Actions

Work Header

RESTORE, REMAKE, & REBUILD

Chapter Text

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 3 in the menu, and have fun! (Chapter 2 is some bonus art, but contains minor spoilers.)

st-rrr-cast7col2-foroc-1a-b-exp-1080

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

Chapter 17 - Uploaded Nov 22, 2018

Chapter 18 - Uploaded Nov 23, 2018

Chapter 19 - Uploaded Nov 27, 2018.

Chapter 20 - Uploaded Dec 1, 2018.

Chapter 21 - Uploaded Dec 5, 2018.

Chapter 22 - Uploaded Dec 14, 2018.

Chapter 23 - Uploaded Dec 25, 2018.

Chapter 24 - Uploaded Dec 26, 2018.

Chapter 25 - Uploaded Dec 27, 2018.

Chapter 26 - Uploaded Jan 2, 2019.

Chapter 27 - Uploaded Jan 10, 2019.

Chapter 28 - Uploaded Jan 19, 2019.

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 pornographic content. 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

st-rrr-cast7col2-foroc-1a-b-exp-1080
The principal cast.

 

A welcome to the station. 

st-rrr-bus-tell
Tellarite teacher.

 

st-rrr-archonz2-2
Archons Quantik and Ulinar.

 

st-rrr-doods-cus
Niiami and Yerena.

 

 

Son of Tain.

 

Dinner.

 

Kelas explains lightships sent from Bajor.

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 began, 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

tttttktkktaktaktaktaktak++

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

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?”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The speech was about soil. It was about a presumed—although still tentative—victory over carcinogens, heavy metals, virulent compounds of all kinds. Eight years prior, orbital bombardment commanded by the Founders had sent noxious dusts into the Cardassia’s atmosphere, much of which—for climatic reasons—had settled in Tendrikk. In the intervening period, plant life grew thick and rich, by Cardassian standards, but the high concentrations of toxicants meant agricultural output was restricted to industrial fibers.

… Not that anyone on Cardassia had a personal vendetta against industrial fiber, but it made an unsatisfying substitute for fresh fruits.

Garak, ever the lector, provided an overview of the research conducted in Tendrikk—nothing overly technical, of course, but accurate and sufficiently comprehensive. He went on to describe how the corresponding analyses had condensed into the Detapa Council’s eventual determination: traditional agricultural activities were to resume. That meant fruit. That meant vegetables. And yes, for Cardassians, that meant animal protein as well.

The process would be cautious, calculated, and subject to supervision that bordered on extreme. However, Garak underscored the necessity of discretion: eager as they were—as they all were—to move on, impatience could kill. The Founders had seen to that. It was better to be precautionary than to poison those who had survived, lusting after the pleasures of a world intact.

Garak’s tone was gracious and compassionate. He described the data driving the Council’s decision to move forward as well as the experts they were heeding, those who were guiding the work and how deeply they should be commended for their service. MedCen, and its medical research teams, received top billing. There were no surprises, no unexpected drops. The talk was inspirational by dint of being informative, not necessarily dramatic. The reinstatement of farming in Tendrikk was inevitable, and would be celebrated just as inevitably—one more step in a punishing recovery.

Kelas was familiar with the research, of course. He had overseen it.

What Kelas had not expected to see was the rapt attention. He knew Dr. Bashir as a student of Garak’s, not as a genuine admirer. It was to his considerable surprise that Julian stopped drinking, never ate a bite. He watched every moment with undivided attention. Not something, based on the descriptions, Kelas was to expect of the man.

And Julian looked, of all things, heartbroken.

Kelas tilted his head, the immediate observation far more interesting than a speech he’d heard rehearsed a dozen times.

On-screen, Garak arrived at the end of his speech. He unwearyingly reviewed the main points, reiterated his gratitude to the citizenry for their patience in the matter, and briefly reminded any viewers with further questions to watch the following press conference on a subordinate channel.

“I’m surprised to see you so enraptured,” Dr. Parmak broached as Garak’s speech concluded.

“Soil toxicity studies…,” Julian mused.

“That which is banal is often most essential.”

Garak was no longer center stage. The female reporter was back on-screen, again with the bullet-points, a polite concession for those who had tuned in late.

Julian leaned back against the sofa and sighed. “Eight years to screen soil. The Federation has—”

“No member of the Federation was here to conduct the research,” Kelas interrupted. “Research which, to us, was new. Soil degradation? Certainly, a historical phenomenon on Cardassia. However, unlike those of other worlds, the application of pesticides, miticides, or fungicides? Never exercised. That our soil could be poison was novel to us.”

Rekot’s eyes darted between the two. She’d finished her drink, but maintained a grip on the glass.

One of Julian’s fingers plucked at the corner of his mouth. “I could have done it in a month….” If I’d been here….

Kelas clenched his teeth. “Our work is thorough.”

“I thought that the Federation and the Union shared academic papers?” Julian inquired, lost in thought, failing to catch the mood. He tried to remember who had told him about the academic exchange. Keiko, probably.

“As of approximately two years ago. Cardassian physiology is unique. Many techniques had to be adapted. The work had to be credible. You Federation species think of us as reckless. Our military, our Central Command? At times, perhaps. But our people have suffered enough by recklessness. They deserve more from their science.”

“They deserve more than your stubborn isolationism,” Julian retorted, his wistfulness rapidly dissipating.

“Perhaps you would have been on my team in MedCen, had you been present while the work was conducted. It is my understanding that this is your first visit to post-war Cardassia. Or has Elim lied to me again, in his way, whispers soft and dear?”

That was a second instance. Harder to ignore. Suddenly, Julian found himself even angrier, how suspicious he’d been of the name “Rekot”. He recalled Kira’s words, easily dismissed in the heat of the moment, skimmed in real-time. (“Have you even met Kelas?”) “Is that why you’re so defensive? That was your plodding research?”

Kelas’s expression remained fixed. He took another swig of bright, clean water. “The timing is opportune. I wouldn’t expect you to understand it.” He tapped a finger—a whole finger, in that case—on the “hairball” brought to him by Rekot. “This ensured that the people were fed. That they should be fed agreeably is a luxury that we were happy to provide, in its time.”

Rekot nodded and took the chance to interject. “Yeah, there’s your hairball.” She set down her glass. “You’re to thank for that, you know,” she said, turning to take a cautious look at Julian.

“What is it?” the obvious question, and Julian was done playing games, dancing around it.

“The commonest source of essential protein on afflicted worlds in the Union, including this one,” Kelas said.

Rekot took pity on Julian. “It’s tribble meat. Dehydrated, made into bricks. They get most of the hair out, but, you know, a bit makes it through processing. It’s not an extravagant food, you know, it’s like… baseline. You eat it so you’ve got something to eat.”

Julian looked both aghast and crestfallen. “Oh, oh no, tribbles? Not… tribbles? The little?” He mimed holding on in his hands. “They’re—they’re cute!”

“They also have the highest feed-to-flesh conversion ratio of any edible creature, nearly 85% by mass,” Kelas noted. He nodded somberly, his voice just an edge fainter. “They are also very cute.”

“Garak remembered you talking about them, apparently just missed seeing one himself,” Rekot said. “But he always remembered your story. Not long after joining the Council, he commissioned a famous trader to lead a dark, perilous mission discover living tribbles and have them delivered safely to Cardassia. Great danger, great expense: perfect for one of the rare brave Ferengi. I’ve heard you know him—Quark?”

We gave Quark tribbles! Julian scoffed silently. Assuming he kept even one, he took the Union for a ride… and I don’t think Quark chucks anything he might be able to sell later…. “Yes, I’m familiar. Truly, a champion profiteer.”

“Yeah, Ferengi come by pretty often, including Quark, now and again. Haven’t met him myself, though. I don’t think Garak wants me to….” She never was sure why.

It was Kelas’s turn to jump in. “We have stocked many of our brackish ponds, primarily the salt basins of the northern continent, with Terran algae, which thrive in Cardassian sunlight. Into these pools, we scatter iron filings,” he said, “thereby producing algal blooms in ordinarily dead lakes. The algae is then harvested and fed to tribbles, which in turn convert inedible organic material into useable meat.”

Garak came up with that? Julian marveled. In a way, it didn’t surprise him. When he had first arrived on DS9, he had pegged genius as inherently specialized. Given his subsequent experiences, he’d come to realize the failings inherent in that perspective. One more thing Garak had always tried to teach him.

Kelas held up the hairball, assessing it from all sides, much like Quark himself often did when presented with a bar of latinum. Sans the awe. “For a people who, unlike your Federation, experience strict limitations in our domestic resources, and who cannot afford the energy load of replicating whatever titbits we desire, the hairball is a godsend, Cardassian manna. Unfortunately, though it is properly nutritious for us savage eaters-of-flesh, the flavor carries. You can imagine why the people yearn for fresh rokassa.”

“‘Savage’?” Not a descriptor that Julian often heard in Cardassian self-assessment.

“I have heard humans and Vulcans, on their arrival here, comment on the ‘primitive practice’ of eating meat,” Kelas remarked. His eyes narrowed at the young woman next to him. “And from the occasional resident of Bajor. At least the Klingon sympathize.” In one smooth motion, he handed off the hairball to Rekot, who took it with some embarrassment.

Considering that Miles told me that Sisko just let the hunt for Tosk go on, I don’t know if we have much room to complain about tribbles. Besides, I’m not sure they’re much brighter than gagh, and I’ve had that. He tried not to frown. But they’re so much cuter than worms….

(Although, if he gave it thought, he’d thought some worms quite cute indeed.)

“And how do you keep them from overpopulating in their habitat, infesting the rest of the planet?” Julian asked. It seemed a significant hitch any time tribbles were involved. They ate every ounce of triticale in the span of a few hours, and once aboard the Enterprise…. “The northern continent may be primarily desert, but it seems like a serious threat to your Cardassian ecosystems.”

“Thank you for remembering that our world—though not as green as your own—does indeed possess them.”

Right enough, I’ve seen the bugs.

“Bunkers,” Rekot said, turning the hairball over in his hands. This rare example was replicated, an unbloodied, innocent block. (She’d eaten meat since her return to the Union, but Bajoran habits died hard.) “The old Obsidian Order bunkers. They’re underground, set in weird locations. And they’ve got the lockdown on, uh, lockdown. We farm them in there. Nothing gets in or out of an Obsidian-Order-designed facility without authorization, and that includes tribbles.”

“So that’s what Garak did with the redrafted Obsidian Order?” Julian asked. “Had them farm?” Does Nerys know that? She rarely gives Cardassians the benefit of the doubt, but even they have to eat… and deserve a second chance to be better. That’s what you did, wasn’t it, Nerys? Took the opportunity to nurture rather than to kill? You must have known that there were others, even Cardassians, who would choose the same for themselves…. If I could go back, and only heal, and never have to kill—

Kelas took a deep breath, which rattled in his ragged lungs. “Agents of the Obsidian Order were known to be, of a constant species, among the most faithful. If delivering meat was the people’s need, agents of the Order would see it done at any cost. It would be the worst failure of an agent to put ego above the cause.”

Julian had heard that before. He’d shot a man in that argument.

“It was also a good way to find out who the actual higher-ups had been, cross-referencing if they knew where the black sites were,” Rekot volunteered.

“Rekot!” Kelas hissed.

“What? Everybody knows the whole phasers-into-plowshares thing is a joke. The real agents weren’t going to become fucking farmers just because Garak said so. They’ve got better shit to do.”

Rekot!” This time, more insistent.

That, to her, was almost a challenge. “What, what, what, Kelas? The freakin’ Federation has spies, everyone knows that. We’re in negotiation with the Federation to hand over the last pack we caught. Every major government is going to have some. They’ve got theirs, we’ve got ours. It’s an open secret.”

“State secrets are state secrets regardless,” Kelas countered sharply. “In fact, dear Rekot, why don’t you head to your room and do some of the tidying up I recommended? Dr. Bashir—excuse me, Julian—and I have matters we might discuss, alone. Besides”—this done casually—“you told me that he made you uncomfortable.”

Rekot shot him a look desperate, betrayed, and seriously annoyed. Dark stars, Kelas!

Julian winced.

Kelas tapped his fingers against the arm of the sofa.

“F-f-fiiiine,” Rekot finally managed. She rose to her feet and made a beeline for the exit. “But you’ve got to go to MedCen after this, that’s what you told me. I’m taking over after!” There was a pause from somewhere down the hall, then a shout. “I’m happy to do that, it’s not weird!”

Julian wi—nope. Cringed. No point pretending it was less.

“My apologies,” Kelas said. “But I do think we should talk.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

TO: COUNCILLOR ELIM GARAK

SUBJ: HEY

YOUR FUCKING TRICKS. SERIOUSLY!

WE’LL TALK

ALSO: WORK TOPIC. CALL ON SUBSPACE DIPLOMATIC LINE.

-- KIRA NERYS

 

//

 

“Computer, end display.” That was Kelas.

No press conference, then. Somehow, Julian found that satisfactory. He had a very different set of questions he wished to see answered, ones he doubted that the average Cardassian reporter would think—or dare—to ask.

“So,” Kelas opened simply and, if one were being fair, not altogether unpleasantly.

Julian knew better than to take bait that plain. Instead, he leaned over and selected a piece of cinnamon toast. The flavor was… convincing, actually. He allowed the dusting, the crumbs, what-have-you, to scatter onto his lap and what was his—his—side of the sofa. The warm patch left from Rekot’s departure formed a familiar yet intimate Cardassian/Federation demilitarized zone.

(Kira was right. Bajor was always in the middle.)

Kelas turned over his hand, bearing an upward-facing palm. It was not an invitation, only a polite indicator of trust. Cardassian palms were practically undefended, possessing only tiny scales and among their very thinnest skin. “Descriptions of you, and photographs, have been provided to me. However, I had long surrendered the belief that you and I would meet. Apologies, that we find ourselves so poorly prepared for your arrival.”

“We.” What defines that “we,” exactly? Julian wondered, and knew he was meant to wonder it, though he wondered why Kelas would set him wondering. For all the coyness he associated with Cardassians, Kelas, bluntly put, put things bluntly.

“To your credit, as a visitor, you have allowed us some time to freshen up,” Kelas said in his comfortably detached tone, barely a whiff of feeling in it. “Re-open our museums, re-tile our streets, establish tourist destinations, and so on. So if it has not yet been said, welcome to Cardassia. This world welcomes you and your fellow sightseers.”

Julian continued to work through his breakfast. “Oh,” he said, holding up a finger. “I’ve been welcomed, and it’s quite wonderful what you all have done with the place. But I came to see Elim. All this, the museums and things? Banger, but really a bonus.” He gave a quick laugh. “Although, given how fondly he describes them, somewhere we’ll end up, I’m sure. There and the restaurants, whatever he thinks is proper Cardassian cuisine.”

“I should hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’ll find him largely tasked during your stay.” The hand, back over.

Julian shrugged and brushed crumbs off his front. “He mentioned that one or two of his commitments were fixed, but I’m grateful for whatever time he can spare.” He looked up, ensuring their eyes met. “And I believe it’s been mentioned that you work as well? In MedCen? I wouldn’t have expected you to have a morning to spare, Kelas, but I’m grateful that Cardassian schedules can be so accommodating. I suppose having completed all those difficult soil screens, you’re entitled to some rest.”

“My presence was requested by Rekot. I am not legally her guardian but, of course, that is a role that Elim and I share for her and for the other sponsored ones.” And there was little more Cardassian than to allow concessions for family.

Others? “I’ve been looking forward to meeting them as well, providing they’re not busier yet.”

Kelas gave him a look. It was a look. “They are not here. They are of an age to have taken full apprenticeships and come into residency associated with those placements. Among humans, is it not the same? Even the youngest Cardassian orphans of Bajor are now aging out of childhood, after all. We nourished them, instructed them, but we would not dream to entrap them.”

He’d love for me to ask how many, wouldn’t he? Bugger him.

(And bugger, that he didn’t know the answer.)

Julian thought it best just to laugh pleasantly. It drove him mad when Garak pulled that trick, and he believed it might well irk Dr. Parmak twice as much, once for its own sake and twice-over for who it barefacedly mimicked. “Oh, I remember residency! Wild time, just before I met Elim, actually. Thought I knew everything. Truth is, I hadn’t the foggiest idea what the universe would have in store.”

“A familiar story of youth.” That was… oddly softer. Kelas seemed to consider his fingers.

“I apologize if I embarrassed you earlier,” Julian said, willing to meet any concession he detected, and chastising himself for his annoyance at Parmak. The Cardassian doctor had every reason for his coldness, and Julian knew it. He might not have appreciated the man’s tongue, but the words were not unwarranted. If anything, he objected to Kelas’s distaste as a dilettante’s puttering. No one could hate Dr. Bashir like Dr. Bashir. “Your tooth and all that. It struck me as irregular. Didn’t stop to think. Condescending of me.”

Kelas smiled lightly, and it felt genuine. In fact, “genuine” seemed an appropriate word for Kelas, for better and for worse. “It is a compassionate impulse, and appropriate to one of our profession. And I ought not to have been brusque. These,” he said, indicating his scars and wounded hand, “I maintain intentionally. But knowing me so little, you would not be aware.”

Julian put his thumb to his mouth, running the nail between his teeth, indulging in a calming scrape, an iik-iik-iik. “Chancellor Martok requested the same. It’s been years. I do hope he’s well….”

Kelas nodded. “Last he was here, it would seem so. I’m fond of the man.” There was a subtle sigh, so low that a Cardassian would think it inaudible. “He spoke well of you.” He was surprised you were not here. There was a happy reunion, that could have been.

I suppose losing an eye in Internment Camp 371 is not an experience he’d find easy to forget…. Though with being Chancellor, it’s amazing he would remember me at all, Julian thought bitterly. Everyone’s been so eager to forget the Dominion War…. But perhaps not the Klingon, not quite so easily. It was a victory, and the Klingon, the Klingon and their operas….

“He spoke well of how you cared for them. For all of them. Including Tain.”

Julian’s gaze wandered the room, silently assessing its dimensions, wondering if Garak ever panicked in rooms such as these. It would seem unlikely, with such large windows in the walls, and under such open skies. He rubbed his fingers against his palms, invoking a tactile memory of the blankets he’d once draped over a shivering, panicky Elim. His mind was miles away.

(Anything for a hypo, to let it be further.)

“Did you know that I once assisted Director Tain as a physician?”

No response.

Dr. Parmak cinched his teeth. “And Tain arranged for me to be sent to a labor camp. A matter of somewhat different character than what you experienced with the Jem’Hadar, naturally.”

A blink, and Julian’s fingers froze.

“And I was there longer, which is not to suggest we are in competition. That is where these were acquired,” he said, pulling down the collar of his coat—just the slightest measure, and clinically, very clinically. Scarred and buckled scales descended beyond what was tepidly revealed. Kelas was careful to deemphasize any erotic suggestion to the motion, unsure of a human’s interpretation of Cardassian demonstrations.

I’m an arse, Julian thought.

And the wrap: “Elim was my inquisitor.”

That earned a look of shock and… revulsion.

“These are kept as a reminder. A reminder for him, not for me. They are a reminder of his aptitude. The power that his aptitude bestows. It is a reminder that the games he plays are substantive; his schemes and his puzzles are tallied on the hides of others.” He clenched an incomplete fist. “They are also a record of my devotion. That I know what he does, and what he is able to do, and correctly directed, I support him in it. Through all sacrifice, in defiance of all agonies.”

Julian’s throat bobbed. “It’s… it’s noble of you.” He gripped his wrist awkwardly. “To forgive him for that.” I forgave him, once… But…. I’m not sure I ever had the right. I didn’t know, then, if any living person did…. He felt—something. Gratified? Mortified? At the thought. He never betrayed me. I always expected he would, but…. In the end, I had nothing to forgive him for. Not then.

(He hated that.)

Kelas’ nostrils flared. A Cardassian tasting the air—an air hot, heavy, oppressive. “I have not forgiven.” He tilted his head. “He couldn’t have told you I had, did he? If so, a lie, and a bold one. Even for Elim.”

But, didn’t…? “Uh, oh. No. I just…. Humans. We have an, erm, expectation. When a story is told in a certain way. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to presume. It’s a… failing… of ours. Of mine.”

“Ah. Humans narratives are different. I’m told this.” He relaxed, just a tinge.

“They are. Cardassian literature is, ah… something else entirely. For us, I mean,” Julian admitted. He squirmed somewhat, feeling like it was borderline unfaithful to discuss the books he’d read with Garak instead with Kelas. “Humans romanticize… breaking patterns. Ending… cycles.”

“Indeed, quite different, for us.”

“Mm….”

The Cardassian seemed grateful for the discomfort. Not cruelly, but like any doctor whose probing was narrowing in on a diagnosis. “To forgive him would be to release the hold I have as his primary advisor,” Kelas explained. “It is a role that commands my entire being. The fate of Cardassia depends on his success, and I would give anything for a deserving State, for my people who it governs. You see the Cardassia of today, and, true, it is hungry, it is pained. You cannot imagine it eight years ago.” Having not been here. Having chosen to ignore it, as you humans could do. “It must maintain this trajectory at any cost.”

“I, I see, that’s very—”

“That is why I want you to leave.”

And that—that was a cut. It would leave a jagged gash, a leathered scar, something no mere physician could offer to repair. Julian took a deep breath. “I will leave once my shore leave has ended. You need to understand: it was my intention to visit Commander Kira aboard Deep Space 9. She and Garak arranged for me to come here instead. I understand that I’m… a disruption. But Garak wants to see me, and it was his choice whether to extend that offer. I owe it to him to be here, and to offer closure, if that’s something that would be meaningful to him. You need to accept that he and I have the right to negotiate that on our personal terms based on our shared history.” Those were, in retrospect, Ezri terms. Ezri reasoning.

(He had been listening. He just couldn’t—)

Kelas glowered. “You are free to take delight in all Cardassia can offer. We have many fine restaurants. We have surviving art collections, sublime by any world’s standards. And by all means, do not neglect our many spas. Myself, I offer, if you desire, for the deed that gives you courage. Relish it all, cultivate your rapture and your hotblooded bliss. And then go.” His gaze, unflinching. And not even cold. “And having gone, do as humans do and end your tale with your so-called ‘closure’. Once you depart, do not return.”

Julian curled up slightly, bringing his legs in towards his torso, not quite enough to seem fetal but closer than he’d imagined. Defensive, as though Kelas were the killer. “I don’t know what you think I threaten here.”

“You are an intelligent man; be intelligent here.” It was a command, and Kelas commanded well. “Elim is more sentimental than he seems, and he thrives in a world of his stories. It is why he was effective as a spy; it is why he is effective as a politician. He can define a narrative, bring aboard an audience. But he can only do so by understanding narratives, dissecting them. And in that process, they infect him. Your human stories—both those you shared, and that which you are—are a disease for which he has little resistance.”

As if I could do that much damage with a story, a whole damn empire—

(Kimara Cretak.)

(F-u-c-k.)

Kelas shook his head, and with alarming sorrow. It seeped from every word. “And you, with the hooks of your grief…. He will see himself in you. He will be unable to cut the line. If he were just a man, a man in obligation to an inevitable cycle, it would make for… Cardassian literature. But greater are the stakes, greater than one man's destruction.”

(Ajilon Prime.)

“Wherever you suffer, wherever you languish, you will poison the air around you. And Elim may be willing to bear that, in his gratitude to you… but our world cannot afford to lose him. I feel sorry for you, sorrier than you know, but I will not let your presence become a liability to Cardassia, or to Elim.”

(THE NEVER-ENDING SACRIFICE.)

 “To expose him to you is to sicken him. You, a doctor—can you justify it?”

The notion, the weight of the notion, took some time to process. Julian—Dr. Bashir—considered the accusation, turned it over in his mind—Kelas’s story about a story that would consume a storyteller. A necessary future. Disease. Grief, obligation, the State, and a never-ending cycle. He picked up his glass of water, threw the contents in Kelas’s face, and left the room.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

You know, a year ago, a month ago, you didn’t care, Julian thought. So it’s baseless, and you know it’s baseless, to be upset about it now!

A blasted week ago you thought he hated you. And sure, if anyone asked, you might have said, “Oh, right, Cardassia—there’s a lark. Maybe someday I’ll go, what, and why not?” But in terms of this planet, anything here…. This world was just one more dead end to you, Julian. Are you going to pretend that it was meant to wait for you? When you weren’t coming?

He charged up the stairs, still rankling, exhilarated and anxious, borderline fearful. He couldn’t imagine what the ramifications of his outburst might be. No, they wouldn’t be Earth-shattering (or Cardassia-shattering, in this case) but he hadn’t the faintest idea exactly how seriously he’d misstepped, although, suffice to say, losing one’s temper rarely commended a person. To the oft-strait-laced Cardassians? It did seem unlikely.

Well, fuck him. Fuck him and fuck that, and you know what else? Bloody fuck-you too, Garak!

… Really, Julian? Really? For even one bloody second, you’re going to pretend this is his fault?

He grasped the sliding door to his room and threw it open with a bang. Once through, he slammed it closed again. He could do it splendidly, majestically, how skilled he was, slamming doors shut. Eight god-damned years of experience.

“Well, I’ve got the right!” he insisted aloud, a challenge made to empty air. He stormed over to the window and promptly took a seat an adjacent seat. He crossed his legs, crossed his arms, trying to knot his gangly limbs.

Outside, the clarifying sky of a glowing Cardassian day. Its slinking touch, its rising heat.

You know what? It’s shit, Garak. It’s shit, it’s fucking bollocks, to bring me here and let your fucking partner have me keel-hauled. For daring to take up your invitation!

His blood ran hot under his skin. It was ridiculous to feel humbled, and yet the humiliation gripped, and it stung.

So that, that’s your type, is it, Garak?

(A withdrawal of tender names, of names with meaning. Private names once traded like secrets.)

He unbraided his arms and dug his fingers into the sides of his face furiously, and furious at the rush of blood under his skin. At that moment, he’d have given anything for gray scales as impassive as leather and not the tissue-paper cladding that, brazenly mammalian, would redden madly. Red, red, red and ashamed.

His brain could revisit—thanks, brain—years of flirtation. And he’d enjoyed it, happily partaken in it.

Once Garak revealed he could enter Julian’s room on the station without system authorization—and by the stars, that was early in—Julian had laughingly given him the access code regardless. By traditional human standards, a cheeky prod.

After the attack by the Lethean, he’d told Garak a remarkable story, down to the most curious details, including—and he thought this one particularly amusing—his dream of being pushed against the wall by gray hands, trusted gray hands. Hands belonging to a figure he hadn’t thought, up to the very last, to doubt, to question. A figure that would treat him, cherish him, vouch for his joy even as he was dying.

And once, years ago, he’d asked, just outside the door to the docking bay, whether Garak had any last thoughts before answering a dangerous call. He made to re-create a coquettish Cardassian gesture (something from Nations Emboldened) and waited for his reward. Instead he’d received a glib little jest. A stupid bit and no damned kiss, so—

At some point, the flirting became hollow. Not the friendship, per se, but the courting—the waltz that was meant to end in a press, of something-or-other against this-and-that.

