It’s the whole lot of them out for drinks, even though Miles had sort of intended for it to be just him and Julian. Not like someone could blame him for wanting the whole story about what his body had been up to while possessed, so to speak, by a holoprogram, rather than the rather bland version of events that had ended up in the official Starfleet report.
And perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the rest of the crew felt about the same. Luckily, Julian’s never been shy of having a captive audience, and it’s hilarious watching Dax tease the man about what, exactly, Felix had customized in the program to suit Bashir’s tastes. The only time he’d seen Bashir go more red had involved three bottles of wine and Keiko forgetting Bashir was still in the room.
All in all, it should be an evening well-spent. It takes Bashir more than an hour to get through the story start to finish, what with as many conversational diversions take place. Including, admittedly, Miles recounting some Enterprise holodeck horror stories, which everyone was always keen to hear about for some reason. The thing about serving on the Enterprise that no one had warned him about was that you’d have to tell stories for the rest of your life about serving on the Enterprise. Nevermind that he’d mostly stood around triple-checking transporter settings. Nobody ever wanted to hear about that. No, just the fun parts. Like the holodecks nearly getting everyone killed again.
There’s some parts of serving under Picard that O’Brien misses, admittedly. The reliability of the ship. Not having to deal with Cardassian technology constantly. But Deep Space Nine is home now, and in a way the Enterprise couldn’t have ever been. People live on DS9, normal people, and he’s got friends here unlike on the Enterprise, where it’d been Keiko, mostly, he spent his time with. He’d been friendly with senior staff, and they’d been friendly with him, but it was different. This is better.
Through the haze of his good mood, though, as their drinking companions splinter off to bed or other pursuits, Miles notices that Bashir is...out of sorts. Jadzia had been the last to leave, and, thinking about it, Miles recalls that Bashir hadn’t been doing much talking. Mostly drinking, albeit synthale.
“Julian,” Miles says.
“Yes, Chief?” Bashir says into his glass.
They’re sitting in one of the back tables. If they were sitting closer together, Miles would knock their shoulders together. As it is, he settles for leaning in a little closer. “Something’s up.”
Julian’s eyes widen, and he sits up a little straighter to case the Promenade. “What? Where?”
“With you, I meant.”
Julian looks disappointed. “Oh.” He sighs, shoulders slumping nearly cartoonishly. He is in a mood then, isn’t he. “Not really.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
It’s not a short list, things that Julian has gotten upset about since Miles has met him, but it’s not a particularly varied list, either. It’s mostly work that Julian vents about while they’re playing racquetball or darts or what have you. Normal sorts of things -- an Ensign who botched months of research out of pure clumsiness, or a sticky problem that wasn’t getting any easier. But things like feeling under-appreciated, too, and personal slights of the sort that Miles finds easy to brush off but which bother Julian for days. Things like Jadzia poking fun at his holosuite programs for a little too long, or Garak being short with him.
He’d mentioned to Keiko a few times that he didn’t get why Julian was so easily bothered by these sorts of things. Alright, maybe he’d complained. She’d given him that certain fond look she always did when she thought he was being a right idiot. “He’s a people pleaser, Miles,” she’d said. “Just be glad you and I are both too grumpy to get worried about those sort of things.” Keiko was usually right about people problems like that.
One thing Miles had figured out for himself about Julian, though, was that the man didn’t like silence much. So if he was being particularly quiet, it usually meant something was up, but if you waited him out, he’d eventually fess up. So Miles orders another round when the waitress wanders by. The moment she drops off their drinks and leaves, Julian cracks.
He downs a substantial portion of his synthale in one gulp. “I shot Garak,” he says, staring at his glass, as if it’s somehow the synthale’s fault that DS9’s transporter managed to malfunction in such stupendous fashion. His nose wrinkles up, his mouth curling with distaste, and he puts his drink down too heavily so he can mash his face into his hands. “I shot Garak, Miles.”
“Yeah, well, you didn’t kill him, and it sounds like he deserved it.”
