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In the Minutiae

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He flinched.

My dear Julian never flinches.

This only furthers my suspicions.

-

The Founders are very scrupulous when learning about a person they intend to replace in the long term. That General Martok we encountered while the Klingons prepared to invade my homeworld is proof of that.

But they cannot account for everything. Such as myself, it would seem. One does not get by in the Obsidian Order – and in fact, on Cardassia in general – without being scrupulous, without being alert and constantly aware of their surroundings.

They have linked with Odo; they ought to know I am one such man, and they ought to know how closely I observe the Doctor.

~~

We are sitting in the replimat having lunch. His eyes are alight and his fork is waving through the air as he regales me about the conference on Meezan IV, from which he has just returned. I think nobody could be quite so excited about the latest burn treatments as Bashir.

Usually it’s endearing, but today something is not quite right. His eyes seem to be a shade off the right colour, but perhaps it is merely a trick of the light.

His plate is still full, his food untouched. I eye it, a question, but he doesn’t seem to notice. Eventually he takes a bite, but there’s something about the way he swallows that doesn’t come across as natural; the timing is wrong, like he’s unfamiliar with how to digest. The food disappears anyway.

“You know, I’m not really hungry.” He pushed the plate away. “I’d best get back to the infirmary, check everything’s been kept in order while I’ve been gone.”

It could be nothing but I am trained to be cautious of everything. I have the beginnings of a troubling feeling stirring in my gut. I keep it to myself.

“Of course, Doctor,” I say. “Thank you for lunch.”

-

My head has been pounding all morning. I wish I could blame it on the Kanar I drank last night, but the fact is I simply did not consume enough of it to be experiencing such effects.

I struggle on anyway, ignoring the pain, perhaps it will go away if I wait long enough. I spend the morning working, but by the early afternoon the trousers in my hand are beginning to blur ever so slightly, and the seams are not straight; whether that’s my perception or whether I’ve cut them wrong, I am not in the optimal condition to continue with the alterations.

A brisk walk, then, get the blood flowing. I lock up the shop and head down the promenade. It helps a little, my vision clearing, the pounding becomes a dull thud, but now my chin is aching, as though I have been punched across the jaw.

No matter. I head to the outer docking ring and complete a full round of the circuit. What I could really do with is some fresh air, but this will have to suffice. As I step out onto the promenade again, the noise assaults my senses and I suffer a wave of dizziness, leaning against a pillar for balance, and close my eyes while it subsides.

“Garak?” It’s Bashir. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” I say, turning to face him and his concern, which I still find mildly annoying even after all this time.

“Perhaps I should take you to the infirmary and check you over.”

“That really will not be necessary,” he is right of course, but this is yet another of our verbal dances – if I am in any condition to argue against his medical attentions, he will have to fight to provide them.

 “Are you sure? You’re rather wobbly.”

“I’m fine,” I tell him. I can replicate some medication for the head when I get back to my quarters.

Worry flashes momentarily across his features. “Well, if you’re sure. You know where to find me if it gets any worse.”

He let it go. He never lets it go that easily, even for the most minor of ailments; if he thinks I’m suffering he just has to swoop in and save the day.

-

He has stopped socialising. I see Chief O’Brien heading towards Quark’s in some Terran historical get-up, but Julian is not with him. Perhaps he is merely busy in the infirmary, after all, this business with Captain Sisko’s visions of a lost Bajoran city is causing quite a stir, however I have not seen him even so much as set foot into the bar for a quick drink.

I am sorting through a large order of new silks and cottons when Lieutenant Commander Dax steps into my shop, her hands clasped behind her back, her face tight.

“Garak,” she offers me a polite greeting, which I return.

“What can I do for you?” I ask her. “Perhaps a new outfit for one of your holosuite adventures with Major Kira?”

“Thank you, no,” she says. “How’s Julian?”

“Doctor Bashir seems fine to me,” I reply. It is a lie, of course, but I will not divulge my suspicions to her. She likely will not believe me, or she may be another Changeling, attempting to ascertain if I am onto the one who is impersonating my beloved.

