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The young nurse fetches Garak out of the dusty ranks of the crews returning from a day’s labour. Ditch-digging, today. Other crews have been clearing debris from potential building sites, scavenging materials to be reused; still others dig wells, erect power grids.

There are still burial details, over a year later. At times it seems like bodies are the only reliable crop the rubble will ever yield up again.

That day, however, there had been a small, welcome surprise growing in the shade of the basement where their eight-man work crew had taken their midday break. Garak carefully readjusts his bag as he follows the nurse, so that the small moist bundle at its top isn’t crushed at his side. His crewmates had looked at him as though he were insane, wasting precious liquid to keep his find from drying out after he’d levered it out of the ground.

None of them are yet brave enough to suggest to the rumoured former protégé of Enabran Tain what to do with his water ration.

On the screen of the hospital’s communication console, Julian Bashir’s face is somewhat obscured by the mask — he must have just come from outside, and Garak is relieved to see that he’s wearing full radiation gear.

"Two hundred and three souls, all present and accounted for," the Terran reports. "Most of us are either in the clinic or the bathhouse, and they’re well-battened down. We’ve a couple of radiation suits like this one for small parties to move between the two. We should be able to wait out the storm for a few more days with the supplies that we have — Provost Telcet was admirably prepared.”

The howl of the wind in the background picks up momentarily, and Julian grimaces, raising his voice. “Also, could someone please contact Elim Garak from Soreel Borta’s work crew, and let him know I’m all right? Although knowing him, he’ll probably want to see the message himself." This last is accompanied by a smile that Garak knows is meant for him and him alone, and then the transmission ends.

He grits his teeth, and does not reach out to press his palm to the screen in full view of the curious nurse hovering at his elbow. The timestamp on the message is from the previous day; the community of Betal Outpost hasn’t been in contact since, but it’s not an unusual occurrence by any means for the storms to disrupt the communication relays. It could mean nothing.

When Garak was small, the great dust storms of the southern landmass had been a schoolroom tale. The Shisuruk, they were called, and before the last of the old religion had been stamped out, its followers had claimed that the storms were a punishment for the despoiling of the southern forests and cropland as Cardassia marched on towards militarization, centralization, and empire. The environmental scientists said much the same thing in slightly different terms.

Now, after the Dominion bombardment, it seems as though all of Cardassia is in the grips of the Shisuruk. It isn’t enough that rivers dried in their beds and the fault lines groan and wrench cities apart; without forests or fertile fields to hold it down, the dust rises and rises.

It seems fitting that this, like so many other things, they did to themselves. As Doctor Bashir has sometimes said, they are reaping the whirlwind.

But it isn’t only the wind and the dust: it’s what it carries with it. When the wind comes whipping up from the south — the direction of what used to be Lakarian City — it carries clouds of radioactive particles and ash in its wake. There’s usually less than an hour’s warning when the sirens begin to wail throughout the Gheshrat district, an ear-rending diplophonic tone signalling radiation storm, everyone take shelter. On more than one occasion, the siren’s warning almost comes too late, and Garak and the other members of his work crew spend hours crouched in a miserable collapsible tent while the storm shrieks like a living thing around them.

In the storms’ aftermaths, anti-rad pills and hypos are distributed to the entire district as a matter of course. Anyone who had been caught in the open without protective clothing would need to seek out medical personnel within thirty hours to receive more strenuous treatment, before cellular damage became irreversible.

Not everyone is able to do so. Before long, Garak, like everyone else, is an old hand at recognizing the signs of radiation sickness: the bleeding gums, the loosened scales, the bright, bright spot of white in the centre of the chufa. Death tenderly pulling its victim in close, resting its forehead on theirs.

Garak is used to living with the knowledge that Cardassia could be the death of him. For a time, it was the only death he could envision for himself: a death in the service of the only parent who would lay claim to him (for isn’t that what they told the orphans and bastards who swelled the Obsidian Order’s ranks — those surest and most loyal of recruits, whose hearts could never be divided between family and State?)

Whether he is now willing to see it become the death of Julian Bashir is turning out to be a different matter entirely.

Garak turns to the nurse, his features carefully schooled. “Thank you for finding me, Nurse — Faro, was it? As it so happens, I have something in return for your trouble.”

Her eyes dart and skitter a bit; Nurse Faro knows who he is, or has heard rumours. Ignoring this small discourtesy, Garak reaches into his work bag and pulls out his prize.

