again.”

“I’m glad you can recognize that,” Tain spoke from directly behind them. Julian jumped and his head snapped around in surprise. Ezoryl merely grinned, raised a glass in salute to his emperor, and drank its contents down in one long gulp. Tain laughed and clapped the younger Cardassian on the shoulder. “Ah, the brashness of youth!” he cried jovially. “Care for a refill?”

I’d be ever so grateful,” Ezoryl said; grinning.

By the time they finally went to bed, dawn was only three hours away. Julian felt so overly stimulated by the events of the last few days that he couldn’t go to sleep at once.

As he tossed and turned, he frowned and wondered why his usual exercises weren’t working to slow his thoughts. He sighed and moved to sit up; only to have his hand taken in a gentle grip.

“Can’t sleep?” Elim asked; his voice low and soothing.

“I think I’m over-tired,” Julian grumbled. “I don’t want to take a sedative, though.”

“There are other ways of inducing sleep that you haven’t tried yet,” Elim murmured.

Before Julian could ask what those other ways were, his lover sat up, gently pushed him back, guided him to roll over, and began to gently massage him from shoulders to buttocks. In less than twenty minutes, he was sleeping deeply. Garak smiled with relief and satisfaction.

Julian awoke to the feeling of fingers running gently along his cheek. He smiled and murmured contentedly; knowing that it was his lover’s hand that touched him. His eyelids fluttered and then parted as he felt the hand slide slowly down the side of his neck. A shiver of pleasure ran down his spine and he reached up to wrap his arms around Elim’s shoulders.

“Mmm, that’s a nice way to wake up,” he mumbled.

“I’m glad you liked it,” his lover teased; “but if you think I’m finished yet, you’ve got another think coming, my dear. We’re on vacation; and I haven’t even begun to do all the things I want to do to you. We have days ahead of us; and I’m in no hurry at all.”

“Mmm, that makes two of us, my love,” Julian agreed.

They didn’t actually make an appearance until nearly noon. No one said anything, but Ezoryl smirked at Julian in a manner that suggested that there would be some private teasing later if they were alone for a sufficient amount of time for it to happen. Julian, not at all ashamed, grinned back quite gleefully; much to his heart brother’s delight.

The next two weeks were spent lazing about and, in Julian’s case, meeting some of Emperor Tain’s more influential friends. Most of these were members of the Obsidian Order, but a few, much to his surprise, were high-ranking military officers. It was during this time, however, that two unforeseen events occurred which nearly ended his happiness altogether.

The suns had set and Julian was outside, taking advantage of the cooler air to relax and socialize with Damar and his family. Elim and his father had gone into the drawing room to speak privately with several of his guests, but Damar, his wife, Ezoryl, and Julian were sitting in a small porch talking quietly when they noticed someone coming up the driveway in a small ground car. Damar took one look at the vehicle, went very pale and swore softly. “Oh… Prelauk’s balls! “Ezoryl, take him inside. Now!”

Ezoryl didn’t wait to be told twice. He rose, pulled a protesting Julian to his feet and half dragged, half ushered him inside the house. He managed to get him to the main parlor before Julian refused to go another step further. Glaring angrily at his friend, he demanded: “What the hell is going on? Why couldn’t you just explain it to me instead of hustling me along from place to place? I’m not a damn chess piece! Don’t treat me like one!”

“Julian,” Ezoryl said; his voice oddly calm and a little sad, “look.”

Julian spun and glared out the window at the approaching figure. As he got a closer look at the man’s face, his knees seemed to turn to water. It was Gul Dukat.

“It’s all right, my love,” Elim’s voice murmured soothingly. “It’s all right.”

Julian blinked and struggled to reorient himself. He had been talking to Ezoryl… Hadn’t he?

“You fainted, dear heart,” Elim said softly. “You’re going to be just fine, though.”

“It was… I saw him!” Julian babbled as his memory came back on line. “It was Dukat!”

“No, no, dear one, it wasn’t,” Elim said calmly. “He looks like Dukat because they’re cousins, but it wasn’t Dukat. His name is Gul Macet. Dukat is dead.”

Julian blinked and stared with confusion into his lover’s eyes. “What?” he whispered.

“Shh, just rest now, Mahaialani,” Elim soothed.

Julian never felt the hypo spray hit his neck to inject the sedative.

“I can’t believe I forgot something that damn basic,” Tain muttered; sounding disgusted with himself. “I must be getting old,” he continued; startling his son more than a little.

“It happens to the best of us,” said a calm voice from the doorway of the library where the two of them had gone to speak privately. “We don’t live forever, after all.”

“Tekeny!” The emperor was across the room in two strides and grasping the newcomer’s hands with a warm smile. “It’s good to see you. Thank you so much for coming all the way out here.”

Tekeny Ghemor, a high-ranking legate in the Central Command, smiled back. “It’s definitely a real pleasure to see you both,” he replied. “What’s the trouble?”

“My aged father forgot that Gul Macet looks a great deal like Gul Dukat.”

“Ah… And your beloved suffered at his hands,” Tekeny murmured sadly.

Garak nodded. “He’s resting now. Dailon will see to him for the time being.”

“Perhaps you two should let me warn Macet,” Tekeny suggested with exquisite courtesy.

“No,” Tain replied ruefully; “he is my guest. I’ll do it. Thank you for making the offer, though.”

As Garak silently handed a drink to Ghemor, Tain left the library. The two men stared at each other for a long moment. Finally, Tekeny broke the silence.

“I haven’t met this lover of yours yet, but I expect he is a remarkable human. Setting aside the fact that he passed some of the most difficult examinations Cardassia has to offer, though, I fail to see his appeal. I’m not criticizing you, mind,” he added quickly. “I’m just curious.”

“Julian is… combative without being violent. He’s a force of nature. HE has already managed to make history among our people; and when the Federation, especially Starfleet, felt threatened by the fact that his parents had him genetically enhanced when he was a small child, my father took advantage of their squeamishness and made him a citizen of the Empire.”

“That doesn’t sound like the Enabran Tain I know,” Tekeny said.

“Very true,” Garak agreed; sipping from his glass of Kanar. “I’m not foolish enough to believe that he did all of this for the sake of my feelings for the boy, either.”

Tekeny chuckled. “Everything Enabran does is for the good of the Empire,” he agreed. “I’m definitely looking forward to meeting this astonishing young man now.”

“He should be awake in an hour or so,” Garak said. “I think we’ll have to deal with the Macet problem before he returns to the social scene.”

Tekeny bowed his head. “Indeed,” he murmured. “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.”

Garak smiled and thanked him with a nod. The man finished his drink, rose to his feet to refill his glass, and then left to join the other guests in the parlor.

Julian awoke to feel a soft, cool cloth being used to gently wipe his forehead. The water was cold, so when it dripped down his cheek, he didn’t mind. Elim was sitting beside him.

“I can’t believe I fainted,” Julian said in a raspy voice. “I’ve never done that before!”

His indignation made Garak chuckle. “There’s a first time for everything, my love,” he replied.

“Are you laughing at me?” Julian demanded.

“Of course not, dearest,” his lover said seriously. “I’m laughing with you.”

Julian rolled his eyes and didn’t respond with the normal comeback. Instead, he asked: “What is… Why… I mean… Who is he?” He hated the way his fear made him stammer.

Elim’s hand stroked his cheek and smoothed back his hair in a soothing gesture. “He’s Dukat’s cousin on his father’s side,” he explained. “He commands a war ship; the Trager, in fact.”

“I… I shouldn’t have reacted like that,” Julian whispered.
“Nonsense,” said a voice from the doorway. Tain came to stand at the foot of Julian’s bed.

“It is a perfectly normal reaction to have. I believe your counselors would call it post-traumatic stress Disorder, triggered by the appearance of a man who looks a great deal like one who captured you, had you tortured, and then tried to rape you for his own personal amusement.”

Julian gasped and went absolutely white. Tain looked down into his eyes; and no matter how hard he tried, Julian found that he could not pull away from his gaze.

“Julian, did you think I didn’t know? Do you believe I think any less of you for surviving such a terrible thing? Elim and I guessed, and when Parmak wouldn’t tell us, we took his silence to mean that something had happened. Then, of course, the second time he caught you, Elim heard his words. Don’t take on the shame that isn’t yours, Son.”