Julian flops backwards in his chair, elbows going everywhere. The man has the proportions of an action figure designed by aliens with dramatic misconceptions about the average length of Human limbs. “I shot the person I’m sleeping with,” he mutters. “That’s weird, Miles.”
It sounds like the sort of thing that Miles has always figured Cardassians would be sort of into, but that seems unsupportive to mention. “Stranger things have happened, I’m sure,” he tries. Julian groans; Miles tries a different tack. “Have you, you know, er, talked with him about it?”
“No,” Julian says.
“You need to talk to him about it,” Miles says, with unfelt confidence. He tries to be supportive about the whole Julian-and-Garak thing and mostly does a pretty good job, he figures. But Julian doesn’t really talk about Garak much, not like he talks about other things. Miles infers how well their relationship is going based on how many tables away from them other people in the replimat like to sit. If it’s less than two, there’s trouble.
At least Julian’s exasperated enough to drop his hands away from his face, so as to both reach for his drink and glare at Miles. “How would that conversation go? ‘Hello, Garak, sorry about shooting you in the neck?’”
“Sounds like a start,” Miles says. “Feel things out from there. I dunno. Better than nothing.”
“I’m not sorry, though, that’s the thing,” Julian says. He takes another too-long drink. He’s scowling now. “I’m still angry, Miles. I’d shoot him again if I had to.”
It’d be easy to say something snide about Cardassians. Instead, Miles sighs and tries to imagine what Keiko would say. “He put you in a tough situation,” he tries.
“Damn right he did!” It’s the most animated Julian’s been since finishing his drawn-out recollection of the whole holosuite incident. “What did he think I’d do, just let him kill the lot of you?”
“There you go. You’re not sorry, you’re angry,” Miles says. He nods, mostly to himself since Julian isn’t looking at him. “Understandable.”
“I haven’t talked to him at all,” Julian says, “you know, since...”
Which means it’s been nearly a week. Hard to imagine Julian and Garak avoiding each other for that long. “Ah,” Miles says. “Well then. That makes it all the more important that you talk to him about it.”
“What if he...”
“Decides to break up with you?”
Julian nods towards his drink, not looking up. His too-wide shoulders are bunched up towards his ears like he expects an enemy to attack from behind, and for an unwanted moment, Miles feels really, genuinely bad for the man. It’s got to be hard for a human to date a Cardassian at all, let alone one as complicated as Garak.
Maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing if Julian and Garak split, right? Though that would certainly mean a solid month or two of Julian moping about, which would be trying in its own way. At least Garak keeps Julian busy often enough, when they’re not on the outs.
Then again, if Julian didn’t have Garak as an excuse, maybe Keiko could finally bully the man into babysitting for them... Miles takes a drink and tells himself to focus. He’s not supposed to be rooting for a breakup, after all. “Look, Julian. He must know why you did what you did.”
“I’m sure he does, but how much does that matter if I shot him?”
“Maybe enough,” Miles says. “Maybe not. I don’t know, and neither will you...” He stabs a finger towards Julian, who’s still not looking at him. “...until you bloody talk to the man.”
Julian goes through a whole arsenal of distressed gestures: he puts his face in his hands, he rubs at his cheekbones, he scrubs his hands through his hair, he rubs at the back of his neck. He ends up with palms pressed together in front of his face, chin resting between thumbs and index fingers. “Miles. You wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with someone who shot you, would you?”
“If Keiko shot me, she’d presumably have good reason. I’d hear her out.”
Julian groans. “You’re married; that’s not helpful.”
“Of course it isn’t, you idiot. Because me and Keiko are me and Keiko, and you and Garak are you and Garak.”
“I wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with someone who’d shot me.”
“Well, you’re not the sort of man who’d need to be shot not to do that sort of thing.” Miles sighs. Garak owes him. “Look. Even if you do end up splitting because of this all, wouldn’t it be better to get it over with?”
“I don’t want to.”
“Well you’d better tell Garak that, else he’s liable to make some assumptions.”