She looks at the small bundle of cloth-wrapped earth and fragile leaves with some apprehension, and Garak gives her his most disarming smile. “Doctor Bashir was telling me of the difficulty you’ve had in securing betranine supplements. I thought you and your colleagues might have some use for this. A little frost-bitten, but the roots are sound enough, and there are a few seed pods forming.”

“Oh, Faro, you found him- Guls, is that thakweed?” Doctor Nural, a tall, vigorous woman with a voice made for declaiming over distances, suddenly appears at Faro’s elbow; the nurse jumps about a foot.

"Weed — I'm not entirely — Pol Garak brought it," the nurse stammers.

Nural prods at the plant’s drooping leaves with her examination rod. “Yes, yes, thakleaf tea is the next best thing, an excellent natural source — it doesn’t usually grow in our climate. Well, don’t just stand there, Faro, see about getting it into the ground. You can use the same plot as the plimpot seedlings, they don’t mind crowded quarters.” She turns to Garak, eyes keen. “We are obliged to you, Pol Garak. Not many people” — meaning men — “would know to bring it to us.”

“Garak, please, Doctor Nural. And I learned about thakweed at my mother’s knee.”

It’s not entirely a lie.

Mila may have been a terrible cook, but she was a dab hand at mixing and compounding. The high stone table in her workroom had always been full of fascinating jars and powders. (“Medicines, for Tain — mind your own scales, Elim.”) The door was usually kept locked, but even at the age of five it had been very difficult to keep Garak out of places that he wasn’t supposed to be.

He clearly remembers the horror-stricken look on Mila’s face in the doorway, and how breathtakingly fast the plump little housekeeper had moved. He had been poised to take an experimental sniff of a jar that looked like it contained jumja jelly, and suddenly the jar had been flying out of his hand and a viselike grip on his arm was lifting him above solid ground.

The subsequent, impressive tanning hadn’t been enough to keep him out of the workroom, after all, but it had impressed upon him that the smelling and tasting of its contents, at least, was to be avoided.

Much later, he had learned that compounds in the roots of thakweed were used in the production of a swift-acting nerve agent the consistency of jumja jelly; the leaves themselves were useless, except as a natural source of betranine. “Which I’m sure will come in great use to you all, to ensure healthy pregnancies,” the instructor had said sardonically at the time, prompting a few snorts and snickers from the trainees.

The joke being, of course, that a true agent of the Obsidian Order would never pass on their family name; children were vulnerabilities, waiting to be exploited.

(“I should have killed your mother before you were born.” The breath rattles in the dingy gloom of the Dominion prison camp, the words coming weakly, tinged with conviction and despair: “You have always been a weakness I couldn’t afford.”)

Now, Doctor Nural says baldly, “We have all been conjecturing why Doctor Bashir wished us to find you, but not to send a transmission to his family. Does he have no living parents?”

“I believe they aren’t close,” Garak replies blandly.

“Extraordinary.” Undutiful, says the disapproving tilt of her head.

“I think you will find that filial duty varies widely among the Terrans, Doctor Nural. But he is nevertheless an excellent doctor, is he not?” Garak says brightly. “I’ll let the rest of the labour crews know that you’d like any other seedlings they come across.”

Having disappointed the doctor in her curiosity (and by extension, that of the entire hospital staff), Garak leaves by the same door he entered.

“Pol Garak –”

The blurt comes from Faro, waiting outside and still clutching the plant’s bundle awkwardly. He stops and waits. The young nurse squirms a bit under his gaze, then ventures, “Doctor Bashir will be pleased about the thakweed. When he comes back to us safely.”

It’s a clumsy attempt at reassurance, if indirect enough for courtesy; no Cardassian would dream of telling one’s elder outright that they were wrong to worry, even one of such uncertain social stature as Garak.

He bites his tongue on the automatic urge to correct the honorific — no need to further flummox the poor thing as to the hierarchy involved — even as he takes her measurements from top to toe.

She’s quite young; Garak doubts that she’s technically finished the schooling to merit the title of Nurse, but it is a fact that too many of those better qualified to be called so are now dead. A soft-hearted soul, this, clearly embarrassed by her earlier show of suspicion and trying to make amends. Easily won over by a community-minded gesture and the notion of Garak learning herblore at his mother’s side — charming image as it is.