Tears began to trail down Julian’s cheeks as his lover pulled him close. “Julian, my Julian, I will always love you; no matter what. I would never, ever forsake you for something you couldn’t have stopped. None of what happened to you was your fault, my dear.”

“I… I know that… But… It still…” He stopped even trying to talk after a while. He could barely breathe as it was; so talking was out of the question. After five minutes or so, he managed to get himself back under control. When he pulled away from his lover, he noticed that Tain was sitting beside them. He rubbed his eyes and blushed. Tain, however, ignored his embarrassment. He rested a hand on Julian’s head and tenderly stroked his hair for a few seconds. Julian leaned into the touch; feeling shocked by this softer side of Elim’s father.

“The first human I ever met was a man by the name of Edward Jellico. He was a starship captain—I can’t remember the name of the ship he commanded—but he was one of those men who do not inspire loyalty in his people. He got results; but only because he expected his troops to obey him. They did so, but not for love of him. I hated the man after the first two minutes of talking to him. He was on the delegation that came to Cardassia to help hammer out the alliance treaty. I’m telling you this for a reason. Can you guess that reason?”

Julian frowned. “Are you saying that Dukat was the same way but his cousin isn’t?”

Tain chuckled. “I suppose that’s a part of what I’m getting at, but there’s more.”

“I don’t understand what you mean,” Julian confessed.

“Do you realize how much you inspire the people around you, Julian?”

He blinked in surprise, stared at the emperor, blinked again and shook his head.

Tain burst out laughing. “OH… If you could see the look on your face!” he cried.

“Nevertheless, it is true; you do inspire people. Do you think that I would have permitted my son to continue in a relationship with a human even two years ago? Do you think that Elim would have allowed himself to indulge the supposed weakness?”

“I… I never thought of it that way,” he said; stunned by such brutal honesty.

“All you’ve done is be yourself,” Elim said softly. “You’re a strong, compassionate young man who is full of vitality, energy and intelligence. That strength and vitality radiate from you and touch everyone you come into contact with in one way or another.”

“I think, son, that you’ve been hiding inside a shadow of your own making for so long that you don’t know how to come out from behind it without help,” Tain said kindly.

Julian blinked rapidly; struggling to control his emotions. “I always… I had to be… normal.”

“I want you to be Julian from now on,” Tain said. “You have made an identity for yourself here. You are the first human to ever graduate from any educational program offered in the empire. You are the youngest Starfleet Academy graduate to successfully become a Chief Medical Officer. But you are also my son’s lover and half of his heart. Be those things; and don’t worry about normal anymore. Many normal people never make it passed their most distressing life events. I think you have the will and the capability to do so.”

Julian’s eyes widened at the intensity and conviction in Tain’s words. “I… You… You’re right,” he whispered finally; not knowing what else to say.

“Of course I am,” Tain replied; his expression never once changing; “I usually am, you know.”

It was Julian’s turn to start laughing. Once he got himself back under control, he sat up and smiled at them both. “Thank you,” he said; looking directly into each pair of eyes.

Both men nodded; and he made his way into the bathing chamber to wash his face.

When they returned to the drawing room where most of their guests had adjourned, they were welcomed warmly. No mention was made of Julian’s fainting episode; and Gul Macet was nowhere in sight. He started to relax and socialize with the people around him.

“So it’s a metaphor for grief?” Damar was asking another guest—an older man with gun-metal gray hair and a thoughtful expression. “I never would have guessed that.

“The character is a bit of a fool,” the man said. “He’s lamenting the loss of an empire that never really existed. He’s grieving over olden times that were horrible in reality. He has managed to romanticize his past and cannot look towards the future as a result.

“That sounds like a few military commanders I know, said a voice from somewhere nearby.

That got a general laugh; and Even Julian smiled. It seemed like something Ezoryl would have said. The voice, however, had not been his.

What do you think?” asked a lady who happened to be standing right beside Julian.

“I’m not sure,” he replied easily. “I got here in the middle of the… discussion.”

The pause he inserted just before the word ‘discussion’ made her smile. Have you read “Empire in Flames” yet?” “It’s Vryn Kaulak’s latest novel.”

“I’ve never heard of him before,” Julian confessed.

“How would you like to meet him?” the lady asked; giving him a provocative smile.

“I think I’d better read his work before I do,” he declined. “It would never do to meet someone of intelligence and have nothing intelligent to say to him.”

She laughed. “True, but he talks about more than his books, you know.”

“Really?” Julian allowed his eyes to go wide in mock astonishment.

“I didn’t know an author was capable of that.”

She laughed again and touched his arm. “I know who you are, of course, but I have been quite rude and failed to introduce myself. I’m Shaiana Dejar.”

“I’m honored to meet you,” he said; bowing over her hand.

“Oh… I assure you,” she replied; “the honor is all mine. Shall we go for a walk?”

“That’s a wonderful idea,” he enthused. “Let me make sure to tell my beloved that I’m leaving. I don’t want him to become alarmed if I go missing.”

The smile on her face became fixed, and she slowly backed away from him. “Of course,” she murmured. “Ah, I see a friend of mine. Would you excuse me?”

Julian watched her scuttle off with a wry smile. Why was it that so many ladies thought him an easy target? He supposed it was because he was young.

“That was excellently done,” said a soft voice off to the side.

Julian turned and found that he was standing face to face with Gul Macet.
“Thank you,” he said. In a deep part of his mind, he marveled at how steady his voice sounded.

“Doctor, could we speak in private?”

Julian took a deep breath. He remembered Tain’s words and allowed himself to be encouraged by them. “If you wish,” he said softly. “Follow me.”

“They stood on a balcony looking out over the mountain peaks which were still capped with snow. For a long moment, neither of them said a word.

“I was told, in a general sense, of course, what happened to you at the hands of my cousin. It is a bitter, bitter pill to have to swallow; yet again. I’ve had this conversation with about a dozen people before. I suppose it won’t surprise you to know that I hate the man utterly.”

“Why waste your energy on hating a dead man?” Julian asked. As soon as the words left his mouth, he realized that he had meant them to be taken to his heart as well as Macet’s.

“Death does not put an end to hatred, as much as some of us might wish it to,” the Cardassian said harshly. “I have hated him for more years than you’ve been alive.”

“You’ve given him a great deal of control,” Julian said. “He still controls your feelings even from beyond the grave. I won’t lie to you; it’s disconcerting to see the face of someone who looks like Gul Dukat so close to me, but one only has to look into your eyes to notice the distinct differences. That was why I reacted the way I did. My instincts engaged before my brain could stop them. Dukat’s eyes were almost soulless. Yours are… different.”

Macet was staring at him in honest shock. Never before had any of the conversations he’d had on this subject gone like this. He couldn’t think of anything to say.
“I’m scared because of what Dukat did to me. But I’m not scared of him anymore. I don’t hate him; I hate what he did to me. And I try not to think about it very often.”

“I… I hardly know what to say,” he admitted softly. “No one has ever responded to me in such a manner. You have given me a great deal to think on, Doctor. Excuse me.”

Julian watched him go back into the house and let out a shaky sigh. When an arm slipped around him, he jumped in surprise and gasped. He hadn’t heard footsteps.

“I knew you could do it, Son,” Tain said softly. “I’m proud of you.”

Julian felt something warm and comforting burst inside his chest. It was as if he’d taken a sip of an excellent hot drink on a cold day. He smiled and turned to look up at the emperor.

“Do you really think of me as a son?” he asked shyly.

“Of course,” Tain responded; as if that should have been obvious.

Julian laughed. “Mo’Rohboi, Haanylaa,” he said.

Tain tightened the arm he still had around Julian’s shoulders; and though he didn’t say anything in response, the look in his eyes spoke for him. The words of affection Julian had offered him had touched him deeply. Nothing more needed to be said between them.

Together, they turned and re-entered the house. Just before they walked back into the drawing room, however, Tain slowed his steps and gave Julian an amused glance.