She raises an eyebrow. “I asked him out for a drink last night and he said he wasn’t feeling well.”

“He wasn’t with me,” I tell her. This, at least, is the truth – or the innocuous part of it anyway. I don’t know how much of our relationship she knows about, so there is no need to let her know that this is suspicious, that he’s been sleeping exclusively in his own quarters since he returned from the conference, and that he has not once invited me to join him.

“When you see him, would you keep an eye out for anything remiss?” she asks. My dear, I think, I always keep an eye out for anything remiss. If she is a Changeling, however, that will only weaken my position.

“You’ll be the first to know,” I say instead. She nods, utters a quick ‘thank you’, and leaves, and I go back to sorting through my new fabrics.

-

The security system on this station is ridiculously easy to hack.

Especially now, when everyone’s distracted by the serial murders of the members of Major Kira’s old resistance cell.

I pull up the replicator records for Bashir’s quarters. Since his return from the Meezan system there have been only a few uses. Not nearly enough to provide enough sustenance for an adult Human.

I’ve been observing him closely enough to know he hasn’t been eating in any of the cafés or restaurants on the promenade, either.

-

Quark has sold Odo a sick Changeling, and Bashir is insisting it could be dangerous, says they should put it in a security field. Odo is too distracted by his new charge to notice that Bashir’s tone of voice doesn’t convey the concern or worry that his words do, but I notice, as I watch from the shadows in which I have hidden myself.

There is wonder in Odo’s eyes, his voice, a wonder that Bashir doesn’t seem to share. I know he would. Even things that scare him often fascinate him.

-

“You’ve been avoiding me,” I say, leaving no room for quibble on that. He has been avoiding me. I don’t mention the time-frame of this avoidance.

“Garak, I’m sorry, I’ve just been so wrapped up in my latest project.”

I am in the infirmary, having got tired of waiting for him to make a move and decided to pay him a visit. He motions at the screen, for me to take a look. I recognise the research, recognise the complex protein chains on the screen. Not that I have a huge understanding of prions – I am not a scientist, and even if I were, Cardassians have a very different method of classifying biomolecules.

“Interesting, isn’t it?” he says.

“I wouldn’t know,” I say. He ought to know that, he’s tried to explain it to me before, but everyone has an area where their knowledge is lacking, and I am no exception to that.

“It’s fascinating,” he tells me emphatically, but there is no enthusiastic sparkle in his eye.

“I heard a rumour that Captain Sisko got a lead on the whereabouts of Mr Eddington.” I change the subject. Of course, I didn’t really hear it through a rumour, there’s no need to state it explicitly.

We had talked about it, after the fiasco with Captain Yates and the industrial replicators – of course, I knew exactly what had happened, when I had heard Cardassia was involved, how could I not use my resources and contacts to learn of the situation?

I had expected Julian to outright disapprove of Eddington’s actions. When he didn’t, I was ready to argue with him: after all, Eddington had betrayed those he was supposed to be loyal to, and taken something from Cardassia – although I didn’t expect anyone in Starfleet to feel as strongly as I did about the latter.

After a little badgering which it took to persuade him to discuss something classified with a civilian, Julian confided in me that while he regretted Cardassia’s loss, and doesn’t approve of the Maquis’ continual attacks against my people, he has his own problems with the Federation, and does sympathise with them to an extent. I was shocked at this revelation, though pleased that after four years of me trying, he had finally admitted that he didn’t think the Federation was perfect.

He had made me promise not to tell anyone he felt that way, and I honoured that promise, so unless they tortured it out of him – and why would they, when there is far more valuable information they could obtain from him? – the Dominion couldn’t possibly know that’s how he feels.

Hence, when he now spits “That Maquis traitor,” it only serves to further my suspicions that this is in fact a Founder, and not Doctor Julian Bashir, who is sitting before me.

-

I am in my quarters, relaxing after dinner. I am reading a novel, a Human one that Julian gave me before he left for the conference. It is really rather mundane, actually, full of endless clichés – well, I’m sure the same could be said for many a Cardassian novel, too, if one looks, but Human clichés are so… I guess I just haven’t quite manage to develop any appreciation for such tastes yet – but Julian gave it to me, so I am reading it anyway. I would not want to let him down when he wishes to discuss it at lunch.