And the doctor had taken the hint and arrived at what seemed like the obvious conclusion: the ostensible interest was merely an aspect of Garak’s current presentation, an affected trait to round out the character he’d invented for his duration aboard Deep Space 9. The touches, the glances? A fanciful yearning the Cardassian was happy to suggest, as a figment of the role, but not something to which Garak, personally, had wished to commit.

With that suspicion in mind, Julian had balked, turned cautious, fearful that he was pressing Garak into a situation where the “cover” would dictate acquiescence. It seemed entirely possible, and the prospect of exploiting the false mannerisms of his disguise….

Julian seen the power of espionage tech in medicine, work he himself had conducted on Kira, on Sisko, and on Quark. He was satisfied (he’d told himself) to know Garak as a personality.

It was necessary that their bond be defined strictly in that way.

A knowing characterized by occasional glimmers, insights, into the authentic entity, eking slowly out through time.

Hell, he couldn’t even know whether the Garak he knew, physically, had anything in common with Garak’s natural configuration. Julian had no reason to believe a spy meant to suffer would be granted the concession of the return of his face. It didn’t seem a necessary condition for the one-way ticket to exile, setting appearances square with his genes. A waste of medical expertise, one could contend, resetting the flesh just to die in disgrace.

How old was he, really? No one on the station had ever been able to place it. Had he ever been “adjusted” to look older? Younger? The immediate impulse to mark his age by Tain’s was faulty: Cardassians had strange lifespans and reproduced unpredictably. Besides, who was to say that Enabran hadn’t been subject to similar tinkering? He, too, had been an agent. Julian couldn’t even be sure if Garak had been born a son of Tain or a daughter.

Garak so resisted those physicals.

In the end, who knew? Perhaps Garak had been sentenced to exile during an interstitial period, perhaps one where a false face was not required, perhaps even uncouth. In that case, the entire chain of thought was invalid. Perhaps, physically, Garak was, in truth, exactly as he appeared.

(Anything was possible.)

What did Julian have to go on? Just a fussy, flamboyant tailor who would come close, close, close—and withdraw. Every single time.

Julian had considered, once or twice, upbraiding Garak for leaning on old stereotypes. That it felt lazy and, in some archaic way, mildly offensive to co-opt those mannerisms. Not to mention, Julian might add, more than a little frustrating for those he chose to tease.

And here he was on Cardassia—

(He should know by now how it felt to be wrong.)

I can’t believe you went for that bastard. And it had to be a doctor, didn’t it? He nearly laughed, and it emerged as an odd, oxlike snort. A doctor whose team takes years to conduct basic soil analyses. Good work, Garak, I’m terribly impressed!

His skull felt tight. All these years of medicine, and he didn’t even know that was a feeling. That a skull could feel tight as your heart fell out of your ass.

Oh, but he is broad-shouldered, broad-everything’d. Is that what you were after? Needed someone that could make you feel svelte without changing up your routine?

Somehow, the spite failed to lift his spirits. Quite the opposite, actually.

Garak, he’s mean, Julian puled inwardly. And this was childlike, though it felt a little… cleaner.

He frowned a big, damn exaggerated frown. If there had been a mirror, he’d have felt stupid, catching his own expression. Ripped right from the pages of a fool’s textbook, scrawled crudely, overly plain. Garak would be appalled.

Was it because I’m an alien? He wondered. Cardassians were notoriously xenophobic. But you, you didn’t feel that way, did you? You never struck me as a bigot. You made friends with Kira, Odo, Martok, Quark… and no one forced you to. Sure, they were the only ones around, and perhaps that was part of it, but me? You liked me, didn’t you? And sharing our cultures? We had that in common didn’t we?

He looked down at his hands, his slender arms. He turned them over.

There’s a sickness of Cardassian infants, cradle fungus…. Their scales slake off, their skin turns orange—

Julian, even on his worst days, rarely resorted to critiquing his appearance as diseased.

Maybe he was trying, Julian considered bleakly. For a moment, he remembered the Skreeaans, a congenial people, but a people whose pebbled skin routinely sloughed, leaving trails of skin flakes and shed scabs throughout the station. Even his permissive mindset had not been able to overcome a vague revulsion.  

Hypocrite. I’m a right hypocrite. I know.

Humans will screw anything, that’s the writing in the privy stalls. Only that’s not true, not really. And it’s not a fair expectation for you, to bury all your preferences. Assuming that was the problem. Or just one of the problems, anyway.

And for those, the rest of the pack, he could blame Garak even less.

I’m also the person who read through your bloody files. I’m the person who shot you when, from your point of view, you were saving our lives from my stubbornness. And I’m the one who turned up my nose at a call from a suffering world, because the sender wasn’t—

He crossed his arms again.

Hard to think that a history like that would impress a Cardassian. They expect more from each other. They get more from each other. Your Kelas might be a proper arsehole, but I wager that he’s looking out for you.

Maybe that’s what you were after, someone you were sure, damned sure, would stand by you through it all. He certainly does seem to be… protective. But I wish you’d chosen someone kinder. Pooh-pooh if you want, I thought that part of me you liked? Even as you challenged it, the doctor with a bleeding heart.

Or is he kind? Is he kind to you? Privately?

Or does he just hate me?

Julian sighed. Well if you’re still going on about me, like Rekot said…. He might not realize what kind of relationship we had. Elim, that’s the downside of lying: your new doctor may not have believed you when you told him it was nothing.

(It wasn’t nothing.)

(It just never became anything.)

He thought back to the speech that Garak gave, a talk on the soils of Tendrikk. He thought back to its warmth, its care, its informative nature. When Garak spoke, it was like being let in on a secret. Every breath.

Julian risked a peek through the window and saw a world, a welcoming world, he nonetheless did not understand.

And why do you assume it’s on him, Julian? He asked himself, his eyes tracing an uneven skyline. When you’re the one with a string of blow-ups.

How was that for a cutting notion? As far as he knew, Kelas was the only person Garak had so much as properly dated, and lo, there they were, over seven years from the first time Garak had dropped the name, living if not together then together on Cardassia Prime. They even had children, of a sort, raised in tandem under the Union’s unique version of custodianship. Meanwhile, Julian was the one with the de facto restraining orders and an ex-girlfriend married to the Grand Nagus of the still hobblingly regressive Ferengi Alliance (because that was better, clearly). Between the two, it was hard to see where Garak was the one in need of friendly guidance on all matters of love.

He heard a soft tap on his door.

“Hey. Kelas is gone. Went back to MedCen. Thought you’d want to know.”

Julian sat up with a start, his eyes breaking from the window. “Oh, he left? That’s grand.”

Rekot slid the door open a short measure and peered in through the gap. “I, uh…. Yeah, about that. Sorry. If I’d known he was going to go all jaws-in, I wouldn’t have called him over. He gets like that… sometimes? But yeah, a guest, that was like… crazy. Way out of line. You okay?”

“Overheard our little tiff?”

“No, he told me the gist of it. Sort of one of his things. He’s not lying. He’s not, like, a liar. As far as he’s aware, anyway.” She gradually pushed the door the remaining distance into its hideaway, but hesitated to venture inside.

Julian threw up his hands theatrically. “Good. Superb! Lovely to know that’s what he really thinks. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“It’s tough with Kelas. I forget because I’m used to it. And that’s sort of what he does, what he’s for?” She made a sideways stirring motion with one hand. “Uh, you know, because he and Garak are really different. Garak’s the politician, Kelas the analyst. Garak develops a strategy, and Kelas assesses it, ensures that it’s right and proper beyond merely effective. Keeps it centered, focused… you know, valid. But you can’t go all the way Kelas either. For one thing, he’s not really flexible enough to make schemes out of his principles. For another, uh… he’s got some messaging issues.”

That earned deep lines in a furrowed brow. “… Either way, I’ll have to apologize, I suppose, if I’m going to stay here.”

Rekot laughed, half expecting Julian’s reply was in jest. “What, why? Kelas doesn’t take stuff like that personally. He’s said his piece and you’ve said yours; that’s what I’d take from it. I mean, Garak’s going to be steamed, but whatever.”

“I'll apologize to Garak.”

“What?” She waved a hand. “Oh! No, he’s going to be pissed at Kelas. I mean, come on, Dr. Julian Bashir. It’s a big deal that you’re here. If it weren’t, Kelas wouldn’t have puffed up like that, gotten straight-up huffy. Take it for the compliment it is, sort of.” She neglected to go into detail; the scene was rough enough already.

It was morning. It was morning and Julian was already tired. It was that kind of day. He wasn’t sure his joints could take the strain, or he’d just fall apart like a fingermajig with all its lines cut.

“I suppose I should be flattered,” he replied with a half-hearted sigh. “Been a while since someone’s spouse pulled me aside and gave me the third degree.” He’d never intentionally made a pass at someone wedded, but it was known to happen, with a considerable range of consequences (and a surprising number of them downright agreeable, for a Julian with a younger, fresher face).

Rekot raised a brow. Her lopsided smirk represented an odd emotional compilation to be forced into one single expression. “Uh,” she laughed awkwardly, “they’re not? Married?”

“Spare me another Cardassian legalism,” he muttered.

Her next expression was even harder to interpret. “Uh, ha ha… is that? Is that what’s going on here? Because that would explain, like, a lot.” She wrung her hands together. “I mean, I’ve got to say, Garak’s told us a lot of stories about the two of you that, uh, aren’t exactly accurate. He’s got that sort of flair, I get it. But he never told us that you two were exes. If anything, come to think of it, maybe that should have tipped me off…”

Julian clenched his teeth. “We’re not! We aren’t!”

“It’s fine if you are. And, like, that would definitely get Kelas riled up. Politically speaking, Garak ought to be married; it’s way beyond conspicuous that he isn’t. But it’s got to be the right selection, obviously, given a decision of that magnitude.”

Oh, then—?

“I mean, they fuck in the meantime but it’s just sort of—” She shrugged. “—It makes sense. They’re mutually vetted, which really reduces the security risk. For two people in such precarious positions, restricting that behavior to someone you trust….” Rekot picked at the ridge of her chin. “Actually, maybe they are sort of a couple? I guess I’m not really sure. They don’t let me in on everything.”

Damn it, Rekot, that’s a fucking Cardassian legalism! “That sounds like a couple.” He was impressed at himself, the evenness of his tone, given the heartrate he could hear in his temples.

“Yeah, but they’re not lovely-dovey or anything. They don’t do married-people stuff. It’s like ninety-nine percent work. I’m not even sure how much they actually like one another.” I just know how much they need one another…. But best to skip that part, Rekot.

His smile was strained. He had, in his mind, every instinct to resume pouting, a matter best conducted alone. “Everyone’s different.”

“You sound kind of messed up about it, honestly.” She was still weighing the credibility of Julian’s denial. It was unusual, in retrospect, how chaste Garak’s descriptions had been. Excessively so, if anything. Julian was—and Rekot was quite aware—still a very handsome human. A detail like that would slip into a tale told conversationally.

“You may not have been clued in, but ‘messed up’ is a completely fair assessment, overall. But perhaps Garak was kind enough not to include that in his description.”

“Well, let’s be real. You don’t find non-messed-up people on Cardassia, or probably anywhere. So, you know, it’s normal?” She pressed her hands to her chest, tapping briefly at the teardrop where her clavicles joined the sternum. “I mean, look at me! I’m Cardassian, but I was on Bajor almost my whole life, and wow, that’s like… a whole basket of ‘messed up’, that’s what I’ve got. And Garak? He’s messed up. I mean you two are friends—you are friends—so you’ve got to know that. Kelas? Dude’s legit messed up. You’re in good company, maybe?”

Julian’s posture softened, just a tad. Just a little give. “That’s not how Dr. Parmak made it sound.”

She took a few steps closer. “Yeah, well that’s reflective of one of the ways he’s sorta messed up. Look, we don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to. But I really don’t want to tell Garak that I was supposed to be chaperoning you on Cardassia, and instead Kelas called you a bum and then you threw water in his face and then you went off to mope all day. Because that’s really going to suck, and maybe it’s selfish, but yeah, it’s really going to suck. Besides, okay, fine, yeah I was a bit edgy at first, but you seem all right.”

There was something to be said for the honesty.

“We could go for a walk?” she suggested. “Like, just get out? Garak wants you to have a good time, and he’s probably got some grand gestures planned—he loves that kind of shit—but you seem like the kind of guy who would just like to, you know, check the place out? And I know a lot about the capitol now, so I’m a pretty good guide. And not to mention—and this from someone used to Bajor—some of it is really cool.”

He looked back to the window, then to Rekot, then back to the window.

What’s the point in moping, Julian? he asked himself. There will always be time for that on your false M.O.D. Three whole years, if you want. But this is a last chance to stretch your legs. It would be a waste not to see it while you’re here.

“All right, Rekot,” he relented. “Lead the way. Oh, and thanks for the toast.”

 

 //

 

“That’s a tab-maker,” Rekot explained, pointing at another storefront. “They make these little—well, they’re little paper slips. Not quite paper. Uh, a combination of refuse fibers. Anyway, you have your name punched into a boxful of them, and then you leave them around. They’re used to suggest support for a certain practice or phenomenon. Or disapproval, sometimes, depending. It’s pretty convoluted, but that’s Cardassians for you. And yes, I see the irony.”

He smiled gently. The walk was, as Rekot had suggested, doing him good. Furthermore, Rekot was—for all her unsophisticated diction—a well-informed guide.

The two of them, the human visitor and the young Cardassian in slightly too-colorful clothing, attracted some attention. And Julian was certain that some of the background dialogue, the rak-tak-tak, was in reference to their little jaunt. He didn’t mind it; the people’s curiosity seemed polite enough.

Besides, how will Cardassians ever come to appreciate and understand aliens if the aliens don’t come and appreciate them?

He reflected briefly on the tragedy of war, not only in its violent exchanges, but the grudges it instilled for decades, even centuries, thereafter. In another life, there was a Kira who adored the galleries of shining gewgaws, and a Miles who admired the precision of their tight urban construction. As it stood, there was a Kira who had lost her parents, her compatriots, to unspeakable atrocities, and a Miles who’d watched friends and innocents be torn to shreds on Setlik III. Worse, they had no reason to forgive, just as the everyday civilians of Cardassia had no reason to forgive foreign resentment over decisions made by an authoritarian military over which they had neither oversight nor control.

It seemed pointless and asinine and deeply, deeply sad.

“That over there is an obelisk.” Rekot’s description seemed apt enough. However, unlike the obelisks of Earth, it bore no inscriptions, no carvings. It was little more than an octagonal pillar that gently simplified to a two-sided shape near its cap, much like the end of a conventional screwdriver. “People will say it represents different things, but at this point, they’re installed mostly by force of habit. Back before navigational software, they’d often be painted in stripes and patterns to provide points of reference.”

“Oh, and more public art?” For all its simplicity, he considerably preferred it to Deep Space 9’s new Motions in Confluence: Flow & Pertranscience.

She nodded approvingly. “Anywhere you can get it in, you know?”

Something caught the corner of her eye. “Ooh! Ooh, ooh, ooh! Come over here, come on!” She made a sharp heel-turn and rushed toward a nearby alleyway.

A part of Julian was suspicious of such a diversion, but he placed reasonable faith in Rekot, and was familiar with Cardassia’s reputation as largely free of civic danger. He wouldn’t go so far as it call it a perk of the Cardassian justice system, as many Cardassians attested, but it was a statistically valid claim. (As far as he could tell, Cardassians, culturally, would find a mugging simply gauche.)

And that, there, sitting behind a compost collection bin, was….

Rekot lowered herself into a squat and began to pet what was, by all appearances, a—

“Have you seen one of these yet?”

“It’s a… cat?”

“It might look like a cat, but it’s a pointy Chester.”

Julian narrowed his eyes. It didn’t take an augment to make a correct assessment. Cat. Even Jules would probably have sorted that one out by now.

“They’re actually an introduced species, not native to Cardassia. They look soft—and they are soft, on the outside, here, if you’re careful you can feel—but they’ve got points on five of the six ends, hence the name ‘pointy Chester’. Garak saw one once, recalled how effective they were said to be in the eradication of small pests.” She rubbed the creature’s sides, her cool, gray hand brushing plush, warm fur. “In the aftermath of the devastation, Cardassian voles underwent a population explosion, completely out of control. You know, them eating the bodies and everything. It was one of Garak’s first missions for Quark, to scour the systems for a shipment of pointy Chesters to help get it under control. And look! They’re actually quite friendly to us Cardassians. It’s like they understand us….”

The cat rubbed against her legs and purred. She gave it a friendly scratch under the chin, resulting in an approving little “brrt!”

“… Chester….”

“We feel a kinship with them, you know? Deadly animals, capped with knives, eaters-of-flesh. A pointy Chester will kill, even when it’s full, and then display the carnage proudly. To a vole, there’s nothing worse, no greater fear than the teeth and claws of a pointy Chester, just like for a Bajoran—” She caught herself. That, perhaps, had gone too dark. Words from a distant world, worming their way into the discourse. “A-also, fun fact: they’re warm! And they like to come inside houses, sleep on beds, and couches too. On a cold night, there’s nothing better than a pointy Chester or two. They do leave little hairs though, those come off easily.” She held up a hand coated in thin, orange hairs. “See? Can you believe it?”

He put his hands on his hips. “I know what a cat is, Rekot.”

“Well, you clearly don’t.”

“It’s a Terran animal! And ‘Chester’? That was the O’Brien’s cat, on the station. Garak probably met Chester when Keiko had him over. It’s not the species, that was just… Chester.”

She remained skeptical. The question was implicit in her expression.

He knelt down and joined her in caressing what was now a very happy feline. It had, come to think of it, been a while since he’d touched one. “See? They…. Well, you’re right, they are predators. Highly proficient predators, at that. But they’re also domesticated, they have been for thousands of years. On Earth, they’re primarily companion animals, though I suppose it wasn’t always that way….”

Rekot inhaled, taking in a whiff of both the doctor and the pointy Chester. There did seem to be familiar notes between them. “Then how did an animal covered in blades with a passion for death end up a companion animal?”

“I’m not sure. They took to us, we took to them.” He took a feline ear between his fingers and massaged it gently. “We did the same with other hunting species as well. They often became our... well, our friends. 'Man's best friend.' Unlike Elaysians or Bolians, humans were—are—predatory. Evolutionarily, anyway.”

“... Do you like them?”

“I do.”

“Yeah. Me too."

 

Chapter Text

“It’s working on my end.”

“Yes, mine as well. Just a small adjustment. There.” There was a crackling sound followed by a brief reboot. Afterwards, the sound and image were in sync.

Miles poured a glass of lavender lemonade, one of his favorite beverages to follow an arduous day. The drink was a splendid color, and that was Kirayoshi’s work. “Keiko said you called yesterday. Said something about… h’mph, well.”

Garak didn’t smile. He felt that its absence was more comfortable, more appropriate. Nothing too somber, just mere reptilian placidity. Straightforward. Something Miles would be foolish to trust but would deem properly unobjectionable. “That is correct. Dr. Bashir has, at this time, arrived on Cardassia Prime.”

“Good to know he made it safe and sound.” Devoid of inflection. He took a seat on the sofa, an off-green monstrosity placed opposite the camera, the lens of which was, in turn, just above the primary viewing screen in the O’Brien family home. Garak’s face, projected there, came through uncommonly large.

“Mm.” Garak extended the courtesy of a half-beat, mindful of the risk that he might interrupt. He knew it was a particular peeve of Mr. O’Brien’s, and on this particular day, he did not wish to rile him arbitrarily. “You and Dr. Bashir remained closer than he and I. In fact, this is the first I’ve seen him since my exile was annulled. I was hoping for some insights from you regarding the admittedly unexpected turn that has brought him to my door.”

Miles responded with a quick burst, a short “Hah!” He leaned back and crossed his legs. Nevertheless, thoughts began to churn beneath his remaining curls. His pinched features gave him away. “And here I thought Cardassians had grown familiar with Federation hand-me-downs?”

“We are grateful for the Federation’s largesse, I assure you. But, Mr. O’Brien, this is a sensitive matter, and I do wish to make appropriate use of the opportunity. I have observed the commendable quality of your work since your return to the planet Earth, and I further understand how, laboring under such a substantial workload, this particular project is not one you have the time to administrate. However, I would prefer to neither repeat past errors nor introduce new mistakes now that the matter is temporarily under my jurisdiction. Commander Kira sent him to me in good faith.” Properly diplomatic.

“Nice. Very nice, Garak,” Miles said, punctuating it with a respectful nod.  “And for once, I wish I could help. But if I knew what to do, I’d have done it m’self.”

“I’m certain you would have. But our cultures are, needless to say, distinct, and Kira’s view was that a Cardassian approach might unexpectedly succeed, other cultures having explored a range of valid alternatives with mixed results.”  Where “mixed” can be “bad”… and worse.

Cardassian therapy? Now that would be a damned sight. “Garak, you know Standard, is that right?”

“I do. I’m speaking Standard presently.”

Miles made a small click with his teeth, a polite affirmation of the effort Garak had chosen to expend for their encounter. Kira was not the only one making gestures of good faith. “Mm. Ever run across the word ‘fubar’?”

“‘Irreparably broken.’”

“Know where it comes from? S’ an old Army term, mostly used by engineers, one of our words.”

“I must admit, I do not.”

“S’ an acronym. Stands for ‘fucked up beyond all recognition.’ Somethin’ to scrawl, when the thing you’ve got, there’s no repair, and there’s not a damn sight you can do about it.”

Garak’s mouth made a soft sneer, as if the word itself arrived acrid. “What a word.”

“Surprised it’s human?”

Is it? I thought it was ‘engineer’. He bit his tongue for the comeback. There’d be time enough to bicker later, if they ever so desired. “I do associate humans with more optimistic language. Flowery, even. Very bright.”

“We’re optimists, Garak, on the whole. But we’re not fools. Sometimes what you’ve got isn’t going t’ be fixed. Not if you had a hundred years and all the tea in China.”

“I see.”

“And d’ya see why I might have keyed you in on that one little word?”

“I have a suspicion.”

Suspicion seems to fit you, Miles thought. And he, too, restrained the comeback.

Garak took a breath, deep and slow. “And though it has its place in engineering, I hesitate to assign it to any living thing. You may have applied it in perhaps excessive haste? It is, by our standards, a human tendency.”

“Tell you what: if you want to try, go f’r it. Now, he’s not exactly mint-in-box like the young man you met, but s’ no matter. You won’t mind if all the other kids have had a chance to play with him first, right?” He shrugged his shoulders. “But I’ve got nothing to say that’ll change things one way or the other. You’re on your own for this one.”

“You have facts I do not. Be sure, Mr. O’Brien, I do like games—and someday, I’m still hoping you’ll try your hand at kotra. That said, I do prefer games I have the means to win; this one I do not. It’s a simple matter of fact that, between the two of us, you were his preference. I fell much lower in his consideration,” Garak admitted. “And all I know are rumors. Contacting you is an attempt to reduce degrees of separation between my piecemeal understanding and what even I am forced to concede is the… conventional truth.”

Feigned humility, but it’s nice to hear. Never been a fool, that one. “I don’t know what to tell you. He had difficulty adjusting after the Dominion War, especially with ol’ Ben no longer around.” He tapped a finger on the rim of his glass absently. “Some folk don’t take it well, the bloodshed, the killin’. Not everyone’s got a taste for it.”

A sideways jab that felt unnecessary under the circumstances, though Garak felt no particular umbrage, such banter having long since become the custom of two men who would never be friends, but had no more need to be enemies.

“There’s nothing more to say, Garak. Computer—“

“Wait! Wait, please!” Desperation. “Please, Mr. O’Brien, please, just one moment, I beg you.”

Miles had heard Garak plead before, but rarely as… credibly. He wasn’t quite taken, but he did pause.

Garak clenched his teeth, his eyes flashing momentarily aside. His pain was faint but palpable. “Please, Mr. … Professor O’Brien. Wait, please. This is a matter of some urgency. And… alarming stakes.”

Miles’s eyes narrowed. “Professor O’Brien” was not a phrase he’d ever expected Garak to deliver. He waited, cultivating a deliberate quiet.

In the silence, Garak seethed. “Dr. Bashir is on shore leave, that much you must realize. What you, perhaps, have not heard is the nature of his next mission.”

“Medical supplies, Hanoran II, isn’t that right? And what’s the trouble there, exactly?” He had tipped his hand. He did take note, even if it was just by way of Keiko and whatever updates she relayed.

“I’m afraid that your information is somewhat out-of-date. In the intervening period, Dr. Bashir has volunteered himself for”—there was an apparent struggle for the term—“a grave alternative. A mission comprised exclusively of Starfleet volunteers setting course into… an ominous frontier. It is all in order, as far as he is concerned.”

So Miles knew the term also, the whispered “M.O.D.” He didn’t need to admit it. It was written on his face. He didn’t so much as flinch.

And that, Garak knew, was Miles’s way of flinching.

The man would fail at kotra.

“If you’re fuckin’ lying to me, I swear t’ God….”

“I take no offense: a valid concern. Take the time to verify it, if you need. You will see the mission and the nature of its crew; the matter is of public record.”

And there, the dismay. It spread like tendrils under the professor’s skin. He knew Garak lied to sell a story, an interpretation. This, however, was a matter of readily provable fact, which set it outside the assemblyman’s purview.

“I would… like for him to reconsider. If he is a volunteer, surely he can renege,” Garak stressed. His palms were up; that gesture worked for humans, too.

Miles’s relay worked properly. In it, Garak’s eyes were blue and bright and sharp-sharp-sharp.

“I know that you are not fond of my people, and I would never insult you with the suggestion that you are fond of me. But I hope you understand the debt I owe to him, and… how much I would give to see him survive.”

Miles still didn’t move.

“Dr. Bashir is human, and his healing, when it comes, will come from humankind. But I have been charged with buying him that time, and I myself have very, very little time to do it. Please, Professor O’Brien. Give me the tools to try.”

O’Brien’s eyes fixed on his lemonade. He didn’t dare divert them. If they moved, they might experience a malfunction, even leak.

And now it was Garak’s turn to employ the tactic of silence.

“Steady lip, Garak,” Miles said, as if Garak were the one he was instructing.

And Garak waited.

“Did you call me on the diplomatic line?” His voice arrived mild, tentative.

“I did.”

The Federation swore that diplomatic lines were well and truly private, a claim that Garak found absurd—borderline comical. However, he was convinced that the illusion of sanctity was something the Federation would value over any intel pertaining to a minor player like Julian Bashir. To reveal the ruse over something so small would be foolish; the diplomatic channels, compromised, would never again regain their vaulted reputation or, correspondingly, their strategic usefulness to Starfleet Intelligence.

(Every once in a while he thought to wave to the camera.)

And still, Miles’s eyes remained focused downward. “Ah, you know, we thought everything was all right. Once the war was over. I mean, people tend to, you follow? We think, oh, it’s all over. So now it’ll all get better, we can move on with our lives.” He ran a finger through his hair, thinner now for a few additional years levied on his pelt. “I mean… I knew better. I knew that from Setlik III, and even from Argratha, from Ee’Char, false or not. I knew how I felt, how I’d still feel. I was ready for it. Ready as anybody can be.”

