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RESTORE, REMAKE, & REBUILD

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Thanks for stopping by! If you want to view the update schedule or to read the disclaimers for the fic, they are included below. If you don't care, skip directly to Chapter 2 in the menu, and have fun!

INDEX:
#1# - Update Schedule
#2# - Notes on Canon Adjustments
#3# - Disclaimers \ Content Warnings

 

#1# - UPDATE SCHEDULE:

Chapter 2, 3, 4, 5 - Uploaded Oct 6, 2018.

Chapter 6 - Uploaded Oct 9, 2018.

Chapter 7 - Uploaded Oct 14, 2018.

Chapter 8 - Uploaded Oct 17, 2018.

Chapter 9 - Uploaded Oct 20, 2018.

Chapter 10 - Uploaded Oct 22, 2018

Chapter 11 - Uploaded Oct 28, 2018

Chapter 12 - Uploaded Nov 4, 2018

Chapter 13, 14 - Uploaded Nov 11, 2018

Chapter 15 - Uploaded Nov 17, 2018

Chapter 16 - Uploaded Nov 18, 2018

Watch user "kaelio" on Tumblr for the most up-to-date information and some artwork.

 

#2# - NOTES ON ADJUSTMENTS TO CANON

- Bajor is not yet a Federation planet. This is a thematic choice for reasons that are explored in the text.
- I have limited knowledge of beta canon material and the fic will likely run afoul of it in countless glaring ways.
- I read A Stitch in Time a few years ago, and will make some references to its content. It exists, in its format as a piece of written correspondence to Bashir, in this text. That doesn't mean Garak was telling the truth. Aaaand I fully intend to ignore any aspect of it that is personally inconvenient for me.
- And honestly, I'll change anything else I find personally inconvenient. However, my intention is to be roughly alpha-canon compliant. There will be references to other Star Trek series also. (As of Chapter 11, there are references to TOS, TNG, Voyager, and god help me there will be a TAS reference if it's the last thing I do!)

#3# - DISCLAIMERS


- A CHARACTER EXPRESSING A POLITICAL OPINION SHOULD NOT BE TAKEN TO MEAN I, THE AUTHOR, AGREE WITH OR AM INTENDING TO PROMOTE THAT OPINION. Characters have highly varied political opinions because I think that's accurate to their characterization and it's something I wanted to write about.

- Feel free to inform me of any technical missteps. I personally am not that invested in things like ships, travel times, and that particular dimension of Star Trek. If that's something you're into, and you have recommendations for me, please send them along and I'll integrate them as well as possible. Thanks!

- This fic will NOT contain explicit pornographic content, and "mature" content is sort of up in the air (particularly since I'm not exactly sure where that line is on this site yet; I'll look into it). If I do choose to write explicit content, it'll be in a parallel upload so as to keep this fic accessible.

- There may be references to upsetting violent or sexual content; I can't make any assurances either way at this time. If this occurs, warnings will be available that will help you bypass that specific content.

 

Chapter Text

The side of her mouth had that tiny twist, the smallest tweak. What came after an expression like that was liable to sting.

“Now—wait! Wait a second,” Kira insisted, holding up an insistent, and—with any luck—successfully preemptive finger. “I didn’t say he was staying. I will take care of this. I will. So.”

The other side of the screen remained static. Subspace lag? Not a chance. Ezri was permitting herself a moment to decide. She had become slightly less immediate in her reactions in the years since her joining, but there always was that impulse to let the whole crowd shout. “All right, in deference to a powerful alien authority, I shall wait.”

Kira laughed. Thank goodness, a little humor. She had been worried.  Treacherous waters. “I only just received the communication. No lead time. I just wanted to let you know because, frankly, you’d be even madder if you found out later that I hadn’t. Full disclosure.”

“That is true.” Now she was smiling. It had a solemn undertone, but here the Ezri won out for overall warmth, whatever that meant for the Dax.

“I know—I know—how you feel about this. Sort of. In a way.” Kira knew herself to be in possession of many talents, but not exactly a rhetorical powerhouse. She did have to steer clear of unintended bait. Counselors—! Tricky bunch. “My point is, I don’t want you to change your plans. He’s not staying.”

“And you’re sure of that?”

“I’m commander of this station, Ezri!”

Ezri peered a little closer to the viewscreen. “And you expect me to believe that you think that’s what I meant?”

Tricky bunch indeed. “I know, I know,” Kira replied. “But this one is clear-cut. We might be at the outset of our festival of hospitality, but you made your travel plans first. His were barely announced. Now, he’s currently in transit, so there’s nothing I could do about the first leg. But once he’s here, I’ll have him sent on his way. There are eighteen hours before your transport is scheduled to dock, and he’s on passage with one due to arrive in six. That gives me twelve hours to book him on a vessel somewhere else.”

“And how are you going to explain it exactly? You two being such good friends.” Oh, that tone.

Kira shot back a strong glance, a challenge, a careful retort. “Oh, that’s what you think this is? You know the rules, Ezri.”

“It’s been six years. I’m glad you’ve learned to draw some boundaries.”

Kira’s strong, red smile cooled. “Nothing has changed: you’re both my friends. I’m sorry about what happened, but that’s between the two of you. Now, you’ve had this trip planned for months. We’ve been corresponding, I’ve made plans…. We’re going to do this. And yes, obviously, under those conditions, you take precedence!” She sighed, throwing out a nearly stereotyped fling of exhaustion. “And that’s why I’m sending him packing. But there is time for me to handle it a little more tactfully than you might in my position. Will you let me do that? Let me try?”

Ezri rolled her eyes a little playfully. “Yes, I’ll let you do that.” She leaned forward, putting her chin in her hand. She adjusted the angle of the screen with her other. “I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as you’re suggesting, though.”

“For me? Or for him?”

“For either of you, really. You’re…. You’ve got a strong personality, Kira. It’s one of the things that defines you, leads you in your decision-making….”

Kira had never totally come on board with the pro bono therapy. She braced.

“But at this point, aren’t you ready to admit that being stalwart doesn’t work? He’s not getting any better, and you’re not enjoying yourself any more.” There was a pragmatic edge to the assessment, something that felt almost reminiscent of Jadzia, evaluating a scan, something scientific, impersonal…. “You’ll hear him tell the same stories. Just begging to reminisce. But that was a long time ago, wasn’t it? At this point, it just hurts. It hurts you.”

Kira inhaled sharply. “Again, I’m not saying you’re wrong. But—”

“Is this why you stayed on the station, as Commander? Because it’s the last place the whole family was together?” Her voice…. “Your family, Kira? Sisko, Odo, Jadzia—”

“Dammit, Ezri, I know you’re mad at me! But stop!”

Ezri fell silent. It had been too far.

“Yes, you know how I feel about the station! You know that I’ve made a commitment to stay here! I know you think it’s been too long! But I made my choice, and for now, I’m sticking with it.” She crossed her arms. “Bajor… isn’t what I remember, anyway. It might be better, but it’s not what I remember. This feels like home. Even without Commander Sisko, even without Odo. Without you, without Miles, without Keiko, and yes, without Julian.”

“Someday, you’re—”

“Yes, someday! But not today. Today, Julian is going to show up at Docking Bay 4, and I’m going to say, ‘Hello, Julian! I haven’t seen you in, gosh, nearly a year!’ And then he and I will talk for a while—which is to say, I’ll listen—and then I’ll make my apologies and explain that as much as I’d love to reminisce, this time he’s caught me at a bad time, and that he’ll need to make alternate arrangements. And I’ll put him on a ship somewhere, somewhere out there!” She gestured to the window, the far expanse of space. Ezri couldn’t see it from the angle of her viewscreen, but she knew the station layout well enough to interpret the gesture.

Ezri sighed and clasped her hands together. “Okay. Okay, thank you.” She crinkled her nose. “And where exactly are you sending him, then?”

She’d been expecting that question. She just didn’t quite have an answer. “… I don’t know. Deep Space 9 has grown as a hub, but there are only so many departures on any given day. And, to be honest, I’m not sure the best place for him to go.”

“Risa?”

Kira rolled her eyes—and from her, it wasn’t playful. “Risa! Come on, Ezri.”

Ezri fluttered her eyelashes. “He loves the girls.”

“I know you’re still angry, but I still consider him a friend. Besides, that’s not what happened, and we both know what happened, and we both know you’re still mad, and we both know you should be mad, but right now I’m trying to figure out what planet can maybe tide him over until his next assignment without him… oh, you know. Getting lost in himself.”

“Earth?”

“Oh no, noooo, not Earth.” She looked to the side, almost distractedly. “Ferenginar?” Ah, Ferengi. Good listeners. Once, Quark would have been a possibility, tending bar with an open ear, but he was expanding work that had once been proposed by Zek, later instituted by Grand Nagus Rom, playing both prospect and diplomat in the shadier reaches of the Gamma Quadrant. He returned periodically, but it wouldn’t be soon enough. “Ferenginar is supposed to be as… nice as it ever is.”

Ezri’s turn. “Pft, not a chance. The only thing there for him is Rom, and—sweet dear—you know he doesn’t have the time, or Leeta, for that matter. And besides, how would poor Bashir afford it? The Federation doesn’t set up expense accounts for washouts.”

“Ezri!”

“Fine, a Starfleet medical officer of limited distinction will not receive an expense account sufficient to lodge in the same district as Nagal Residence.”

“I could—” She discerned Ezri’s critical expression. And in that respect, Kira knew she was right. Lending money was unlikely to help get Julian on-track anyway. And it wasn’t as if Starfleet paid a salary for him to render return payment. “I could send him to Cardassia Prime. Ships go there from here fairly regularly these days. Refueling, restocking….”

“Have they reconnected?” Ezri nearly groaned. “I shouldn’t ask. I try to stay out of the loop. But Garak sends out correspondence from time to time, and I would have thought he’d mention it.” She laughed—one short burst. “Well, come to think of it, he’d know well enough not to. Provided you’re not prodding, he’s really quite polite.”

Kira shifted slightly. “With the, with the proximity to Bajor, and his current position…. He and I have been known to talk now and then.” She grabbed her mug, eager to keep her hands busy, something better than gesticulating, saying anything to Ezri by haptics that she hadn’t meant to reveal. “And… no, not that I’ve heard. But, as you said, he’s really quite polite.”

Ezri guffawed. “Oh, Kira!”

“I was just thinking—”

She waggled a finger. “Oh, Kira, that’s a bitch move. I mean, there’s offloading, and then there’s offloading.

Kira had matured in the last eight years, commanding some of the silence that Sisko once mastered. She allowed Ezri to fill the channel.

“I mean, he was one of the patients whose record Julian accessed!” There was a sharpness to her words, an unconcealed anger. Her lip curled enough to show a faint white glint of tooth. “One of the patients most suspicious of me, and who stood to lose the most by trusting me! He took a risk, you know, on station counselor Ezri Dax. You’re going to—on my behalf—send Julian to darken his doorstep? After what he did?”

Kira wouldn’t say it: she and Garak talked, well, more than most suspected. Not often, every four or five months. Kira had no inclination to ever set foot on Cardassia Prime again, but her time with Garak and Damar had not been all unpleasant. Cardassians, on the whole, would never rank well in her assessment, but she was happy to have learned that a people were not defined entirely by their military, and even its military could have some heart left in it. (And, perhaps even more surprisingly, so could former members of the Obsidian Order.) Well, Cardassians had every reason to feel the same about the Bajoran Resistance: her time with Silaran Prim had made that point quite clear. Fair is fair.

Ezri’s eyes burned. Under better circumstances, she would have sensed Kira’s specific discomfiture. “When was the last time anyone fared better for having him around? Even Miles doesn’t want anything to do with him. Miles!” She looked almost defeated. “Goodness even knows what happened there. Even I…. Well, that’s past my time. Three years? Four now?”

“I… I don’t know either.” And that was the truth. “Which I guess is why you ruled out Earth.”

“Ah, and his mother, she’d probably try something.”

“His father? Is he still around?”

“Not such great terms with his father. Like, worse. Worse since it all went downhill. He called me, you know, and begged me to talk to his son. But I… I’m not going to do it, Kira. I did enough.” Such eyes. “You can’t save everyone.”

“You’re right.” Kira paused. “You’d… know that as well as anyone.”

The part of Dax that remembered—that part—almost forced a laugh. “Come on, Kira. That part, I forgave.” The part of her that was Jadzia had forgiven, and that was enough.

“How about this: I’ll call Garak. I’ll see what he has to say. If his answer is no, then I’ll get in touch with Keiko. Miles might not be willing, but Keiko keeps an open ear anyway, on the Federation side of things.” She relaxed a little, her shoulders taking a slightly softer angle. “And if that doesn’t work, I’ll think of something. I helped drive the Cardassians from Bajor; I can kick Julian off Deep Space 9.”

“You really think he’ll say yes? He’s not exactly playing the ‘little-tailor’ shtick these days,” Ezri contested. Those memories were mostly Jadzia’s, including the early impressions of simpler days. Jadzia always had a mischievous angle, and she had grown to regret the roguery she and Garak failed to share: a missed opportunity from another life entirely.

A part of Kira resented that question. It was another reminder that Ezri never really connected to the station the same way she had, to the family that existed there. She hadn’t had the time. Kira couldn’t malign her that, and didn’t. She was grateful, even, that Ezri cared enough to maintain their personal connection. However, what she broached as a suggestion, she knew with certainty. “I think he will.”

Ezri shook her head. “How sad. He’s got everything going for him on Cardassia Prime. There’s no reason to look back.”

“He’s probably just grateful.” This part was awkward. “We, um, weren’t that charitable to Garak, at the beginning. You do remember…? Julian was… Julian was a good friend.” That was something Ezri was also missing, in Kira’s assessment. Ezri was someone who had always had friends, either by her own making, or by inheritance. Kira, on the other hand, was familiar with the alternative.

“Until he broke into my records? Until he violated the privacy of his friends and colleagues? I did tell him, did you know that?”

Kira knew, and so she lied. “No, I didn’t.”

“Right to his face, what Julian did. This, to Garak!” She was on a roll again. “A spy, a technology expert, an espionage savant! And yet, one who never went into Julian’s files. Always let him have secrets. Years of teasing, sure, but he never violated Julian’s trust. And what does Julian do, the moment he’s feeling down? Crawl into everyone else’s trauma, so he doesn’t have to deal with his own.”

“What… did he say?” This part, Kira didn’t know.

Ezri’s eyes narrowed. “‘I see no need to press charges.’”

Kira winced. “Sounds like someone… who will take on Julian for a little while? Maybe?”

“Did he say how long it’ll be? He has his next assignment, doesn’t he?”

“Sixteen days. Fairly standard, is my understanding.” Kira leaned forward. “Which means, if he stays wherever it is the whole time, there’s no chance you two will run into one another. It times out the entire festival. I’ve done my best to give you that. But you can’t demand any more from me. This is still a transit station and a regional hub, and Federation citizens have the right, by treaty, to make peaceful and legal use of its facilities.”

Ezri scratched at her hairline, an old nervous habit. (A century, at least.) “I know…. And thanks. You’re right. It’s difficult. This one….” The scratching stopped, and her nails dug in. They made red crescents among the spots. “He had them on a personal server. I still don’t think they were accessed by any non-authorized persons, but…. So many people on the station were in pain, during the war, the aftermath…. I wanted to be someone they could count on. And he just had their records loaded onto his Padd.”

Kira had seen violence over less. Poor Damar, she did feel guilt, once she’d gotten to know him. Soldiers and the military, races and worlds…. That was another comfortable thing about Deep Space 9, that there was always a mix of all kinds, interacting in preoccupied harmony.

“A person’s records…,” this would be difficult to explain, Ezri knew, “… it’s their story. It’s not their personhood, you know. But still, it’s….”

“It’s like they’ve handed a piece of their soul to you. For safekeeping.”

“He’s a doctor. How could he not understand? How could he not understand that, when his own medical files contained what he was most afraid to share? How could he turn around and do that to other people?” This wasn’t for Kira, and Ezri knew it; some part of her still yearned to understand it, as if putting words to it could expose the solution to a puzzle she’d revisited a thousand times. “A parasite, on their trauma…. A—a tourist. What gives him the right?”

Kira knit her fingers together. “Ezri, I’m still sorry about what happened. But you also need to realize that…. I approach this from a place of faith. I don’t think the Prophets would have brought him among us, among the family of the Emissary, if he were an evil man. Evil, that…. That’s something else. This was just something… that happened, and I don’t know what will happen next. It’s not the same kind of destiny as the Emissary.” The name would be too much. “It’s the aftermath of a war. The aftermath of anything is… messy. It was true for Bajor, for Cardassia Prime, for… for the Alpha and Beta Quadrants, for the universe, for our family, for us. Some things will change for the better, and maybe others won’t. I am not asking you to forgive, and I agree with your decision to disengage. But I’m still in a place where I can give a little. All right?”

Ezri looked to the side, almost a pout, but it quickly transitioned into a nearly sly smile. “You know, maybe it’s the desk….”

“The desk?”

“But you remind me of him, sometimes. Sisko. He’d be really proud of you, your Emissary.”

Kira laughed. “My Emissary! And my friend.”

“See you soon, Kira.”

“Of course, Ezri. See you soon.”

Kira leaned back and exhaled with one long, loud gust. In the eight years since the end of the Dominion War, there had been so little violence. It was as if the Alpha Quadrant had lost its taste for blood, for savagery. Everyone was so tired, and everything felt fractured. Planets, cultures, cities, people. Families.

She couldn’t miss the war. No one could. But there was simplicity in their bonds, in allegiance. The war had left behind a soul-sickness, a malaise. There was so much to rebuild, and very few architects.

 

--

The color balance was off. Her screen wasn’t picking up the blues. (The station never had been the same, after Miles left.)

Kira desperately wished it had been fixed. When blue, his eyes were rather fetching. In gray, they felt… strange and reptilian. “Commander Kira!”

“Garak! So nice to see you,” she said, failing to mimic his habit. She wouldn’t take bait like that—they were closer than such staid honorifics. She’d meet him in the middle with the name they used most often. “I know your schedule is tight, so I won’t take much of your time.” She jolted slightly. “Well, in a way—”

“Is this about Dr. Bashir? I saw that.”

Even now, more than a decade on, it still managed to impress her. “I found out he was on his way only twenty minutes ago!”

“Yes, that’s when I heard. As it happens, I was just about to call you.”

Garak! She thought, Never change. “If that’s how it’s going to be, you can give me warning next time the Pakled are en route.” She laughed, and moved on. Judging by the room behind him, he was at the capitol building, which meant he had—at best—a short recess. She knew crunches like that, and would make deference to a cramped schedule. “Look, I could use a bit of a hand here….”

The same smile, not a twinge.

“Not here-here,” Kira clarified. “I need your help.”

“Of course, Commander. Anything for my dear comrade-in-arms from the Resistance.” A mix of genuine gratitude and jocularity, a fitting mix to commemorate months spent vacillating between great heroes and mournful basement-dwellers.

Kira laughed. Mila’s food had been horrendous, even by Cardassian standards, and even then she missed it. Time to time. “He can’t stay on the station. Not this time.” She held a hand to her chest. “Not—not that he’s overstayed his welcome! Just… that he didn’t plan it so well. I need somewhere for him to go. Somewhere… that someone will still keep an eye on him.”

Garak’s expression was still unchanged.

“Just until his next assignment.” Babysitting, really, courtesy of a Starfleet that refused to lose the prestige of the quadrant’s youngest Carrington Award nominee.

“Has he agreed?”

“I haven’t… told him yet. But it’s you or it’s Ferenginar.” She met his eyes, wondering if his screen had a similar problem, dragging her brown eyes down into wells of pitch darkness. “He is still my friend, Garak, or I wouldn’t be looking for somewhere he can go. But Ezri’s due on the station, by considerably more preplanning, and I don’t need another war.”

The smile did brighten, just a tad. “He is always welcome here.”

She wasn’t as pleased as she’d expected. Something about it was too familiar, and too familiarly sad. “Let me guess… he’s always been welcome there.”

“Mm! Yes.” He nodded pleasantly. “As are you, of course.”

They were both well aware that it was not the same.

Kira turned to look behind her, to clear her surroundings in case she had overlooked any unexpected presences. A habit. “What’s your plan?” He had to have a plan. That, she knew about him: if there was a welcome waiting, then there had to be a plan.

“I’m not sure.”

“Not sure?” She looked on him with well-warranted suspicion. It was, after all, still Garak. “You’ve clearly kept tabs. You must have a plan?”

There, Garak’s expression broke, and felt more real. Somehow, a little livelier. “No, I have many plans. I’m simply not sure which is the right one. It has been some time.” He, too, gave a quick scan, a soft and subtle check on his surroundings. “I’m not well-versed in his current nature, but I suppose I am still grateful to him. I will help him, if I can. If he will allow it.”

“Anything you’d care to share with me?” That tone had been shared more than once, the care-to-clue-me-in? with a handsome cap of you-had-better.

“Perhaps a few lunchtime conversations would perk him up, make it like old times,” he answered pleasantly. “Perhaps a tour along the ocean shores to watch the wild things. Perhaps some culture, maybe art—to see the world as I once described it to him. Perhaps nothing.” His gaze was not quite so fixed on her as it had been at the front; something in the middle-distance seemed to cling to his attention. “After all, sometimes it is too late. An orchid wilted only ever dies. Did you ever see the bins in Dr. O’Brien’s greenhouse? So many lost causes that a less keen eye would say were still in green.”

Stunned, her mouth hung ever-so-slightly slack. “You would let him die?”

Grey eyes, perfect pinpricks of black, and a smile that failed just enough to reveal its artificiality. He laughed without his expression breaking. “… No.”

 

//

 

“I’m sorry for, you know,” Ezri began. “For overreacting.”

Kira tossed her head back theatrically. “You think?”

“Oh.” She held up her hand, pressing together her thumb and forefinger. “Just a scootch.”

“The scootch is not a recognized measure for transgressions,” Kira retorted. “But I’ll accept it, just this time.”

Ezri laughed lightly, which ended in a sigh. “Well, he said yes, then.” She leaned back in her chair, taking a glance at the ceiling. This wasn’t a completely empty gesture, considering she’d fitted it with several pieces of art that she admired, as well as a photograph of a Breen coldcat. Calming images. “Did you say it was on account of me? I ought to send him a thank-you.”

“I did, I think. If not, he probably knows,” Kira considered aloud. It was usually a safe bet. And if he hadn’t, well, he would. He’d have the manifests checked. Or, in all likelihood, he had some sort of tracking system in place for anyone who he considered relevant to his orbit.

“I’ll send him a quick message, then.”

Kira raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t know you were still in touch.” She was surprised to find herself rather pleased, a mildly maternal reflex.

Ezri’s eyes turned back to the camera above the screen. “We aren’t really. We’re at, like, ‘maintenance-communication’-level friendship. You know, a quick message here and there, a briefly personalized form letter for any major event. Enough so that if our paths ever crossed again, it wouldn’t be… weird, you know? Like, if I ran into him on Vulcan, we wouldn’t have to do the awkward, ‘oh right, so as soon as we weren’t in one another’s immediate proximity we obviously didn’t care or even think about it’ routine. Pleasantries, you know? Kind of fake, but, not really. We probably would be chummy if we were in the same place, we’re just not. If we were, we could pick back up. That sort of thing.”

Kira knew that cycle all too well: the people who enter, and those who move along. “Sounds like a thank-you is appropriate, then. And who knows, maybe next time, you’ll be going to Cardassia Prime.” She startled. “Oh, not… not instead of Julian. That’s not what I meant!”

She brushed it off easily, accepting it for the way it was intended. She even smiled. “It might be fun, actually.” Then a laugh. “He’s a card. Did you know, after the… after the whole thing with Julian, and me telling him about the breach…. You want to know what he did? You’ll love this.”

Kira crossed her arms and summoned a playfully skeptical smile. “Oh, what?”

“He sent me a message expressing some recommendations with respect to Federation information security, and a program he said would help me secure all of my files. Something even an expert couldn’t bust.” Her cheeks began to show a hint of blush. “And so, of course, I installed it on my terminal. And you know what it did? It opened with a big window that said, ‘EZRI, DON’T INSTALL STRANGE PROGRAMS!’ I think he wrote it himself!”

“Oh noooo, Ezri!” Kira cackled. “You trusted him! A executable, from Garak!”

“I know, I know!” She was laughing too. “And then it directed me to several legitimate and very well-respected guidebooks on proper storage and maintenance of sensitive data.”

Kira smirked. “If that’s not him all over.”

“It was, actually, a big help,” she confessed. And it had brought considerable peace of mind.

“I guess you learned your lesson.”

Ezri’s brow bunched. “Which was?

“Pft! Hell if I know. Never act like you trust him, I suppose. He hates that.”

“Hey, I knew that! I was green, sure, but not a complete dunce!” She seemed, for a moment, vaguely ashamed. “But that, I never did figure out. I guess it’s a protective thing, you know? Because if he did have to betray you someday, you couldn’t say he didn’t warn you. Doesn’t mean he wanted to, just. Well, it’s overcompensating. No one can really promise they’ll be loyal forever. You’re not even going to be the same person forever. You can only make so many guesses about whoever you’re going to be, somewhere down the line, and assign that person only so many commitments.”

Kira took a moment to chew that thought. Relevant, even if you weren’t a joined Trill. “I guess when you hit a certain age, you realize you don’t really know where things are headed. I never thought I would be here, in this chair. Orbiting above my world… free, and… transformed. So many times I thought I was on board a lost cause, hell-bent on a mission that had to end in my destruction…. I hadn’t planned to be here, to see it, this far along….” Her voice drifted off, then rallied. “I’ve had the station re-painted; you’ll like it.”

“I look forward to it. Hang tight. I want to get this message drafted before I’m out the door, so this is Ezzzzri Dax, signing off!”

Kira chuckled. “All right, all right! See you when I see you.”

With that, the call terminated. Ezri kept smiling, just long enough to be certain that there were no residual half-seconds in the transmission. She permitted herself a mild scowl. Kira hadn’t mentioned whether she’d told Julian, which told Ezri that the answer to that was “not yet.”

“You’d better just be waiting to say it to him in person,” she mused. Realistically, she knew Kira would try. She just wasn’t sure if Julian would accept the plan. She remembered things he’d said, years back, when they were still together. The criticism, the carping. Garak might have agreed to host Julian, but that didn’t mean Julian was on board with the idea.

Then again, it had been a long time. Six years. Perhaps time had made Julian a little more wistful.

She had felt sorry for him, then. A very specific pity for the last thin threads of his wonderment and excitement. Ezri knew that he’d resented Garak for proving himself more… real than the fantasy. She knew it was unfair, deeply unfair, considering that Garak had done his best to keep the mystery and intrigue fun, fun for Julian to imagine.

Ezri, even prior to her Joining, had been a little more savvy than that. There would have been very little “fun” in an institution like the Obsidian Order, and to hold that against Garak, of all people, was demented. It was not his fault he’d been born and raised in reality.

But that was the wonderful thing about Julian, for a while. He came from a place that really was more fun than… reality. Spies sipped martinis, they made love to beautiful women… they were handsome, classy—refined. That was, in Julian’s world, the wouldn’t-it-be-nice.

Still, to think that it could form a wedge was brutal, truly cruel. Julian was almost… offended. He had come to see how flatly, how plainly, Garak could kill Jem’Hadar, how level he was after. Most Starfleet personnel, even officers, had needed a cry and a few still drinks during the war with the Dominion. And yet Garak would only ever argue for more precision and effectiveness—to never waste a shot, and not by shooting less.

It ceased to be fun for Dr. Bashir, discussing blood on the hands of Brutus.

And Garak resented being resented for it. There was more to it than that, of course, but whatever it had been, Garak had certainly never shared that much. Never enough to know whether his rebuff would have been general or agonizingly specific.  

Ezri knew that Julian had invaded the files in search for answers like that, and not just from Garak. For those who were coping better than he had, which in the end, was nearly everyone.

“He could have talked to me….” She shook her head, dismissing an old and hopeless regret. “Get better, I guess, if you can.” That was the most powerful sentiment she could muster, and she let the thread die on that abstract and limited prayer.

To: COUNCILOR ELIM GARAK:

THANKS, AND GOOD LUCK.

- EZRI DAX

It was not much of a letter, but there was nothing else she wanted to add.

Chapter Text

She often felt she’d lived her entire life in war. And yet, this one was among her least favorite. For one thing, it was between her friends. For another, she’d been drafted.

And this did not feel like a war that anyone would win.

She Kira turned her eyes to the chronometer above the entryway to Docking Bay 5. A few passengers were still trickling through, though the bulk of them had already elbowed by.

It was better to face this head-on, get it over with. Provided he ever showed his face.

Another few minutes ticked away, and finally a familiar figure stumbled from the passage. “Nerys! Ah—sorry. I’d put, I’d put my bag under the wrong seat. Forgot, forgot where it was.” He scratched his cheek bashfully. There was a little stubble, maybe two days’ worth, and flecked with an occasional gray.

“Julian, come here!” she said, her annoyance deftly dispelled. She was happy to see him, to see any old friend on the station again. She shot forward and wrapped him in a tight hug, which he gratefully returned.

“Thank you so much,” he said. They shared a terminal squeeze to punctuate the hug and then released. “I know—” he sighed, “I know I should have told you sooner. I just, everything….”

“Lunch?” she offered. Damn. Ezri was right. This would be difficult.

He rubbed his fingers along the outline of his eyes, still dark, and now ringed with permanent deep lines. “That would be great. I had meant to bring something with me, and then the concessions, on the transport….” His discretionary allotment outside of Federation bounds was indeed thin.

She smiled and patted him on the upper arm. “Anything you get on Deep Space 9 is on me. We’re trying to transition away from currency for the basics here anyhow.” The Federation always had its eyes on small capitulations, the little indicators that a candidate world would subscribe to professed values. That meant minimal currency requirements for necessities, and, perhaps just as importantly, there were the aesthetics….