Then she adds, to no seeming purpose, “Provost Telcet is my grandmother,” looking at her feet, and Garak revises his idea of just who is supposed to be reassuring whom. He wonders why she’s here in Gheshrat, instead of her own community.

But he says with as much kindness as he can muster, “I’m sure you are quite correct, Nurse — Doctor Bashir will be pleased. When, as you say, he comes back safely.”

He can almost watch it happen, with some bitter amusement: the spectre of the proficient interrogator and ruthless assassin of whispered rumour fading from the reflection in Faro’s eyes. In its place stands a middle-aged Cardassian with a round face and a disarming smile, who would be running to plump were it not for the twin facts of hard labour and strict rationing, who carries seedlings in his bag.

It is difficult for most individuals to carry on maintaining two opposing notions in equal standing within the mind, after all, even if they both happen to be true. The Cardassian mind, especially, did not evolve to comfortably suffer duality.

Garak knows this better than most, having been trained to twist it to his advantage.

“Nurse Faro, I believe I said jump!” comes Nural’s piercing voice: “Why aren’t you jumping?”

Faro looks vaguely haunted. “I don’t know which ones are the plimpots,” she confesses to Garak. “I can’t tell a plimpot from the laughing-bird in the moon.”

“Ah. I believe I can help you, there.” A wink, and the transformation is complete.

***

Brushing soil from his sleeves, Garak makes his way out of the clinic and through the ruined mainstreet, past the crater of the erstwhile civic hall, towards the old shipping yard. It’s where he and Julian and a few other, more private-minded individuals have made their temporary homes away from the multi-family barracks and tents that have been erected within and around the school and old bathhouse.

At first, Julian had expressed surprise at Garak’s choice of living quarters. “Wouldn’t a tent have been more comfortable than a cargo container? Airier, letting in a bit more light?”

“If you’d ever woken up to a tent collapsing around your ears, my dear Doctor, you’d think otherwise,” Garak had replied.

If he must have walls about him — and between the Shisuruk and the infrequent, acid rainfalls, it seems he must have — he would vastly prefer the immovable kind.

Semtak, their nearest neighbour, stands at the lip of his own shelter wrapped in an old dressing gown of Andorian silk. In the evenings the little professor is frequently to be found sitting on his stoop thusly attired, talking softly to a laughing-bird he keeps in a wire cage. Garak supposes that if one is to openly keep house with an alien, it helps to have unorthodox neighbours.

Semtak nods courteously to Garak, who pauses to agree with him that winter has, indeed, arrived. Semtak asks after Julian, shaking his head in sympathy to hear that he is still in Betal Outpost. Before Garak, with a slight bow, can take his leave, Semtak lays a hand on his shoulder. “Pol Garak, as the nights grow colder, I find my heart in need of stronger comfort than my little stove and winged friend can provide. I hope some music tonight wouldn’t be offensive to you? If you’d rather not hear, I can make my way downwind.”

“Not at all, Professor,” Garak replies. “I’d be pleased to hear it.”

The doors of his and Julian’s cargo container face east; aside from the insect netting, they’ve kept it open to the air for the past few months in unspoken deference to Garak’s claustrophobia, but it’s becoming cold enough to warrant shutting them in until dawn.

Tonight, he keeps the door open as long as his numbed scales can stand it. He watches the moons rise as he eats his ration bar slowly, making it last, and drinks weak redleaf tea, wrapped in a blanket that still carries Julian’s scent while the long, low, shivering notes of Semtak’s eight-stringed azal carry through the darkness.

Before the Dominion war, Semtak had been a professor of music at the university in Lakarian City, and is plainly an azaleira of some skill. It isn’t a Cardassian song that he plays tonight, though, but a Bajoran one: a lament to the Prophets, a prayer and a plea for a loved one to return to one’s side.

The tune would be a familiar one to anyone who had spent any amount of time on occupied Bajor, but Garak had never expected to hear it here, given voice in the throat of a Cardassian instrument.

He gives the old musician his compliments the next morning, when he passes Semtak’s shelter again on his way to join his work crew.

Semtak smiles. “A lovely melody, isn’t it? I learned it from a vedik on Bajor VIII. You'll agree it's better with voices, of course — that beautiful contrapuntal! I suppose," he adds, "not so long ago, I might have been taken away for questioning if I had chosen to play it in the Lakarian Concert Hall, in place of a military air, or one of the the great Cyclic Concertos.”