Garak dispelled his first instinct, to find common ground. They had it, but he knew Miles was happier believing otherwise. “It is a burden to know it.”

“I thought Ezri, though, she’d help stabilize him, give him an anchor when it all started to set in. And we’d be there for him, all of us, and we were! I’d call him, talk to him. He visited, we played Vikings, pilots… . Everything, it seemed all right? And then….”

Ezri…. Garak was too distracted by that thought to serve the next transition.

Miles shrugged, his mouth slightly agape. “And then it wasn’t! And it went to shit so fast. He was fucking up medical protocols, fucking up intakes. Just over and over, couldn’t find his footing, didn’t have that dry land.” He placed his lemonade on the floor next to him, his fingers feeling stiff and strange and cold. “And we, what were we supposed to do? Tried talking to him, but he just was off in his own world at that point. He wasn’t listening.”

He couldn’t hear you. A slight distinction, Garak thought. His mind was on the wire, on the wire in his mind. He’d done the same, left the world he was living in. Shameful in its commonness. He thought back to a warm hand-hold, an anchor to a world that was worth living in, at least for a while—

“I pulled some strings, had friends put him where I thought it couldn’t do any harm. Simple missions, something easy. No risk of combat, nothing to trigger ‘im. Give him a chance to re-center himself, find the old Julian again. The data security thing, that thing with Ezri, it was a mistake, but Starfleet’s got a heart. No one’s record is spotless, it’d be unreasonable. Captain Picard’s wasn’t, Commander Sisko’s, Worf…. People make mistakes! But he just couldn’t extricate himself from it. He wasn’t used to it.”

Miles took to his feet and began pacing slowly, eyes always away. “But he didn’t get better. He just got worse, stumblin’ over it all. He wasn’t just failing as Dr. Bashir, he was failing as a doctor. Reports from his nurses, from crew members—him checking out, him drifting off. Sleeping. I kept vouching for him, I gave it everything I had! Called in every favor to keep him on the rosters. Had to beg Nog, and even Nog couldn’t keep him!”

Garak nodded soberly. A truism known to all inquisitors: if a man is speaking, don’t interrupt him.

“Still, still we pulled for ‘im. Easy! Easy missions! Missions that didn’t even have a medical staff, that didn’t need a doctor. Transport vessels, escorts, tugs!”

Yes, I’ve been watching….

(Kira had sent over Julian’s resume. But that was information Garak already knew.)

“And finally, the Okanogan…. God almighty, it was a cargo vessel, to and from Fellebia. Nothing could have gone wrong! A broken arm, maybe, a crewman with a bad case of the runs….” His brow began to furrow deep, his eyes unfocused from the room. His memory was far away, and even his awareness of Garak, his audience, was dimming. “One hundred and fourteen crew, mostly young, just brimming with ensigns and the hopeful un-enlisted. A chance to cut their teeth, you know? Their whole futures, the new cohort now that their parents’ war was done….”

As O’Brien circled, he knocked over the lemonade. He didn’t even notice; it didn’t so much as register. The liquid spread and soaked and it really didn’t matter.

Just as suddenly, the professor stopped. He looked at his hands in appalled wonderment, as if they held something dissolving, disappearing. “The crew, they come back aboard, you do a blood test. Simple test, simple scan. There are a few endemic diseases; you don’t want anyone to have an upset tummy, would y’eh? Do it all the time, tiny, tiny risk, but it’s a standard procedure. Even one o’ them holo-doctors can do it, if you’re equipped. But they had a human, a human for the human’s sake, not theirs.”

“There was something worse,” Garak suggested, a soft but directed prod. “In their blood, something worse.”

“A virus. A Xelatian crewman, zie caught it. It mutated, became transmissible by touch… and virulent.” Miles collapsed back onto the couch, raking his hair with one shaking hand. “No way it shouldn’t’ve been caught. You take the blood tests—simple—put it in the analyzer…. The computer does it almost automatically, something I could bloody do. You take the blood tests, you tell the computer…. You read the outputs, that’s all…. Such a minute chance, but that’s all you have t’ do.”

And Garak could see a shape as it became defined, a sketch in charcoal, wood burned on wood pulped. A rough illustration of a catastrophe.

Miles chuckled, a sinister sound under the circumstances. “I mean…. What would it take? Just to run it. Just to run them. What else was there for him?” And after those words, after their challenge, the implosion. In him, no more dismissive laughter and no spirited barbs and jeers. That much was carved into the lines around his mouth, chisel-cuts. “Just… chucked ‘em. Binned ‘em. Couldn’t give a toss. What were the odds, anyway?”

That was your mistake, Garak thought darkly. Putting a man in despair where you told him he didn’t matter. He acted the part, that it didn’t matter. You cannot believe one and ask him to believe another, you in your consistent Federation.

(He cursed himself, that it plucked at the wound that bled.)

“Eighty-four people died aboard the Okanogan. Because he couldn’t be bothered.”

Eighty-four people. That, Garak had heard.

Miles’s eyes were cinched shut, a last-ditch stopper for tears.

The Cardassian tilted his head slightly. It gave nothing away; Miles had no way to see it. And if Starfleet Intelligence was watching, then this, he supposed, was theirs to witness. “And Starfleet…?”

Head shaking, shoulders slouched, hands gripped, Miles replied, “No. No…. See, something happened. The computers. When the ship came to port, they found him, found the survivors, and half of those half-braindead. They began an investigation, shipped everybody off t’ Starfleet headquarters on Earth to take statements, make a record…. Julian swore, he insisted, promised, that when they went into the medical files, they’d see he’d done his job. He’d run the tests. Whatever happened, it wasn’t…. It wasn’t that.”

“And the files…?”

“Encrypted.” He winced, his heart shaking. His fingers were distant and numb. “And bricked. Cardassian techniques, primarily. And a few others.”

“… I hope you’re not insinuating….”

“No. No. No way for you to do it. And if you had, you’d not be here, not be askin’….”

Garak was impressed with the clarity Miles could retain through his anguish. A war hero after all. Garak had occasionally wondered, even after the matter on Empok Nor, whether that reputation had been entirely deserved. He found the evidence of the moment far more compelling than their two-man war.

Learned from you, of course.”

Of course. One of a thousand lessons from their time together, long ago.

“… Y’said this was the diplomatic line.”

“Yes.”

“Yer sure?

“I am.”

And Miles, Miles believed in the integrity of that subspace channel.

He opened his eyes. “He came to me, Julian did. He came to me, he told me everything. That he’d chucked ‘em, those tests, and so many others…. Hadn’t done a proper job in years, not anywhere. Only this time, no nurses to pick up the slack, no providence or chance or luck on his side…. It had gone tits-up. And he wasn’t ready. M-my God, Garak, he cried, he was in pieces, he cried….”

A bitter part of Garak envied Miles, that Julian had gone to him. That he had wept.

“An’ I k-knew, eighty-four people, eighty-four negligent homicides.” He hissed as if the recollection burned. “He was finished, done. He’d be in prison for life for that. An augment’s life, however long that is. And even if he sat quiet, even if he timed out his term, they’d never let him be… be Dr. Bashir again. And that’s what it had been about, what it had all been about from the start… T’ get him back.”

Garak raised a tentative brow, his fingers rising gingerly toward the screen. “But why did he come to you? What did you do?”

“I told Starfleet I could fix them. The systems. A professor, you see, with years of experience unscrambling Cardassian files on intentionally disrupted hardware. An engineer to the status of tenured professor. I’d… be the most capable, the most competent, the most able to help…. And there I was, right in San Francisco.”

“And your relationship with Dr. Bashir was not broached?”

“They trusted me.”

Of course they did.

Miles bent forward as if to retch. “A-and I destroyed it. Said I’d seen it, that he was bang-on, that he’d done the tests, just that the mutation of the virus pushed the infection outside the computer’s parameters….” (He would vomit, if the relief didn’t feel undeserved.) “That I got so excited, so giddy, that I was sloppy copying the files…. Destroyed them, destroyed the system, stupid accident the level of an amateur. But I’d seen it, seen the evidence that he was innocent.”

“Starfleet accepted this, the word of a distinguished professor.”

“They’d have t’ take my word. They trusted me t’ do the work. And… what other evidence did they have? Would they really say the man they tasked to investigate wasn’t honest? Wasn’t true? If so, why’d they let me take it to begin with, see?”

(All right, a decent kotra player.)

A Cardassian nod. “They had no alternative. They had the word of the doctor validated by a respected professor. No evidence to the contrary existed. Innocence would be the only appropriate ruling.” At least, by Federation law. If I’d had you in a room, O’Brien…. He felt a tic. But best not to consider such things. And Garak admitted, just to himself, he’d have done no more than add another layer of deceit; he’d have lied just the same to protect the one that they both knew full well was guilty, their Dr. Bashir.

“H-he begged me.” And now, the cinched face, the gripping hands, the clawing nails. His voice was thin and strained and aching. It emerged as a metal-on-metal screech, an agonizing whine for seeping tears. “H-h-he was my best friend. I couldn’t, he was my best friend. Imprisoned for life, can you…. Twenty years, I still remember. The madness, the killing, a strike over a bit of bread, Ee’Char—that was me, that was viciousness that came from me! The way I felt, then Julian, the edge he talked me down from….”

Garak had wanted to know the story, and there it was, banal and pointless. The real surprise was that he felt… anything. Much less this: sympathy and sorrow for the man who had abandoned him on a world where eighty-four lives constituted nothing more than statistical noise.

“I did twenty, in my head, twenty years hard time,” Miles continued. “What would the Federation say was fit for eighty-four snuffed out? A hundred years? A god damned human century, and Julian, in that? A lifetime, and no illusion, just the feeling, forever, what he’d done…. Just because he fuckin’ threw some samples in the trash? He wasn’t made for it, for that kind a’ guilt! It wasn’t even anger, like mine, just his…. I had a chance to save him, I had to. Garak, he was my best friend….”

“I promise you, Professor O’Brien, not in vain. I thank you for your assistance.” His finger hovered where Miles’s had before, looming over the switch to end the call. He knew, and they both knew, that it would be a courtesy.

“Garak…?”

“Yes?”

“Almost a hundred people died on Setlik III.” His voice edged in on a whisper. “On the Okanogan, eighty-four. You’re smart, Garak, can you tell me: how big is the difference between one hundred souls and eighty-four?”

“Why, it’s night and day. The difference is night and day, O’Brien.”

Chapter Text

“It’s barely afternoon,” Julian said, less a complaint and more a befuddled observation.

“It’s a nice restaurant,” Rekot countered. “You’re going to be there a long time.”

Julian rubbed the back of his neck, momentarily forgetting how it might appear to a Cardassian onlooker. At least Rekot, raised on Bajor, understood what it… didn’t mean. “Garak always said that humans eat too quickly, but I always pictured Cardassians as… a tad more efficient. Cardassian dinner can’t really be, what, a full evening, can it?”

She brushed off his supposition with a short wave of the hand. “No, a place like this is for, like, ‘events’. It gives you time to discuss some important thing going on. So, like, you’d schedule it in if your sister had a child, or if one of your parents died. Or maybe you got a service medal. Like, you designate a big lump of time to talk it over with somebody, and there’s food and kanar and all that. You get your own private nook and at this particular one, lots of greenery. So you’re going to feel like you’re hiding out in a greenhouse or a botany lab, and while that’s all going on, you’ve got time to just talk and eat.”

“O-oh. So it’s exclusive,” he managed. “And … expensive, I take it.” He thought back to his allotment for non-Federation words, which was to say its many limitations. He was certain that Garak would pay—that wasn’t in question—but it bothered him that this was likely by absolute necessity.

“Eh, not as expensive as you’re picturing. Most people only do it when it’s culturally appropriate, and as noted, you’ve got to have the time to spare. Under the circumstances, though, I can’t imagine him doing any less. Anyway, don’t make it weird.”

“I-I’m not making it weird. Am I? Making it weird?” He felt that slight seize in his gut. All I ever do, really.

“You’re making it weird by fretting if you’re making it weird by suggesting that you might be making it weird.”

Actually, that’s all I ever do.

“It’s not weird,” she clarified. “Not for you.” She gave him a smile, genuine and open. “Hey, we’re glad to see you, okay? And I mean, I’m glad to see you too. I know that some parts of Garak’s story weren’t real. I mean, I’m not stupid. But I’m glad you’re really the guy, and you’re real, and I’m glad that once upon a time, you stood up for me. I’m glad I got this chance to meet you. I’m glad I get a chance to thank you, which I think I did, but if I didn’t: thanks. That sound good?”

It sounded better than he would ever have guessed.

“Look, according to his message, he’s going to be there in around seventeen minutes. He’ll be transporting straight inside. Do you want me to take you up to the lobby to wait, or do you want to go up and do it yourself? I don’t know if it’s… uncomfortable for a human to be chaperoned like this, and I don’t mean to throw you off if it isn’t done on your world.”

As if I have a “world”…, he thought dimly. Earth? He downright avoided it. He turned his gaze to the open gate only a few hundred meters away. “I mean, I can find it, it’s just that one there, like you said, right? With the decorative piping around the entryway? Then up the stairs?”

“Yep, just through that gate and up the stairs. And there’s a person at the top, and they’ll have been provided advanced notice. They’ll have a partitioned area set aside for you guys—probably a corner. They would normally check your identity against the contents of your official record, but since you’ll be the only human inside, I doubt they’ll go to the trouble.” She gave Julian a friendly pat on the arm. “Tell you what, I’ll take you up to the gate and wait there. If you don’t come out in, eh, ten minutes, I’ll just head on home. And if something does seem to go sideways, just call for me and I’ll come on up. That all right by you?”

He smiled. “Backup is always welcome, any time I’m about to end up in a scrape. It happens more often than you might think.”

She shrugged. “Just being a good daughter, those days I can swing it.”

Julian startled slightly. “Oh. I thought you only said ‘sponsored’?”

“Well, I mean…. Cardassia doesn’t have adoption….” She clenched somewhat, bringing her arms in. “Don’t tell him I said that. He probably wouldn’t mind, but I can’t get in the habit. Some people are super touchy about it. That legislation barely passed as it is.” And I embarrass him enough already.

Cardassia and its technicalities…. All these unnecessary footnotes and riders, and what all for? Then again, in my family, there’s an entire language to be derived from how I’ve used the word “father”. “Just between the two of us, I’ll call you his daughter, if you’d prefer,” he offered. “It’s what I’m seeing, and you being a right good one at that.”

Her response was neither warm nor cool. It was, if anything, rather detached. “Nah. Between you can me, you can call me Asha, though.”

“Asha?”

“My given name.”

“O-oh. Oh, sorry. I, er…. I thought it was. Aren’t you Rekot Garak?”

She raised her brows in awkward amazement. “A-ha, no. Ohhh no. You don’t get the name, either. ‘Rekot’ was attached to me, one of the authorized surnames our sponsors could assign.”

I guess, in the end, there’s only ever one Garak. “It’s a lovely name, ‘Asha’.”

“It’s Bajoran.” The corners of her mouth twisted pensively. “And I don’t use it much.”

 

//

 

Ezri sighed. “Just say it.”

It took a moment for Kira to detect her friend’s voice over the background din of hymns and cheers. She’d been idly toying with a small decorative leaf as they took a moment’s respite behind the wooden temple. “Hmm?”

“You’ve been good about not bringing it up, but we’re under the eaves of the Shrine of Welcoming, and you’re lightyears away. Come on, Nerys. This isn’t like you. Talk to me—what’s bothering you? If it’s Julian, that’s fine. A Bajoran festival does wonders for the spirit. If anything, I need a little jolt.”

A sober pause. “Ezri… when did Trill join the Federation?”

“Woah. … Woah! Okay, you got me. I must not be as good at this as I thought,” Ezri replied with a laugh so bold she nearly bucked.  “Trill? We joined the Federation in 2285, same year the Dax symbiont was joined with Joran, actually. Why do you ask?”

Kira continued toying with the leaf, admiring its many delicate veins, its subtle sheen. Or at least, pretending to. “Why?”

Ezri’s teeth made a hiss as she sucked in a warm breath. “Tell you the truth, Nerys, I’m not sure I can give you a crisp, one-line answer. Of course, on the preceding side, Torias didn’t much care about politics one way or another, and as you can imagine, Joran’s attention was… elsewhere. Curzon was a Federation ambassador almost immediately after the switchover, but he wasn’t involved in the initial decision to apply for Federation membership. And as for the transition itself… it had been in the works for some time, long enough that when it happened, it was almost… unremarkable. We’d already been in alignment with Federation requirements for some time in order to establish and maintain our eligibility, and many of the benefits of Federation membership had already been rolled out in their preliminary formats.”

“I thought Audrid was head of the Symbiosis Commission? She didn’t have a role in it?” Kira began to curl the leaf between her fingers, her eyes still focused, a piercing driver.

“… Not really. In fact, not at all. It’s very important to all Trill, culturally, that the process of Joining remains… untainted. The decision to join the Federation was largely economic. We wouldn’t want to do anything that might cause those institutions to inappropriately comingle. The Symbiosis Commission would defer to the civilian government on an issue such as that, provided it did not put the process of Joining itself at risk,” Ezri explained, the argument arriving firm, having been derived from among Audrid’s most powerful memories.

“Economic.” That was the word.

Ezri looked up into the rafters of the temple. It was a beautiful thing, strung with countless beads, curtains, and strings of light. It betrayed nothing of Bajor’s pain and its lumbering recovery. The Bajorans had prioritized the soul of their world, deeming it far more immediate than its infrastructure. Ezri could see the argument for either ranking. “The Federation doesn’t consider that to be its primary function, regulating intergovernmental trade, but allocation of tangible and intangible resources is a prominent feature of its role during peacetime.” A bit of Curzon, there. Professional Curzon. “Maintaining strict borders with the Romulan Star Empire, Breen Confederacy, Gorn Hegemony, and—obviously—the Cardassian Union is also essential in ensuring that member worlds can focus on their cultural and economic development without laboring under the threat of invasion from more powerful neighboring institutions.”

“Economic and military.”

“I’m trying to be accurate, I’m just not sure what you’re asking, necessarily,” Ezri broached softly. She put a gentle hand on Kira’s shoulder. She could feel the tension. “Or why this? And why now? Nerys, what’s the matter?”

Kira allowed the leaf to drop. It tumbled aimlessly to the cobbles, a joyful fragment of color, crumpled brutally and landing as waste. “Bajor is still begging to join the Federation. We’ve made so many compromises. Use of the wormhole, abandonment of currency…. The way we harvest energy, the types of religious disputes we can experience, how violent they become…. And that’s what we’re doing it for. Resources. Safety.”

Ezri’s eyes narrowed. The next word—that, she could guess.

“Same logic as any collaborator.”

“Do you disagree with the Federation?” Ezri asked. “In what sense do you see admission as a concession for Bajor?”

“The real question is: how much would I have to disagree with the Federation before I would recommend Bajor remain independent?” She chuckled, but it bore a bitter edge. An old one. “It’d have to be a lot, right? Because the first moment they could, the Cardassians would swoop in, take it all over again. They might be hobbled, but not badly enough they couldn’t take poor little Bajor.”

“The Federation would never let that happen, regardless of whether Bajor were a member world.”

“Because the wormhole is here. Because the Federation wants to retain its free use of Deep Space 9. Access to the Gamma Quadrant. Yeah, even the Ferengi Alliance would send ships to help if that were on the line. What about your Tulaberry wine?”

“The Federation would become involved because it’s wrong. We saw what happened during the Occupation, Nerys. It won’t happen again.”

“The Federation doesn’t involve itself in disputes like that. They know the Breen are slavers, but they’ve never sent in warships to free those colonized worlds.”

“The Breen? They don’t enslave planets, as far as I know. They’re smalltime slavers, a few captives here and there.” Not really something to start a war over. The Breen are no pushovers; if we incited a conflict, tens of millions would die…. Sad to say, the slaves would likely be included in the tally.

Kira’s lips curled. “Just ‘smalltime slavers’. Masters of insignificant people. Where have I heard that before? But let me guess, those captives don’t have a wormhole, is that right?”

“Nerys, what the fuck brought this on, honestly?”

If the Cardassians don’t need us—if they truly don’t, then they’d be fools to re-colonize. By our terms with the Union, they’re allowed access to the Gamma Quadrant, and frankly no one’s found much there that they want. Not like we once expected, Kira thought. And if the Gorn provide a more stable, less risky source of ore… then are the Cardassians just doing the Federation’s work for them? Convincing us we have no choice but to join? Demanding that we surrender aspects of our culture just to meet their standards? I’ve never been happier that Ben was the Emissary as when Akorem returned and reinstituted the D’jarra. But if he hadn’t been, if Akorem had in fact been the speaker to the Prophets…. Then it was none of the Federation’s damn business one way or the other. If we’re to choose between the stranglehold of Cardassians, Federation members, or Bajorans, let us have our own tyrants, for once….

It’s what she wanted to say. There was only one problem—the listener’s allegiance. Ezri, whatever reservations she might have about gender politics and the like, was Federation.

“I’m just… hoping they don’t take this away,” Kira lied. “The Festival of Hospitality. Our cloisters. Our temples.”

Ezri startled. “Nerys, none of this is going away. This, all this? It’s lovely.”

“And what if it weren’t? What if it were abhorrent to you, Ezri? What then?”

The Trill frowned. “Well, I’ve had jumja sticks before. Somehow you still sell those.”

Kira took the joke, grateful for the escape it provided. “I hope the recipe is in ev-e-ry sin-gle Federation replicator.”

Ezri’s nose bunched. “Ugh. It probably will be.” She winked. “But that’s part of the exchange, Nerys. What Bajor gets to send out into the furthest reaches of the stars. In a way, it’s the glory of the Prophets, one jumja stick at a time.”

Cute. Bullshit.

 

Chapter Text

The table began completely barren. No water, no floral arrangements, no… bowl of peanuts. Julian would have appreciated the distraction. He also would have appreciated a chair.

Rekot had given him some forewarning, and those details had been accurate, notably with respect to the isolation and what seemed, to him, an overwhelming abundance of plant life. She had not, however, mentioned that he and Garak would be sitting on the floor. There was padding, far more than one would find on one of Terok Nor’s ever-firm Cardassian beds, but it was nevertheless a surprise considering the conventional chair-positive environment they had once regularly enjoyed. The low-set arrangement reminded Julian of a holosuite program he had once tried at Quark’s, a fanciful affair set during the Tay Son dynasty of Vietnam.

Hunkered down among the deep emerald foliage, he could not help but feel both… primitively safe and primitively apprehensive.

And here, in this exclusive venue—and perhaps this was the most surprising—more Cardassian invertebrates. More god-damned bugs. In fact, that was the first thing to join the spread: a blue-and-purple moth-like creature taking happy advantage of the easy horizontal.

“An appetizer?” Julian attempted with a playful prod at the soft thing.

“My word, a creature so garish?” Garak replied. “Haven’t you heard of aposematism? A colorful creature is a conspicuous danger.”

“Then something gray must be perfectly safe?” (He managed to avoid the closer—“to eat”.)

Garak grinned. “Always, always.” He gave his fingertips—neatly clawed—one quick rap against the table’s surface. “But! All that aside, I want you to know, I have a charming dinner planned. Do try to pace yourself, my dear friend. We have plenty of time tonight, with your blessing.”

“Rekot said this was a Cardassian custom. I’m eager to try it,” Julian assured him, though he did scan the surrounding greenery for a server who might, by some fair luck, bring a glass of water. Even a mild Cardassian day could compel a serious human thirst.

“It is. And one I missed very much on the station. It is my great privilege that you are here to see it on Cardassia.”

Julian sat with his legs crisscrossed, praying it was an acceptable configuration, and if not, that Garak would advise him of the more appropriate position without veering into rebuke. He was flexible enough for it, despite a few extra years, though he made use of his hands to pull the figure tight. “This was the ss’kritaien, right? From the novels?”

That was met with a nod. “Yes, though it exists in a somewhat more streamlined format today. A little less kanar and several fewer guests. No need for a roundtable, by my thinking. We have enough between the two of us alone.” An odd delivery of the line, to be sure, the same illusion as a thousand glinting facets from one clear stone.

And there appeared from behind something akin to a clump of horsetails, a woman—damn, she was silent as a shadow!—bearing a large bowl of water, a seemingly excessive number of small cups, a ladle of a truly bizarre configuration, and one twisted bottle of indigo kanar. She began arranging them on the table in no obvious pattern, acknowledging neither Julian nor Garak in the process.

“Almost… alone,” Julian managed, admiring her quiet concentration.

“Remember to keep your hands back from the table, please. She’s—”

“She’s blind. I remember that from stories featuring the ss’kritaien.”

“That’s quite right, yes. Not, however, deaf, so, good miss,” he said, turning his attention to the woman, “is there anything further you need from us? I did stipulate the menu and portions in advance, but I may have missed a few details. It was, I confess, a rather last-minute reservation. I do appreciate your tremendous courtesy in the matter.”

She gave one slow nod. “I’m afraid, Councillor, the kanar will be our closest substitutes.”

He grinned, which though not a gesture she could observe, affected his voice in a way detectable by a well-trained Cardassian ear. “Perfectly all right. Tell you the truth, it’s not my specialty. To me, one vintage is very like another. My guest, as you may smell, is human, and will hardly know the difference—no offense intended to you, my dear friend. If it’s the swill, please only ensure that it is sweet and I’m sure you’ll find the two of us thoroughly satisfied.”

It struck Julian as surprising, given what he knew of Garak’s careful tastes, until he recalled a flavor Garak preferred over any other: casual deceit.

“Gracious of you to say,” she replied with a bow, her face carefully restrained. “The catalogue of drinks and plates will appear as per our schedule.” She set down a thin slip of cardstock emblazoned in Kardasi. “You will find each as it appears in the cabinet at the far end of the table. Please remove them in a timely fashion, otherwise the mechanism can be disrupted.”

So that’s what that’s for, Julian realized. He hadn’t thought it proper to ask.

“Do you have any further questions or requests?” the woman inquired, her enunciation careful and distinct.

Garak looked over to Julian, who gave an anxious shake of the head. “I think not, good miss. If we find ourselves in need of any additions or substitutions, I’ll alert you via switch.”

“Thank you, and I offer my great respect to both of you, our honored guests. This night is yours, so please do inform me if there is any way in which I may aid in your resolution. I wish you both a pleasant and productive evening.” And with one final bow, she was gone, just as silently as the moment she had entered.

Service with a… smile. Just not the server’s, Julian thought.

Garak smirked. “Do forgive our formality. It’s born and bred, I fear.”

“I never minded,” Julian said in return. He considered the broad array of cups and wondered which was intended for water and which for kanar. “I was fond of it, actually. I appreciated Nerys’s brashness, and Jadzia’s ribbing, but sometimes… it was nice to have someone go a little easier on me, just be polite.” His early experiences with many of the senior staff on the station had been… lively, for a young man. For a somewhat older one, there was a distinct value to be found in traditional pleasantries.

“How dare I behave otherwise? You were a well-mannered individual yourself, in your people’s fashion.” Garak took one of the smaller glasses and gently filled it with kanar. He then used the ladle to fill three of the glasses with water from the bowl provided. He tapped the rim of one of the glasses. “You may drink from any of them in any order, regardless of who has used which first. If that seems unhygienic to a man of medicine, merely let me know, and you may select two or three as your own, and I promise to avoid them.”