My door chirrups, and I get up to open it, leaving the PADD on the arm of my couch.

He is standing on the other side of it. He had made a habit of letting himself in, once he finally figured out how, and I may in my weakness have begun allowing it.

“Doctor!” I plaster a smile on, but my doubts are at the forefront of my mind. “Do come in,”

He steps over the threshold, and the door slides shut behind him. I am alone with someone who is quite possibly an enemy infiltrator. I do a quick mental sweep of the room, remind myself exactly where I have weapons hidden, in the event it becomes necessary to use one.

“Can I get you something?” I ask. “Tea, perhaps?”

“No thank you, Garak.”

He usually calls me Elim when we are alone.

I order a Rokassa juice from the replicator, and walk towards him with it in my hand. Even after knowing me for five years, he has not entirely become accustomed to the pungency of this drink. But now, his nose doesn’t scrunch up the way it usually does.

I take a sip then place the drink on the table, and step into his personal space. His scent is not right at all. I cup one hand around the back of his, and pull his lips to mine.

He flinches.

My dear Julian never flinches when I kiss him. My Julian doesn’t take five whole seconds to respond.

His scent is wrong and the inside of his mouth feels wrong, too. I close my eyes, but I can’t relax. His hand slips under my shirt, his fingers caressing the scales on my stomach, and I push him away gently.

“Remember what we agreed?” I say. He gives me a blank expression. “That sex is off the table?” it’s a lie, and Julian would know that, so it’s also a test; but it serves two purposes, or as I’ve heard Humans say before, it kills two birds with one stone – for if this is a Changeling in my arms, and I’m convinced it is, they will have no choice but to take my word for it, to avoid rousing my suspicions – and I would rather not engage in intimacies with this being.

“Uh, yes, of course,” he stutters. “Sorry,” he releases me and steps back.

My fears have been confirmed.

I should go to Sisko, I know, but there is no guarantee the Captain will believe me, and besides, I cannot trust him. I cannot trust anyone. If the infiltrator realises they’ve been discovered, there could be consequences; such as Julian’s death, if that has not already happened.

The thought turns my stomach. I know I should be worrying about the station, about Bajor, Cardassia, the Federation. I am, of course, I am fully aware of all the secrets and intelligence that an officer serving on a front-lines station has access to, and the ramifications that his capture and replacement could have for our efforts in the fight against the Dominion.

But I am sentimental, and the first person to truly accept me in this cold, bright exile, still one of the only people to accept me, to care for me, the person to whom my weak heart has become so devoted, is most likely dead, his remains lost goodness knows where.

It’s all I can concentrate on, and I want to let it overwhelm me, I want to lash out and scream at the monster before me, tell them how dare they wear that face, answer to that name. But what good will that do?

We stand there, face to face, and I take him in. Julian, but not quite Julian. My beloved, but not quite. It’s all in the minutiae, things others would not notice, but which are important to me.

They can’t know that I know. The room is closing in.

I take a deep breath.

“I’m afraid I am feeling a little tired tonight, my dear,” I say, my teeth gritted. “Perhaps you would like to join Ziyal and I for lunch in two days?”

“I’ll be there,” he says, smiling, not knowing I can see right through it.

-

Lunch is awkward. Now that I’m certain this isn’t really Julian, now that I know I loathe this creature sitting before me, I can barely look at him.

I’m fortunate, really, that Ziyal is here. Ziyal who doesn’t appear to have any notion of what sits before her, Ziyal who is not as deeply invested in the situation, at any rate – she and Julian do consider each other as friends, and I have no doubt she would be affected by his loss, but it wouldn’t break her heart, it wouldn’t tear her apart from the inside quite as it is tearing me apart.