“By the way,” he said; “you did well with Dejar. She’s an infamous husband hunter. It’s said that she has managed to break up three marriages and get two of her six husbands killed in one way or another. Her family has a great deal of power right now, so I can’t bring them down yet, but once I have incontrovertible proof that she did it, I’ll have her trying on a scarf long before her family can make an outcry to save her.”

“Trying on a scarf?” Julian asked. He’d never heard that expression before.

“It means I’ll have her publicly hanged,” Tain remarked casually.

Julian shuddered. He could not let himself forget that this man was utterly ruthless and had probably killed hundreds of people throughout his life.

“There you are!” Mila cried, taking Julian’s hand and pulling him towards the middle of the room. “Unless I miss my guess, you haven’t eaten dinner yet,” she scolded playfully.

When he confessed that he hadn’t, she tsked and practically plunked him down into a chair. As he made to protest, she frowned at him and brought him a plate.

“I’d do as she says, my love,” Elim said in a low, seductive voice.

Julian blushed and smiled as he took the plate and thanked her.

“Ah, Mother Mila!” Ezoryl came to join them. “Your Tojal is wonderful, as usual.”

“Oh you…” she smacked him playfully on the arm. “Stop flattering me, you handsome devil!”

As she walked away laughing to supervise the setting out of more food, Julian chuckled. “You’re outrageous,” he said to his friend. “Want some Tojal?”

“Mmm, don’t mind if I do,” he said; grinning.

“So, are you feeling better?” he asked once they had taken the edge off their hunger.

“Yes,” he replied simply. He didn’t think it would be a good idea to talk to Ezoryl about what the emperor had said to him. Besides, he didn’t think he could get through a retelling without blushing constantly; and he did enough of that already thanks to his lover.

“Good; I’m glad,” his heart brother mumbled between mouthfuls, ending the conversation.

She wanted him. She’d not even bothered to deny it to herself. He might have only been a human, but she wanted him; and Shaiana Dejar always got what she wanted. She watched as he was fussed over by that old witch of a housekeeper whom the emperor kept as his personal secretary/sexual outlet. She looked on as the strutting young pup Dailon sat down and companionably ate and joked with him. She glared at any of the women who dared to go near him, but she reminded herself to be careful; very, very careful.

Garak would love nothing better than to kill her. She would have to find a way to make the human irrevocably hers in a way that would make him forget about Elim Garak. This would require some thinking. If she pulled it off, however, it would be her best plan yet.

“She’s still watching him,” Garak noted calmly.

“I can almost hear the wheels in her head spinning,” his old friend Rugal Entek agreed.

“Let her look her fill,” Garak said; shrugging almost carelessly. “He’s mine. And nothing she says or does is going to change that fact. Let her eyes feast upon something she will never have. It might do her some good to learn that the universe does not revolve around her.”

“You amaze me,” Entek said softly. “I had no idea your passion for him ran so deep.”

“My passion has taken on a life of its own,” Garak admitted.

“Does he know about… us?” Entek asked; getting to the point directly.

Garak shook his head. “I saw no reason to tell him,” he said. “He’s no fool; he knows that I’ve had more lovers than he has years of life. I don’t think he’d be jealous; it’s not in his nature.”

“Mmm, I couldn’t see you pinning your heart to the sleeve of a jealous man.”

Garak laughed and touched his friend familiarly on the arm. “I have missed you, though,” he said. “He’s someone I can converse with and teach; but you and I… We had the most interesting arguments. I have to say; as an outsider, I am constantly surprised by the fact that he argues like one of us. He’s intelligent and unwilling to let himself be molded to my whims and desires completely. He wants to form his own opinions about everything.”

“Even if they disagree with yours?” Entek asked; raising an eye ridge and smiling.

“Especially if they disagree with mine,” Garak replied with mock irritation. “Sometimes I think he disagrees with me just to do so. He can be quite perverse when he wants to be.”

“Don’t turn,” Ezoryl spoke softly in Damar’s ear. “Who is that lady over there?” As he spoke, his hand slipped up towards Damar’s cheek and he gestured very, very slightly towards the place where Dejar was standing. Damar followed his finger and grimaced when he noticed her.

Speaking out of the left corner of his mouth he said: “Shaiana Dejar.”

“Thank you,” Ezoryl replied; and then he was gone.

“Ah… I think your new up-and-coming lad just spotted her and found out who she is,” Entek said. His eyes took on a malicious gleam as his imagination began to conjure up all sorts of things that the boy would probably do to her if he caught her toying with the human or endangering him in any way. He couldn’t stop grinning.

“You are cruel, my friend. “Do I even want to know what you’re thinking?”

“Probably not,” Entek replied with a casual flip of one hand. “Dailon is young still. Why did you choose him for this particular assignment? I’d have thought you would have been better off choosing Torval. He’s old, but they say he keeps himself in top physical form.”

“Indeed, and if I had chosen him,” Garak said wryly, “everyone would have known what I was up to. He’s too obvious; as he told me himself.”

“Most people think he’s just an old faculty member at the medical school,” Entek argued.

“Yes, but too many of my enemies were looking for me to choose him, I think. Besides, Dailon has become very close friends with him. He even jumped into that damn cave when the ground slid out from under Julian’s feet. I couldn’t believe it until I saw the shape of the rockslide. He didn’t put it in his report until I confronted him directly about it.”

“Are you telling me that he allowed himself to be captured and tortured by the self-same man who is supposed to have raped and killed his youngest sister and his mother?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying. “His loyalty for my Julian is fierce.”

Entek’s eyes glazed over in shock. “Great Hebitian Hells!” He whispered fervently.

Garak laughed softly; enjoying his friend’s reaction to his words. “I am glad they’re close,” he continued. “Julian needs more friends his own age; and Dailon is an excellent operative.”

Enabran Tain’s eyes narrowed in a way that, had anyone who knew him seen it, would have sent them running for cover. He watched the pernicious woman stare at Julian for all of three minutes before he couldn’t stand it anymore. He pulled out his most subtle weapon and smiled. The bitch wouldn’t know what hit her; and he would enjoy watching her go scarf shopping. Catching Mila’s eye, he gestured for her to find a way to come see him as soon as she could.

Less than ten minutes later, she was at his side. She leaned towards him with an expression on her face that looked as if they were having a serious conversation about household accounts.

“My enemy is going to go after our new little one,” he said to her.

He watched with contained delight as her eyes hardened. Very few people knew that Mila was a deadly assassin as well as an amazingly efficient, well-organized housekeeper.

“Oh?” she asked now, smiling in that way he found maddening. “I don’t think so, Your Majesty,” she continued; her tone taking on a deadly sharp edge. “I have many new scarfs waiting for owners. One of them should look quite fetching on her.”

“Make it a red one, my dear,” he said; pushing a piece of her hair tenderly behind one ear.

She whirled away from him; tossing a smile over her shoulder and walking towards the kitchen.

“That was different,” Entek murmured as he and Garak watched Mila walk away from the emperor. “Well, it’s obvious that he knows exactly what’s going on now.”

“Indeed,” Garak practically purred; “and it’s equally obvious that our dear Mila is going to sharpen her knives and sift through her scarf collection.”

She found him alone in one of the gardens and decided to make her next move. He thought he had been so clever by using his lover as a shield against her like that… She’d have to teach him how the game was really played; after she punished him appropriately for daring to spurn her, of course. It would be a lesson he wouldn’t soon forget.

“Ah… There you are, Doctor,” she said brightly. “Isn’t it just a lovely night?”

“The stars burn like velvet upon the moon’s dancing feet,” he murmured.

Dejar felt a warmth spreading throughout her loins. This one was a poet, too? She definitely wanted him now. She allowed herself a small smile as she came to sit close to him.

“I had no idea that you appreciated our literature so much,” she complimented him.

“Good poetry and literature should always be appreciated,” he said.

“I am delighted to meet an outsider who knows how to find and analyze such things as art and literature,” she said. “Tell me, did our Minister introduce you to our works?”

“Some of them,” he replied; his voice softening as he smiled. “Most of them I took the time to read on my own. I do hate it when others introduce such things to me. They inevitably seek to color the introduction with their own opinions; and I prefer to make up my own mind.”

“That’s a very commendable trait to have,” she purred.

“Thank you,” he said; suddenly staring at the ground between his feet.

