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Learning the Language

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Part One

If it had occurred to Doctor Julian Bashir to try and summarize his first fourteen weeks on Cardassia Prime, he would probably have said that he had never learned this much in such a short space of time. The medical discoveries alone were astounding. It felt like he had only just begun to connect the dots, to find patterns and to mentally catalogue the characteristics of the Cardassian body; it was incredible to find how little he (and therefore the Federation) had known about them. Although not so incredible when you realized how fiercely private the Cardassians were about everything – including the particulars of their anatomy.
 
Julian had, however, not yet tried to evaluate his time spent here; as it was, he was simply too busy. There were medical emergencies left and right, immediate problems at hand to be solved – one particularly nasty virus still dated back to the Klingon invasion, although it had since mutated into various other forms – as well as hundreds of thousands of people undernourished, crippled, traumatized. He was not a psychologist by profession but was now dealing with many patients with psychosomatic afflictions and post-traumatic stress disorder, not to mention failed suicide attempts. That, combined with his old projects from Deep Space Nine which he was trying to continue in order to stay sane, and Julian had not found a single minute to spare for thinking about how he was doing or how long he was going to stay.
 
Unfortunately, life had recently become even more complicated, namely in the form of his head nurse, Goral. Julian thought that if things continued as they were now, he may soon have to start thinking. A thought which greatly displeased him.
 
“You have come without your shadow today,” observed Dr. Zhuni Palok as they walked side by side through the eastern district of Ginala, distributing anti-pollen hyposprays (it was almost spring, not that Julian would have noticed had it not been for the fact that allergy cases had multiplied all over the planet and the last thing people needed right now was hayfever to add to their various other ailments).
 
“Well, the sun is not fully out today,” replied Julian evenly and saw the right corner of Zhuni’s mouth lift slightly. The doctor from the northern district was not very expressive, but she did enjoy a subtle conversation full of metaphors and side-stepping as much as the next Cardassian.
 
“Do not worry, Doctor Bashir, the sun will soon shine for you again,” she answered, while tending to minor injuries two men had sustained while trying to repair a broken well. “It would be advisable not to attempt a similar action without a technician to guide you,” she dismissed them, and they parted with a humble nod to both of them. “After all,” she continued in Julian’s direction without missing a beat, “spring is coming. A great time for new beginnings, as they say.”
 
“As well as a time for breaking out the gotor bread and resting under the gamtaka tree,” Julian cited a tradition a nostalgic patient had recently told him about: spring being so full of tantalizing new options, awakenings and sometimes very female surprises (which Julian had taken to mean that in spring, female Cardassians had a tendency to throw themselves at you), men were advised to retreat with some newly harvested gotor bread, sit in the shade of a tree and contemplate their lives.
 
This actually earned him a little chuckle, which always felt like a special prize to be earned during one of his rounds with Doctor Palok. “You have been studying our beautiful language well, doctor,” she complimented him, “as well as our traditions.”
 
“You are most gracious.” He inclined his head, and she smiled. They boarded the transport to go further west; they still had quite a bit of ground to cover in Cardassia’s third largest city. Julian fleetingly thought of an even larger city, the capital on the other side of the great river Fugolon, where his friend sat putting his homeworld back together. Not that he had heard from him; for all he knew, Garak had no idea he was here. But Julian did see his face in the weekly broadcasts sent out to the people of Cardassia, informing them of the advances made, of the regresses, of the stories of despair but also of hope. Julian smiled. It was such an irony that Garak, formerly an expert at secrecy and obfuscation, had turned into the one constancy in people’s lives, touching them once a week in such a personal way, and just giving out more direct information than Julian had ever thought him capable of.
 
“Looking forward to going back to the southern district?” Dr. Palok inquired in an innocent tone, seemingly having interpreted his smile to mean that he couldn’t wait to see his beloved nurse again.
 
“Just looking forward to bed, to be honest,” Julian said, rubbing his neck. He could not even remember being this tired.
 
“Now, now, there is no need to be crude,” Dr. Palok shot back, “what you choose to occupy yourself with in your hospital is of no interest to me.” Julian rolled his eyes and, for once, didn’t care enough to come up with another repartee.
 
Once back in the southern district, he did check into the hospital quickly to see how Goral was getting on; it was not the first time he had left her to manage the place alone, but she still seemed rather nervous. It looked, however, as though she had once again done a very good job.
 
“Excellent work,” Julian complimented her after she had delivered her day’s report to him.
 
“If you proclaim it to be so, I will be content to trust your judgment,” replied Goral, and though the formal and slightly submissive phrasing was nothing out of the ordinary on Cardassia – Julian did so enjoy their delightfully complicated language, which was why he had completely turned off his translator implant a few weeks into his stay – the unblinking stare with which she fixed him now, and had all the way through her report, worried him. It was precisely the kind of look which, combined with a very particular tilt of the head, he had come to associate with Cardassians... well, courting somebody.
 
