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It was a few seconds before the door actually opened to reveal Garak himself, almost enough time for Julian to start getting truly nervous — what if the Cardassian wasn't even home? what if he'd been played for a fool yet again? — and Garak's bland smile didn't alter as his gaze parsed his visitor's form and face. "Ah, Doctor! What a pleasant surprise!" 

Still playing this game? After all that he's done on my behalf? He covered his initial disappointment with a smile of his own, even as his determination to win strengthened exponentially. "I don't see how it could be," he countered smoothly, "considering that we both agreed that I'd stop by after my duty shift to attend to your remaining bruises and cuts." 

"So we did," Garak chuckled, suddenly expansive, and stood aside with a gracious sweep of his arm. "Please, do come in!" 

"Thank you, I think I will." He strode into the suite past his host, taking in its details with a panning glance — nothing appeared to have been changed since his last, rather unpleasant visit — and simultaneously aware that Garak was surveying him rather keenly after all as he passed. "How are you feeling? Any new or worsening pain?" 

"Not at all. In fact, I just woke up from a nap a few minutes ago." He was perfectly groomed and fully dressed in a sleek black ensemble, and when Julian stopped and turned toward him again he found Garak surveying him critically. "I really must, ask, Doctor — do you make a habit of visiting all your patients dressed so… extravagantly?" 

Julian grinned. "Only the most special ones," he purred, fully aware of how his present outfit flattered him: the way the white linen shirt, softly clinging to his chest, and the white silk scarf, wound tight to his throat and trailing down the back of his finely cut riding coat of claret velvet, heightened the tone of his dark skin, and furthermore how the neat little coat, which stopped at the waist, highlighted his slim figure within his skin-tight doeskin breeches. Every detail of it, down to the gleaming black riding boots, had been calculated to accentuate his finest points, and to judge by the gleam of interest that had kindled in Garak's eyes in spite of his skeptical expression this particular strategy was succeeding after all. "And those I intend to take into a holosuite shortly, of course." 

His eyebrow ridges quirked upward. "A holosuite? Forgive me, but I've had a rather busy day already, and —" 

He held up one hand. "Nothing too strenuous, I promise. In fact, I'm taking you someplace where we can relax in greater comfort than either of our quarters has to offer." 

The spy took a slow step closer, cocking his head a little to one side, his voice soft. "I see. And if I should persist in my disinterest?" 

Still smiling, he glanced down at the Durex bag slung over his shoulder. "Then I'll have replicated this fine coat for nothing and I'd be out the money I've already paid to hold the suite. You wouldn't want me to be down five strips of latinum for no good cause, would you?" 

A pause, as Garak's gaze ran down Julian's body once more. This time it lingered with almost palpable intensity on every point: the silky flow of the scarf, the sharp gleam of the shirt, the embrace of the coat, the flawless smoothness of the breeches. It might have been merely professional interest in the fit of the replicated cloth, but Julian's body's response suggested otherwise. When Garak's eyes had evaluated the glossy boots and flicked back up to his face he also fancied that he felt them catch at his groin, which was reacting to the attention and which he made absolutely no effort to conceal.  

"That would be a pity," Garak agreed as if reluctant to concede the point. 

"Well, I'm glad you see it that way." He nodded toward the couch standing against the far wall. "But first I'll need to take care of all those cuts and bruises. Sit down, please, and remove your tunic and thermal undershirt." 

Garak didn't actually brace his feet further apart and dig in his heels physically, but that was the distinct impression Julian got. "I assure you, I'm perfectly —" 

"Elim." He used the name deliberately, letting his tongue linger over each syllable — the higher pitched vowel, the gliding consonant, the rounded hum of the finish. And he saw the way he tasted it hit home in the slightest widening of the blue eyes he was gazing into, unblinking. "I'm not playing that game with you tonight. I almost saw you die today — for my sake — and it's time for me to take care of you in the manner you deserve." He crossed the few steps that separated them and raised his right hand, tracing an angry-looking cut close to the line of the Cardassian's left jaw with a tender touch of his index and middle fingertips. "Please — permit me to do this for you. Haven't we both earned that much, at least?" 

He saw the sudden proximity and physical contact strike even deeper than the name had. For a fraction of a second Garak looked like a wild stag that has just caught the scent of the hounds — his chin came up, his nostrils flared, and his eyes flashed with fierce and wary fire. It was a microsecond of perilous balance: the slightest miscalculation and he would be gone, emotionally if not physically. The predator that had awakened to deal with Primator Assok was looking Julian directly in the eyes, something ancient and saurian, operating on animal instincts bred in distant soil beneath an alien sky. 

It demanded an equally instinctive response. Not knowing whether it was the right or the wrong thing to do, Julian stepped forward again to press his left cheek to Garak's right, slowly and gently stroking skin against skin, curving his right hand against the other side of the Cardassian's jaw. He felt each tiny scale, surprisingly soft, almost silken; he felt the cool temperature of both skin and breath, not unexpected but nonetheless undeniably thrilling. And he felt a shock of tension run through Garak's entire body, infusing the bare centimetre of space that separated their torsos with a subliminal high-pitched vibration. 

One Human heartbeat. Two. Three, and he felt another change — the slightest downshift, a settling rather than flight.  

"Very well, Doctor." A barely inflected breath in his left ear. "If you insist…" 

He released the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, managing not to gasp it out in a relieved rush. "I do," he murmured in return, and took a step back again, knowing — hoping — that it was now safe to give Garak his space. It was difficult to remove his hand from that rounded cheek, but he managed to do so, and to gesture toward the couch with a sweep of that hand. "After you. I'll need a moment to calibrate the regenerator." 

A brisk nod, although their gazes remained locked. "Of course." He studied the Human for a second longer before turning away, leaving Julian to set the sports bag and medical kit down on the dining table and remove the regenerator. He'd gotten past the first two barriers — Garak's door and the all-important initial physical contact — but Garak himself was a vast dark stretch of unknown territory and he had no idea how many landmines were buried along its borders. 

He knew one, thing, though, as he turned around to see the spy shrugging out of his tunic and setting it neatly aside over the back of the couch: that he'd always savoured the exploration of the strange and the new, and that the taste he'd had of what lay at the end of that journey made it worth any risk and any danger — and any amount of keen thought and careful handling. 

Smiling ever so slightly, he performed the necessary calibrations and renewed his approach.