Julian goes back to having his head in his hands. “He probably thinks I want nothing to do with him seeing as I shot him.”
“Sometimes that sort of thing just happens.” Miles watches Julian finish his drink. “Not necessarily shooting someone, I mean. Just...bringing out the worst in someone you...care for. You know how long-term relationships can be.”
This is...probably the case, Miles figures. Julian had been engaged, hadn’t he? Though it wouldn’t be that shocking if it’d been one of those quick engagements after three months or something. That would be in character for Julian.
So he elaborates. “You -- you can’t hide all the worst parts of yourself forever. And your partner can’t, either. That’s what’s special about it all, that there’s someone who knows you that well not just for the better but for the worse, too.”
“I barely actually know anything about Garak.”
“Well, by his standards you probably do...”
Julian snorts. “There’s still a lot I’m taking on faith about him.”
There’s nothing Miles can say to that -- nothing supportive, at least. “Another round? The real stuff.”
Their waitress brings them glasses. They toast (“to partnerships,” Miles says cheerfully; Julian rolls his eyes.) Julian also sputters on his whiskey but still manages to swallow it down.
Another hour or so of more idle talk; just before they’re about to turn in, Miles leans across the table and grabs Julian’s wrist. “Either talk to him or tell him you want to leave him,” he says. “He’s probably just as conflicted as you are.”
For just a breath, Julian looks younger than his age. How’s the man nearly 31? It makes Miles feel old as anything. “I doubt that,” Julian says, rolling his eyes; he looks himself again.
Julian sighs; he swirls his glass, empty but for the dredges. “I don’t know,” he says.
“That’s just the thing about relationships,” Miles says for what feels like the hundredth time. Julian nods and takes his PADD off the table, typing with great and slow deliberation.
It is, admittedly, hard to imagine Julian Bashir, CMO, aiming a phaser at someone undefended. Even if Garak wasn’t really undefended per se -- he could’ve killed them all with a word, or with a handful of words, at least.
For a moment, Miles wants to interject, to tell Julian to call it off. As hard as it is to imagine Julian aiming a phaser at someone, it’s too easy to imagine Garak doing the same.
And if relationships really are all about accepting the worst in your partner -- which, thank goodness, Keiko has so far in him -- well. It’s hard to imagine Julian bloody Bashir accepting what any rational actor would see as the worst of Garak. And it’s easy to imagine what the worst of Garak might be, even if it is uncomfortable.
But Julian throws the PADD back down on the table and slumps back in his seat with relief, shaking his head. “Sent him a message,” Julian says. “Tomorrow night, if he’s free, we’ll -- we’ll talk.”
Right, thinks Miles -- maybe here’s Julian at something like his worst, and Garak’s nowhere near at his worst, so they’ll end up reconciled for awhile, and it’ll be something else to drive them apart. As it should be, or something.
Garak has made his peace with whatever the consequences of his actions in the holosuite will be. It may be regrettable that his bed is not warmer some nights, and he’d grown accustomed to eating lunch with Bashir, but there are thermal blankets and breakfasts with Constable Odo, and Garak remains alive. Not dead in an alien holosuite, worlds away from home, condemned to the sort of alien funereal practices that would turn any self-respecting Cardassian’s stomach.
And so a message from Dr. Bashir is a pleasant surprise, though one he tries not to read too much into. Bashir might be merely attempting to provide the courtesy of more formally ending their relationship, after all.
At 23:00 exactly, Julian Bashir lets himself into the shop. From the back room where Garak does most of his work, he watches Bashir flip the switch to turn the shop sign to closed, as if this were any other evening they’d agreed to spend the night together.
“Doctor! How good of you to join me,” Garak says; he rises. “Can I help you?”
Bashir, evidently, has no desire to ease into things. “If it happened all over again, would you still try to turn it off?” he says to a dress form. “The program, I mean.”
“That’s a meaningless question, Doctor.” And you know it is what Garak means to convey as subtext; Humans, really. “Knowing as I do now that you would successfully navigate us throughout the program without undue harm, why of course I would defer to your...expertise.”