“Computer, play something by Rasha Kell,” Julian said when he had finally arrived home and collapsed on the sofa. As the tunes of a symphony by the architect’s cousin – discordant to human ears but fascinating nonetheless, and rather soothing once you got used to it – filled the room, Julian did finally begin to think in earnest about Goral and her attentions towards him. It should not be unwelcome that a young, attractive and very clever nurse fancied him; it was certainly flattering. And why should he not consider allowing this to turn into something more than a professional relationship? Enough time had elapsed, after all.
 
Before he dropped off, Julian realized that this was the first time in fourteen weeks that he thought of Ezri Dax.
 
***
 
A little too often for his liking, Julian attended meetings in the Ginala Centre for Medical Research. Today was actually very interesting – a new experimental treatment for radiation and gas poisoning was being introduced by a doctor from the Cardassian capital – but often enough it just felt as though time that could have been well spent treating patients or developing new cures was lost listening to people saying very little in very many words, as well as debates about the bureaucratic side of medicine. But all in all, Julian couldn’t complain; these meetings were another fascinating insight into Cardassian culture, and after all, he had met Zhuni Palok here.
 
“This doctor does not appear to have noticed that we have quite a few advances in Ginala as well,” Dr. Palok said during tea break, in an unusually clipped voice which surprised Julian.
 
“I’m sure she only means well,” he said, sipping his tea as they looked out through the massive glass windows onto the busy city centre.
 
“Of course she does, she’s a doctor,” commented Dr. Palok rather sarcastically. “It is just... I must admit I have little patience these days for people from the capital. If they have more resources, fine – but bring them here and put them at our disposition instead of occasionally sending an envoy to present how superior they are.”
 
Julian was silent. It did not strike him as odd that people from the Cardassian capital would feel superior to those from smaller towns; after all, hierarchy and life for the state was what their culture was supposed to be about, wasn’t it? But he said nothing; he knew Dr. Palok had her own ideas about where their blind obedience had got them in the recent past.
 
“However, this does look like a good treatment,” she continued in a more conciliatory tone. “I’m sure that with a few of your creative modifications, we will get it adapted to our patients in no time at all.”
 
“Our joint modifications,” corrected Julian, smiling. Dr. Palok had often complimented him on his ‘creative human approach’ to their problems, and even if he had helped them out of a few impasses, claiming that the credit was only his was just not the done thing.
 
Seeing the doctor from the capital approaching them, Dr. Palok quickly excused herself, saying she needed to get some fresh air after all that tea (Cardassian polite expression for ‘having to go to the bathroom’, Julian had learned not too long ago).
 
“Dr. Kretna Jarat,” the doctor introduced herself; Julian reciprocated and they exchanged formal nods. “I did not know there were any Starfleet doctors outside of the capital,” Dr. Jarat commented. “Are you... assisting the doctor I just saw leave, Dr. Palok I think?”
 
“No, I run the hospital in the southern district,” replied Julian, keeping his tone and expression neutral. There was no point in taking offence in what was no doubt a healthy mixture of gender stereotyping, xenophobia and anti-Starfleet sentiment. Cardassians could put so little into one statement all while seeming incredibly polite. “As for the capital, I arrived there four months ago – all the interplanetary transports go directly there – but I got the feeling it was being taken good care of by a number of helpers, Federation and otherwise. So I thought that there must be other towns more in need of my help.”
 
Dr. Jarat inclined her head, this time a shade friendlier. “And the city of Ginala has been very grateful for your initiative, I am sure.”
 
“I like to think that I have been able to make a humble contribution,” Julian said, enjoying the way his tongue wound itself around the complicated phrasing. Whenever he wasn’t particularly enjoying a conversation, which happened rather often at these gatherings, he focussed instead of the beauty of the Kardasi language, trying to improve his pronunciation as much as the elegance of his phrasings.
 
“The Minister, of course, thinks highly of the aid forces,” continued Dr. Jarat, and Julian’s ears perked up. “Some say he spent several years living on a Federation-run starbase during the war, so I suppose he has a few connections.”
 
“The Minister of the interim government?” asked Julian, feigning polite interest but nothing more. “Did he?”
 
“Well, some say so,” said Dr. Jarat evasively. “Why someone so uninterested in Cardassia would now be so passionate about rebuilding it, well...”
 
“It may just be a rumour,” said Zhuni Palok, having come up behind Julian. “And even if the Minister did leave Cardassia at one point, he came back when our world was completely destroyed and is now our strongest anchor. You could argue he is more patriotic than those who led us into the war in the first place.”
 
“You could,” Dr. Jarat half-agreed and turned to talk to somebody else. Julian smiled warmly at Zhuni, not caring that she would not understand why he looked so grateful.
 
“I had no idea you supported the interim government so wholeheartedly,” he muttered, taking her aside. Dr. Palok looked shocked.
 
“Julian, I don’t know what gave you the impression that I didn’t. I am not fond of bureaucracy, or of people from the capital patronizing us, but I do think the government is doing a very good job, and of course I support them.” Julian mentally kicked himself; it was very bad form to accuse a Cardassian of not supporting those in power.
 
“The last thing we need right now, especially in the capital, is people like her,” Zhuni jerked an angry head towards Dr. Jarat, “destabilising our fragile peace by spreading rumours about our leaders.”
 