He blinked and looked around. “The station!”

“You like it?”

“It’s… bright? That’s new….”

“New lighting. New paint. Very… modern,” she explained. “We didn’t want to be the mere hub of necessity. You know, we had been getting some… feedback, from travelers. ‘It’s dark, it smells, it’s cramped, transmission fidelity is poor, the replicators somehow make bad food….’ I convinced the Bajoran Ministry of Commerce that we needed an upgrade. So far, it’s been a dream. Almost enough to forget the nightmare it once was.”

Julian frowned.

“As Terok Nor?” she clarified pointedly.

“Oh! Oh, oh yes!”

“Come on, let’s get some lunch.”

//

 

“And we—and we, we t-told him, told him both of them had made it. He wept, and you’d, you’d have thought you could see the change in him, right there, that moment. Do you remember, Nerys?” he managed between large, inelegant bites of sandwich. He swallowed a mouthful just a little large, enough that Kira would swear she could see it under the skin of his neck. “You’re right. The food is better.”

“Yep. Yep. Onward… onward and upward!” It wasn’t going as well as she hoped. Old habits, old patterns, died hard. And she did hate to interrupt. Not, that is to say, in a general sense. She hated interrupting Julian, diminished and greying, when his eyes were lit.

He loved the stories. And what she wouldn’t tell Ezri was, tedious as it might seem in the moment, she liked them too. She was glad someone remembered. Ezri had been perhaps excessively pointed, but she wasn’t wrong. Kira missed the camaraderie, and the memories that came with it. When Julian recounted a baseball game, Benjamin was there again. When he told tales of darts against Bolians, there was Miles. Odo, Quark, Jake, Nog, Jadzia, Keiko… everyone who was gone. Even the child she’d birthed, light-years away.

Hard to tell if it helped, sometimes, when they came back—those who did, those who could. It hurt when it was Miles and Keiko because they were living fruitful lives, just far away, and there they would return. Earth, just as Miles had promised. Julian, now, was another matter. He had left Deep Space 9 after his fallout with Ezri, who had taken the opportunity to leave as well. He, however, would have gladly returned, but Starfleet would no longer approve the transfer. Kira had seen the application, many times, and its blatant illustration of a distressing downward slide.

She had told him the matter was out of her hands, obviously, which was true. She didn’t have enough leverage with the Federation to make that change, especially as Bajor was still petitioning towards the slow march to Federation inclusion. But she hadn’t discouraged him from re-applying, and every 180 days, like clockwork, she would see the ping on her system messages, and every time: DENIED. They did not discuss it. For all Kira knew, Julian had set it to submit automatically, and someone in Starfleet had tagged it for immediate rejection just as impersonally. Beep, click. Beep, click.

Frankly, Kira never petitioned for his return. Someday, perhaps—but not… well, not this Julian.

He looked the part. His hair was bedraggled, over-grown and clumpy. His stubble was clearly the result of inattention, not a statement or a fashion. The cuffs of his uniform were beginning to fray, and that was almost the saddest part—a simple recycle in the replicators, and he’d have a uniform without the fade and wear. Minimal effort, and it just wasn’t there.

Julian took another aggressive bite of sandwich. (Something called “chicken salad”, which was a notion she felt best unexplored.)

Kira pushed aside the bowl that had held her kelp and grains. She’d finished the better part of it an hour ago. She’d just talked less.

“Julian, I need to have a word with you,” she began. She kept her eyes on his, and in an instant, she saw panic. Deer-in-the-headlights fear, primitive and sharp. She couldn’t blame him, with a lead-in like that; those words, like the colors of an exotic species, always meant a warning. “This, you…. I’m so happy to see you. You know that.” She winced in advance. “But this, this time, you didn’t give me enough… enough notice? It’s just my schedule, I can’t. I can’t make the same kind of time this time.”

He couldn’t swallow. Instead, he covered his mouth with his hand, and bits of half-chewed sandwich fell limply onto his tray. His fingertips shivered.

She pulled her chair forward, closing some of the distance. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but better intimate than dispassionate. The latter, at all costs, she wished to avoid. “Julian, Julian, I swear, it’s just this once. Just that you didn’t call ahead. This station, you can see, so much is changing. Just this one time, I can’t.”

“I don’t—just a few meals, not all the time—” he offered, his voice shaking.

“No, Julian. I can’t.”

“I can stay in ‘Morn’s’, catch up with the—”

“Okay, first, there is no more dabo. No more gambling, no more… ‘special programs’. Not here, not any more. We’ve had to move in a more, uh, family-friendly direction. ‘Morn’s’ has pancakes and a jungle gym.” She avoided mentioning it had already hit small franchise status on Bajor proper—doing well, and likely to expand. Even Morn, who had drunk his way through even the most appalling cataclysms of the war, had managed to make good on his time on Deep Space 9. “There’s not really a lot here that’s… going to be able to entertain you. Please, Julian, understand where I’m coming from. Next time, I promise—I’ll even take you to Bajor, we can go to the Dakeen Monastery, like I’ve told you about. It’s beautiful, Julian, and we’ll do that—next time.”

He stopped for a moment, still quivering, numb in disbelief. “You… you’re kicking me off the station?

She held up a hand. “I’m not ‘kicking you’ anywhere!” She was. “And—and there are so many places you can go! You don’t have to come here, Julian, not every time. There are still so many people out there—”

“Wh-what did I do!? Nerys!” His eyes began to… ah yes, leak.

There was a reason she’d chosen a corner table. However, she was bracing for an argument. By no means had she expected him to cry.

“You didn’t—you didn’t do anything!” she insisted. She reached forward and took his cleaner hand, hoping it might settle him somewhat. And anything that might stop his shaking; his quivering made her feel cruel. She had seen fear like that, if never at the table. “As I said, it’s just not a good time.”

Julian looked increasingly… nauseous. The inside of his mouth began to feel progressively slick, as if poised to vacate whatever meal was now causing him such unexpected agony. “Why, Nerys? What makes this so bad? Did I—is there something wrong with the festival? Are you not…? Is there… something?”

Good grief. Anything for a brawl, a firefight. Anything to put her in a conflict she could win without words. Anything to have Sisko here. He would know what to say. “Ezri’s visiting. You know that I—I stayed out of that situation,” she confessed. “And the price for that is I don’t drag myself into it, either.”

“Ezri? Ezri!? I haven’t even seen her in… in…?” He wasn’t even certain. It felt like a lifetime. Seven years? Something like that?

“Six years.”

“Six years? Kira, we… we dated less than two!” He lifted his hand—the one she held—and slammed it into the table with a bang. So much for the calming touch. “She got rid of me! She got rid of me and left, and that—I, bloody fine!—but now she, she gets to decide where I can go? Where I’m allowed to be? If I’m allowed on Deep Space 9? I was here longer, th-this was my home!”

“That was… one of the major formative experiences for Ezri Dax.” She wondered whether she should take her hand away, and decided it might just make him more upset. “Not Ezri-as-Ezri, that is to say, or Dax…. I mean, I’m still not sure I totally understand it, but as the new person, a person starting on a career, with all the pressure she was under…. Julian, she was right to be upset. And, I think, it’s fair that we make some concessions—”

“I—I’m off on a mission after this, Nerys! Three years!” Oh, the waterworks. They’d returned.

“Three years?” That she hadn’t heard. All of his recent assignments had been within Federation space, and on much shorter cycles, with interstitials and shore leave, as was standard.

He pulled back the hand himself, needing it to scratch beneath his ear, the sting bringing much-needed release. He scratched too hard, leaving red marks along the underside of the hinge of his jaw. “It’s a scout ship, investigating activities at the border of Gorn space. Something… something we can’t seem to understand. There have been strange movements; I don’t know the details…. Nowhere safe to dock. And… there’s no guarantee that the Gorn will respect the limits of their territory as we understand them. Small ship. Small crew.”

The Federation had not, historically, had the best luck with the Gorn. Things had been quiet, certainly, but since when did things ever stay that way? Kira knew better than to believe that the entire quadrant was done with bloodshed. The Gorn had avoided the Dominion War. They had not yet lost their daughters and their sons.

She exhaled slowly, quietly, the air seeping out until her lungs were empty. Gorn space. “I didn’t realize, Julian.” It was a dangerous mission; it had to be. She had also heard rumors of strange movements of ships in and around Gorn territory, but Deep Space 9 was far from any direct exposure. She barely thought of the Gorn, aside from a passing thought to accompany the occasional passing vessel. They were, overall, an isolationist empire. Or… democracy. Or whatever they were.

It was, one had to think, the wrong thing to say. He was crying again, a seepage that demanded the center of his face. “I should have told you sooner, I don’t know. I thought about going back to Earth, instead…. I hadn’t decided.”

“Oh, Earth….”

“My mother lives there.”

So did his father. So did Miles. So did Jake. For all it mattered. “I can…. I can still arrange passage back to Earth.” It wouldn’t be easy, on such short notice, but for this, she would make it happen.

“No. I came here for a reason.”

Kira pursed her lips together. Maybe this would help. Aaand… perhaps it wouldn’t. “I’m sorry, Julian. But I told you the truth when I said that you have options. There are so many people who care about you, and so many places you are welcome—not just here.”

“They don’t. And even if they did, just like you, they don’t have the time.” He rubbed the ball of his thumb against his eye. It did sting. It still stung. “Everyone who stood here, back then, with Sisko, Ben… now a proper nabob. Even if someone, someone kind like Rom,… he’s Grand Nagus. He can’t afford it. It’s amazing you’ve held it so long, as Commander. And even then, you know there’s something better waiting if you ever return to Bajor. Friend of the Emissary. Savior of the people.” He slumped, as though his spine were losing its integrity, a bend before a break. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry I thought this was worth your time.”

“Julian—”

“Miles is a professor, now, but he wouldn’t see me anyway, after the Okanogan.

She had to interrupt. She didn’t need the reminder he was right. Being on the station had meant… destiny in the flesh, and she’d rebuffed more of it than she felt comfortable admitting. There were always offers to recall her from Deep Space 9. She just… wasn’t ready. “There’s Cardassia Prime.”

“You can’t mean—Garak?! No, Nerys!” Now he scratched both sides of his face, a long draw. “He hates me!”

That was news. “Hates you? What makes you say that?” She could see why things would be a little awkward, but hate wasn’t something she’d perceived.

“I—I never…. I’ve ignored him, all his correspondence… all these years.” His breath was beginning to come out sharp. “I can’t imagine how—I can’t imagine—how angry he must have been. He was, the messages, the ones I read…. Cardassia Prime, how the redevelopment was coming along…. I didn’t have time, he writes so much….”

Kira expected that, in the space of eight years, he had—technically—had time.

“And then it… tapered off, and then… it stopped.”

“That doesn’t mean he hates you. It just means he can tell that style doesn’t,” she struggled for the words, “… that doesn’t work for you. Not everyone communicates the same way, I’m sure he knows that. He was a talker, too, he might not have thought that writing was the same, after a while.”

“And I ignored his calls…. I just, I don’t know…. I didn’t want to see him.”

Her eyes narrowed, not in suspicion, but in preparation for the blowback. But she did have to ask. “May I ask… why?”

He frowned, looked down. His eyes scanned the table as if it contained a message. No such luck—just sandwich detritus and wet, surrendered bites. “I… I don’t know. I think… I think I was disappointed. There was no, you know….” He trailed off, working the explanation to the tip of his tongue. “There was no plan. I spent so many of those years waiting for the… payoff? But it wasn’t exciting, or thrilling, really…. Most of it was just, kind of tragic?” He thought back to his weeks with Tain in the prison camp. Now there was thick and choking sorrow. “And, despite all his warnings, there was no… betrayal.”

“And that… disappointed you?”

“I was so excited….”

Yes, Kira did remember that.

“And everything he’d taught me, he really did use in service to the State. He wanted to get back to Cardassia Prime. He wanted to serve again…. When I envisioned him, it had always been with this… mystique? But I was more of a mystery than he was. And… after realizing that, I guess….”

It did feel like a hell of a way to leave someone hanging, Kira thought.

“It just… didn’t feel helpful. After the war. I just wanted to move on.”

That, Kira privately observed, did not go as planned.

“He’d been a good friend. Better than I expected, certainly,” Julian recalled. “Better than he’d told me he’d be. To come back now, how would that read? ‘Oh, my dear Mr. Garak, how nice to see you again! A member of the Detapa Council, my, my! Me, I’m at the end of my rope, I’m all used up. Starfleet has no more use for me, they’re sending me off to sea in a rowboat, consigned to die, so I thought I would stop by and say hello first. You’ll listen to me, won’t you? For this bloody last hurrah?’”

Kira paled slightly. “Now Julian, self-pity like that…. Is that really what you think? Garak will be delighted to see you, and Starfleet just wants you to… perhaps recoup? That’s a long mission, out in what’s often calm space. That’s time for you to meditate. To get away from some of the stress you’ve been feeling.” Oh. Oh she hoped that was true.

“It’s a volunteer crew, Nerys. Every last one. Except for me.” He smiled weakly, looking to the side. One big joke, it was. “Eighteen crewmen, each with a recent and substantial misstep on Starfleet personnel records. You know, we have a word for this. Not, not an official word, of course, they’d never… . You know it, don’t you?”

They said it together. “‘Mission of Distinction.’”

Yes, Kira knew what that meant. She’d heard the phrase whispered here and there. It was never used formally, of course, although rumor stated that it was an official term in levels of Federation bureaucracy that never reached public eye. An “M.O.D.”: a chance for disgraced members of Starfleet to prove their devotion not only to the Federation and its core values and an attestation of their desire to be restored. A crusade of penance, a ship of the damned.  

A return was met with great aplomb. It did not happen often.

“Julian. Julian,” she stressed, hoping the name would draw his focus back to her. “That is not happening. That is not what’s happening. Now, you know that I don’t always see eye-to-eye with the Federation or Starfleet. I never have. But I know they do not assign people to suicide missions. If there’s even one person on that ship who didn’t volunteer, they expect you to make it home.”

His expression was lost. Grey. Distant. Her attempt was earnest, but insufficient. “It’s different for me. When I was younger, an upstart, promising… there was a lot they could… overlook. Just one augment, they’d make allowances…. I saved entire planets, do you remember? Perhaps ‘saved’ is a strong word….”

She grabbed his hand again, this time clapped firmly between both. “Julian!”

“It’s nothing personal. I’m just a liability. Close the door. End the chapter. Before I do any more damage.”

She squeezed, hard.

“Like the Okanogan….”

“Listen to me. Listen to me.” Her jaw was clenched, furious at an establishment her planet was still refashioning itself in hopes to join. “If that’s what this is—if that’s what this really is—then don’t. Stop. Stop right here, today, now. Tell them you won’t do it. Resign from Starfleet.”

His hand remained limp. “If I did, they’d have me in the Institute. And I just, I won’t. It’s fine, better the Gorn.”

 “No. Absolutely not.” Her face had lines it lacked ten—damn, two—years ago, and now they were drawn deeply.  Despite her age, she had always the fire. This was too much. “Tell them you quit. Tell them you’re done. I’ll stop everything here, cancel it all, and take you down to Bajor. I’ll have the legislature fast-track you as a citizen; I’ll have you installed at a monastery before there’s anything they can do. With affirmed status in a religious order here in Bajor, they wouldn’t dream of recalling you.”

“What about Ezri?”

“For f—Julian! You two had a bad breakup; she doesn’t want you dead! In a cage!” she gaped. “This is about your life and your freedom. I wouldn’t be friends with Ezri if I thought she’d accept an injustice like that. And for the Jadzia that’s still in there—do you think that’s something she’d allow?”

He met her eyes at last. He nearly toed in… then retreated. “I can’t. That would be a disaster for you, and a political liability for Bajor. I can’t have you do that for me.” Unspoken, they knew what was meant: ‘I’m not worth it.’

She wasn’t immediately certain how to respond. To be honest, she might have promised more than she could even deliver, political liability or not.

“You can’t exploit the protected status of your religious orders,” he continued slowly. “And… I wouldn’t want you to compromise what that means for you. I’m not a member of your religion, and the Vedeks would rightfully hold it against you if you inserted me there as a heretic. Even if I hoped to convert, I couldn’t do it ten days, Nerys, not authentically…. And the Federation would forever be suspect of whether your religion was designed more as a tool than as a genuine foundation of Bajoran culture. This matters more than one Dr. Bashir.”

Now she was the one who looked startled, the edge of panic lining all her features. “We can think of something.”

He gave a half-smile, touched but disbelieving. “I was made for thinking, Nerys. Re-made, anyway. There’s nothing more to be done. And… that’s all right.”

“Go to Cardassia Prime, Julian.”

“He doesn’t want to see me.”

At that, she bit. “Damn it, Julian, he does want to see you! I’ve already spoken with him.”

He frowned, but it was soft, uncertain.

“I wanted there to be somewhere for you to go. Like I said, it wasn’t my intention to toss you aside, even this once. I… thought that could be a substitute.”

He didn’t have a name for what he was feeling, but whatever it was, it overwhelmed him too much for any anger. “What did he say?”

“That you are welcome there.”

And the tears returned. Hat trick.

That was enough for a skeptical look. She hoped that those were happy tears. Well, not happy. Nothing about Julian seemed happy. Grateful, perhaps? Relieved, if she were lucky. “Julian,” she started, massaging the ball of his thumb with her fingers, “Think about it, will you? … Do you remember, years and years ago, when I was taking Aamin Marritza to the docking bay?”

“I performed the a-autopsy.” He wasn’t feeling nostalgic, particularly, but an augment’s memory had something to recommend it. Besides, Marritza had been the first Cardassian that Julian had ever seen unclothed, splayed open in the morgue. He had, in retrospect, explored too much—nothing uncouth, but knowing the importance the Cardassians assigned to the body after death, it had been inappropriate if not outright unethical. Still, he had been so curious….

“Right…. Killed, for being a Cardassian on the station, a station orbiting above Bajor. I understood it then. I mean, to an extent, I understand it now,” she said. “That’s what it was like, for a Cardassian post-‘Terok-Nor’. A dangerous place, a place a Cardassian would go to die in disgrace.”

Julian was trying to listen, but he did think about the corpse. Autopsies stuck. Couldn’t help it.

“When Garak was here, it was a death sentence. Surrounded—even hunted—by a lifetime of enemies, and nothing but a burn notice to show for it. I mean, I was his enemy. And Sisko… he didn’t have much loyalty, even for a citizen of the station—and one presumed innocent, if only for lack of evidence.” She nearly smiled, though it was an award one. “Even Dukat aching for his head, do you remember?”

“I remember….” It could easily have been Garak on the table. Julian wondered if he’d have done the same then, had they been strangers… or worse, still friends. Would he have pulled that body apart, just to see the interplay of all its alien features?

She led into it gently. “So… don’t you think he might understand?” She gave it a half-beat, juggling whether to clarify further. “You were his friend. And for that, he really did… adore you. He has every reason to be grateful to you.”

“Obligation, then. For who I used to be.”

Julian….

He scanned the table, distracting himself from what he’d just done, how unfair it was, rhetorically.

“We are a family, Julian. I know you know that. And like any family, we have our ups and downs. That’s the cycle of the universe, and the Prophets wouldn’t have it any other way. Give it a chance for balance, Julian. Let him return the kindness he remembers from you. That’s all I ask.”

Still, the pause.

“And think of all the things you discussed, everything you two talked about. You’ll be able to observe it now, the world he extolled. You’ve told me before how badly he wanted you to see it. He would be touched if you did, particularly now, with all the work he’s invested.”

“A lovely garden.”

She thought back to Keiko’s ‘bins of green’. If she was setting him up, it was not a sin she would ever forgive. Not even with Garak’s head on a stake.

“… All right.” More a surrender than an acceptance.

Good grief, she prayed that was a win. “I’ve arranged transport on what is, all right, technically a supply vessel, but it has been fitted with dedicated seats for passengers, for these short runs. There is a refueling stop in the Olmerak system, and I think they may be unloading some cargo, but it ends up being the quickest transit time, taking into account the number of hands on the vessel and the expected customs procedures.”

That did earn her a wan smile. “You certainly know your ships,” he said. It managed to warm, even a little more. “The station is lucky to have you, Nerys.”

“Thank you, Julian.” She leaned in gently. “I mean that. In the meanwhile, a walk? Around the Promenade? For old times’ sake?”

He nodded with deliberate slowness, as if still chewing his commitment. “All right.” His eyes passed down to his plate and his mind returned to his thin allotment on his prior transport. “I’d like to finish this sandwich first, though.”

Chapter Text

The walk had been intended as a way to keep an eye on Julian and ensure, come Hell or high water, he was on that ship. No ducking out, no dodging into the restrooms and pretending he missed the departure. She did worry, and she didn’t have time to muddle with various contingencies. She’d already agreed to expedite inspection on the ship’s cargo to see that it left no later than on-schedule.

Given that the tour was, to some extent, a ploy, she was surprised the extent to which she was enjoying herself. True, it hadn’t been that long since Julian was last on the station, but with the bond measure having come through from the Department of Commerce, and resources available at last, the station was indeed shedding its gloom and becoming a chapel of culture, a kindly hub for all walks of life—dozens of species, each member with its own reason for passing through.

There were murals now; she liked those in particular. Bajoran painters, illuminating grand events in the history of their society, expressing so much time and feeling. There were a few sculptures, too, but admittedly they caused substantially greater logistical problems. Oh, but the new fixtures, the new gliding pathways! It was an artful mix of culture and tradition, of art and technology. And she was proud: exuberance like that could only be genuine.

Her passion was infectious. Even Julian was feeling a little better. And he was cognizant enough to stop himself just short of disaster. He almost said it—almost said the words:

“This station is your baby.”

Thank the stars he hadn’t. Kira still had only one child, and even that exclusively as a surrogate. He had no intention of broaching the topic of the O’Briens or, for that matter, Kira’s familial status.

Well, the O’Briens had made it work, at least. Rom and Leeta. Jake Sisko was married, too, last Julian had heard (which is to say, had done a late-night data search). He had very little idea as to anyone else. He hoped Ezri were single, at least—not because he thought he had a shot, or even wanted one, but he would be doubly peeved if she were still sour having gone on to achieve stable romance, still practicing all the strange rituals of an ex.

He nearly asked a second question. “Are you still mourning?” He managed to refrain: another bullet dodged.

But he had to wonder.

But how could she be in mourning? Everything about her seemed bright, cheerful.

He remembered something that Ezri had said, that grief can take any form. It was a strong feeling, but a surreptitious one. It would hide under so many other faces.

He felt a pang of completely undeserved pride that his grief was explicit, plain. Plain and simple! Ah, now he was thinking about Garak again. He really preferred not to.

“Julian?”

“Hmm?”

“Does it capture your imagination? Make you… inspired?”

Dumbstruck, and obviously dumbstruck. “The… the what?”

“The—the installation! Here!”

“Oh.” He jolted. “Oh, oh the art! Yes, it’s dynamic. Despite not being overly representational. I like the action. It has a good linearity.”

A part of her was peeved, but it gave way to laughter. “Damn it, Julian, you weren’t paying the slightest bit of attention!”

“No no, I was, I was!” he contested. “Up until this one. It’s just… abstract… f-f-forms?” He scratched at that stubble again; the gesture made him look almost intellectually unkempt, when the reality was he was tired and busted to the gills. “It is blue.

“Prophets commend thee, you better be able to do better than that if you’re meeting up with Garak. He’ll rake you over the coals for critique that thin.” So she was thinking about him too. She gestured to… the art installation. It was blue. “Personally, he reviled it. So do I, honestly.” She sucked her bottom lip, as if yearning for a compliment. “It is blue.”

“And it’s multi-storey….”

“She’s a very famous sculptor. On Bajor.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Modish.”

“Do you think you can get rid of it?”

“That’s the goal.”

Julian leaned forward conspiratorially. “You could have a loading lorry bash into the support column. Structurally, it wouldn’t have a chance….”

Feigned horror. “Julian! Domestic terrorism?” She wagged a finger in his face. “Don’t you begin to lecture me on domestic terrorism.” As far as bonding moments went, it was an odd one. However, Kira appreciated the validation. She’d tolerate “Motions in Confluence: Flow & Pertranscience” another month before it had an accident.

 

//

 

He’d felt so secure in that moment. The embrace. The feeling of it—the pressure—had lingered. Then the door of the ship closed and that feeling, that sensation… evaporated. Suddenly, it was cold on the Dar Kn’ghcx. The sensation of falling, of missing half your pieces. Shit!

Nerys, let me stay!

He’d been suspicious of Kira’s claim that the cargo vessel had “dedicated passenger accommodations”, but as it happens, that was an entirely fair description. Whoever owned and operated the ship had sixteen seats installed in a room immediately aft of the bridge, a charming little offset to help defray day-to-day operating expenses. There, Julian had room to sit, room to stretch, even to lie down as the seat permitted. It reminded him of his experiences on locomotives in the Holosuite, often with O’Brien. A little archaic, perhaps, but not uncomfortable.

He almost wished it were uncomfortable. That would give him an excuse to be preoccupied. Something to focus on, besides the destination.

That tiny start as the thrusters engaged. Oh, he was ready to vacate that sandwich.

But it had to be nerves.

Julian hated himself for it. Damn, why was he so tense?

It was so much worse than spending his last two weeks of freedom eating pancakes at Morn’s.

If the doors would open—the doors would not open.

He tugged at his collar. Kira had taken him to the replicators and had a new outfit made, as well as several extras in reserve. His clothes looked fresh, if a little slack. (Still chalked up as an improvement.) His face was also smooth, courtesy of a sonic shower and a quick shave. His hair was a tad overgrown, perhaps, but most importantly, it was clean. A fresher Julian, and itchy all over.

Julian avoided his reflection. He wasn’t sure which was more shameful: the way he had looked, or that he was trying to look a little nicer. And still coming up, frankly, both obvious and a little half-assed.

Well, what does it matter? Julian thought. He’ll already know.

It felt presumptuous.

If he cares to.

Maybe just if Nerys told him.

He wasn’t sure which felt worse: the idea that Garak knew everything or that he knew nothing. The latter could only be the result of apathy, and that—

“That you are welcome there.” Kira’s words. Oh, god. They were horrible!

“Welcome.

What an impersonal word.

Guests on Risa are welcome to book in advance. Conference speakers are welcome to pre-load their presentations. Klingons are welcome to store their various blades in our complementary storage lockers. They’re all welcome, and you’re very welcome. You’re welcome to visit Cardassia. Did you bring your camera?

You’re overthinking it. You’re made for thinking, and now you’re thinking too much.

No you’re not. Not if Garak’s involved.

He doesn’t care that much. I’m just cashing in an advertised tour, an I.O.U. from a thousand years ago.

It wasn’t, technically speaking, one thousand years. Functionally, perhaps.

I hope it’s nothing. I hope it’s shallow. I hope it’s irrelevant. Then it doesn’t matter if the Gorn kill me or not.

He knew from Ezri what thoughts like that meant, and in a moment of unusual reserve, he did try to balk them.

Nerys did a lot for you. She had. And you know she would have done more. She would. She’d have put you in that monastery. With the stupid hats.

Quark’s just busy, just too far to help. He’d buy every piece of you that came to market, commemoratively. Rom, Nog…. That’s not abandonment. They’d miss me, I’m sure of it.

And as for Ezri, Nerys is right. She was right to be upset. And right to avoid me. But she never wanted me dead. Just… disappointed. I mean, isn’t that how I felt? I was disappointed in myself, too. We’re basically on the same page. That didn’t feel substantially better.

And Miles…. Okay, that one wasn’t wise to think about.

But Garak?

So I ignored some letters…. He readjusted his position in his seat. That’s not so bad. Besides, he’s rather fair, don’t you think, in the end?

Maybe he’ll kill you. Julian chuckled to himself. Then he startled. Oh shit. I hope he doesn’t kill me.

… Garak isn’t going to kill me.

It would look bad.

And there would be no point.

He’s pragmatic that way.

His brow furrowed.

He doesn’t want to kill you! Happy thoughts, Julian, happy thoughts!

Why would he even want to kill you? He doesn’t even know you anymore. He stared through the window—more a porthole—and failed to be inspired. Only stars. He wouldn’t even recognize you. You’ll probably barely recognize him. Quark stuck to his values, and Nerys stuck to the station. They’re anchored, but you? Him?

Kira’s last words to him before he’d stepped aboard: plaintive, steeped in oxblood terror, the hope that they wouldn’t be the last she’d ever have a chance to say. “Julian, from day one, Garak’s success in driving the Union forward has been dependent on a productive and mutually-respectful association with the Federation. That never would have been possible without all he learned from you. You made him someone who could, well, make a difference. And maybe you made more of a difference than you thought. Go see.”

It was certainly the warmest expulsion he’d experienced recently.

What the hell am I doing.

What do I even want?

Good grief. What did he want?

You and I, we used to laugh.

I used to get distracted, ticking through forms in the medlab. He was being generous. He had been distracted during operations. A stronger critique of Blue Sun. A better retort. Nights spent, lying awake, furious I hadn’t adequately defended Thoreau. Well, at least he liked Elżbieta Drużbacka….

Stimulation.

Just books, but it felt like we were doing something, like we were distilling some important concept, some grand philosophical truth.

Just books.

Really, was that the plan? I’ve ignored you the better part of a decade. Do you remember the books? Not bad, right? You know, these books, already plumbed for meaning for six hundred years, would you like to complain about them?

Act like that matters?

Act like that’s worth your time?

He bridled, curling a hand under his chin, squirming in his seat. The person next to him—a Tellarite—turned its head politely away, perhaps hoping to avoid the spillover awkwardness of Julian’s twists and pangs.