Some part of it did seem vaguely… wrong, but he doubted Garak bore any diseases, much less anything that Dr. Bashir himself could not easily remedy. “No, no, I’d like to do this right. It has significance, doesn’t it?”

“As with all gestures, only what we agree to assign to it,” Garak teased. “But it is a table of discussion, and the gestures are the meeting and the mingling. Provided you understand what is meant by it, you are still welcome to involve your human customs, or forbid those of Cardassia which you find contrary to your health or preference.”

“I’m only human by birth and habit,” Julian laughed. “Please try not to hold it against me.” He raised the glass of kanar and took a sip, then gracefully returned it to the table, only this time on Garak’s side.

Garak raised it to his lips and took a far more considerable gulp.

Julian did the same for his water. He reminded himself he’d been parched, even before. He took several more swallows.

“I would never begrudge you your humanity. It’s what brings you here, is that not right? Your willingness to witness something different, and to find it remarkable where another might find it simply strange,” Garak said.

“Is that what got me here?” he mused emptily.

“That’s what got you here,” Garak clarified. He poured a new glass of kanar. “On this world, where you are esteemed.”

“Esteemed, is it? I wish your Kelas felt the same way.”

Garak clicked his teeth and poured another glass of kanar. “You know, Rekot mentioned he came over this morning and caused quite a scene. I do sincerely apologize. I’m afraid, at times, his emotions do get him in a stir, though it’s no excuse for such disgraceful conduct.”

Julian resented that Kelas had become a topic of conversation, despite having initiated it—a failing of the open book. “I don’t get the impression he likes me very much.”

Garak sighed and flicked his wrist. “He is terribly envious and too proud to bear it well. Be advised, he is Cardassian. We suffer poorly our commonest vices.”

Envious,” Julian scoffed. Elim, please, you can do better.

“Naturally! I’ve spoken of you at length. After all, I knew him to some modest extent before my exile, and having encountered him again after my return, what was there to speak of but the period I spent away from Cardassia? A time which was, for any significant event, often spent in your orbit,” he said. “He has heard and overheard the stories many times, the miracles you so enjoy performing. Not that he needs my tales, mind you. In the two years since our official scientific exchange began between the Federation and the Union, he has accessed all of your papers, sometimes multiple times, sometimes very late in the night, if my records are anything to go on. Parmak is a capable doctor and an excellent manager, but in terms of sheer medical proficiency, he cannot operate on your level. You have more than a rare skill, my dear Julian, but a rare and precious sensibility.”

Miracles, Julian thought. He reached for the kanar, happy for its mild diversion. It was sweet, though only subtly. The good works of the old Dr. Bashir.

“And he could never have played the role that you did for the station, much less for me. He could not have removed the wire; he wouldn’t have thought it possible. And he would never have confronted Tain on my behalf,” Garak lied. (Dr. Parmak was conspicuously adept in the installation and removal of wires, as it happened.)

[[And he had never been afraid of Enabran Tain, which was a good part of what had endeared him to the Director long ago.]]

“He might not have wanted to,” Julian appended somewhat sharply, processing the tart endnote of the liquor. “‘Knew him to some modest extent’…. You were his inquisitor, weren’t you? Something he said.”

Well, well, well, Kelas. What was that for, exactly? Seems a little prompt for a man who’s unafraid of being deposed. “Be aware, he’s quite careful in his phrasing. He believes in the truth, but has no qualms in a truth… impressively selective. The wounds you saw were not my work, none of them are. He’ll say as much if you ask him directly.”

There was a moment’s remorse for the snap. “I believe you.” And Kelas had said as much.

Think, Elim! If he approved of who you were, he’d be a different person. Ironically, someone who could never have been as kind to you or helped mold you into something… reciprocally kinder, Garak told himself, switching over to the water, which he held for a moment and then returned to the table, unimbibed.

“I’m sorry. I’m just, … I’m sorry,” Julian admitted, his eyes fixed to the side. “It’s just a bit beyond me.”

“Why he would act as my advisor? Do be aware, he was in my father’s employ. He and I are not, perhaps, overly alike…. But the commonalities we do share are important. Most of all, that he and I share a vision for a strong, just, and balanced Union.” Although there can be, at times, significant differences in precisely how that’s defined.

“I’m not talking about his being your advisor.”

 “Oh, he mentioned that, did he?”

“… It was Rekot, actually….”

“A veritable font of information, the dear young lady, but perhaps in need of further instruction on matters of discretion.” He leaned over towards the joined cabinet and opened it smoothly. Inside, there was a plate of small, green dollops. They appeared to be some form of puff. Garak lifted the plate and set it at the center of the table. “Here, try one of these. I’m not sure if she fed you properly.”

Julian selected the closest morsel with an obvious lack of enthusiasm.

“It wasn’t meant as a distraction,” Garak assured his guest, making a mild patting motion with his hands. “We do need to follow the schedule, else they pile up.”

Julian stuck the green thing in his mouth. It tasted… earthy, mildly earthy. It dissolved almost immediately. It certainly did whet his appetite, considering it arrived with so little substance.

“—As for Dr. Parmak, certainly. We provide one another mutual consideration. It’s a practical extension of our allegiance under the circumstances, much like soldiers on long appointments,” Garak said smoothly. “And I will be the first to admit that it is irksome when a friend’s spouse is not one’s friend—and indeed, if he and I were bonded you might well be at risk of a second haranguing. However, it’s nothing of that nature, and with our status as it is, I can and will insist that his behavior is more appropriate to someone that—if he would only set aside his vanity—he should be charmed to meet.” And that, Garak felt, was a perfectly reasonable manner in which to describe a man who’d shot down an engagement nearly a dozen times.

And this—this, Julian thought was strange—the second green thing tasted considerably better than the first. “It wasn’t that,” Julian said. “Just… so much heavy history.”

(He could almost convince himself, with a line like that.)

“All history is heavy, my dear doctor,” Garak reminded him.

That earned a nod. “I don’t know why I ever thought it would be made up of happy stories. I used to think, me, a doctor, near the top of my class, chomping at the bit and ready to go…. Out on the frontier, the adventures. I thought it would be like… like a book series, one of those fantastical sets? Each time I went out and solved something or saved someone. A medal, a pip, for every crisis avoided, for every dashing victory. I mean, I wasn’t quite that naïve—”

(Garak nearly choked on his kanar.)

“—But I thought I’d look back and… see the highlights.”

“And you don’t?”

“I don’t.”

“Then I hope you learn to look around you.”

Julian rubbed his eyes wearily. “There are bugs.”

Garak laughed. “Even that’s a good sign, my friend! This world, with its entire assortment, is here, in this form, because of the people who are striving for a better future, despite a history that could not be heavier—that of the imperialist, that of a regime on the wrong side. And those people succeed because they have leaders who facilitate their success, as I try to. And I am here because you saved my life—and more than once, I must remind you. Of course, you must forgive me my bias—it’s worth remembering that you saved the Commander, saved the station, saved our universe as we know it, really, not merely the billions of the Union.”

“Feels like you’re giving me too much credit there.” The doctor sighed and took another puff. He was beginning to pick up a delicate, nutty cast. Based on his past experiences, he knew better than to ask what they were made of.

“And not enough for having saved the Teplan? Or for your more conventional work, your virology research, your immunological studies?” Garak leaned slightly closer, his expression quizzical. “Or do you mean outside of medicine entirely? For your support in other matters?”

“Now you’re just putting me on.”

“Not at all.”

He shook his head. “You and your lies. I admit, they’re very charitable. Sweet of you”—he raised a glass—“like the kanar.”

“Oh!” And there, a huff. “And where’s the lie, exactly? Rest assured, I do have some lovely stories for you, my dear Julian, but I was saving them. You haven’t had enough kanar to be credulous; these days, I must work harder.”

“I’m glad Cardassia is on the mend. I… I’m impressed by what I see, all the things Rekot has shown me. But I wasn’t here for it, Elim, we know that.” And I didn’t save you for the sake of the Union.

“You were here in the effect you had on others. Do not forget what you have done for Chancellor Martok, and he and I being of some acquaintance, the Union and the Klingon Empire have made more headway in eight years than in decades prior. You cannot say you were not ‘there’ when you feature in Martok’s opera—he sings it every time.”

(But there was a lie—because Julian had not been there to hear it.)

“Whole part and parcel comes by, don’t they? Rekot told me it’s how you got the cats.”

“Cats?”

“The ‘pointy Chesters’? From Quark?” He reached down to his pant leg and retrieved a number of orange hairs, which he sprinkled on the table, narrowly avoiding the plate.

Garak’s eyes flashed in recognition. “Ah, yes! ‘Cats.’ But they’re only a type of cat, isn’t that right?”

Julian hesitated. “Well, I suppose, technically. … Right, because cougars are cats, and lions are cats, and jaguarondi are cats. But when we say, you own a cat, or you have a cat…. It’s the domestic cat, it’s ‘cats’. And certainly not ‘pointy Chesters.’”

“We prefer more precision from our language. What do you call them, then?”

“To be technical? Housecats, perhaps? Well, no… because a feral cat isn’t really a housecat… hmm.” He scratched at his hairline. “Often times, it’s clear by context, or we really do just use their names…. Like when I was a child, we had a cat, black cat, named Bagheera.” There was that sudden nostalgia, the strike. He did miss Bagheera, still some thirty-odd years later.

“‘Bagheera Bashir’?”

“They usually don’t get our surnames.”

“Ah, like Rekot. Of the household, but legally parallel.”

“Er… something like that. But Bagheera. Come to think of it, it’s actually a Hindi word, means ‘black panther’. Which is actually another kind of cat entirely. I mean, a ‘panther’ isn’t just one type of cat, except that only leopards live in the part of Earth where Hindi is commonly spoken. And the black panther is only a color phase of the leopard, an alternative phenotype.”

“I see.” Garak brushed off the side of his mouth with a pinky finger, dislodging a few remnants of puff. “But ‘pointy Chester’, that’s a ridiculous name for an animal.”

Julian turned his gaze upward. The canopy of leaves blocked most of the light from above. “Sometimes the world seems so refined, doesn’t it? And then you remember just how silly it all is….”

“Since we’re on the subject, perhaps… since you have had a po—pardon me, a cat, you can clarify a matter of… some confusion.” He t’sked his mouth, as if unsure how to phrase it. “A few humans have come to this planet and, upon spying a cat, the two of them begin a conversation. This dialect follows rather unique rules, unfamiliar syntax. We ourselves have not… quite determined how to talk to a cat, though they do speak to us.”

“The universal translator doesn’t work?” He tried to keep a straight face, and knew he was failing.

“It’s no laughing matter!”

“Well, except it’s just… gads, I don’t even know how to explain it. We can’t talk to cats, not really. We… approximate it, and they approximate it back. They’re not very clever, Elim.”

Garak shook his head in wonderment. “Is that right. But you try? How long how you been trying?”

“… Thousands of years?”

“I admire something in the human spirit which is so dauntless.”

Julian laughed again. “Oof, Elim, if we’re going to be here a while, can you let me know—do they have a restroom? A toilet?”

“Oh, certainly. It’s near the entrance, where you came in. The signs may be in Kardasi, but there will be someone there to direct you.”

“And… seeing as this is the first time I’ll be out of what I assume is a… human-friendly environment…. Is there anything I should know about that? About that… process? Here? Somewhere like here?”

Garak gave an open, bold guffaw. “My dear doctor, no giveaways! I should be very much interested in your trip report, however. Go on, go on. There will be more food when you return. Up, up, go, go, go. You’ve got me too invested now.”

Julian stood. “Now I’m bloody worried.

The Cardassian shook his head. “None of that, now. It’s one more of your adventures. I promise you will return more or less unscathed.”

At that, Julian relented. In his absence, Garak refilled glasses, set the plate for the puffs into a disposal unit below the table, and brought out the next set of dishes. It was only with considerable strength of character that he avoided diving in prematurely. The smell was splendid, almost intoxicating, though he knew a human would lack both the appreciation and the sensitivity.

“You jackass,” Julian piped, returning from behind the verdant barrier. “You absolute twit. It’s a human toilet, again! This is like the pointy Chesters, isn’t it? Like the tribbles? Another blasted thing you brought to Cardassia, you brought the toilets?!”

Garak held up his hands defensively. “No, no, my dear Julian. If only I could take credit! That had begun even before I returned from exile. It was as much to my surprise as yours—considerably more, even, if I had to guess.” And rather to my embarrassment, I could add….

Julian resumed his seated position at the table. As promised, there were a few more dishes laid out. All finger food, thus far. “Then where are the Cardassian toilets?”

“You’ll be fascinated to know, there’s no such thing.”

“Your people scramble their medical files quite effectively, but I’m plenty sure that—”

“Now, now, don’t be gauche! We are at the table, after all,” Garak warned him, though his tone remained light and playful. “It simply happens to be that the Cardassian body evolved in some of the most arid habitats of our world, and as such, it must be very efficient. All waste products are passed together as a single compaction, and very, very dry. Any water that must be expelled is almost perfectly filtered in the process. So, in the past, and not long past, it was common to expel clean water anywhere one pleased—what was the harm? And the rest was so dry, it was bagged and simply placed in the trash. It does seem to… lack elegance by the standards of other races, hence the quiet adoption of Federation waste disposal facilities.”

Julian burst into laughter. “Cardassians, like a dog at the park!”

“I do not know what that means and I will ask that you refrain from elaborating,” Garak retorted primly.

“Can’t believe you, with all your lofty Cardassian etiquette, grew up tossing your shit in a bin.”

Garak pointed at one of the newer dishes, deliberately ignoring the quip. “Young rokassa with herbs. An unusual preparation, but one of which I’m quite fond.” He pointed to the next. “And this? An animal similar to an eel, although you’ll find the flavor something else entirely. And lastly, an assortment of root slices. They can be eaten alone or in conjunction; they’re paired together for this round.”

Julian smirked. “I’ll try the eel first.”

And in turn, Garak reached for the rokassa. “More for me, then.”

It felt… comfortable. Almost fun. Furthermore, to Julian’s considerable surprise, the “eel” was indeed delicious. The flavor was reminiscent of dill.

“Patience, patience,” Garak reminded him. “It’s not going anywhere.” And you’ve only left one piece for me!

(He didn’t mind in the slightest. It seems humans, even with their inferior sense of smell, could appreciate sh’biur.)

“And I take it tribble won’t be on the menu?” Julian asked, switching over to the mixed roots. (Not bad, not quite as good.)

Garak’s upper lip pulled into a sneer. “P’ugh! Tribble, awful stuff. We’ve never found a way to process it that removes all the cursed little hairs. We do recycle the meat in the replicators, in which case they can be reprocessed into something passable, but energy is at a premium in many districts of this world.” He gestured at Julian with his own root slice. “But there again, having brought the tribble to the present-day, you’ve provided food for those who would otherwise be without.”

“I thought you sent Quark on a dangerous, thrilling mission into the unknown?” Julian said, placing his chin in his steepled hands.

“Just a story for the people, sad to say. He had the poor things in cold storage. Quark’s no fool, he had a sense of the plan, and he did charge accordingly. Couldn’t convince him I wanted a mere memento of your visit to the old Enterprise.” He took a chance to, this time, drink in an eager gaze. “I only wish I could have been with you, but alas. Customers can be demanding.”

Julian tilted his head. “So you didn’t want a memento.”

To hear Keiko tell it, by Miles’ reckoning you spent most of your time trying to leave your own memento with anything wearing a skirt at the risk of a massive temporal paradox, so no, I had little need of that, precisely. “Cardassia came first. Cardassia and its intensive tribble farms.”

“And you, their figurehead.” And this was warm, almost doting. “Elim the gardener. Elim the farmer. Rustic, pastoral Elim.”

But there still was the memory of flowers cut from silk.

“Good grief, Julian.” He finished the plate of sh’biur with flourish.

“It’s quite a visual, isn’t it?”

“It has charm for you, does it? Should I try it, the thick boots, the sun hat?”

“I like it better than the high neck,” Julian said, indicating with his eyes.

Garak shrugged. “It is a career ensemble, and I arrived directly. But if you prefer,” he replied pleasantly, unfastening several snaps, revealing a few pale inches that had previously been concealed. “It is more comfortable this way, certainly. Can hardly turn my neck otherwise. Makes it difficult to check exactly who is planning what.”

And that sight felt… a little more intimate. “… An older style, is it?”

“It is. Borderline archaic. But I am not a young man, and it helps offset the suspicion that I may be a radical. After all, what radical would wear such stolid fashions?”

Julian leaned forward and gripped both sides of the collar, working it open down to Garak’s sternal pit. He released with a flourish. “There! And that’s more of what I remember, isn’t it? That must feel better.”

Garak brushed him back. “Doctor, beg pardon!”

That was, perhaps, too much. And, whatever, it was, far too quick.

“—hands are filthy,” Garak fussed. “The smell of rokassa never comes out. I suppose you wouldn’t notice.”

“S-sorry, I just—since we’re supposed to be, this is supposed to be a… mm, a what, a just a chance to talk? Certainly nothing formal….” Come to think of it, she said it was for… what, resolutions?

“It does feel better,” he continued, as if he hadn’t heard Julian’s attempted walking-back. That was, as it happened, the truth, and there was satisfaction any time he had the opportunity to remove his anachronistic cladding.

“Hmm….”

“‘Hmm…’?”

“You really don’t look much older. Than the last time I saw you,” Julian noted, jumping to the quick—if unnecessary—clarification.

Garak lifted a glass of kanar. “To humans, a compliment. So, my dear friend, I will take it as kind of you to say!”

“Do you… is that….” A question from earlier was raising its head. Julian reached for a new glass of kanar, half-full by dint of former lips; he couldn’t recall whose. The first vintage was a weak one, but he could still feel its mild sting on his tongue. “Is it that that’s ‘Elim Garak’, that face? That one you use? Is it your…. Is that your real face? Not… not metaphorically, I mean, is that you? Or just a constructed you, something you used, something maybe your father designed?”

If so, Tain had demanded bright eyes of his son. “I’m surprised you never asked me before.”

Julian’s brow furrowed, an easier deed for eight extra years. “Before, you were a spy… or you might become a spy again. I think it’s a little late for that now, isn’t it, Elim? That brand of deception?”

That summoned the edge of a smile, a version maintained for special occasions. “There’s no way to know precisely, is there? Any time I bore an adapted visage, I wasn’t fatiguing the natural face of ‘Elim’, was I?”

“I suppose not.... But do you think this represents you accurately? Or do you wear it because that’s how you began to be recognized? Is that…. Do you think that’s you?” He considered a touch, a gentle gracing of the face in question, but then again, his fingertips were still stained from the burnt-orange rokassa.

“Do you think a spy defines himself by his face? Outside your precious Cold War programs, that is to say?”

Are you asking questions… to keep yourself from lying? Julian wondered. A part of you, are you afraid you wouldn’t be able to tell me the truth? “I’d like to think you allow yourself to look the way that makes you happy. But that isn’t true of your suit, is it? So I couldn’t say if that’s true of your face, either. I’d like to think that the face I know is one you find satisfying, for its own sake. Not because it was politically convenient, or even necessarily ‘authentic’ to whatever your genetics…. But something authentic to you.”

“Is my inauthenticity not authentic to me?”

“Elim.

“I couldn’t tell a truth or a lie in this case, my dear Julian. How could I know myself? I assume that the Cardassian face used as my default position was derived in some credible fashion. But, come to think of it, I neither know nor do I have any means to verify it. If my father had requested this appearance be tweaked, either to look more like him or less, for example, how exactly would I ever discover that fact? What could I ever hope to gain by knowing?”

If had never occurred to Julian that Enabran Tain might have common ground with one Richard Bashir.

“If it makes you feel any better—and Dr. Parmak will attest to this, should you ever speak to him again, ideally when he has had the opportunity to better compose himself—it was important that agents of the Obsidian Order endured false faces only as absolutely necessary. The cosmetic refitting was first on the agenda having returned from any mission.” He looked down at his fingers, at the backs of his scaled hands. “You see, there’s always the risk, even among Cardassians, that we might—as you humans so charmingly call it—‘go native’. The less time spent among other cultures, among other people, behaving as they do, the less likely that becomes.”

If only I had a chance to ask Benjamin how he felt about being briefly Klingon…. I don’t get the sense he thought it much more than a lark. Still, when Starfleet Intelligence called for me, I always wondered…. Would they make me do as Klingons and Cardassians do, appear as something else, Julian thought. Not Dr. Bashir, human augment, just for once.

“You know us as a xenophobic people, but outside influences have been so carefully controlled, in part, because we are susceptible. And if you do not believe me, ask any Cardassian about ‘pointy Chesters’. Our affection is tremendous, for an animal that comes directly from Federation Earth.”

“And you?”

“The pointy Chesters? Certainly!”

“And other Terran species too, I should hope?” This time, Julian took the bottle of kanar and gently poured the last of it into the glass directly in front of Garak. He held the empty for a moment, his fingers pressing against the “scales” carved into the crystal.

And Garak amenably took a polite sip. “Well, I did bring him to my favorite restaurant.” He inhaled sharply. “Speaking of which,” he said, turning to the cabinet, seeking another set of small plates. He opened it and—empty. He’d jumped the gun, all too obviously. Graceless, a rookie mistake. He closed it again.

“Not yet, apparently. We’ll need another round, though,” Julian said, finally releasing his grip. I’m going to need another bloody bottle, anyway, at this rate….

“It is set to arrive with the next course.” Don’t fall into old patterns, Elim, he told himself. You’re not on the station any longer. He doesn’t understand what’s changed, and it’s your responsibility to… remember.

Julian rolled up his sleeves. “I can see why it’s your favorite, the food is marvelous. Not… overly complex. Clean flavors.”

“It’s a specialty of the format, this type of cuisine. And there is a meditative angle.”

“Oh, and how is that? Are we meant to… reflect on the bounty, or the artistry? ‘Cardassian values’, sort of thing?” You simply can’t get enough of that one, can you? Always so proud to show it off. It would have been a tad bit cuter, were Cardassia a tad cuter itself.

“Ah,” Garak replied. “I can see where that was unclear. I was referring to the experience overall. It’s not strictly conversational. The schedule provided to us stipulates a pace, and a tone, for the stages of our exchange. All very protracted, of course, so if it doesn’t suit your needs, we can choose to adapt it or forego that aspect altogether.” He passed the card over to Julian, its carefully embossed letters glinting in the filtered light.

I wish I remembered this script a little better…. “Rekot mentioned something about this being a venue for… involved, um….”

“Mediation.”

Blast. Fuck.

“And here.” This time, the cabinet did contain another bottle and several larger plates. He moved them again to center. “I asked that they cook the meat.”

“Grand.”

And the delivery meant more kanar, some in lip-marked glasses, some in yet-unused. Even some in those half-filled with water. “Come now, you’re treating it like—well, like you dragging me into sickbay. All the many times you suspected I was treacherous, and you truly believe this is the form it would finally take? Never! This is not an ambush. It is a conversation, as we’ve had many times.”

More like an autopsy, Julian thought glumly, staring at the lumps of flesh pierced by long, gunmetal skewers. He slumped against the curved backrest of their niche. “One more in a long series of lies…. ‘Treacherous’? I made the choice to trust you. And look where I am,” he said, miming the expanse around them. “You, and me, here.”

“As I explained, it’s only a conversation,” Garak replied tersely.

“What? No! No, I mean, you and me, here.” Julian sighed, feeling the hard squeeze of an attempt that hadn’t adhered. “You, helping me, my record, with Starfleet. My point was I trusted you. And I was right to.”

Garak was chewing; the meat was tough—a robust flavor, but half sinew.

Julian began to understand the nature of the menu. He seized a skewer, but avoided the attached morsel—for the moment. “All these hints and warnings, caveats… but you always did come through. I still remember, back in Camp 371, when the Vorta told us the Cardassians would be freed…. Glanced over your shoulder, your first impulse… my affirmation. And when Dukat’s damn security program got triggered, you came up to Command, where I was. You… you? You could have found your way off the station, couldn’t you, early in? Just not without me in tow. It wasn’t until the program escalated that you became trapped like the rest of us. Never thought to thank you for that. Hadn’t thought that far, just…. I guess back then, I never considered we’d actually die that way, something so… stupid. Now I know how possible it is.”

A t’sk of the teeth and Garak swallowed. “I had so hoped to come to your rescue. It would have been… dashing. You so enjoy that sort of thing.”

In exchange, a half-amused snort. I thought it was.  “All the lies, so many of them little lies… little stories. But there were big lies—and that was the biggest. That someday, you’d betray me.”

“A known quality of mine, I’m afraid.” He bent his skewer in half and set it on the ground next to him.

Julian took careful appraisal of the meat and bit off a small piece from the side. That he could take and eat without much gnawing. “The fact is, Elim, you’re more faithful than you are dishonest. The lies served a purpose, but there was an authentic ‘you’ under that. And that… was what I had always wanted to believe? Or…. I don’t know.” I did… enjoy the thought… that it would have all been for nothing¸ he thought dimly. Because what could be more pure than all I did for you, if you stabbed me in the back? But if that’s what I wanted, it hardly counts, does it?

(Garak felt a twinge for his role in a story that Odo had never reported.)

[[That was for Cardassia.]]

And Julian took in the rest of the meat and he chewed. He flashed back, again, to Marritza on the table. He tried to push it out of his mind—what it looked like, inside, when something had died.

“Everything I have done for you, you have earned.” A switch in the speaker, as was due. “And you cannot have missed the theme in every story that my people hold dear. You were, as I needed to tell you, a good friend. And I have tried, throughout the years, to be the same, even with less knowledge of it.” A few fingertips, tapping at the table. “That is to say, imperfect knowledge of precisely what that entails. It was not… a skill for us, those of my particular background.”

The doctor continued to chew, but in his mind, already had a plan of attack for a nearby glass of slightly-stronger kanar.

Garak tilted his head, the tone a little lighter. “Perhaps it was excessive, the letters that I sent. Certainly, they were meant as a gift, although that may have been… lost in translation. We never quite reconciled the many customs of our respective cultures. I suppose, to a human, they appeared overly plaintive.” He neglected to mention that, to a Cardassian, that descriptor was even more appropriate. “I realized it, after a time.”

Julian prayed that kanar would redden his paling cheeks. Right. Right. We make jokes about the pointy Chesters, the bloody toilets…. But we were never going to escape this forever, were we? If it means anything at all that I’m here. And coming here, I… can’t ask to avoid it.

It hadn’t occurred to him that Garak could be equally embarrassed.

“I came to the conclusion that it was more meaningful, as per human tales, to perform deeds I did not name. To surreptitiously have you assigned to a M.O.D., I apologize. I wish I had understood how to intervene better, and sooner. It clearly introduced… unnecessary anguish.” Garak remained proud of the plan, and given how uncommunicative Julian had been, had no reservations about having instituted it secretly—but it was true that the lifeline came later than he would have preferred, now that he knew of the Okanogan.