The chime sounded for the meeting to be resumed, and as Julian walked back into the room behind Dr. Palok, he wondered how she would feel about the Minister if she knew that it was not a rumour at all.
 
***
 
“Doctor, there is an incoming message for you,” head nurse Goral announced, in the slightly disobedient tone she had started to adopt with him – not a good sign, as Julian knew very well from Miles O’Brien’s stories about his dealings with a certain Cardassian engineer. He knew she was hoping he would pick up on it and challenge her.
 
“Thank you, nurse, I’ll take it in my office,” Julian said in a level voice, and almost saw her flinch in disappointment.
 
“Doctor Julian Bashir,” said the man who came up on the screen in his office. “It’s been a long time.”
 
“Miles!” Julian broke into a wide grin. “I was just thinking about you. It’s so good to see you.”
 
“And you, my friend. How are things on Cardassia?”
 
Julian rubbed his eyes. “You know what, I don’t even know how to answer that. Improving, I guess. They’ve established better transport and better communication throughout the planet, all casualties are now finally accounted for and it looks like everyone’s finally got access to medical help and rations, but there’s still a severe lack of skilled workers to help with all the rebuilding, let alone doctors to provide some continual treatment for all these people. Frankly, what they need most at the moment are therapists – lots of them.” He smiled ruefully. “And here I go babbling on, just like old times. How are you, Miles?”
 
“Oh, not bad,” said Miles, and Julian was delighted to notice that the old twinkle was back in his eyes and that the Irish brogue sounded cheerful once again and not exhausted and destitute as when they had parted back on Deep Space Nine. “Things are going fine here. My students are a little too much in awe of me, I don’t like that one bit, I mean it’s not as though I’m an heroic figure or anything. Keiko’s finally got into Berkeley Botanics, she’s so thrilled, apparently it’s the most prestigious botanic research facility on Earth. I’ll take her word for it, y’know.” Miles grinned. “And the kids are really good too, they’re both competing over who’s the better engineer at home. By the way, this message comes to you courtesy of the new OLDT. Notice the great quality and the really small delay, considering the distance and considering the number of long-range satellites completely destroyed by the Dominion?” He was now smiling as proudly as though he’d just announced the birth of his third child.
 
“Old tea?” Julian asked innocently.
 
“O-L-D-T,” Miles replied, rolling his eyes. “O’Brien Long Distance Transmitter. Though I guess I might come up with another name in the end. I’ve been working on it for the past few months. This is still the beta phase.”
 
“It’s, er, very nice,” Julian said, leaned forward and smiled in what he hoped came across as patronizing; he wasn’t so sure about his human-human communication skills these days. “Well done, Chief.”
 
Miles chuckled. “Traveled all over to have the thing installed. Stopped at DS9 on the way.”
 
“Oh?” Julian swallowed, not sure how he felt about that.
 
“Yeah.” They were both quiet for a moment, both remembering colleagues and friends lost in the war or in its aftermath.
 
“Captain Kira is still around,” Miles continued, and Julian acknowledged the change in rank with a nod and a smile. It was only fitting that Starfleet would grant Kira the rank without a fuss. “So’s Quark of course, I think he’s actually grown rather fond of the place even though he keeps claiming the contrary. His root beer is still terrible, by the way. And the darts isn’t the same, well...”
 
“... without me,” Julian filled in, grinning, while Miles half-acknowledged this with a shrug. “If it makes you feel any better,” Julian offered, “I don’t think Cardassians have any game that even resembles darts. Not that I’ve really had time for recreational activities, but...”
 
Miles frowned. “Julian, you shouldn’t work yourself too hard, you know. I know you’re superhuman and all that, but even you need some rest.”
 
Julian snorted. Ever since his genetic background had been revealed, he had appreciated the extremely casual way in which Miles managed to bring it up. “Yes, Dad.”
 
“Seen our friend Garak?”
 
“No, actually. I just haven’t found the time to travel to the capital yet, and I imagine he’s extremely busy anyway. I see him on the monitors for his weekly broadcast, though. It’s kind of strange but also strangely comforting.”
 
Now it was Miles’s turn to snort. “You’re kidding. Garak coming on the air every week to send messages of love and support to his people?”
 
Julian smiled. “You’d be surprised. He’s actually rather good at it.”
 
“Well, if you see him, say hi. I mean it’s not as though we were ever close or anything,” nor did I approve of your decision to go to Cardassia, Julian added quietly for him, “but, you know. The past is another planet.”
 
“That it is,” said Julian, acknowledging Miles’s twist on the old Earth saying with a smile.
 
“All right, I think I’ve just about exhausted the power supply of the beta version,” said Miles regretfully. “We should do this more often when I’ve got the thing properly up and running. Nice talking to you, mate.”
 
“You too. Thanks for calling, I look forward to the real OLDT.” They smiled at each other, then Miles cut the transmission.
 
***
 
A week later he got a call from Kretna Jarat. Apparently she had heard about his modifications to her treatment which adapted it to the people of Ginala (who were hundreds of kilometres away from the capital, after all, and had been subjected to different gases and degrees of radiation during the last days of the war). Dr. Jarat had then done some reading on the work he had accomplished so far and seemed impressed.
 
