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Barriers, Both Cultural and Physiological

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"I'm not entirely certain I understand. Death is considered a good thing in human literature?"

"Not inherently. This isn't literal death, of course, but metaphorical death, which represents change, transformation. It's a common storytelling method to have a character lose everything, and thus "die", only to come out the other side better for it. Though you do have some literal death that is also metaphorical; usually a character who suffered greatly in life, now died and gone to Heaven to live on in eternal happiness. And in the ancient epics it's a simple thing to descend to some sort of underworld, often on a rescue mission of some kind, and walk out again fundamentally changed. Do you understand?"

"I believe so. For the sake of a theme, and a rather simplistic one at that, if you don't mind me saying, all sense of realism is thrown out the window."

"Garak, these are creation myths, questions about the origins of life as we know it! Before science had advanced enough to provide possible answers, humanity had to... get creative. Surely the Hebitians wrote similar stories."

"Oh, you'd be surprised, doctor. Now, tell me more about these... creation myths."

Julian readily does so, glad to freely espouse opinions on a topic his conversation partner knows nothing about; Garak, for his part, basks in the enthusiastic cadence of his voice. It's been rare in recent weeks to have these lunches with Julian, rarer still to be having them in the privacy of Garak's quarters without Ziyal there as well, generously acting as a buffer to the uncomfortable tension that still lies between them when conversation gets personal. But she and Major Kira are doing something together today, and Ziyal was uncharacteristically tight-lipped about the whole thing when explaining her absence.

Naturally, such behavior piqued Garak's curiosity, but he's yet to investigate properly. He suspects it has something to do with why Gul Dukat dared show his face on the station a few days ago, but the reason for that is also a mystery. Something intentionally kept from him, no doubt, as in the wake of Tain's death and Dukat's latest twist of the knife, neither the Federation nor the Bajoran government is certain of where Garak's loyalties lie.

Fair's fair, neither does Garak.

Oh, of course he's ultimately loyal to what he's always been loyal to: Cardassia. But with Dukat in command of a Dominion puppet state, and with most of the revolutionaries being leftovers of the civilian coup Garak retains mixed feelings towards, it's difficult to say if his idea of Cardassia matches anyone else's, these days. That rather disturbing thought has left him floundering; he has a cause but no idea of how to serve it anymore. It's quite distressing.

And Julian, Garak realizes suddenly, has gone distressingly quiet. But when he looks up from his plate of sem'hal stew, it's to see a wry, amused expression on Julian's face. He pulls an exaggerated guilty look to match. This is old hat for them, more a performance than a conversation, and if he remembers this particular opening gambit correctly, next Julian will raise an eyebrow and say...

"Enjoying the spice pudding?" Garak ducks his gaze to hide a small, reflexive smile, easily recalling a dozen other times that phrase has been spoken between them since that first, years-ago iteration. It's at once an invitation to share what's troubling him and an acknowledgement that he need not do so, that Julian will respect both his silences and his lies. It's become unexpectedly comforting to hear.

"Oh, you have my most sincere apologies, my dear doctor," Garak says, drawing out the end of the performance as he decides how best to direct the ensuing conversation. Talking about Cardassia is hardly an option. But perhaps one of his more trifling concerns? "I was merely reflecting on the curious absence of our other lunchtime companion today."

"Ziyal? Yes, I believe she and Major Kira are..." Julian pauses, recalling something. "Busy," he finishes inadequately.

"Busy with something not meant for my ears, I take it?" Garak asks gently. When an awkward look crosses Julian's face, Garak leans forward to rest a comforting hand on the table between them. "Don't worry, doctor, you've done nothing but confirm suspicions I already had. And, as Major Kira seems loathe to involve herself in Cardassian affairs, I'm sure it's really of no interest to me." Another awkward look, though better concealed this time.

Garak considers following up on it. It hardly seems worthwhile. He has better sources for that kind of information who will feel far less guilty about revealing it to him. And goodness knows how hard he's worked to repair their friendship over the last year, and how reluctant he would be to bring it to an inadvertent end over gossip. And yet...

"Am I wrong?" he asks, both eyeridges raised high. Julian fidgets minutely. "You seem uncomfortable."

"It's not that," Julian protests automatically. Garak hardly believes him, and gives him a look that says as much. "Well," Julian hedges, "it's not about that, exactly. It's just, there's something I learned about in the course of events, talking to Major Kira about - things. And I wanted to ask you... but it's none of my business, and terribly personal, I shouldn't - "

"Doctor," Garak interrupts. The sudden sharpness of his tone grabs Julian's attention, and he quiets. "Please," Garak insists, voice gentler. "I'm an open book."

Julian smiles and muffles a snort of laughter, but remains silent. His expression, if it can be trusted as authentic, reads of caution, uncertainty. It puts Garak slightly on edge. If his genetically enhanced friend feels the need to spend so long phrasing the question, it must be more than just a typical Federation misconception of Cardassian mores; this must be something that Garak himself has treated seriously in front of Julian. That's a rather short list.

"It's just that... Tain." Garak forces his body not to react. A top of the list subject, then. "In the prison, when he asked you those questions about his old enemies. Was that his way of determining if he needed to perform the shri-tal with you?"

To perform the - white noise buzzes in Garak's ears as he tries to determine if he has really been asked the question he thinks he just heard. Automatic memory recall proves his hearing has not failed him here. Which means.... well, for one thing, he really does need to find out what Major Kira's gotten herself involved with. And for another...

For another, he really needs to find better ways of distracting himself from his own thoughts. It's being entirely ineffective right now.