She keeps up a conversation with him, telling him about her latest art project, and I try to listen, sharing occasional glances with him. I am interested in Ziyal’s creative work, but today I can’t focus on what she is saying. But the Changeling keeps her from noticing. Perhaps I should expose them, stop whatever they’re planning. But the only possible reason I can think of for them to keep Julian alive is to get information from him, and if he becomes useless to them…

I don’t care if he sells out the entire Federation, I don’t want him to die.

“Dax to Bashir.” Please call it away.

It taps its comm badge to open its end of the channel. “Bashir here.”

“Is Garak with you?” Dax asks. It responds in the affirmative, and I hear her ask for me to go up to Ops.

“He’s on his way,” it says, giving me a pointed glance. I nod and get up. I’ve never been so relieved to be called up to Ops.

“I trust you two can survive without me for ten minutes,” I say, affecting joviality.

“Ah, Mr Garak,” Dax says when I step off the turbolift. “Come and look at this,” she motions at the monitor in front of her. “What do you make of it?”

I recognise the code immediately, and I can feel my heart as it hammers against my bones.

One word: alive.

Tain is alive! My father, my mentor, he did not die in the failed attack. And, I realise, if he’s alive, there’s a good chance so is Julian. I have to find them both. But I still cannot trust Sisko, Dax, Kira, the others. I have to go alone.

I school my features into something resembling indifference, and set about pretending to examine the transmission on the screen.

“I’m afraid I cannot be of assistance to you. These look to be planetary survey reports from, oh, five years ago? A lot will have changed in five years.” I tell them, and I watch as their faces fall. I regret not being able to be of use to them, but I have my priorities. Tain. Julian. I will no doubt encounter the Dominion during my rescue attempt, perhaps I can still present Sisko with a few juicy strategic secrets.

“Well that’s that,” Dax sighs, “let’s hope Bajoran Intelligence has more luck.”

I nearly scoff at that. Even Cardassian intelligence wouldn’t have more ‘luck’. I consider that she might be attempting to give me an incentive to try harder, but any damage she could possibly do to my ego is secondary to me now.

“Let’s hope so,” I agree anyway. “May I be excused?”

“Yes, dismissed,” Sisko says, his tone weary. I waste no time in heading down to the replimat to excuse myself from an even more unpleasant situation.

-

“That’s the look, exactly,” I say, leaning a little towards Ziyal, and pointing at the monster, all the while hiding my haste and keeping up my carefully cultivated air of pleasant conviviality. She laughs.

“I would have thought you'd be a little disappointed, too. After all, it could have been from one of the survivors of the Cardassian fleet that was lost in the Gamma Quadrant.” It says, and I bite the inside of my mouth to keep from scowling. It’s just trying to unsettle me, I remind myself.

I say something with a bit of light humour to it – not focusing on my words, but this comes naturally to me after so many years of practise. Ziyal seems satisfied with my explanation, but a thoughtful look has come across the Changeling’s face. He’s not buying it. He’s onto me, I think. Best I leave promptly.

I press my palm to Ziyal’s in the common gesture of friendship, and take my leave. I make a bit of a show of walking into my shop, then hastily shove a few odds and ends – clothes, food, weapons I have stashed away, as well as equipment to disable the station’s encryption codes to gain access to a runabout – into a bag, and sneak out of the back entrance and head down to the docking ring.

Inside the runabout, the Changeling is waiting for me. It’s pointing a phaser at me. Ordinarily I would approve, of Julian, and I let that show on my face, but Julian wouldn’t really be pointing a phaser and if he were, I could trust that he wouldn’t shoot – at least, not on the kill setting I can see on the phaser in the Changeling’s hand. And not for something as trivial as stealing a runabout. Being willing to let all his friends and colleagues die, maybe, but not stealing a runabout.

I try to distract him with a little harmless flirting, but it doesn’t work. I have to choose my next words with care. It knows by now that I must know about Tain – even if it doesn’t, it’s a safer bet to go with, because it’s not a replica of Tain that’s holding the phaser. Very well. I tell it about Tain.

“You don’t owe Tain anything,” it says, trying to be Julian Bashir, trying to be my friend and lover. But Julian would support me in this. He supported me the last time I went after Tain, he would support me today as well.