“I am organizing a conference for all the doctors who are currently operating in Cardassia’s metropolises,” she explained. “There has been no time so far for a real get-together, everyone was focussing so hard on trying to keep the people alive.” When she paused, he saw a world of sadness and exhaustion in her eyes, and thought he had perhaps a tiniest notion of what she had gone through these past months. “But I think the time has come to try and concentrate our efforts, to share our findings with each other so that we can improve treatment of people all over Cardassia. My research has shown me that over the past few months you have been extremely efficient and... creative... in your reactions to all the viruses and other ailments which have assaulted the citizens of Ginala.” Julian had to smile; that was the second time in one week that his style had been called creative. “I would therefore like to invite you to join us and present some of your recent work,” concluded Jarat.
 
Julian inclined his head. “I would be honoured to attend. How long will this conference be? I would not like to let my nurses have to fend for themselves for very long.”
 
Jarat actually smiled this time. “Oh don’t worry, Doctor, neither do any of the other doctors. We will convene for two days only. We will also send emergency personnel from the capital into all the metropolises so that there will always be trained doctors at hand during this time.”
 
Julian smiled back. It seemed this woman had grown considerably warmer towards him since their last encounter. “Very well, I think that won’t be a problem then.”
 
They discussed the talk she wanted him to give in some more detail, then Jarat said, “Doctor Bashir – I would like to say that I greatly appreciate all that you have done for the Cardassian people and all that you are willing to do still. Please accept my apologies for my rather cold demeanour when we met in Ginala.”
 
Julian raised his eyebrows in surprise; he hadn’t even thought she’d remember. Most Cardassians would have considered that perfectly normal behaviour towards an alien.
 
“No offence taken. I... do understand your suspicion towards off-worlders in these troubled times.” Was it too much to go on? No – it was perhaps time he abandoned his observe-only approach and started to stand up for himself. All cloaked in good Cardassian manners, of course. He took a moment to word his next statement in his head. “However, I hope I have been able to contribute to the construction of a better image for the Federation, or at least Starfleet personnel.”
 
“I assure you you have, Doctor. I will see you next Thursday. Jarat out.”
 
***
 
“So that should be all,” Julian concluded the briefing with his three nurses. “Doctor Borta will arrive tomorrow morning, and if there is anything you need, any questions he can’t answer, contact me at the Cardassian Medical Research Faculty.” Two of his nurses nodded, wished him a good journey and went off to do their rounds; Goral stayed behind.
 
“I do hope you will find Lakat interesting,” she remarked. “It is of course not as beautiful as it was, but from what I’ve been seeing on the news reports, they have managed to rebuild quite a few of the main buildings already.”
 
“Yes, I’m sure it will be very nice to see,” Julian agreed as he was packing his medical kit and double-checking that he had everything for his talk. “Although – not as nice as Ginala I’m sure.” He looked up to see Goral smiling at him. He knew this was her home town, and she was fiercely proud of it.
 
“You might remember your own words when you are asked to stay there,” she said.
 
He raised his eyebrows. “Oh, I’m sure that won’t happen. They have enough Federation aid workers to make them uncomfortable as it is.”
 
“Not every Federation aid worker makes us uncomfortable,” Goral said, fixing her black eyes on him again in that particular stare. “It depends very much on the person.”
 
Julian didn’t know what to say, so he smiled at her. “Well, I’d better be off, I’m catching the shuttle in half an hour. I’ll see you in two days.”
 
She nodded, touched his arm briefly, and left his office.
 
Julian released the breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding – Cardassia was definitely becoming more complicated by the minute – and left the hospital for the shuttle shortly afterwards. He was meeting Zhuni Palok at the station; she had promised to bring a new Cardassian-Federation Standard dictionary she had recently managed to obtain up in the northern district. He was looking forward to looking up some of the stranger phrases he had recently heard.
 
The journey took three hours and was uneventful for the most part; Julian caught quite a few stares, especially after Dr. Palok and he had started talking (linguistics, to boot) and people realized they were speaking Kardasi. At one point he was the one who did the staring, though, as a drunk man opposite them starting talking politics.
 
“It’s the Dominion all over again, I’m telling you,” he growled into the shoulder of his neighbour, who had turned away and was pretending to read. “They infiltrate us, they integrate, they learn our language, and next thing we know they ask us – oh, they ask us nicely, naturally, and make us all sorts of promises, and before we know it, we’re a member of their precious Federation,” he almost spat the word, “and where is our power then? Eh? Eh?” He poked his neighbour sharply in the back. The man, obviously deciding he had had enough, moved to sit somewhere else.
 
All around him Julian noticed that people were looking extremely uncomfortable. Well, that was something at least. Although whether it was because they disagreed with the man, or just with his manners, was anyone’s guess.
 