Bashir seems to mull it over, unsatisfied. He won’t look at Garak, instead examining a series of dresses as if scrutinizing them might yield more satisfactory answers than Garak himself. For a moment, Garak feels unexpectedly self-conscious of his work. Not that Bashir’s sensibilities are particularly elevated, but nevertheless, Garak would hate for his work to disappoint. “I’m relieved that your colleagues were unharmed,” he tries.
“If you hadn’t made yourself welcome,” Bashir says -- a kind way to put things, Garak has to admit, “I would’ve been able to handle things by myself. I don’t regularly play holoprograms where I die, you know.”
Garak sighs and retreats to his workspace in the back of his shop, a more appropriate place for this sort of conversation to transpire. “Forgive me if I don’t trust you or your holosuite programs enough to place my life at risk.”
“Look, Garak. I’m not asking you to trust me.” He settles his arms over his chest, apparently mustering up some resolve. “Not exactly. I’m just asking you to believe that if I’d thought there was a better way to save my friends’ lives, I would have done it. I’m a doctor, Garak. I knew what I was doing.”
A doctor and a truly avid consumer of holoprograms, Garak thinks as he smooths both hands over the fabric of the dress -- a commission for a traveller, only here on the station for a day or two more. There are just a few darts here and there left to complete.
He does not enjoy being at a loss for words, and he does not enjoy feeling this sort of strange, unplaced guilt. Bashir is right: it was him to intrude. Had he not, the game would have continued apace, Bashir managing to stall until the crew was rescued. It’s only obvious in retrospect, but the Human is, unfortunately, correct in his assessment.
“I don’t want to ruin this,” the doctor says. It’s with the same short-tempered intensity that he always uses when Garak’s finally pushed him past a certain point. “Help me -- help me fix it, Elim, please.”
Garak sighs. “Very well,” he says. “I apologize for my actions. You’re right.”
Bashir frowns at him.
“You had the situation under control, and my intrusion jeopardized your friends’ lives. You were correct to prevent me from disrupting the holoprogram.”
“Why do I have the feeling you’re just telling me what I want to hear?”
“That is rather the point of an apology, is it not?”
Bashir looks irritated now, which is safer footing. “Only if you mean it,” the doctor says.
“Do I sound as if I don’t?” Evidently not, as Bashir rolls his eyes. “I do apologize, but I do not regret my actions. At the time, with the information I had on hand, there was no better course of action.”
“What was the information that you had on hand, exactly?” Bashir’s voice ripples with sarcasm; had they been discussing something less serious, Garak would find it a joy to listen to. “That I’d seriously let us all die there, just like that?”
“I had no information on hand, Doctor, as to how you would conduct yourself in such a situation.” Garak presses a seam down with two fingers as if he plans to actually tend to alterations during this discussion. “I could pretend to indulge in self-recrimination if it would make things easier for you,” he says sweetly; Bashir flinches.
“Very well. My concern at the time was that you believed you might be able to save your friends, but that you would not be able to, and that all of us -- your captain, Lieutenant Dax, the Chief -- would end up dead -- including, of course, you and I. The deaths of your friends would no doubt be a tragedy...” He trails off for just long enough that Bashir just starts to rile, then shakes his head, letting his voice fall into a more solemn register than he feels. “If it had truly been a choice between all of us dying, Doctor, and the others dying but you and I surviving, what virtue would there be in our joining them in death?”
“That’s not the point.”
“I know it’s not.” Garak smooths the seam down towards the end of the dress; he nearly has Bashir on his side, he thinks. “To your mind, at least. That was the essence of my consideration, however. Of course, if you would prefer we terminate our arrangement, I’m--”
“No,” Bashir says. “Would you?”
“Of course not, Doctor.” Garak’s protest is more earnest than he is comfortable with, but he moves on breezily. “We can, I hope, agree it was a mutually disagreeable path towards, hmm, an agreeable enough outcome, and then agree to leave it at that.”
