There isn’t time at the internment camp.
There’s barely enough time for a moment of shocked recognition before any further thought on the matter is pushed away first in favor of Tain (alive -- but then, Garak should have known him to be too stubborn to die before another valiant attempt at the last word) and then in favor of reconfiguring the life support system in the wall. The work isn’t difficult, but keeping the storm clouds of panic at bay consumes any moment that might be spared for self-recrimination.
After the runabout autopilot is engaged and a message is sent to Deep Space Nine, he has time to pull apart the puzzle of the last four weeks, but he banishes the thought for later. There is very little privacy to be had aboard a Federation runabout, and while he’s reasonably certain he could keep his thoughts off of his face, there’s no sense in taking unnecessary risks. Instead, he spends the journey in the forward compartment, needling Martok. It’s a little petty and certainly beneath him and there’s a barely-concealed look of pity on Martok’s face, but it keeps his mind off of other things.
When they get to the station, Worf is transported directly to the infirmary, and the rest of them step off the runabout greeted by the station’s entire senior staff. Captain Sisko calls for a full debriefing, which Bashir insists occur after they all get checked out in the infirmary as well. Garak manages to get out of the latter -- the Jem’Hadar hadn’t exactly had the chance to strike him while he was hidden between the walls -- but the former, it seems, is unavoidable.
He tells the truth. Mostly. The parts that can be corroborated by the others, at any rate, and a lie by omission hardly counts as a lie by Cardassian standards. It still lasts an age, but that’s alright too -- the backlog of work in his shop can only distract him so much.
The good doctor would no doubt recommend a hot meal and a few hours’ rest, but instead, Garak seeks out Ziyal. Her reaction to his safe return is predictably sentimental and it continues to baffle, but that’s a mystery for another day. She would probably have been content to spend much of the evening in his company, but he begs off with an appeal to the sorry state of his shop. He promises to meet her for their regular lunch the next day.
There is work to be done -- he’d left his shop in something of a hurry, and he faces the shrill wrath of at least one Bajoran bride if he doesn’t return to his outstanding commissions with some haste -- but he simply can’t muster enough concentration to care about warm-weather wedding trends. He returns to his quarters instead, intending to heed the doctor’s undelivered advice.
The meal is cursory, as they so often are this far away from Cardassia. He tries reading for an hour or so, but the words slip off the edges of the padd, so he just goes to bed.
Exhaustion prickles behind both eyes, so he expects to drop off quickly, but sleep eludes him in favor of a ticker tape of all of his failures over the past month and change.
Four weeks, Garak thinks as he stares up at the ceiling. Four weeks, and he hadn’t suspected a thing.
He vaguely recalls Bashir talking about the conference he’d mentioned. They’d had lunch, Bashir had left in a runabout, he’d returned, and they’d had lunch together as usual. Except, apparently, they hadn’t.
Had there been anything out of the ordinary? Had Bashir seemed more distant, less willing to chase down every argumentative path their conversations took until, triumph writ large on his features, he finally earned that small, pleased smile Garak so rarely bestowed upon him?
But surely there had been nothing. It was true that living on this contemptible station with its too-bright lights and constant chill had his observational skills somewhat out of practice, and yes, perhaps he’d been slightly distracted by Ziyal’s puzzling interest in him, but surely…. Surely the changeling’s performance had been flawless. Surely there had been no clues, no way to tell the impostor from the real Julian Bashir, even for a former member of the Obsidian Order trained by Enabran Tain himself.
The alternative hardly bears mentioning.
He wakes with a start, the acrid taste of panic on his tongue.
“Computer, lights,” he chokes out, wincing at the strained sound of his voice. The lights are too bright, but a moment of squinting while his eyes adjust is worth the confirmation that the walls are not, in fact, closing in on him.
For heaven’s sake, Elim, get a grip, he thinks sternly. This isn’t a Dominion prison camp, it’s just his quarters. There’s no excuse for this sort of behavior here.
He blinks up at the ceiling. “Computer, lights out,” he commands and is plunged into darkness once more. He closes his eyes, draws the layout of his quarters in his mind. The wall opposite the bed is 2.88 meters away and stationary. There is plenty of air.
Still, it’s a long time before sleep comes.
Ziyal meets him at his shop, and they walk to the Replimat together. The conversation is idle chatter, which Garak carefully steers away from anything to do with the events of the last week, the Dominion, or, indeed, any politics whatsoever.
Instead, he entertains her with a story about an Andorian with awful color sense that had stopped by the shop to browse a few weeks ago. It’s even true, more or less, and the smile it puts on her face warms at least some of the chill in his saurian bones.