He closed his eyes, pressing back against the headrest. Just let the seal give way. Let it rupture. Let it blow me into the void. Anything but set foot on that planet—

The files. He’d accessed them from Ezri’s personal terminal, loaded them onto a clip. Something that could feel more tangible than fiction. Garak’s. Space. Panic, and loneliness. Julian hadn’t noticed at the time. 2375. Focused on himself, his self-assessed budding maturity: a warrior, a man. “Not so boyish any more.” Preening and posturing while his friend sought to die. A real man!

WELCOME

You are welcome, Kira had said. He has made you welcome.

Julian immediately scrabbled under the seat for his bag, his fingers desperate on the straps. (The Tellarite sat very, very still.) No. No, no, no. He refused to think. Where was it? Standard issue medical. Fuck! He’d had trouble with these, these got him into trouble. Didn’t matter. Where was the hypo?

There! Finally! God above, it had been seconds. Tranquilizers. Why not? Some parents asked if he’d do it for children before a long trip. Turn around? Committed. Damn!

Fuck you, Nerys! He began to shake. Fine, the tranqs! If nothing else, he knew he’d retch if he stayed awake. Pale and sweaty: a sickness! (Treatable.) He set the delivery mechanism against his neck and let it discharge. A very reasonable amount. He didn’t do it often. He didn’t do it often; these got him into trouble.

 

//

 

Kira had time for a good night’s rest. Ezri would be there in the morning.

Time for a good night’s rest: that’s what she’d told herself.

Go to sleep.

Go to sleep, Nerys.

She couldn’t sleep.

Of course, she’d gone to bed. “To bed.” She was in the bed.

Go to sleep, Nerys.

These days, almost everyone deferred to her. They respected her command. They esteemed her wisdom. So why, exactly, not the brain? Her own brain? Just this once?

It wasn’t as easy as that. Julian had departed; Ezri had yet to arrive. This was the interval—the interval she had to reflect on how she intended to juggle the two without the presence of either biasing her decision.

Ezri was right. Julian was not, apparently, doing better. He was six years out from a professional violation for which he had never taken appropriate responsibility, beyond what the official investigation had emblazoned, furious, on his record. For that, he lost Ezri.

Kira had accessed Julian’s most recent application, which gave her the second date: 2380. Three years. Three years since the Okanogan. Eighty-four crewmen had died. For that, he lost Miles.

That one, however, she had never completely understood. Julian was not found to have been at fault. And no one would be consigned to an M.O.D. if innocent. Yet, it was difficult to argue Julian’s assertion that the assignment came across as willfully lethal. In the interests of thoroughness, she had looked into the other crew members as well as she could, mostly by news articles by dint of limited access to official Federation databases. Lost crews, systematic bribery—in one case, trafficking. They were strong contenders for the privilege of dying in service to the cause. No argument there.

Julian was an augment, and it was not beyond the realm of imagination that the Federation could benefit from his quiet erasure. But in that case, why now? Three years was more than enough time for a smooth excision. Julian’s subsequent work had been low-profile and unremarkably competent. If he performed at that level, he was still a low-grade asset. She never knew the Federation to throw anything away willfully.

Something is going on, Ezri, she thought drearily. And despite what I said… what we agreed… I’m not sure I did the right thing, sending him to Cardassia. If this is bigger than him, then he needs us. And he’s right. It’s been long enough, hasn’t it?

Above all, if it were because he was an augment, she couldn’t bear the thought that she’d abandoned him to the gallows, marched to Golgotha without a helping hand.

Dammit, the Okanogan. What happened on the god-damned Okanogan?

Miles had been apoplectic; she’d gotten wind of that fury from lightyears away. And sure, the two of them had not been on the firmest footing. Julian’s trajectory had long been a sore spot, as well as unwelcome attempted incursions into a very strictly defined set of O’Briens. However, up to the events of the Okanogan, Miles had still served as a character reference, ensuring that Julian had a posting somewhere dully respectable and safe within Federation space. It was the Okanogan.

How could Miles be so unforgiving? He was more than Julian’s friend; he owed him his life. Julian had talked him down from the brink, once. Why would Miles, the sensible, the affable, the man who’d been through hell and back himself, abandon a friend at cliff’s edge?

What would ever make Miles believe Julian was—what, exactly? A “bad guy”?

Julian, for all his missteps, had never been cruel. Never been unkind. Only ever a sweet and tender ruin.

Eighty-four people died aboard the Okanogan.

He saved an entire planet from the Quickening. If we’re going by numbers…. She wasn’t an assessor. Still, she did imagine Miles had a soft spot for the mathematics of the thing.

Whatever it was, Miles hadn’t told Keiko. Kira had begged her to pry it from him many times—directly, indirectly.  A redundant exercise. After all, Keiko always ever had the same question. What was so inexcusable, precisely? Certainly, Miles’ word had helped get Julian aboard the ship, and tragedy had found him there, but the results of the investigation did not appear to be in question. What grudge had Miles earned that Starfleet had not?

He’d thrust Dr. Bashir in with the Cardassians: not to be trusted, beyond restoration. And all that, sure, if one had seen the young man, delirious and mad, impale crewman like a shrike. But no, nothing like that. He’d never insinuated Julian was dangerous, or even warned Keiko away. She was free to send him correspondence, even call him from time to time, provided Miles was out of the room.

Don’t they ever get tired of it? Kira wondered, rather dismally. All right, so I’m judgmental! And I’ve flown off the handle once or twice….

She exhaled with a heavy, humid puff. But I usually forgave. I forgave people, anyway. I forgave Bareil and Opaka. I forgave Winn. I forgave Ghemor and Damar. I forgave my mother. I even forgave Sisko, after a while….

It wasn’t an exhaustive list, certainly. There were conspicuous exclusions.

Of course, it was a little different. She felt called to forgive. It was purposeful. It was meaningful. It was a cleansing of the soul, which was all well and good, but could hardly be demanded of those who disbelieved in the entire premise.

Ezri, what’s the point of this grudge?

You can choose to let it go.

Chapter Text

“You all right, sweetheart?”

Sweetheart?! Who was calling him “sweetheart”? Was this some dream? Who in this lonely universe….

His eyelids felt heavy. Even blinking was a chore. “Wh—?”

“We’re almost there, hon.”

Hand on his shoulder. Some kind of hand.

“I can tell you’re worried, but there’s no need to fret, none at all.” A woman’s voice. “I know you human types, you tend to worry, but I have been to Cardassia a dozen times, and let me tell you, it is a wonduhful planet, just wonduhful.”

The Tellarite! Boy, sometimes the universal translator did like to editorialize.

Julian risked a direct glance. Her eyes were dark and gentle, and very, very deep. Deep in there… somewhere. It was easier to read the smile that peeked through from behind her wiry beard.

“You don’t have a thing to worry about. Safe. Very pleasant. Oh, and the buildings, and the spas! Just lovely, and all new of course. And you know, I’m so glad to see humans starting to come.” She paused. “Work, I take it?”

“Work?”

“Work what brings you here?”

He tried to sit up. His collapse post-hypo had been an awkward one, and now his back ached for his trouble. “N-no. Here to meet a friend, actually.”

“Oh, a tourist! That’s great, just like me. Well, you are gonna love it.” She wasn’t sure why he’d be in uniform to meet a friend, but then again, humans…. Humans did have strange habits.

“Wait, what time is it? We can’t be there already?”

“Not yet, shugs, not yet. But the cargo got refused at port, something about beets gone foul. Captain said the merchant’s just bein’ ornery, so she’s just going to offload the palettes once we get to Cardassia proper, sell them on. Good news for us, we get to shave a few hours of transit anyway. More time for you and your friend, hmm?”

He paled again.

She leaned in gently. “Hon, are you all right?

“‘A-all right’?”

“Hon, you seem scared to death. Everything… everything all right?

It took him a moment, still groggy, still a little slow. His smile came one side before the other. “Oh, thanks. Thank you. Don’t worry. Just nerves.”

 

 

 

 

//

“Ah, no, dear, I’m sorry. The inspection team found ‘suspicious spores’ on the exterior. By the time it was cleared through security, the parcel was nearly incinerated, and I daresay irradiated. I told them, ‘Dr. O’Brien is a botanist, and an absence of unfamiliar plant residue would be far more suspect than the converse….’ I am afraid they don’t view their profession with such nuance.”

Keiko laughed. “Oh my! Well, next time that you’re on Earth, then.”

He nodded in appreciation. “That would be delightful. I did receive the data crystal, but what the replicator makes up for in exactitude, it lacks in heart.”

“By which you mean, any secret ingredient Yoshi’s thrown in.”

He beamed. “I particularly enjoyed the ‘excessive red food coloring’ period. Very avant-garde.”

“Don’t remind me,” she said. “I’ve never seen pickled radishes so… savage.”

“He’s a skilled young man. Takes after his sister, I’m sure.”

That earned another chuckle. “No, she was the sweet tooth. Honey in everything, especially after I taught her about how different nectars affected the flavor profile. I’ve told you about honey, haven’t I? From our insects, from bees?”

Yes, he had indeed been encouraged to sample processed bee vomit. Such darling treats from planet Earth. “… In either case, I look forward to the next occasion that we can share a table. Your home, and your family, dear, have always been delightful.” That much was true: he took an intense, albeit perverse, pleasure in dining with the O’Briens whenever matters of the Council brought him to Earth. He was no more a fan of Keiko’s seaweed salad than Miles himself, but to so much as cross the threshold of the O’Brien home was a joy.

Miles had issued an exact prohibition, of course, many years ago. Trouble was, he hadn’t cleared it with Keiko. Garak had exploited that little oversight, just for the sport of it.

“Well, I hope to take you up on the invitation to Cardassia someday. Your descriptions are captivating, Garak, and I’ve watched a few educational programs with the kids. And the plant life, now that the Federation and the Union permit the exchange of academic papers…. Here on Earth, we have mangroves that will deposit a thin film of crystal salts on their leaves. However, I’m told you have a succulent that ejects pebbles of native copper?”

Another big grin. “Indeed, and I would describe them as no less than spectacular. I’ll have a live specimen sent to Earth, if you’d like. With any luck, it should fare better than the pickles.”

Her viewscreen, unlike Kira’s, caught the blues of his eyes. To Keiko, Brunnera. Forget-me-not.

“I appreciate the offer, but I’ll use it for an incentive to draw me planetside. Now Garak, are you sure there’s nothing else I can help you with? I admit, I’m a little surprised at the sudden call.” She had a look of mischief that even he could only equal. “It’s unlike you to not have it prearranged. Something you need me to analyze? A sample, perhaps? Something done quietly?” She had done that for him, more than once. Dr. Keiko O’Brien was one in a careful roster of trusted contacts.

“Actually… I was wondering if Mr. O’Brien might be available.”

That was a surprise. “Miles? Sorry, it’s a full-faculty meeting for the engineering department. I can have him call you later, though, if that would help?”

He sucked air between his teeth, more for the easy theatrics. “I’m afraid that doesn’t quite work tonight; I have several outstanding commitments. Do you happen to know his schedule tomorrow? Any blocs in, perhaps, the morning? Oh—no, excuse me. Not the morning. Afternoon? Early evening? Earth time, of course.”

“He doesn’t have any commitments tomorrow afternoon that I’m aware of. Let me take a look.” She pulled up her husband’s schedule on a parallel screen. “Okay, taking a second glance… he appears to be free. A colleague’s retirement party is scheduled for later in the evening, but that shouldn’t be a problem. What’s this about?”

“Dr. Bashir is due to arrive on Cardassia, and quite soon. A… change of plans, I take it. There is a matter that I would like to have clarified, if possible.”

She nearly gaped. “Julian? On Cardassia? Garak, really?”

He permitted himself the right to express some of his own surprise. “That does appear to be the case. Commander Kira believed it was due. She did make the arrangements.”

“Well, I’m… happy?” She attempted. It even felt speculative, as if she were tasting the expression as it left her lips. “I wish I could help. I haven’t spoken with him since the end of last year. I told you about that, didn’t I? Perfectly pleasant, of course, but not much there….”

“Mmm. Yes, and I assume Mr. O’Brien has not had any recent correspondence either. However, this does not relate to a recent matter.”

“I’d tell you if I knew, and given the state of things, you have every reason to inquire. With… Julian on his way, this is as good a time as any to try. I’ll warm him up, if I can.” She swallowed. The air was gelid, the weight of memories oppressive. “He would… like for Julian to… be more in alignment with his potential. I’d like to think that he will help, if there’s anything he can offer.” There. Almost political.

He held up his palms, an open gesture. “I don’t expect much.” Blue. “I merely reasoned I should ask.”

Keiko ran her fingers through the hair of her temples. Calming. “At worst, he’ll just say ‘no.’ … We can try to fit it in at 15:30 Earth time. I don’t imagine it will take long.”

The word ‘no’ rarely did. “Thank you, and I am grateful, Dr. O’Brien, always.”

//

 


“Gee, are you sure you’re, like, emotionally ready?” Ezri teased.

Kira shot her a look. “I always take this week off! Nothing’s going to…. Wait, no. Not going to jinx it.”

“‘Jinx it’? That’s a little human, don’t you think?!”

Kira raised her arms, praying to Gods in some direction. “The Prophets will protect the station for the one week a year I choose not to deal with it!” She let them drop to her hips and took a last visual scan of her bulging luggage. She couldn’t have forgotten anything. Otherwise, how could it be so full?

She glanced over to Ezri’s pack, which was sitting on the floor by the door of her Commander’s quarters. It was, at most, a quarter the volume of Kira’s. It suggested superior efficiency, until she recalled how often Ezri had to ask to borrow socks or a hairbrush. There were always replicators on the surface, of course, but not as commonly, a fact that Kira had kept in mind. “I’m all packed. You’re lucky Yo’poloia doesn’t technically begin until the day after tomorrow.”

Ezri crossed her arms. She had changed out of her Starfleet uniform on the way over, preferring looser fabrics and shorter sleeves. Flattering to the spots. “Oh? And why is that?”

“It really would have been difficult to kick him off if the festival had begun.”

“One, technicalities. Unhealthy.” She frowned. “And two, dammit. I thought we were done with this. Thank you for taking care of it. But the entire point was letting me, you know, enjoy this rare time with you without having to dredge up past events.”

Kira’s brow furrowed. There were a few permanent lines, and she’d earned them. “You’re the one who says people need to learn to be more emotionally honest. Here’s emotional honesty for you, Ezri: I don’t feel good about it.”

“Oh, great. So, we’re going to talk about it?”

“That’s your line, isn’t it? Aren’t you the one who is always promoting open discussion?” Kira countered.

“So you do want to talk about it. Great. Well, you know what, Nerys? I also maintain it’s important when someone doesn’t want to talk about it, which I don’t. In fact, you could almost say, I didn’t travel halfway across the Federation to talk about it. If we’re really reaching, you could also suspect that one of the reasons I don’t really want to have him around is, I don’t want to talk about it. But clearly you want to talk about it, so fine. Perfect! Let’s talk about it. I mean, I am your guest, but the festival of hospitality doesn’t start until tomorrow, technically, right? Sorry, day after tomorrow. So you can drag me over the coals until then and still feel like you’ve satisfied your religious edicts.”

“I’ve already kicked one friend off the station, I can fucking do it twice, Ezri.”

She’d leveled with Worf. She’d leveled with Julian. But she felt hesitation, leveling with Kira. That was different. “I apologize. I know you take the tenets of your faith seriously.”

Kira nodded forcefully. “Thank you.” She yanked at the handle of her luggage, dragging it down from the bed onto the floor with a solid whump. “Although I’m none too pleased to be assigned your enforcer whether or not the Prophets are involved.”

“My enforcer.

The Commander took a deep breath. “Ezri.” Another. “This is getting… uncomfortable? The role you’re making me play in this.”

Ezri bridled. “The… ‘role’? To not invite the two of us to the same parties? To not have him on our trip? That’s an unreasonable demand for someone in my position?” A step back. De-escalate. “… I’ve even said that if it were something important, like some sort of commemorative event for the station, I could handle it. I just, socially, would prefer to avoid someone whose presence reminds me of something that I find upsetting.”

Oh, the language was not her specialty. And Ezri had both age, in a sense, and certainly experience. Kira got the feeling she was stepping into a rout: not her favorite instinct to suppress. “Well, Ezri, we might need to set some new boundaries here because it’s gotten a touch distressing now that you’ve made me a pawn in the conflict between your comfort and his suicidal ideation.”

That got her attention. “What?” Ezri demanded. “Excuse me, you can’t just throw that out there unexplored. I know you’re not a counselor, Nerys, but that’s a very clinical phrase to casually drop into our discussion!”

Kira grit her teeth. “It isn’t ‘casual’! He thinks the Federation is going to kill him; he thinks they’ve put him on an M.O.D.!”

“He’s paranoid.”

“I’m not so sure!”

That made Ezri pause. “Do you have a specific reason you believe him? What have you found?” She knew better than to think Kira would have ignored any facts available. Ezri wasn’t yet convinced, but she was certain Kira was.

“Small crew, all of them with grievous missteps on their records within the last five years,” Kira explained soberly. “And all of them were volunteers. All but Dr. Bashir.”

There was no standard definition of an M.O.D.; the very existence of such a “program” remained in question. However, what Kira had said fit the rough parameters, a whispered understanding. “Are you sure he didn’t volunteer?”

“He says he didn’t. I asked around; until only a month ago, he was slated to be on a vessel transporting biomedical materials near Hanoran II. Suddenly, he was reassigned to surveil the Gorn. I’m not sure if news has gotten as far as Vico 5, but there’s been more activity than usual along that particular border,” Kira continued. “I think he’s telling the truth.”

Ezri’s expression was dire. “And you… you sent him away?”

“What?!” Kira bellowed. “You—you’re the one who told me to!”

“Not if he was being sent off to die! Who, what, do you think I am?!” Ezri held up her hands to the sides of her head, as if to stopper nine lives of howling. “I thought he was just going to interrupt our vacation; I’m not a monster, Nerys!”

Kira shared her panicked expression. “And I, I didn’t know it at the time, either! I’m not—you don’t think I would?! No, he told me—he told me afterwards, and no, I’m not abandoning him. It’s Cardassia for now, but we’ll find something. I have people investigating other options.”

The Trill still looked appalled. “But he knew it was an M.O.D. You said he knew.”

One nod.

“Then he knows what’s going to happen.”

“That’s what I said, he’s depressed. But we’re not going to let him just… I don’t know, give up.” On this, Kira was firm. “And sending him to Cardassia is part of that. And if you’re willing to have that be a topic of conversation during our time together, we can maybe workshop a reasonable solution ourselves. I’ve already told him that Bajor will take him if he resigns from Starfleet.”

“So would his mother. It might not be the worst thing in the galaxy for him to reconnect with his parents.”

Kira shook her head. “Nothing that’ll run the risk he ends up in the Institute.” She gave a little laugh, a little levity. “I mean, Garak’s too busy to break him out of prison again.”

Her companion hadn’t found it nearly so humorous. “I’m not sure he’ll have time for him now, either.”

“Garak? He’ll make time.”

Ezri attempted to keep an even keel. “He shouldn’t.”

“Ezri, for crying out loud.”

“I mean it,” Ezri maintained. “I can’t say I agree with everything that Garak’s done as the son of Tain, but he’s playing an important role in the political redevelopment of the Cardassian Union and its aligned powers. The last thing he needs is a human tar pit.”

“A tar pit?”

“A tar pit. A pit of tar. A giant hole where you throw goodwill, time, energy.”

“That’s your entire career, isn’t it?” A little cutting, a shade too dark.

A wry smile, small and gently snide. “No, actually.”

“Sorry.”

Ezri shrugged, and meant it. She even gave a laugh herself. “It’s that you’re too quick, Nerys. You see the opening, and you go for it. It’s one of the things I like about you, like, 85% of the time.”

A middling compliment that Kira chose to dismiss rather than evaluate. “You don’t think he can help?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. If nothing else, you’re right, it’ll probably be different. The rest of us have eight straight years of failing—more if we’re counting cumulatively—so it’s as good an option as any. Maybe Cardassians know something we don’t; it’s happened before. They certainly have a strong community dynamic, and that’s something that’s often helpful in these situations. I don’t know if that’s something he’ll be able to access, necessarily, but there’s always a chance.”

Kira chewed the sentiment. There was some truth to it. She was amazed at how intense Cardassian relationships could be: families, friends, even enemies. Even to the very end, she was never able to make Damar personally critical of Dukat, not even in the grimmest circumstances. Phenomenal loyalty. Even the matter of Ziyal had left that bond intact.

Perhaps, Kira reflected, not altogether healthy.

Ezri was waiting for an answer.

“He… he will try,” Kira managed eventually.

“Yeah.”

“… Ezri?”

“Yes?”

“… If he ends up needing our help,” Kira said slowly. “You need to… understand that I’m going to do that.”

Ezri reached out and put a hand on Kira’s shoulder. “Of course, Nerys. Of course I understand.”

“Will you?”

“No.”

Kira sighed. She looked into Ezri’s eyes. Her gaze was steady; she kept it for a while. “Why? Why hold onto it for so long? He made a mistake, and I’m not excusing it. But doesn’t it feel pointless, Ezri? You? You’ve done well. It doesn’t appear that what happened has stopped you from becoming who and what you wanted to be. I know perfectly well that desire for vengeance, that punitive need….  After a while, it’s exhausting. The taste not as sweet as when you started.”

Ezri rolled her eyes and withdrew the touch. “Now who’s the counselor?”

“What is it, Ezri? What is it really?”

“You really want to know?”

That earned her a look. “Do I want to know? Yes? Yes, I want to know.”

“The truth is, it doesn’t have that much to do with Julian. Not personally.” She worked the words over on her tongue. She was cautious on the topic, particularly since Kira’s concern was very immediate, and Ezri’s more abstract. “I mean, he never really apologized. Not properly. And he does owe me that. But more than anything, it’s just…. It was the entire situation, Nerys. It never should have happened.”

“The files—”

“No. Not the files. The everything. Everything with Worf, everything with Julian, those things shouldn’t have happened. I don’t expect you to understand Trill joining. Only joined Trill ever really do.” She sat down on the side of Kira’s bed. She needed all the energy she could muster, and it was easier not to stand. She clasped her hands together thoughtfully. “I was—am—Ezri. And I am Dax, with all that entails. But Ezri Dax is a new organism. There’s… a lot to figure out. It’s confusing. You get born again, and at least half your feelings—they’re not yours. They’re echoes. Somebody else that you once were.”

Kira sat down beside her. Times like these were a stark reminder that listening could itself constitute hard exertion—particularly with Ezri, as with Jadzia, when there were always a few more figures present, shadows, and unseen.

“I didn’t come about under the best of circumstances. Ezri had never expected to Join and, though we know that the process is a little more flexible than the Commission advertises, she hadn’t been prepared. She inherited a… conflict. From Jadzia.” She sucked in air from between her teeth. This was the hard part. “And I should have been protected from that. And… nobody did.” And the drop. “You should have.”

“You’re angry—at me?

Yes, a nod. “I was born into a war, Nerys. Like you. But I was put to the cause as abruptly as a solider of the Jem’Hadar. I was placed in a position where my confusion made me vulnerable. And you… you let that happen, almost uncritically.” She closed her eyes. “I know you wanted me to be part of the family you made here on Deep Space 9. And I am. But I shouldn’t have been.”

Oh, the draining color…. Ezri had been right to demand reaffirmation for the request, provide a last opportunity to withdraw. This was something Kira had never wanted to hear. Too late now.

“So when you say, ‘Ezri, it was only a couple years, and a long time ago.’ Well, they were among the first years of my life—you know that. And, to this day, a significant proportion. Ezri Dax is only nine.”

“I…. Could you not phrase it that way?” Kira begged. That was a matter they’d touched on before. She was much more accustomed to Jadzia’s comfortable “300”.

“Normally, okay. But I feel like that’s important in this specific context. I feel….” She had rehearsed this conversation in her head a thousand times to quite an audience. Still, it did not emerge as an easy recitation. “I feel that my romantic engagements were rubber-stamped by people who should have cared more, and known better. And, before you get upset with me, or claim I’m giving you too much responsibility, it’s not really you…. I just think that the Federation has the wrong attitude about this sort of thing. Like, it came from a place that originally meant well… I hope. But it fails in its ability to identify and address… well, predatory behaviors.

“I mean, on one of my recent assignments, I spoke to a crewman who had recently graduated from a Starfleet vessel where a resident of the ship—no one enlisted, but a friend of the captain and senior staff—was in a relationship with a woman only two standard cycles in age. She was from a short-lived species, but… her partner, he was not. Even taking into account varying lifecycles, that crewman—a person who had been her friend before she passed—believed that the administrative oversight was… glaring.

“And when the Betazoid ambassador was on the station and her, hrmm, empathic abilities were affecting us—excuse me, you and Jadzia—it was taken largely as a joke. I mean, based on what you told me… you were lucky Benjamin was there.” Sisko had been close with Curzon, close with Jadzia. Ezri hoped—no, more than that, believed—that if he had known more about what was developing with Worf and Julian, he would have done her a similar favor.

“You’re right. He did,” Kira confessed. “And I didn’t. For you.”

Ezri untangled her fingers, revealing her palms. “You even got the Prophets to tell you it wasn’t going to work out with Shakaar!” She smirked. “And why not? You’re not Federation; I guess you get a free pass from all the ways they drop the ball.”

Unfortunately, Kira could not accept the generous segue. Was that something I should have done? She glanced down at Ezri’s open hands. And here was peacemaker Nerys. “Ezri, let it go….”

“I mean, the Federation is so self-congratulatory about the ‘freedom’ that its citizens enjoy in this respect that it dismisses, even depresses, valid critique. We’re discouraged from thinking critically about lopsided situations, the Federation’s extreme permissiveness swamping even massive conflicts of interest and grossly unequal power dynamics. As a result, we just… accept things we shouldn’t. Like Curzon, selecting Jadzia.

“You know, he—and I can feel it, Nerys, it’s in me, I know it too—he blackballed Jadzia’s future with the Commission when she was a student. His rationale was convoluted, but it originated from a physical desire that he knew was inappropriate. And this injustice was only ever ‘remedied’ by his donating a symbiote, the passing of Dax. But… as a result, Curzon was provided access to a body he had no right to experience. I mean, in a very different way, but the later behavior of Jadzia Dax was influenced—substantially—by the inclusion of Curzon and his memories, and this being external to Jadzia and the person she had been independently.”

That caused Kira’s nose to wrinkle, even more than usual. “And the Commission executed no oversight, I take it. For this, I mean.”

“Right. I mean, and if I brought it up, I don’t think anyone would listen. I don’t think anyone would care. They wouldn’t get it. They’d ask if it were experienced as a trauma, or was something Jadzia felt was ‘traumatic’. And if they interviewed her contemporaries, people would say—oh, Jadzia? Traumatized? Absolutely not, she was enjoying every moment; it was the time of her life. Yet, Curzon’s choice represented a huge violation of and impression on her essential nature, with his full knowledge and not a single pip of forewarning. In many ways, Curzon’s infiltration was more sinister than Joran’s, yet the Commission only took action on the latter. There just doesn’t seem to be an understanding of how exploitative these behaviors can be, and how much they affect the experience of people living in the Federation.”

“… Oh. That’s… more involved than I realized.” All these years, and she’d thought it had been about the files. She’s still angry about the files, Kira reassured herself, desperately. What’s that human expression? Trees before vistas.

Ezri barely noticed. This track had been laid long ago, and now the engine was at full bore. “And then you see it, and just…. It’s this huge gap in our discourse and our understanding. And any time someone tries to broach it, they get lumped in with…. Ha ha, remember Worf? On Risa? Did you ever hear about that?”

Kira almost choked. “I. I saw pictures.” Her voice cracked. “Of Quark.”

Now that got a roar, a solid onomatopoeic haw-haw. “Oh man, is he on the station? I’m glad we’re not Ferengi, I’ll grant you that. … I wonder if he ever met up with Pell again. She always had good lobes, enough to keep him on his toes, that’s for sure.”

Good grief. They were laughing. Thank goodness they were laughing.

… And it quieted. But still, the atmosphere—just a smidgen lighter. “I… I don’t really blame him,” Ezri said, her tone measured. Careful. Cautious. Not overly-conciliatory. “Julian, that is. I mean, him specifically. He’s a product of beliefs I… really think the Federation needs to revisit in more detail. Looking back, there was a lot in his conduct, particularly as a doctor, I find disturbing. But to be honest, it was rarely outside of what appears almost conventional Federation mores, and certainly none of it was actionable by Federation precept. Under those circumstances… I don’t know.”

That was surprising, a bona fide turnabout, at least in Kira’s assessment. A more amenable direction than she’d realized. (A quick prayer of thanks, silent, but heartfelt.)

 “But just to be clear, Nerys, no. I won’t help him. I understand where his behavior comes from. I even pity him to an extent, given that introspection is not exactly his forte. But it is not my responsibility to interact with him, and to the extent that I feel uncomfortable around him, I need you to respect that.”

“Of course I will, Ezri. Absolutely.” She pressed her hand against her chest, punctuating the oath.

“Thank you.”

“And Ezri?”

“Yes?”

“Ezri, I am really sorry.”

The Trill bobbed her head for a few moments, as if juggling a thought between a few performers. Eventually, she grinned. “It’s all right, Nerys. I forgive you.”

 

//

 

“It most certainly is convenient,” the Tellarite agreed boisterously. Such energy was not surprising, given what she’d told Julian during the final leg of their trip. Her career? A teacher, naturally, possessing all the irrepressible habits like a very lovely curse. “And it keeps things standardized, and hon, they do love things standardized.”

Julian noted several smooth benches and no windows. Like all Cardassian interiors, dark. He couldn’t rightly consider it a planet’s best foot forward.