She laughed inwardly. This was going to be almost too easy. “You know,” she said; “I was very surprised that I got invited here to spend time with the Emperor.”

“Oh?” It was a single word, but she knew she had him right where she wanted him.

“Yes… You see… Well… Elim and I… We didn’t exactly part on the best of terms.”

“Oh dear,” He said, sounding genuinely distressed. “And you actually came here in spite of that? I don’t mean to sound patronizing, but that takes a lot of courage.”

“Oh…” she chuckled; “I know it does. My muscles were so tense the first night I got here that I had to have a friend of mine massage my shoulders for me before I could sleep.”

Now it was Julian’s turn to laugh. “I couldn’t sleep the first night I got here, either.”

“Elim gives such wonderful massages, doesn’t he?” she giggled.

She watched in astonishment as the boy actually blushed. OH… but this was going to be fun as well as easy. She placed a hand on his arm and looked into his eyes.

“Don’t you ever tell him I said that,” she scolded playfully.

“Your secret, madam, is safe with me,” he responded in a mockingly solemn voice.

They shared another laugh and then settled back to look at the stars together. She sighed.

“I love parties, but sometimes I just feel the need to be somewhere quiet so that I can just breathe the fresh air,” she confided after a long silence. “That’s only part of the reason I’m out here.”

“Really? And what else brings you into this moonlit garden?” He asked.

“I came to apologize to you for my appalling behavior earlier.”

Julian blinked. “Oh, you mean the… Oh… Don’t worry about it. I wasn’t offended.”

“You are a gracious man,” she said softly. “So, tell me how you and the minister met.”

Julian’s face changed. It seemed to light up from within as he talked about the assignment Starfleet had given him, the capture, and his subsequent rescue by Garak and his people. He didn’t go into details about what Dukat had done to him; he didn’t want to think about it.

“That must have been a horrible time for you,” she said; again putting a hand on his arm.

“It definitely wasn’t a walk in the park,” he agreed. “It took me months to get over most of what was done to me physically, and sometimes I still have nightmares.”

“You poor soul,” she cooed. “If I know Elim, he’s been quite patient and is very good at chasing away the demons that still haunt you; am I right?”

Julian nodded; his throat closing. “Sometimes… Sometimes I wonder what he sees in me.”

“Probably what everyone sees in you, dear Julian. May I call you Julian?”

“Sure,” he said immediately. “And thank you for your kindness.”

“It’s easy to be kind to one such as you,” she responded with a warm smile.

Ezoryl took a deep breath and slowly, slowly released it. This woman was good. Did Julian know what was going on here? And if he did, why wasn’t he stopping it? She’d laid hands on him twice since Ezoryl found them in the garden. That alone was improper, but would Julian know that? They probably did things differently on his home world. He knew that if he even hinted at it, Julian would figure out that he’d been spying on him. Then, an idea came to him. Mix a bit of truth with a lie and you had a very powerful weapon. The Emperor had said that quite often in his hearing. He would put the maxim to good use now.

“Have you had a chance to talk with Elim yet?” Julian asked suddenly.

She shook her head and winced. “I don’t dare,” she said. “I think I’m only here as a token piece. The emperor wants to show the people that all is forgiven and he knows how to reconcile with those who offended him in the past. I don’t really mind, though. Most of what I missed about coming out here was being with my friend Mayari. She’s the one I was telling you about earlier; the one who had to give me the massage. She and her family have always been close friends with Elim; so she was able to talk him into at least inviting me out here.”

“That’s all well and good, but don’t you want to make it up with him?”

“Frankly,” she replied; “no. I think we’re better off as friends than… well… you know.”

He blushed again, but said nothing more about reconciliation, much to her relief. Deciding to end this for now, she glanced at her chronometer and gasped.

“I really should go,” she said. “Mayari and I are going to start a new game of Cotra tonight. And this time, I intend to win,” she added; giving him a playful smirk.

He chuckled and rose to stand beside her. “Well, good luck,” he said; smiling.

As she walked away towards the house, her steps grew lighter. She would have him in her bed begging for more before a month was over; she was sure of it.

Ezoryl swerved aside to keep from bumping into her as she stepped up onto the porch. “Sorry,” he said; giving her a small smile of apology. “Have you seen Dr. Bashir?”

Without saying a word, she pointed to the garden and strode passed him into the house.

“And a good night to you, too,” he muttered; making sure he’d spoken loudly enough to be heard by her. He grinned viciously as he saw her shoulders stiffen slightly.

“Hey,” he called as he reached the bench where Julian still sat.

“Oh… Ezoryl… I must have lost track of the time,” he said.

Minister Garak just wanted to make sure you were okay,” he said casually. “You are okay, aren’t you? I mean, Mila didn’t try to stuff you again, did she?”

Julian rolled his eyes. “No,” he said; making as if he wanted to hit his friend playfully on the side of the head. “And you really shouldn’t tease her like that. She might just decide to put a Frixian worm in your regova eggs. And you’d never know you’d eaten it until it was too late.”

Ezoryl shuddered. “You have an interesting imagination. It really scares me sometimes, Julian,” he said. And then they both burst out laughing.

“Actually, I have a confession to make,” he said ruefully.

Julian raised an eyebrow and waited for him to continue.

“I found you a lot sooner than this. I just… I saw you with her, and I didn’t want to intrude.”

Julian frowned. “It’s not what you think,” he said.

“Oh! Oh, I know that, but… Well… she’s not exactly being… discreet.”

“I don’t understand,” Julian said; looking genuinely confused.
“Look, I don’t know how your people do things like wooing or courting someone, but since you’re living with someone as high-profile as the minister, I think you need to know a few things; just in case. I don’t want people saying nasty things about you or causing problems.”

“Did I do something wrong?” Now he sounded worried.

Ezoryl grimaced. “No, not at all. She did, though. She knows that you and the minister are involved, but she put her hands on you anyway. That’s just not… proper.”

Julian’s eyes widened. “But… If she knew that, then why did she do it?”

“I have no idea,” Ezoryl replied. “I’m just talking about what I saw.”

“Well… Thank you for telling me that. I don’t want him to get upset or think that I would do anything to… betray him. Do you think anyone else saw us?”

“I doubt it. I was just walking around looking when I peeked in and found you. Anyway, don’t worry about it. Just remember to be careful. And try not to be alone with her anymore.”

Julian shuddered. “Definitely,” he agreed. “I don’t need that sort of trouble in my life.”

They fell silent then; taking comfort in one another’s presence and the winking of the stars. When Julian spoke again, his voice was so soft that Ezoryl had to strain to hear him.

“Ezoryl, do you have a special someone?”

His friend laughed. “Na,” he said casually. “The right one just hasn’t found me yet. When she does, though, you’ll be the second one to know about it; I promise.”

“After you, of course,” Julian drawled; grinning with amusement.

“Naturally,” Ezoryl agreed; his expression becoming mockingly serious.

“It’s getting late,” Julian said suddenly. “I think I’m going to head inside and go to bed.”

“Good idea,” Ezoryl agreed; rising to his feet and stretching. “Most of us younger ones are probably going to do that. If I know the older generation, though, they’re going to be up for quite a while still. They’ll talk and debate things to death and then go to bed.”

They both smiled at that and made their way into the house. Julian slipped through the crowds and found Elim standing with a couple of other men whom he hadn’t met.

“Ah! There you are,” he called as he reached out and slipped one long arm around Julian’s waist. “I’m glad Ezoryl found you. These are two of my father’s most powerful supporters in the Central Command. Legate Tekeny Ghemor and Legate Jedal Rogan. Gentlemen, this is Dr. Julian Bashir. He’s this year’s most successful graduate of the medical school.”

“Doctor,” Legate Ghemor smiled warmly. “It’s a pleasure.”

“I’m honored,” Legate,” Julian said; remembering to give the proper salute of respect to his rank.

“Well, I’m impressed,” Legate Rogan said. His voice was deep but soft; in a way that may have been menacing to his enemies. “Your accomplishment enriches the empire, Doctor.”

“The emperor honored me by giving me a chance to try,” Julian replied.

“You certainly picked a courteous one, Elim,” Rogan said. There was a twinkle in his eye that made his statement seem more like a joke and less like a condescending sneer.