Dr. Palok, it seemed, had also had enough. “You may be moved to reconsider your opinion,” she said in a quiet voice, “when you hear that this man, this Federation officer, has already saved the lives of hundreds of Cardassian citizens, and all without demanding anything but food and shelter in return. You think that is the behaviour of a usurper? You should be grateful for all the help we are given after we have disgraced ourselves as we have.”
 
“Disgraced ourselves!” the man shouted. “You should be ashamed of yourself, young woman! To question the wisdom of past decisions made by our governors –”
 
“Be quiet,” said someone else behind Julian, who suddenly noticed that everyone had turned to look when Dr. Palok had spoken and now looked ready to rally behind them both. “Our governors have brought us nothing but harm – look at what our beautiful world has become! If it takes the help of off-worlders to restore Cardassia to its former glory, then so be it, and we should be grateful that they even look at us after the many ways in which we have harmed them! Doctor –” said the man, turning to Julian, who was wearing a typical Cardassian doctor’s uniform, “I wish to thank you for all that you have done for us and continue to do.” And he shook his hand, and every single person on the shuttle except for the drunk man followed suit.
 
“What a strange experience,” said Julian as he and Dr. Palok were walking through the city centre to their hotel. “And I thought I could quietly slip into the capital and blend in among all the other off-worlders, but –” he looked around, “there aren’t so many here after all, are there?”
 
“I don’t think there are many who stayed as long as you have,” she smiled.
 
They walked along in companionable silence until they reached their hotel. In the lobby, Dr. Palok pointed at a large monitor. “Look – our Minister’s on. Wonder where their seat is?”
 
“You don’t know?” Julian asked, surprised and a little dismayed; he had hoped it would be easy to stop by and see if he could say hello.
 
“Oh, no, the parliament was completely destroyed, so they’re not there,” she said rather wistfully. “Pity, it was a beautiful building. I have heard people say that they’re in a makeshift shelter close to it, though. After all, the only large building that remained intact in Lakat was the hospital.”
 
“How ironic.”
 
“Oh, I think it was deliberate,” she said darkly. “They knew we would have use for it, after all.”
 
Julian shook his head, all the while watching Garak give the latest update on the situation here and elsewhere. It was nice, he found, to see the former exile looking so utterly at home. It wasn’t just that there were so many Cardassians around him and that he therefore just looked like he fit in; there was also something in Garak’s demeanour, in his eyes, but also in his intonation, which spoke volumes to Julian about how much of a half-life his erstwhile friend had led on Deep Space Nine.
 
“I’m sure he would be an interesting man to meet,” said Dr. Palok, looking at him shrewdly. Julian was careful not to let anything show on his face. “I’m sure he would,” he replied, then lowered his voice so as not to be caught sounding disrespectful. “Though you know what politicians are like – all talk, no heart.”
 
Dr. Palok narrowed her eyes, then laughed. “You humans. No respect at all for power.”
 
***
 
“So did you send off a message last night to say you had arrived well?” Dr. Palok asked over breakfast – hot fish juice and regova eggs, and Julian had had so many bland-tasting rations lately that he actually enjoyed it.
 
“A message?” he asked, carefully sipping the juice. “To whom would I send a message?”
 
“Oh, I don’t know,” Dr. Palok said, smiling rather wickedly. “Your nurses, who must have felt so lost without you?”
 
“My nurses are in the capable hands of one Dr. Borta as of this morning,” he replied, and because he was tired and not in the mood for elaborate metaphor games, added, “and I know what you’re insinuating, and no we’re not.”
 
“Who isn’t what?” she asked innocently, and he rolled his eyes. “Zhuni, lay off me, will you? I’m only starting to come to terms with the fact that she actually is as fond of me as you said, and I don’t even know how I feel about it yet. So... you know... give me some time.”
 
She looked very amused. “Very well, my dear.”
 
It seemed that on some rare occasions, it was all right to be direct in this culture. If only Julian could figure out how to recognize these occasions.
 
The morning at the Faculty went very well; Julian was relieved to discover that he was not the only off-worlder, and not the only man either. There were many interesting bits of information that were new to him and Zhuni, and they enthusiastically compared notes at lunch and talked nonstop about how to incorporate all these new findings into their everyday work. Then, after lunch, it was Julian’s turn to present his approach to the illnesses and injuries he had come to know over the last few months, his ‘style’ so-to-speak. He could tell he was getting the Cardassian equivalent of quite a few raised eyebrows, but there were also many interested questions after every part of his lecture and he felt that, even if they questioned many of his methods, he was at least making them think in slightly different tracks than they were used to.
 
“I know that my approach may seem a little... wild to some of you,” he finally concluded. “I hasten to add that it’s not regarded as very traditional in Federation circles either.” In fact, some time after his genetic modifications had become public knowledge, he had decided to hold back no longer and do everything that he was capable of, which sometimes led even young, mouldable Starfleet doctors to question his findings and his methods. “But I find that trying to approach matters from different angles and thinking in unconventional ways every now and then is the most essential ingredient to remaining productive and flexible. Thank you.”
 