His eyes are sharp and knowing, but his tone is curiously unaccusing — as if to say, Strange, the parts that we played, you and I, and where our pieces have now fallen on the kotra board!

Garak tilts his head consideringly, saying finally, “That would depend entirely on the spirit in which it was being played, Professor Semtak.”

“You can never presume to know for a certainty the spirit in which a song is played,” Semtak says firmly. “The spirit in which it’s heard tends to get in the way.” He touches Garak’s arm again. “No matter, my friend. Let’s hope for word from Betal Outpost, today, eh?”

***

When Julian makes it back to Gheshrat, a day later, it’s clear from the moment he steps off the transport that he isn’t well — he’s shivering and dull-eyed, and his dusky skin is clammy to the touch.

"Nothing about three years of sleep won't cure," he self-diagnoses, and curls up immediately on their thin pallet, voice muffled in the blanket. “Did you read to Kukalaka while I was gone?”

“Did I read aloud to a stuffed fascimile of a Terran omnivore?” Garak echoes with distaste. “No, Doctor, I’m afraid I didn’t.”

“I thought he looked discontented,” Julian mutters. “You’re a terrible bear-sitter.”

“I did take the liberty of re-attaching his right eye.”

“I take it back. You’re a prince among men.” He’s asleep in moments, leaving Garak to puzzle over this pronouncement.

He doubts that Julian is aware that the last royal was sent into exile generations ago, and that among Cardassians, to be a prince among men would be considered a very poor thing to be indeed: a byword for 'displaced', without utility, without country.

Two days later, Garak catches Julian retching up blood and reaching shakily for an anti-rad hypospray. He almost slams the doctor against the corrugated metal of the crate’s wall, a sudden wash of cold fear making him savage. Julian’s tunic is soaked with sweat, and his eyes are glassy.

"If you had a suit, why do you have radiation sickness," Garak hisses. There are sores blooming on Julian's bottom lip.

"Needed to go out... make repairs to the generator. Two children on respirators,” Julian says weakly. “I went, and... the Provost. Her suit... developed defect. Swapped...hers for mine."

"You swapped your- and she let you?"

Julian's smile is red. "Told her...I'm... enhanced. Could survive it. Besides-" He prods Garak in the chest with a shaky finger. "That community...needs her. Needs her strength. Won't get through this without her."

Garak wants to shake Julian, and realizes that perhaps for the first time in his life, he begrudges Cardassia a sacrifice — because fuck the community, what about him? "How long were you exposed for?" he demands.

A part of him notes that the cargo container is actually very small, getting smaller by the second in fact, small and hot and -

Julian grimaces, takes a breath: "Two hours, seven minutes...fifteen seconds....give or take."

What?

“Got...lost. Couldn’t...see the outbuildings. All the dust — black as...anything. Sent a party to find me. Garak, ow.”

Garak gasps for air and releases the doctor’s shoulders, suddenly seeing them all in his mind's eye as the walls close in: Tain, Ziyal, Mila, Cardassia, and now Julian. The thought comes, ludicrous and irrational: If this is what comes of it, I promise I will never love another thing in my life.

But Julian is patting at him clumsily, as though aware that Garak is two seconds away from either passing out, or slinging him over his shoulder like a sack of michy meal and taking him to the hospital at a dead run. "Garak. Elim. 'S all right. It...wasn't a lie. I can survive it. Perks of...being a freak of un-nature. Just...not going to be very comfortable...few days. Body purging the poisons. Not...at all pleasant."

"What?" Garak says again, staring at him. The walls halt their advance.

"I'll ...ugh....live, Garak. Going to need that basin in...approximately three seconds. If you... wouldn't mind -- ?"

***

He’s right: it isn't pleasant.

Julian’s smooth, soft skin blisters and peels, his hair comes out in clumps, and the sores on his lips spread to the rest of his mouth, throat and esophagus, which makes the bloody emesis all the more agonizing, and eating and drinking by mouth an impossibility.

The doctor is at first insistent about not taking up a bed in the hospital, but when he’s too weak to resist, a thoroughly-rattled Garak does indeed sling him over his shoulder and deposit him with Doctor Nural and her nurses.

“He’s a medical miracle,” Nural opines, impressed, after a preliminary examination and some amount of explanation had been dispensed with. “The doctors on Adigeon Prime do good work, clearly.”

“Be that as it may, I’d feel infinitely better if you ladies would take it from here. This medical miracle has been administering his own intravenous fluids in a shipping crate,” Garak says testily.