“Mutually agreeable?” The Human’s voice has slipped back into a register meant to indicate disbelief.
“I shot you.”
“Yes, Doctor, I know,” Garak says, a bit more shortly than intended. If he meant to truly guilt the dear man, he would reach to where Bashir had pressed the dermal regenerator to Garak’s neck, draw his fingers down where there’s no scar, and he would wince. Instead, he huffs. “I thought the source of our disagreement was my attempt to shut down the holoprogram.”
“Yes, which is why I had to shoot you.”
Aha. It’s the same feeling of finding a contradiction in a prisoner’s claims of innocence, or of finally unravelling a loose thread. “And this bothers you, I presume.”
Bashir’s voice is clipped, intense. “It does bother me, yes, that I shot you.”
Garak makes a show of sighing and smoothing his hands over the dress in front of him. “It doesn’t bother me, Doctor, nearly half as much as it seems to bother you,” he says. “In fact, I find it admirable.”
He nearly says more, though he catches himself in time. To sacrifice a person one loves, he’d nearly said, but they’ve never exchanged those words -- which Garak is glad of; they’d be hollow, were they said. They have a mutual regard, even affection for each other, which is more than enough; no need to cast things as other than they are.
“I don’t want to be the sort of person who...does that.”
“What a precarious position you find yourself in! Inflicting minor injury on a party in the wrong to save the lives of your dearest friends and associates -- why, Dr. Bashir, you’ll be tearing out the throats of your enemies and conquering worlds without a second thought in no time.”
Garak had meant it as an absurd, sarcastic de-escalation, but Bashir goes completely still. After a silence, Bashir says, with nearly palpable self-control, “I’m serious, Garak. ‘Do no harm.’”
“And if our confrontation with the Dominion escalates to war-time, Doctor? Will you hold so steadfast in your principles then?” As Garak speaks, mild tone belying the solemnity of what he discusses, he sees Bashir slowly easing. How curious. Garak turns his attention back towards the dress. “Or will you sleep easily knowing that the Jem’Hadar being slaughtered in space intended to kill you, and the only thing that stopped them was their having been killed first?”
Bashir takes a few steps back; Garak doesn’t look up to observe, though it’s admittedly tempting. They have rarely disagreed with real seriousness, he and Bashir, but Bashir so loathes to genuinely lose his temper. His father, most likely, if Garak were forced to guess why -- it’s too easy to imagine. Such an eager to please young man, and all too sensitive to disapproval...
(It’s tempting to hack into Bashir’s personal messages and confirm for himself how often Bashir does or doesn’t correspond with his family; it would be extraordinarily easy, though perhaps Odo would breathe down his neck about it. An unappealing prospect itself. But no -- Garak has restrained himself admirably from intruding on the doctor’s privacy more than necessary. There is a tenderness to his affording Bashir this, an uncharacteristic trust that Garak does his best to avoid admitting to himself.)
After some minutes, Garak does glance up to see Bashir pacing the front area of his shop, hands tucked behind his back. He pauses in front of a display, presumably counts his breaths or something of the sort, paces again, repeats himself. Garak measures out what alterations are left to make but does not trust himself, yet, to make them. There is a fine tremor in his left hand, and his workspace seems smaller than it should.
Don’t leave me yet, Doctor, he thinks. I could use your company for just a little while longer... Just awhile longer! What a pathetic lie he allows himself to believe -- just awhile longer of having a warm body to lie beside, just awhile longer of having someone who truly thrills at his praise, just awhile longer of having someone who wants him. Things he had done so well without, before his exile; things that now seem too essential for comfort. He won’t debase himself; he won’t beg. But, oh, he wants, and that of itself feels humiliating enough.
Bashir stalks back to the doorway separating the shop-space from Garak’s work-space, shoulders slumped. “It’s not the same thing,” he says, with admirable calm. “I’m not at war with you.”
Yet, Garak would say; he holds his tongue. “Perhaps you were, quite briefly,” he offers. He holds his hands up in surrender. It’s an uncomfortable gesture. How he’d rather cloth or alien skin! “You’ve been magnanimous, though, Doctor, as befits you.”