Julian mimicked Garak and bent his skewer in half and set it next to the other. Even without words, without exposition, he felt he understood the suggestion that it made.

Another portion in hand, but unconsumed, Garak continued, “All that said….”

“All that said,” Julian thought. There was not enough kanar in the world.

“All that said, it was done… with the expectation I would not see you again. Not, of course, based on our last conversation, those years back…. That did, perhaps, suffer from, oh, perhaps a little dramatic flair. Provided Cardassia could maintain the barest vestiges of order, and I still possessed the skills to outmaneuver whichever of my enemies remained, I expected that we were still to share a table. Then. At that time.”

Not enough kanar in the Union.

Even if Garak’s eyes had been focused on Julian directly, it wouldn’t have mattered. Julian’s would not have met his, their gaze defensively low.

“I don’t expect you to believe it, given the schemes for which I’ve become somewhat notorious, and the everyday challenge of my many falsehoods, but I did not conspire to bring you here, to Cardassia. Not… this time, not now.” The words arrived with a soft sneer, and, paradoxically, a relaxation of his muscles that bordered on painful. “I hadn’t much hope for it.” And the timing… could not be more maddening.

Julian dropped his glass before it made contact; it clattered for the half-inch it had dropped. “I know you’re angry, Elim—”

“—Now, just one moment, please.” Garak took a breath. “Did you ever read my letters?”

“A few, a bit. At the start. But… no.”

Garak nodded an affirmation. And the latest, he didn’t so much as access; that much is encoded in the system. Easier, that one of us tells the truth, often enough. Easier still, if it were a shared nature….

Something about the greenery had become… oppressive. Like the stage for a predator and prey.

“I know, and that’s what I’m trying to say,” Julian stressed, cringing while he did. “I—I get it, I do. I see why you’re furious, I’d be bloody furious. I—”

“Would you?”

“What?”

“Is that how you would feel in my position? If our situation were reversed?” Garak asked. At last, he took the meat in his mouth, the skewer still in his hand, un-bent.

How else? Livid. And I’d be right to do it. That was the immediate thought—the spiteful conclusion, the harsh bite that couldn’t end in a bent skewer. He understood the need to revisit it. He was able to sit straight, lift his head, just a tad. “I…. If I were you?”

A soft nod, but no words. And a slow, slow gnaw. It was a signal: take your time.

I would be angry, he reaffirmed. I’d bloody well be angry with me. He pressed his lips together into a thin line. Wasn’t the question, though, was it? How would I feel if it were Elim, eight years of not answering my messages, not a word, and then suddenly, out of nowhere….

“I’d be…”—the words came glacially—“… confused. I’d feel… confused.”

The flavor lingered.

“And… hurt. But most of all, I’d feel… I suppose… relieved.”

Garak bent his empty skewer and set it with the pair.

Julian’s brow furrowed. Suddenly, the customs, the theatrics—they became impossible to track. He was gripped, and he couldn’t characterize it. Even the low hum of the insects escaped him. He thought back to how Garak—Garak, alone, in the entryway—had welcomed him. He thought back to how surprising it had felt. But is that what you were feeling, Elim? That, above it all—relief?

He risked a look and, in blue eyes, observed an old and humiliated fondness.

“You and I are, admittedly, quite different,” Garak stated carefully, his focus clear and narrow. “The only question is: how different, exactly?”

Julian remained stunned.

“The rage that you’ve attributed to me: does that come from a place that I care more, or less, or merely with less affection? A trait of my kind, perhaps? Is that what you detect?”

“No….” He shook his head. “I don’t know. I’m, ah… not sure.”

Still, a downbeat.

“You aren’t, then. Angry, I mean.” He’d heard it before, but it remained difficult to believe. I wasted so much time….

“If I told you I was, you’d accept it as the truth; if I told you that I wasn’t, you’d believe it was a lie. For this matter, you have only your own judgment.”

“My judgment? Not exactly betting on a winner.”

(It was either cruel or kind to mislead him, but for the time, that was how it would be, and how Garak preferred it.)

Garak wrapped his fingers around one of the smallest glasses—this with kanar—and lifted it. “This, my toast to your judgment, Dr. Bashir. More than tribbles, more than pointy Chesters, the optimism of humanity—your optimism—allowed this world to survive, even thrive, as ideas you promoted took hold. Never think our arguments were for nothing, my dear friend.” He drank the glass and set it down in front of Julian, who eyed it with suspicion, and nearly disdain.

… It came as a surprise to Garak, who thought it might get a smile, or at the very least a thoughtful expression. “Why, we’ve even changed our judicial system. Certainly, every trial ends in the same verdict: guilty, yes, guilty, and that cannot change. However, we have instituted grand juries to determine a case’s fitness for trial. It is a compromise—the best of another institution, brought here, integrated with our strong and noble traditions. And Cardassia becomes better for these inclusions, these compromises. Peace with the Gorn—and Gorn on our grand juries. It’s fascinating, really, they have a very different view on guilt. To have one, even one, essentially assures the opportunity for a position to be pled fairly—”

Julian grabbed a skewer and stuffed the meat in his mouth, doing more to brutalize it than to plainly devour.

He did it for the metal, for how it could be brandished.

“I am sorry, too soon, the matter of the Gorn?”

It was Julian’s turn to twiddle an empty spear.

“So glad I had the chance to help Cardassia,” the doctor said, the meat having been downright inhaled. “And the Union.

The delivery gave Garak pause. “You are a man who delights in helping others, and who treasures the values of his Federation. In both respects, you have triumphed here, and stupendously. You have had a significant impact on so many lives!” Or is it that they’re Cardassian? Certainly, you wept more tears for those of the Okanogan, is that the crux of it?

“This whole time, that’s what it’s been, you and the Union, what I’ve done for the Cardassians through you. Museums and tableaus. And that’s all grand, isn’t it? But you practically demand that I care by that standard, and that’s it, the only one, the whole of it. If you’d come back and been able to do nothing, if Cardassia went whatever direction it was to go, only without you, would what I did for you mean anything at all to you?”

“Of course I would be grateful!” Spoken stridently. “I don’t judge merely on the outcome, but on what you intended—the good you had at heart. That it prevailed, that’s all the better!”

Julian slammed the skewer on the table, still unmarred, un-bent. “What did it mean to you? Is there a reason I’m here—me, here, with you—or is it simply to remind me of all my good deeds for Cardassia, and my lingering value, this new mission you’ve set me on—for the Federation, certainly, for the Gorn, yes, and bloody well yes, for the Union!”

That reaction came as a surprise. “Knowing your influence here, your impact, does not inspire you…?”

“This, all this, for Cardassia? I’m happy, I’m happy it took, I’m happy they’re happy, that’s all right and proper. But that isn’t what I’m asking you, Elim.” He gripped one hand in a tight fist and tapped it against his temple. He bore his agitation openly—his reticence was a little harder. “All you’re doing—this, for me. All I’ve done. Are you in this equation, or is it just tradeoffs between Dr. Julian Bashir and the Cardassian government writ large, with you as its agent, to give it a face?” Where the face I see might not even have meaning….

“I still, I don’t—the question—” Half-false, half-true, because it was formulating—

“All the times we ate together, this one included…. All the times you sat me down for a lesson, described to me the wonders of this world—was any part of that just you? Did you enjoy it, or was it always with the thought in mind—Dr. Julian Bashir, an asset to the Union? Is this, is this all just to set me back to work, a better tool, repaired?” He grabbed the skewer, straight as a nail, and gripped it like a dagger. “When we flirted, is that what that was? No person involved—not on your end—just a callow young man seduced by an alien cause?”

At that, Garak’s teeth clamped shut. He was gray and could be no more ashen—but not for a lack of trying.

“If we’re here to talk, then talk to me! You can always talk, can’t you?” Landing on a desperate edge. Cold and cold and pleading.

Normally, Julian would be entirely correct—but at this, Garak was dumbstruck.

Julian’s expression began to distort, almost collapse. “This is why I can’t believe you. Because you can lead me on, anything you say. But in the end, I don’t even know what it is; I can’t even tell what it was.” He swiped through the air with the metal shard, perhaps a bit too widely. “He’s my teacher, he’s a spy, he’s coming on to me, he’s my friend, I saved his life, I know his name, we went unwound, he saved me, I left him, he left me…. I don’t even know if this was another bloody person from the start, the way I understand it, an individual person who thinks or feels something unique to him, with respect to me?”

The point of the meal was to talk, but that skewer—Julian understood it, and when it would be bent. And the answer to that was: not yet.

“I come here, and you are someone. You adopted the girl, adopted Rekot? And you’re boffing a doctor, a Cardassian doctor, who’s right up my arse that I’m even here. You’ve got your pigpens of tribbles and your toxic dust, your cats, your privies, and your father’s goddamn ghost! What is it, Elim—what is it all?”

“If you were so interested, you might have read the letters,” Garak snapped.

“What was the point, they’re lies!”

And Garak recoiled. And it came to mind, though he wasn’t sure why, that beneath the dye, his hair was gray.

“Elim, if you’re someone, then what are we supposed to be—you and me?”

“We’re off the schedule—”

“Toss the fucking schedule, talk to me!”

“Well,” Garak began, flicking up a dismissive hand, his gaze far to the side, his focus oriented somewhere among the green. “Well, what am I supposed to know? Humans are supposed to be straightforward. It’s we Cardassians who spin strange yarns and design intricate little rituals, isn’t that so? Which is to say, if a human spends seven years being opaque, when I’ve met in the middle, been as clear as I am able—”

Julian shook his head, forbidding the equivocation. “You knew I was flirting, half the station did. And the other half knew you were. But you, you started it, from the moment we met you were the one who’d started it, and I reciprocated, and then what? You did your little bloody dance and always—every time!—you found a way to try to defuse it, confuse it, put it off. And that—that—struck me, at first, as just one more stage of Cardassian flirting, only—imagine this—I’ve read your books, and I’ve met other Cardassians, and I’m aware—well aware—it’s not!”

“It isn’t our convention to do it concurrently with bedding an entirely separate stable. And if you read your books and articles to learn something and not merely to feel validated, you would know that.” He grabbed the neck of his shirt, forming a clasp with a scaled hand. “I was fond of you, very fond, and I remain very fond, but not sufficiently fond to be one more ticked box in your,” he managed with a sneer, “… field guide.”

“I would have been exclusive, if I had a relationship to be exclusive for,” Julian countered.

“Nothing ever kept your interest. I didn’t, as a friend. I can only imagine what would be required to do so as a lover.” He released his collar and then shrugged. “I know my limitations. An ego carefully in check. I couldn’t have done it, and I’d have destroyed my one connection on the station in the attempt. It would have been foolish, and that’s assuming you’d have accepted such an offer to begin with. I valued our friendship. I prioritized it.”

(Was that a lie?)

“You thought I’d get bored?” Julian demanded.

“You did. You grew tired of me.”

The doctor slowly, deliberately, torturously bent the skewer. The answer hadn’t satisfied, but it had to be acknowledged.

“And what about Cardassia?” Julian prodded. “That didn’t factor in at all? I’m supposed to believe that, Elim?”

“Ah, and see?” Garak replied, attempting a return to his comfortable affability. He opened the cabinet at the far end of the table and, removing the dishes inside, stacked them in a single, inaccessible tower. That was part of the schedule, but he had promised compromises. “I had scarcely dared to hope. But there, at the end, after having gone so far as to stare down my execution, my exile was annulled. With that, I am willing to share in any blame: by one or the other, any relationship we had would have ended, and under the very worst of circumstances—when we would have needed one another most. We barely survived our grief as it was, our disrupted worlds—imagine that, with heartbreak.”

(Garak did not need to imagine.)

Julian did not permit the atmosphere to lighten so easily. “I could have followed you.”

And it was countered with a laugh. “You? You, my dear war hero, had your dream girl and any posting you desired in all of known space. If you’d forfeited that, and goodness gracious, for me, you’d have regretted it all your life.”

“It didn’t turn out like I hoped.”

“Naturally. But how could you have known? Hoped less? That, from my dear Dr. Bashir?”

That unadorned, practically simple human face was… inscrutable.

Garak frowned and thought to extend a hand. He thought better of it.

“This is only shore leave,” Julian said. “Then I’m gone for three years. Another three years.”

“… That’s right.”

“It’ll be eighteen. Eighteen years since I met you.”

A cautious nod.

“That’s too late, isn’t it?”

“It’s impossible to say.”

Julian, his elbows striking the table with a solid thunk, buried his face in his hands.

“That’s just a matter of prognostication. A truly honest person can make no promises on behalf of someone they’ve yet to become.”

“What are you telling me? For goodness’ sakes, Elim, simple Standard….”

“Things will change in the next three years.” A plain fact. Easy. A truth that could be told, the converse too farcical to present as a lie. “They will change for both of us. We will be... very different people.” And that as well.

Julian muttered, “That’s always true, Elim.” Just a threadbare excuse… for the two of us, who’ve rarely been who we claimed to be.

“It will be especially true for you.” It will be especially true for me. “I’m not certain that a commitment, now, would be entirely prudent. Soon, you will have options you have… forgotten. Options available to one of Starfleet’s elite, his placement reinstated.” You will not be coming back. To Federation space? Certainly, emblazoned you. Not to Cardassia.

That’s it, isn’t it? He thinks I’m just… desperate. Julian exhaled slowly, an attempt to maintain his composure. Nevertheless, he shivered, a quake that came from his shoulders. Of course he’d think so. I look desperate. I am… desperate.

(A hypo would have arrived much appreciated.)

Garak leaned to the side and activated a switch. “House? Thank you. Discontinue. Full charge, my compliments to the chef and service. Just expedient, highly efficient.” He paused, the switch still engaged. “Send the final bottle, now that I think of it.” At that, he flicked it off.

“What? Elim, no—!” He dropped his hands, aghast. “You said this was your favorite restaurant. I hadn’t meant—”

An ambivalent ho-hum. “It will be here tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, barring any orbital bombardment.” He gestured to the haphazard arrangement of cups and small plates. “And please, eat anything you like—I should recommend a sample, at least. However, venues of this kind are not usually considered appropriate for… discussions of this nature, and that is a practice that I think better to respect. I am of the opinion it might be more appropriate to return to my home and perhaps reflect on matters individually. We’ve accomplished quite enough, I believe.”

A telling word: “Individually”….

“A thought-provoking discussion, as we’ve always had. So glad to know that you’ve maintained the talent! But it has brought us to the fact that neither one of us expected that we would reunite, and certainly not under these particular circumstances.” It was airy again, mildly aloof. As if the topic had been a minor one, and they’d merely run out the clock. “I am, I feel confident enough to admit, a planner. And this, I confess, escaped my calculations. The same is true in your respect, I should imagine. It might be best for both of us to take time to consider what has been said… and, at the risk of sounding presumptuous, why we may have said it. Don’t you agree?”

That fucking pullback! But this time, he could not feel entitled to complain.

Garak did make a point to retrieve the bottle he’d requested. It had appeared without accompaniment.

“And if it’s the same, Elim? If I tell you that after the mission, I’d return, that I’d want to see you…?” Julian asked. He gripped the neck of the bottle, his fingers clasped about Garak’s. “What about you, what would you say?”

“Patience. You and I may need a little time to reacquaint ourselves.”

“That’s what you’d say, or…?”

“I am saying it, yes.”

He gave Garak’s hand a final squeeze and released. He was sorry to abandon the touch, cool as it was, cool and gray and not nearly familiar.

But much to his surprise, Garak released the bottle to return the warmer gesture. “I am glad that you are here.”

Julian took the opportunity to rub his thumb against the scales, to take in the intricate textures. Something about them felt weathered, used, and almost tired. The sensation was implicit, and implicitly understood.

“But all history is heavy, my dear.”

 

Chapter Text

Use of the transporter while planetside was an apparent privilege of the political elite. Certainly, it was common enough on Earth, but Julian was well aware that Cardassia and its citizens operated by considerably greater constraints, based on—by his estimation—energy use and seemingly omnipresent security measures. Nevertheless, he was grateful for the opportunities that Garak’s acquaintanceship rendered, and for the ease that it provided under even the most desperately awkward circumstances.

That they arrived in the garden, Julien supposed, was the rough equivalent of his previous inability to enter the capitol building directly, diplomat’s card notwithstanding. Perhaps it was merely convention that one never transported directly into a Cardassian home.

They had traded greenery—real greenery—for… well. He wasn’t sure that all of them were fake.

“There. I apologize,” Garak stated simply, his own transmission signal having solidified a mere half-second before. “Discretion. You understand.”

Julian could feel his shoulders hang. “Do I?”

A soft huff. “By convention, such mediation venues are secure. It would be tremendously uncouth to jeopardize that status; it would add a qualifier to one of our most vaulted customs… interminably. Nevertheless, I fear it might just be a mistake to view any tradition as deserving of our wholehearted confidence. Not all is as it was a hundred years ago.”

“Please, just talk to me, Elim….”

Garak frowned slightly. “Surveillance. I hadn’t meant to cut our exchange short, anything but! It simply became… a little more substantive than I had foreseen, the two of us. I had anticipated—well. A little longer on the ‘pointy Chesters’, and perhaps a tad less on more sensitive matters. I hadn’t realized such words were edging on your tongue. It has been a number of years.”

Julian took a cautious step back, slow and circumspect. He found his eyes drawn to the flowers, blazing and glorious and absolutely artificial. “Stepped in it again, then, did I?” Full-bore like always, needy and childish….

“Of course not. I should have expected you’d be forthright. It is an admirable characteristic, and a human one, naturally.”

“Naturally.”

There was a buzz among the plants. Insects. Some of the foliage had to be real; they, the small creatures, more than anyone, would know.

“… Elim,” Julian suggested tiredly, “I think I do need that time.”

Garak pressed a hand against his upper arm. The fabric was thin, sheer, sensitive—permissive of an intimate distance. “Are you all right? I stipulated, very directly, that the food should accommodate sensitivities in the human diet. If you feel ill—”

And he looked ill. He looked blanched and worn, a third-rate copy. “No, nothing like that. Really, Elim, and please… just some time. Still haven’t,”—he pointed up to a dimming Cardassian sun—“still haven’t fully acclimatized.”

That did seem to take Garak somewhat aback. “Lie down? Yes, certainly, if you need rest—”

“Yes, please.”

A nod. “My home is yours. If you need time, then certainly…. Though, of course, there are still many hours to this evening, and I designated it for you….”

As Julian turned to enter—this time, by the back door, a direct route to the ground-floor study—he paused. His brow knit, his lips stitched to a half-minded scowl. “Just… one question, though, if it’s all right?” He didn’t wait for the assent. “How did I come to be bored with you, do you happen to think? How, exactly, did I ‘grow tired’ of someone I don’t even know? Hardly…,” he seethed, “—hardly seems possible, does it?”

“Take your time to reflect, then,” Garak said, employing a tame dodge. “If I recall, you did enjoy your methods of meditation. At your leisure, for your comfort, my dear friend. I will conduct some administrative calls in the meanwhile. It if gets to be too much, we can always join Rekot and her teleplays. Those are guaranteed to suffocate any complex idea in your head. But perhaps you would find them more engaging? I’d be interested to know your opinion….”

The doctor didn’t have the vigor to cut a rejoinder. He nodded, as if mute, and found his way inside, leaving the assemblyman in the garden, alone among its pleasant absurdities of hidden coils and battered silk.

 

//

 

“Barely made it to the retirement party,” Keiko remarked. “Complete tatters, like I haven’t seen since Molly and the temporal anomaly. Couldn’t even take his afternoon coffee, shaking so much. So, you must have gotten… something, then?”

Garak registered a quick tap to his chest, a movement that teased at the very bottom of the screen. “He was perfectly amenable, your husband. He has a generous spirit, something I really must commend. Still, I must thank you specifically, for your part—I imagine you put him in the proper frame of mind.”

Keiko rolled her head from side to side, rolling the compliment around in her skull like a marble. “I wish I could say I had anything to do with it…. You’d think, after all these years, he’d be less of a mystery. He doesn’t seem that mysterious, does he?”

That was enough to make Garak smile. “His greatest asset in the trade. Few can pry the mysteries from a simple man. And I’m content to let him keep those which remain. This was important, for Dr. Bashir’s sake. I will treat this information with all due gravity and respect.”

“Thank you, Garak,” Keiko replied. “Even if you did make a mess of my husband.”

“And for that, I really must apologize—”

Keiko laughed outright. “Oh goodness no, it’s fine. He wouldn’t be my Miles without getting a kick in the teeth now and then. Not—not that you meant it that way, surely!” She ran her head over her thick, black hair. “Oogh, that didn’t sound good coming from me either.”

“He is a very resilient man.” An opportunity out.

She released a slow breath, transpiration as long as it was knowing. “That he is. Well. Do you need any follow-up, anything from me or Miles?”

“No, not that comes to mind, generous dear. If you think of anything, however, I will welcome your transmission, as I always have. And do send along some pictures of the children, whenever you have the time.”

“And will you let us know? If you’re able to… make any progress, that is? You needn’t call Miles directly, but if I can pass it on, any good news….” She licked her lips nervously. “Even just that he’s accepted an alternative assignment….”

He nodded. “I will. Take care, Dr. O’Brien.”

“Good luck, Garak.”

 

//

 

It was exhaustion. Several sorts.

The missed opportunities. The misunderstandings. Misapprehensions. Mistakes. Each was a bore, an augur to the breastbone. Each bit made a course to the well of the heart, and those that pierced it were rewarded with a gushing, mournful seep.

All the unnecessary anxieties, and all on the wrong trajectories.

(Dr. Bashir, aren’t you supposed to be intelligent?)

Why did he ever think Garak’s appearance was meaningfully inauthentic?

He would have known that I’d have set it right, he thought, staring at the crumpled blankets he’d left in a heap that morning. If he’d asked? No matter how strange, I’d have done it for him. For a man who has never been allowed a firm identity…. It would have been a privilege to give him one. The sun was still burning brazenly; there was no excuse to be so weary yet. Still, his eyes met the bed with a heartbroken need to let himself unfold.

He surrendered to it, let his legs stretch, let his back align along a firm expanse. Grateful, grateful. He thought to remove his shoes, but had no desire to even bend his joints. What did it matter anyway, his shoes?

(He recognized the pose he took; he’d done so many autopsies.)

For a flashing moment, he missed Bagheera, who always seemed to know when he was grieving, even when his mother and father did not. There would be the butt of a head, a curled paw, an ancient question in a solitary “meow” that the universal translator could never interpret, but a human still could.

Easier to think of him as a helpless bigot, wasn’t it? That he didn’t have the character to look beyond your face. This, from the man who learned archaic Standard to read your people’s doggerel? Who made you shirts from the finest cloth from among a thousand worlds?

He had none of them left. Garak’s various little projects, down to Viking pendants or silken pocket squares—not a one. And the Garak who wiled through his day with such things, as far as Julian could tell, was gone.

They had been made artfully, every meticulous seam, every precisely-knotted finish. They’d all re-entered a replicator for recycle at one point or another, a few by necessity, most by utility, and a choice selection by pure spite.

Watch and see in amazement: the only creature in the galaxy crippled by its own poison, he thought grimly. Parmak was right….

He seized the second pillow—clearly a concession for guests accustomed to snugger bedding—and gripped it tightly. It felt nothing at all like a Bagheera (dead) or a Kukalaka (gone).

It all felt… overwhelming. That Cardassian superiority. But he never thought that they made the best chocolates. Or even the best sweaters. His fingers tightened. I never really considered what it was like on the station, a station that had been Cardassian, but despised them. Miles…. (Miles.) Miles always complaining about the shoddy engineering as cover for a deeper hate. Visitors—human, Bolian, Vulcan—sneering at the architecture. Now that Bajor has the resources, the place is unrecognizable. No one had a reason to appreciate what it had been—that was the right reaction, given what all it had been. But we took it as representative, emblematic, didn’t we? Of all that his people were?

He really was his culture’s only defender on Deep Space 9. It was the art, he promised. He said that they were artists, and that, that was true. There was literature, there was a civilization underlying the faceless waves of ships at war.

Julian recalled what he’d read in Ezri’s files.

His decryptions meant extermination for entire crews, for formations….

(A sacrifice for a greater cause, for the integrity of the Union, for the culture as it should be, but only as it should should-be. They were Cardassian—they’d have given their lives freely, if they’d understood the sheer necessity of it. Isn’t that right?)

His heart still ached for Goran’Agar and the other Jem’Hadar on Bopak III. In the midst of a war that saw the Federation teetering at the edge of its destruction, he had still been entitled to exercise clemency towards its enemies most strident, most devout.  

I’ve never been asked to kill a human….

He knew if he’d been asked then, he would have—naively, brazenly, and most of all wrongly—claimed it would be the same, that to him all lives were equal; Goran’Agar, Jadzia, Benjamin: all the same. Dr. Bashir, even-handed saint!

There had been humans aboard the Okanogan. He knew better now.

He let his sympathy flow endlessly. It had often been mistaken for a more sophisticated compassion. But he never had a talent for that, for the alternative perspective. He possessed a deep caring, but in exchange, often bereft of understanding.

(At least, Ezri had said something like that.)

It was convenient to think of him as obsessed, as single-minded, Julian thought. And I didn’t respect where it came from. I enjoyed it, as banter, when it was banter…. After Miles clued me in on what it was, what it was-was for certain, then I enjoyed that…. But fucking hell. Always the dance; it was the conversation…. He’d take one side, I’d take the other, step one-two, tat-tat-tat.

I forgot to listen. I was so taken by the rhythm…. I didn’t hear what he was saying.

Well, wasn’t the rhythm all it had? Stories and story beats. The “facts”… the facts were fake, but the pattern! It felt so good to engage with a structured conversation…. Safer, somehow.

Good grief, you wish that were the whole of it, don’t you? Dismiss it all as lies? You could bloody well convince yourself of anything. He might have lied about Edosian orchids or shipments of Bajoran children, but Cardassia? Its history, its culture? That was his anchor. The lies were about him, because that didn’t matter. But Cardassia? To him, this world means everything.

Is it just because he’s Cardassian? That word, a simple designation, seemed to carry so many sinister connotations.

No…. I’ve seen too many of them now. They’re certainly patriotic, on the whole: the stones they move, the songs they compose. But I’ve also seen them on the station, normal soldiers…. Everyday engineers, and the couriers, the two women at customs…. It’s like any people, isn’t it? They tell you, “Tellarites are boorish” and you accept that, internalize it, even. Maybe, to a Vulcan, that’s even true, on the whole. But where does that leave the teacher who helped me on the way over? Was she boorish? She was kind.

And for humans, we just accept…. Of course all humans are different? Right on that we’re passionate, that we’ve got a certain pep.

(Then where’s yours, Julian?)

That we’re open, that we’re listeners…. That we’re good diplomats?

(Then why weren’t you listening?)

He flipped onto his side, pillow still in hand, now less a friend than a life preserver. Water, heavy, cold and dark. Damn, a breath that won’t come, even to drown—

(If you’re human, you’re an inferior model…. But you knew that, didn’t you?)

(Your parents couldn’t begin to fix that.)

Chapter Text

“You son of a bitch!”

“And a very happy Yo’poloia to you as well, Commander.”