She gestured in a wide circle, as if she had to explain in unambiguous terms the notion of a room’s perimeter. “So they beam you down here from the ship, right to the waitin’ area, and then when you’re ready, you head on over there”—another gesture—“and they’ll run a scan, pull up yuh records, ask a few questions sometimes. It looks a lil’ imposing, but it’s nothing serious, darlin’. After that, they’ll hand you an identification card and direct you to a transporter pad, take you right where you need to go. Easy-peasy, done in a minute. You got your itinerary?”

“Oh, I…. I’m headed to the capitol.” I assume?

“That’s wunduhful, dear. They’ll have you there in a jiff. Any other questions for your first time on Cardassia?”

He smiled. Small miracles. “You’ve made this a lot easier, thank you. I can tell you’re a little… better at planning.”

“Oh don’t worry, hon! Have fun!”

Have fun.

Chapter Text

He couldn’t fault the shine, but the viscosity was somewhat alarming.

Well, if a customs agent can afford lip gloss, things can’t be too bad.

She was pretty.

That lip gloss, though….

“Federation?” she asked.

“Hmm?”

“Federation citizen?” she clarified patiently. Human males: in her experience, not especially bright.

And there were those nerves again. “That’s not a problem, is it?” He’d weathered prison camps, war-torn bivouacs, and outright slaughters, but still found the domesticated sense to fear customs officials and their many mysterious powers.

She chuckled. “No, not at all, Doctor Julian Subatoi Bashir. It is simply that in the Cardassian Union, we take documentation very seriously. We employ forms unique to every government with which we maintain diplomatic relations, as well as procedures for those who are acting in an independent capacity.”

Relief that demanded a sigh. “Oh, now I remember… record-keepers.”

“Yes, very much so,” she replied pleasantly. “Additionally, the info that you provide us with today will be included on your mandatorily-issued personal identification card, as well as the integrated data crystal. That data crystal can be accessed by tapping the senor of any standard padd. Do you have a padd in your possession?”

“I do.”

“Perfect! The data crystal contains flyers, guides, and—most importantly—disclosures. Be sure to review the flyer regarding Cardassian law before arriving at your destination. For example, you will find that activities such as murder are not legal here. By passing through Cardassian customs, you are implicitly recognizing that you intend to abide by this and other laws that govern our society.”

“Other… laws?”

“More than ‘don’t murder’? Yeah, we also have other laws.” She saw the bags under his eyes, and felt a pang of guilt. “A little Cardassian humor, Doctor Julian Subatoi Bashir. You will find that there is little to concern you; the governments of the Federation and the Cardassian Union have many commonalities in matters of law.”

I think Miles would disagree.

“We make a point, through this process, to explicitly detail practices that will not be tolerated, even among visitors, such as the Orion custom of slave trading. This standardized process reduces the risk of insufficient disclosure. Please understand this is not intended as an offense to you; we pride ourselves on our transparency, thoroughness, and splendid bureaucracy.”

This is Garak’s planet all right. “Of course, and I appreciate the clarification.”

She keyed in a few extra symbols—goodness knows what, the screen wasn’t facing his direction—and began to read. “One moment, please.” She turned back to him for a short moment. “Just that I am reading this file, Doctor Julian Subatoi Bashir, nothing to worry you. Everything is quite all right.” She gestured to her own smile with one grey finger. “It’s all right.”

Great. Now she thinks I’m stupid.

He was not wrong.

“… Oh. This is, um. Hmm.”

“Is there a problem?”

“Problem? Oh, um. Hmm…. I… I wouldn’t say that there is a problem. Everything is correct, and as such there cannot be a problem. Where exactly are you going today?”

“I, um. I’m intending to see Councillor Elim Garak. In the… capitol? If that’s where he lives?”

Her eyes narrowed in something resembling suspicion, but would be more properly characterized as concerned confusion. “I suppose that would… make some amount of sense. Would you mind if I brought someone over for a moment?”

Oh, shit. What was in that file? A file on him, Dr. Bashir, assembled in the Cardassian Union? Doctor Bashir: Incredibly Bad Friend. Doctor Bashir: Treat With Extreme Prejudice.

In retrospect, he couldn’t imagine Garak doing anything so mundane.

Before he had a chance to respond, the woman spoke into a small device on her wrist. “Niiami, could you come over here, right now? There’s something I would like for you to verify.”

Verify?!

Luckily, Niiami was, apparently, operating a line only a few booths over. Whoever she was processing would be made to wait. She appeared only a year or two older than the other, dressed in the same uniform.

“Here, Niiami, look at this,” Julian’s customs official whispered, pointing to a field somewhere in the upper left of her primary screen. “Have you seen that before?”

“On a human? That’s certainly… unconventional.

“I know. And here, look at this.” She tapped on the screen several more times.

“Woah. Woaaah. Woah, no way.” That was Niiami.

“Yeah, I know, right?!”

“That’s crazy.”

“That’s what I thought!”

“No way can that be right, right?”

“I mean, I don’t know. Why would it be wrong?”

“Have you asked him?”

“No, not yet.” She looked back to Julian. Then to Niiami, as if for support. Then, yes, back to Julian. “Do you know why… you would have a record this old?”

Weird question. “How old do you mean?”

“Pre-war?

That question came as almost a relief. “Oh, um, actually I worked on Terok Nor after it was converted to Deep Space 9. I dealt with Cardassian citizens off and on as the Chief Medical Officer aboard.” Something about the memory was… warm. He smiled, and looked ten years younger for it.

Another look back to Niiami. “Aaaand… do you know… why it would have been created by Enabran Tain?”

Colder. Colder memories, dark and deep and infinitely bitter. Hard crash. “Ah. That. I did… interact with Tain on several occasions. I was… the doctor at his deathbed, actually.”

The officer nodded. “I see, I see….” She rubbed her lips together, smudging the unpleasantly thick mixture that coated them. “And you did say you were headed to see his son, Councillor Garak, correct? Does that mean—”

Niiami was the one who interrupted. “++++++++++++!!” The phrase was untranslatable—either too modern or too vulgar for Julian’s universal translator—however the sharp, sudden, and severe punch in the arm for her companion was interpretable in any language. “Yerana, +++++++ get him through processing! Why the +++++++++++member of the Detapa Council++++++++++DIPLOMATIC! +++++++++going to lose our jobs!”

Julian held up his hands. “It—it’s okay, really—”

“Thank you!! Have a great day!! Enjoy Cardassia!! Great respect!! Thank you for visiting!!” That was Niiami in full retreat, the prompt evacuation sprinkled with several stiffly spine-wrenching curtsies. He couldn’t believe how quickly she could march backward. That was a woman who knew how to make an escape.

Yerana stared desperately after. Niiamiiiiii. “I… I think the point that Niiami was intending to make was, Cardassia is going to be… a great experience for you!” She began rapidly punching… well, something… into the entry-board of her computer. Her fingers flew. “Of course, entitled to, expedited—I hope that you are feeling well, Doctor Julian Subatoi Bashir—uh, this time of year…. And from what I have heard, they have erected many new amenities in the Tarlak Sector of Cardassia City. This will have you there immediately.” There. Basically words.

Enabran Tain is dead. Enabran Tain is extremely dead. It hardly matters if he’s the one who made the first entry.

Doctor Bashir: my son’s only friend. Doctor Bashir: my son’s brave friend.

(Maybe. Back then.)

Now it was Julian’s turn to present a look of pity. “I guess that name has retained some clout. Don’t worry. Mine doesn’t. This is just a social call.”

She shook her head, disrupting her carefully positioned braids. “Oh, no trouble, no trouble Doctor Julian Subatoi Bashir!” She handed him a card, lapis blue. It displayed his name in raised letters, primarily in phonetic Kardasi, and secondarily in Roman script. A nice courtesy. “Please find your transport pad behind me and to the left, along the corridor lined in complementary blue. Your card will endow all privileges appropriate to a diplomat of your status. You will be hassled no further, and I sincerely apologize for my inappropriate behavior. Of course, you were never meant to be subjected to the indignity of questioning. I am, indeed, very sorry, Doctor Julian Subatoi Bashir.”

It had been a while since he’d received that sort of treatment anywhere. He turned the card over in his hand. No, not lapis. Cardassian blue. Their favorite. Not far from the blue of his uniform, actually. A very appealing color to their eyes. Hah! Perhaps that’s all it had ever been. Doctor Bashir on the station, the human in blue.

There had been other humans in blue.

“This card?” he asked. “Through the hallway there?” He pointed to the passage lined, extremely conspicuously, in the cold, kind color.

All right, so she’d come around to believing he was important and stupid. He thought it wrong on both counts, but today, he’d take it.

“Yes, Doctor Julian Subatoi Bashir. That is the correct passageway. There will be a dedicated transport operator available who will input your preferred coordinates. Your card indicates that you possess the right to travel without restriction. As the Detapa Council is currently in session, you are most likely to find Councillor Elim Garak in the Tarlak Sector of Cardassia City. If you would like to travel to the capitol building directly, you may specify that to the operator; however, for security reasons, we are not able to transport directly inside the building. Is this acceptable to you?”

The Tellarite had been correct, provided the universal translator had gotten “jiff” correctly. “That is very much appreciated, thank you. I am grateful for your help; you have been perfectly professional.” That was more to ease Yerana’s fears, and ideally Niiami’s as well.

“If there is anything—anything at all—that you require, simply show this identification card to any public servant or officer of the law, and they will come to your aid. Thank you again, sincerely, again, and welcome to Cardassia!”

 

//

 

Well, that could be a postcard right there.

Welcome to Cardassia. Did you bring a camera?

Obviously, the Capitol will have been renovated, Julian told himself. Maybe even rebuilt. If they’re making a point about Cardassia changing, they’re going to change the architecture. That’s just good sense. And entirely what Garak would advise. He did always stress the importance of aesthetics….

Ah, and a few of the points rounded off. … Or at least, balanced by more traditionally graceful and somewhat less threatening shapes.

(Just like the interior of Deep Space 9, now that he thought about it. Rounded. Soft. Don’t hurt yourself. Can’t hurt yourself, even if you try. No sharp edges. “Family-friendly,” and pancakes at Morn’s.)

He paused, permitting a cautious transition from evaluation to appreciation. Indeed, it was… stately. Quite a lot of glass, there, dissection puzzles of phenomenal intricacy. Blue, of course. Of course they’d do it in blue.

Blue upheld in vaulted grey—a pleasant, light grey. Glaucous grey. Perhaps someone got the memo about how other cultures—particularly dominant Federation cultures—had felt about the blacks and slates. Of course, given what Julian remembered from ancient poems and merely old novels, Cardassians had a very different impression. Darkness was safety. Dark was calm. Night was rain, prickling moisture. Flickering phosphorescence of bioluminescent growths and sedately slinking creatures.

Cardassian night… something about it had piqued his imagination, many years ago. He’d meant to see it someday and then he’d just… forgotten.

(You didn’t forget.)

And the landscaped plaza? A lovely embrace laid out in terraced turquoises and greens. Yes, very nice. Well, perhaps. Julian had seen photos, read descriptions, of the old capitol grounds. These were considerably more… open. The planting was extensive, but nothing was conspicuously mature—nothing that seemed to necessarily precede the war. Mostly young, pebbly ground-cover and… what were these, ferns? That is to say, they wouldn’t be ferns. Not exactly.

He approached one and rubbed a leaf between his fingers. Waxy. It made sense. Moisture retention.

Oh great, now I’m the tourist massaging all the plants. For all I know, it’s a capital crime. Remember that case study they gave you, about the kid on the Enterprise-D?

He took a glance around, this time for the animal and not botanical. Yes, as he would have suspected, there were guards posted here and there. A few were giving him an eye, but they said nothing, and they did not approach. Perhaps they were accustomed to the varied curiosities of alien races. Perhaps an Andorian would be evaluating the tilework (artfully laid but rather unimaginatively patterned). A Denobulan might think something of what Julian could recognize as sculpture of the Cardassian aesthetic. Public art! And only eight years after a war.

Garak maintained that they were artists. Nothing more irrepressible than art….

And a sky tinged with gentle violet. Dusk sliding into evening.

He wasn’t sure if the scent in the air was necessarily “dusky” for Cardassia. It had a strange, earthy omnipresence, like an old quarry. Stone and anticipation. The most minute hint of wisteria.

He’d expected it to be hotter. Rather than make a beeline for the transporters while at the intake facility, Julian had requested the privilege of the privy. Among other things, he believed it better to have explored Cardassian “facilities” in a relatively low-risk environment. By the time he arrived on Deep Space 9, a few “comfort conversions” had already been made. And certainly, in the prison camp, well, they didn’t have the preferences of any particular species in mind. What would he find?

A human toilet. Bizarre.

Were there really enough humans travelling to Cardassia to justify the permanent installation of the crass alien thing? He supposed that it might be for the sake of the janitors, weary of mopping up a range of human errors.

He’d taken grateful advantage, of course, and also—with what he had presumed was foresight—changed into plain trousers and a breezy top of soft grey-green.

And now this! What happened to those descriptions of a blistering surface? It was… Risian beach weather. Which, if anything, left him feeling a little exposed.

The passing Cardassians he observed were certainly comfortable with a few more layers, but no one appeared especially bundled either. High necklines, certainly, but no thick knits.

He did feel a touch under-dressed, particularly given his naked forearms. He considered pulling a uniform top from his bag, but dismissed the notion. Among other things, he thought it might come across as a tad suspicious to be rooting around in his pack, however modest, on Capitol grounds. Then again, he doubted any mischief-maker would have arrived in such conspicuous dress and immediately started fondling the plants.

One of the guards in particular was giving him the eye. Practically an invitation, really. Julian accepted the excuse to approach.

“Excuse me,” he said with a mild—and, with any luck, polite—smile. “Would you be able to help me?” He pulled the identification card from his pocket, offering it forward for inspection as per Yerana’s instruction.

The police officer’s eyes bulged slightly. “Ah, and how may I assist you?” He discreetly deactivated the stunner in his wrist-guard. He’d take a straightforward shanking over the discipline that would come from having struck a man with a diplomat’s card.

“Truth be told, I…. I think I might be lost. I mean, not lost-lost, I just don’t know where to go. I’m looking for Councillor Elim Garak. Do you happen to know anywhere that I might find him?”

The man worked the side of his mouth with a gloved thumb. Skeptical, but amenable. “It would be my privilege to direct you to the offices of our civilian council members. Please follow me.” He stopped after a few measured paces, considering his words with obvious apprehension. “And please allow me the honor of carrying your purse.”

“Well, it’s actually….” You know what? Sure. “An honor. For me as well. Thank you.” He handed over his bag, which the offer took with a respectful nod.

“Are you separated from an interplanetary entourage?” The man asked. “Or, should we be looking for a person who may be assigned as your escort?”

Julian shook his head. “No, I don’t believe so. I came alone.”

I told her, I said, “This is just a social call.”

It had been a mildly ego-boosting thrill, the first time. Now it felt like a setup. Oh, Dr. Bashir? He could still remember Garak’s voice. Playful, always. Sometimes sweet. No, he’s no one. How very amusing that someone thought to give him a diplomat’s card! Why, did you know he was assigned an important diplomatic mission, once? Oh yes, this was long ago. He got Kimara Cretak killed. Wonderful woman, truly stellar. Very dead. My dear doctor, do you remember?

Do you remember, my dear?

No. Never only “my dear”.

Chapter Text

“I am afraid that I am not authorized to proceed beyond this point without prior notification,” the guard explained, cautiously offering Julian the return of his pack. “However, this wing contains the on-site offices of members of our civilian government’s ruling party. I am not authorized to know the exact whereabouts of any specific member of our council, but anyone beyond this point will be in possession of additional permissions and be able to assist you further.”

“You can’t come with me?”

“I apologize, representative. I am not authorized to do so at this time.”

Julian reclaimed his bag, to the guard’s obvious relief. “… You’ve been very helpful. Thank you.”

“Of course, Doctor Juli Ansubat. If you become lost, please remember to exhibit your identification card. Any citizen will gladly direct you to a public servant or keeper of the peace who may be able to assist you.”

 

\\

 

Based on a superficial assessment of spacing and hallway configuration… yes. As far as Julian could tell, members of the Detapa Council possessed identical professional accommodations. Same size, same orientation, same door. Down to the complete lack of any kind of signage. Maddeningly Cardassian, that.

Still, based on the painfully, almost laboriously, precise instructions he’d received, his selection was correct. (These they’d kept black, which he found interesting.)

“Um, excuse me, hate to trouble you, is that—is that Councillor Garak’s office?” Julian broached, pointing to one specific door, identical to every other aside from its count (fourth down, once you passed by the courtyard, took the left corridor to its terminus, then a right, then up the stairs, then up the second set of stairs). He held up his card, in case it helped, although he assumed that his presence in the building had effectively established his rights. He didn’t get the sense that anyone meandered in uncontested.

The Cardassian looked up from his padd. He’d been sitting on a plain bench—a padded cantilever jutting from the wall, subtly classy despite its perhaps excessively minimalistic touch—reading an article in large type.

Bad eyes, perhaps. He had heard reports of Cardassians blinded or visually afflicted from blast radii and superheated dust, owing to the tactics of the final hours of the war. An easy fix, with Federation medical technologies.

“It is.” And missing a tooth, as well. Disheartening. That would be even easier.

It was part of a disturbing pattern. Thick gouges, scarred over in buckled scale. Missing tips of two adjoining fingers. Such simple operations! He’d have to slip Garak a few data crystals, if this was how it was. He had violated information security procedures before, and besides, what was one more slam on a damned man’s dossier?

You should have been more skeptical of the capitol building, Julian. Remember, fraught empires, fraught nations… have beautiful exteriors.

Oh well. He did not possess the proper equipment. Not even for a tooth.

He approached the door and pressed his palm against the surface. Dead cold.

Cold, on Cardassia…. No, not quite. Not cold. Slick with perspiration, smooth and glassy. But the sensation of cold? That was a phantasm. (A shock, still, every time, to be reminded of how readily a body and a brain would conspire to deceive.)

He turned his head, scoping for a further affirmation. “Can I go in?”

The mad nodded wordlessly.

Why did his arms feel so weak? Julian’s weight—and it wasn’t much—would have to do the work. It felt sufficiently passive, just to lean.

The door was heavy, but the hinge was so artfully actuated, so perfectly machined. A magnetic track: marvelous. Integrated elegance.

“Another sector, then, perhaps—”

A woman’s voice.

Not a young woman. No, an old woman, bedecked in the many heavy drapes and folds representing the very most gravitationally oppressive and conservative fashion.

One of two, actually, each sitting in a chair facing the desk, and behind that desk—oh, it was—

A posture that said proper, an outfit that said strict, and a face that said, that said… how in the world did you get in here?

“E-excuse me….”

Flanked by the two women—grey gargoyles each with hair in a dozen slick twists—he looked almost young. No, not young, just not as old as Julian had expected. Eight years had worn hard on the doctor, and he had projected the same expectation onto Garak, a son coming into the heritage of his father—stout and hoary. Instead, Garak looked very much the same, aside from the deep lines around his eyes, gouged in an almost bruised hue. Despite an entire career’s worth of experience, Julian had never really parsed Cardassian age. He remembered taking a cross-section of Marritza’s femur, positioning a slice under the microscope to chart concentric rings of inconsistent ossification.

—All that, the thought of unauthorized samples, of stolen bone, and he had the audacity to think that above all, Garak was the one who looked sinister.

He thought it, and felt ashamed he had.

 “My goodness, this certainly is a surprise.” The voice, bright. And steadier than Julian had remembered. Perhaps that’s where the age presented: a slowness and a calm.

A contrast to the two women, who would be more properly described as… horrified. Properly aghast.

Julian suddenly realized that decorum would have suggested he wait outside, company to what he assumed was a patient husband (no telling whose). What was the hurry, after all? After eight years, what would be another hour?

“I’m pleased to see that you have arrived on our planet safely. That said, I am admittedly concerned. Rekot was to meet you at the transport hub, as per your itinerary. She’s normally so reliable.” He tapped a finger on his desk. “I sincerely apologize, your Honors. This is Dr. Bashir, a representative from the United Federation of Planets. It appears there has been a logistical upset.”

The women looked to one another, sharing nothing as gauche as a frown. Incursions, however, were clearly unfamiliar to the two, and thoroughly unwelcome.

“Most venerable Archon Ulinar, Archon Quantik.”

“Ah, oh.” Bollocks. “I am most grateful, and, um, most humbled. To be in your presence. Presences.” Blast! His right arm for Niiami’s talent!

“Cardassia is pleased to receive representatives from your government,” one of them managed coolly.

“Do you happen to have a padd on hand, Doctor?” Garak suggested. “I may be able to resolve this matter, and would prefer to do so expediently.”

“Oh, yes. Yes, of course. Certainly.” He eased his pack off of his shoulder, letting it drop inelegantly to the floor. At that, the women visibly startled, a response he chose to ignore, not knowing if there was a polite way to dispel their naked discomfort. It took him only a moment to find the padd, as he had placed it near the top, expecting it to be subject to customs inspection. He placed it cautiously onto Garak’s desk, unsure if it was overly intimate to pass it to him directly.

Garak slid it towards himself with one long draw. “Thank you. Ah, here we are…. Oh, I see.” He rubbed the ridge of his chin thoughtfully, flipping through windows almost as quickly as they generated. He hadn’t requested the passcode, which by his standards, was a deed at the level of a parlor trick. “It seems you had difficulty accessing the correspondence which was sent containing the details governing your arrival.”

For… for fucks’ sakes. I didn’t even think to check my messages. I went to sleep, and then the Tellarian, she just…. Julian began to redden, a reaction he hoped that the Archons, at least, would fail to interpret.

Garak nodded to Quantik and Ulinar. “Thank you both sincerely for your patience. I am grateful to both of you for facilitating my hospitality towards our guest. Starfleet personnel can become easily disoriented outside familiar protocols, and he is making every effort to ascribe by Cardassian principles in addressing the matter, Rekot being of my household.”

They continued to stare at Julian, their elegantly defined eyes, perhaps, more piercing than the councillor’s. “Not at all. It is quite necessary, under the circumstances. We would expect no less.”

“I, I apologize for the bother.” Rekot “of his household”? Rekot, Rekot…. Was that name ever in any of the messages? He nearly rubbed his neck in anxious thought, but pulled back just in time, recalling that the gesture was, among Cardassians, vaguely inappropriate.

“My word! Nothing of the sort. Why, I’m glad you were able to come by so early; it is always better than be late.” He continued inputting data into the padd, his fingers quick and characteristically silent. “It is our pleasure.” He paused, just for a moment, and smiled lightly, cordially, at the Archons. For Garak, inherently conspiratorial. “I have known Dr. Bashir for many years, and he is quite an unusual specimen, among humans.”

Julian knew that Cardassians were far more comfortable with genetic engineering than humans, having no direct equivalent to the cataclysmic Eugenics War, but still it stung. A painful reminder of his key identifier: the foundation of his success, and what had capped it, and corrupted it. So you are angry. You’re just meting out the barbs. The feeling burned. Dammit. I knew better. Eight years. I knew better than to be here.

“He has read—and I daresay understood—every word of Tozak Devoha’s Saga of the Edifice. Your favorite of the epics, Ulinar, is it not?”

“Really? A human?” Her frigid manner gave way to outright audacity.

“Indeed, of all humans I know, he is the most uniquely familiar with Cardassian literature. His presence here is the culmination of years of personal study. Unfortunately, the Federation does not lend out its premiere medical officers readily. This is the first opportunity for him to experience our world firsthand. It is only to my great shame that it has been plagued by such disorder, for which I can only express my deepest regrets.”

At that, Julian froze. The tightening gut of jarring movement, of the ground shaking beneath one’s feet, the dizziness at its worst the moment that it stops.

“And what, pray tell, did you find compelling in the Sagas?” she inquired of the doctor. “I assumed there’d be very little for a human in it.”

“‘My greatest grief is that I have my heart’s desire. To have everything is to be doomed to lose it, for the ideal can only ever topple and decay.’”

She laughed. That was not, exactly, the expected reaction to such a dismal sentiment. “How very interesting. You know, there are the same eight quotes that every devotee of the Sagas will recite. That, however, is not among them. That is quite conventional dialogue, hardly attributable for any but the most retentive scholar.” She shot Garak a look. Impressed.

Garak returned it with a smile. As natural to the councillor as breathing, really.

“And does it have meaning to you?” she pressed.

Falling from apotheosis? You could say so. “A-all of it does. I admit that it’s distinct from the cultural output of humanity. We have, ah, very strong conventions in our literary tradition. Until I became more familiar with Cardassian literature, I hadn’t realized how tightly our stories map to human cultural values and expectations. As a xenobiologist, I was accustomed to—passionate about—learning about other species, physiologically. But it had never occurred to me to bolster that with an advanced awareness of xenoanthropology.” Strange, humans rarely replayed historical or cultural events of alien cultures, or at least it was a relative aberration. Erotic programs, certainly, but that was hardly comparable. There were dozens of iterations on the Viking holo-program, but he couldn’t recall a single time a fellow member of Starfleet selected a Cardassian scenario.

“I was fortunate to meet someone so eager to teach that he would put forward his own world for critique. And no matter what stance I took, or how set in my interpretation, he was always ready with a retort—a springboard—that encouraged me to re-evaluate assumptions in my own thinking. Garak has always been,” he gestured toward him with one vague motion, “very clever. Ah, perhaps that word, perhaps the translator won’t render it properly…. Very intelligent, very… insightful? The right person to introduce and explore the cultural heritage of the Union.”

He wasn’t certain exactly why he was so effusive in his description. Perhaps it was repayment for the embarrassment of having impinged on what was clearly a formal concern. However, he suspected a simpler justification for his choice of words: they were true.

Ulinar leaned back slightly, somewhat more at ease. “Ah, so even the Federation will attest to your feminine reputation, Councillor. It was the same with your father.”

Garak continued to smile. From him, that meant absolutely nothing.

Based on his understanding of Cardassian culture, Julian knew that Ulinar’s comment had been at least in part a compliment. But whether it was a left-handed one, he couldn’t quite discern. Certainly, within the Federation, it would have been loaded, though it would be difficult to explain exactly how or why.

Still, it was difficult for Julian to reconcile his impression of the term and its Cardassian implications.

“My father was tremendously fond of him,” Garak volunteered.

“Is that so?” That was the formerly-solemn Quantik. “As you know, I possessed a high opinion of Director Tain, but do not forget the fatal weakness of his… faith in mixed alliances. You seem to share it, but without his excuse of its novelty. That you emulate his competence is a credit; that you mimic his faults is a sin.”

Garak tapped his fingertips together. “I am well aware of your concerns regarding my role in our cooperation with the Federation, Quantik, your Honor. Rest assured, I do bear them in mind. Indeed, my father was a gracious man, accepting the flattering descriptions of the proficiency of the Tal’Shiar. I assure you, in this respect, I do not possess his charity. Dr. Bashir has been particularly well-vetted, and his presence here does not represent a threat.”

Enabran Tain sets off a war that cripples each of the great powers in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants, and still there are those who will laurel him. I suppose humans and Cardassians really do have a lot in common. Julian maintained his silence, aware that his presence had been a catalyst for something he was better not to touch. But perhaps the Dominion War could not have been avoided…. The attitude of the Founders was incompatible with our existence. Maybe the bloodshed was… inevitable. Not a healer’s favorite thought.

“You could have Rekot take him to Kovollt,” Ulinar suggested. “If he’s interested in culture and literature? Oh, and it’s off-season. It would be marvelous! You know, it is my favorite place to settle in, re-read my favorites. I go there every year, around the end of summer.”

“What an idea! One of my favorite cities, and utterly intact.” He looked to Julian. “Imagine Earth’s Prague, at the end of your second World War. A beloved escapee.”

Julian nodded. I’m surprised that Garak remembers that detail…. He bit his lip. Now if only someone could tell me who in the world Rekot is, I might have some bloody clue what’s going on. It can’t be a child, she’d be too young to act as envoy, and Cardassians don’t adopt…. But it couldn’t be his wife, could it? He’d have told you, wouldn’t he? His gut twisted. Bloody hell, Julian, he probably did. And you probably just binned it like all the others.

No, he thought. Someone would have told me. Nerys would have told me. She’d have said, “Oh, and his wife, she’s a dear….” Some-such.

Of course, if it’s merely a political union, perhaps she wouldn’t have thought it was important enough to mention. Or maybe she just didn’t care. It didn’t matter, as long as I was off Deep Space 9….

“Kovollt!” Quantik snorted. “If only it had been leveled! The infrastructure is an anarchic tangle. Not a single street runs parallel to any other. Naturally, you two would enjoy it.”

“Oh, don’t be that way!” Ulinar contested. “It is a cultural touchstone, a monument to our heritage! Just because you ‘don’t read fiction.’ Pfah. Must you be so tedious?”

“Dears, dears! We have important work to do, and our guest ought not be detained.” He offered Julian the padd, directly, openly. Hand-to-hand. “Here you are: a list of suggestions for the evening, with the addition of an integrated pedestrian navigation program. You can also request a transport at any of the marked hubs. If you are hungry, there are a range of common-use replimats, or—should you have the time—proper restaurants. Far superior to anything on Commander Kira’s station, I assure you. Simply provide your diplomat’s card and the charge will be routed to my entertainment expenses account.”

“Did you add the national museum?” Ulinar asked.

“Of course, of course,” Garak assured her airily. “And Dr. Bashir, when you are finished for the evening, the final item will indicate the location of your accommodations. If you have any difficulties whatsoever, press the purple field in the upper-left corner of your navigation window. That will alert someone to come and assist you.” There it was, that pleasant, even tone.

Julian found it oddly hurtful.

“Please mind the schedule, and I will see you at our prearranged time. Thank you again for coming to me, and I apologize for the confusion. And, of course, Dr. Bashir, welcome to Cardassia.”