It pains me, but I invite it along. I don’t expect it to accept, after all there is probably classified information to gather or sabotages to be made to the station. But it raises the phaser again and tells me it is taking me to Sisko. This is perhaps more in-character, however, I suspect that Julian may be being held in the same place as Tain – if I find Tain, I may uncover the Changeling.

-

Sisko seems to believe me.

“Tain might not be alone - there may be others,” I say, to encourage him to allow it. There may be Julian, I don’t say, but I do give him some other examples.

He agrees, but says I can’t go alone. I suggest Bashir – along the way, I’ll have plenty of time to discover how to kill a Changeling.

Instead, he tells me he will send Worf along. I groan inwardly.

-

Now I have to wait around for Worf to indulge in Federation protocol, with the Changeling aware of at least part of what I know, and while the minutes pass, time is ebbing away for my father, my lover, and anyone else who is imprisoned with them. I thought the Federation was supposed to care about lives? Why are we waiting?

Feeling restless, I go to Quark’s for a drink, and I find Ziyal there. At least the Changeling likely won’t be joining us. I see no reason not to tell her where I’m going now. I have enough of my own emotions running around in my head, and I don’t have time for hers. I definitely don’t have time for Dukat, who I was not expecting to see. But fortunately the situation breaks up quickly and I leave, but before I do I cannot resist taking a moment to rub my friendship with her in Dukat’s face.

-

Finally.

After over a month since my first indication that Bashir had been replaced, I am on my way to actually do something about it.

I just really hope he’s okay. I try not to think about the condition he’s in, about what he must have gone through. I try not to think about the fact that once, I was in the Dominion’s position in this situation, and I try not to think about all the Bashirs and Garaks I inflicted all of this pain on.

A horrible thought occurs to me: what if he expected to be rescued sooner? What if he doesn’t forgive me? I don’t know if I could live with that. Well, I know I would live with it, but I don’t know how well I would live with it. Images flash through my mind: Julian, broken and bruised, Julian, his beautiful hazel-brown eyes filled with hurt and betrayal, him leaving the station, leaving me, telling everyone not to call themselves his friend any more… what if he thinks I didn’t notice? After everything he’s done for me…

No, I cannot afford to think this way, not now. I have a mission. I need a distraction. I try convincing Worf to sponsor me if I applied to Starfleet Academy. Eventually he agrees, but I can’t be sure he genuinely believes me. I suggest I could jump straight to the rank of commander, and I spoil it. He has seen through me. Then I tell him I need to practise my lying skills. What has gotten into you, Elim? You’re a wreck.

-

Worf thinks we should turn back. Wants to follow Starfleet orders and abandon the people we’re trying to rescue. It’s not them, it’s me. They don’t trust me. That’s good – not being trusted is good. But there’s too much at stake. If he insists on turning back and I can’t convince him otherwise, I will be forced to knock him out.

-

Fantastic. Now we’re prisoners too. I am determined that we’ll still find our people and escape.

“I’ve been waiting for another Klingon,” the Jem’Hadar soldier says. There’s already a Klingon here? It’s soon revealed that this is General Martok. If he’s being held here, and indeed if Tain is here as well, it seems even more likely that Julian is also here.

We watch the remainder of the hand-to-hand combat, before a Jem’Hadar calls a halt to it. Martok is free now that Worf can take his place. We help the injured General to his feet, and make our introductions.

“If you are Worf,” Martok says, “Then you must be Garak. He said you would come.”

My pulse is racing again. It must be Tain that he is referring to – I also hope, faintly, that it could be Bashir, although it is more likely that it is Tain, since he was the one who sent the message which brought us here.

Martok leads us to the barracks and points out Tain where he is lying on the bed in the corner. I recognise his outline immediately, and rush over to him. I am not able to put Bashir quite to the back of my mind, but maybe a little to the side as I am reunited with my father, who is alive – albeit in a very weakened state. I’m only peripherally aware of the Klingons leaving to give us some privacy.