There was a warm mutter and many encouraging nods in his direction – the Cardassian equivalent of a good round of applause – and Julian remained on the podium to answer final questions; then Dr. Jarat came onto the podium and he sat down. “Thank you very much, Dr. Bashir – what an interesting lecture to all of us. In fact, even to our special guest who arrived a while ago but asked me not to interrupt you. Ladies and gentlemen, we are very pleased to welcome Minister Garak.”
 
Julian’s head swiveled round to see the Minister of the interim government walking up the aisle between the row of seats. Garak turned briefly to Julian, smiled and nodded, before he stepped onto the podium. “Thank you, Dr. Jarat. Ladies and gentlemen, dear doctors, please do not be alarmed, I do not intend to interrupt your conference for very long. Dr. Jarat kindly brought to my attention that it was taking place and I merely wished to convey to you my sincerest thanks for all the work you have been doing ever since our homeworld has been so brutally crippled.”
 
As Garak went on to speak about the importance of good coordination in every field, and gave the assembly a general update about medical supplies and the status of rebuilding of the hospitals, Julian slowly got over his shock and even began to feel joy at seeing his old friend so close to. That this surprised him was surprising in itself; why should he not be happy to see Garak? But he pushed that thought to the back of his mind for now and concentrated instead on the intense linguistic pleasure of finally hearing his friend ‘live’ – it had struck him ever since the first weekly broadcast he had seen how different, how real Garak sounded in Kardasi.
 
But Garak was getting to the end of his brief address and Julian realized to his dismay that tea break was another hour away; surely a busy minister would not stay that long. And there, Garak had just excused himself and expressed his regret at not being able to follow the rest of the conference. Would it be wise to go after him when he left the room? Julian didn’t want him getting into any sort of trouble. If there were indeed only rumours about Garak having been on DS9, and, as it seemed, the confirmation of those rumours could cause the citizens of Cardassia to view him in a different light – well, Julian didn’t want to be responsible for that.
 
However, Garak took the decision out of his hands when he stepped down from the podium and sat down right next to Julian. As Dr. Jarat continued, introducing the next speaker, Garak looked at Julian and smiled.
 
“Very interesting lecture, doctor,” he whispered, and Julian noticed, first of all, that Garak was speaking Kardasi, which was a first for them, and that the people around them were very interested indeed in this private conversation. “I did always enjoy your quick wit and am very pleased to hear that you have finally embraced Kardasi as your second mother tongue.”
 
“Oh, I wouldn’t go so far,” Julian whispered back, although he couldn’t help a proud little smile. “You could have interrupted me, by the way, I wouldn’t have minded.”
 
You could have told me you were on Cardassia. I wouldn’t have minded.”
 
“I was busy,” he replied. “So were you, from what I’ve been seeing.”
 
“I see.” Garak seemed to deliberate for a moment. “Tonight you are having dinner with the assembled doctors, I presume?”
 
“Well... I was going to, yes.”
 
“If you change your mind, send me a message and I will show you my favourite restaurant, which has recently reopened.” Garak gave him a brief nod, then he was gone.
 
Julian took out his PADD and tried to concentrate on the new speaker. A moment later, Zhuni slipped into the seat next to him, and fixed him with a stare so penetrant he finally had to look up.
 
“You might have told me you knew the Minister,” she mouthed, and Julian swallowed.
 
***
 
“So this place just reopened?” Julian asked Garak, who was sitting opposite him, contemplating his sem’hal stew and Julian in turn.
 
“Yes, imagine my delight,” said Garak and took his first spoonful of stew. “Mmm – delicious. They never quite got this right back on Deep Space Nine.” Julian took note of the fact that Garak had used the Standard name for the station even though they were still speaking Kardasi. It still felt slightly odd communicating like this after all those years of talking in Standard. But Garak had started out their conversation in this language and Julian assumed that it was deliberate; he wouldn’t want a bystander to get the idea that the Minister was exchanging secret information with an off-worlder.
 
“Although the sem’hal used to be even better,” Garak added, lowering his voice, “when the woman who founded this place made it, but her grandchildren tell me she died in one of the final attacks. They run the place now.”
 
“I’m sorry to hear it.”
 
“Yes, there are stories like this one all over the planet. Every day I try to acquaint myself with the story of at least one person who is no longer with us, or meet their family when I have the time. It helps you stay grounded.” Garak said all this in a seriousness Julian had never experienced from him; not that he was surprised, but it was mildly unsettling.
 
“I don’t imagine you do have much time to spare,” he said. “What with all the rebuilding and the huge unemployment rates...”
 
“... which have gone down by 40 per cent since this all started,” Garak said rather proudly. “I do hope you have been following the broadcasts.”
 
“Religiously,” Julian said in Standard, not knowing how to make a similar joke in Kardasi, and they actually shared the first smile since they had met.
 
“But you don’t have much time either,” said Garak, reverting to Kardasi, “as you mentioned earlier.”
 
“No, I don’t.” He knew there was some hint of a question here of why he had not contacted Garak earlier, but he didn’t really know how to respond to that. “It’s amazing how little time I’ve had to myself since I arrived here.”
 
“Which was when?” inquired Garak, in a polite, neutral tone.
 