Kira’s eye twitched in irritation. The tension coiled under the finespun fabric of her orthodox tunic, appropriate wear for a celebration of welcoming and comfort. It was a apoplectic orange. “Were you ever going to tell me that Julian was in absolutely no danger at all? From the goddamn start?”

Garak smiled. “My dear Commander—that would be a lie. Our universe is rife with many dangers.”

She fought the urge to grab the screen and shake, for whatever effect that might have. Instead, she clenched her hands into fists and bumped them on the tabletop. “If I get my hands on you, I swear, you’re going to go from gray to black and blue!”

He knew it, and respected it, as likely hyperbole. Although one could never be sure. “My dear Commander, I heard you yourself discuss the power of tactics split into individual cells. After all, the fewer who know a secret, the more likely it is to remain secret. This small design of mine will only succeed if it passes unnoticed by Starfleet’s higher ranks. You, yourself—you could have a Starfleet admiral’s ear in a second, if you wished. It felt best not to reveal it, even to a free agent, a Bajoran representative of such esteem.”

“What’s this about, Garak? It’s been years! What are you doing, messing around with his career?”

“I owe him, of course. And I’m fond of him. Surely that’s enough?”

“Doesn’t excuse sinking your fingers in things. He didn’t have the faintest clue, Garak—and he was scared to death!”

The Cardassian shook his head. “No, Commander. He was despairing to death. Fear stands as a considerable improvement.”

“Despair? Despair…. Yes, well that’s, hrmph. Fair.” She’d, at one time, come to the same conclusion. “And any Bajoran would recognize it. A degradation of the soul.”

The soul was not a recognized Cardassian phenomenon.

“But—”

Ah, but she was not readily distracted.

“—that doesn’t excuse meddling with someone’s entire life like that. ‘I have plans’… Prophets above, Garak! And did you get me to send him to Cardassia? Is that what happened?” Damn, I’ve been played! Again!

That saw an expression fade, a slow re-focus of his eyes to a space out of frame. “Oddly enough, no. I wanted to see him, of course, and am thankful that my home came to mind when you were rebooking his stay. But I am a mere politician, plain and simple, not a sorcerer. Often enough, I’ve found myself asked to do the impossible. It’s quite flattering, as you might imagine, but at times I wish that more people would assign a reasonable standard to my modest capacities.”

“I take it lying isn’t a sin on Cardassia.”

Garak laughed lightly. “I would never ask you to trust such a coincidence. However, your people believe in greater forces. Perhaps they should be commanding your attention. I can only control so many variables. Do you believe I can control you, Commander?”

Sometimes I do wonder, Garak. She clenched her teeth. “Never mind. How did you get Starfleet to agree to it? They think they’re killing this man. Julian! Our friend, Garak, and a war hero. I know that you did that, but they were part of it too, weren’t they? They must have consented. Then how?”

He rubbed a thumb against once facial ridge, advertising his concern. “If you were to speculate, how do you think I executed this plan? What do you think I, a Cardassian, told them, noble Starfleet, such that they would waltz their man to his certain demise?”

She jolted up straight, as if asking her spine to come through in her voice. “I-I don’t know. Concessions! They always want concessions.”

“As it happens, when I recommended that Dr. Bashir be assigned to a M.O.D.,” he explained slowly, unhurriedly, “I received quite a surprise.”

“Which was?

“The Federation’s primary representative for those of us in the Union—Admiral Gerd Bonnevie, I’m sure you two are acquainted—accepted the request.”

“That was it? That easy?”

He smirked bitterly. “And then asked what I desired in return.”

Kira’s brow furrowed. “Wait, I don’t follow.”

“Apparently, Starfleet was under the impression that our dear doctor was, to some extent, under my protection. That I might cause an incident if he were found extinguished.” He raised his hands with a careful, delicate buoyancy. “And, ironically, their belief made it true. I was safeguarding him long before I realized it.”

The gears were still turning. (Dark doe-eyes that wished to forbid it.) “Then….”

“Without my… perceived guardianship, he would have been… recommended for a M.O.D. years ago. … Three years, if I were to guess. Ah! But perhaps merely ... expelled, perhaps by some other means; I oughtn’t to imply anything intrinsically fatal. The Federation does have a heart, I’m told.” Slick and smooth and framed in blue.

“So you….”

He swept it away. “I requested some specific agricultural data or, barring that, improved access to shipments of elemental rhodium. Whatever I could imagine that might make it seem like we had approached the negotiation in the same frame of mind.” He gave a single, sharp laugh. “Trading him in. For resources. I suppose they believed, after all these years, I was ready. At last.”

Kira blanched. “So they wanted him dead.”

“There are those who have wanted him dead since his augment status was revealed. Not maliciously, dear Commander. Because that is cleanest. It removes the… complexity of it, the precedent it was thought to set.” He pressed his hands together. “The Federation is an idealistic enterprise. But not all their ideals can be satisfied outside of rhetoric and fantasy. High-performing students in Starfleet are now tested for signs of augmentation; they will be forever more. But for the one man who remained, the origin of that additional procedure…. Do you really think that the imprisonment of an everyday Federation citizen resolved the matter?”

“I suppose not.”

“You’d suppose correctly.”

It was a very good story.

The Federation has always had its public face and its reality, Kira reminded herself, her thoughts growing suspicious, bleak, and grisly. Her voice slunk in towards a snarl. “What should I ever expect from the same Federation that sent you to the brig like a common criminal for trying to do overtly what their filibusters in Section 31 were attempting at the exact same time—the eradication of the Changelings, an entire race of people! You, weapons of war, and them? A virus derived from the sample Odo had given to Starfleet Medical in good faith…. Who’d have ever thought that between the two, it was the Cardassian who would murder more honestly?”

He had never expected a compliment for that—certainly not from Kira—and was still reluctant to take it as one. If anything, it did seem like an indicator of an inferior—and certainly overly-hasty—scheme. As reactionary as his father’s, and just as unsuccessful.

(And this, from a woman who had killed in ways that he himself thought somewhat improper.)

“Oh, they claimed that they disavow Section 31…. But in the end, the Federation Council still debated whether to do a damned thing about it. Who went to trial for that? Ha! At least the Obsidian Order had some accountability, isn’t that right?”

Two very strange compliments. He was hesitant to touch either of them. They reminded him of the welcoming belly of a pointy Chester.

“And you—you were at least there. You’d have died to see it done! But where was Section 31 and their defenders among the Federation admiralty? Damn it, I swear to the Prophets! Safety, justice, and good feelingsdo they mean it, Garak? Do they fucking mean it at all?!”

Ah. Perhaps this is more about someone else…. A sore spot, I should imagine.

“And without Benjamin….” She gnashed her teeth so sharply they could crack.

“I understand you,” Garak offered, setting aside a memory of a staggering blow to the face. Even that had formed a knot that would never wholly subside. If Julian were to take a sample, he would see rings of fresher bone—

She made a motion as if pinching the air. Her eyes were shut. She took several long, grueling breaths—each increasingly serene. “All right. All right. It’s over. It has passed.”

Garak allowed himself a moment to be glad—very glad—that she no longer viewed him as an enemy. The universe had a way of choking out bright fire, but Kira was a flame, he had to suppose, that fed from something eternal. Perhaps there was something to her status as ally of the missing Emissary. (A matter to be considered, certainly, albeit without the usual benefit of Kelas’ insights.)

“… There’s another issue, Garak.”

“Oh?”

She ran her bottom lip between her teeth as she rocked slowly, lulling herself to (if nothing else) slightly politer diction. “It’s the Gorn.”

“I imagine, provided you know that our dear doctor’s M.O.D. is an unsuspecting sham, that he touched on the matter of the Gorn.”

“Pacifists?”

“More or less. They can be fretful. Over a century ago, a captain over-reacted to a legitimate incursion into their space. The incident has dogged them ever since, though they have come to see the value of a menacing reputation. Without it, they are certain they’d have been strong-armed into Federation membership long ago. Their ships are poorly armed.” For now.

Kira huffed. “The Federation doesn’t recruit with phase cannons.”

“Yet somehow, governments with powerful militaries have been most able to resist its appeal?”

She smirked. Ah, it reminds me of what Jadzia once told me….

He didn’t want to let the notion linger; it was better that it spring to mind some other time, for now merely seeded. “It does trouble me, you know. It was a favorite point of Terran literature, one I came to enjoy: the unspoken deed, that which was hidden, being worse if it were wicked, but better if it were good. And here, I find my good deeds… splayed out. That, my generous friend, is a stage meant for fables. To have the truth subjected to such treatment seems… vaguely indecent. Inelegant, if not outright naked.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone what you’ve done for Julian. I promise, Garak.”

“No, no, Commander. No, Kira…,” he transitioned fluidly. “I care for Julian deeply, but he and I have saved one another so many times, it does, I confess, stray not far from a wash. This, this is a substantially stronger obligation.”

“Hmm?”

“What I have done, courageous one, for you. You, you of course.”

“… Garak.” She eyed him suspiciously. “… Explain.”

He held out his hands, palms-up. “The Gorn are in possession of planets with identical resource profiles to Bajor. Our arrangement with them—between the Hegemony and the Union—ensures a constant, reliable supply of these materials. Hmm?”

Her gaze narrowed further, its focus extreme.

“Between the treaty that ensures free access to the admittedly disappointing Gamma Quadrant and, in addition, our newfound alliance with the Gorn, there will be no incentive for the Cardassian Union to re-take Bajor. Not now nor at any time in the foreseeable future. The threat of invasion from Cardassian space—something I could never have dismissed with words alone, and you’d be right to suspect in that format—is thus obsolete. You would have realized this yourself once the M.O.D. had concluded. Bajor does have spies within the Federation—I’m familiar with several of them—and the information would have passed back to your government. You and your people would have been able to negotiate… on more favorable terms.”

“I… had considered that this affected the respective positions of Bajor and the Federation in our exchanges.” She had thought of little else. It was only with considerable effort she’d broached Julian first.

“Indeed, Kira, my friend, and I have heard that Federation negotiators still dog-whistle the danger that my people pose to yours. It is a powerful incentive for a world for which the horrors of the Occupation are in recent memory, and rightfully raw. But among Cardassians, pragmatism prevails! So I have given them a pragmatic reason to abandon any plans for re-colonialization, Federation notwithstanding.”

She bridled, as if holding in a laugh. “And that’s… that’s for me? Garak, you can’t possibly expect me to believe that.”

“It is the very least of what I owe you. Without it, our Rebellion would have failed. I would have perished, and our poor Damar, long before his voice became a rallying cry. Cardassia would have languished, or worse. I will never have the power to repay you in full, but I will never forget.” His voice issued thick and rich and… sincere, for a man who never much valued sincerity.

Kira felt a blush, a blush that stung, rising in her cheeks. “I-I had no choice, it was the Dominion!”

He pressed his hands to his chest. “You had a choice. And… what you did, I have never seen before. I may never see again. To Cardassians, the greatest purpose is service to the State—to give oneself for the many, for their future—and indeed, on occasion, for their past. However, you, in your courage, proved the existence of a greater cause, greater even than the State. You showed conviction in service to your values. Our freedom mattered to you, because freedom matters to you. Justice for us, because justice is the right of all people. Even your enemies.”

She made a motion as if to tap it down. “G-Garak!”

“You humble me.”

It was another very good story.

“Stars above, Garak, now I can see why you’re a popular speaker,” she attempted, trying to deflate what suddenly felt like an excessively intense atmosphere. She swept a hand across her cheek, removing several beads of sweat—very few derived from the mere temperature. She longed for an open window, but she knew better than to invite an eavesdropper for a conversation with a Cardassian. Any Cardassian, really.

He raised his head. “All I ask is that you keep this secret. My plans only work in the dark, I’m afraid. A habit of mine, one could say.”

Incredulity remained, her own practiced habit. “I’ll think about it. Negotiations with the Federation are going… expediently. I may not have time to wait, to see if we can broker something a little more evenhanded.”

“An ‘anonymous source’, then? For anything of interest to the Bajoran government? They know you have connections. So many, my name would never top the list.”

She clicked her tongue. Among Bajorans, it was a stand-in for a word, a brief sound of acceptance. “It’s true.”

Of course it is. You, friend to the Emissary, “good friend” of the former First Minister Shakaar, acquaintance of the Klingon Chancellor? You have maintained a modest rank, Commander, but you remain in high standing among the quadrant…. I think there are those on Bajor who will listen to you. “Your borders are secure, at least from the standpoint of the Union. If you can set the proper boundaries with the Federation, you will find your world safe, at peace, for many, many years.”

Her face still felt hot, flushed. She could feel the weight of her earring, which was strange. She so rarely noticed it.

“You are the hero of this story, Nerys.”

(The final stage of the name.)

Me, a hero! Hah!

“So do as you will.”

 

//

 

Rekot scrambled to her feet. “O-oh, geez. I didn’t think you were gonna be back yet. Uh, everything all right?”

Julian nodded. He refrained from mentioning he and Garak had been back for the better part of an hour. He had no idea where Rekot had been in the meantime, and it didn’t particularly register to ask. (He, of course, was not her sponsor—first or second, formal or assumed.) “It’s fine. Still a bit hungry, didn’t get as far as I’d like. Replicator here?” He pointed towards the doorway at the rear of the room, an accurate bearing.

“Yeah, it’s back there, in the kitchen. You… know enough Kardasi to operate it? If not, there’s a button in the lower-right, says ‘STANDARD’. That… sets it to Standard. Yeah, of course…. You’ve probably seen that before.” She swept her hair into a ponytail and secured it with a clip she kept on her sleeve, feeling that it lent a tidier impression. (Not one of her personal specialties.) “Need any help?”

“You can join me if you want.”

She turned over a small box on the sofa-side table, hiding its front cover. “Hey, um. You know, you might not want to be down here for too long?” She tried to look at him directly, but found her eyes veering toward the ceiling instead. She possessed many of Garak’s talents; direct eye contact, under embarrassing circumstances, was yet to be learned.

The human smirked. “You having a ‘friend’ over while Garak’s out, is that it? Don’t worry, I won’t say a word.” A flash of naughty nostalgia. He had some memories of alarmingly lewd deeds at around her age. If his parents had noticed the impressively distributed stains, they’d neglected to mention them.

She snorted. “Fuck! No! Dark stars, you’ve got to wrap your head around Cardassia. We don’t fucking bang on the couch, that’s gross.” She crossed her arms. “I was going to watch some shitty programs on the screen. You know… gar-ba-ge.”

“That’s nothing to be so embarrassed about, is it?”

“Well, Garak thinks they’re dumb. I mean, he wouldn’t say it, but his eyes glaze over so hard you’d think he was listening to the Andorian ambassador whining about the heat again. So I watch it with, uh….”

Oh, for fucks— “Let me guess. Dr. Parmak.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Think I have enough time to replicate a sandwich?” I’ll just take it back upstairs.

“Pr… oooobably?”

They both heard the front door open.

She scraped her toenails abashedly on the stone floor. “Pro… oooobably not?”

“Rekot!” A bellow from the foyer.

“Uh, in here! In the back!” she called back.

“Fuck. I’m going out the rear,” Julian mused. “I’ll be back.”

She lunged forward and grabbed his arm. “No, no, wait! Wait a sec. He’s supposed to apologize. Maybe you two can just do that and then we can all go back to normal? Look, you’re still going to be here a while. Don’t you two want to stop sniping at each other?”

“Well I didn’t start it,” Julian retorted.

“I know, I know, that’s why he’s going to be apologizing!”

It was too late for elegant escapes in either event. Despite Garak’s status, it was not a large house.

“Oh. You were not expected at this hour.” Kelas removed his hands from his coat pockets and bowed his head—unflaggingly Cardassian, unerringly polite. “Welcome, of course.”

“Welcome” again, is it? “Welcome” to Elim’s house, says Dr. Presumptuous Arsehole, Julian thought. He shook his arm free of Rekot, who provided no resistance. “A pleasure.”

Kelas inhaled, inflating to his full bearing. Whatever slightness was common to Dukat and, to a lesser extent, his officers, was absent from the Cardassian doctor, though he maintained much of the angularity. His hands were like the paws of a grizzly bear—a meaner iteration than the long-lost Kukalaka. “I believe I have an apology to make.” And I’ve received several messages to that effect…. It was unusual for Garak to send more than one, which had done an admirable job of underscoring its apparent importance.

“Brilliant! Apology accepted. Glad to be over with it,” Julian insisted, very much preferring the idea of either a getaway or a sandwich rather than continued interaction with his scaled counterpart.

And then the exhale. “I am sorry, Julian Bashir, but that is not how apologies are conducted on this world.”

“They can be,” Rekot suggested.

I,” Kelas cut in promptly, “maintain a traditional view of this process. I must render something in appropriate exchange for my misdeed.”

“I am human,” Julian countered. “And I’m properly satisfied with words.”

“Ah, wonderful. Then my proposition finds both of our criteria satisfied.”

Right. Of course. Cardassians love talking, what else would it be? “And how is that, exactly?” he asked. Far too optimistic to suppose he could make a substitution for something on rye.

“I offer you a history lesson, if you’ve the time.”

Julian swept his fingers through his badly-jostled hair. “Perhaps some other evening. I’m flagging, I’m afraid.”

Kelas maintained a fixed expression. “To you, I think it will be of considerable interest. I submit that your other interactions here will be… stilted until you develop some familiarity with historical facts as they pertain to this subject, and I fear the only other knowing teller is given to fiction. And even these lies, he can so rarely bear to say.”

“And what is that subject, exactly?”

“Good doctor, it’s you.”

“Then I know it already.”

Kelas laughed outright. It provided the best possible view of the gap in his dentition. “You won’t understand it, even when I tell you. But your time here is wasted if you will not even try.”

“Uh, Kelas…,” Rekot began.

“What do you say, doctor?” Kelas prompted. “Would you like to see where you are represented? Here, in our Museum of the Union?”

That took Julian aback. His open face, even worn, weathered, could not mask his surprise. “O-oh. You meant… literally? A history lesson, not euphemistically?”

“It’s precisely as I said, Julian Bashir. Do you take me as given to lie?”

 

Chapter Text

 

Every now and again, one of Julian’s holodeck programs had tasked him to foil a heist—or, as the narrative required, to conduct one. Not uncommonly, a museum would be used as the staging ground for some marvelous adventure’s dramatic climax, providing either the source of a thematically-appropriate McGuffin or pseudo-cosmopolitan window dressing for dashing and daring exploits.

Of course, Julian had been to real museums—often. And goodness knows his parents had dragged him to a seemingly endless number in his youth, subjected him to a veritable barrage of information meant to mold a boy into a proper sophisticate. By his reckoning, each of the two models, representing two cliffs straddling a chasm in human history, bore a distinct character.

On Earth, his Earth, modern-day Earth, displays were inviting, often highly interactive. Baubles from the past had lost much of their inherent meaning; an exact replica, down to the atom, could be reproduced with commonplace techniques. And who was to say that a transported item was no longer “real”? In which case, how was an item recreated via the same pathway not just as “real”? He had seen the “real” gloves of Lilyanne Xianping a dozen times in a dozen different collections. One pair had been transported in an emergency to spare it, and countless other artifacts, from destruction during a sudden seismic event on Vega. The others were derived from the data acquired from having done so. Who was to say that one was more real than another, or that it mattered?

Cardassians, evidently. Their collections harkened back to something that Julian, admittedly, considered rather primitive. Much like the museums of ancient Earth, he was enveloped in sweeping rows of historical whatsits, each accompanied by a unique plaque inscribed with a physical description of the object and an explanation of its ostensible cultural or scientific significance. Below each plaque, an unobtrusive touchscreen, ready to display what was presumably the same information in one of a handful of common tongues. With the tap of his diplomat’s card (though really any visitor’s card would do), the text instantly reshuffled to Federation Standard.

All quite redundant. He had a considerably greater (and wholly interactive) resource at his disposal: Dr. Parmak.

It did not take long for Julian to understand the game that had been set to spread, though it was not one he felt confident he could master.

Kelas guided him through seemingly endless exhibit halls, room by room, offering explanations and insights. Charming, in theory, but distinct from what he had suggested several hours before. Julian saw nothing of himself in core samples or ichthyoid fossils.

All that aside, Kelas took the task seriously. Ancient ceramic artworks? Mineral samples? Half-decayed circuitry? By human standards, bizarrely intermixed, but Kelas wove it all into an extended lecture, clear and calm and surprisingly cohesive. Julian had expected a few jabs about humans along the way, or unflattering comparisons to other cultures. A casual reference to superior Cardassian aesthetics or technology. A subtle mention that the Union had developed warp capability in advance of Terran scientists. Potshots at the Ferengi, at least. Alas, no such thing.

The Cardassian’s tone was, if anything, cautiously reverent. And by the standards of Julian’s experience with the man, agreeable.

Julian found himself appreciating the collection, despite himself, and despite his earlier conjecture.

… Even so, they had been haunting the halls for hours, and, as he grew weary, he began to resent the unyielding but simple rules governing their unspoken contest. Clearly, Kelas was waiting for Julian to inquire about his own promised representation, and Julian waited for Kelas to slip up and say something that could be dismissed as propaganda or commonplace Cardassian arrogance.

“With this simple adjustment to the configuration of the yoke, a drz’reh-heiyal would be able to labor substantially longer with substantially increased loads. As one would imagine, this greatly improved agricultural efficiency. What is often forgotten is that it had broad ramifications for the distribution of other resources, such as sodium tetraborate.”

Julian nodded appreciatively. “Ah-ha! A traditional Cardassian preservative, if I recall correctly?”

“Indeed. But obsolete for that purpose.”

It felt like as good an opportunity as any. “I admit, I’m plumb staggered, really. When you referred to this as the ‘Museum of the Union’, I assumed the contents would be explicitly political. But this, this! There’s a bit of everything? I’d venture that this is a more of, ah, how should I describe it… museum complex? And if the navigational aids are anything to go by, we’ve barely scratched the surface.”

Kelas blinked, slow and lizardlike. A pass. Next move.

“It just has me wondering, what are the… erm, parameters, exactly? I’m interested in the rationale for the curators’ choice of presentation. Is it that these are all ‘originals’, and therefore part of a… cohesive understanding of Cardassian culture, culminating in the formation of the Union? Or is it that this is intended to express a uniquely Cardassian relationship with history? Would it be too much trouble, explaining that?”

(At least that might give him an idea of the pieces in play.)

His guide paused. “I am a team leader in medical research. I do not have any way of knowing whether the artifacts contained in this museum have ever passed through a replicator, or been subject to any other treatment which might compromise a human’s perception of authenticity. Likewise, I am not sufficiently versed in human philosophy to know what qualities constitute a reasonable ontological standard for your museum curators.”

Dry. But fair enough, Julian admitted to himself. But he continued watching, expectantly, as if that expectation would invoke more detail.

“… As for the breadth of the collection, it is indeed expansive. More obvious criteria define other museums, even here on Cardassia. Visual art of specific periods, for example, controlled by separate institutions.”

“But it is all Cardassian, is that correct? Strange to call it the ‘Museum of the Union’ if it were contaminated with all sorts of foreign gewgaws, if I’m to guess? Is that an example of a separate institution, things from off-worlders? I’d be interested to see that as well, with the days I’ve got.”

“There are alien artifacts here.”

Julian smiled. “Ah, really? Stupendous! I don’t suppose you could show me?”

Kelas accepted a moment to consider. “It would be my pleasure.”

 

//

 

Kira really had nothing to do with Garak’s decision to extend an accord with the Gorn. But the flavor of the story sparkled and was sweet.

In fact, Garak had presented two alluringly-cut gems for the eyes of any Federation skeptic. Difficult to tell, at such distance, if either were counterfeit.

Garak was an admirer of Kira’s, and beyond that, he knew his claim was accurate: he owed her. And to that end, if knowledge of his arrangement with the Gorn were of value, it was given gladly. And if that happened to cause friction between Bajor and the Federation? Hard to see where that would be of detriment to the Union.

 

//

 

“A Bajoran lightship!” Julian marveled aloud.

Even incomplete, in a vessel’s skeletal form, it was beautiful. Julian could see remnants of its elaborate carvings, the carefully-positioned arms for tattered, golden sails. Those, he had to imagine, had been added for effect—even under the best of conditions, it stretched credibility that such delicate fabrics could have withstood the same hardships as the hull. Even so, the effect was staggering. It felt, for a moment, like a memory he could have slipped into like honey.

Ben told me that they admitted to having found one on Cardassia Prime, Julian thought. This must be it. Incredible…! And whoever thought, a ship like this, traversing the very heavens? Riding on the firmament, finding new worlds….

He immediately began circumnavigating the room, taking his admiration to all angles. He did his best not to disturb the other (considerably quieter, more reserved) visitors, though his enthusiasm, as it once famously had, bordered on alarming.

The sight was exhilarating. And it had been too long. The ship was something wonderful, something masterful, old, and evocative. He could feel it steal his senses away, enraptured and ensorcelled.

“Ah, yes.” Kelas’ mouth hung slightly open, as if to amplify an aroma, something that might have adhered to its gentle curvature through countless years.

Strange, Julian thought, to try to smell a ship. Was there a scent that Cardassians associated with the space between the stars?

“'The first invasion.'”

Julian’s heart missed the last step of the landing. “What?”

“The first invasion. From Bajor. They came in ships, such as this one. Long ago.”

It took considerable effort not to strike a refrain. The accusation was galling, even from Cardassian lips. “Invasion? They were explorers! No one’s going to invade from… what is this, smaller than a bloody pleasure craft. Look at it! No phasers, no photon torpedoes. How exactly does this conquer a world?”

Kelas gazed down from behind the shield of his thick lenses. Each had a glint, owing to the ship’s golden reflection. “I was told that history was an interest of yours. Earth history, that is.”

“That’s right.”

“I have heard it said that on your Earth, many invasions began with such vessels. Not warships, not professed warships. Bearing diseases, technologies, beliefs, these arrivals foretold great change, at great expense to native beings.” He gestured to the lightship. “Imagine, only imagine, if these ‘explorers’ had found a foothold here, some reason to remain and strike an imprint. Terrifying, disturbing, the institutions they would gladly have introduced among those who would stand amazed at visitors from above, from galaxies where our kind were not prepared to venture.” And in his face, genuine dread, as if the very notion were worthy of lamentation. “They found remains in the hold, beheaded. To those of the past, who saw and struck, my most profound gratitude. For their decisiveness, we lived.” He pressed a hand to his forehead, to the dip—an intimate channel for intimate thanks.

Julian thought to rip the gesture in half, but managed to restrain himself. “The Bajorans are peaceful. They’d have brought music. They’d have brought art. Cultures are stronger for mixing, or are you not half so fond of toilets?”

Kelas lowered his fingers. “During this period, the d’jarra were still a mandatory fixture on Bajor. What if Cardassians had been subjected to the same notions of caste?” He held his head high. “A perfect meritocracy, Cardassia? No. I myself experienced prejudice in my career, surprise that a male could be equally qualified in research. However, performance is the ultimate determinant. In a world with d’jarra, who is to say I would have survived the attempt to introduce a male where they were not easily accepted?”

Julian took a step forward fiercely. “Who is to say that your people wouldn’t have inspired them to be more open-minded? Or don’t you believe Cardassia had any convincing ideas of its own?”