Bashir is running late, it seems, so they order. The lunch rush is in full swing, so finding a table that will sit three takes a little hunting, but eventually their usual spot becomes available. Ziyal tells him about the book she’s reading, an enigma tale Garak is familiar with. It’s not quite to her tastes, Garak can tell, and she’s a little too willing to defer to his learned opinion, but it’s far from an unpleasant way to spend the time.
The lunch hour is nearing its halfway mark when Bashir finally makes his appearance. He gets his food and makes a beeline for their regular table.
“I’m so sorry I’m late,” Bashir says as he sets his tray down and drops into a chair. “I’m afraid I’ve only got a minute. I’m gonna be swamped for weeks untangling all the messes that changeling left. Do you know it actually performed brain surgery on Captain Sisko?”
Ziyal looks from Bashir to Garak uneasily. “Changeling?”
Bashir’s head jerks up sharply and he stares at Ziyal as if he’s just now registering her presence. “Oh, um--” he says uncomfortably.
“It seems we’ve been sharing this table with an impostor,” Garak says. Bashir shoots him an irritated glance -- Starfleet is probably not terribly in favor of their security vulnerabilities becoming public knowledge -- but Ziyal deserves to know exactly whom she’s been dining with. She’d probably hear all about it from Major Kira later anyway.
Ziyal’s eye ridges shoot toward her hairline. “That’s awful! And no one noticed?” She looks at Garak. “You didn’t notice?”
He manages to keep the wince off of his face, but Bashir is less successful. “It was very convincing.”
“Yes,” Bashir says, displeasure heavy in his voice. “So I hear. But if you don’t mind, I’d rather talk about something else.”
“Oh, yes, of course, Julian,” Ziyal says, understanding as always. She gives him a bright smile and doesn’t notice Bashir’s surprised blink at her use of his given name. “We were talking about The Narrow Staircase. Have you read it?”
Bashir has, actually, so the conversation continues along its previous track without Garak having to direct it there. He makes all the appropriate sounds, thoughtful “hmm”s and “oh really, doctor”s, but very little of his mind is focused on following the discussion.
Instead, he studies Bashir’s face, his expressions, his vocal cadence. It’s like playing a child’s game of spot the difference.
Had the changeling furrowed its brow in precisely this manner? Had it raised its pitch here and lowered it here? Had it shared Bashir’s opinions on repetitive epics, on Preloc, on heretical Hebitian texts and displayed them in exactly the same way, right down to the little wrinkle of disapproval at the corner of Bashir’s mouth?
Of course not, says an insidious voice in the back of Garak’s mind. The signs were there if only you’d been looking. If only you hadn’t been so distracted.
“Garak,” says Ziyal and not, he suspects, for the first time.
“My apologies, my dear; it’s so busy here today. Could you repeat that?”
A look passes between Bashir and Ziyal. The fact that they don’t actually know each other at all doesn’t seem to have hindered their uncanny habit of ganging up on him.
Ziyal purses her lips, trying to gauge whether it’s even worth posing her query yet again. “I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the nature of the relationship between Chobat and Rakeen.”
They had apparently moved on from The Narrow Staircase to another novel by the same author. How ironic that he’d let himself become so distracted by lamenting his unforgivable distraction over the past month.
“There isn’t one,” Garak answers. He hadn’t been listening to their opinions on the subject, doubtless already expressed, but as a non-Cardassian and a half-Cardassian who’d spent her life largely in the company of Bajorans, it isn’t difficult to guess that they’d both seen subtext where there wasn’t any. “What’s that human phrase -- they’re just two ships passing in the night.”
Predictably, Ziyal frowns in disagreement and Bashir argues his case, interpreting Cardassian actions from a Federation viewpoint. He’s wrong -- as he so often is about these matters -- but there’s an attractive flush of passion on his cheeks and in his eyes that Garak hasn’t seen in far too long.
How could you have missed it? Garak thinks.
Bashir’s combadge announces the time, signaling the end of the lunch hour, so they get up to leave. Ziyal offers to walk Garak back to his shop, but he demurs. She holds up her palm, and Garak presses his hand to hers.
That garners him a look from Bashir. His eyes flick back and forth between the two of them, the tiniest wrinkle in his brow. It’s gone almost immediately, and Garak is almost proud -- the doctor is getting much better at keeping the signs of every passing emotion off of his face.
It’s an innocuous gesture as far as Cardassian displays of affection go, but Bashir wouldn’t know that. Cardassian literature was rarely explicit in these regards, and it wasn’t as if the subject had come up in conversation. For a moment, Garak is tempted to explain -- how the way he’d touched Bashir’s shoulders upon their first meeting was really the more scandalous gesture, made innocent in practice (if not intent) by the lack of ridges there. How he’d wanted to reach out to Bashir too, tipping their fingers together in a similar but much more intimate gesture.