The question is not so far off from one Garak used to ask himself, before Tain's encrypted message arrived at the station. In his copious spare time he allowed himself the frivolity of imagining countless potential scenarios. Discovering definitive proof of Tain's death, and finally being able to escape the specter of the man that haunted him for so many years. Or perhaps rescuing Tain from the Dominion and returning to Cardassia at his side, acknowledged at last for all the work he'd done. Or, in the scenario that best resembles the actual events, finding him at death's door and being offered the honor of his shri-tal, and all it would imply.

But the speculation had been pointless. A frivolous effort, as he knew from the start.

All of them were impossible in reality.

"Garak?"

Closing his mouth with a sharp click of teeth, Garak shakes his head. How ridiculous he must have seemed, sitting here gaping at Julian, mouth slack and his heart (that frustratingly indestructible organ) in his throat. Embarrassingly sentimental behavior, entirely unfitting an Obsidian Order agent. Tain would have expected nothing more of him. "Forgive me, doctor; you caught me quite off guard with that line of questioning."

"Then..." Julian starts to say, looking disheartened.

"The answer to your question is no, for a number of reasons," Garak says, a bitter smile quirking at the corners of his lips. "First and foremost of which is that to invoke the shri-tal would be to acknowledge a relationship to me that Tain denied - almost literally - to his dying breath." And even the moment of acknowledgement Garak got was hardly definitive. Pride in a child's stubborn determination to succeed is hardly an emotion reserved for fathers alone.

"Garak?"

Garak blinks. "Hmm?"

"What else?" Julian says it with a tone that suggests this isn't the first time. Really, this distractibility is unseemly, even for the mere Cardassian tailor Garak plays at being. He's able to process thoughts on a dozen different levels simultaneously by virtue of his biology, he should be able to pay enough attention to a conversation partner to realize when he's been spoken to.

Surely Tain's death hasn't affected him that much. The man was spiteful and cruel to the end, and while those can be admirable traits in the head of an intelligence agency, they don't suit a father.

He doesn't deserve to affect Garak that much.

Something in Garak's expression causes Julian to watch him warily. Not for the first time, Garak wonders what he sees there. If he has any idea of how expressions both macro and micro differ between their species, if he can still accurately guess what Garak is thinking or feeling despite that cultural and physiological boundary. If he's always been able to do so. And that is a preoccupation he far prefers to thoughts of his father, though he's reached no satisfactory conclusions on either topic.

He smiles, the obvious false one he puts on for customers, just to see what happens. Julian frowns, but says only, "You said there were a number of reasons, but only gave one."

"Ah, yes. Well, besides being... inappropriate, shall we say, to perform the shri-tal with, there was, quite simply, nothing Tain could have told me I didn't already know." Garak watches Julian consider this, brow furrowed, and wonders again how much of this is an act, a facade much like his own but infinitely more believable. Garak prefers to be unbelievable, himself, but he's in a situation where he would be disbelieved regardless. Julian's reasons for putting on a performance are much different... or at least they were; those reasons no longer appear to apply. But aside from comical handicaps when playing darts with Chief O'Brien and some small improvements in speed of calculation and movement in his daily life, there seem to have been no changes since his secret came out.

His real question, Garak supposes, is whether Julian was always like this, or if he kept the act up for so long he started to believe it was true.

That's why he prefers to put on the most absurd performance he can get away with. When all of your behavior is a sham, it makes keeping in mind what's false that much easier.

"You don't really believe you know everything about Tain, do you?" Julian's tone is skeptical, but the brightness in his eye, the way he leans in conspiratorially - well. That creates a very different picture. It isn't too much to still hope these behaviors are real, Garak thinks with a little shiver of pleasure. Certainly his own similar actions are real enough, though they serve a dual purpose.

"Of course I do," Garak says primly, feigning insult. They're falling back into comfortable ground again, the old exchanges full of awed questions and cryptic answers. "I would have made a very poor right hand man if I didn't know all the secrets I would need to protect him from."

"But how can you be sure?" Julian presses, leaning closer yet. "You went years without speaking to him, without even being on the same planet. Nearly the entire Cardassian Union laid between you! Surely he developed some new secrets while you were out of contact?"

"Oh, he did," Garak assures him, "but that hardly means I didn't know about them. I do have my sources," he adds with a secretive smile. Julian's returning smile is warm with affection, and for a moment this could be a lunch three years ago, when the awe and mystery in their words were as sincere as the two of them can ever be. An odd longing strikes Garak suddenly for those simpler times, and he quite firmly snuffs out that desire. What they have now is not as easy, true, and requires a more delicate touch to maintain, but there are very few things Garak would trade it for, and the wonderstruck young man he once knew is not among them.

In the same way, he would not trade his last minutes with his father for any of the fictions he had imagined. It may not be as nice or as pretty as the alternative, but neither was Tain, and while Garak is fond of lies he prefers to keep self-delusions to a minimum.

Almost as if he's been following along with Garak's internal conversation, or been having the same conversation himself, Julian takes this moment to say, "I've missed this."

After a lengthy moment's consideration, Garak lays one of his hands over Julian's; the doctor looks at their hands and then up at him with wide eyes, uncertain. It's possibly the first expression on Julian's face since Garak learned about his genetic background that Garak has no doubts about. His expression does not shift into comprehension, or fear, or happiness or disgust or any of the other possibilities Garak has entertained over the years. He remains confused, and as Garak carefully draws his hand back, turning what would have been a caress into a brief touch, he considers whether, on this point at least, self-delusion might be preferable to the mild tortures he puts himself through instead.

"As have I, my dear. As have I."