 

Chapter Text

The immediate need, having left Garak’s office, was find the first available wall and forcefully press his forehead against it. He mocked the pounding of his fist. Anything to pretend to be frustrated and not simply mortified.

“If you don’t wish for them to see your exasperation, you should not do that here,” the Cardassian man warned him.

“What?”

The man pointed up to the ceilings. “There are cameras.”

Julian suddenly felt even dumber. He was almost impressed that was still possible, given how the day had been going. “… Oh.”

The man returned his attention to his padd and whatever it was he’d been reading.

“Um….” He brought himself away from the wall, finding the structure to stand. “By the way, I hate to, ah, intrude….”

The man raised a brow-ridge, the question implicit: oh, in-deed?

“I just happened to notice you seem to have some trouble with your, with your eyes. Perhaps also…?” He gestured to his own teeth with a tap. “If you happen to have access to any rudimentary medical facilities, any clinics, I might be able to help. I worked on a former Cardassian station and am acquainted with your technology, as well as cutting-edge Starfleet techniques, some of which have been effective on Cardassian patients. Ah! I mean, you see,” he explained, “I’m a doctor.”

“What a coincidence. So am I.”

 

//

 

It was not the worst day Julian had ever experienced. It didn’t break the top ten. Didn’t break the top hundred, really. However, he was more than willing to slide it squarely into the “cursed” pile.

When he’d been young—when he’d been younger, anyway—there was a certain charm in bumbling. Being naïve, being unpolished. Young and awkward? That was almost cute. Middle-aged and awkward, on the other hand, was far less endearing.

It’s because you’re no longer “slow” in piecing it together, he thought. Everyone clues in: you’re incapable.

He could still remember the first time he’d—appropriately enough, slowly—realized someone had that impression of him. Heavy, heavy, and deadly sharp.

The sky from the capitol grounds was a soft bluish-violet. Stars. He could see stars. And in one of the planet’s largest cities! So little light pollution, perhaps limited electrification outside the main—no. Don’t be foolish. It’s their eyes. To them, human illumination is… unpleasant. They’d still probably consider this full daylight.

(Are you hoping that Cardassia is still hurting? Would that make you feel better?)

He looked down at the padd. Just as promised, it listed a variety of opportunities for the evening, a twee little guide. There were memorials, there were amphitheaters. As Archon Ulinar suggested, there was The Museum of the Union. Based on the bullet points provided, it was open around the clock.

It’s probably a propagandist institution so, sure, why ever let it close? There might be a child out there somewhere who doesn’t realize Enabran Tain only failed because he was insufficiently bigoted towards Romulans, Julian thought spitefully. Fucking Cardassians.

He scrolled past each suggestion. Even the restaurants. He’d barely eaten, but the thought of sitting down to enjoy a meal as involved as Garak had described felt… torturous.

I don’t…. I don’t want to do any of this. I just want to lie down. Where are the visitor’s quarters, or wherever it is I’m being warehoused?

He flipped down to the bottom.

Oh.

Diplomatic accommodations? Barracks? Nothing of the sort. That entry specified a residence.

And a label, courtesy of the writer: MY HOME.

And there was that hope again. A painful thing, a spark on wet tinder.

I mean, the Archons were there, so maybe it wasn’t a time he could speak freely. In fact, that did seem likely. The Cardassian justice system was not a notoriously forward-thinking institution, and grey-haired Archons were unlikely to be its most progressive face.

Julian still wasn’t sure about the second line, however. That did throw off the narrative.

I MESSAGED REKOT. SHE WILL LET YOU IN.

A superior human mind meant superior human guilt. There was no way he’d ever read that name before, and he knew it. But by all accounts, Garak expected that he had. It was meant to be familiar; it was meant to mean something. It simply didn’t.

He wants me to be pleased by it… or he wants me to be distraught. The question loomed: which did he expect?

He owes me his life. All right, that was bitter.

He told me his name. That was sweet.

Julian knew that the only way he’d find an answer was head-on. That, itself, was unsatisfying. No… it was intimidating. He was well aware that Garak lied; it was nine-tenths of the story. However, he wasn’t sure if it was ever a setup. That part was never clear. He’d never understood why Garak approached him in the first place. And he didn’t understand what this was, whether it was the punchline or something, perhaps, a little more forgiving.

He punched in the final entry, the residence. The navigator told him the path: approximately 50 minutes walking, or 20 with the use of the nearest transporter hub.

Well, he’d walk. And scratch that, he’d take it roundabout. An hour and a quarter, just to see a few more streets. After all, the route to a Councillor’s home was likely to be prim. Perhaps veering a few blocks off-course would provide a more representative impression.

Chapter Text

“Good evening, Elim.”

“Good grief, Kelas, where are your glasses?”

“Back pocket.”

“You broke them again, didn’t you?”

“As I said, back pocket.” A well-contained narrative, that.

“Well, in either case, it was good of you to join me. Sorry to have pulled you away from MedCen at such short notice.” Garak gestured to one of the two seats in front of his desk, welcoming Dr. Parmak to sit. “Quite a day here in the sector! But I wanted to speak with you as soon as possible. Sooner, as it happens, than this, but there’s nothing to be done about it now.”

“Mm.” He glanced at the chair but neglected to sit. “I have now met your former acquaintance.”

“My friend! My dear friend. You know that, come now,” Garak replied.

“Well, your friend, your dear friend, who has not responded to any communication from you in eight years, seems to be in rather a bad way.”

Garak was perfectly satisfied to set down his pen. Something about a motion, about something to do, that made it easier to control one’s signals, to conceal a natural reaction. Particularly essential when one wasn’t sure what one’s natural reaction would be.

“You have always balked at my distaste for the tales that you relate,” Kelas continued. “I have now met him. Am I at last permitted an opinion?”

That was worthy of a non-committal smile. “Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, Kelas.”

Parmak’s eyes narrowed. “Suffice to say, I am not so very impressed.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I am not so very impressed with you, that this is the nature of your distraction.”

Strong enough to wield a double-bladed axe, Garak thought, his appreciation for it barely blackened by its nature. “Surely you would not judge a man by his first hour on an alien world. He is not Cardassian, Kelas, dear, and such openness was common among the humans who assumed Terok Nor. They haven’t the structure; you can’t blame him for that.”

“To dodge the charge does not commend you. My concern, primarily, is you.” His voice was measured, almost uninflected, and though he could not stand quite as straight as a fresh cadet, he exhibited a firm bearing. Firm? Lithic. “You have a responsibility to the people of the Cardassian Union. That you let yourself be preoccupied by a tenderheart, by pangs brought on by your fanciful little stories, is a galling misuse of the privilege of your station. Hard you worked to scheme a route to the Council; hard you’ve worked to cultivate your political capital. You have goals, and these goals matter. Your distraction is indefensible.”

Garak pressed his hands against his chest, coquettish and cloying. “I’m entitled to my sentimentality.”

“You are not. Not as a prominent councilman. Not as a keeper of the fate of the people. There is a vote tomorrow, Elim,” he said, holding up the article he had been reading on his padd. Still, his planted feet had not budged an inch. “Is your speech prepared?”

Garak rolled his eyes.

“Because it had better be prepared. I would hate to think, the time you wasted, arranging a diplomat’s card on a last-minute basis.” Ah, now there was the inflection.

“That, I’m afraid, is quite a mystery. I had nothing to do with it,” Garak attested. “I assume Starfleet was involved, attached some indicator that would demand special dispensation. I assure you, seeing him here was quite the surprise.” I was considerably less prepared for that.

“And, cunning one, why exactly would I believe you?”

“Because I am nothing if not efficient! He doesn’t need a diplomat’s card. Rekot was supposed to meet him at the hub. What’s the advantage, really, in him wandering about? And you yourself could have sent him in the right direction, if you’d been in a more generous mood.”

Truth, particularly from Garak, often had challenges with credibility, but in this particular case, the point had landed.  “I suppose,” Kelas relented, “very few things, administratively, can be managed in a single day. Not on Cardassia.”

“My strongest defense, I fear.”

Parmak’s gaze scanned the room, albeit rather purposelessly given his impaired vision. “Unless, of course, his arrival was less sudden than you suggest.”

“You can believe me or not believe me on that account as well. I doubt any protestations on my part would meet your standards, Kelas, dear.” There was nothing more to do than issue a smooth dismissal. To explore the rationale in any depth with any honesty… he knew it was beyond himself, and so it he let it go.

Kelas took a deep breath with a strange rattle, suggestive of transpiration pained. That, sadly, came as bluntly physical. “I think you would have selected a more advantageous time, provided you could coordinate so many moving parts across three sovereign entities. Of course, perhaps you limited the extent to which you squandered your effort on a person halfway across known space who was quite content to stay there. I would be gratified to think so.”

“It’s not too late to introduce you as my fiancé.”

“That’s a bold tactic considering he is going to be here, what, ten days? You truly believe that would drive me, rash and fretful, to reconsider?” His annoyance was intentionally bare.

And there a shrug. “You can hardly blame me for trying.”

“It is entirely pathetic how you do this. I do not know what strategies may have worked in your operations as an agent, but I have—as they say—two brain cells to rub together. You try to cultivate these petty jealousies, and not once has it worked. You are addicted to the impression of your own cleverness, but Elim, you play yourself.”

Well aren’t we feeling sanctimonious today?

“And I’d hate to see you try to fabricate something similar for his consumption. You will humiliate yourself ten times as much as in your attempts to snare me, where here I’ve told you no a dozen times.”

“A dozen, really? Well you must be counting some of the soft offers, then. That’s an inflated statistic.” He hadn’t personally kept count, although a part of him imagined the range was not far off. "And it doesn't count if you're in me at the time."

“Use me in your childish games and I will find him and list them off for his evaluation. That should go a long way toward diffusing the impression that there’s a fight to be had, for you.”

Garak had never shared his letters to Julian with Kelas, and he was infinitely grateful having opted for discretion. Otherwise, he’d be subject to an even harsher rebuke, of that there was very little doubt. You’d be galled to see how I’ve described you, then, he thought, somewhat wistful, somewhat acerbic. Considering I told him you were sweet. Of course, at the time, he’d been trying to convince himself just as desperately. Kelas was honest, and sensible, and deeply loyal, but not exactly sycophantic.

“It’s rather ridiculous, Kelas, to ask me to stand for traditional community values, and particularly those of pertaining to family, and then forbid its practice in my personal affairs.”

Kelas frowned. It pulled on the ridges of his face. “This is not Terok Nor. You do not have time to spar, to entertain the thought of dewy escapades. You have a chance to define the future of our government, and the opportunity to cement, even vault, your father’s legacy. But this cannot be done easily. You are working in the light, and against very experienced players—those as smart as you are, Elim, and those smarter. If you stumble, you will fail.”

Garak opened his palms. “Then, perhaps, you could be a little more encouraging. I get more than enough criticism from my enemies without your supplemental dosage,” he remarked somewhat breezily.

“It is my great kindness that I remind you. Consider how many times that we have succeeded only because our adversaries made mistakes of that nature. Safe and victorious, that is what I desire for you.” He nodded his head slightly, all the while maintaining his slow and heavy gaze, something loving but never warm. “And it comes from a place of powerful and sincere affection.”

Garak paused and then steepled his fingers. “Kelas, do you know what defines us? Cardassians, that is to say.” Not “us”… don’t try. No words for that.

“Participation in the census.” Not much one for guessing games.

“Loyalty. None like it in the universe.” He considered his next words carefully. “And regardless of your assessment of the poor thing, Dr. Bashir is a man who saved my life.”

The former point could not be argued. The latter was another matter, and an area where he felt particularly qualified to object. “You do not need to be loyal to a doctor for having saved your life.”

Garak realigned the pen on his desk, matching it properly with the elaborate engravings in its surface. “Ah, well it’s not just that. Besides, the justifications, the exposition… what does it matter? We don’t choose how to feel in this. And beyond that, anything I told you would be a lie…. I have invented several quite amusing, but, perhaps, another time.”

“Eight hundred million Cardassian lives were lost on this planet alone—civilian lives, Elim—because you were not on-hand to investigate the Tal’Shiar. You were Tain’s most trusted, and an expert on Romulan culture. He projected the competence he had come to expect from you onto those who could not perform at your standard. Goodness knows he knew he needed you, he was so desperate to have you again. Sending a Talaxian! Famed assassins! Almost an invitation. Just pretense, an excuse, to beckon you back, to have a talk—all that was needed once the hierarchy had been reaffirmed. If you had not spent your years sulking, or trying to earn back your stripes any way but open discourse, you would have been there to assist.”

This was not a time to smile, even for Garak, who wore it almost reflexively.

“There is no guarantee I would have succeeded,” Garak explained soberly. “I’d been away from Romulus for years, and would have had very little time to assume or ingratiate a character….”

And still Kelas advanced, closing the space. “No need for such humility. But if you like, we can be modest. A five percent chance you’d have succeeded, multiplied by the number who perished? Let me think…. Would you be content to accept the heaped weight of forty million for your little pique?”

“Stick with medicine, dear, not underwriting.”

“Or if you had the strength to contest a single human-sensitized Klingon?”

Garak scoffed. “Well that is just unreasonable! Look at me, I’m not a brawler.” He leaned forward in his seat, unwilling to let the atmosphere press him back. “Besides, the ship contained Commander Sisko. There were deterministic alien forces which affected events in his respect. It may well have been impossible to destroy the ship with him aboard.”

“I don’t want to hear Bajoran mysticism. Not in my presence, not on this planet, and certainly not from you. You’ve assimilated far too many alien values as it is, including their passion for excuses.” Always honest. Never warm. “You have a responsibility to a power greater than the State. You owe it to the people. They have suffered.”

“As it happens, I have done quite a lot for the people, dear Kelas, things which I fear are not for you—or anyone—to know. As an operative, as a Federation ally, as a member of Corat’s rebellion, and here, now, as a member of the Detapa Council.” And in that, properly Cardassian.

“And does that compensate for those you were so near to saving?”

That had been another tidbit, something Garak had learned on the station during one of his discussions with Julian—and then, properly speaking, with Dr. Bashir. Human physicians were discouraged from taking the deaths of their patients personally; it was to be viewed with a distanced, almost disaffected, professionalism. It was, suffice to say, quite another matter among Cardassians. “But doctor, if you are meant to be so dispassionate, why separate the educations of doctors and engineers? In your culture, are you not suggesting they’re equated?” And there had been such a pain in Dr. Bashir’s eyes, then, and the answer was obvious, although the young man had struggled to articulate it himself. You try. They tell you to try. But you can’t. You can’t ever separate yourself from what you might have done for someone.

That was, in essence, Cardassian thought, though only they—heavily, patriotically—had chosen to embrace it. Garak knew that to Dr. Parmak, every loss was kept like a yoke. He was answerable; they all were. Maybe humans couldn’t bear it, poor hotblood things.

“Do you really think your ridiculous, unreciprocated fancy deserves to take priority?” Kelas pushed, forbidding the silence. “You are not winding time in pretty gardens or mending someone’s suit. The man you must be, you still must become. That you hold onto these things is a liability, a threat to the commitment you’ve made to a world in need.”

As if you have any idea. It must be easy to be an honest man, the comfortable linearity of it. “I’ve invited him to my home. He is entitled to my hospitality.” Those words came curt. That was an answer he could give, and that was Cardassian.

Kelas relaxed, just an iota. “Certainly, that cannot be withdrawn. But once that is done, and over, be rid of him. Stop fawning over a fairy tale just because you’re weak to the themes. A vagrant has dragged his way to the last door on the street, don’t be so touched. Be pragmatic, Elim, you do know how.”

At last, Garak leaned back. His spine appreciated the reinforcement. “My father liked him, you know.”

Accepting the signal—bitter attrition, to some degree a mutual surrender—Kelas finally took a seat. “You said your father liked me, as well.”

“Oh, he did! Good grief, you only got three years.” By all rights, you should have died in that camp.

The doctor could feel a missing tooth, two truncated fingers. He could not view such things with such casual amusement. And he never had such fondness for Tain as could be compelled from his son.

Nostalgia like that, Parmak could not quite understand, and was glad of it. His parents had been sensible and affectionate. He missed them dearly, but only as they had deserved. Given, taken, earned. Garak would relate marvelous memories of his father. A shame that they were fake.

The same objection applied to the human, the Dr. Bashir. Loyalty, proper loyalty, was supposed to involve reciprocity—a bond, not a taxis. Without it, it felt there should be a better word…. Servility.

A despicable characteristic to have been instilled in someone like Elim, Kelas thought. An unimaginable thing to do to a son.

“You know, I brought you here to, perhaps, help wear me out,” Garak eventually broached. “Dr. Bashir being in my house this evening. Something to,” he sought the right phrase, “suppress the chemistry. It was kind of you to oblige, but I can’t say I’m sapped quite the way I had hoped.”

“I despise coupling in your office,” Kelas groused.

“Oh? Why’s that? No windows.”

“It’s bugged.”

“Yes, but they’re all mine.”

Chapter Text

Sectors, grids, and per-pen-dic-u-lars. Straight angles.

That’s what he’d expected.

The reality was…. Actually, it’s that he wasn’t far off. But he wasn’t entirely correct, either.

The city was being… reassessed in a grid fashion, that much he’d determined. However, the configuration was not as regular as he had anticipated. Starting at the city planning level, most Federation cities were arranged in a simple grid, squares and rectangles with disturbances only as unique topographical events demanded, curvature only for occasional pomp in aesthetics.

Cardassian cities, despite the reputation of their builders, seemed content to integrate intermittent triangles and hexagons. As such, the horizon was interrupted, and even the most casual meanderer was called to pay attention to his or her route.

They probably did a complex flow analysis, Julian considered. Tried to space it so that traffic averages a certain speed. You wouldn’t need or even want direct thoroughfares, for the most part. Anyone who needs to get somewhere important in a hurry will just use a transporter, and major freight deliveries are done with ships, no roads required. He could see several overheard, although there was nothing to indicate the nature of their cargo. Perhaps construction materials, perhaps food, even pharmaceuticals for all he knew. Corpses! No, dark thought. Besides, Cardassians were borderline reverential towards the bodies of the dead.

The city, at least the part he had observed thus far, appeared to promote pedestrian movement. That and… goodness, he didn’t even know what these were. He’d never seen anything quite like it. Planks with integrated wheels. They seemed to be favored by youths and couriers, who used a marked area just off of center in the streets.

He saw one young man jet by, just a little too close, flashing a cocky smile. Damn. That and a bottle of something sweet….

Ah, but I’m just a novelty here. It’s mockery….

He normally imagined Cardassians as, well, somewhat plodding, but there was more energy among them than he’d anticipated. They were patronizing small galleries, minor shops, most of which were street-level. (He wasn’t sure how much currency was really in exchange.) People stopped in the street and curtsied. And goodness, did they talk! It was a constant, low-level buzz, a rak-tak-tak.

He considered, briefly, turning off his U.T. Something to let him hear Kardasi. Unfortunately, diplomat’s card or not, he wasn’t quite at ease. Too dark. Too strange. Not enough right angles.

Minor wildlife were also waking, a transition from the creatures of the day to whatever roamed the night. There were the Cardassian voles tracking the alleys, of course. Vile little creatures. But there were also insects, or their analogues, and they were hefty, substantive. A few even landed on Julian’s shirt (perhaps a pleasing color) and he allowed it.

Six legs, he thought, observing a member of his creature coterie.  He stretched the fabric, bringing the animal closer for inspection. I guess it makes for a stable gait; I’d expect to find the six-legged array on multiple worlds. Or is the little blighter an invasive species? We’ve exported so much from Federation-aligned planets; it’s hard to imagine we’ve caught every stowaway. Do you like Cardassia, friend?

And then there would be the construction. Always in a narrowly defined space: one of the rectangles, one of the triangles, one of the hexagons that partitioned the city. A building perfect—and new—on either end, and in the middle? Rubble. Or rubble being cleared away. Who ever thought that stone could burn? Some remainders, melted, glassed. Cardassian trinitite.

There were people working, many of them slowly, instinctually. Much to his surprise, they did not appear particularly coordinated, at least not in their regalia; they certainly weren’t “construction specialists” as he was familiar with them. He stood and watched while passersby wandered both onto and away from the site, almost nonchalantly.

They haven’t been assigned to this. They work because they see an opportunity and they have the energy, Julian suspected. And it was not as if the tasks they were performing were specialized. For the most part, he witnessed them moving debris, manually. One fragment at a time in rough grey hands.

Dresden, 1945. Sarajevo, 1995. Seattle, 2063. A people who believed would rebuild.

Something about it struck him as very sad. No complicated feeling, nothing sophisticated or obscure. Just, rather sad.

A default status. Unconsidered. It was a waste of their time, when technology could do it in a blip. There would be blood in those stones, and for what?

Or was that the point, that there would be blood in the stone?

(Liquidators’ medals in monstrous exchange. Remember that? He was so impressed he’d found something so Cardassian in the records of the Cold War. He didn’t understand history as a fantasy…. He didn’t understand what I didn’t want to see. He was proud of my people, and I… wasn’t.)

He saw the same tableau repeated as he made his way to Garak’s residence. Something about it was difficult to interpret, hard to know.

It was not how humans would rebuild a city, these strict cordons, the inside and the outside. What caused one segment to be designated for reconstruction while another languished? Eight years, a ruin?

That’s a bloody good question, isn’t it?

 

//

 

 

TO: COUNCILLOR ELIM GARAK

QUICK CHECK-IN. EVERYTHING GOING ALL RIGHT? HE MAKE IT THERE SAFELY? LET ME KNOW IF YOU NEED ANYTHING. WILL BE ON BAJOR, BUT WITHIN RANGE OF PLANETARY COMM SYSTEMS. WISH YOU WELL.

FOUND SOME OLD FILES ON STATION SERVERS. ATTACHED. I ASSUME YOU HAVE THESE? DIDN’T HAVE TIME TO SEE IF THERE IS ANYTHING USEFUL BUT THOUGHT I WOULD PASS ALONG. KEEP IN TOUCH!

  • KIRA NERYS

 

//

 

TO: COUNCILLOR ELIM GARAK

WHOOPS. FILES ATTACHED.

  • KIRA NERYS

 

//

 

Julian swayed nervously from side to side, weight from foot to foot. According to the navigation software on his padd, he’d arrived at Garak’s home. However, rather shied from the day’s events, he thought proper to double-check before barging onto the wrong turf. With a few deft taps, he accessed the list from Garak containing points-of-interest, which, in each case, included an accompanying photograph. There it was: the final entry, the residence. Easy visual match.

And unlike Garak’s office, it even had a sign: a neat little plaque on the exterior wall. Very modest, discreetly informative. BY THE STATE GRANTED: HOUSEHOLD GARAK [ELIM AND SPONSORED].

All right, Julian, that’s three. That’s three things. It’s got to be the right house: it’s got his blasted name on it. Besides, it says “sponsored.” You know, “invitees, welcome.”

Still, he hesitated.

He walked up to the threshold—an opening in the thick exterior wall—and examined it carefully. Both right and left exhibited subtle slits for sliding doors imbedded in the concrete, both retracted. Another welcome, if he interpreted that correctly.

He peered through.

A front garden.

It’s green.

Curiosity like that could not be repressed. Besides, the plant-fondling part of his day had gone pretty well.

Look at them…. Imagine that in daylight….

The city was beginning to extend some modest illumination to those still out and about, but even with that small concession, Cardassian evenfall was not much for human eyes to go on.

He went to touch one of the blossoms. He had to. Something that beautiful demanded tactile attention. A soft, deep pink, a tinge of mauve. It was smooth… and strange. Genuinely strange.

“Wh-what in the blazes?” He tugged. They’re fake! Fake flowers, Garak?!

“Hey!”

A voice. A woman’s voice!

Damn! I was supposed to wait for Rekot! Damn, damn, dammit!

“Hey, you made it!” It drew nearer.

“I-I’m sorry, I—!”

“Shit! No, I’m sorry, I just… geez, I got bored!”

He finally saw her. She was, predictably, Cardassian. And young, at least she seemed young. Twenty, perhaps? Cardassians and their inscrutable ages! But certainly, if she were his wife—

She really didn’t seem like his wife.

As she approached him she bowed slightly, although it came across as perfunctory and vaguely unnatural. She was barefoot, and her black hair lay loose across her shoulders. Her tunic was shapeless and plain, a rusty orange. He got the impression that she’d turned in for the night, perhaps even forgotten the vigil to which she’d been posted.

“Oh my gosh, I am super sorry. Come on, come in,” she offered. She swept her arm almost exaggeratedly towards the door of the house proper—a construct which appeared to be of comfortable size, but, Julian had to admit, nothing particularly impressive for an established assemblyman.

Then again, he’d been rather surprised by the modesty of Tain’s accommodations in the Arawath Colony. Whatever value Director Tain had lent the Union, it didn’t seem to have paid much. Comfortable, perhaps. But not extravagant.

She waited for a moment and appeared to reconsider something, most likely the nature of her introduction. “I’m glad you could… finally make it?”

“Oh! Yes, and, and you as well,” he assured her quickly, snapping back to the present, not quite landing the transition. “I’m sorry, everything…. Everything on Cardassia is quite, ah, overwhelming? I didn’t mean to be rude. My name is Bashir, Julian Bashir. You can call me Julian, ah, in fact, please, Julian is fine. I’m a doctor from Starfleet medical, part of the Federation.”

Her brow furrowed, disturbing the ridges. “Uh… yeah. I know who you are.”

A bit of Julian’s proper stance gave way, and he rubbed his face with both hands, an agonized draw. Why didn’t I read the messages? Even skim? Dammit, Julian! “You’re Rekot, right?” Please, let that much be right….

“Mm-hmmmmm.” She looked to the side. “Uh, are you okay?”

“I’m… really tired.”

“Let’s go inside then maybe?”

“That… would be great.”

Rekot started back to the doorway, keeping a careful eye on the doctor as she did so. He certainly did look tired; she believed that much. “Can I get you anything?”

Julian shook his head.

“Iiiis that a human ‘yes’ or a human ‘noooo’?” she asked slowly. The universal translator was a robust instrument, but even it could not parse language expressed in that manner.

“Oh. No. No, it’s fine. Thank you. I’d like to set this down,” he said, giving his pack a bump with his shoulder.

“Yeah, for sure.”

She stood by the door and beckoned him to enter first.

What he saw inside was… dismaying. At least, something about it struck him as unnerving, dully hostile. It was quintessentially Cardassian, plain and sparse. The foyer and adjoining gathering space had seating and a few trite decorations, even one or two shelves displaying minor ornaments, but it rattled him, deeply, the extent to which it felt… un-Garak.

It’s not like the Garak you knew. But why would it be? It’s not like your quarters look the same as they did ten years ago.

This is the Garak with a garden of silk flowers. You idiot.

Rekot pointed at the floor of the gathering room. “You can set it down, like, anywhere you want.”

“Right. Yes. Thank you.” He cautiously, warily proceeded into the room and gingerly, excruciatingly, set his pack where she had indicated, almost too precisely. As if anything short of exactitude would be seen as defiance. He stood stark still, his feet planted—pure fear in the thought of moving them.

Where am I?

She crossed her arms, openly uncomfortable. “Uh, okay.”

He swallowed nervously. “I apologize for having missed you at the hub. Uh, I forgot to… I didn’t check my messages, completely slipped my mind. This is all rather… spontaneous, and I haven’t really, you know. Cardassia.”

“Point Kelas.”

“What?” Where’s that?

She shook her head with a gentle I-can’t-believe-this-shit smile. “You have no idea who I am, do you?”

He wasn’t sure if it was even worth trying to salvage. “I, uh… hm.” It ended on a puppy whine, a sorry-I-made-a-mess-in-your-home register.

“No, like, it’s fine. There were a lot of times I suspected. Like, you were never on video call? He’d be like, ‘Oh, sorry, we just missed you, next time though.’ And I believed that, but only for a while. I sort of came around today because it was like, oh, why would he have me go pick him up at the hub, then? Wouldn’t that be super weird and obvious? I guess he thought you’d have time to, I don’t know, try to catch up or something? Go through and hit the basics? And then you’d be all like, ‘Oh, Rekot! It’s so great to finally see you all grown up, wow!’”

That was a feeling. It was known as “called out.” Usually a Romulan move. And Vulcans did it just as well. (The shared heredity, Julian had long suspected, based on repeat experience.)

“I’ve been…,” he tried, aching for a reason. Part of him was furious that something clear and crisp wasn’t forthcoming. Wasn’t he owed that? Some summary of the last eight years, not even an excuse, just something he could say? “Just, completely off the map. And I’m sorry.”

She let loose a burst of air, a quick “pfft”. “It’s not a big deal. Honestly, maybe it’s, like, for the best. I’m on your side, okay? I get it. Now, can I help you?”

He looked off to the side. One plain, generic Cardassian wall. A carved spiral. Terrible. Completely asinine. Art of the lowest order. “I’d like to sit down….”

“Go for it. The seats are lame but they’re actually pretty comfortable. I can put on a teleplay if you want.”

He made it over to the seating, which—as far as furniture was concerned—would have passed as borderline human. At least there was that, no analogue to the ever-looming prospect of the customary Cardassian toilet. He took a seat and found Rekot’s description perfectly apt: lame, but pretty comfortable. “No. That’s fine.”

She went over to a nearby chair, a single module as opposed to the long, couch-like article he’d taken by preference. She pulled back her hair, thinking it rude to have it hanging free. “Kanar?”

“No.” He sighed. “No thanks.”

She tried again. Now she felt on the spot. “I am… I am happy to see you again.”

He could almost meet her gaze at that. His, honey, and hers… of course they’d be blue. “Again?”