He knew now of course that it had been a changeling he’d been considering touching palms with, so it was all the better that he’d kept his hands to himself.
He’s finishing the remains of yet another disappointing replicator dinner in his quarters when the door chimes. There are few people who would come to call on him at all, much less at this hour, and sure enough, the door slides open to reveal Bashir fidgeting in the doorway.
“Doctor,” Garak greets, an intentional air of pleasant surprise in his voice. Infuriatingly, it’s almost entirely genuine. “Come in, come in. What can I do for you?”
Bashir steps past him into the room. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” he says. His eyes dart around, noting the plate Garak has yet to return to the replicator before finally meeting Garak’s. “I just wanted to make sure you’re alright. You were acting rather odd at lunch today.”
Yes, he had been doing a rather poor job of masking his distraction, but that’s his own business, and the doctor certainly has more important things to attend to. “I can assure you, I’m quite fine. Thank you for your concern.”
Bashir moves in a step closer, studying Garak’s face. There’s a puzzling expression on Bashir’s features, and Garak is not sure he’ll like what it heralds.
“You don’t need to put on a brave face for me, Garak,” Bashir says. “You’ve been through a trauma. It doesn’t make you weak to admit it’s affected you.”
This is unsubtle, even for Bashir. Apparently his lectures hadn’t been quite as well-received as he’d thought.
Garak deflects. “One could say the same of you, Doctor.”
A twitch in Bashir’s bottom lip telegraphs a slight air of disapproval, and he deflects back. “I’ve been so busy in the infirmary that I’ve scarcely had time to breathe, never mind dwell on my little stay in the tender care of the Dominion.”
Ah. This is not at all how Bashir had intended this conversation to go, but Garak is more than willing to keep him off balance, especially if he’d actually come here expecting a straight answer. “I’m sure,” Garak says easily. “Why, you wouldn’t believe the orders than have stacked up in the time I’ve been away.”
Unfortunately, it seems as though Bashir is unwilling to abandon his battering ram approach just yet. “I’m not trying to pry, Garak. I came here because you’re my friend, and you’ve been through a terrible experience. I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“And I’ve assured you that I am,” Garak says. “Now if there’s something else you--”
“But you’re not,” Bashir interrupts, abruptly stepping forward to close the space between them so he can glare down at Garak. “You’re very good at hiding it, but I know you. Don’t tell me you’re fine, Garak, because we both know that’s a lie.”
“Do we?” says Garak mildly.
“Every word out of your mouth is a lie, so yes, I’d say we do.”
“Then there’s really no way to win, is there, Doctor?” Garak allows the faintest touch of a smile to ghost his lips, his only concession to the pleasurable heat of the upper hand.
“This isn’t a battle,” Bashir says. “There is no winning.”
Garak clicks his tongue. “How disappointing, doctor. I rather thought you’d have learned better by now.”
“Is it so impossible for us to have a regular conversation, no tricks or lies or contests?” The doctor is nearly shouting now, gesticulating in the remaining space between them.
“I doubt you’d be nearly so fond of me,” Garak says. He lets his voice go dry and disinterested. “No doubt you’ve any number of companions with whom you could have ‘regular conversations’.”
“So I should talk to one of them if I’m not in the mood to jump through your hoops, is that it?” Garak shrugs, as if it makes no difference to him, and Bashir turns his face away in disgust. “Damn it, Garak, I was worried about you. I realize you’re probably not overly acquainted with the notion, but I’d appreciate it if you weren’t so glib.”
The timing has to be just right. Garak leans in close, his face mere inches away from Bashir’s. “Are you quite sure,” he says, quiet and very serious, “that it’s my mental health you’re concerned about?”
“Of course,” Bashir says immediately, his confident tone betrayed by his sudden refusal to maintain eye contact. “I’m here, aren’t I?” Who else would I be concerned about?”
Garak’s voice goes low. “You were at that camp too, and for so much longer. In solitary confinement, no less. I see the mask you’ve put on for your superiors -- the stalwart Federation doctor, so quickly able to return to duty as if nothing happened at all.” A beat. “Which of us is really lying, Doctor Bashir?”
Bashir retreats, one hasty step backwards and then another. “Don’t -- we’re not talking about me. That won’t work.”
“But doesn’t it bother you,” Garak presses, following him, “that no one could tell the changeling wasn’t you? Not your co-workers, not your friends -- not even Mr. O’Brien?” A self-satisfied smirk lurks behind Garak’s neutral expression, but he doesn’t let it out.