“I didn’t know I was part of a drawing,” Julian said; letting his own voice become slightly stiff.

All three men burst out laughing; and Julian couldn’t help but smile.

“Oh my! That was well said, Doctor,” Rogan cried; still grinning. “Well said indeed!”

“It’s good to watch someone get what they deserve for a change,” Tekeny Ghemor said with a small smirk. “We need to keep a man like this humble, Doctor.”

Elim gave his waist a small squeeze and Julian chuckled. Well, I hate to do this, but I’m exhausted,” he confessed with a self-deprecating grimace.

“Of course you are,” Ghemor agreed in a teasing voice. “I hear you got the pleasure of riding up here with Damar’s boys. They certainly are a handful, aren’t they?”

Julian laughed; genuinely amused by this man’s warmth. “Definitely,” he agreed.

After saying his goodnights, he slowly made his way up several flights of stairs, through a long corridor, and into the family’s private wing. He reached their rooms and yawned as he closed and locked the door behind him. He wanted to be sure of his personal safety.

As he wriggled under the covers and closed his eyes, an image of Dejar came into his head. Shaking his head to rid his mind of the unwanted face, he sighed and smiled when his lover’s image replaced it. The last thing he saw before sleep took him was his lover’s smiling eyes.

Chapter Text

During the next few days, she began to see signs that others were getting to the human and influencing his thinking. Her frustration at not being able to get him alone was vented on ferocious games of Cotra or long hikes in the mountains. After the third day of being put off, however, Dejar decided on another approach. It was sloppy and more than a bit risky, but she was getting desperate. She wanted him more and more each time she saw him.

“She got her chance on the evening of the fourth day after she’d begun her campaign to capture his heart. Everyone had gathered to make a toast to celebrate the birth of Tekeny Ghemor’s first grandchild. She quickly took a small glass of Kanar off a passing tray and wandered over to where he stood. As she offered it to him, the emperor began to speak.

“Iliana, my dear, you and your husband have been granted a blessing that must never go unnoticed; no matter how often it happens; no matter how many couples are equally blessed.”

A general murmur of good will and happiness filled the room. Tain let it build for a short while, and then he spoke once more, instantly gaining the attention of everyone around him.

“Let us hope that this is not the only time you will have the chance to feel such joy and be so blessed. Here’s to you and Gul Frenar!” And he raised his glass to his lips.

Julian smiled and clinked his glass with Dejar’s. Then, he went to take a sip; only to have it knocked out of his hand. Ezoryl stood beside him; looking very upset.

“Examine the liquid,” he said in a soft; deadly voice.

Dejar opened her mouth to lodge a protest of outrage, but she quickly stopped when she felt a soft piece of cloth caress her neck ridges. Suddenly, the human was looking at her with a completely unreadable expression. He had a medical tricorder in his hand.

“Two parts Kanar and one large cube of Zhyvunien,” he said softly.

“I know I’m fairly new at this medical stuff,” Ezoryl said in a conversational tone which managed to fool no one, “but doesn’t that herb kill humans? And isn’t it a much more powerful poison if it interacts with alcohol like Kanar for more than twenty seconds?”

“Very good, Medic Dailon,” Dr. Parmak responded. He’d come to stand at Garak’s side at some point during the toast. Garak was on the opposite side of the room from Julian, and he suddenly wished that he were a lot closer at this moment. His lover looked devastated.”

“You wanted me so badly that you were prepared to kill me?” Julian asked in a low but carrying voice. “Or did you think that it would simply act as an aphrodisiac? It usually does, except when it’s mixed with alcohol. The only way it would have had the desired effect is if you’d put it in water. Of course, with my genetically enhanced taste buds, I would have noticed the difference and refused to drink it. What would you have done then?”

He glanced over her head and saw that the emperor was standing directly behind her; his hands wrapped around the ends of a red scarf. That self-same scarf was currently coiled around Dejar’s neck. If Tain were to yank, and if the material proved to be strong enough, he could kill her.”

“Scarf shopping,” Julian said simply. It was not a question.

“Indeed,” Tain replied quietly. Everyone heard Dejar’s gasp as she determined from the direction of the emperor’s voice that it was he who held the ends of the scarf.

With a sudden movement that was almost too quick for the eye to catch, she jerked herself forward and let out a strangled sound just before her neck snapped.

“Honor avenged!” Elim called out from the other side of the room.

“Honor avenged,” the crowd responded solemnly.

Julian stumbled towards the door. He needed to get out of this room. He wanted some air. He was desperate to get away; even if he had nowhere specific in mind to go.

He sat with his back to a tree; his knees to his chest and his arms wrapped around them. He was shaking; but he hardly noticed that. He began to rock slowly back and forth in shock.

It was Mila who eventually found him. Gently, she pulled him into her arms and let him cry it out; knowing as only a mother could how badly he needed this.

“I hate this place!” Julian screamed. “I hate this damn… way of living! Is everyone around me an operative? How long have I been played for a damn fool?”

“Julian,” Mila said softly, “no one has played you false; not in the way that matters.”

“Really? How many people knew what she was doing? How long were you all going to let it go on?” He was snarling with rage as he pulled violently away from her arms.

“Julian,” she protested again, “please try to understand. We weren’t going to…”

“Did you know that Tain told me that he thinks of me as a son? He’s a damn good actor!” He interrupted her plea furiously. “I can’t believe I fell for…”

“That’s quite enough of that, Julian,” said a cold voice from directly behind him.

Julian spun and glared angrily at Enabran Tain. “Damn you!” He screamed. “How many more of your enemies are you going to use me to bring out into the open for you, Father?”

The slap across the face stopped him cold. It cut off the rest of his accusations with a brutality that was shocking to everyone who was watching them. The group included Ezoryl, Elim, Mila, Tekeny Ghemor and Rugal Entek. No one could move after witnessing such violence.

“Don’t you ever, ever speak to me like that again,” Tain said in a deadly voice. “And if you dare to accuse me of such a disgusting crime in the future, I’ll make sure that you end up on a deserted asteroid all alone to contemplate your stupidity and selfishness for the rest of your life.”

“Please, Enabran,” Mila whispered; “he doesn’t realize what he’s saying.”

“I know that, Mila,” Tain snapped. “That is precisely why I slapped him instead of killing him.”

Julian’s mind went very, very still. How could he have allowed himself to forget? How could he have been pulled in so completely? Hadn’t Major Kira tried to warn him? Why had he not listened to her so very long ago? He couldn’t believe his genetically enhanced intelligence had led him to this. He felt so confused and thoroughly unbalanced that he simply shut down.

“I would appreciate it if you all would go inside now,” Tain said. His voice and the expression on his face left no one in doubt as to what would happen if that command were not immediately obeyed. The group moved quickly and quietly to do his bidding.

Elim stepped up to face his father. Mila also lingered; but she moved to stand beside Julian.

“Now,” Tain continued in that same voice; “we need to get a few things straight.

His tone was like velvet wrapped around iron. It reminded Elim of the image of a delicately gloved fist holding a deadly whip. It frightened him as it had not done since he was small.

“Father,” he said; appalled by the tremor in his voice; “please don’t…”

“Elim,” the emperor interrupted; “it is better to let this happen now.”

“But Enabran, they love each other!” Mila cried.

“Damn it, woman! Don’t you think I know that?”

“What are your intentions, Father?” Elim asked quietly.

Tain ignored the question for the moment. “Julian, look at me,” he commanded.

Nothing happened. Julian’s eyes were focused on some inner place where nothing and no one could reach him. He had gone to a safe refuge inside his mind.

“Julian,” Tain tried again. “Julian, Look at me!” He grabbed the boy’s chin and stared straight into his eyes. Still, he got absolutely no response.

Mila began to cry quietly as she realized what had happened. Garak closed his eyes and shuddered. The emotional pain he was experiencing was intense.

Tain released Julian’s chin and stepped back. “Damn it,” he muttered; but there was no anger in his voice. Neither of them had ever heard him sound so defeated before.

“Mila, take him up the back stairs to his room. Perhaps a few hours of quiet will help.”

