"You didn't like it?"
"No, I did. That's the problem."
Garak raised an eyeridge.
Bashir sighed. "It has the things that I thought were lacking from The Never Ending Sacrifice. The characters drew me in, it stuck to the same theme without repeating itself over and over, it was about something more than devotion to the state..."
"Doctor, I think you just pointed out all of its flaws," Garak said smiling into his mug of Rokassa juice.
"Ha ha," Bashir said flatly. "My point is that I liked the characters and the story. I just want to know what happened do them."
"You didn't find the ending sufficient?"
Bashir frowned. "I get the feeling that you knew I'd have a problem with that."
"Humans do seem to have a strange fixation on resolution when, in life, it is nearly impossible to tie off all loose ends. Trust me."
"Right -- in life. But this is fiction. It should mean something."
Garak tilted his head. "Do you honestly think Meditations on a Crimson Shadow meant nothing?"
"Not exactly. I think it meant something, but I don't know what. Everything seemed to lead toward a question -- the war, Diram's betrayal, the political struggle -- but at the end there's hardly a question, and there's no sign of an answer."
"Now, doctor, I know you're intelligent enough to find your own answer."
"Yes." Bashir tapped his finger on the table, trying to think of a way to put his thoughts into words -- condensed words instead of all this rambling. "But I'm also smart enough to come up with the question on my own. When I reached the end, I felt as if I'd been promised something, but never got it. As if I'd been following arrows just to find that they didn't point to anything."
Garak's eyes twinkled with amusement. "Perhaps you simply saw symbols that you recognized as arrows, so you followed them the only way you knew how."
Bashir stared at Garak for a long moment, then shook his head. He took a drink of his tea, just to find that it had gone cold. "I thought you said this would be more accessible."
"I didn't say it would be less complicated."
Bashir couldn't help but laugh despite the growing concern in the back of his mind. "It is still Cardassian."
Dax took a drink, doing her best to hide an amused smile. Bashir was obviously too distressed to be teased. No matter how tempting it was.
"He did have a near-death experience," she said.
"I took that into account, of course. Along with the change in his body chemistry." Bashir scrolled through the new data they'd retrieved from the Gamma Quadrant distractedly. She couldn't imagine how he could be reading it so fast, but she knew from working with him before that, unlike most people, he had a habit of working more quickly when he was distracted. "I suppose I don't know him very well, and I've had closer friends, so I might be seeing a big change when there isn't any."
"Why do I feel like we've had this conversation before?"
Bashir smiled, a flat and not particularly happy smile, and took a pause from his work. "It's a lot of little things, really, more than a big thing. His voice is different. Not monotone by any means, but closer than it used to be. Sometimes he barely eats, and sometimes he over-indulges. And he... This sounds ridiculous, I know, but he doesn't touch me as much."
Again, Dax found herself fighting off amusement. "What do you mean?"
"He used to touch me while we talked. My hand or my forearm. The first time I met him, he grabbed my shoulders. Nearly scared me out of my skin, which I suspect was the point."
"Are you sure?"
Bashir looked at her, brow furrowed in confusion.
"Have you talked to him about it?" she asked, deciding not to push.
Bashir chuckled quickly and began to scroll through the data again, more slowly this time. "If it were only that easy. But he's still a Cardassian."
Bashir's quarters were quiet, lit only with the golden glow of the light next to his bed. Perhaps there were more important things that he should have been working on late at night in his pajamas, but the various PADDs that were scattered around him were all for Meditations on a Crimson Shadow. Some of them were other pieces of Cardassian literature that Garak had given him, some were Cardassian histories (revisionist as they likely were), and two of them were his own notes.
The one in his hand was the novel itself. He was rereading it, forcing himself to read it more slowly this time. Of course, he could simply read it at a glance, then call up the words from his near perfect memory, but he was determined to find whatever meaning Garak insisted was hidden somewhere between the paragraphs, sentences, words, and perhaps the letters themselves.