“And doing a bang-up job of it, too,” Julian mutters, and closes his eyes.

“Doctor Bashir is correct — he has been doing an excellent job,” Nurse Faro offers, looking up from her tricorder.

“I trust you won’t tell him that when he wakes up, Nurse,” Garak says hastily. “His medical ego is big enough as it is.”

“Heard... that...”

Julian is home again in three days, skin still blistered-looking but no longer raw. He pronounces himself fit for light duties on the fourth day — an announcement that Garak receives with skepticism, as Julian’s idea of “light” duties still entails ten hours at the hospital.

“Nonsense,” the doctor declares. “I’m practically a new man. In fact, every last skin, liver, blood, stomach and intestinal cell in my body has been replaced.” His grin is far too quick and bright for a man whose body has just effectively sloughed off death. “You might say I’ve gotten a new birthday suit — better than even you could tailor, Garak.”

Julian then has to explain the meaning of the phrase “birthday suit”, and Garak has to assure him that the joke was execrable.

Nurse Faro succeeds in chasing Julian out of the hospital after only seven hours for the first octal, laden with extra ration bars and a portion of redleaf tea that Garak is fairly sure is her own supply. If Julian hadn’t had a partisan in Provost Telcet’s granddaughter before Betal Outpost, he certainly did now. Clearly, however, Faro had determined that as an alien outsider to the social order, he could be acceptably ordered around a bit for his own good.

Garak bestows his second-last box of Delavian chocolates on her in thanks for her soliticitude. She nearly bursts into tears at the sight of the foil wrapping, and insists on dividing the box between them. They take cover from Doctor Nural for a few minutes in the hospital’s plant nursery, surveying the bushy little thakweed plants and swapping chocolates and pieces of gossip.

Her guileless company is a luxury he permits himself. He tells himself it’s not partly because in so many small ways she reminds him of Ziyal, with the added bonus that she is decidedly not in love with him.

She has questions about Julian’s enhancements, of course; they all do. “Terran physicians are not all routinely augmented, then?”

She’s already bolted four chocolates and is eyeing a fifth; Garak unwraps his in a more leisurely fashion. “Quite the opposite, in fact — our good doctor is walking genetic contraband. He had to carry out quite the deception in order to pursue his calling,” he says with some affection.

Faro frowns, clearly trying to both adjust her conception of Julian in order to encompass deception of the State, and to understand the reasoning of said State — an undertaking which Garak wishes her joy in. “Surely,” she points out, “those individuals would have the most to offer?”

“I thought as you did, my dear,” he shrugs. “However, I’m given to understand that there is some unpredictability as to whether an Augment will turn out to be so civic-minded as our good doctor.”

She pauses with a chocolate halfway to her mouth. “And the ones that aren’t?”

“I believe there are institutions.”

Faro’s look of dismay is eloquent. Garak has thought, often, of Doctor Bashir’s little “think tank”, of the minds that could look into the heart of the Dominion using a verb tense. He wonders how many similar, untapped resources the Federation keeps locked away. Too "humane" to do away with them, not humane enough to allow them a real existence. A puzzling contradiction.

But then, that was humanity for you.

Doctor Nural’s voice issues from a second-floor window above them and Faro nearly chokes on her chocolate, jumping to her feet guiltily.

“Does Doctor Bashir really call her Shisuruk Nural?” she asks Garak in a whisper.

“Out of respect and fear, one can only assume.”

She stifles an unladylike, delighted snort, thanks him again for the chocolates, and hurries away.

***

Three weeks later, Garak returns from his work shift to find Julian sitting in the open doorway of their crate in his horrible Federation-issue flip-flops, looking morose in the evening light.

By the canisters ranged around him, the doctor has been carrying out the ritual of purifying their week's water supply. He’s in the midst of drawing a small sample from one of the containers and putting it through the pocket scanner, absentmindedly stroking the stubble on his head as he waits for the indicator to flash blue.

When Julian’s hair had first started to fall out those first frightful days, before Garak had taken him to the hospital, he’d asked Garak to shave it. Garak had done so, with private distress — Julian had looked more impossibly frail than ever, his eyes over-large in his face. Garak has since learned to enjoy the feeling of the soft, short fuzz of the new growth against his palm.

"Penny for your thoughts, Doctor?" Garak asks him, setting his workbag down.