Bashir’s shoulders droop and he drops his gaze to the floor. Garak is briefly disappointed -- has the fight gone out of the doctor so quickly? But then Bashir squares his shoulders, looks up to lock his eyes on Garak’s, and says, “Probably not as much as it bothers you that you couldn’t tell.”
Well done, Bashir, Garak thinks. Bashir hasn’t quite regained his earlier confidence, but there is a sort of quiet steadiness in his stance. He reaches out with one hand and touches Garak’s arm, those warm brown eyes of his wide with concern. “And it does, doesn’t it,” he says softly. “Bother you.”
He could deny it, but Bashir will simply dismiss it out of hand. “I should have been paying closer attention,” he admits.
“Garak, it had everyone fooled. Miles couldn’t even tell.” Bashir tightens his hold on Garak’s arm, and Garak pulls out of his grasp, turning away.
“My dear doctor,” Garak says. “I am not everyone. And do forgive me for saying so, but Mr. O’Brien is far from a paragon of observation.”
A frown passes over Bashir’s face as he shuffles through possible responses. Garak finds himself hoping Bashir returns to “confrontational” -- Garak’s lifetime of experience makes argument the safest path. Bashir’s face will hide nothing and Garak is practiced enough to give nothing away.
Frustratingly, though, Bashir blows out a breath and steps around Garak so they’re facing each other again. If Garak wants an argument, it seems he’s going to have to provoke one. Five minutes ago, that would have been an appealing option -- and Bashir’s temper makes it so easy -- but all of a sudden, he just feels tired. He lets Bashir’s hands settle to rest on his arms.
“There’s no way you could have known,” Bashir says gently. “There’s nothing you could have done.”
The words are meant to be reassuring, Garak knows, and Bashir probably even means them, but all Garak hears is pity. Poor old Elim Garak; exile has made him stupid.
The truth is, he’d allowed himself to get comfortable. Lunch with Bashir and Ziyal, breakfast with Odo, the occasional drink with Jadzia Dax. He’d actually made friends on this hellish station. He’d worked so hard to cultivate the air of a friendly tailor that he’d actually become one.
There was a time when the very idea of indulging in any of life’s little pleasures would have been anathema to him. Distance and discomfort had kept him on his toes, kept him sharp. But he’d allowed the infuriating doctor to get under his scales, had fed him breadcrumbs of truth under all the lies until now when he looked at Garak, he saw more than the carefully painted facade. Garak had never intended the mirror to go both ways, but he had raised the lights little by little until he was all but transparent. And the worst part -- the worst part -- is that he’d actually liked it. It wasn’t enough that his conversations with Bashir were passingly entertaining, no -- he’d actually enjoyed letting Bashir figure him out, enjoyed the fact that Bashir knew who he’d been, what he’d done, and stuck around anyway.
And what had it gotten him? Killed, nearly, along with everyone else on the station and the planet below.
If he were smart, if he were half the man he used to be, he’d put a stop to this right now. Lash out with precision strikes to all of Bashir’s various insecurities and remind him exactly how dangerous Garak could be.
Except he’d tried that once. Years ago, when he’d been in so much pain and desperate to suffer in solitude. It hadn’t worked then, and the years have made Bashir more stubborn, not less.
Garak has no doubt that if he really put his mind to it, he could drive the doctor away. Bashir’s tenacity is no match for an operative of the Obsidian Order, even one as out of practice as he is, and the resulting distance would allow him to regain some measure of objectivity. Garak is not in the habit for repeating his mistakes, and this is no exception. The Dominion won’t slip by his notice again.
He would miss the weekly lunches, the electric sizzle of a truly satisfying argument, but what are one tired Cardassian’s attempts at contentment compared to what he could accomplish with the full use of his faculties?
And yet. Exile has been so long and so cold. Bashir’s eyes are soft, practically begging Garak to let him help, and it’s so tempting to give in.
Tain would be disgusted if he knew that Garak’s even considering it. That his protege, his son, could be swayed by sentiment. The State above all, the good of the whole first and foremost. That’s the proper order of things.
Well, Tain’s dead. He wouldn’t believe it if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes. And Cardassia -- well. Cardassia is surely soon to follow if the Dominion has anything to say about it. What use has that state for an aging spy with a lifetime of failures?
He raises a hand to trace the line of Bashir’s jaw, smooth where Garak is used to scales. Bashir’s eyebrows raise in surprise at the sudden contact, but his expression settles almost immediately, far more quickly than Garak might have expected.