A code had been his first thought after his conversation with Garak. It seemed a Cardassian thing to do, authors putting secret codes in their literature. It would certainly make the dry text more interesting. But if there was one, Bashir hadn't been able to find it. He considered asking Kira, she had experience with Cardassian codes, but he thought better of it. She seemed fairly uncomfortable with the fact that he'd made friends with the only Cardassian on the station, and he'd rather avoid the topic if it kept her as his friend. Maybe O'Brien? But there was the same problem with him, wasn't there?
In fact, aside from Garak himself, the only friend he had who didn't change the subject whenever he brought up Garak was Dax. And even she was a little strange when it came up.
It was like they were all waiting for Bashir to stop being so naïve and start hating -- or at least distrusting -- Garak like the rest of them. And now that Bashir had been forced to admit to himself that he and Garak were less adversarial than friendly, it was starting to really bother him.
Was that why he had been reluctant to admit their friendship? To be diplomatic with his other friends? Was he really that much of a coward?
He set Meditations down and rubbed at his temple. His eyelid was starting to twitch from strain, and he really needed to get some sleep.
"It's not like I'm getting anywhere," he muttered to himself as he gathered the PADDs and set them on his bedside table.
He laid down and, as he drifted off to sleep, he wondered vaguely when he'd gotten used to sleeping in a Cardassian bed.
The Replimat wasn't crowded, it was too early for the lunch crowd and too late for breakfast. Most of those who were there were Starfleet who'd just come off of the Gamma shift. On days when Garak ate by himself, this was the time he ate. Starfleet might not be on the best of terms with Cardassia, but his other choice was, of course, eating amongst Bajorans and having to keep a close eye on his food and drink to make sure no one slipped poison in.
Not that he didn't check when he was around Starfleet officers as well, but it was out of additional precaution, not necessity.
Which makes all the difference when one is trying to have a relaxing meal, Garak thought.
That day, there were only three Bajorans in the Replimat; two visiting civilians and Major Kira. Happily, Kira was distracted from her customary glare in his direction by Lieutenant Dax. The Major had become so much less aggressive since she'd been befriended by Dax, and Garak silently thanked Dax as he picked a strategically out-of-the-way booth while keeping his tray close to his chest.
Food didn't taste as good as it used to. Even the rich flavors of his native cuisine had been dulled to the point it was like swallowing down solidified plomeek soup. He was sure that the memory of his chemically enhanced good mood wouldn't take away even the small pleasures of his mundane life aboard the station.
The Cardassian station, Garak thought bitterly. Cardassian architecture fit with jarringly bright light, programmed to be comfortable for Humans and Bajorans. Sometimes it seemed to mock him, those familiar golden-brown beams and arches turned grotesque by the white light.
Garak forced himself away from that train of thought. Bashir had done so very much to save his life. It seemed ungrateful to dwell on the part of himself that wished Bashir had simply allowed him to give up. He should focus on the part that Bashir was trying to build in him.
He wasn't sure what to call that part. Foolish hope, perhaps?
Whatever it was, it wasn't helping his appetite at the moment. He'd turned the food over again and again without actually managing to take a bite. He set his fork down and looked up, away from his increasingly disinteresting meal -- and was surprised to find Dax watching him. Not closely. In glances during pauses in her conversation with Major Kira. She didn't seem to be particularly upset at being caught in the act, either. Garak decided, suddenly, that he admired her.
Which was a good thing. He'd rather be envious of someone admirable. Not like some of the other people the doctor chose to associate with.
Garak stood suddenly. A bit too suddenly, really, as it attracted the attention of the Bajoran couple. But Garak was feeling bold, and he ignored them, walking close to Dax and Kira's table as he returned his tray to the replicator.
Dax had initiated, he'd responded. The next move would be hers. Garak was sure that she would be a very successful Cardassian flirt if she put her mind to it, but was equally sure that flirting was not close to what was going on between them. And he was glad. He would hate to turn a woman like that down.
She made him wait an hour, but she eventually appeared in his shop, ostensibly looking around at the displays.
"Ah, Lieutenant! How can I help you? Another cocktail dress, perhaps?"
She smiled, seeming to appreciate his pretense. "No. Maybe later, though."
"I must say." He approached her with some caution. "I'm glad to see you. The only customers I've gotten today have been quite dull -- colorblind in fact. No one with your creativity and taste. And no one at all since lunch."