They both speak Standard; Garak is insistent that he keep his hand in it. However, Julian has started making noises about switching off his Universal Translator in public to properly learn Kardasi, and Garak is sure it’s only a matter of time before the doctor suggests language lessons in the evenings — and yes, Garak’s heart skips beats at the thought of conversing with Julian in his native tongue, even as he instinctively shies away from it.

Standard, he has decided, suits his deeply-ingrained need for obfuscation and misdirection. For all Kardasi’s serpentine infoldings and intricacies, it makes certain things so much clearer; demands certain relationships to be clearly delineated for sheer grammatical correctness. For Julian to know Garak’s language would be to see Garak more clearly, and if he’s being truthful with himself (which he sometimes is), Garak doesn’t know whether he craves it or fears it more.

"A penny for my- how on earth do you know that expression?” The doctor wrinkles his nose up at him. “I thought it died with the currency. Pennies have been obsolete for over three hundred years, you know."

Garak settles down beside him, shuddering a little at the cold metal. "It happens to be listed as ‘a common expression of Terran origin’ in this Federation Standard phrasebook. It was distributed when the aid workers arrived.” He pulls the paper volume from his pocket. ”It does appear to be several hundred years out of date.”

"I think my grandmother had a jar of pennies that she used to keep slugs out of her garden,” Julian muses thoughtfully. “I remember that they made my hands smell a bit funny. I liked the way they felt, though, and naturally, I wondered what they would taste like…”

The doctor tips his head back, eyes distant. Julian’s eyes are both brown and green at the same time; Garak has never seen their like, and never expects to again.

“My father had to hold me upside down and slap me on the back. A penny came out for every slap — plink! That was before," the doctor adds meaningfully, with a quick glance at Garak.

Before, meaning, “before Adigeon Prime”: a Jules-memory, then. Garak hasn’t the faintest notion of what a slug is, or why it would be frightened of small change, but he tucks this anecdote carefully away.

The doctor inspects the phrasebook with a frown. Three years ago, he would have pretended to need to squint to see its lettering; now, he doesn’t bother to hide the fact that he reads it easily in the waning light. "This was written by a Ferengi," he comments dubiously. “ ‘Trak and Sons, Intrepid Ethnographers and Purveyors of Cultural Understanding — Now with Scatological Humor and Useful Ethnic Slurs’? This can’t possibly be official Federation issue, Garak.”

"Almost certainly not, but it’s made for some amusing reading among the work crew. Tell me, were these at some benighted point in your history actual expressions? Have you ever actually used the phrase 'bummed out'? Or the intensified form given here, 'super bummed'?”

"No one has used those expressions seriously since, what, Earth’s mid-twentieth century? My God, do people really believe that we go about greeting one another by saying 'Gimme some skin'?" Julian says in some disbelief, thumbing the pages.

“How much skin was required, I wonder? And is there any relation to Mr. Shakespeare’s ‘pound of flesh’?”

“I very much doubt it,” Julian says absently.

Disappointed in his bid for a bout of wordplay — a sure antidote to a bone-wearying day, in his books — Garak leans back against the metal door and regards the doctor with half-lidded eyes. Julian flips through a few more pages, snorting a few times, but the preoccupied, solemn cast to his face that Garak had noticed when he arrived soon returns.

"Your thoughts, Doctor," Garak prompts helpfully. “Although I’m now loath to give you a choking hazard for them.”

Julian lays the book aside, rubbing his palm over his scalp. "Oh. Well — it's nothing. Or it's not nothing, it's something, but I don't really know how big of a something."

"You are unusually cryptic this evening, my dear. Am I to guess, then?” Garak purses his lips. “Poor Doctor Nural is madly in love with you, and you need to let her down gently?”

“What? God, no, I -”

“Or: Doctor Nural is in love with you and you need to let me down gently.”

"Garak. No, it’s nothing like that, I...look, I ran an analysis of my own DNA at the hospital today," Julian confesses, tucking his long legs up and wrapping his arms around his knees, and Garak sits up straight. "The anti-rad therapy after Betal Outpost wasn't... completely successful.”

Garak waits, very still, for elaboration, feeling the constricting dread return and creep up the scales of his back. Julian continues, “I rather overestimated my body’s ability to cope with that level of exposure, and it, well — it came at a cost. The telomeres on my chromosomes have shortened significantly."