“Garak,” says Bashir. He’s breathing a little raggedly, and his pupils are dilated. “What are you--”
“Shh,” Garak murmurs, brushing the pad of his thumb across Bashir’s ridge-less cheek. This is unquestionably a weakness, and one he may very soon come to regret, but perhaps it’s time, even just for a moment, to step out of Tain’s shadow and feel the sun on his face.
Bashir’s mouth is soft and yielding when Garak kisses him. He’s not naive enough to think that a single dalliance (or even a series of dalliances -- he can tell even now that this will be impossible to give up now that he has it) will change anything, but oh, oh, Bashir presses in close, wrapping his arms around Garak’s waist, and for this one moment, everything finally feels warm.
There’s a saying on Cardassia: Let the crime fit the punishment. When Bashir tugs him toward the bedroom, Garak goes without protest. If this road should lead to hell, as it almost certainly will, then let him be damned.
Humans, it seems, become endearingly drowsy after coupling.
“It’s to do with a hormone that’s produced in human males,” explains Bashir around a yawn. He curls up next to Garak with his head pillowed on Garak’s shoulder.
“How odd,” Garak remarks. “And how easily exploitable.”
Bashir hums noncommittally and closes his eyes.
How odd indeed. A Cardassian would never allow himself such an opening for attack. It would be so easy, Garak can’t help thinking, to take advantage of this moment. If you’re going to be foolishly sentimental, whispers Tain’s voice in his ear, then use it. Every situation presents an opportunity. What secrets he could tease out of the doctor now with the judicious application of pressure here and here....
There’s a faint, pleased smile on Bashir’s mouth, and his forehead is smooth and relaxed. Garak gazes down at him, feeling immeasurably fond, and chases Tain’s voice out of his head.
“Stop that,” Bashir says. He rolls away just enough to stretch, his eyes still closed.
“Stop what?” says Garak, unable to look away from the fascinating interplay of shifting muscles beneath Bashir’s thin skin.
“Thinking so loudly.” Bashir open his eyes and grins, then tilts his chin up for a kiss.
He’d thought Bashir so unable to resist to his advances, but as Garak is drawn inexorably to Bashir’s mouth for a slow, lazy kiss, he wonders which of them is truly helpless.
He slides a hand around Bashir’s back to draw him close, and once again, they’re skin to gloriously warm skin. Were Garak a younger man, it might have led to a repeat performance, but as it is, he’s content to lie here in this moment. The chill that has been his constant companion since he first set foot on Terok Nor is but a distant memory.
It’s dangerous, Garak knows, to be this happy. But right now, he simply cannot bring himself to care.
Eventually, Bashir breaks from his mouth, presses a soft kiss to the ridge above Garak’s left eye, and leans back enough to study Garak’s face. “You know,” he says, “I am aware that this --” he makes an all-encompassing gesture with one hand -- “was an attempt to change the subject.”
And quite a successful one, judging by Bashir’s breathless voice, the state of his hair, the sucking bruise just beneath his collarbone, his pink, kiss-swollen lips. “Oh?” says Garak, quirking an eye ridge.
“Yes,” says Bashir definitively. He pushes down on Garak’s shoulder with gentle pressure until Garak is flat on his back and then rolls half on top of him and looks down with a mixture of concern and undisguised affection. “I’m willing to delay the conversation, not drop it entirely. You still ought to talk to someone. You could make an appointment with Lt. Villanueva.”
Garak gives the suggestion the skeptical look it deserves and Bashir laughs.
“Alright, then you could talk to me.”
The corner of Garak’s mouth curls up playfully. “I thought I was talking to you.”
Bashir swats at his arm. “You know what I mean.”
“I suppose I do,” Garak says.
They fall silent. Garak doesn’t say anything at all for a long time, and Bashir slides down to rest his head on Garak’s chest, his fingers tracing patterns along the scales on Garak’s stomach.
Surely no Dominion operative could fool him at so close a range. It’s an excuse, Garak knows, and not a very good one. It certainly doesn’t absolve his earlier transgressions.
He’d meant what he’d told Bashir in the internment camp, about sentiment being the greatest weakness. It’s a lesson he’s learned a hundred times, one that he keeps stubbornly disregarding. Perhaps he’ll learn it yet again soon.
“Did I ever tell you how I came to join the Obsidian Order?” Garak says finally.
Bashir goes very still, like Garak is a regnar he doesn’t want to spook. “No, I don’t believe you have.”
Garak smiles. “When I was a boy -- perhaps twelve or thirteen….”
He tells the story. It’s a complete work of fiction of course -- the broad strokes are there, but old habits die hard, and the details aren’t important anyway. Perhaps it’s not the real story, but it’s true enough.
It’ll have to do.