The Cardassian in question shook his head. “Who has ever been able to convince Bajorans of reason? Besides, the threat it posed to our people, surely that outweighs any obligation to trespassers? Who are you, to assert that we ought to have taught them how to cultivate desert soils? To produce our songs? And for what in exchange, the promise of more ships?”

“Perhaps you’d have been able to sail with them, find new ways to live, not scorch your own planet!” Julian insisted, employing his knowledge of yet another history. This he knew from Garak. “Think of all the Cardassians who died, when your world tipped over, reeled from green to empty wastes of dust and sand!”

“Cardassia did not begin its period of rapid technological development until our world became inhospitable,” Kelas noted, his words as firm as the planting of his feet. “The pressures of an ecologically collapsing planet, those factors drove us to at last unite. Even today, our technology has entered a phrase of rapid advancement. We Cardassians see ourselves humbled, and we work with greater fervor than when we are proud.”

“They starved.

“They did. But murder one another, as Bajorans do? From alien disease, fall dead in the streets of once-flourishing cities? Stagger on as slaves, as do those whose hospitality extended to the vicious Breen?” Kelas queried. “Think back to your own world, Dr. Bashir. Pardon, as always, pardon—Julian. Did the arrival of ‘explorers’, profiteers, religious fanatics, bode well for the civilizations of pre-interstellar Earth? I recall a genocidal tendency. Or is that practice merely… human?”

Julian clenched his hands. “You’re using this as an excuse, as propaganda for your indefensible, inexcusable treatment of the Bajorans during the Occupation—an invasion that was conducted with warships. That’s what this is and you know it!” He jabbed an accusatory finger at Parmak’s chest. “Were you there? You too? Did you see it?”

“No.”

No. But you still defend this, this exhibit? Having not been there, having not witnessed the atrocities that this is intended to justify? Those who starved, who were beaten? Violated? You would pretend a leisure craft that landed centuries ago has any bearing? Why can’t you just take responsibility for what your leaders chose to do? Chose.”

(It brought to mind a number of things he did, in fact, suspect about Cardassians.)

“In what respect is this exhibit inaccurate? Your objection: what’s the basis of it? The workmanship appeals to you, the aesthetics particularly pleasing?” He nodded in the ship’s direction. “It is remarkable. But many beautiful things, things which come from the stars, weigh deadly on our people. And on others, of course. Enough that so it should not happen again, an ashamed race designed a Prime Directive.”

“Let me guess, this is where ‘I’ am in your blasted museum. Is that the point you’re trying to make? Again, like I’m bloody fucking stupid?

“Not at all.” He issued a derisive huff. “Hotblood things, impatient. I had hoped our exhibits were something even a human could enjoy, but if you have only one purpose here, then follow me. I still owe you an apology.”

 

//

Chapter Text

 

There was a careful balance to be struck between privacy and concern. In fact, he’d once thought himself subjected to the wrong end of it. A violation of that preference had saved his life.

—So he hoped, rapping his knuckles softly against the door, that Julian would forgive an unnecessary interruption—and perhaps worst of all, a needless waking. Hearing nothing—no grunt, no shuffling of the bedding—he slid the door ajar. No Julian, none at all.

(A few insects rattled off towards the corners of the room, perceptive enough to fear the presence of an oncoming god.)

Garak gave himself the courtesy of “concern”. Panic? No. But concern. He ventured downstairs and made the corner to where he heard some wan noise, some suggestion of life. He allowed himself the suspicion that Julian, with his combination of genuine curiosity and questionable taste, had assumed watching the screen with Rekot, as Garak had suggested. But even then, the lights dim, the screen flickering, there was no Julian.

Rekot was sitting with her back against the couch, one of her ridiculous programs contaminating a screen that Garak felt was more appropriate to news stations and emergency transmissions.

“Rekot?” he prodded.

No acknowledgement.

“Rekot!”

The young woman turned her head to make sense of the intruder. “Oh! Computer, pause.” She bobbed her head in conventional Cardassian salutation, a habit which—despite careful training—had remained somewhat sporadic. She had spent many years on Bajor. “Hey, yeah. You need something?”

“Have you seen Dr. Bashir? He appears to have left his room.”

“He left.”

Something about Garak’s expression indicated an urgent need to clarify.

(It reminded her of taking a pick to a solid block of ice, and that very first chip.)

“—With Kelas. They ran into each other down here, and Kelas took him out for an apology. To the Museum of the Union, I think he said. You want me to comm him?”

Garak pursed his lips, a willing admission that the question required some reflection. “No. That’s quite all right. I’m just gratified to know. Shame about the museum, however. If I’d know he was interested, I’d have taken him myself.”

You should have. As a first-night activity, it would have been the superior choice, he told himself. You were impatient. But with all that you scheduled, for this last time together…. You’ll have to forgive it of yourself.

Rekot considered her options. “I’ll stay down here, then I can let you know when they get back?”

“Much appreciated. I will be in my office.”

 

//

 

TO: COUNCILOR ELIM GARAK

SUBJ: exciting new opportunity!!

GARAK, MY FRIEND GARAK! I TRUST YOU’VE BEEN WELL? I’M WRITING YOU TODAY WITH AN EXCITING OPPORTUNITY—JUST FOR YOU! I’VE TAKEN NO OTHER OFFERS! AND THIS ONE, I THINK YOU’LL FIND VERY… INTERESTING. DO YOU RECALL THOSE LOVELY LITTLE CHESTERS I TRACKED DOWN FOR YOU? HEARD THEY’RE VERY POPULAR! ((AND OF COURSE, YOU ON YOUR WORLD, YOU ALWAYS DID LIKE THINGS A LITTLE SHARP??)) LET ME TELL YOU, RUMOR SENT ME IN THE DIRECTION OF SOMETHING EVEN BETTER—NEWLY AVAILABLE LONG-TERM CONTRACTS WITH A RACE CALLED THE “GROND”. ALL THE TEETH, ALL THE POUNCE: BUT GET THIS—THEY CAN SPEAK! I’VE ATTACHED A FILE WITH MORE DETAILS. I HAVE TO SAY, GARAK, THIS IS A ONE-IN-A-LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY. DON’T LET IT GET AWAY!

STANDARD COMMISSIONS WILL APPLY. BUT FOR YOU, GARAK—15% DISCOUNT IF YOU CAN COMMIT BEFORE THE END OF THE CURRENT TAX SEASON (FERENGI STANDARD)! SPECIAL OFFER. I CAN’T PROMISE IT WILL COME AROUND AGAIN!

 

  • QUARK

 

//

 

In his career, patience had always been an ally, always a friend even when friends were rare and, in his experience, casually duplicitous. But that patience had also always been an exercise in submission: submission to a great power, the great power of time.

Garak was comfortable with his supplication. Despite the best efforts of nearly all sapient life, time could not be tricked and time could not be bested. It was better to make it an ally than confirm it as an enemy. And Cardassians were unusually willing to treat it as one, one that would walk quietly alongside the living, up until the living let go and went to where even time could not follow.

So why had time betrayed him?

(Was it his stubbornness, that he’d not let himself go gray?)

Commander Kira had asked him if he manipulated the events surrounding Julian’s arrival.

He didn’t.

He never would have.

Julian’s assignment to the faux M.O.D. had been intended as a final wave, a fond farewell to any prayer of reconciliation. As such, these days—too few, too short—would serve as nothing more than a reminder of what he was forced to relinquish, a last chance to taste and to remember. Time simply was not on their side. And Garak accepted that, willing friend that he was.

All the books I’ve read that discuss it, that marvel at it, that mourn it, Garak rankled with a silent bite of the tongue, and not a single language I know has effectively encapsulated it in a word. The desire that exists out of its time. Something you want, but too late.

Here’s one you’d know, doctor—“once upon a time….”

Once upon a time, my life had ended, and all was cold and dark. Suddenly, I felt an unusual warmth from an unexpected source. It was a sun—not the sun I knew, the great star of Cardassia—but a new sun, a sun in my sky. I basked in it, reveled in it, glorified it…. Its warmth and light meant everything to me. It seemed to me that it grew brighter every day.

Until one fateful morning, the sun looked down and saw my shadow and took it as an affront. And from that day forward, the sun dimmed, gradually, came lower in the sky, decrying my lengthening shadow. I couldn’t stop it, couldn’t any more than my pleas could have halted the blazing star of my homeworld. One day, it slipped below the horizon. After that, it did not rise again.

He sat down in his chair, set his chin into a weary hand. What do you think, Julian? A tidy story, isn’t it? But you’d object, you’d say it was miserable. You’d say it was pointless.

I’d agree; it’s what made an airlock seem so attractive, after a while.

But the sun never stopped shining on Cardassia, my dear.

He looked through the window, at a sky drenched in rapidly waning violet and the oncoming seep of indigo. All right, on this side of the world, perhaps, if we’re being literal. But a metaphor is never perfect.

If so, I’d have to find a role for Kelas, wouldn’t I? Lovely Kelas. The very personification of the love the State offers. Strong and noble and utterly impenetrable to you, an observer. It is Cardassian love, my friend.

He teased at the corner of his mouth with his thumb, denying the insistent pull of an undesired frown.

No, you think in terms of human love, and that’s something else entirely. And see, I’m quite reasonable; I did see the appeal, I do. There’s something Romantic about love as you understand it, about love that serves itself, that exists independently as itself. A love that means nothing beyond what it is inherently. A pull, a passionate bond, that exists without permission or allowance or stricture. It exists only because it exists—nothing pragmatic about it.

More than that, I like that humans believe in such love. Not only believe it, think of it as normal. It touches just to touch. It touches to comfort.

I really did enjoy it—the love that comes as a comfort.

(Its purpose is to come as a comfort.)

I suppose it’s not much of a secret, is it? That I was desperate to try it.

Imagine how fun it might have been, playing human, and loving in a stupid, pointless way? (Such false detachment.) When we were in such a place that we could, such a time? Unfortunately, it must only exist in a life that has no greater purpose and no higher calling, where one could eschew all rational things.

In time, you lost your higher calling, but I regained mine, found it here, where I was most needed. My suffering home…. And yet, the sun always shines on this world. Purposeful and constant. And there is love here, too, as I’ve found. Always honest but never warm.

(All that, and Kira could still suspect that Julian’s diversion to Cardassia was a scheme. As if these were feelings that Garak had any interest in revisiting. Astonishing.)

Garak looked in the direction of the Museum. His view was blocked by any amount of jags in the skyline, of course, but he knew the sector intimately, its many crosses, its perpendiculars. He wondered, for a moment, if he should have attempted to recall the two from their tour. Whether he should have tried to intervene.

He surrendered to himself: no, no.

Kelas will drive him away like the love of my world always would. Fitting, thematic, poetic: a gift more thoughtful than I’d have thought possible from him, more artful than I thought him capable.

Oh, well. Perhaps it is an easier feat than I care to admit. My dear doctor, my friend, Julian, is human. He was never going to like Cardassia; he was never going to appreciate it. To him, it would and will always be the land of crocodile tears and poison-toothed serpents. It would and will always be a nest of vipers and the fall of Mankind. What hope was there, that he would understand it?

(Besides, he needs a love that comes as a comfort. I’m not confident a Cardassian can do that.)

A long exhale of tepid breath. And there, again, the priority of the State….

Julian is the doctor who fought for all life.   |  Kelas is the doctor that my father would trust.

—Though his father, he was quick to note, was quite fond of both. Not that they were at all identical. After all:

And whenever Julian got to know me, he disdained me.

Got tired of me.

Became disappointed in me.

I had to grovel… and I wanted to.

(Anything.)

Well, that’s not fair, my doctor, dear. Whenever I wove you a story, you chided me for lies. Whenever you learned the truth, you dismayed that my past dispelled your illusions. You can desire the fantasy, or desire the reality—I would have gladly given you either. But you demanded that the fantasy and reality be one and the same. How was I supposed to do that, exactly?

The life of a spy, what did you think it was like?

Did you think that could be a happy story?

… And yet, you tried it, as if you could do it better by insisting on the standards of your fantasy….

Go ahead, then. Keep trying. See if that works well for you.

(Did you ever hear how Mr. O’Brien got his Chester?)

Why the fascination to begin with? You, you a doctor. A Federation doctor! Even the Jem’Hadar knew to respect you and your blessedness, your compassion—knew how loftily you could maintain your ideals. You would heal any person, make any sacrifice, and be loved for it, no matter how little they deserved it, your broad and unconditional benevolence. You were permitted to find a cure for perhaps the greatest enemy your Federation has ever known and gift it to them, a saint to gods. Must be very nice indeed. Must be wonderful, feel wonderful, to generate such light and then spit at whatever casts a shadow.

For as long, that is, as you made light….

He picked up his head, held it lofty, his nose tilted up to taste a scent. A change in bearing, a strict lift.

Remember this: by my people’s standards, my behavior has been commendable. I always chose the State. I will always choose the State. And look, doctor—look! Did you think it would look this way, only eight years from war? I suffered, Julian. I have suffered for this.

So, for that, an alien being finds me disappointing, repulsive, contemptible….

(It was humiliating, that Julian had not even been interested to read his letters.)

(Did I disgust you that much?)

A hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiss. Quiet, quiet, very quiet. To a mammal, a deathbed sound.

Well, my poor friend, what do you know? Your State never asked any more from you than what you chose to give. Didn’t even care if you did nothing, meant nothing, folded, self-destructed; it would let you do so comfortable, warm, and fed. Mine asks for more because it loves me, asks for more because it believes in what I can still give.

And the sun of Cardassia admires a shadow.

(A long, long shadow.)

Again, he peered out the window.

(A long, long shadow.)

You are coming back tonight, aren’t you? You’re all right, aren’t you? When you leave, I want to make sure—

(A long, long shadow.)

He closed his eyes.

I hate that you’ve damaged this part of me.

 

Chapter Text

 

As a matter of fact, he had wondered. Of course, he could have accessed the answer in an instant, but the proper materials had never been on-hand during those rare occasions that the rogue thought teased him, and therefore, he’d always skirted by in life just, just shy of knowing. Now he knew. At least, he thought he knew. He could imagine a few tweaks, here or there, for a propagandist flair.

“Did he?” Julian asked.

Kelas shut the door behind him, having shooed away the small handful of Cardassian visitors who had been present on arrival to the appropriately secluded room. He had utilized Julian’s diplomat’s card for the purpose, defining a territory, a practice to which he appeared well-accustomed. His tone had been credibly apologetic, but stern even so.

“Hmm?” It was a sound of preoccupation. Kelas gave the door a final tug, confirming the sturdiness of its bolt. By appearances, every room in the museum could be thus segregated.

“Did—is that how he looked?”

“At the apex of his career? He did. The boredom and inactivity associated with retirement suited neither body nor mind, in his particular case. If I had resumed my duties as his physician, I would have intervened, though I am uncertain whether I would have taken the post if offered. I objected to his having introduced me to the Cardassian justice system firsthand.”

Julian nodded, but kept his eyes on the portrait that dominated the far wall of the modestly-sized room. Enabran Tain.

His first thought had been relief, in a way. A room devoted to Director Tain did not portend anything complimentary or whimsical, in Julian’s respect or frankly anyone else’s, but if Dr. Bashir’s name was anywhere: yes, it would be there. He imagined that the matter of his visit to the Arawath colony would remain secret, likely forever, but that Dr. Bashir and the future Chancellor of the Klingon Empire had been imprisoned by the Dominion and their Jem’Hadar? That would seem borderline mandatory.

His second thought was that Tain, in his prime, had been striking—in fact, considerably handsomer than his son. Julian felt guilty for that, but the assessment was… automatic.

At last, he was able to pull his eyes away.

The room was little more than a niche compared to the vast galleries that had monopolized the museum’s forefront. The building—no, he’d been right, complex—had a Victorian aspect in its strict divides. Where the labyrinthine layout originated—that, Julian could only ascribe to the twists and turns of a Cardassian mind. (And the locks on every door? Indeed, those too.)

As the strange pair had pressed on through the galleries and corridors, Julian had watched the rooms grow smaller, more tightly-themed, and more challenging to place. He could not even imagine where he was in relation to his original point of entry. Underground?

And just to find this tiny thing. Or at least, tiny in comparison to a legacy that seemed to loom so large.

Every surface was painted in a deep, matte gray. Unlike the vast majority of the other rooms, the walls were covered in sprawling passages, long missives, as if text could compensate for the paucity of proper artifacts.

Tain had left an impact, perhaps, but very few mementoes.

One caught Julian’s eye immediately: a phase pistol in a strangely-angled case. Impossible to view, he realized, from a child’s height. He permitted himself a single puff of amusement, silent, dark, and vaguely judgmental.

“I apologize in advance for any unintended exclusions or inaccuracies,” Kelas noted, passing a mildly approbative eye over the rows of what were once Tain’s belongings. “This was assembled with the Klingon Chancellor Martok’s testimony. And Elim’s, though to a much lesser extent, his being comparatively brief and unreliable. We never acquired yours.”

“My testimony?”

“Of what occurred in Internment Camp 371.”

Julian shook his head. “I wasn’t there nearly as long as the rest, and I was pulled from general population…,” he managed with a sigh, “more than once. Anything I know, Martok would have known better. You were right to ask him. He might have sung it to you.”

“Ah, but Martok said you were present as the Director died, were you not? You and Elim? Martok wasn’t there. Not then.”

“There, there isn’t… There isn’t much to say. Tain demanded a confirmation of his enemies’ demise—that was certainly Tain as I knew him—and then… well. After that, just a few personal things. Nothing that needs to be on exhibit.”

Kelas chuffed. “His enemies? Tain’s? It would have taken you the full month just to have heard them all.”

“He mentioned… let me think.” An augment’s memory was necessary, and it provided. “Surjak. Brun. Memad. A Romulan ambassador, but not by name.”

“Interesting. In either case, I hadn’t meant to pry. Please do review the contents of the room.” Kelas tilted his head, a benign gesture towards the nearest of the display cabinets. “These artifacts, more than any lightship, pique your curiosity, am I correct? I should hope so; your lesson is here, in this room. Now, does that meet your standards thus far?”

Julian eyed him with a mixture of doubt and apprehension. He did not want to think of Kelas as an enemy, but had every reason to consider him an opponent. “I have to believe it’s worth a gander…. And I imagine you’d be a valuable guide. You seem to have a… measured view of Tain.” Less fanciful than Elim’s, most likely.

The Cardassian shook his head. “At this stage, I can be of no assistance. You must read, observe. Here, you will need this; it will respond to tap.” He handed the diplomat’s card to its owner. “As you can see, due to the discreet nature of his profession, the room is sparse compared to many others. All that said: what there is? Take it in, in your way, at your own pace. I will wait.”

The invitation did not feel overly generous, but Dr. Bashir had heard worse.

And Kelas was right. The museum’s winding rows of ancient cogs and recently-unearthed plows had provided some moderate entertainment. A sepulchral room of Tain, however, triggered a rare heat, a low but furious boil. It was alarming, but also bizarrely enthralling, to feel the early licks of an old hate.

From the very first, Julian was grateful for the translational displays. Otherwise, the items on display were sorely stricken by a… disorienting lack of gravitas.

As several notices underlined, items pertaining to Tain’s early missions as an agent and later work as Director had long since been destroyed, well before the Museum’s reconstruction. What remained was no more than a small collection of personal items, inherently of no significance, as that which might be of any significance had been, in accordance with Cardassian security protocols, erased.

That left a jacket (perhaps the right dimensions for Enabran Tain, though not in his final years). It was scorched around both cuffs and up along one sleeve. According to the information screen, Tain had worn it during “a significant event” during which he had shown “great valor” in protecting the Union. No further detail. Julian had seen similar burn patterns on a sweater after his mother Amsha, in a flight of domesticity, had attempted cranberry scones.

That left a stack of envelopes with Tain’s signature on the exterior, a single line written in a light and faded hand. Whatever had been inside had been removed; the exhibit provided no further explanation. “‘Tain used envelopes such as these to transmit information’,” Julian mused, reading the Standard description aloud. For goodness’ sakes.

That left a pair of slippers, broken-in. More comfortable for having gone without recycling in the replicator. The fabric had distended in a pattern to match the stubby claws of old Cardassian feet.

That left several pieces of shrapnel which had, at one time, been removed from Tain’s legs and arms. Ostensibly. Julian maintained a degree of skepticism for every item on display, but the shrapnel did, admittedly, match the doctor’s rudimentary expectations; he had witnessed similar injuries in the field. Ah, but whether it had truly come from Tain, who could say?

That left a statuette of what appeared to be a le-matya, a Vulcan animal. Julian had no idea where Tain would have acquired such a thing, or why he’d value it. If it was even his. The curators provided no clue, and, Julian suspected, may not have known themselves.

Cardassians did not believe in luck, but the phase pistol had been, it was said, his “favorite”.

The rest of the items were much the same. Julian turned his attention, finally, to the passages set along the walls. He tapped his card at the panel beneath the first.

ENABRAN TAIN, BELIEVED TO HAVE BEEN BORN SOMETIME IN THE LATE 2200s, MOST LIKELY ON CARDASSIA PRIME—

Julian couldn’t help but laugh.

He ignored a derisive snort from Kelas and continued to read.

—SOMETIME BETWEEN 2315 AND 2325, HIS INVOLVEMENT IN ADDRESSING A LINGERING CONFLICT PROVED ESSENTIAL TO CONTINUED STABILITY IN THE REGION WHERE THE ASSOCIATED EVENTS TRANSPIRED. THE RESULTS WERE FRUITFUL. SEQUENTIALLY, THE—

—LATER, DURING AN UPSET AFFECTING RESOURCE AVAILABILITY, ENABRAN TAIN ORGANIZED A TEAM THAT EXPERTLY RESOLVED THE DISPUTE WITH MINIMAL INTERRUPTION TO ESTABLISHED EXTRACTION AND DISTRIBUTION PROCESSES. ENABRAN—

—CORRUPT FOREIGN INFLUENCES, A CATACLYSMIC EVENT OCCURRED ON A COLONY PLANET. UNDER THE CAREFUL CONTROL OF DIRECTOR ENABRAN TAIN, THE OBSIDIAN ORDER SUCCESSFULLY—

—HAD INFILATRATED THE ROMULAN TAL’SHIAR. ENABRAN TAIN DIED IN 2373.

“… What?”

“Hmm?” That sound again! This time, it emerged eminently intentional: something from an outline, a lesson plan.

“I’m… not here.”

Kelas raised a brow. “Do explain?”

Julian cast his gaze in a wide sweep, as if there were some hidden switch to pull, some new corner to be revealed. But the room was a rectangle, the corners were four, and yes, he’d seen them all. He’d read every word in Standard text, considered every article of clothing, and even given special attention to a tiny le-matya cast in copper, dusted in its ancient verdigris.

“You don’t see it?” Kelas asked coolly. He approached Julian, who still stood, puzzled, where the narrative had ended. Fitting. “Right there.”

“Right where?”

Kelas tapped the final date. Tap again. “There.”

“Yes, I was there.” He rolled his aching shoulders, groaning in barefaced exasperation, bordering on exhaustion. He should never have left the bed for a sandwich. “For fuck’s sakes. You’re going to rail me, aren’t you? For having let him die?” He shook his head, his mouth stitched to an all-too-ready sneer. “If you must know, I knuckled down, gave it the old college try. I did it as a doctor. And if you could have done one better, be my guest. Next temporal anomaly, you barge right in, see if you can—and a right pleasure if you would. I couldn’t save him. I did try.”

“Obstinately, you misunderstand. Here, welcome one—our build can be piecewise assembled. I promised you a lesson, my repayment for an unkind cut, and there a teacher must go at the student’s speed, is that not so? I am willing to travel at a plodding pace.”

Julian closed his eyes and attempted whatever meditation was possible in two or three strained seconds.

Kelas removed his glasses and cleaned them with a thin cloth taken from his pocket—a complementary activity, tailored for his calm. “What would a story, told in full, describe? Certainly more. You expected more, is that not so?”

“More than… nothing? You could say so. There’s not a speck of real information wall-to-wall. I’m not an idiot: I know that Tain’s activities as part of the Order were classified. Even so, there’s nothing…. There’s no content.

“It’s hardly nothing. From every single fact, so much can be inferred. It is why facts are few, and many are the gaps. The smallest scrap, the humblest… can mean everything. Did Elim never tell you? We Cardassians are a people of fine detail.”

Julian held out his hands, his plain surrender. “All right. All right. Let’s start, then. What comes first?”

The Cardassian gave a short nod of approval and returned his glasses to their former position, neatly poised. He cleared his throat with a rumbling cough. “We can begin with your testimony, if that’s a comfort to you. It would seem the most… linear approach, by your culture’s standards, and I mean to be amenable.”

“Lovely. Perfect. Lay it on.” Confidence, but half-false. He was beginning to feel the jitters of nerves badly frayed.

“The enemies you mentioned? Those sinister figures who whose fingers sought to collapse an old man’s sagging throat? Brun died in 2365, Surjak even earlier—2362. I recall both. The others are not familiar to me, but I imagine it is the same. That they predeceased him, Tain knew. That Elim knew they predeceased him, Tain knew.” Kelas wheezed slightly, compromising the gravity of his finish. The air emerged from his body gritty, laden, and labored.

Julian remembered the tortured breaths he’d heard over his time with Enabran. Different from Kelas’, more eager, as if closing in on their relief. “He wasn’t exactly clear-headed. He was dying. Certainly, you’ve seen it in your own practice.”

“Everything he said, to Cardassian ears, paints a picture perfectly clear. It was not Tain’s failing that the meaning was lost on an outworld eavesdropper. His son knew how he spoke, and he spoke to his son. There is more to a language than its constituent words, its syntax. You must not forget the culture in which these words are used: the culture of a people, the culture of an institution, the culture of a family, and even the unique culture that exists between every parent and child. Remember, always, that Tain possessed deceit of its own special character, more verbal sleight-of-hand, comfortable misdirection, than his son’s sweet enchantments.”

“Bloody well got me, then. I thought it sounded like a geriatric patient regressing down to his base, what he knows, his phantoms from the past.”

Kelas’ nostrils flared. “When a Cardassian dies, his or her remaining responsibilities are tasked to any living offspring. If what you said is correct, Tain described what duties might yet remain, and Elim acknowledged them and confirmed they had been finalized.” He paused and brought two complete fingertips to his lips, lost in doleful thought. “That Tain would come so near to admitting their blood tie is… unimaginable. Elim was correct to have never mentioned it to me; it would have earned my rebuke, how I rue the excessiveness of his untruths.”

That warranted a cautious step back. Julian sought to observe from slightly greater distance, to see Kelas more encompassingly framed by the Director and the room’s flimsy recitation of his life.

Reflexively, Kelas mirrored the move, engaging in his own withdrawal. He licked his lips pensively. “Everything that must be done, done, as told in a false list,” he echoed. “I’m glad to have brought you here, that you would tell me. I would have known no other way.”

“It’s not as if he cut Elim loose entirely,” Julian said, intruding on Kelas’ unabashed amazement. “Your ‘Director’… directed. Still made a demand.”

“… Oh?” That, in turn, a request.