When no further explanation seems to be forthcoming, Garak begins, irritated and worried, “Doctor, I don’t underst –“

"The exposure may have taken a few decades off of my lifespan. Maybe more, maybe less.” Julian sighs, gazing off into the mid-distance. “I’d need more advanced equipment than we have here to make a better estimate.”

“And what,” Garak asks cautiously, “is the lifespan of a genetically augmented human male?”

Julian blows out his breath, rocking slightly. “We-ell, thirty or forty years longer than the average human, generally. I may have knocked it right down to the human average of one hundred and twenty years, for all I know. I knew there was a sixty-seven point seven percent chance of this happening, but...” His voice trails off into gloomy contemplation.

Aloud, Garak says, “I see,” with all the gravity that the mournful cast on Julian’s still-young face seems to demand.

Internally, he wants to laugh with relief; he is utterly unable to suppress the thought that escapes and flies up into the evening sky between them like a spark: Is that all? I worried, for a moment, because you see, if you stayed — if you meant it — I don’t think I could bear to outlive you.

The part of him that belonged, that will maybe always belong, to Enabran Tain wants to catch that thought and coldly slice it into ribbons as so much useless sentiment — and ill-placed as well as useless, because if past history is any indication, Julian Bashir is about as constant as a cloud in where he lays his affections. And yet-

Like the thakweed, it seems, hope has taken root in unaccustomed earth.

“So, I’m to understand that you’re upset because — barring further daring heroics in the name of frontier medicine — you may only attain the average human lifespan?”

Julian inspects his own toes. “A bit, yes.”

After a moment, Garak says, conversationally: “The meteoric trajectory of your medical career may have to be compressed, I suppose. Carrington Award rescheduled for, what, forty-five or so? Admission to the Interplanetary Consortium of Physical Medicine bumped up to seventy? Now, don’t scoff, my dear Julian. If anyone can do it, it’s you.”

Julian’s look is equal parts amusement and annoyance. “Don’t tease, Garak. I’m having a moment of humility, here. Seeing the skull beneath the skin. You might be a little more comforting.”

“I should have thought that moments like that would come with the profession,” Garak observes; nevertheless, he reaches to bring Julian’s long body in to his own sturdy side, the doctor’s head falling onto his shoulder.

“God, no. Most doctors I’ve met think of themselves as superhumanoid. And in my case — well. It’s sort of true.”

“I thought you said you were having a moment of humility.”

The falling dark brings a dry, leaden chill with it, and Garak thinks with some yearning of the small, squat stove in their shelter. With the coming of winter, they’ve moved their sleeping pallet onto the ground of the cargo container to be nearer to its heat: Garak curled around its glow, Julian’s steady warmth at his back. He’s not sure he’ll ever become used to the comfort of that warm weight.

He daren’t become used to it, the Tain-part says: one day, its absence will cut deeper than any knife.

“Regrets, Doctor?” Garak asks gently, into the silence – meaning Julian’s actions in Betal Outpost, obviously (meaning coming to Cardassia, meaning Garak himself).

“No,” Julian’s voice against his shoulder is unexpectedly firm. “D’you know, I don’t think I have.”

Garak tightens his arm around the doctor fractionally. “Some would say,” he remarks, “That to gain the life of an elderly citizen, no matter how valued, in exchange for thirty years from the life of a man who might have benefited the lives of tens of thousands of citizens in those thirty years, was not a judicious bargain.”

“Maybe not,” Julian says gravely. “If I cared to calculate the probabilities of it all, I’m sure they’d be right. And yet — I’m sure I'd do it again.”

It’s not as though anything has ever stopped the doctor before, when he decided to try to save someone — not the probabilities involved, and certainly not judiciousness. Garak was living proof of that.

“And anyway-” Julian lifts his head, but doesn’t remove himself from Garak’s side. “I wasn’t thinking about my meteoric medical career, earlier. If anything, looking at my own death written in nucleotide sequences has made me think a bit beyond that. About what I want out of life besides my career,” he finishes quietly.

“Has it?” Garak’s tone is carefully neutral, if interested.

“It has, Elim,” and oh, Julian must never learn Kardasi, the shape of Garak’s name in his mouth is unfair enough as it is, and when precisely had Julian captured his hand in his?

“I hope you know you’re being terribly indecent.” And — Garak can’t help but think, with something like pain — were Julian a Cardassian, the gesture, and the words that preceded it, would have been tantamount to a promise, a vow. Garak closes his eyes briefly. For a moment, perhaps, he can be permitted to pretend? He’s done a fine enough job of building mansions in the air already, why not add another wing?