With irony, “Towards the conquered?”
“Yes,” Garak grants, I: the conquered. “I suppose so.”
“Indeed,” says Garak. For what feels like the hundredth time, he feels over a seam; if only he’d thought to stage himself some better work to occupy himself with. Bashir is a kind man and not, inasmuch as Garak can figure, cynical; still. He drags one fingernail over the space between stitches. “I was briefly your weapon-holding enemy; I yielded, and you accorded me appropriate mercy, so long as I collaborated with you.” He tilts his head pointedly: “Does that interpretation of events meet with your approval?”
“Almost, I suppose,” says Bashir; his voice is warmer now, less rigid. “Very nearly.”
“Ah, what am I missing then?”
“Not much.” Bashir crosses his arms across his chest, but it seems affectionate, almost, rather than standoffish. “A full grasp of Federation ethics, perhaps.”
“Your Federation ethics fail to capture the full complexity of the situation, my dear.”
“I doubt that very much.”
At least Bashir’s voice is familiar, now, in its tone -- a touch condescending, but amused as well, attentive. Garak plays at focusing on the work in front of him. He sighs and says airily, “Perhaps one day you’ll see my point.”
Bashir takes an uneasy step forward, almost into Garak’s workspace. “You don’t really think you’d ever convince me of that, do you,” he says.
“My dear, I’d be disappointed if I thought I could.”
“Why, Mr. Garak, I almost believe you.”
Something in the Human’s voice makes Garak glance up from the cloth splayed in front of him -- an implied promise, an implied request; impossible to know. “Well, I would, in almost all imaginable circumstances, advise against that.”
Like a promise: “You’re incorrigible.”
Garak suppresses a smile and turns his focus back towards the dress spread over his table. “My dear doctor, as if you’d have me any other way.”
When Bashir doesn’t counter with something clever, Garak allows himself to look back up. Bashir is leaning in the doorway, staring at Garak with an unfamiliar intensity. “I’d have you any way, Garak,” he says seriously.
Garak tsks and cants his head, mock-scolding. “Promises, promises,” he says, a touch more luridly than he needs to.
The flirtation seems to jar Bashir back to his senses. He rubs the side of his neck as his expression smooths out to something more familiar. “You know what I mean.”
Garak does. Garak even believes that Bashir believes himself to means it. But there’s no sense forcing the argument, even though it’s a trifle exasperating to play along with. Frankly, the doctor knows Garak better than he needs to already. And despite the physically rewarding nature of their relationship, they work best like this: sparring idly, arguing about literature and politics in the abstract. Referring to each other by last name even in private, sometimes only by title.
And yet Bashir crosses the room, and Garak does push the dress aside so that Bashir can sit himself down on Garak’s worktable instead and haul Garak into a kiss instead. Bashir holds Garak’s neck in his hands, and the warm, gentle pressure of it makes Garak shiver.
The relief of it is unsettling. Both of them know that between Bashir’s company and a return to Cardassia, it wouldn’t be a choice; Garak would return to his home as surely as Bashir had stared him down and been willing to kill him to save his friends. But while he’s still stuck on the station, Garak is more reliant on the balm of the Human’s company than he would care to admit.
Bashir pulls away to rest their foreheads together in answar. In the low light, Garak can make out that the Human’s eyes are half-closed. For a moment, Garak lets himself feel tender. They’re alone; what harm can it do? He lets himself pretend this Human could bear knowing everything there is to know about him. He lets himself pretend he could listen to every tedious story Bashir has of his cheerful childhood, being the precocious star student his parents never quite understood, without annoyance, without resentment, without condescension. Which of those things is harder to imagine? Garak isn’t sure. For a moment, though, he indulges himself with another kiss, gentler. What a strange creature the doctor is -- flighty and easily charmed, easily provoked, serious at the strangest times. A healer willing to kill. Clever and oblivious both.
And his, for now at least, despite it all.