Ah, yes, she had been wondering if the shop was empty so that they would be free to speak. If he didn't already know what she wanted to discuss with him, he would be convinced that she was about to share some sort of very classified, very delicate information.
But somehow, this excited him more than that.
"I don't gossip very often," she said innocently. "And I definitely don't butt in when I'm not asked."
"Of course not," he said, playing along.
"But if I have to listen to Julian talk on and on and on about you one more time, I think I'm going to scream."
A smile spread across Garak's lips, and he raised his eyeridges. "How may I be of assistance?
After his shift, Bashir only had enough time to change, grab a bottle of wine that he'd been saving, and shove a PADD into his very spacious hip pocket, silently thanking Garak's penchant for pockets. He was sure he'd be late, but when he arrived at Commander Sisko's quarters, he could smell that dinner was only half made. He smiled to himself. Sisko must've gotten caught up in work too.
Most of the senior staff was there, except Odo who usually found some excuse to avoid these kinds of things. Sisko invited them all to eat with him and Jake whenever things had been particularly stressful. It was a nice way to wind down and bond, and Bashir really admired Sisko for being able to sense when they all needed it. And after everything that had happened with the Maquis a few weeks ago, and the tension accompanying the upcoming Kai election, it was great timing.
And maybe a little bit of the reason was everything that Bashir himself had been through with Garak's near death.
He felt a little flush of guilt at that thought. How could he underestimate these people so much as to think they had something against Garak, and against Bashir by proxy? He had never really given them the chance, avoiding the topic with a lot of them because he thought they'd take issue. He felt the weight of the PADD in his pocket. He'd bring up Meditations on a Crimson Shadow later, maybe after dinner when they were all digesting, and get their opinions on what Garak could've meant about the resolution. Maybe one of them would even take it and read it him or herself.
Dax silently motioned for him to sit on the couch next to her. Kira and O'Brien were having a discussion at full volume about... something that Bashir couldn't immediately follow. He began to set the wine he'd brought on the coffee table next to the Bajoran appetizers he suspected Kira of bringing, but Dax caught it and inspected the label.
"Nice," she said, obviously impressed.
"I thought we could use something tonight, and that goes perfectly with the salmon the Commander promised."
Dax winked. "I can't wait."
"I'm just saying," O'Brien said, interrupting something Kira was saying about Bajoran history. "That if it goes too far, you could have a damned bad situation on your hands."
"We already did! And we could've used any advantage we could get. Just because Humans couldn't handle them doesn't mean that it should be illegal everywhere. But everyone wants to get along with the Federation, so if the Federation says that genetic enhancement is illegal, just about everyone has to say it's illegal."
Bashir's stomach sank. He forced himself to lean back into the couch before anyone noticed how tense he'd just become.
O'Brien leaned forward, two little red circles beginning to form on his cheeks. "And if you'd made an army of super soldiers, you'd have them to fight now. Once you change people's minds around so that they're aggressive and stronger and smarter, they don't just stop when they don't have an enemy to fight anymore. They find an enemy. Ask Julian, he probably knows better than us."
Two sets of eyes turned toward Bashir, waiting for him to choose a victor in this particular battle of the war.
I'd know better because I'm a doctor, he reminded himself. That's all he means.
He steadied his heartbeat before speaking. "It's hard to say. We've obviously made a lot of advances in medicine since the Eugenics Wars. We know more about the brain and DNA. But there hasn't been a wide range of study done in the field for the... obvious reasons." His voice was too quiet, and he was too serious, but they didn't seem to notice.
"And the examples we have are madmen, hardly even human anymore," O'Brien said. "They have to be locked up for their own good. You just have to look at what happened with Khan Singh to know what could happen."
Kira furrowed her brow. "Khan Singh?"
"To be fair," Dax spoke up. "That was a long time ago. And he didn't get all that far in the twenty-third century."
"Because Kirk was there to stop him."
"Kirk was the one who left them on a barren planet," Dax countered. "Maybe that had more to do with what happened than his genetic makeup."
"Are you sayin' it was Kirk's fault? The man tried to take his ship!"
"I didn't say that exactly..."