Oh, by all means, my boy, Tain answers him, jovial. And when it’s put to the torch, you can wander the overturned banquet tables like a sad ghost!

He’s right, of course. But when Garak opens his eyes, Julian is still warm and close, and still holding his hand.

“I’m sorry,” the Terran is saying lowly, not sounding particularly contrite, “but under the circumstances, I hope you’ll forgive me for thinking that decency seems like a small price to pay for what I want. Seize the day, and all that.”

“And my hand.”

“Yes.”

“Well.”

They stay like that for a while; chastely, perhaps, to a Terran mind; canoodling outrageously to Cardassian sensibilities. Garak thinks that, later that night, in the circle of Julian’s arms, he’ll match the Jules-memory of garden slugs and copper pennies for one of his own — a tiny truth.

Perhaps he’ll tell him about Mila’s worktable and the thakroot.

Or perhaps he’ll tell him the story of the prince among men.

Perhaps he’ll tell him a truth wrapped in a lie, thrillingly and thoughtfully packaged, for the doctor to puzzle open with those same probing, ticklish fingers that stroke and coax and warm the very core of Garak’s being until he’s gasping and sweat-slick, laid bare and vulnerable beneath the onslaught of warm brown skin and green-brown eyes.

Perhaps they’ll play the old game, where Garak tells Julian three different stories, variations on a theme, and Julian tries to unpick the thread that runs through all three to come up with the proto-story. Garak frequently laughs heartily at the result, and earns pinches in sensitive places for it, but he is never bored.

He doubts he has the capacity to ever be bored by Julian Bashir — not in one lifetime.

Garak eventually stirs reluctantly, disentangling their fingers as their breaths begin to appear as vapour in the air. “I suppose that I had better join the lineup for the sonic showers before they shut the power off for the night.”

There’s a smile in Julian’s voice. “I’ll say one thing for the Cardassians, your orderly queues for showers in the middle of a disaster zone are the wonder of the Alpha Quadrant.”

“Is it so unusual to value cleanliness?” Garak sniffs, getting to his feet. He already misses Julian’s warmth. “Now, Doctor — are you going to sit on the stoop contemplating your mortality, or are you going to make us some dinner?” He pauses, deliberately adds in a layer of theatrical contempt to his tone: “Considering that, for the present, both of us are still clinging to life, such as it is, and at least one of us has been hard at work.”

Julian’s brow momentarily furrows, but then his face lights up in understanding. It’s taken Julian a while to get used to the combative style of Cardassian flirting, but his enthusiasm is gratifying. “I suppose you think you’re the one working hard,” he retorts. “I don’t expect you to have any real appreciation for the demands of manning an emergency medical facility.”

Garak paints a look of disdain on his face. “Oh, please; those delicate surgeon’s hands have never done a real day’s work in their life.”

“You were grateful enough for them when you wrenched your back lifting those cinder blocks, like an imbecile,” Bashir shoots back. “All those years of tailoring have made you soft, I dare say!”

“Be that as it may, my hands will toughen, but at the end of the day, my dear Doctor, you will still be the greatest tragedy in the known universe: the simpering, rootbeer-swilling, Federation idealist.”

“The more fool you, then, for telling me on all those occasions that there was hope for me yet,” Julian says, witheringly.

“Do try not to burn the ration bars, dear.”

“Get stuffed, you overgrown iguana.”

Garak shoots a look back over his shoulder, raising an eyeridge — That lacked finesse, Doctor — and Julian has the grace to look a touch sheepish under his scowl and heated cheeks.

Despite the chill, and the dust, and his fears, and the probabilities, Garak’s blood thrums warmly in his veins as he steps out through the night. The thrust and parry of love-fighting was fun in Standard, to be sure, but ah, in Kardasi...

The Tain-part coldly berates him; he registers it in a detached sort of way.

Oddly enough, it’s not the words of a Cardassian poet — Iloja of Prim, or the Elder Meroc — that leap suddenly to mind. It’s a Terran poet, a woman, speaking in a very old recording that he had listened to on one of Julian’s datapadds during the week the doctor had been in Betal Outpost. He hadn’t understood all of the words, but enough, and the triumphant howl under them, like the breath of the dust storm: “Daddy, you can lie back now. There’s a stake in your fat black heart, And the villagers never liked you…”

“Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”

 

FIN