Immediately she moved to guide him back towards the house. She spoke in soft, soothing tones; hoping that somewhere, in some deeper part of his mind he would understand her and know that she meant him no harm. Would he ever trust any of them again?

“Elim,” Tain said once they were alone; “you have two choices. Either you find the boy a post far away from you and try to forget about him, or you let me give him mercy.”

“A very wise man once told me that if I didn’t like the rules of the game, I could simply decide not to play,” Garak replied without hesitation. “I don’t like the rules or your damn choices. I’ll resign my posts and we’ll leave for DS9 as soon as I can make the arrangements.”

There was a long, tense silence. When Tain spoke again, his voice was so soft that only by straining could Garak hear what he said.

“You’re serious about this; aren’t you?”

“Yes,” he replied plainly. “As Mila said; I love him, father.”

“The boy is not much more than a shell right now, son,” Tain argued; and Garak could clearly hear the regret in his voice. “You can’t deny that. You need to move on with life.”

“Do you remember the time you interrogated Fraan depall?” his son asked; startling him.

“Yes, of course,” Tain replied. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“He said that he went to a safe place inside his mind. I think that’s what Julian has done; and if I’m careful and patient enough, I think I can get him to come back and face this.”

Tain stared thoughtfully at him for a long moment. “Very well,” he said finally. “Try it; but remember what I said. If you can’t fix it soon, I shall act.”

He made his way to their room knowing that no matter what happened; nothing would ever be the same between them. He had hidden one too many things from Julian. He had risked too much to maintain his father’s secrets. Now, he was very close to losing it all.

Mila was still with him when Garak entered. She had her arms around him and was softly humming a song she’d used to help get him to sleep when he was very small.

He froze, too filled with foreign emotions to do more than stare at them.

“Elim,” she said softly, “come sit beside him. Right now he needs us.”

He moved as if he were in a dream. Crossing the room in three strides, he sank down carefully on the bed. Gently, he took one of Julian’s hands and raised it to his lips.

“Julian,” he murmured tenderly; “I love you, my Julian.”

Words tumbled around and around inside his mind. “You will always have my heart…” “Before I start weeping like the hopelessly lovesick fool I am…” “Don’t hold back…” “Be Julian from now on…” “Hiding inside a shadow of your own making for so long that…” “Many normal people don’t…” “Distressing events in their lives…” “All you did was be yourself…” “think I would have allowed my son to continue…”

He couldn’t block them out no matter how hard he tried. Tears began to slide down his face.

“Detesting each other…” “You’ll be the second one to know…” “I’m here for you…” “That’s what brothers are for…” “Being impolitic again…” “Too busy being devious and fighting each other…” “Being outdone by a human…” “Follow me around like a bag of bricks…”

None of it would go away. He had no way of fighting against the onslaught. After a while, he wasn’t sure he wanted to. He still loved these people. Was he mentally or emotionally unsound?

“When you gonna marry Uncle Julian?” “Mama says you will.” “Papa says you’re the best non-Cardassian physician ever.” “Uncle Julian… Uncle Julian… Uncle Julian…”

“Elim,” he whispered; the tears flowing faster now. “Please help me…”

“I’m here, Beloved,” Elim responded immediately, taking him from Mila’s arms and holding him tightly. “I’m right here. I’m not going to leave you, dearest.”

Ezoryl slipped into the room and knelt in front of them. Carefully, he took Julian’s left wrist in between his fingers and found his pulse. Then, he released him and nodded to them.

“Julian,” Elim murmured; pressing his lips to the top of his head; “I love you.”

“I can’t… I’m so… I’m so scared,” he whispered.

“I know, dear one. I know,” Elim soothed.

“I… That was… I don’t know what to do now.”

“Communication is the first step,” said a quiet voice from the doorway.

Julian trembled again, and Elim feared that his father’s sudden presence might send him back into his mind. It didn’t, though. Showing the strength Garak loved so much, Julian slowly raised his head and looked directly at Enabran Tain.

“I am so… so, sorry,” he said. “I… I don’t know what got into me.”

Tain gazed back at him for an intense moment. “I believe we both reacted badly to a very difficult situation,” he said softly. “Shall we forgive each other?”

Julian rose to his feet and crossed the room. He stopped in front of the older man and knelt. Grasping his hand, he kissed it softly. “I forgive you,” he said.

Tain raised him to his feet and pulled him into his arms. “Mila was right, you know,” he said. “We never played you false; not in the ways that matter. We love you.”

“I know,” he whispered. “I just… This isn’t… I don’t understand.”

Tain led him into the small antechamber of their suite and sat down beside him on a small couch. Once he sat down beside him, he spoke again.

“My life and the lives of everyone around me are constantly at risk,” he said softly. “I have, in the members of the Obsidian Order, a group of very loyal people who act as an outer defense against those who would seek to do me harm. You knew that when you entered into a relationship with Elim, but seeing the darker side of things can’t have been easy for you.”

Julian shook his head and shuddered as the image of Dejar snapping her own neck filled his mind. Once he started shaking, he couldn’t seem to make himself stop.

“Breathe, lad,” Tain urged him gently. “Breathe; that’s it, just calm down and breathe.”

Once he got himself back under control, he asked the one question that had been banging around and around in his mind for a long time. It was the one question he had never been able to bring himself to think about even inside his own head very often.

“Why do you allow Elim to stay with me? I’m a liability to him; and you.”

Tain leaned forward and looked into his eyes again. “In giving Bajor to the Federation, I lost a planet rich in oar, minerals and other semi-precious metals. I allowed it to happen anyway. I permitted the Empire to forge an alliance with the Federation. Do you know why?”

“I… I have a theory, but… I just can’t make it fit with what I know of you,” Julian confessed.

“In numbers we are stronger, Son,” he remarked. “No man is an island, as they say.”

Julian smiled wanly. He couldn’t believe this man was quoting an ancient Earth poet.

“Our lives aren’t going to be easy,” Tain continued. “We’re all going to have to make some painful decisions, and undoubtedly we’ll have to sacrifice a few things along the way as well. But I will not do to my family what so many other emperors have done in the past.”

“I suppose a part of me always knew that something like this would happen sooner or later.”

“Indeed, but please believe me, Julian; I didn’t want things to happen this way. And I wasn’t using you as a decoy to bring Dejar out into the open. To be honest, I was ready to do just the opposite and attempt to pull her back into the fold, as it were.”

Julian blinked in stunned silence. “You mean… She wasn’t lying to me when she said she was here even though things were strained between you? She said that she was once Elim’s lover.”

“Now that’s quite a fantasy,” Tain said with wry amusement. “Elim never had any interest in her. Oh… I’ll grant you; she tried, but nothing came of it.”

Julian felt something inside his heart ease a little more. He was glad to know that his beloved hadn’t shared a bed with that deadly woman after all.

“Now, are you feeling a little better?” Tain asked.

Julian took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Not yet, but I will feel better in time.”

“That’s my boy,” Tain said affectionately. “You need to talk to Ezoryl now, I think.”

And with that, he rose, patted Julian’s shoulder, and quietly left the room. Minutes later, Ezoryl came in and straddled the arm of a chair across from the couch where Julian still sat.

“You’re in the Obsidian Order?” Julian asked immediately. He wasn’t in the mood to play word games. As he watched his friend’s eyes, he knew that he’d guessed correctly.

“Yes,” Ezoryl answered, matching his friend’s directness with his own. “I have been a fulltime operative for nearly twelve years now. I started training when I was 15 and began working as an official operative three years later. I did it of my own free will, too.”

“But… Why? I mean, how could… You were so young then!”

“Doctor, how many 14-year-old boys do you know who have come home from school to find the dead bodies of their mother and youngest sister?” Ezoryl asked flatly.

Julian felt dizzy with shock. He had to swallow rapidly a few times to keep from being sick at the very thought of it. After a few minutes, he whispered: “I am so sorry you had to find…”

“Yes, well, it happened,” Ezoryl interrupted. “I had no idea who had killed them, but I made it my life’s mission to find out. From the way their bodies were arranged and the lack of clothing, I knew that they had been defiled before they were killed. I don’t remember much after finding them. There’s a huge three week gap in my memory that I’ve deliberately kept in place.”