“About four months ago.” Julian tilted his head in wonder and lowered his voice conspiratorially. “I’m actually rather surprised that you didn’t know I was here. Wasn’t information your business, once?”
 
“Really, doctor,” Garak said with a hint of the mild outrage he had always mustered so perfectly when being accused of being a spy in the early days on DS9. “Where you get your ideas from...”
 
Julian smiled.
 
“So why did you come here, if not to see me? – Don’t worry,” Garak held up his hands disarmingly, “this is not meant as a reproach at all.”
 
He could see that it really wasn’t. When had Garak become so easy to read? Had he, Julian, become such an expert at Cardassian body language, or had Garak changed so much – or both? He thought he could definitely observe a huge change in the way Garak was treating him; there was certainly a lot more respect. But there was also something missing; he couldn’t put his finger on what. Still, maybe that was to be expected after such a long time and after all that Garak had seen.
 
“Well, I did mean to come see you, eventually,” Julian said truthfully. “But at first, well, I heard such horrible reports about what the Dominion had done to Cardassia, it just seemed a natural choice after leaving Deep Space Nine.”
 
“Then I suppose the next question is, why did you leave Deep Space Nine?”
 
“Ever the interrogator,” Julian retorted. “Tell me, do you deal with your goverment employees in the same way? It might make it hard for them if you confront them with such an... unusual style of communication.”
 
“You are, of course, referring to the Cardassian custom of never answering a question directly,” Garak said, a small smile playing around his lips. “You’d be surprised how direct the style of communication can be in Cardassian politics. However, as much as I appreciate your deflection technique, you have not answered my question.”
 
Julian sighed. “No, I suppose I haven’t.” He rubbed his eyes, noticing for the umpteenth time that day how tired he was. “I guess it was just a little much at the end, with everyone gone but Kira.”
 
The ridges over Garak’s eyes rose slightly. “Everyone? What about Ezri?”
 
Julian stirred his tea. “I must say, it is a change to be asked such direct questions on Cardassia.”
 
“Yes, I find I picked up a few... disconcerting habits during my exile,” said Garak casually. “However, as I mentioned, it comes in quite handy in government.” This time he merely looked expectantly at Julian, his eyes conveying the message that the doctor had once again deflected his question.
 
Julian sighed again. It was so strange to suddenly be thinking about all of this again after months of cramming his head to the brim with emergencies, solutions, projects, cultural studies, linguistics... He shook his head at himself. Of course he had come here. He had never been good at dealing with break-ups.
 
“Ezri left me,” he said simply. “It wasn’t working out.”
 
“I see.” Garak regarded his remaining tea leaves in contemplation. “And so you ran away to yet another frontier so you wouldn’t have to think about it.”
 
Julian had to smile. When had Garak become his therapist? “I guess. Maybe that’s also why I didn’t contact you,” he said. “You’re a reminder of all of that.”
 
“I do apologise,” Garak said, and Julian was surprised to hear no trace of sarcasm in his voice. “Still, the fact remains that you came here. You could have avoided contact with any reminder of Deep Space Nine.”
 
“Yes, well.” He laughed. “Don’t ask me how my mind works, I barely understand it myself.”
 
“Understand – no, I cannot claim that either. Admire – yes. It is rather beautiful, as minds go.” Garak smiled at him briefly, then looked down at his tea again, and Julian frowned. There it was again, that undefinable something that confused him, but he couldn’t discern it at all.
 
“So Colonel Kira remains the only person on the station from the old crew?” Garak asked.
 
“Captain Kira, actually,” said Julian, using the Standard word. “Although I suppose I should call her gul in Kardasi?”
 
They both chuckled at the irony of it. “That we would live to see the days of Gul Kira...” said Garak, almost dreamily.
 
They ordered desserts and chatted about everyday life for a moment; Garak shared some very interesting stories about what it was like running an interim government, and Julian reported his findings in the fields of cultural studies and linguistics.
 
“You seem happier than I have ever seen you,” he said finally, noticing in passing that he was now reverting to a more direct form of communication, but it felt like the right way of speaking to Garak.
 
“I suppose I am,” he said. “You, my dear doctor, know better than anyone how miserable I was at times on Deep Space Nine. This –” He made a gesture encompassing all of Cardassia, “this is not the home I left, and it pains me, deeply, to see it this way. But I am home nonetheless, and we are working very hard to once more make it a beautiful place to live.”
 
“You’ve been doing very well,” Julian confirmed. “And from what I’ve heard, the people greatly respect you. The weekly broadcasts are a very good idea.”
 
“Not my favourite bit of the job, I must admit,” said Garak in a low voice, wrinkling his nose, and looking so comical that Julian almost laughed out loud.
 
“Perhaps not, but you do them well.”
 
“Thank you, doctor,” Garak replied, and Julian could tell that Garak was pleased with his compliment; he, in turn was pleased that his opinion seemed to mean so much to his old friend.
 
“I should warn you, though,” he added. “I’ve been hearing a few things lately, people talking about your past.” And he related what he had heard about the rumours concerning Deep Space Nine and Garak’s supposed good relations to off-worlders.
 