Kira knocked on her chair's arm to get attention. "Excuse me you two, but can someone tell me what happened?"
Bashir closed his eyes for a moment as Dax began to tell the story, with O'Brien throwing in a comment here and there to defend the great Captain Kirk's honor. Then he grabbed one of Kira's appetizers. They had a crispy crust that drowned out some of the sound. Just enough that Bashir didn't have to think too much about what they were saying.
But even as dinner was laid out and the subject changed, Bashir found himself incapable of adding much to the conversation. On the rare occasions someone spoke to him directly, he could only manage a terse answer.
As they were leaving, Dax gave him a friendly poke in his arm. "You're quiet."
"He's got to let everyone else get a word in edgewise now and then." O'Brien said, laughing.
Bashir smiled thinly, his hand in his pocket, tracing the edge of the unneeded (or unwanted) PADD with his thumb.
Dax wasn't listening to a word Sisko was saying. Luckily, he was in one of his venting moods, and didn't need much response from her anyway. He didn't even seem to notice that her eyes were cast down toward the first level. Bashir was there, as he usually was after his shift. What wasn't usual was that Garak had followed him in from the Promenade.
If Dax had to guess Garak had "happened" to be closing his shop late and "happened" to run into Bashir outside of the Infirmary -- as she had suggested. Lunches seldom end up in someone's quarters. After-dinner drinks do.
Bashir did seem a bit distracted... But he'd been that way for a while. Garak would just have to do a little more to get his attention. He was certainly trying, despite his obvious discomfort in the crowded bar. Dax smiled to herself, imagining the sheer amount of charm Garak was laying on.
But Bashir kept looking toward the entrance, away from Garak. Dax frowned.
"Are you listening to me?"
Dax looked up at blinked at Sisko. "Um, of course." She paused. "What were you saying?"
When she glanced back down, Bashir was with the date he'd been waiting for and Garak was edging out of the bar.
Every sound seemed louder in the morning. The clatter of plates against trays, footsteps on the Promenade, any voice above a whisper...
Or maybe it seemed that way because neither he nor Garak were saying anything.
Garak had certainly been talkative last night in Quark's, so Bashir had scheduled to share breakfast with him, not wanting to turn him down for dinner and cancel their weekly lunch in one sentence. He didn't want Garak to think he was avoiding him.
He wasn't avoiding him. He didn't want to avoid him.
"You're going to the Gamma Quadrant with Major Kira?" Garak asked suddenly. As if he was feeling the weight of their silence as well.
Bashir nodded. "I'm, ah, looking forward to it. I haven't had a chance to work with her very often."
Another silence. Bashir busied his hands with his scone, even though it wasn't very appealing today.
"I hope I didn't ruin your evening."
"Not at all," Bashir answered. Too quickly. Why did he feel a touch of shame? Garak knew he spent a lot of time with a number of different women. In fact, he asked about it on a fairly regular basis. "If I was short with you, it was just that I've had a couple of long days. At work."
"Of course." Garak voice was strangely low. "I wonder, with all the work you've had this week, have you had any further opportunity to look at the novel I gave you?"
A sudden and irrational irritation shot through Bashir, and leaned back in his chair. "I'm beginning to think that you're playing some sort of trick on me."
"Oh?" Garak asked, his expression blank.
"I'm beginning to think you cut off the last chapter or gave me a novel you know to be meaningless. Just to have me running 'round in circles, trying to figure it out to make you think I'm smart and not just a close-minded Starfleet officer."
Garak didn't seem at all taken aback by the edge in Bashir's voice. In fact, he smiled. "You've become paranoid, Doctor. I'm quite proud."
"It's not like you haven't lied to me before."
"But not for the sole purpose of making you 'run in circles'."
Bashir rolled his eyes. "You're splitting hairs."
"And you're full of idioms today. You usually avoid them for my benefit." Before Bashir could argue that point, Garak continued. " I assure you, Doctor. The copy I gave you of Meditations on a Crimson Shadow is as complete as the version I've read, and it is not at all meaningless. But if you don't enjoy it, I won't inquire further. I simply thought it would be... something you would appreciate. I obviously don't know you as well as I thought."