“I… I can see why,” Julian said softly. He reached out and grasped his friend’s hands tightly. “Oh… Oh, Ezoryl… How horrible that must have been for you!”

“Don’t, heart brother,” Ezoryl said roughly. “Don’t grieve too much for me. The next thing I remember is waking up in a huge bed and being fed some broth by Mila.”

Julian blinked. That had been unexpected. Ezoryl smiled.

“Yes, that’s why I can get away with teasing her so much,” he said wryly. “Anyway, Elim became a sort of big brother/mentor to me; and he was a harsh taskmaster, let me tell you! He started training me on the day after my fifteenth naming day; and I haven’t looked back since.”

“But… But didn’t you get some sort of… I don’t know… help dealing with what you’d seen?”

“I learned to do some mental exercises that would allow me to put the trauma I’d suffered into perspective. By the time I found out who had killed half my family and why, the man in question was already so powerful that I couldn’t touch him. I was furious; as you can probably imagine. I threw a hell of a tantrum. Mila made me keep a piece of a lamp I’d broken during my rage to remind me that there were better ways to release my anger. She wanted to teach me that self-control was very important for any Obsidian Order operative.”

Who…” Julian asked softly; but before he could finish the question, Ezoryl shook his head.

“All in good time, heart brother. I was 17 when I found out the truth about why my mother was murdered. I started training harder than ever. I pushed myself to the limit and beyond physically and mentally. I volunteered for several sessions alone with our emperor. And believe me; you do not want to be in a room with Enabran Tain when he’s truly furious with you. If you think he was angry earlier, you’d better think again. That was him when he’s irritated and mildly outraged. When he’s furious... people die. Anyway, he does this… thing that warps our sense of time, our self-identity, and our moral compass, for lack of a better term. He’s… He’s very good at it. I was once subjected to six straight hours of what can vulgarly be called mind buggering.”

Julian’s lips twitched; he couldn’t control his reaction. Hearing such a term come from his friend’s mouth was amusing for some reason he couldn’t figure out.

“There… I got a smile out of you. Anyway, One day he and I were in the place euphemistically called the blue room when I attacked him physically. He had been ripping away at my inner defenses with his words alone and… all of a sudden, I’d had enough.”

“You actually attacked him?” Julian was shocked. “I bet nothing good came of that.”

“He stopped baiting me,” Ezoryl replied. “It took two other operatives to get me off of him and sedated, though. I’m actually rather proud of that fact. He once told me that only Elim and one other operative had the nerve to do that to him besides me.”

Julian’s jaw dropped. Grinning, Ezoryl reached out and pushed his bottom jaw back up to close his mouth. He felt his face begin to burn at the look of amusement in his friend’s eyes.

“Anyway, I spent years gathering evidence, following my enemy’s career and waiting for just the right time. Of course, I knew that the emperor and Garak knew what I was up to, but I didn’t care if they knew, as long as they didn’t try to stop me. I went from assignment to assignment – doing my bit for the empire and waiting. And then, our illustrious emperor--may the gods forever keep and uphold him—officially named Elim as his heir.”

“And the entire time you were working for the Order? What were you doing?”

“A little of this; a little of that,” Ezoryl said breezily. Do you want to hear the rest of this story?”

Julian nodded vigorously and leaned forward; making his heart brother smile slightly.

“When Elim agreed to go to DS 9 I nearly had a heart attack. I knew that it would be dangerous for him, but I also knew that my enemy was there. I desperately wanted to go with him, but our emperor, being the wise ruler that he is, refused to let me. No matter how much I ranted and raved, begged and pleaded, he wouldn’t allow it. And then I got a new assignment.”

“Me,” Julian murmured numbly. “You were assigned to befriend me.”

“Actually, I was assigned to watch and protect you. I never expected to grow fond of you; even though Elim warned me that it would happen. I had been assigned to guard other students over the years; and I even have six other degrees to prove it. This wasn’t anything I hadn’t done before; but when I found out who you were and what you meant to Elim, I very nearly fainted.”

“I can’t picture you doing something as ordinary as fainting,” Julian confessed.

“Doctor, are you making fun of me?” Ezoryl demanded.

“No!” Julian cried. “It’s just… Oh never mind. Go on with your story.”

Ezoryl gave him a long, hard look, and then continued. “Elim brought down my enemy just before he returned to Cardassia prime, so when he got back, we had a hell of a fight. Once he’d finished beating me to a senseless pulp, he told me that though my enemy had been humiliated, he was still alive. Well… I couldn’t let that stand. So again I waited for the right time. I got to know you while I waited; and I did come to care a great deal for your well-being; not just because you were my charge, but because you are my friend. Anyway, we got closer, and then we went on that infamous hike. Mind you, I had no idea that anything other than a picnic would happen up there, so you can imagine my surprise and furious embarrassment when I saw you get swallowed up by the rocks. I had no choice; I jumped in after you.”

“You what?!” Julian yelled, completely shocked and outraged by his friend’s words.

“I did what I had to do,” Ezoryl said calmly. “I fell in such a way so as not to arouse the suspicions of whoever had gone to all the trouble to get us down there. For all intents and purposes, I was unconscious too by the time we reached the bottom of that slide. In point of fact, I believe I lost track of no more than 45 seconds or so.”

“Wait…” Julian stammered. “You literally jumped into the hole and got yourself captured too? And you did this because of your assignment to protect me?”

Ezoryl nodded. “Are you sure you want to hear the rest of this?” he asked.

There was a long moment of utter silence while Julian wrapped his head around the idea that his friend had deliberately gotten himself captured and had forced their captor to torment him to keep from hurting Julian. It was a concept he wouldn’t have expected any Cardassian to understand, much less agree with or follow. Finally, he took a deep breath. “Yes,” he said.

“Well, when the dust settled, I was surprised and delighted to find that not only were you still alive, but my enemy was waiting for us at the bottom of the slide. That was a glorious moment for me, Julian,” he said; his voice taking on a harsh, edgy tone that made shivers chase each other up and down the human’s spine. At any rate, I had a decision to make; several, actually. Should I kill him and wait for rescue? I knew that you were wearing the ring. Should I blow my cover and call for backup? Or should I play this out and see what would happen?”

“That must have been a difficult decision for you to make,” Julian whispered.

Oh, Julian, you have no idea. Elim once told me that there comes a point in every good operative’s career when he or she has to make a decision like that; when the personal benefits have to be weighed against one’s duty. Most of them, according to him, make the wrong decision and don’t live very long afterwards. I made the right one. Of course, I knew even as I was making it that I was forcing you to endure mental suffering and physical pain as well, but I did my best to shield you from the worst of the physical part.”

“I’m not angry at you for that,” Julian felt compelled to say. “It actually helped make me stronger in some ways. I was able to face Gul Macet and have a fairly decent conversation with him the other night. I couldn’t have done that if we hadn’t had our… adventure.”

“I’m glad you don’t hate me, heart brother,” Ezoryl said sincerely. “Elim says that I’m very lucky; and after telling you all this, I can see what he means.”

“Oh?” Julian asked; raising an eyebrow in a bid for more of an explanation.

“Yes. You see, when most operatives are found out by their friends or relatives, things don’t go as well on the emotional front. Some operatives are never reconciled to their friends or families before they die. I didn’t want that to happen to us, so I agreed to tell you now.”

“I’m glad you did,” Julian said weakly. “And I’m glad you didn’t have to kill Dukat.”

Ezoryl tilted his head to one side and then heaved a long sigh. “Damn it, Elim,” he muttered.

“What?” Julian asked. “Why are you angry with…” And then the penny dropped and all the color drained from his face. “You… You were his executioner?”

Ezoryl nodded again. “Our beloved emperor offered him to me as a reward for going above and beyond the call of duty in my services to the Empire and the strengthening of the security and well-being of the Cardassian people. I got to be the one to cut off his head.”

“But… But doesn’t that… I mean… Why…”

“Please, heart brother, don’t belabor the point. The emperor used it as a learning tool; just like he does with everything involving any of his operatives. I learned what I needed to learn from it, and that’s all there is to say. My father turned his father into the Obsidian Order for interrogation when he caught him selling weapons to the Romulans. Procal Dukat was executed, so his son went after my family. My brother and I were at school when he struck, so we’re the only ones left alive. My father was murdered by his just after he managed to send the message containing the evidence used against Procal Dukat during his trial.”