“Yeah. I mean don’t get all wigged out; I wouldn’t expect you to remember. We met on Bajor. Well, we saw one another.” She pointed to her right ear, indicating where a Bajoran earring would have been, as if that were meaningful to the memory. Perhaps just to hers. “I was part of the recall, when the government was finally able to bring us back.”

Julian gaped. “I—I remember!”

“Yeah, and Garak signed on to that motion. When it passed, and we were brought to Avenal IIV, he came and got me then,” she explained.

His daughter! Instantaneous relief, so profound he wasn’t sure why he’d been concerned in the first place. It made him feel ridiculous, and yet he was surprised how much livelier he felt for having dispelled his misapprehensions. Even so, he had to pry. “I thought Cardassians didn’t adopt?”

“They don’t. He’s not my father, he’s my sponsor.”

All right, that wasn’t as obvious. “Ah, what’s the difference?”

She shrugged. “I don’t have automatic standing in the processing of his estate. I mean, he assigned me standing in the estate. It’s just that sponsored children don’t inherently have standing in the estate. I don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t make sense to you, since your economy is, like, totally different.”

So she is his daughter, short a minor legal technicality? There again, Cardassians. He could believe it. “In the Federation, we have made every effort to transcend any inherently acquisitive inclinations we might experience,” he said. “Dynastic wealth nearly destroyed many of our homeworlds, including mine, Terra. Estate distributions aren’t a focus for us. We have sentimental holdings, but those aren’t the sort of thing that would ultimately involve… uh….” He wasn’t even certain under whose jurisdiction that would fall.

“The courts. Like, courts of the estate. It’s a specific division, separate from criminal court. You want to hear about it?”

He nodded and then realized his mistake. He clarified. “Yes, I’m interested.”

She reminded him of Garak, she really did.

Rekot sucked in air from between her teeth and then laughed. “Uh, sure, but now I’m realizing I’m not totally sure? Okay, so like, if someone dies they…. Wait, back up. Before you die, you write and file your Estate Petition. Well, your lawyer writes it usually, but anyway. That’s a document that recommends how your assets should be divided when you die. When you die for real, the courts evaluate your holdings. They look at, like, who you were, what you did, your family’s testimony, and your Estate Petition. A team goes through and then they figure out, based on all that stuff, how much will be directed to the State, and how much goes to everybody else. Since I’m a sponsored child, I don’t have the right to testify in estate proceedings, but I can be included in the Estate Petition. That’s the difference.”

“So do you call him your father? Garak, I mean? And ‘Garak’, not ‘Elim’?”

She frowned slightly. “No, I call him my sponsor. Some other sponsored children use ‘mother’ and ‘father’ though. As for his first name, no, that would just be kind of weird. If I’d been younger, maybe.”

She treats it so airily. Just like him. Julian exhaled slowly and leaned back, tallying gravity one minor victory against his depleted reserves. “I ragged him about it, you know…. That we’d gone and left you all there.”

That warranted a smile. “Oh, neat! So he was telling the truth about that one. That’s hilarious, because if you’d asked me, I would have said that one was total bullshit. See, like, I’m glad you did. Obviously. Even if Kelas said it was just to get your attention. I guess he was right too!” She laughed, nearly cackled. Fewer angel’s bells and more hexes of the witch.

“To get your attention”…. He was too exhausted for it, and grasped for a segue. “Kelas? He’s a doctor here on Cardassia, right?” He’d read some of the messages, early ones… in part….

“Geez. Well, now I don’t feel so alone, I guess,” she replied. “Kelas, yeah, Dr. Kelas Parmak? He’s around all the time. He’s Garak’s best friend. He’s smart and he does a good job, I think he’s pretty cool. He’s like my unofficial second sponsor.”

Does that mean… another father? An uncle? Julian would hardly commend having a solitary, one-off father, at least not his particular model, but he felt unusually jealous thinking that Garak was splitting the role with someone else where the young woman was involved.  The same child from Bajor? Human laws might not apply on Cardassia, but that seemed like universal dibs. “How is he, Kelas Parmak? Is he…,” Julian wasn’t sure what he even wanted to know. “Is he supportive?”

What a stupid question.

She shrugged. “Well, he came to my sponsorship celebration. And since then, good. He’s a bit preoccupied though, but he works crazy hours in MedCen. I mean, so does Garak, for the Council, but trust me—he’s always got time for his passion.”

“His ‘passion’?”

“You know, same as with you,” Rekot furthered unhelpfully.

She could tell there was something he’d failed to correctly interpret and mentally assigned culpability to the U.T. “Teaching. You know, you ask him a question about something, and he’ll talk until your ears scab over. Does it in the Council all the time.”

Julian brushed his hair away from his forehead. And there was the exhaustion, the delay. “Personal headmaster. Yes, he’s a very good teacher….”

“Honestly, the dignitaries tend to like it a little better. Meanwhile, when he gets on a roll on the Council floor, Dukat’s always like, ‘aaaaa, shut upppp.’”

“Dukat?!”

“Yeah, she and my sponsor—sorry, Garak—don’t really get along. But she’s the one who actually proposed the legislation to pull me and the others from Bajor, so, you know. I try… I try not to complain. Even though she’s a huge jackass and I wish she’d just resign or whatever.”

She?! “Uh, which Dukat?”

“Vekila. She’s the daughter of a former head-of-state. I thought you knew him? Briefly, anyway.”

Julian groaned. He imagined setting it to words, but couldn’t find them. He just let his breath distill into further groaning—a perfectly efficient transmutation.

Rekot rolled her eyes, though not at Julian. This was pure commiseration. “I know! She’s the worst. Garak thinks she’s all right, but I hate watching her, even on the political news relay.”

I can’t believe they’d let a Dukat anywhere near power! Any family of that blasted idiot who nearly ushered in the destruction of the Cardassian Union?!  He spat internally. He could feel his face contort, even at the thought. Although… perhaps… the same could be said with respect to the son of a Tain….

“She’s like, ‘Raaaargh, the Federation is disrupting our economy’! And Garak’s like, ‘Who cares, we have the cultural and socioeconomic wherewithal to resist their transparent bribery’! And she’s like, ‘You’re incubating a dependency on an expansionist regime you fucking traitor’! And he’s like ‘It’s going to be fine once we hammer it out with the Gorn’!”

Gorn. The Gorn!? That was enough to bolt him straight up in his seat. “Wait, what about the Gorn?”

Rekot sighed heavily. “Oh, they’re all right. They gave us that table.” She pointed to a low table in the middle of the room, something appropriate for alcoholic drinks and tiny plates laden with alien petit fours. “Here, let me turn it on.”

She leaned forward and hit a switch. Fans begin to whirr. Fine white sand inside the table shifted, danced. It was only visible through a few small glass partitions in the woodwork. An odd, thing, certainly—and the most interesting fixture in the room, by far.

Julian could not care less. “No, the Gorn…. What do you know about the Gorn?”

Rekot settled back into her chair. “Oh, they come by and stuff. It’s a political thing. Maybe I shouldn’t talk about it? I don’t know the details, but like… hmm.” She paused, searching for right phraseology. “It’s like a thing we’re establishing. Us and the Gorn. Our societies have a lot in common, and they could use our assistance on some things, and we need them for some other stuff.”

A completely unhelpful description of an alliance. “For… conquest? War? Cardassia can’t be ready for that?” The very notion began to pick at his nausea, the thought of war enough to nearly make him spew.

“Ew, gross. No. Like I said, it’s boring stuff. We’ve got way better resource extraction technology and they’ve got, like, a bunch of planets they don’t really know how to manage, from a resource standpoint? Nobody wants to fucking go to war, that would suck. We’re all fucked up, I thought you probably knew that. That’s half of why we need stuff from the Gorn. I mean, no one’s going to let Cardassians take Bajor again.” For someone raised primarily Bajoran, not much love lost.

Not war. Oh, please, not war. “Then the Gorn…. What are they after?”

Rekot scratched her chest, which to Cardassians, meant nothing. A little odd by human standards. “Oh, they’re, like, scouting some outer worlds I guess, and we’re going to help them mine them properly.”

“And that’s it, that’s all?!”

“Uh…. I don’t know. That’s all I’ve heard about.”

My MISSION OF DISTINCTION…!

“You know, sometimes you guys,” she began awkwardly, her cadence indicating her unease, her fear of stepping out of bounds, “you, um, you mammalian-types. You’re really fucking hard on us. The Gorn aren’t even militaristic like we are. They just get panicky, you know, the Federation and Starfleet have got like a million ships. And even your little ones now, they can warp, they can cloak….”

Julian wasn’t even able to hear her. He’d laid down on the couch, breathing heavily, his vision flashing in fierce, aggressive white. The Gorn. The Gorn aren’t even dangerous. It was a total misconception. I was fine. I was fine this whole time. And Starfleet, everyone, they’re going to celebrate when I get back. They’re going to think I’m a hero. I’m going to be fine. I was never, this—

“Uh, my sponsor’s going to be here in a minute…. I’m going to go send him a transmission, let him know that you’re here. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

And the sand in the table shifted and danced.

Chapter Text

He’d tried to call, but no such luck. Then again, he had reason to doubt that he would have been entirely coherent even if the connection had gone through.

His subsequent message could be considered supporting evidence.

 

 

TO: COMMANDER KIRA NERYS

NERYS!!! IT’S NNOT A M.O.D! CALL ME BACK. EVERYTHING IS OKAY! DON’T WORRY. LOVE YOU BYE!!!!!!!!

--JULIAN BASHIR

 

//

 

Julian did the only thing that made sense after an overwhelming revelation at the end of a long and punishing day: he fell asleep on the couch. He had tried to stay awake, at least for a while, but Rekot had gone off… somewhere… and he felt he’d imposed enough on her time in either case. That had left him with a room suffering the very definition of aggressively banal taste, aside from a gently whirring artist’s piece: the Gorn table. Practically a white-noise generator! Perhaps that was the point? It certainly had the effect.

He wakened to a dull “thunk” from outside. He bolted up immediately, though it took a moment to re-orient himself, each gangly limb crying out for its puppeteer.

Julian scrabbled to his feet.

Oh, that’s him—it must be…! Suddenly, the twists, the pangs, the nervousness—and the sweats. The simian response, the drive to escape whatever was too big to… to fight? To face.

And those steps up the path, a little quick? Does that mean angry, does that mean eager? (Oh, at least the second possibility registered—that was progress!)

The front door came open and, behind it, framed in night, a face he knew. That face that hadn’t changed as much as he expected.

 

“Garak!” Julian gaped, scrambled for the words. “Earlier, I’m so sorry! I didn’t realize you had a meeting, there was this man—outside—he said, inside. I hadn’t mean to, I hadn’t the foggiest idea—”

Garak’s quick pace hadn’t let up a bit as he advanced into the foyer. His expression was open, bright, far less reserved than in the hours prior. He bore out his arms. “I am so happy to see you!”

Julian was accustomed to various, usually quite vulgar, iterations of “hush!” It was a downright established, practically lifelong, counter to his babbling. However, very few words had stopped him as crisply: “I am so happy to see you!” Those could stop his rambling in its tracks. Apparently.

“Y-you are?” he stammered.

“My dear friend, overjoyed!

Stunned. Like a bolt-gun to the skull. He had braced himself for any of a hundred tricks and a thousand cutting comments. He had been prepared with a million excuses generated by an all-defining intellect. He had prepared for every possibility, each and every one, except that such avenues would not be needed. In a day that had made sport of throwing him, this still had the capacity to make him quake.

If Garak wasn’t angry, wasn’t cold, wasn’t bitter, wasn’t disappointed, he really didn’t know… what to do.

“Goodness, you’re… hmm, perspiring? Are you all right? I asked Rekot to readjust the temperature before you arrived. Brilliant young woman, a little scatterbrained, perhaps?” That said, by Garak’s own assessment, the room was cooler than the norm.

 “I… just been a long, a long day. Should sit down….”

“Of course, of course! Make yourself comfortable.”

Julian stumbled back into his seat on the couch, a contained crumple, and Garak joined him—much more gracefully—in proximity appropriate for two people who had not recently been close. “I-I thought, earlier…. I should have waited for Rekot. I hadn’t meant to cause you any trouble; it’s my fault I hadn’t checked….”

Garak waved a dismissive hand, dispelling the notion as if it were an overly pungent perfume. “Not at all, I’m the one who should be sorry, having been so formal,” he replied amiably. “I’m afraid that those particular Archons are—well, I should hate to label them anything as narrow as adversaries, but they have been known to raise objections, repeat objections, to policies I advocate. I must say, your presence was a blessing, disrupting our overly-familiar hostility. Indeed, I am grateful; you couldn’t have done a better job personifying the unfocused benevolence of the Federation.” That had come with a friendly little tweak to his constant smile, a subtle move in its personal punctuation.

Julian could feel a little heat in his cheeks, though he failed to identify its source. He was embarrassed, having been a nuisance, but Garak’s retelling made it… worse? Better? “O-oh. I’m lucky they were, ah, readers.”

There was a missed beat, something like an unrealized expectation. But it passed.

“Ah, you know, in troubling times, we seize upon the very best in our heritage; we elevate it. And yet the Federation has never sent a diplomat who was familiar with our literature or knew more than a handful of phrases in Kardasi. They send former admirals, as if to intimidate. Intimidating Cardassians! We’re so much easier to charm. Quantik emerged especially impressed.”

That had not been his impression, and to be frank, Julian had not felt especially impressive in his display.

Another missed beat.

“Ah, but don’t worry about them.” Garak leaned forward and gave Julian a light pat on the shoulder. “My dear friend, all this time, and you’ve finally made it to Cardassia Prime! I only wish I could have been on-hand when you first arrived. It would have been my great delight to welcome you.”

There was no system, no framework from which to draw for a conversation of this nature. Not with Garak. Not… in the dread of such clashing joys and uncertainties. The stakes felt disproportionately high and a part of him—of the man who had been elbow-deep in viscera in the war—seized.

He’s happy to see me. He doesn’t know what’s happened.

“Honestly, I’m glad you could make time for me at all.”

Garak was an expert at hiding concern. He had, after all, served as an inquisitor and—all the more tellingly—made the transition to politics. Even so, an experienced observer would detect a measure of disquiet regardless of his amicable tone. “Have you had the opportunity to see any of the landmarks I suggested? I confess, I did omit my very favorites—I would be wounded, having you explore them first without me!”

“N-no, I’m sorry, I didn’t. I took…. I went around, for a walk, for a while. Managed to, a chance to, observe the things, the city, see if it was anything like you’d described.” He didn’t mention that, at the time, he had been in the mindset of a death march—which had the potential of clouding his initial impression.

That earned a touch on the knee. A repayment, maybe, in measured contact. “I can’t think of a better introduction. Feet on the ground! That is the authentic Cardassia City anyway—the people here,” he said approbatively, maintaining a high note that was veering stressed and vaguely tinny. “Tell me, what did you think? Did you see the galleries? Tea houses? Oh, did you go to the oceanside, to our so-called ‘promenade’? Quite another thing entirely here on Cardassia, and, dare I say, a little cleaner, irrespective of the fish.”

“It’s… different than I expected. Not as, mm, not as strict….”

“Ah! This is the civilian side; it has always been different. Which is not to say that things haven’t changed.”

“It looks good.” A sigh. Or a release, perhaps. A thought that was dispelled for being bitter, for fouling something sweet.

“Thank you, thank you truly! However, please don’t be too impressed—I’m afraid matters remain in worse standing elsewhere. The capitol has consistently received priority with respect to our reconstruction, and even here, there is still much to do.”

Elsewhere, left behind. I’m not sure that he, that the Detapa Council… that they had a bloody choice. He thought back to Jake Sisko, of Adjilon Prime. At the time, he’d been willing—even satisfied—to be abandoned. But that was abandoned only to die. The very notion of greater sacrifices? Perhaps of watching your broken city, your home, rot off the bone while those in other sectors saw their lives remade? What that track earned was a, “Mm.” Compressed acknowledgement of a tangle that loomed over every scorched world.

Garak was wiser than to force the expectation of their old repartee. “Plain and simple” may have been a lie, always a lie, but it was a viable technique. “I have missed you. A lot has happened.”

Julian laughed, but it wasn’t altogether pleasant. It bore a mildly deranged edge.

Not exactly the response Garak had been looking for.

“A lot, a lot has happened. Yes, you’re right, a lot has happened,” Julian clarified. He ran his fingers through his hair nervously, absently noting its uncharacteristic overgrowth. He felt unkempt, frayed around the perimeter. A delicate tossed in the tumble-dryer.

And Garak gave him more of what Julian assumed he couldn’t spare: a modest sliver of time.

“It looks good, you look well, and Rekot—that’s something—she’s just like you, isn’t she? Bit of alright? And this house! Isn’t, isn’t it?”

Under other circumstances, there’d have been a bite for such inarticulateness. These were not those circumstances. “There’s still much to be done.”

“I never could have imagined it would be like this.” The Cardassian Union. The homeworld. The city. The people. And among the people, one of the people, a person who he used to know—

Garak laughed and brushed at ones of the ridges that framed his eyes, nearly abashed, or trying to suggest it. “What a compliment! Alas, my work is only a very small part. This is the people’s triumph, my dear friend. We’ve come together, as I said we would, to see our future through. It is….” He clapped his hands together, “invigorating!”

Together…. He was… so sure he should have a response to that. He looked at Garak stupidly, and knew it was stupidly, and hated himself for looking at him stupidly. He hated that for something so obvious, he couldn’t think of anything to say. No… that wasn’t it. He could think of a thousand things to say. He could just tell none of them were what he wanted to say—but that, he couldn’t find.

There had been a game, once. And Julian simply could not fall back into it. He felt sluggish, slow. Like a novice, like a fool, like Jules.

Garak’s brow furrowed lightly in concern. “I am surprised to see you,” he offered. Certainly, Julian was expecting that question. Certainly, he should be prepared for that.

“I’m s—“

“You can stop apologizing,” Garak said, every word punctuated, the tone perceptibly sharp. After that, back to an airy cordiality. Quite a switch. “After all, I am the one who left. Besides, as a council member, I may be busy, but I am in no way beholden to the stringent scheduling requirements of Starfleet. I have been preoccupied, you might say, helping to create a world worth visiting, though it came at some cost. How does that sound to you?”

It sounded… well, it sounded empty. A convenient answer, seizing the excuse before it was issued and puncturing it just as quickly. It made it all too obviously undeserved. “You’re too generous.”

“To you? Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Always a liar.

“In fact,” Garak broached, “Here you are, a guest in my home, and I haven’t offered to get you anything to drink. Tea, perhaps?”

Julian shook his head, a gesture he knew Garak could confidently interpret. “Thank you, but I’m quite all right.” But in that moment, stricken with a memory: “You know, Garak, when I first met, ah, your father, ah, he did the same thing. Offered me tea.”

Open palms. “Proper manners—he would have remembered.”

You don’t need to sound complimentary just because he was your father, Julian thought grimly. He had, after all, seen the records. “I’ll admit, I’ve seen his name rather more often than I expected since I arrived….” He pulled the diplomat’s card from his pocket, appraising both sides with a curious glance. “This, for example…. The woman at customs, she gave me this. She said it was because my record in the Union’s database was created by Enabran Tain.”

At that, Garak outright hollered with laughter. “Oh! Oh, my dear Julian Bashir, the reveal!” He slapped his hands on his thighs. “You have no idea. And that! My father’s stamp on an old record. Well!”

“And Quantik—sorry, Archon Quantik—she mentioned him as well…,” Julian said.

“You know,” Garak interrupted, “I should find out who issued that card.  She—I assume it was a she—showed unusually independent thinking for someone in an administrative role. Young, I take it? I should append a commendation to her record. That is the kind of mentality we need and should encourage.”

“Her name was Yerana,” Julian replied, somewhat snappishly. “But Tain—Garak, why is anyone still talking about your father?”

The air… perhaps it did feel cool.

“My father was guilty of tactical missteps, that has never been in question,” Garak replied smoothly. This, unlike his laughter, came out as smooth. Practiced. “His legacy is not, however, corrupt. And it could be leveraged. And the stronger, the more exalted, his name, the more powerful that leverage becomes.” He slid into his instructive demeanor like donning a favorite jacket. “Nations, especially nations in turmoil, do cherish their comforts, familiar things. Family, even at an abstract level. It is the favored soil of political dynasticism.”

Julian frowned. “Revealing yourself as Tain’s son, I suppose I understand that. Um, as a strategy—I don’t quite know how you did it,” he replied. “Blast, you had a right to it. But to build him up…?”

Garak smiled. “Oh, there have been far worse! One of our Dukat’s daughters, Vekila, is there with me in the council. Between the two, which name would you prefer to bear?”

“Okay, that, I really don’t understand!”

Now that was a burst worthy of the Julian that Garak had remembered.

“She’s far better than her father, really,” Garak assured him. “Very capable! Often to my detriment, unfortunately. A formidable presence. She’s done much the same as I have with the name of Castellan Dukat, although by way of the more soldierly factions. To you humans, a ‘hawk.’”

“And I’m to suppose that makes you a dove?” Julian prodded with open, but impish disbelief.

At last, a rhythm. This was the dance they knew. Point, counterpoint. Step, a one—a two—

Garak t’sked his tongue. “You humans expect me to be far too familiar with your ecology! You speak of hawks, and doves, and vipers, wolves—and wolves that wear the skins of sheep! It becomes rather unfair, particularly since last I was on Earth, I asked to see a snake, you know. And it seemed perfectly well-disposed.”

And there was the flicker, the light of human warmth. “I’m sorry, Garak. Most human cultures, they seem to have a bit of a quarrel with reptiles. Why, one of Ireland’s biggest holidays was to celebrate the man they claim drove out all the snakes. Crocodile tears? Deceptive sorrow. And among one of the most influential of Earth’s religions, a serpent doomed humanity to… to know too much, I think?”

“Serpents, then, your scholars?” (He’d have pressed regarding the unwarranted hostility of the Irish towards those with scales, but thought it better to avoid the subject of Miles and their spats.)

And there, a look from warm honey eyes. “They do seem to have a knack for it.”

Garak leaned a bit more weight against the couch, relaxing just a tad. “What an interesting hypothesis! Perhaps something about us. A fundamental skew.”

“Mm. Must be. It’s always been when you were lying least.”

And the blue eyes darted away. Off to the side somewhere. “Goodness, that’s the absolute madness of politics, I’ve found I’m lying less.”

Suddenly, in that quiet moment, Julian could hear the shifting sand. “… Garak, I have a question.” Reptiles, politics, and something he needed to know.

“Of course.” Something about it reserved. Strange, as Garak often liked a question, and enjoyed his game of untrustworthy answers.

“Um, it’s about… the Gorn.”

“Lovely people. They gave me that table,” he said, turning his eyes in its direction in conjunction with an indicative nod.

Damn, Julian was growing to hate that table. “Garak, please. I’m…. I’ve been given an assignment. It’s a mission to skirt Gorn space. The Federation is worried; they’ve been seeing movements they… can’t explain? This mission is supposed to be… dangerous.” His heart was racing. “But, your da—sponsored girl, Rekot…. She told me that they’re just scouting worlds to mine. That they’re not aggressive. They don’t want a war. That this mission might… not be as risky as Starfleet seems to think. Garak, do you know anything about this, about the Gorn?”

Garak’s nose crinkled, which—in Julian’s experience—took quite a lot of effort. His fingers curled. “Well. Hadn’t occurred to me that you two might get on the topic.” And that was, in fact, the truth. He rolled his head side-to-side, obviously irritated, in conflict with himself. “That is correct. The Gorn only feign belligerence. They believe it’s the best way to stave off the vast powers that they border, the Federation, the Klingon Empire…. In reality, they are not a warlike people.”

“… Peaceful, but hiding…?”

He went stiff rather than to cringe. “And they will not attack your ship.”

So it’s true…. There was the rush, all over again—confirmation of a Hail Mary. Even then, hearing it told, he yearned for a reiteration. “And you’re sure? Because, if not….”

Garak clenched his teeth. “They have been instructed not to attack your vessel under any circumstances.”

But that—that was something completely different. “Wait, hold on—what?” Hushed, almost a whisper, but harsh.

“To do so would risk voiding our partnership. I am, after all, the one who initially identified the Gorn as promising allies, and have remained the primary Cardassian representative in that association as it develops.” Professionalism. Linguistic distance. “There are a veritable excess of details, but the core conceit is simple: the Gorn Hegemony provides resources as part of a combined effort, and the Cardassian Union promises military support in the event that the Hegemony is attacked without provocation. There’s a technological exchange as well… and a number of additional provisions. You would have learned of it eventually. That was, in fact, the point.”

Garak,” Julian demanded, his temperature rising. “The point of what?

Had it really been a set-up? After having laughed again?

Garak looked up and down the doctor, recognizing his distress. He could not help but feel insulted. “We knew perfectly well that it was only a matter of time before the Federation noticed that the Gorn were expanding into previously unoccupied space. As such, it was a given that Starfleet would investigate. They are, after all, your eyes and ears. And, furthermore, with the Hegemony’s reputation, that the investigation may well be considered suicidal!” He held up a finger, requesting the opportunity to continue. “I requested, of certain persons, to be informed when a mission meeting the necessary parameters was inevitably detailed.”

“I informed my friends among the Gorn that Starfleet would be sending a team to edge on their territory. I instructed them to remain calm, not to panic at the sight of your fearsome insignia. That you should be permitted to observe matters unmolested. They were only to shadow you with a rotation of military vessels, providing only periodic flybys to imply that the Gorn were powerful, but reasonable and not actively antagonistic. That way, the Federation would see a strong Gorn Hegemony that, despite its formidability, was merely mining lifeless worlds. It would put the Federation at ease. Goodness knows, your government is wise to prioritize direct observation over any public statement we might issue from the Union, or the Hegemony, for that matter.”

Julian’s lips remained pursed as the processed the tale that Garak spun. There was always the chance it was false, that he was still branded for destruction, that Garak would lie when it was cruelest. However, his account did not seem altogether incredible, and Garak seemed genuinely dissatisfied to be telling it. Certainly, that smile had dimmed to near extinction. “… So, our mission would be… to find that out?”

“More or less.”

“And then return….”

“We would need you to do so, the Union and the Gorn. I might even go so far as to say that with the Gorn warships following you, there is nowhere in the universe you’d be safer.”

Julian leaned forward, his eyes boring into Garak’s, an attempt to see if they possessed the heat to melt Cardassian ice. “Garak, you knew….”

This gaze he could hold. Easily. “Knew? I had you assigned. Why even be a politician, unless you know how to call in a favor?”

“I was the only one aboard who hadn’t volunteered…”

“It is a suicide mission. At least, that’s what Starfleet believes,” Garak clarified. “So, provided you keep this a secret—and, my dear friend, I truly hope you will—then in three years’ time, you will have completed your mission, and, with that, you will find your reputation restored. Why, something of a hobby of mine, restorations, and it seems I have a predilection.”

Julian’s stomach fell. Imagine…. I could apply for preferred postings again, I could—

And seeing the “click”, Garak let the tone ease. Julian had assembled the pieces. Garak could see the program running in Julian’s mind, the entire new life being intimated. “The alliance between the Cardassian Union and the Gorn has the potential to benefit hundreds of millions. I am here, able to do this, in thanks to you,” he said. “I have not forgotten that. And we Cardassians, my dear Julian, are nothing if not loyal.”

“Wh-why didn’t you tell me?” If you knew….

“How?”

A painful sting. In retrospect, any answer would. He’s right…. I suppose he had no reason to believe I’d answer. I wouldn’t have. But I thought…. “You don’t… hate me, then?”

“Hate you?!” A blustery rejoinder. “How absurd!”

Or is it just that I would have hated me for that? Good grief. He’d hated himself anyway. And it showed.

Garak took a hand and squeezed it. Firmly, perhaps a bit too hard. “Come now, after all the repairs you’ve seen me perform!”

Those fingers felt strange. They were still colder, rougher than human hands. They did not feel like the hands of a healer. “In your shop?” It felt weak, a listless give.

“In the shop, in the Order, on Cardassia, what-have-you. There are always those who say it can’t be done, and then those who do it. It may have taken some time to repair your relationship with Starfleet, but it was always possible, under the right conditions. The same is true of Cardassia. They can always be reb—rather, here’s a word for you, doctor: they can heal. And if it takes eight years, no matter. I’m glad you’re here today.”

“I’m glad you’re here.” All sorts of phrases that had become foreign, here in spades on this alien world. “And here you are, the old cynic.”

Garak brushed that off as well. “I am! I never see anything as better than it is.” He rolled his eyes. “But, perhaps, as is often attested, my time on the station may have had an effect.” And he withdrew his hand.

And somehow, the absence of cold felt colder?

Julian nodded. “I remember. You always had hope for this place.”

“Ah, the curse of the patriot, I’m afraid. But!” And here was a grin, mischievous, and captivatingly so. “I don’t expect you to take my word for it—in fact, I should really hope you didn’t. Now, tomorrow I have a few commitments I truly cannot break—a speech and press conference in the morning, then a handful of small administrative matters. However, I’ve cancelled everything from the late afternoon onward. As long as you’re here, I’ll do everything in my power to justify the stories I once told you!”

“Really? Are you sure… are you sure that’s all right? I wouldn’t want to… be a bother, set anything off….” It felt like it would have been a lot to ask of anyone, much less a prominent member of Cardassia’s ruling elite.

“I once missed a week of the assembly for Cardassian ranavirus, and still the government trundled on without me,” Garak replied. “I won’t be absent, but I can forego matters of lower priority, and delegate them as necessary. It is important you are here.” He brought himself in, closer, just a trace. “And that you make memories such that, when your three years are done, busy though you’ll be with cheers and commendations and offers for roles the likes of which a brilliant man like you deserves, you will return, and see it all again. Better, even, than this. Built on these strong foundations.”