Garak looked neither surprised nor alarmed. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention, doctor,” he said, and for a moment Julian could hear the statesman. “However, I am well aware of the rumours. Frankly, if people cannot accept the fact that their minister once spent a number of years on a space station with humans and Bajorans – well, I must say in that case I don’t see much hope for us.”
 
Julian frowned. “Is that what political office has done to you – made you so cynical?”
 
“Where do you get the idea that I wasn’t cynical before?” Garak shot back at once, and they both smiled.
 
“But perhaps you can forestall any... shall we say dramatic revelations, and talk about your past in one of your broadcasts?” Julian suggested. “I know it’s not in your nature to volunteer information like that”, that got him a slightly exasperated smile, “but this time it might be necessary for the good of the state?”
 
Garak blinked, then actually burst out laughing. “Oh, my dear doctor, when did you learn to be so gloriously manipulative?”
 
“It’s not so much when, but where,” Julian replied meaningfully, and Garak nodded, still looking delighted. “Indeed. Our wonderful world does much in the way of developing devious minds.” He regarded his cup pensively for another moment, then said, “I will give some thought to your interesting suggestion. Now – shall we get you back to your hotel? I daresay you are the tiredest I have ever seen you.”
 
“Not a bad idea.” Julian made no objection when Garak paid for his meal – it was not at all out of the ordinary for a Cardassian to pay for his minors – and they walked slowly to his hotel, all the while chatting amiably. They had by now switched to Standard; in spite of all his linguistic endeavours, Julian was grateful for the chance to switch off his brain for once.
 
For months Julian had not realised how much he had missed Garak. It was also still slightly painful, of course, to have all these memories assault him, but he could already feel how Garak’s presence was steadying him, healing him in some way. Burying the memory of his break-up with Ezri and throwing himself headfirst into his work had certainly not been the brightest of ideas – but coming to Cardassia had.
 
When they said goodbye in front of Julian’s hotel – they had established that there was no way they would manage to see each other again the next day before Julian’s departure for Ginala, both their schedules being full – Julian felt some regret for not having come to see Garak sooner, and expressed this, along with the promise to come more often.
 
“And I shall try and spare some time to come to the beautiful town of Ginala,” replied his friend. “I did always like the southern district; you chose well.”
 
“It was a very unconscious choice,” Julian said.
 
“Sometimes those are the best.”
 
And as Garak lay a hand on his arm and fixed him with a final look, and tilted his head in a very particular way, the realization hit Julian with the force of a phaser beam.
 
***
 
“You’ve been very quiet all day,” observed Dr. Palok as they disembarked from the shuttle and started walking towards Ginala’s local transport station.
 
He knew he had. They had talked a little about work, the second day of the conference having been just as interesting, and had exchanged more notes during the journey. But all the while he had been extremely preoccupied, and tried not to show it.
 
“You don’t want to talk about it,” continued his colleague.
 
Julian frowned. “I’m sorry, Zhuni, there’s just something I need to think about. I’ll let you know if I ever want to talk about it.”
 
“Understood. So, how was dinner with your friend the Minister?” she said, putting special emphasis on the last few words, and Julian had to smile.
 
“I’m sorry I never told you.” He sighed. “I wasn’t really prepared to even think about the fact that I knew him, I guess.” At her questioning glance, he added, “Dr. Jarat was right. Garak did live among humans for many years. I knew him then. It’s just that... well, a lot of things happened back then that I wasn’t really prepared to be reminded of. I... we had many friends and colleagues who died, or left, and I had a girlfriend who broke up with me, and I guess I... just ran away.”
 
This was safe territory now, this he could talk about. How strange. Something he had kept hidden from Zhuni, his best friend in Ginala, for four months, now easily rolled off his tongue, because he had a much bigger issue to hide.
 
“I see,” she said, obviously assuming this to be the matter he hadn’t wanted to talk about. “Well, it’s out in the open now, so we can chat about it some more whenever you like. You know I am also a psychologist.”
 
“As you remind me of this fact about once a week, yes, I do know,” Julian smiled.
 
They said goodbye, arranging to meet a few days from now for a round of the outskirts, and Julian headed towards his hospital. He wanted to check in briefly before going to bed.
 
Goral was still there, of course. It almost looked as though she had been waiting for him.
 
“Welcome back, Doctor Bashir,” she said, and Julian almost flinched at the intensity of emotion in her eyes. “Doctor Borta left an hour ago. Did you have a nice journey?”
 
“I did, thank you,” he said, and quickly summarized the conference after she had briefed him on the goings-on in the hospital. Goral listened very attentively and, he noticed, rather anxiously as well.
 
“And before you ask, I have no intention as of now to relocate to Lakat,” he concluded, smiling a little.
 
She smiled back, and put that hand on his arm again. “Good.”
 
As he walked the few blocks to his house, he tried to make sense of it all. His mind was racing with images, Goral, Ezri, Garak, all muddled together. All those memories of him and Garak on Deep Space Nine. He would have to revisit every moment with him, try and will his enhanced mind into replaying every scene he remembered, try and establish whether this had always been there and whether, for seven years, he had managed to miss something this enormous.