"I should go." Bashir said quietly, looking down at his plate. Part of him wanted to apologize, but he didn't, even as the anger drained away. "The Major and I will be leaving in half an hour."
He stood to leave, but Garak placed his hand on top of Bashir's. Lightly. The palm barely touching the back of Bashir's hand. "I don't think that you're close-minded, or that you're anything less than brilliant, Doctor. If anything, this has convinced me that the meaning of the novel simply doesn't translate from my language to yours."
Bashir smiled, feeling his spirits lift higher than they had in a while. "Thank you." They stood that way for a moment, Garak's hand on his, until Garak slowly drew away. Bashir picked up his tray, but found himself reluctant to leave.
"I'll... see you. When I get back," Bashir said.
He could feel Garak's eyes on him as he left.
The number kept echoing in Bashir's mind, over and over. Actually, eight-hundred thirty-four million, two-hundred fifty-three thousand, seven-hundred and four. Which didn't count the missing. Which didn't count all of the injuries. Which didn't count the Cardassians who'd died during the rest of the war, or the Humans or the Jem'Hadar or the Klingons... Just the Cardassians who had died in one attack. A lot of them civilians. He'd looked at the number of those eight-hundred million who were children, and immediately wished his enhanced memory would allow him to forget it.
Even as Garak talked about the death of their culture, of their greatest minds, all Bashir could think of was that number.
And of how selfish it was to be relieved that his friend of the past seven years was not one of them.
Everything he said was a platitude, because all he was thinking was that Garak could have died. He'd known that. He'd faced death a thousand times before as a doctor, and during the war, as a soldier. But seeing the number was different. Seeing how many Cardassians had not escaped it was different.
Garak's eyes were usually a crisp, bright blue, but they looked gray now. Bashir knew, logically, that it was only the lighting that changed their color, but with those eyes looking at him so directly, it was hard to believe in what was logically true.
"You've been such a good friend," Garak said with a startling honesty in his voice. "I'm going to miss our lunches together."
"I'm sure we'll see each other again," Bashir said. Another platitude.
"I'd like to think so. But one never can say." Garak put his hand on Bashir's shoulder with a warmth they hadn't shared in a long time. "We live in uncertain times."
Bashir wanted to speak, but the words were caught behind too many emotions. He managed a nod, trying to make his expression happy and hopeful, but he knew that he had failed. He turned his attention back to the console as Garak left.
It doesn't end like this, his mind whispered between the echo of numbers. They'd drifted so far apart without either of them meaning to. At least, without Bashir meaning to. Did Garak know he hadn't meant to?
Bashir was in the hallway before he'd fully realized that he'd left the console, that he'd followed Garak.
Garak turned back toward him, his eyeridges raised.
"Er. I... kept meaning to say this, but I didn't. I guess it was pride or something. But I never stopped thinking about it. That stupid book." Bashir laughed weakly. "Meditations. Since the war started it just kept coming to mind. Whenever I was in battle, or when I was in that Dominion prison. I even quoted it to Tain once, which he found amusing."
"I can imagine," Garak said, his eyes narrowed with curiosity.
"When I first read it, I thought it was about politics. About the war. About a civilization, about an entire world. But it wasn't. It was about the brothers. About Kytal and Diram. About how they let all of those big things destroy them. It ended when Diram died, because Kytal's story is over when his brother's is over. Because their love was the story. And all of those big things don't mean anything without people. And people always let those big things get in the way."
Garak was very still, almost as if he was afraid to move. Bashir closed the distance between them and threw his arms around Garak. Slowly, Garak's hands moved up to Bashir's waist and rested there. As close as Garak could get to returning such a physical show of affection.
Bashir held on long enough for the memory to stay etched in his memory, then drew away. He could feel his emotion threatening, but he forced his eyes to stay clear as he fixed them on Garak's.
"We're both alive. And it's not over," Bashir said, his voice too strong and steady to allow Garak to disbelieve him. "We will see each other again. "
Garak smiled that same sad smile he had before, but this time, his eyes were alight with color. "Who am I to argue?"
Bashir nodded, this time resolutely. "I'll see you later."
"I look forward to it," Garak said. "As always."