Julian first noticed the distortions, just along the bottom of his vision, then the leak. Just one or two, and for the first time in a long while, happy tears—relief and gratitude. It took one bump to move him close enough to grab and to embrace.

That was answered with the same grip, steady and resolute.

 And if there was anything cold about it, no part of either could feel it.

“Thank you, Elim.” Finally, its use felt fair. Tacitly approved.

“Of course, of course! Julian, my dear friend, of course!” That was bright, and that felt confident. He let it last.

Nerys, thank you. You were right. And that, alone, was powerful. More than a platitude, there had been people who cared. He hadn’t dared to think so.

There was a rub, up and down the top of Julian’s back (strange thing, bumps without ridges). A comforting pressure, something to which living things were meant to be receptive. “Now, it is late, and I’m sad to say, I still have some preparatory work for my speech tomorrow. Did Rekot show you where you’ll be staying?”

Julian broke off the hug immediately, unsure of whether he’d extended it too long. He wiped at the permanent bags under his eyes. “Uh, um. No, she hadn’t. Where is that?”

Garak stood. “Here, grab your pack and come with me, I’ll show you. Ah, and if you should get hungry, there’s a replicator at the end here on the ground floor, through the door to the kitchen.” He indicated the correct passage, beyond where Julian had yet ventured. “And have no fear, there are a range of human options available, albeit nothing particularly exotic.”

“It’s Cardassia, I’ll eat Cardassian food,” Julian offered, taking to his feet.

He beamed. “Such diplomacy! It's as I said, we’re so much easier to charm!”

Chapter Text

He rapped his knuckles against the door. “Rekot? Are you asleep?”

“No, I’m just reading. Come on in!” he heard her shout.

Garak calmly slid the door along its track and into its concealed hideaway in the wall. “Careful, dear. Humans do have keen hearing, and I imagine the good doctor will need his rest.”

She sighed and hit a button on her padd. “Yeah, yeah, they’re probably like Bajorans. Always complaining about the noise.” And yet, I was never allowed to complain about the smell. Double-freaking-standard.

He gave the room a quick, fatherly appraisal. It was cluttered, true, but everything appeared reflective of Rekot’s genuine if scattered interests. He briefly wondered whether he was too permissive with respect to her impaired tidiness, but it didn’t seem the chaos caused any real harm. “He is our guest, Rekot. Please remember to be polite.” He paused. “Even by the standards of a guest… please be polite.”

“Mmm… hey, Garak?” She placed the padd down on the floor next to her. She knew, and she knew that he knew, that setting down her reading portended a serious turn.

“Yes, Rekot?”

She bit her bottom lip, wearing her nervousness openly, intending it as an unspoken forecast. It gave Garak time to head her off, and if he didn’t, then what was to follow—by her logic—was implicitly allowed. “So, uh. This guy. What’s, like, going on here?” She grimaced. “He makes me, mhnnn… sorry, but kind of uncomfortable?”

The two of them had an agreement, strictly defined and always upheld: if, at any time, a visitor struck Rekot with any kind of unease, she was to inform him. Usually, the solution was as simple as having Rekot stay over at Parmak’s, although several other solutions had, at times, been employed. She knew, however, that in this situation—the matter of the doctor, whose face was burned into memory from a fleeting glance on Bajor—the usual rules might not apply.

“I can see where you might feel that way, and I confess, some of that is my doing. I have not been entirely honest with you,” he said simply. The first half of the admission came easily, the latter somewhat less so. “Suffice to say, it has been some time since he and I were in contact.”

She looked at him skeptically.

He clapped his hands together. “You will have to exercise some… consideration. Our dear doctor was present during what were among the most harrowing events of the Dominion War, for which a man of his sensibilities was gravely ill-prepared. And yes, I fear, he emerged from that… destabilized. But I assure you, he is not dangerous, and I promise I will not allow him to be a danger to you.”

“Or you?”

“Me?” Genuine surprise. A rarity.

“Yeah, because you normally lie in…. In a different way? The way you’ve been lying about him is, like, really off-brand.” She sat up a bit straighter, as if to support her point structurally. “Because it’s like, you let this one get kind of obvious. And it’s not like you to pretend something’s important when it’s not; you do it like the other way. Like you’re all, ‘oh, that’s just a funny little whatever’ but in reality it’s like, fatal. You play supercilious. But, um, this guy…. I don’t get it.”

Where would he begin, even if he could? “It’s a personal matter, I’m afraid.”

And that was precisely what worried her. “Can you at least tell me, uh, what we’re supposed to be doing with him? Like what should I be doing, at least?”

He stopped himself just short of a nasty snap, reminded of her having broached the subject of the Gorn without his preapproval. He did have the makings of a temper, his inheritance from Mila. His father’s cool collectedness provided the necessary offset. “… He is extremely fragile. Be gentle in your interactions with him, please.”

“Yeah, but like… why are we doing that? Why is he even here? Like, why’s he here now, then? He has no idea who I am, by the way. I mean, sorry, he didn’t know who I was.” She spared Garak a summary of the many congratulations and gifts which had been relayed to her from this selfsame “Julian Bashir”. A private Cardassian Santa Claus.

“While we’re on the subject, it might be less confusing for him if you would refer to me as your father,” Garak broached pleasantly.

“Nah, I already explained to him that you’re not my dad. I think he got it.”

“Whatever makes things easier for you, Rekot.”

H-oh, damn. He’s not liking this. “I’ll be nice to him. Super swear. But can you clue me in even a little? Like, do we have a game plan here? Is there something you brought him here to do, or something you need from him? He’s like a savant medical researcher, right?” Based on rumblings from Parmak over the years, that part might just be true.

“I owe him the opportunity to see the best of Cardassia. He did fight for it, in a way.” He rubbed his hands together. “And he was interested in Cardassian culture, even when it remained considerably out of vogue. You know full well that being Cardassian can be… a challenge in areas dominated by Bajoran culture or under Bajoran control.”

“Um yeah, fucking do I?” she spat sarcastically.

He didn’t much appreciate her choice of language, but he certainly understood it. One more bad habit to let slide, this time. “And I remain aware that you haven’t had much opportunity to see the best of humans, either. Rest assured that, despite his present troubles, Dr. Bashir is a… principled example of the species. While he is here, I would like him to experience a vibrant, dignified Cardassia. The Cardassia I promised him could, and did, exist,” he said. “It will be something for him to remember when he has gone. That this world is thriving.”

Rekot crossed her arms. “That totally isn’t an answer! Do you want me to, like, compliment him or stuff him full of food, or what? Take him tea sampling? Sculpture garden?”

“Anything appropriate to dignitaries,” Garak explained. “Though you needn’t be so formal with him, of course. He is here as a friend, albeit a lapsed one.”

She was well aware Garak could speak at length and actually say very little, which she considered a laudable talent, whenever she wasn’t on the receiving end. “I guess I get it, but why is he here? Why is he here now? You want him to see Cardassia, okay. Does he care? That can’t be why he came, is it? I mean, that guy? He seems, like, mental. Like he’s got mental problems.”

Still a smile, vague and strange. “Rekot, my dear foundling, those questions can’t be answered.”

“Like, they don’t have an answer, or you won’t answer them?”

“I’m afraid you’ll find no answer for that either. Now, won’t you head to sleep? It is getting late, and he may need your assistance in the morning. I will be back for him in the late afternoon, but in the meantime, I’d rather he not be left alone. That simply isn’t good for anyone. And humans are a social species, it’s been said.”

Rekot rolled back her head in mock anguish. “Augh, fine!”

“Thank you.” He gestured to her padd gently, amenably. “But you can still finish your chapter.”

“Well yeah, I’m gonna finish the chapter.”

 

//

 

 

As soon as Garak had left the room and slid her door back into its closed position, Rekot rose to her feet and—with a careful, furtive glance and her best effort at a listen—tiptoed over to her private comm panel. She punched in a few key entries; the telltale flicker of a corresponding graphic indicated a successful call in progress. She had only to wait and see if the receiver would respond.

There was a quick blip and then a face.

“Hey Kelas,” she said.

(Odd as it might seem, she found use of a forename more comfortable with Parmak than with Garak, given that there existed no formally-defined relationship between them—or between Garak and Parmak, for that matter.)

Parmak nodded politely. He wore a new pair of glasses, freshly-replicated. “Good evening, Rekot, and good health.”

“Yeah, and same. Hey, I was wondering, do you have a minute?” She scratched at the back of her head where hair met scale, a tender interface that often itched, particularly when one was ill at ease.

“Certainly. I take it that this is about your visitor?” He scarcely had to ask, but was happy to provide her the comfort of a lead-in, an admission that the topic was more welcome with him than with her sponsor. “I’m happy to discuss that with you, as well as I am able.”

She let her breath out with a dramatic puff. “Well! Then all right. Um, what’s going on, exactly? Garak won’t tell me anything. I mean, I’ve talked to him, Dr. Bashir I mean, so I sort of have a clue. He is actually the guy, you know, the guy from Bajor? I did recognize him. He’s, um…. Really whacked out? But he doesn’t seem to have any idea about Cardassia. I don’t understand what he’s doing here. Or, like, why he’s in our house.”

Parmak gave a slow blink, something eminently lizardlike, even for a Cardassian. “Elim is sentimental.”

Damn! It itched again. “But for what? I mean, I’ve heard stories—Dr. Bashir even confirmed one—but, dammit, you know the rest, like, who even knows?”

“It is less complicated than you think. Humans—many humans, that is—possess a significant degree of curiosity about alien species. It’s evident from their… bizarre cultural output even preceding First Contact,” Parmak stated with characteristic solemnity and, perhaps, some wonder. “Certain humans exhibit that tendency to an extreme. Dr. Bashir, xenobiologist, is one such example.”

“So, he wanted to know about Cardassia? Cardassians? Like, legit?” she interrupted. That answer was a comfort. Of all impulses, Rekot accepted inquisitiveness as the very best excuse for strange behavior.

A sigh. “You know Elim. Ask him to lecture, and he cannot help himself. And Bashir had reason to listen. He had no choice; Elim was the only Cardassian resident on Terok Nor immediately post-Occupation.”

“Then Garak was like a tutor?” If that’s true, he’s almost like a proto-sponsored….

“That is correct. But he considers them to have been friends. The aforementioned sentimentality.”

She squinted at the screen, its brightness beginning to stress her vision. It began to pull at the nictitating membrane of her eyes. “So now his student is, like, here to see the stuff that he’d heard about. I guess because Cardassia is kind of leveling out? I mean things have been going pretty smoothly the last few years. It’s not perfect, but, you know.”

“He is here because he is not wanted anywhere else; his name is in tatters. He has but one credit remaining, the last of a spent-up inventory: he has a Cardassian’s attachment, a feeling more powerful than a human could know, a force he cannot understand beyond how he exploits it. It is not his fault. A natural deficiency.”

Yikes. “Well, I’ll try not to get attached.”

The expression that followed was, perhaps, half a laugh. If nothing else, it meant a turn of a lip uneven from aged scars. “Poor Elim. Of all his characteristics, among the sweetest. How much he delights in falling into them, the stories he enjoys. A buoy: his patriotism, his romanticism, his hope.” His expression lost its soft approbation. “But it makes him susceptible to lapses in judgment. He forgets the genuine things, the history as opposed to the narrative. He does it with his father, he does it with Bashir. He re-casts their behavior so as to forgive the pain. But history is history, and there is a difference between truth and fiction. When I found Elim, he had been abandoned. Then and ever since.”

She pointed in the direction of Julian’s lodgings. “Dude’s here now.” Like a fairy tale come alive.

A wave of the hand. “Only for a short while. He will leave, again, having done what humans do. Disrupt. Consume. I have no doubt it will distress Elim for quite some time.” And there would be a familiar ritual to follow, the comfort and the mend.

Rekot tilted her head. There were some things about Parmak that remained surprisingly opaque, considering his penchant for—if anything—a bludgeon of the truth. “Well, for that short while, he’s hanging around and I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do about it. Garak asked me to look after him tomorrow morning, and, like…. I don’t know. He weirds me out, Kelas!”

“Tomorrow morning?”

“Yeah, while he’s out. I figured we might watch the press conference together. I figured he might get a kick out of seeing Garak doing Council stuff, especially if he’s into Cardassian culture. I don’t even know if humans have a legislature.”

Parmak nodded. “I need to watch the news transmission myself. I was intending to view it from MedCen with the others, but why don’t I come over to where you are? Would that make you more comfortable?”

She exhaled deeply. “Ohh, actually that would be great. Would you? That would take a load off.”

“Of course. Anything you need for me to bring?”

“I think I left my stack of cards over there. Can you look for them? Bring them if you’ve got them. Otherwise, they’re probably in here somewhere….”

Parmak frowned. “Rekot!” he demanded. “For goodness’ sakes, clean your room!”

 

//

 

He watched the ceiling, even in the dark. A part of him, the part of him with the exceptional memory, with the nigh-impeccable recall, knew it as a fact of his surroundings on Cardassia. The other part of him, which learned only really by experience, was not prepared for a room with so many bugs.

It had never before dawned on him how sterile his home on Earth had been, much less subsequent Starfleet postings. Not so different from an operating room, clean and precise. Controlled. Belongings—with rare sentimental exceptions—replicated as needed, and returned to the cycle when out of use.

Certainly, he’d endured some rough encampments, even some disturbingly sticky holidays on a handful of primitive worlds. But this was a guest room, in a home. And it was full of bugs.

A few were as bright as fireflies, but most possessed only a soft phosphorescence. And on average, they were considerably larger than those he was familiar with from Earth. From the largest of them, a click-click-click of each jointed leg. Massive.

He watched their goings-on above him, the antics of their own doubly alien civilization. They had a logic of another kind, built on the logic of another world. And yet, despite it all, Julian believed he saw patterns, even personalities. One who was stubborn. Two who bickered. Three in love. A mother and her little children—or a father, maybe. Or just insects, perhaps.

Just like a human to presume.

It was a welcome distraction, the patterns, real or imagined. It felt simple; it felt pure. Tired, dazed, there was a sense to it. (Here are the little people. Can you see their stories?)

Some patterns…. He thought, self-critically. Best stick to medicine. Tennis would have been all right.

How long had that anxiety festered, that he’d lost even Garak’s approval? Garak, really? He’d shot him once, and even that was shrugged off (although not literally, not until after the dermal regenerator became involved).

He’s obviously done perfectly well without me. Simply peachy. No need to be angry with all that, he thought. With all this.

(All these great bugs.)

If anything, I could have used his advice. His help…. If I could have gone to him, instead of Miles….

Two of the insects were eating a third.

Chapter Text

tttttktkktaktaktaktaktak++

Chapter Text

The speech was done. It had been finalized days ago, and even if it hadn’t, he was confident enough to navigate it nigh-extemporaneously. The press conference was a slightly different matter—those could go anywhere—but there was a limit to returns that would come from additional preparation. He knew that, all that, and he was still rehearsing.

“—It is in the interests of persistence and care that we—”

He was speaking aloud but failing to listen. In that sense, the only practice it provided was in talking, which he didn’t really need. He was quite comfortable talking. The action, the rehearsal, would come across as diligent to most. Garak knew better.

He knew what he was avoiding.

Garak took the padd, rapped it several times on the desk, and finally chucked it onto the floor. It cracked—broken, most likely—but it was no matter. It could be readily re-replicated, and the data was stored elsewhere. Just a bad habit. Conditioning himself to the deed, to the giving-in, was its own cost. (There was his mother, again.)

Kira had asked him if he had a plan. Did he have a plan? Of course he had a plan. He had a full catalogue, each with its own contingencies, and contingencies for its contingencies. Of course he had a plan.

But he knew better. Dr. Bashir—Julian—could always send his tactics off the rails. A gift, perhaps. Perhaps a curse.

Garak thought about the personnel logs, long ago, those which had foretold the transfer of a fresh Starfleet Chief Medical Officer to the station, Deep Space 9. A prodigy, a whiz-kid. Someone young but capable and—judging from his assessments (complimentary in not quite every way)—still deeply naïve. Someone who had access to the Federation’s most advanced medical technologies, and a recent enough education to discreetly employ them. Someone who could have given him a new face—or, as Kira discovered—a new apparent species.

He wasn’t entirely certain how he’d broach it. A pity case, perhaps. Poor me, an unloved Cardassian, and I’m really just a simple tailor. It really is a tragedy to live this life—and you do make a good point, my dear doctor, about the love and kindness of your kin compared to mine. Having read your books and learned your tongue, I really do believe it. Won’t you bless me a conversion, dear? After all I’ve tried to do for you, this plain and simple tailor, so charmed by you and all you represent? You could do it so quietly, no one would ever know. With how dangerous it is here—you see how they look at me!—you really would be saving my life, my doctor, dear.

So much for that. Almost immediately, that neck, that smile, those big, dark eyes … instead, he’d yearned to impress him. And how could one do that, if he were truly plain and simple?

With a new face, he could have made himself something in the Federation. He could have wiled his way where he needed to be, found whatever information was most precious to know. With that, with such a gift, he could have bought back his good graces in the Union. Maybe. Perhaps. Worth an attempt, anyway.

And yet, he’d sunk that plan in almost an instant, entranced by big, dark eyes. A creature warm and tawny.

(The fucking lizard in you.)

Well, what about this disaster, then? This—as Kelas might say—vagrant at his door? Keiko, Nerys, and the others: they weren’t joking. What came before him was a starveling, a weak and halted creature.

Where was the glow, the heat? The arrogance? (That part he had adored.)

That Dr. Bashir, Garak thought gravely, had no time for Cardassia.

(Almost there.)

That Dr. Bashir had no time for you.

But he had arrived. He was on Cardassia Prime. At Kira’s behest, admittedly. And he did seem happy to reunite. Garak had received an embrace, even, which had always seemed too rare.

Oh, it’s nice to know that’s all it took! His complete ruination and my ascendency. I never heard from him when I was re-orienting, strategizing… rebuilding myself and the world I needed to see whole again—

That had Garak pacing. His shoes were off and his room was floored in stone. To step meant a light click-click-click of the stubby claws of his feet. Cardassians didn’t find noises—even those they could hear—quite as annoying as humans. Still, he tried to step carefully, despite his agitation, for fear that it would carry.

That’s what he did for you, exile. “A spy or an outcast.” He had nothing to gain from you, nothing he knew. And absolutely nothing he wanted. A lip twisted. Nothing but books he did not enjoy and chocolates he returned.

So he’s happier to see you this time! He should be, given all you can do for him now. You asked him to become a more practical animal, didn’t you? Well, there it is, Elim. There’s your practical animal. Better? Worse? What do you think?

He didn’t even complain, you tinkering with his fate. That maneuver was your reserve trick, the sting you would someday uncoil if he dared to stand before you again, condemn you for what you had no choice but—

There, an ache. How desperate did Julian have to be, to have been grateful for the ploy? To agree to keep in confidence the secret to this mission at the darkest edge of space? That, indeed, had not been in the plan.

There was some pushback, he tried to convince himself. And besides, his involvement is reasonable. The Federation will trust in the crew’s report. That, in turn, will facilitate more peaceful relations between the Union, the Hegemony, and the Federation. To be part of it should bring him the greatest joy. Still, he can have… difficulty, acknowledging the bigger picture. At least, he used to.

That his reputation will have a second wind…. That’s just a perk, really, to the altruistic man.

(What Julian did, and had always done, was in search of being a better man.)

(What Garak did, and had always done, was in search of a better Cardassia.)

Garak massaged the soft space beneath his chin.

All the sweat and tears I witnessed—and good grief, so many tears—and this is where he lands. The young man who healed a planet, who splayed himself out for an existential war. A fighter and a healer on the front lines, and what’s this? One mistake, and there a collapse, the shift of the narrative—the balance turns, and your story becomes a tragedy. A cautionary tale.

That, my friend, is a story I know well.

But, and here came the lecture, just as Rekot had threatened, you can fight the story you’re assigned. Any story that you see. It’s what I’m doing for my father, what Vekila does for hers. And, whether you realized it or not, it’s what you did for me. You devised a tale where I might not be the villain. You invited me into that role, allowed me to accept it. Thank you, for that, and I have not forgotten.

Of course, if you knew the full story, you’d be sorry for you involvement. What you do with the gift of life, I have always accomplished with death. I saved more than you’ll know, bringing the Romulans into the war. I could not have been done with your skills, only mine. To implement my plans, often some will die, and not always so that more will live. That, I believe, not even this new you could understand. So it’s just as well our story branched, and that yours—with my assistance—will take you back where you belong, and treasured as you are. Someday soon, radiant and warm.

As if at the podium. It helped with the calm, the certainty. And kept at bay the other thought, that—oh, shit—

But if you’d been here—

That was a step off the podium. That was a thought from a personal space. That was a scrape at the source of the ache.

Garak was a strategist. But somehow, Julian threw the best-laid plans off-track.

Or perhaps Kelas was right.

(Elim, you play yourself.)

It’s not as if he could ever manage it himself. That they pegged him, even briefly, for Starfleet Intelligence! Poor thing, he has a brilliant mind, but not at all the right configuration. Or the Mr. O’Brien, stars above. I’ve read their histories; humans used to be schemers, planners! What happened to that, exactly?

If he’d been here, he’d have stopped me. … No, but he’d have tried. If he were to stay… he’d do the same.

Why even think about it?

(Heal him, set it square, and let him go.)

It was difficult, painful, certainly…. But it needed to be. I needed to reacquaint myself with this world. I had to remember to think like me, not you, not you and yours. A people of candy and sweet drinks. Hardly appropriate here, Doctor. I could see burned scales in the ash, when I returned. Take a step and you would feel them crack and turn to dust.

Despite the memories of sickening footfalls, here the pace returned, quicker. But here in the room, no dust, no ash. Just a few insects, who scrabbled to avoid the penalty of the clash, a battle of masses they had no prayer to win.

You wouldn’t have enjoyed it, Garak thought with an almost aloof bitterness.

And why be here when you could have the revised edition of the girl of your dreams?

(Why be on Cardassia when you could be fucking in the comfort of a Federation starship? Doctor, dear, it can’t compare for ease or luxury. I love my world; I know you don’t.)

I have excellent news for you! Something I am happy to share! He thought. You weren’t necessary. We are a resilient people; I told you that much. Cardassia would mend itself, and I, I eventually, would reintegrate, and properly, despite your best efforts. From there we would remake; from there we would rebuild. You’ve seen it, haven’t you? The life I constructed? Wonderful, my dear. Without you.

You’ve met Kelas, I see!

A partner, a lover. Isn't he darling? And he’s heard so much about you. (How could Garak not brag?) Of course, the team he leads at MedCen produces exceptional work—perhaps, I daresay, better than yours. It is always correct. Whether it is accurate, I can’t say, but it is always true. I have preached it to the people, and it has always been true, because I’ve told the people it is true. You couldn’t be a better researcher than that, could you, my dear doctor?

I should revisit the letter I sent you. What did I say about Kelas, then? Did I tell you how much he cares for me? That would be truth, even by your standards. Did I mention what he’s lost?

(Perhaps there had been discretion. A Starfleet inbox? That’s right… not a good time.)

And oh, my lovely children, who passed this way. Sponsored, loyal—devout followers, diligent employees who trained here, graduates of the Councillor's doorway, the alumni. The youngest would almost call me "father" with ambivalence instead of professional discomfort. These are my children, and this is my family. My children—where are yours?

My parents, who loved me! You must remember that! You, with yours that you despise. How very tragic! My father knew that if he cried out for me, I would come, regardless of the cost, regardless of the stakes. My father who, you remember, my father, when he died—

He hit a personal firewall, a line he couldn’t cross.

I flourish here!

And I could never have made it, never have survived, if you had been here. The decisions that I had to make. Old habits! The grief, the guilt, it dissipated, and why not? Who was it for? For you?

You never cared about this place. You never cared about this world. If you had, you never would have abandoned it, when I described it, you a doctor, a billion died—

Eighty-four people died aboard the Okanogan. How dare you. How dare you think that matters! How dare you think you deserve to fall apart, eighty-four people aboard the Okanogan?

You could have saved eighty-four people—Cardassian people, if they mattered at all—being here, staying here, begging me to forego expedient decisions. Eighty-four lives in a day, keeping me from regressing—no, not regressing: mending, and healing, in my way—not yours. Healing the wound you gave me. How about that, Doctor?

How dare you come, how dare you show your neck, your hands, your big, dark eyes, when it's too late not to disappoint you? How dare you pretend it matters to you now? If I'd believed you cared, if I'd still believed you would ever show your face here—

Rekot, you saw her on Bajor! I found her again, and she's here, the last sponsored, here in case you'd read my letters, here in case you'd ever come, and I believed you never would—

(Belief? Nothing. What about hope?)

—I stalled her start of University, "security reasons", why did I do that?—

("Sorry, but he didn't know who I was.")

Not a single one? Not a single photograph? I found the girl, the same one; didn't you think I had anything else to do? Kelas was livid, excoriated me for ho—oh, if only hours... years! Even Nerys knows Rekot, Keiko knows Rekot, and the others, a few of the others, the ones who carry the label "sponsored" and so much love, such loyalty, I'm their father you know, even if they won’t say so—

They love me, they cherish me, obviously. Everything is being rebuilt perfectly, without you here.

(Did you ever stop to consider how humiliating—mortifying—it would be for you to come as a stranger, pronounce that the man I adored, that I called my friend, had stepped away so long ago? That he didn't know my daughter's name?)

What bothered him, and bothered him it bothered him—his hair, Julian's hair. A few gray strands, a pelt flecked roan. Julian wore them, bore them, age and grief: thin and pale. Garak's hair—and it bothered him, and it bothered him it bothered him—black, jet. As if to proclaim his pain was less, that he was young. Dyed, of course, of course it was dyed. He didn't even know how grey he'd gotten, with how regularly, how ritually, it was done. By what standardby what standarddid Julian have the right to gray? Made him, made Garak, feel... fatuous, ridiculous, asinine. Him, with dyed hair, as if it would still be black. All these years and so much pain.

Augh, bit and burned! Burned and roiled, that he couldn't think straight, couldn't focus. Thinking of his hair, like as a teenager dismaying an age they can imagine in only abstract terms. Through it all, the meaning, and the profundity of it, there was a knife's-edge panic that his hair was gray.

Calm down, Elim.

Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, a voice that portended a dark space, a restriction, very solid bounds:

Elim, Calm down.

What you're doing, stop. Your tremors are your enemy. Why do you want to panic, anyway? Panic is a coward's game, Elim, and you are cautious, that’s true. A coward? Never. Think of how resourceful you are, how clever. All these things you lose when you indulge in your theatrics outside of their proper place.

That was, that was a good point.

I'm panicking, f-a-t-h-e-r, because, he carped, because I would very much like to. You know, when the children panic, when they are—

But you're not a child, are you? You have children; why, you have eight. By now, you must realize you're the adult in the room. Right and proper to act the part, I would very much suspect. Don't you?

Well, he would hold the children when they panicked, how about that? How does that sit with you, Director Tain?

It's a new Cardassia. I'm proud of you, if you have made a world where they can survive that way. Are you from that world, Elim? Are you from this new Cardassia?

Am I from—

I appreciate your interest in understanding their culture. You could always pick up on strange beliefs. And children! Children are always different.  (Garak could still hear the laugh, his father’s soft and gentle and painful condescension.) Very different, very strange. Each generation is more alien than those various otherworldly creatures we challenge. But Elim, do adults your age panic? Is that a thing you all do now? Exposed necklines and nervous tremors?

He wore higher necklines now, thank-you-very—

Waiting for someone to hold you? I suppose you could call on Kelas. It's not why I hired him, but it wasn't out of the range of possibility when I suggested that you two reconnect. I'd always liked him, you know.

Well excuse me, but you wouldn't have liked Kelas, if he were the kind of man who'd relent to your son's stupid little games, now would you?

I admit, Elim, I'd rather you would just—▹calm—▹down—

There was a hate. A hate, this hate—a hatred that it worked.

Director Tain, Enabran, Father—wouldn't have stood for it. For the regret. Enabran, now he had always stood by his mistakes. Often his mistakes stood beside him.

Calm down? Yes, that would do.

This detail was not in Ezri's notes. This detail did not belong in writing. This detail was meant to die when Garak did, which would mean it was never true, and never would have been. The one presence who was always with him, that never left. And the only one who ever truly cherished the deceit, who held it as a virtue, given to whom it belonged.

(That's important, when you're fake. When there is only the fake you.)

He wished he knew what Julian and Enabran had said to one another. Not in the Arawath colony, or at least, not so much. In the prison camp. In the dark.

How much had he ever said? How much did he explain? He said it, and he meant it: there was never meant to be ego in this game. But, it was hard to imagine that the topic never came up. That Garak, who he was, who he was meant to be, remained entirely unspoken.

His father liked Julian, he knew.

… But he would not have been able to update the record. Not then.

Beyond secure walls, in areas inaccessible, in backrooms of the data not even known enough to be known as inaccessible, there were records, even from then. Garak could only wonder was in the hidden backrooms of the backrooms. He’d never have time to find them.

But his father liked Julian, he knew.

And Kelas, too.

Kelas was hand-picked. For this, not that. For that, not this.

(I was foolish, thinking he would be angry forever. A softball hit-him-up even after a term in a prison camp! What is it with parents? Get with it, f-a-t-h-e-r, no one sends their future son-in-law to prison camps anymore. I know Mila was slated to be executed, but that was 2321, get with the times, will you?)

(I have gray hair, grayer than yours.)

[[Enabran did forgive, and I got old.]]

It hurt in his ribs? Conventional and transverse. How about that.

They never healed properly. Bashir had done his best with the various Federation technologies. The poor doctor had even assumed he’d done a good job. But Cardassian bones knit coarse, in rough crosses, in hard knots.