“’Don't die here.’” (Julian neglected the very end: ‘Escape. Live.’ If Kelas had the right to be selective, then turnabout was only fair play.) “He needed his revenge, he said. On the Dominion. It’s not that he succumbed without laying out his demands. Tain simply made his priorities explicit. No need to care about Surjak or Brun, not any more. Not in the wake of the Dominion.”

At that, Kelas nearly heaved. He clasped a hand tightly to his chest, suppressing the rattle as well as he could. It was as if the words themselves had clasped him raggedly, dragging into plain view his well-hidden frailties.

“And Elim gave him license to die happily. Such a sweet story,” Julian recounted bitterly. Sarcasm of the kind he’d once delivered straight to Tain. “Picture-perfect.” To someone like you, I downright think so.

“There are worse. You have seen Cardassians die without a hand to hold, I’m sure.”

An attitude like that, you’ll be another, Julian thought. “You, Elim’s companion, standing here, defending his worst enemy. Bad enough to see this closet full of castoffs, pretending that there’s anything to celebrate.”

“And this is still ‘nothing’ to you? You see the ‘nothing’ in it?”

“My people have a phrase, an old one. Must go back… hundreds of years.  ‘A little too little too late.’ Or, a lot too little too late, in this case. ‘Completely insufficient and all wrong’—there, I just coined that.”

“I disagree. Such a close is more meaningful than you realize. That it does not meet alien standards is hardly our concern.”

“‘Alien standards’,” Julian spat. “Bloody hell, will you fuck off with that? Kindness, even human kindness isn’t ‘alien’ to you. It’s maudlin. That’s what you object to. Well, I’ve news for you: some Cardassians are fond of their simple feelings.”

Kelas inflated, ignoring the tightness of his lungs. “I am not saying we are unfeeling. We feel strongly. But we communicate it as Cardassians. That you fail to interpret it, it is not less! That’s what I am trying to tell you!”

“So then, take a moment, imagine that instead of, ‘Elim, my rivals, are they fucking dead, their heads in a ditch?’ he’d said—oh, perhaps, ‘Elim, you are my son, I love you dearly, and I am sorry for the awful things I’ve said, what terrible things I’ve done to you’. That would be, just… repulsive to your ears, would it? Unbefitting for a man at the end of his life with nothing, absolutely nothing, left to lose?”

“It couldn’t be authentic.”

“And why not?” Julian demanded, his voice vibrant, mammalian, and hot. “Why lionize a culture where a simple, deserved sentiment like that is forbidden? Where it’s shameful, a man like Tain, a brute, a tyrant, can’t tell someone—not someone, his own son!—that he’s sorry, that he’s fucking… that he’s fucking sorry!

Kelas maintained his erectness, his huff. “It is not forbidden on Cardassia. It would have been forbidden to Tain. You do not understand what you witnessed—that was a prodigy interrogator against a former director of the Obsidian Order, a director whose work as an agent preceded the invention of the wire. Elim was protected only by his obscurity; to be known as Enabran’s son would have ensured his death. Enabran, to the very end, protected this, would have withstood any inquiry.”

“A son he said he wished he’d murdered in the womb. And not for the first time. What a way to raise a child.” I never thought I’d have to compliment my parents for something as basic as that, but here we are—the bar set by the one and only Enabran Tain. Truly, a Cardassian will excel. And if they excelled any more, I’d give my mother a call.

Kelas’ eyes narrowed. “He said that? Enabran?”

“How else would a man like Tain view ‘a weakness’ he ‘can’t afford’?”

It gripped, it squeezed, it wore hard on the hard-worn. “And you cannot understand what he meant by that?”

“I can imagine. He sent a Talaxian after him.” He crossed his arms, still thin and tawny.

“Ha! Enabran could never say anything directly. It had been burned out of his nature. But a most obvious assassin, easy to thwart and even easier to trace, that would lead his son back to him at the cusp of what ought to have been a momentous victory? Do you really believe that the man who could assemble an intergalactic fleet to exterminate an empire could do no better than a bit-part mercenary?”

“Some fleet. Ah, how did that go again, exactly? Can you point? Here, on the wall?”

Kelas glowered. “If Elim were not his son—if he were truly Garak, agent, and nothing more—he’d have been made dead a dozen times’ succession. Clever as he is, he is one man only. He is sly, not impervious. And for his sake, great sacrifices were made. Do not think the timing of Enabran’s initial retirement and Elim’s exile are a coincidence to be trusted. And do not think the average agent emerges alive from his or her disgrace. Cardassians in exile, how many others have you seen? Even one? Do not think that is a coincidence to be trusted, either.”

—A jolt. How strange. A memory?

(“Everyone has reason to fear the Order.”)

Julian had never stopped to consider whether that included the old man who’d said it. What serpent fears its own teeth?

“Ours are a people of sacrifice. To humans, an archaic notion. To be expunged. In the ideal Federation world, there is no such phenomenon, and no call for it. Once, your histories attest, a majority of your kind believed in a painless Paradise, but maintained it came at cost. Now the Federation, like the Klingon, has killed its gods to bring Paradise unvested, a life of leisure and pleasure and no introspection at all. Or would you truly consider yourself an introspective man?” It ended on a disdainful snap.

“You ascribe such… value to pain. You must be a terrible doctor.”

Kelas’s torn lips stretched into a cool sneer. “I am not a terrible doctor, but I am a doctor who has done terrible things. By your standards. But rest assured, I have not made false anguish my God, for goodness knows Cardassia has anguish enough. I am always ever in the service of a State that serves not to please, but to steward. And no, not to reign. Does Enabran strike you as having been a servant or a king? His son? Someday, observe the filigree and finery of worlds that labor under tyrants’ heels; you will not find it here.”

“He said he should have killed his son. To his son. Multiple times.”

“Like all things, told with inference. Enabran was correct, you know. If he had any sense of self-preservation, he would have killed Elim. And it was essential that Elim know that, for a story told in two parts. ‘I should have killed you’: the first. For the second, a question: ‘but I didn’t: why?’”

Julian gritted his teeth.

“What could ever stand triumphant over all sense and all reason?”

Julian had never challenged Enabran’s self-expressed rationale. Or why he, a paunchy retiree, kanar in hand, would be in possession of instructions for synthesizing Cardassian leukocytes the likes of which a savant, backed by the galactic powerhouse of the Federation, could scarcely identify. Much easier to assume the man, famed a furtive genius, could not help but lay bare the blackness of his heart with perfect authenticity.

He had accepted those cruel conceits at face value; why not the rest? Why not the questions that drove the conversation, defining its course from its introduction to its close?

(“So, Lieutenant, how's Garak? Has his condition improved at all?”)

(“Tell me, Doctor, how sick is Garak?”)

(“What can I do?”)

(“I'll see to it that the necessary data is transferred to your station's computers.”)

(“Please, tell Garak that I miss him.”)

He never had. Julian had been too convinced of Tain’s toxicity, too protective of Garak’s troubled feelings. Too furious at similar sentiments that rang equally false from a man named Richard Bashir.

Would that have meant something to him then? It does seem… somewhat more direct than a Talaxian assassin. Julian turned his eyes to the portrait on the wall, a dead face which towered over them, unaffected and apathetic. The mystery of who that man had been would linger.

Would Garak have taken that as a reason to re-establish contact with Tain? A … reason to leave?

He swallowed. By then, Tain must have been in negotiations with the Tal’Shiar. If Garak had returned, would he have joined that doomed crusade? Would he be dead? Or…. There was another possibility, but Julian had no desire to entertain it. Perhaps Dr. Parmak was right about him.

How rarely Tain said anything that could be interpreted as… caring, Julian thought hazily. And I barricaded it from his son. Maybe it was for the best….

(But was it your place?)

“Too appalling, too galling, how little you bothered to understand,” Kelas said, resuming his critique. “From the moment of his birth, Enabran gave as he could to his son. That it was limited, fraught, damaged and demented by his nature and his station—who are you to cast such aspersions on Elim’s behalf? You, for whom their interplay was only entertainment?”

“I cared about Elim. And I don’t have to prove that to you.”

“If you were such a comfort, how can you understand his loss so little and so poorly? Were your platitudes too surface, too boilerplate Federation?”

That blow came harder even harder than intended; it landed with a flinch. Julian felt the years, felt the gulf between what he felt and what he had felt then. “We didn’t really talk about it. Something…. There was another matter, we were sidelined. There wasn’t any time.”

“Your family’s arrival? I’m told your parents, who themselves accepted great risk for their languishing defective, came and lay down their pound of flesh. But you must help me here, I find myself so mystified by the conventions of your people. It was really possible to circumvent the topic entirely, Elim introduced at last to your father, having just lost his own?”

“He didn’t meet my father.”

“Your mother?”

“No.”

Kelas clicked his teeth, but there was no surprise. He had known, and was willing to advertise it. What were the odds that Elim had spoken of the event in glowing terms? “Relegated to an isolated relation, divorced from your family entirely. An insult I can only deem… genuinely impressive.” He shrugged. “But family means so little to a human. Your ways are your ways, and it would be foolish for Elim to position himself to be hurt by it.”

“Knowing my parents doesn’t mean a damned thing,” Julian hissed. “I hadn’t spoken to them in a decade. I've barely spoken to them since.”

“Well, that does help contextualize the degree to which a human can be insensate. Is that particular to you, a tinkered man, or your species on the whole?” Kelas shook his head. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter. Every cruelty you ever levied was a mercy, if it meant he could do as he does—learn and understand, and, in your case, taste your hollowness.”

Julian would not be cowed, not by that. “‘Insensate’? Because you’re so very touching? You can talk duty all you like, decorum, strict Cardassian customs and roles. But people, real people, need to be cherished. In their own right.” He weighed the next and made a choice. It was probably the wrong one. “My parents? They didn’t respect the child they had. They killed it to produce a replacement, a replacement for one ‘languishing defective’—charming phrase, by the way. The Federation might be better for it—Mr. and Mrs. Bashir, them too, don’t forget—but they didn’t have the right to decide that the child, as it was born, deserved no affection, where a revised model—he just might.

“It’s the same with Elim. I cared about him as a no-one. I cared about him as an enemy. Your State, your precious Union? Has no sentiment like that. And I know, because here you are, defending a father who could not even muster the slightest hint, not the faintest whiff, of tenderness. Enabran Tain, Leader of the Order, genius of the Union—all that, and his son, shut off and alone. I would never be proud of that. It’s despicable that you are.” Given all you mean to him.

The look was sorrowful, cold, and knowing. “He had no choice. You cannot conceive of what would have been visited on a confessed son of Tain.”

… That’s what he called himself, to me, a “son of Tain”, wasn’t it? Julian recalled. He trusted me. He understood that I would never choose to harm him, even being an alien, an officer of the Federation. And yet, he congratulated me, that when Lethean came, I—

“Think, will you? Do you think Elim was born to a Director? He was born to an agent—one precocious, admittedly, and of distinction. That moment, unrecorded and unknown, nevertheless left its mark on Enabran: forever onward, he would be saddled with the product of his mawkishness. Imagine it, Julian Bashir. To hide this liability meant to stay ahead of his enemies, ahead of his rivals—ahead of his own allies in most pervasive and formidable deep state agency in known space. And for over forty years, Enabran Tain did not once—not once—falter. Never once did his foes realize he was compromised, that he had compromised himself, and would stand by his mistake. Is that not something to be proud of?”

There was something—something about pride.

 “He chose to keep a child he could never be witnessed holding. Not a single moment’s observable affection. After all, a father loves his son, so if one sees no love, one sees no son and father. Do you think that was Enabran’s hope, his dream, when he first saw the small one, newly born and helpless? You and yours, you of humankind—it is not the same. But have you not seen how dearly we care for our children?”

(“I can still see you on the back of that riding hound. You must have fallen off a dozen times but you never gave up. I was very proud of you that day.”)

That, he would not tell Kelas.

Julian clenched his hands. “It should have been his first—well, hardly his first—clue that the Order was a nightmare institution. He had a companion, had a son: if family is what matters to Cardassians, then why not leave? As it stands, he had offspring. He had no bloody family, no bloody son to speak of. He chose not to. To him, it wasn’t enough.”

(—Jules hadn’t been enough, either—)

“Did Elim’s enemies cease their pursuit, him alone and in exile? Turn again to the internment camp, if you like: the Cardassians were freed, all but Elim. And why? I recall it was the ire of Gul Dukat,” Kelas reminded him. “And that for a routine assignment, long ago, one for which guilt was absolute and clear. If that Dukat had the character for leadership, he’d have applauded the role of the Order in staunching corruption, would you not agree? But family, family, is an iron clasp, and Dukat had so long missed his father.”

(—A stab, that that tack led to Ziyal, a path that Julian preferred remain untrodden, overgrown —)

“If Tain was half as clever as you’d like me to believe, he could have done it. Found a world. Become a refugee, even, if he chose,” Julian insisted. He remembered, of all things, a compliment from Martok, who had, owing to his extended captivity, known Tain for some time longer. Enabran Tain was a great deceiver, but that he was clever? A fact, cold and uncompromising.

“Perhaps, but then what of the State?”

“How did I know that would be your next line?” Julian spat.

“Then the State is only made of people who do not know the cost.

“The cost, the cost, that’s your refrain, the bloody fucking cost. And for what? So you all can keep marching, is that it?”

Kelas nodded. “Indeed, and always ever onward. We endure, thankful and strong.”

“Callousness and coldness can never be strength. If that’s what it takes, if that’s what you need to win, then you’ve lost. Because you have nothing worth having won for.”

“Mirth, then, is your standard of worthiness? Not even satisfaction, not even honorability? I see. To you, an unhappy life is not worth living,” Kelas summarized. “And yet, you do not, to me, seem a happy man? Are we not better, using our standard, with the possibility of achieving it, than you are, forcing an impossible standard that you cannot help but disappoint, and find, in turn, disappointing? If Elim accepts his father did all he could, he can define himself as having lived loved. If he instead fixates on Tain’s missteps and cruelties, he will only ever see himself as having been a burden. How should he perceive himself? Which is better for him?”

“If you—you, as his partner—if you convince him that his father, Enabran, that Enabran truly loved him, then you’re forcing him to believe that’s what love is, what it looks like.” He shook a finger under Kelas’ nose. “That’s evil. It’s evil! And, thanks to you, if that’s love as he knows it, and the only love he’ll ever know, then there was no point to having saved him.”

He had not expected that to earn him a laugh.

Kelas jabbed his finger at the date, the same date as before.

ENABRAN TAIN DIED IN 2373.

“This, we should discuss,” Kelas suggested. “And what happened after.”

 

Chapter Text

“What use would it be, Tain alive in 2373? Any new arrival to the prison camp would tell of the Obsidian Order’s destruction. Indeed, I expect the Vorta gladly told him first. To awaited him outside? Only his enemies, those yellowed and fresh,” Kelas said. “To escape would mean nothing; there was no life to which he could return.”

Too late to have the life you should have wanted from the start. The thought began condemnatory, but ended in a flash of recognition. Julian frowned.

“Why labor those years, as Chancellor Martok has attested, rigging a system to contact Garak, issue a ping in code that he alone could recognize?” Kelas posited, his voice ever slow and somber, every syllable grave. “That Garak had survived their attempt to forestall the Dominion War, Tain knew. That Garak was still ‘plain, simple Garak’ and not ‘Elim Garak, son of Tain’, Tain knew. The lifetime he spent, maintaining that secret—would this not place it in jeopardy? And then, for what? For his age and illness, he had so little time. Tain’s heart had failed so many; at last, it was failing Tain himself.”

“He didn’t want to die there. I didn’t either.”

“Ah, but he would not have died there,” Kelas explained, rolling his shoulders, the gesture thick with meaning that Julian did not know.

“And how do you suggest? He passed before the Cardassian prisoners were released. Unless you think my medical intervention cut him short—

“Elim was an offworld specialist, a position reserved for the Order’s most adept. And even among those peers, his status was uncommon in that his missions involved no mind-wipe, a technique invented by nigh-necessity, how difficult it is to be what one is not. That this role, and how expertly he plays it, is what distinguished him as an operative…. That thought, it comes often to my mind. … Of course, it was not the entirety of his work.” He slid a thumb along missing fingertips.  “But it forms a conspicuous talent. Great he was—an asset to the Union.”

Always ever the Union, Julian thought. He waited a turn, for the play of a card.

“And at those times, I wonder, was it relatively safer for him, being far from other Cardassians—out of sight and far from scrutiny?” Kelas continued. “Was it an intentional move to build up his reputation, postings on foreign worlds thought to be the most challenging—and thus most dangerous—for we inflexible Cardassians? Or was it merely that he possessed an inherent penchant for such work? He is terribly curious and phenomenally bright. I have never known which came first: that he should be sent far and away to don the strangest of faces, or that he should be so strange that he should be sent far away.” He shrugged. “Either way, talent of a rather different nature than his father. Enabran Tain was, above all, a technological mastermind.”

“Elim’s no slouch in that department, if you hadn’t noticed.” In fact, I’d have said it was—of his formidable talents—perhaps the top….

“Ah, indeed, and to discount his skill would be never my intention. It is only that Tain’s expertise in that area far eclipsed his son’s. Able as he is, Elim does not have a tenth his father’s prowess in that unique respect.”

Julian pinched the bridge of his nose. “All right, plodding pace, you said….” And linear, you said. Is this Cardassian linearity? You’re right: a mind like this would have trouble passing for human….

“It would not have taken Enabran two years to cobble together a beacon.”

“Are you suggesting he’d been held elsewhere?”

“I’m afraid that you misunderstand. That he was present—there, Martok is correct. That he was in the walls—there, Martok is correct. And I do not doubt that Tain claimed it was in search of an escape. However, far more likely was the implementation of one of Tain’s usual tricks, signature techniques held over from his field days. Catastrophic ‘failures’. ‘Accidents’ that were not accidents. Incendiary events. Using heat to evaporate the liquid in electrolytic capacitors, using the subsequent pop to trip target sensors, having adjusted those sensors to exaggerate readings and trigger subsequent cascades, et cetera. It would take time, but he would be working towards the camp’s complete destruction. Given time, the Tain I knew could do as much with a chronometer and a dish of sand.”

“Not exactly a happy accident, far as accidents go,” Julian murmured, his sights set on the portrait once again. There, Tain maintained an eternal smile, mild and self-satisfied.

“And had the camp been destroyed, Enabran Tain died in 2371.”

Julian squinted, turning back to Kelas. “Not if it still took him two years to implement it.”

Kelas scoffed. “If the camp had been reduced to blackened shards, litter on the surface of a remote asteroid, then it would not matter that Enabran Tain had been alive in 2372, 2373. He would have died in 2371. No credible evidence would exist to the contrary, and thus it would be the truth. History, Julian Bashir.”

“… We would have thought he died during the assault on the Changelings.” In fact, no one would even be looking for an alternate explanation. Even Elim was… content to let it be. I… suppose. He didn’t mourn him, not that I saw. I suppose he couldn’t….

“As was the truth, until it was not. History, until it was not.”

And all history is heavy, Julian recalled. A precept, holding true.

“So why did Enabran Tain die in 2373?” Kelas indicated the hateful number yet again. The truth, as nobody wanted it.

“I don’t know.”

“Because something changed.” Kelas’s eyes were unlike Elim’s: they were a cold and stormy, deep and dark—but as ever, they were blue. “Enabran Tain was fond of you. Did Elim never mention?”

Julian took a step back, gestured to nothing in particular, and fixed his eyes on a passage written in Kardasi, a language he could meagerly understand on the best of days. “Tain and I, there was nothing interesting! Nothing interesting, not a whit! I mean, it was interesting. Intellectual, though. N-nothing, nothing bloody personal! Mostly, he just spoke of… Cardassian coastal ecosystems, obsolete forms of delivering th-the post…. He recited Cardassian law, described regional foods…. In return, I did—I did tell him about medicine, about tennis, about… bloody hamburgers, bloody fish. Rock cod and rainbow trout! It didn’t mean anything, there was nothing in it. It was just… regurgitation! To wile… to wile away the time. I didn’t tell him anything else, Kelas—nothing! And nothing about Elim!” Almost nothing….

“Your incursion into Cardassian space was foolish, but to one who viewed it as a desperate dash for a life deemed precious? Courageous, thought courageous. To engage, to learn, and to share your learning with a credible if tenuous ally: this sufficed as further vetting. Julian Bashir: he is cooperative. Withstanding torture during your stay in 371, still prioritizing the welfare of others? Julian Bashir: he is resilient, altruistic. Established by your works and publications, of course, that Julian Bashir is intelligent. Doctor Bashir, an intelligent man.” A slight twist of the lip. “Which is to say, told as a whole, you were in possession of qualities that Enabran Tain respected. Qualities rarely found in tandem.”

“I do hate to be the one to tell you, but not a whiff of it was for Tain. I’d have treated any patient with equal care and consideration,” Julian insisted. “And at that point… talked to myself, most likely, if there’d been nobody else.” It was an oversimplification. He had enjoyed the power he had over Tain, medic to a tyrannosaur. And he had found Tain’s voice so… easily detestable, the anger that it summoned had done much to keep him warm in long nights cold and quiet.

“Tain was, as I explained to you, a master of systems operations; the most powerful computer was to him only a toy. He did not, however, have Elim’s nuanced cultural understanding—that, a separate gift entirely. This differentiation is essential to understand. To a traditional Cardassian—and Tain was, above all, Cardassian—you and Elim were more than merely close.”

A misunderstanding you seem to share…. Or, at least, you suspect, Julian thought. (And, for the moment, a nice diversion. What Kelas implied—)

“Two years, a signal… h’nph. But what is it we say—a month? That, the time it took for Enabran Tain to convert his circuits, to strip them of their glorious spite. Does that produce less of a coincidence, the timing of your release?” Kelas shook his head. “Enabran himself had every incentive to die in obscurity. He could have avoided the shame, the disgrace. He would have left his life a tragic figure but still a commanding one—sitting in the captain’s chair, barking orders to the last. Then you arrived. And he had to make a choice, and decide whether he was instead a prisoner, an old man, a wretch slowly fading… leaking away.”

“He was.”

“He chose to be.”

ENABRAN TAIN DIED IN 2373.

“—And, a prisoner, an old man, a wretch baring his epochal disgrace to his son, the heavy failure that lay on heavy shoulders, instead of demand proper retribution for the invalidation of his legacy, instead he told his only child this and this alone: you are free, and you may live freely.”

(“Escape. Live.”)

[[That he would never tell Kelas.]]

 “—With the one who has come here,” Kelas said. “Who I return to you.”

For the first time in his life, Julian wondered—truly wondered—if Garak and his father had both been aware of him, his quiet breathing, his silent gaze. He had grown too comfortable with the idea of poor Cardassian hearing, a hobble that did not fully compromise their perceptiveness. Tain had asked, and Garak had lied; he had lied to Tain, who knew he was a liar—

(He would never know.)

“To Tain, whose name within the Order was predicated on purely domestic assignments, on circuits, on cyphers—to Tain, who knew he had neither the mindset nor expertise to detect infiltration of the Tal’shiar—the situation was unambiguous. A Cardassian, he understood it only as a Cardassian. Julian Bashir: courageous? Yes. Intelligent? Yes. Cooperative, caring? Yes, yes. But he would never consider to test your loyalty; loyalty would be… presumed.” A look of… nigh-confusion, of pity for the dead and vanished. “Did his son not find you in the darkest reaches of enemy space? Did he not wade the ocean and pull you from its needy jaws? How was he then alone?”

So much changed when I was unmasked, he thought, trying to suppress the guilt, to dampen it. Defuse it. When… well, when my reputation was spoiled. … The first time…. He wished this, too, could be foisted on his parents, onto Richard, someone else—anyone else. But cutting through that desire there was a vision, a thought: Garak eating alone in his quarters, the low hum of the station to him a dead silence. The notion set Julian ill at ease, made him borderline nauseous. Kelas was right, it felt… absurd in retrospect. Absurd, considering how many meals Julian had eaten in his quarters alone, the low hum of the station to him a deafening roar.

Kelas pulled himself up to his fullest height, like a cobra poised to strike. “I despised Tain, but in this, I do feel for him. What he chose to do, it came at a cost, this cost unspeakable outside the walls of his tomb.” He rattled. “A price was paid, an entire past and a whole future, for the facile happiness of a son that he held dear. Only—can you tell me, what did his son receive?”

That wouldn’t stand. (After all, if it did—) “The changeling would have destroyed the station, changed the course of the war—”

“You must consider it, again, from Tain’s perspective. The Federation was in the midst of the Dominion War, a war that bore forth the prospect of all extinguished. That under wartime conditions—any conditions—the Chief Medical Officer of a station would have access to the most sensitive areas of the most influential staging ground of your faction? Galling. And that identity tests were not being conducted hourly, much less daily, much less monthly would have been inconceivable to him. A drop of blood, and your kind couldn’t bear it? Spare me your excuses; it does not matter now.”

“Starfleet is not an army.”

“Call it whatever you prefer. Tain would have thought the changeling-Bashir to be either silted in its effect or captured, and in the latter case, Elim would think you dead. If Tain had disapproved of you, he’d have let it be so, and destroyed evidence of you with evidence of himself, leaving his son without… distraction for what was certain to come.”

Julian found himself vaguely repulsed. It made the hate bitter, made it strange.

 “Alas, but no matter. In that, Tain had nothing to fear and every reason to be proud. His son remains more loyal to Cardassia than he was even to the blood of his father. When came the call, Tain’s son answered. He returned to this world and starved in dust, appalled and overwhelmed, as I found him.”

And embraced by a true Cardassian, an old ally of the Order, a man so steadfast that he’d stand by the people who chopped him into ribbons…. Julian felt his heart sink. That much had not escaped him.

“You can crow as you like about the wire. Tain was prepared to resolve it; the only matter was how inconspicuously he could do so. But once Tain was gone and gone in every history, true or false, and Cardassia was ash and Elim had no-one, no one at all, I emerged from the grisliest days of his past to nourish and protect him. That you think to condemn me is a joke.”

It had never occurred to Julian that Garak would be traumatized, that he could be. Above all, Garak had always seemed so… composed. Controlled. Pragmatic. What pragmatic man won’t eat?

 “To you, ‘doctor dear’, make no mistake, I am merely your substitute. A consolation prize for a story of sacrifice. But as his second choice, I will love him as if I were his first.”

Julian quivered in place, the stress tugging at his ligaments. He suppressed the desire to storm, to rant, to run off. Those tactics would be meaningless on Kelas, on the position he represented. Something else was needed, words which felt owed: “Three years. I will come back. I promise.” And then, “For the work. To repay him.”

“I would never trust a promise from you,” Kelas replied firmly. “And if I did, three years? It is too late.”

“I owe it to him,” Julian said, taking a similarly firm foot forward. “And Cardassia needs allies. If I’m restored, I’ll be able to bring Starfleet expertise, our resources, perhaps even recruits….”

“There will be no return; you are not coming back. Elim is reinstituting the Order. Before your years in edge space expire, he will have assumed the directorship. It is not a public-facing position.”

“… Wait, the Order? What?”

(What was it that Kira had said?)

Kelas regarded him coldly. "He has no choice."