I see,” Julian whispered. “So what happens now?”

“None can foresee the future,” Ezoryl replied with a wry smile. All I do know is that I’d like to stay friends with you. I’m still going to be looking out for you; even when I get other assignments. I truly do care for your well-being, Julian.”

“I know you do,” Julian said; his throat tightening with sudden emotion. “I guess I’ve known that all along. But we’re not friends,” he added. “We’re heart brothers.”

Ezoryl’s eyes widened, and then he launched himself across the space between them and grabbed Julian in a tight hug when he realized what had been said.

“That’s a familiar sight,” said a calm voice from behind him.

Enabran Tain turned to face his friend of nearly 85 years and smiled. “Indeed,” he murmured. “Who would ever have guessed it could happen again? Still, I’m glad it has.”

Tekeny Ghemor nodded and stepped up to stand beside him. “All those damned files…” he said wryly. “Reading… and Reading… and… We did a good thing, Enabran.”

“We did, my friend,” Enabran said firmly. “Annorael would be proud of us.”

“I miss her, you know,” Ghemor said almost ruefully.

“As do I, my friend,” Tain agreed. “Every day I miss her more and more.”

“She was good for you. I don’t think we would have made it through all this without her.”

“I know we wouldn’t have,” Tain remarked; smiling again. “Seskal would have killed us both.”

“And the dream of empire would have died a painful, terrible death,” Tekeny murmured.

“Elim isn’t going to give this boy up, you realize.”

“Of course not,” Tekeny responded. “And why should he? He can name an heir. Weren’t you always the one going on and on forever about the aristocracy of talent and merit?”

Tain laughed. “Ah… Those were the days of foolishness and youth; a time when idealism could be given its moment in the sun, as it were. Is there room for it anymore, though?”

“Ask Julian Bashir,” Tekeny replied; gazing at the two younger men who were now sitting side-by-side on the couch. “I’m sure he could answer your question quite emphatically.”

Tain chuckled. “I’m sure he could; if I could just get him to not be so afraid of me.”

Tekeny tilted his head to one side and regarded his old friend. “Don’t be so quick to quash that fear. It might be useful. Does he even know we’re watching them right now?”

“I highly doubt it,” Tain replied easily. “I know that that rogue Dailon is aware of it, though.”

“He’d damn well better be,” Tekeny muttered. “Have you thought about suggesting him as Elim’s heir? He’d be the perfect choice; always assuming he lives that long, of course.”

“You know me too well, my friend,” Tain said. “The boy has seven degrees, is a very skilled and deadly assassin, and actually manages to stay humble even as he improves his… ah… techniques. He has a certain… style; a unique way of looking at things that I find precious.”

“So, do you think the emperor is watching us right now?” Julian asked suddenly.

“Julian! Ezoryl actually sounded shocked. “What would make you think that?”

“Uh huh…” Bashir muttered. “And that’s when I had to shoot him, your majesty,” he said.

From the observation room, Ghemor and Tain stared at one another in astonished delight. Then, Tain had an idea. Turning towards a panel with a smirk, he hit a button.

“Julian,” he said; speaking into the open communications line, “don’t make me come in there.”

“Sir? I have absolutely no control over your actions. I’m a doctor; not a ventriloquist.”

Enabran Tain couldn’t help it. He started laughing. Truly, this young man would be good for his son; and Ezoryl Dailon would definitely be an invaluable support for them both.

“He said what?” Elim stared in horrified fascination at his father.

“That was almost exactly how poor Dailon reacted. I feared for his mental health. He was so shocked by your boy’s impudence that I very nearly had to give him some smelling salts.”

Garak burst out laughing. “Oh… Gods! What a clever boy he is!”

“And impertinent, too,” Tain said dryly. “Don’t forget impertinent. Are you going to return to DS 9 any time soon?” Tain asked after a moment of silence.

“No,” his son replied quietly. “Not unless you order me to, that is. I’d rather go to the Trivas system and finish what we’ve begun there. He can run the medical facility and we can solidify our holdings. Dailon can join us, and, if you don’t mind, I’d like to have Ziyal and Corat Damar come along as well. They’re both accustomed to working with each other and me.”

“Elim… That is a brilliant idea. Of course, I’ll want to send some ships to protect the station from the outside. We have no idea what the Romulans are up to near that area. Any recommendations on which ships I could spare to go with you?”

“The Trager under the command of Macet, and possibly The Ravinok under Frenar.”

“Do you feel like we’re being manipulated, old friend?” Tekeny Ghemor asked from the doorway to Tain’s private study. “Because if you don’t; I certainly do.”

“Manipulated, sir?” Garak turned to give the legate a smile of mock innocence.

“What are you really thinking, Son?” And Tain’s voice was very soft. There would be no quarter given; no lies or evasions would be tolerated, Garak knew.

“Sisko said something during one of the most recent briefings that disturbed me,” he replied. “Apparently, half of the Gamma Quadrant is ruled by a race of beings that are, like Constable Odo, shape-shifters. If they share his traits of inflexibility and persistent determination, they’ll realize the significance of this new doorway into the Alpha Quadrant and try to take advantage of the situation. I’m concerned that the Romulans, furious over our sudden alliance with the Federation, will try to make friends with these shape-shifters and give them a foothold into our space. They’re shape-shifters, father. I hope you see the frightening possibilities of that fact.”

“Oh my,” Ghemor murmured; sounding as stunned as Garak had felt upon hearing about it.

“That… is not good, Elim,” Tain agreed. “Then, by all means, take those ships and your staff and do what you can from the Trivas System. Keep me updated.”

Garak nodded, then turned with a parting inclination of his head to Ghemor and left.

When he returned to their rooms, he noticed that Julian was alone. Ezoryl had undoubtedly been sent to his house to pack in preparation for their upcoming trip. He crossed to sit beside his lover on the bed and pulled him close. He was touched when the boy snuggled instantly against him.

“Julian, my love,” he said softly, “I’m being sent to another space station. The emperor wants me to go to Empok Nor; and I was wondering if you wanted to come with me.”

“Of course I will,” he answered without hesitation. “But what’s at Empok Nor?”

“It’s a remote station in the Trivas system. Most of the planets around it are settled as Cardassian colonies. It’s a safe place, as far as space stations go, but you’ll have your own infirmary again; and our emperor wants you to start doing research on the anatomical makeup of Odo’s people.”

Julian blinked in surprise. “Why would he want to know about Odo?”

Garak told him everything he knew from Sisko’s briefing. It wasn’t much, but he was relieved to see that Julian realized the horrible implications of his news immediately.

“Wouldn’t it be easier if I went to DS9 for that?” Julian argued. “I mean, I’d have Odo right there to do the research on him, and with his consent. Besides, don’t we need to be closer to the wormhole in order to keep a better eye on the Gamma Quadrant shape-shifters?”

“Father has other people working on watching the wormhole there already. He wants us to work from a safe, relatively quiet position from deep inside Cardassian space so that anything we discover can be kept a bit safer. Also, we really don’t want Starfleet’s interference. No matter how well-intentioned they are, Starfleet officers don’t have as many resources as we have available to us right now. Besides, returning to DS9 would put you at risk; and I won’t do that.”

“Your concern for me is touching,” Julian teased.

“It’s also real, my dear,” he said solemnly. “Please take this seriously.”

“Oh… I am; but you have to admit that whatever we end up doing there will be risks.”

“That’s very true, but I prefer to minimize them as much as I possibly can.”

Julian couldn’t think of anything to say after that, so he just nodded and tilted his head up for a kiss. As their lips met, he sighed and closed his eyes. As far as he was concerned, the decision had been made. Elim was going to a space station, so he would be going with him.

Garak pulled back from the kiss and smiled as he touched the side of his lover’s face. “You’ll be happy to know that your heart brother, Damar and Ziyal are coming with us,” he said.

That did please Julian, and he showed it by giving him another kiss; this one more passionate and urgent than the last one had been. Soon, their urgency became more frantic; and nothing more was said on the matter of space stations, friends who were going with them, or shape-shifters.