But of course, this is Tain. I don’t know what else I expected, really, but the moment is shattered when all he can say is that I let him down again. I know he doesn’t mean it, I know that deep down he is pleased to see me and still believes I will be able to get us out of there. But his words cut me like a blade nevertheless. I scoff at my own weakness. His moments of consciousness are short and he falls into sleep again.

-

Martok briefs us on everything that’s happened – how Tain was able to contact Deep Space Nine, and the prognosis on his health.

“Then it is up to us to be clever,” Worf says, meaning to escape. I am about to finally reveal what I know about Doctor Bashir’s replacement, that I need to find him, when the door opens and a Romulan walks into the room.

“They’re releasing him from isolation,” she says.

“Good,” Martok says.

“Who?” Worf asks, and I’m certain I know who. The walls are edging ever so slightly closer. No doubt his replacement informed them I was coming, told them to let me see him, now that there is little I can do to help him or stop the infiltrator.

“A friend,” Martok says, and Worf looks at me in question, as though I know who this person may be, and I give him a nonchalant shrug – though that’s the last thing I’m feeling.

“Move!” the rough bark of a Jem’Hadar, and a thin figure in dirty clothes is pushed forcefully into the room.

My heart stops.

The look on his face is one of surprise, anger, shock, fear and a tinge of relief. Perhaps he thinks he is hallucinating. All my impulses are telling me to go to him and embrace him, hold him tight and promise never to let go again, but I keep them in check – there will be time for a more intimate reunion later. First I need to check he’s okay. I may not be able to do much to get him out of here, but being able to keep an eye on him relieves just a little of my inner turmoil.

After a relatively short time which feels painfully long, he seems to accept the truth of what he’s seeing and visibly sags, and he looks like he might cry. I take him by the arm and guide him to a bench, encouraging him to sit down.

Worf shoots me a glare, one which I suspect translates as ‘you knew about this, didn’t you?’ but he doesn’t say anything. Perhaps he is embarrassed that he didn’t notice.

He takes a knife, and makes a small slit in his finger, smearing the blood across the stone bench he is sitting on. He still hasn’t looked at me, and Martok has wedged himself in between us, and I wonder what he has told the General. My fears about him never forgiving me return. Nausea washes over me, and a few centimetres are taken off the size of the room. I need to be alone with him.

“B-Negative, in case you’re wondering,” he says. I’m not. I don’t care about his blood. I know it’s him, anyway. Maybe Worf and Martok need the screening, but I don’t. His eyes are the right colour, and I can smell him – even from this difference, given the state he’s in, but I don’t care about that either. It’s still him.

Julian, my Julian, is alive, and I am with him again. This safety may only be relative, but right now I know I would lay down my life to protect his, if that’s what it came to.

He finally looks at me.

“When were you brought here?” I ask, and he tells me exactly what I’m expecting to hear: after the Burn Treatment conference on Meezan IV.

There is a very brief discourse about the actions of both Martok and Julian’s replacements. “We must escape and warn Captain Sisko before that Changeling carries out his mission,” Worf says. Another pointed look in my direction. So he does think I knew. Ah, well. He is free to believe what he wishes.

We leave this barrack, heading back to the one where Tain is lying. I want to say something to him, but alone, and so far he hasn’t given me a chance. He asks if I got Tain’s message, asks if that’s why I came here. I tell him it is. My feelings about my father flare up again, and I find myself ranting about him saying I should not have come here – all the opposites of the things I want to be saying to the man I am actually saying them to, but I find myself unable to stop. I don’t even mean half the things I say about Tain, and I know that, but what good is the truth?

“I've been a fool,” I say, my mouth acting completely without permission from my mind. I’m going into overdrive, and Julian’s scent, missed for so long, is intoxicating. “Let this be a lesson to you, Doctor, perhaps the most valuable one I can ever teach you. Sentiment is the greatest weakness of all.”

“If that's true, it's a lesson I'd rather not learn,” he says, looking and sounding completely broken. Well played, Elim, I think. You’re facing your father’s final hours and you’re trying to drive your lover away as well?