Ah, but that wasn’t what it was, was it? It would be nice to think so. The source was under the cage they made, and it would be unbearable to name it.

And this pain was slow, it dragged and oozed. It had bled for a long time.

What you gave to me? I’m grateful. I passed it forward, paid it towards a stronger and still more compassionate Cardassia. In a sense, what you have done, as all I’ve ever done, was for the good of the State. And I owe it to you, the reciprocal experience, what the State—by my hand—will do for you. Whether or not you deserve it, regardless of your feckless willingness to ignore it. I promised you it had merit. Now, Dr. Bashir, let me show you.

I no longer have time for my garden. I read reports and measures, not literature. Perhaps it’s maudlin, investing myself in your plight. Kelas would say so. But you are neither an orchid nor a story. Perhaps I cannot spare the time, even these short days. But you have it, you have them; they’re yours. I owe them to you. And we have only these; you won’t be back again.

Cardassian loyalty, nothing like it in the universe.

He sat. Tired.

I’m glad you made it. It’s too late for you to be here. But thank you for coming.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“And, uh, she’s not going to interrupt, is she? Does she know you’re on a personal channel?” he nearly whispered, with a glance to scan the border of the screen, as if a change in position could capture any more than whatever came through the relay. (Even with screens a technology centuries old, humans could find themselves subject to suggestions from the more primitive corners of the mind.)

Kira placed her chin in a hand. It was early—dead early—on Bajor. “Yes, Julian. She’s in the other room. She knows it’s you. It’s fine.”

Hell, it was early on Cardassia, too. “Sorry, I just…. Ah, er, hrm. Come to think of it, I suppose it’s not… urgent? But I thought you might want to know right away.”

“Hmm? Oh! Yes,” she asserted, her eyes widening, as if to force herself further awake. “I do! Julian, you said your mission isn’t a, well, ‘mission of distinction’? Did I understand you correctly?”

“Right! It’s fine, I’m safe! There’s no threat!” (And that told as an excited whisper, as if the volume of a transmission couldn’t be easily amplified. Simian brains!)

That got her attention. “Did you resign? From Starfleet?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” he assured her. “I’m staying in Starfleet. The mission, it’s a trick!”

“What?”

“Garak did it!”

What?” Kira threw her head back exaggeratedly. She grappled the air with claw-like fingers. “Julian, for the Prophets’ sakes, it’s too early for this! From the beginning, please!

He flushed slightly. The babbling. “Oh, ah, ehm. The mission, it isn’t dangerous. The Gorn aren’t hostile.”

Kira sneered in mild frustration, representing genuine exhaustion. “Wait, this is about the Gorn? That they’re in a state of non-aggression? What does that have to do with Garak?”

Julian let loose a long breath. Third time the charm? He tried to focus, arrange it in a sequence. “Let me… let me try again? The Cardassians—they’re partnering with the Gorn to mine empty worlds at the verge of Gorn space. Those are the movements we’ve all been detecting, those strange reports. It’s not the build-up to an offensive, just surveying for ores and minerals. The Cardassians are lending them equipment, technology, and in return the Gorn are going to work with them and lob some of it back over.”

At that, she nearly jolted. “Wait, does that mean the Cardassians have given up on reacquiring Bajor? Completely?”

“Nerys, that’s not what matters!”

(Kira disagreed.)

“—What matter is that the mission I’m on, we’re just supposed to witness that. Report back! Let Starfleet know that the Gorn, the Cardassians—what they’re doing isn’t at odds with the Federation, that no one’s scrabbling for a war. The Cardassians figured that letting us discover that ourselves would make it more credible.”

“And Garak told you this?” That, by her standards, was an important detail. Kira considered Garak a friend. However, she was not so naïve as to think him an unqualified ally. There would always be other forces at play, for any Bajoran, for any Cardassian. There were things she could not have trusted, even from Ghemor.

“Well, a bit, perhaps…. His daughter, Rekot…. Do you know her?”

“Rekot? Of course, she’s been by the station a handful of times. She’s sharp. Bit of a pain, I’ll be the first to tell you, but sharp. Her Bajoran is much better than her Kardasi, which I appreciate.”

He nodded. “She’s the one who told me about the Cardassians and their dealings with the Gorn. When I mentioned it to Garak, he copped to it, and didn’t seem too pleased about it. I even did a tight patch of digging this morning,” waiting for you to answer an emergency transmission, “and it seems to hold. The planets in that part of space are compositionally similar to those that the Cardassians have targeted for acquisition and materials extraction over the last half-century.”

Kira massaged her temples. The image was beginning to take shape, but she could tell that a few puzzle pieces hadn’t yet been pulled from the box. “All right. So the Cardassians and the Hegemony are working together. Maybe get some dilithium, maybe some pergium, something. And Starfleet is sending you to find that out, essentially? Only they don’t know?”

“Oh, right, right,” he affirmed, encouraged by her verification of the groundwork—only a bit more fleshing required. “The Federation doesn’t know. They think the Gorn are dangerous, you know, that fearsome reputation of theirs. Once our mission is done, Starfleet will have a proper sense of things. See? And that fixes everything!” It ended with a smile, absolutely enormous. Something that seemed like it could crack a face that hadn’t smiled so widely in… years. It would have to be years.

“But Garak’s involvement is… with the Gorn?” I suppose there’s something of a natural alignment among those people of scale….

Might have recommended a cup of raktajino first, I suppose this whole smatter does get involved…. “There’s that. But the other part is that he had me tacked onto that particular mission. That’s why I was the only non-volunteer on what the higher-ups have pegged as a M.O.D.”

Now she was nearly keeling. “Wait, so that’s what you meant?! Garak had you put on a suicide mission?!

“No! No-no-no! Nerys, listen, no! He’s working with the Gorn! He told them not to harm the vessel; he knew it would be safe! God, no, Nerys! He’s not angry! And don’t you see, don’t you see what this will do for me? In Starfleet?”

(Beep, click. Beep, click. Beep—ding!)

“Julian, that’s not the problem!” she countered. She bridled, stunned almost staggered. “At least… not the first. Garak knows it’s safe, fine. But to Starfleet, it’s still a death sentence! And they assigned you to lay down your life—your life, specifically—at the request of a foreign dignitary? From a malevolent, invasionary government!”

That look. Kira knew that look. Despite promises made long ago, Julian had not quite mastered the art of finding the cloud in every silver lining. It was beginning to take shape, hazily, languidly—

Her hair, uncombed from her evening’s rest, gave her a demented edge, that and her mouth agape. “The Federation, the Federation, willing to sacrifice an innocent man as… a political favor? For the Cardassians? You, Julian? Your Federation, they’d do that to you? That’s what they see, isn’t it?”

Julian’s mouth felt numb and strange, as if something inside were rejecting the conversation, the flavor as it developed. “I mean, for Garak…. It’s the Federation, they like him, don’t they? He’s on our side, isn’t he? On the Detapa Council?”

That look. From her, from Kira. Deep, dark eyes. Deeper and darker than his. “Oh, Julian….”

“Don’t—don’t worry about that, Nerys, don’t let it nettle you. Listen, think of it!” he stressed, equally to and for himself. Anything from the Federation making itself a character in his thoughts. “Three years—that’s all! Three years, and I can come back. All these years I’ve been trying to rejoin you on the station, and it’ll be possible! It will be like old times, don’t you miss… don’t you miss the old days?”

Ezri had accused her of it, damned her for it. And yet…? “I… I don’t know. It wouldn’t be the old days, Julian.”

Benjamin. Jadzia. Odo.

A deluxe suite where a future Grand Nagus had once left his laundry in crumpled piles.

New railings where young men once admired unguarded cleavage from above.

A perfumery where a tailor’s shop once stood.

A missing schoolroom now a plot stacked with surfeits, and always, always there were pancakes at Morn’s.

“Maybe not exactly the same—”

Kira was not the kind of person who often found herself stupefied.

“… Nerys?”

“Julian.” This was hers: red and thick, like rusting blood. The color of everything she more than suspected, but absolutely knew. “Resign from Starfleet.” She winced, thinking—barely imagining—the trouble it would bring, the cost that would be levied to justify the advice. “Come to Bajor. I’ll have you instated as a citizen. I’ll put you somewhere they can’t touch you.”

“For bloody fuck’s sakes, Nerys!” he barked at the screen. “Aren’t you listening? Aren’t you listening at all?! We’re going to set it right! Garak put me on the M.O.D. to fix things! I get a chance to… to be with you again, with all of you! Be somebody again, Nerys!”

“There is none! There is no chance to put things back where they were!” she snapped back. “It’s gone, Julian! And you, letting the Federation do this to you, and letting Garak manipulate them, thinking it’s a… it’s a… it’s a what, exactly? Gods above, doesn’t it even strike you as… intrusive… that he did this to you? Without your knowing? And after all that time, him knowing you didn’t want a damned thing to do with him!”

“He owes me his life!”

(As if a doctor were owed.)

She stood up from the bench and began to circle, began to pace. “How can you act as if you’re friends again, after eight years, Julian? Eight god-damned years and you don’t even fucking know Rekot! Have you even met Kelas?”

Frayed. “Garak’s mine, he’s my friend! I was the one who gave him an ear; you’d have given him the bloody axe!” This bore an urgency. “I was at his father’s deathbed, he brought me there. Did you know that, Nerys?” He brought out the diplomat’s card, never far, considering its importance. “This, Nerys!” As if it were supposed to mean something, a card in blue. Her comm channel, relayed through Deep Space 9, wasn’t even picking up blues.

“That would be a better line, if I hadn’t been there for Mila’s! Having just spent more time with him a cellar than you had for years! Pledged to help his world! I cared more about Cardassia; I cared more than you did. Think about that, Julian, that I cared more about what happened to those damned… those fucking… enslavers, murderers! And you, jetting off with Ezri, done with Deep Space 9 as long as you had what you wanted!”

Her tear. Like a bonesaw through freshly-grafted skin.

“You left us, left me,” she continued. “You left the station. You left everything as soon as it wasn’t what Julian Bashir, Mister Doctor Frontier-Medicine, had in mind for his continuing adventures. And then you come back, wanting your reputation back, wanting your job back, wanting your life back, a do-over…. Blindly! And I say blindly because, dammit, you’re not even looking! I can’t give you the Chief Medical Officer experience you remember, the family you had here. They’re gone! They’re all gone, Julian! And Garak’s not going to give you a jolly little tête-à-tête—he can’t! He did build himself back up, and now he has to live that way, as that man. Like it or not, he’s not who you remember…. He’s not who you remember wishing that he were.

A part of him did feel betrayed, a feeling that always arrives coupled with anguish. “He helped me. He’s helping me. You told me that you spoke to him, I thought the two of you…?”

She flung a hand towards the screen. “He didn’t tell me about this!

“Is that…?” The latter half of the question hung in the air.

It was a reasonable question. I suppose he had no reason to. He shouldn’t, even, she considered. The more people who know a secret… the less likely it remains secret. But yes, she was still furious, and yet, she did feel used. “… I suppose you going to Cardassia really was just coincidence,” she admitted slowly. “The plan was in motion either way. If Ezri hadn’t plugged in her own agenda…. I’d have taken you to the festival. It would have… played out.” There was, she had to admit, a certain elegance to that. A strange one. Very Garak.

“No,” he confessed, to a broader question. One a-gon-izingly drawn. “I don’t know what’s going on. You know that. You know I know you know that. All I know is he’s helping me.”

She pinched her nose, massaged it, felt every ridge between her index finger and her thumb. She sat back down, thinking that, at least, was a figurative and literal return to the table. “How much do you know of what’s happened on Cardassia since the war?”

A blank look sufficed. He was tired of expounding on what they both already knew, which is to say, how little was known.

“I’d tell you to look up the recordings, but…. I don’t think you should. In fact, I think you should be very careful about what information you access and who you talk to, Julian, if you do choose to serve on your M.O.D.,” she began. “Good grief, you’re lucky you got through on my channel and not Ezri’s.” (A notion not from nowhere: Federation reception was, ironically, better on Bajor than for the domestic government.) “If you called in from a Federation terminal, or through a Federation subspace transmitter, there’s a chance the information would be intercepted. Then… so much for your M.O.D., the choice ahead, and all of Garak’s… hard work in bringing it to you.” And you know by that I mean “scheming.”

He was still looking at the screen, but his gaze was off-center. Not quite eye-to-eye. But if Julian wasn’t talking, that was a decent enough indication that he just might be listening.

Kira had no children, and she had never told a proper bedside story. She would trudge on, nonetheless, as she always had in a slog.

(Once upon a time, in a faraway land….)

“I’ll give you the short version for now.” Not a particularly literary opener. “Garak was able to establish himself as Director Tain’s son. He had proof, but if I’m being honest, I think people were ready to believe it anyway. I’ve seen it before. I mean, you were there, when it was true for Bajor. People desperate for direction, and the Union was just… broken. Totally humiliated. They didn’t even have Castellan Damar, alive at the end, to rally behind. That might have made a difference. I think it might have been a good one.”

(Best not to admit feelings she’d once briefly entertained.)

She did turn her head, verifying that Ezri was still out of the room, no quiet surveillance having opened during her brief argument with Julian.

“When he made his announcement—and it was public, he tapped into… no, what’s the word? Spliced? Spliced himself into the news system—and heavens above, Julian, if you haven’t learned this yet, they’ll stop anything to watch the news—he made some extraordinary claims. He was the son of Director Tain. All right, that’s true. And he could prove it.” She snorted with some kind of vague amusement. “As if he needed to. It was a good story, and with their records—even Cardassian records—as broken and fragmented as they were, still are, it’d be difficult to disprove.

That much Julian knew: Director Tain was only half-dead on Cardassia.

Kira had given a half-beat for questions. She lurched on. “All right. So he was the son of Director Tain, his one-time right-hand. And perhaps that was true. He went on to insinuate a conspiracy, a reason he was on Deep Space 9. A false exile, an advanced move in tri-dimensional chess. You and I, we know that’s a lie. Perhaps his banishment was never meant to be permanent, I don’t know. But it was real for what it was. So we know a truth and a lie. Everything else falls… in the middle.”

A part of Julian was quietly anti-absolutist. A part of him did believe, with his whole heart, something Garak had once told him about the truth, and about lies. A truth about lies, that he believed absolutely.

(Wait…?!)

“He told the people of the Union that he was always and had always been the intended inheritor of the Obsidian Order. And that, though the Order was… defunct, I suppose you’d say, or out of commission at least, he, the son of Director Tain, would not leave his underlings to languish.” She looked away, just one brief moment. “See, people without… ties, on Cardassia, without families…. They don’t tend to thrive. They can, supposedly, through certain channels. Like a Klingon can become a legend without having been born to a Great House. Common? No. … And who on Cardassia has no public ties? No real name? Why, an agent of the Order, of course. They would have had one tie, one family: the Obsidian Order itself. And when it folded, then what? Nothing? It would be like losing your family, everyone who truly knows you, in one blow. An orphan,”—she snapped her fingers—“in an instant.

“So he invoked former agents still in hiding, the survivors, and permitted them—ordered them, really—to reveal themselves. That he wanted them to openly announce their association and proclaim their status as a member—or former member, I should say, of the Order. He said he wanted to give his acolytes the right to pronounce what they had been—what they were—part of: the family to which they rightfully belonged.”

(Julian could understand that. He could remember, on a desolate asteroid,… God, how many years ago?...)

[[Father, please, you’re dying.]]

Kira pulled her bottom lip through her teeth, realizing too late that Julian was likely bugged on the other end, considering he was in Garak’s house. Oh well. Since when has that ever stopped me from running off my mouth? “And there you had it. Garak produced a powerful political contingent… practically overnight. Nearly eight percent of the population claimed an association with the Order.”

“Eight percent?” He tried to dampen what felt like a scoff. Kira’s tale had been told trenchantly, boldly, dramatically, for a lousy eight percent.

And there was the red, of the things she more than suspected, but genuinely knew. “Eight percent is a damned lot, Julian. The Bajoran Resistance was never more than two or three. Most people, even during a war…. Most people continue something like a normal life. That we didn’t enjoy that… was an anomaly.”

(That would have been nice to know beforehand.)

“My point is,” she stressed, “who would stand at the head of this ‘family’? Who else but the figure who was meant for it, the son of Tain?”

“… It would represent a lot of votes. Enough to ensure a permanent seat on the Detapa Council, if their civilian government functions much the same way it did pre-war. At least, when it comes to legislative representation,” he conceded. His voice bore a bizarre wonderment. A part of him imagined the speech, pondered whether it had come with the wry smile he knew from Garak… and from the man who had produced him.

“Well, perhaps. But you’re missing an important point. The Obsidian Order? It was never eight percent of the population. That’s ridiculous on its face. And a good proportion of them were killed in the attempts on the Founders, and on the Dominion generally. Eight percent is nonsense; it would have been nonsense at their peak. So how could it be eight percent…?”

He scrunched his face.

“They’re everyday orphans, Julian. Isolates. Some from the war, and many preceding it. Young, old. See, with most of the records destroyed—and Obsidian Order databanks always twisted and multilayered to begin with—there are neither the resources nor manpower to disprove someone who proclaims her or himself a former agent of the Order. Anyone on Cardassia—anyone in the Union—who wished that they had a family? Got one. Provided that they understood the invitation. That, Julian, is a loyal eight percent. They’re Cardassian. It’s something they’d have desired all their lives, something impossible that they’d have yearned for, prayed for—if Cardassians prayed. They’d pay any price to keep it. And they’d remember it was Garak who opened that door.”

Of all things, of all conclusions to draw, Julian’s first thought was, That explains the higher neckline.

She certainly hoped she had his attention, but with that expression, she wasn’t certain. “And that sounds magnanimous, doesn’t it? It sounds like something you’d want for him to do? Your heart, it bled for the orphans. You’d say so, even back then, when we were all around, every once in a while, when we’d had a bit too much at Quark’s. That you felt for the children like Rugal. But even more, you felt for the ones that nobody wanted.”

(He knew a thing or two about children who weren’t wanted.)

(Didn’t she understand why he wanted to come back to the station?)

Kira frowned, but tried to keep it gentle. “And maybe it is generous. But Garak hasn’t decoupled himself from the Order, Julian. Far from it. And this wasn’t his father forcing his hand, not this time. Right now, he’s in contention with other legislators not as a Federation ally. That’s a detail. It’s that he likely controls the tail end of the Cardassian secret police. And there are real agents in it. How many? I don’t know. Nobody does.”

“There’s still much to be done.”

“And nobody knows what he intends to do with it.”

That was almost worthy of a dark laugh, an evil thought. Instead the register was… odd. Badly lilted. “You just said I don’t care about Cardassia.”

Her gaze was set steely. “I know the kind of man you are. I know a part of you does care.”

(He did.)                                                                                                                          

Eyes not quite and big and dark as hers, but by the stars, they were stolen from a doe. “I believe he’s helping. He needed the votes somehow. And everyone who’d lost their parents, like you, like Garak they got something… a second chance.” He tried to meet her eyes. Soft and soft and fathoms deep. “And if they’re not even real agents—not most of them, anyhow—then it’s just that. Elim would understand how important that is. I mean, you think about it, don’t you? Your parents and Ghemor?”

“Ghemor was a good man.” And he warned me about Garak.

They heard it both at once.

“BAAASHIR!”

Kira recognized it a half-second sooner.

“BAAAASHIR!”

“That’s Rekot,” Kira said. “You two had plans?”

“I—I suppose,” Julian replied. “Ta-talk to you soon. Shit!”

“Julian!”

“Yes, what?” He was already reaching for the button to end the call. Frankly, he’d been eyeing it a while.

“Think about it. Not—not Garak!” she insisted.

“What?!”

“No, I mean—resign. Julian! Don’t forget that, Starfleet—think of what they did!”

“Signing off.”

(Click!)

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“Geez, if I’d realized you were already awake, I’d have fetched you for the introductory stuff. There were a couple other cool points on the news,” Rekot said, her unshod feet pattering down the stairs, her pace guiding Julian towards a room at the back of Garak’s home. “They’re putting in a new city center in Lankerik, and while excavating, they discovered an entire tomb complex. Like, right under Lankerik, the center of town! And you think, woah, that city’s been around forever, and no one saw it before? But everything was still on top before it got blasted. Also someone found a vh’sssssssk with fourteen bulbs. They’re coming back, you know.”

Of course, they’d only report the good news, he thought, tracing her path with perhaps reflexive docility. (A brief little flash of the curious Julian wondered whether a vh’sssssssk was a plant or an animal. Fungus? Something else altogether? Come to think of it, them coming back—was that good news?)

She gave him a quick backward glance. “Hey, you want any breakfast?” She wagged her finger. “No! No, no, my bad, I’ll get it when we sit down. Sorry. It’s starting in just a couple minutes.”

“What’s starting?”

She laughed. “Oh, sorry! I thought you’d want to watch his speech? Garak’s? Maybe not the press conference, those kind of suck. But it’s cool, you know, when he’s on the primary transmission? Because it’s like, ‘oh my gosh, it’s Garak, he’s my sponsor!!’ I don’t know, you’d think it would have worn off by now, but it’s still kind of exciting? And this is supposed to be a good one today. I don’t know. I’ve heard other cultures don’t tend to be as interested in the news, but we like to know what’s going on. Because, like, it lets us know what’s coming up, and besides, how are you going to rep the State if you don’t know what it is?”

Julian had never witnessed one of Garak’s speeches. Based on what Kira had told him, this was a considerable misstep.

I can’t believe it. I was such a tit, Julian thought. Thinking his story was… what, precisely? Laid bare? Played out? And here I am, eight years behind on a saga still unfolding…. What the hell were my standards, that this wasn’t up to snuff? I don’t know what I was on about…. I don’t know what I ever was.  “Misheard you,” he mused. “Yes, I’m looking forward to it. Always a talker. My favorite, actually, for that…. We used to talk. All the time.”

He could begin to hear voices from the back room. Not the warm chatter of guests; this was recorded, transmitted, and arriving through what, based on Rekot’s description, was Cardassia’s primary channel. The lizard people’s C-SPAN, Cardassia’s favored entertainment.

Rekot still considered Julian—going by her words—a space case, but she was grateful to see it verified that the borderline-apocryphal Dr. Bashir and Garak truly did, once, long ago… well, at least talk. She gave a half-bow and gestured Julian into the den, bidding him to pass by first, as was polite.

This, unlike the front room, exhibited an aesthetic far more genuinely Garak. The seating—chairs and sofas—were well-matched but over-stuffed. Books and pads were stacked in carefully-balanced cairns in every corner, on every surface, each at the cusp of toppling. There were further rows of books and oddities on the shelves, strange items from a strange life acquired by a very strange man. The glass of several large windows spanned from floor to ceiling, and through each pane, a view of an enchanting—if entirely artificial—garden. And it would have been comforting, a relief, if not for the last item—something also very Garak. Apparently.

A face that Julian had seen before.

Kelas didn’t stand, only nodded an acknowledgement. “Good morning and good health.” He reached over to a glass of water on the side-table, a marker of the territory he’d arrived early to claim. He drank, simply, easily, casually. It was wise to be hydrated in the morning.

“Y-you!” There was an accusatory edge to it.

And why not? It was the man who’d granted him passage into Garak’s office at precisely the most inopportune moment. If Garak was to be believed—good gracious, now there was an assumption—the boondoggle had settled with some satisfaction. However, that happy accident was not something that the man outside—Kelas Parmak, apparently—could ever have predicted. Waved into a pool of crocodiles!

(By another crocodile, no less.)

Ah right, he doesn’t know Kelas yet, Rekot realized, recalling their conversion the night prior. “Computer, mute.” She snuck in from behind Julian, poking him once, gently, in the upper arm. “This is the Bashir, Dr. Julian. He’s visiting.” She used the same finger to gesture towards Parmak. “And this—”

“Dr. Kelas Parmak,” Kelas said simply, still holding his drink. “Yes, we encountered one another yesterday. I sincerely apologize for having ushered you into Garak’s office. I assumed there must be an emergency, seeing you bereft of Rekot. But we had no one to introduce us then. I’m pleased we have the opportunity, at long last.”

“That’s quite all right,” Julian said, still not certain where to place either his or Parmak’s answer on a long scale of the truth. “Simply didn’t recognize you. I’d heard you… described differently.”

That, at least, was accurate. He had read some of the correspondence, early on. The Dr. Parmak he recalled from Garak’s letters was milder… frailer. This Parmak, the Parmak in the long coat—a somber gray—was evidently damaged—the teeth, the fingertips, and some scales lost—but still conveyed an air of formidability. He was taller than Garak, and taller than Julian, even, regardless of a developing stoop, and considerably broader. A sturdy example of the species.

Kelas’s smile was gracious but slight. “I heard you described differently as well. Please, be seated,” he said with a bow of his head. “You are welcome here.”

Julian permitted himself a suspicious appraisal. And who are you to welcome me to someone else’s house?

“Cool, and I’ll get some water for you, too,” Rekot interjected. “Did you want any food? We can replicate bread and we’ve got stuff like bread, which is something I know humans go for. We can even have it make the hot bread with the crunch and powdered bark, like you guys enjoy.” She tried to sound world-wise, referencing a treat she knew from Morn’s.

“Water is fine,” Julian replied levelly. He came around the sofa—the one most perfectly aligned for a view the screen (still set to display while muted, but not yet featuring the star). He scanned the available perch and noticed Kelas had, aside from ranging onto the adjacent furniture with his glass, also placed a book down beside him, establishing an effective sprawl of over half the sofa. Julian took a seat at the opposite end, not quite to the arm. He didn’t intend to be shied.

Rekot set off to the downstairs replicators. Water, as Kelas often said, was a good choice: it was wise to be hydrated in the morning.

(She considered bringing some bread regardless. Besides, something about it amused her, that grass-egg sponge puff made by titillating yeast. She always took some humor watching someone consume it, a staple food of Earth. To hear Keiko tell it, a favorite preparation was with sticky, sugary insect vomit. By comparison, the Ferengi penchant for the whole insect was downright comforting.)

The air was strange.

“… What’s the subject, then? Of the speech?” Julian asked Kelas, the two of them briefly alone. It seemed a noncommittal subject, something fair to broach regardless of the awkwardness of their surroundings.

“Recently completed studies of the soil on the Tendrikk peninsula suggest that it may be safe again to farm.”

Julian eyed him. “And that’s breaking news on Cardassia?”

“Tendrikk is what you humans would so lovingly refer to as a ‘breadbasket’ of our world. To resume agricultural activities there promises a considerable improvement for quality of life on Cardassia. This shift? Not immediate—it is part of a careful and practiced rollout. To begin will be the source of considerable enthusiasm from young and old alike.” He turned his head, yelling after Rekot. “Rekot!”

And in return, from another room, “YES? WHAT?”

“A hairball, Rekot!”

“GROSS! WHY?”

“A demonstration!”

“’KAY. PROB’LY FIRST-EVER REPLICATED HAIRBALL, KELAS!”

A hairball? Julian would expect something of the sort from the Tellarite teacher, but Cardassians seemed ill-equipped to produce such traditionally mammalian compactions. Cardassian hair was kept too carefully to imagine in a tangle. The closest he’d seen was Parmak himself, whose hair, un-oiled, was wild by Cardassian standards.

Parmak caught the expression. “Only a playful moniker, Dr. Bashir. You will see.”

He smiled in return, thinking it better than to stiffen. “‘Julian.’ Please. I’m here as a friend.”

“Too formal, we Cardassians?”

Julian leaned forward and patted Kelas on the thigh. “Just a smidge.” How do you like that, then?

That really did trip a fuse. Kelas found himself suddenly unsure of what to say, or what he’d been saying, for that matter. Humans! “I suppose we know too much of one another for formalities,” he gave, trying to force his diction back onto its intended track. “You may call me Kelas.”

A bigger smile, from Julian, witnessing the tactic’s effectiveness. “Wonderful.”

But a quick recovery. “Elim does.”

“Geez, you guys, you’re going to miss it! Computer, un-mute,” they heard, breaking in from behind. Rekot had appeared with a full tumbler of water, as well as a plate of cinnamon toast. She set them down on a long table near Julian. She herself had a glass of something orange which popped and fizzled gaily. She pushed Kelas’ book off the sofa and plopped down between the two doctors. Best seat in the house.

Julian took the glass of water and eyed the toast. “Thank you, Rekot.”

“Yeah, no problem.” Her eyes were locked onto the transmission screen. The program featured a Cardassian woman arduously reiterating the primary takeaways from the previous legislative session regarding Tendrikk. There were a few accompanying bullet-points, an assist to most, but the U.T. was helpless when given language in that format.

The doctor—the human doctor—couldn’t help but wonder if Rekot was savvier than she immediately appeared.

Kelas was silent, and, following her example, returned his attention to the screen.

A half-second in, Rekot squirmed and withdrew a block from her pants pocket. It was a strange pinkish-brown and somewhat crumbly. Already, flecks were sloughing from its corners. “Oh, and you wanted this?” she asked, offering it to Kelas.

“Ah, thank you,” Kelas replied softly, setting it aside.

“Hairball,” Rekot whispered to Julian, though a Cardassian whisper was not especially discreet.

“Hairball.” As if that cleared things up.

And Garak’s face appeared on the screen.

 

//

 

 

“Ezri… I need to ask you a question,” Kira said. “And… I need you not to answer right away.”

“The answer is yes.”

Kira released a long, aggravated moan. “I didn’t even ask it yet!”

Ezri shrugged, rummaging around her bag for the proper selection of the shirts she’d packed (an entire three). “You were going to ask me whether it’s time for you to accept one of your offers on Bajor. And since I’ve been telling you that it’s time to do that, literally, for years, I already know the answer. I don’t really have to meditate on that one any more than I already have. Yes, Kira. It’s time.”

She felt her cheeks burning. “I shouldn’t have asked you.”

“If it helps, technically you didn’t?”