Martok comes to us and tells me it’s now or never if I want to say goodbye to Tain, and I immediately walk towards the barrack where he’s sleeping; I immediately go to him one last time. Julian follows, and I know I should tell him not to, but I don’t have it in me. It’s my way of telling him not to believe any of the nonsense I just spewed. Well, not nonsense exactly – it’s the truth, but not a truth I’m willing to believe.

“Are you alone?” Tain asks, and I turn to look at Julian, we make eye contact, and he nods, a silent acknowledgement, before I turn to Tain and tell him I am, in fact, alone.

-

Tain is dead. He’s gone.

That’s the end of it. I’ve known he may be dead for more than two years, and ever since I found him alive I knew he would soon be dead.

But now, it’s happened, and I feel a wave of shock, like it’s the last thing I expected.

“Garak,” Julian says feebly, but I barely notice.

Tain is dead.

I’ve only just covered his face with the sheet he was lying under and stood, still at a loss for words, when Martok and Worf walk in – their timing is impeccable.

Breath, I tell myself. They’re as eager to get out of here as I am, and the room is not shrinking.

Composure now a semblance of intact, I turn to face them and tell them I am ready to leave. Unsurprisingly, there is a consensus of agreement between the four of us.

Martok looks ready to make a suggestion as to our escape plan, but Julian’s eyes are focused intensely on me and I can’t take it any more. In a moment of rashness I decide I don’t care that there are others here and close the gap between us, throwing my arms around him and burying my nose in his neck, relishing the feeling. He stiffens momentarily, then relaxes and wraps his own arms around my back.

His body is warm, like it should be.

“I’m so glad you’re safe,” I say. “I’ve been worried for so long.”

Well, if anyone had any doubts, now I’ve given it away. I don’t care. I just want Worf and Martok to leave, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to wait any longer to rectify things with Julian, even if it means they witness it. Fortunately, they share a glance and leave the barrack without a word.

“For so long?” he asks, still embracing me. I don’t think that I have the energy for fabrications right now, and given the circumstances he deserves better. Bare truth it is, then.

“Did you think I wouldn’t notice it wasn’t you?” I ask. He pulls away slightly so we’re face to face, but doesn’t drop his arms.

“I was beginning to wonder,” he admits, and he still sounds broken, “If anyone noticed. I assumed there was a replacement as soon as I realised it who it was who had captured me.”

“I noticed almost immediately,” I assure him. “Not that I discussed it with anyone. They could all have been Changelings for all I knew.”

A pause. “So you and him didn’t – “

“Oh – god no.”

“Nobody else noticed?” he asked, his eyes filled with the hurt I’d imagined all too accurately.

I can’t speak for them, but this is one lie I can tell: “They all did,” I know he doesn’t believe me, but he has to appreciate the attempt. “Dax even came and asked me if you were okay.”

“How did you know?” he’s all questions, but I suppose that’s fair.

“I… my dear,” I reach up and stroke his hair, and it feels like butter, but I am not deterred. “Do you think I don’t pay attention to you? Tiny things like the exact shade of your eyes, like your scent – they couldn’t even begin to replicate that. Things that make the corners of your lips turn to just the smallest degree…”

I know I’m being grossly sentimental – Tain is not even buried yet, and he’s already turning in his grave – but the fact is that is usually the way the truth is. That’s why I avoid it. It’s also how I know he knows I’m telling it.

There were many other clues, too, of course, and he surely knows it, that the Founder must have occasionally slipped up in its imitation of him; these seem to be the only ones that matter, these tender, intimate things are the only ones I can find it in me to voice.

“Elim,” his voice is quiet, his eyes searching mine.

His scent is completely right. I cup one hand around the back of his, and pull his lips to mine.

He doesn’t flinch.

He doesn’t take as many as five seconds to respond, either.

His scent is right and the inside of his mouth feels right, too. I close my eyes, and I feel totally relaxed as I melt into him, and he melts into me. His hand doesn’t slip under my shirt – neither of us want more just now, we’re quite content to bask in the relative safely of this moment, we can have more later.

My dear Julian, in his entirety; my beloved, in his entirety.

It’s all in the minutiae.

For now, my fears have abated.