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Julian doesn't think about it much these days. Why should he, when it's been so long?

But when he does, if he does, well—he considers it part and parcel of Garak, that's all. Disconcerting at first, a little invasive. Awfully close to a line but not quite crossing it, and leaving Julian with absolutely no idea what he's meant to do in response. Garak in microcosm, summarized in a single unexpected gesture.

Julian had noticed immediately, the first time it had happened. How could he not? He'd ordered a drink in the replimat to go along with his lunch. Nothing special: Tarkalean tea, that was all. He'd come to their table with it and set it down, and said hello; and Garak had greeted him in return with that unaccountable and improbable warmth that always made Julian's ears a bit hot. And then, before Julian could actually lift the glass himself, Garak had taken it.

Picked it up and had a sip from it, as if it were a perfectly ordinary and reasonable thing to do—and then set it down again on Julian's side of the table.

Unsanitary, had been Julian's first involuntary thought. Not that it was that much worse than a handshake, objectively speaking, and a handshake wouldn't have fazed him at all. Everything came out of the replicators entirely inert and without contaminants, of course, and he was Garak's doctor as much as he was anyone's; even if Garak had been ill, there actually wasn't a particularly good chance that it would make the leap across species. He'd almost gotten sidetracked right there all on his own thinking about Cardassian disease transmission vectors—but the point was: unsanitary. Unsanitary, and bewildering besides. Garak didn't even like Tarkalean tea, and especially not Tarkalean tea brewed as sweet as Julian tended to order it.

But Garak hadn't explained himself at all, of course. Julian had stared at him much too long for him to have missed it—as if Garak would be oblivious to Julian's expectantly baffled look and pointedly raised eyebrows.

He'd only raised his brow ridges right back, casual and inquiring, and tilted his head, and carried on asking Julian how his first shift had gone; whether he'd had any luck dealing with whatever it was that had afflicted the unfortunate Bolian who'd collapsed on the Promenade that morning.

And as he already had been so often with Garak, Julian was drawn into answering almost despite himself, unable to resist the opportunity to discuss it with someone who was at least willing to pretend to be interested. Garak had deftly pressed the conversation on till Julian had almost forgot the whole thing completely.

But not quite.

The second time it happened, he made it as far as, "Garak, really, what in the world?" before Garak interrupted him smoothly, claiming to have suddenly recalled that he'd been meaning to ask whether Julian had found the time to start that collection by Iloja of Prim that Garak had lent him.

They'd spent the entire rest of lunch arguing over whether the opening sections were unnecessarily dense and bewildering, or simply a bit too subtle for the untutored to wholly appreciate. Plus fifteen minutes of Julian's next shift, before he'd realized what time it was and hastily excused himself.

And after that—well.

Julian remains flawed, despite his parents' best efforts. It feels silly to press the matter when he's already let it go twice without quite managing to ask. Which is, of course, probably exactly what Garak is counting on, Julian has found himself thinking more than once, wry and helplessly self-aware. But there it is.

(And there is, perhaps, a part of Julian that—rather likes it. Just the idea of it, that he knows to look for this quirk of Garak's, this peculiar habit he has, when it's entirely possible no one else on the station does. Because Garak doesn't do it all the time; he's hardly going around picking up every glass in Quark's and drinking from them.

There's something about it that has the feel of a secret. And Garak has plenty of those, Julian knows. But somehow that's never stopped it from being a funny sort of pleasure, a tiny quiet gift, every time he lets Julian get a look at another one.)

So—it's something Garak does sometimes, that's all. Julian is used to it. It's familiar, unremarkable, phatic. It doesn't mean anything.

That's what he decides. And it takes him five years to learn that he's wrong.

 

 

Garak's particular habits are the last thing on his mind, when it does happen at last.

Going from days of solitary confinement to having his deepest secret accidentally revealed to everyone he knows would be more than bad enough, even if there weren't a war on. And Julian has decided, deliberately and with a great deal of thought and care put in, that perhaps it's best if he doesn't show up in the replimat at lunchtime for a little while.

It's reasonable. Sensible. Garak may well—be looking for a bit of space, though Julian finds himself cringing inwardly at putting it that way. Metaphorical space, but the choice of words feels cruelly apt anyway: it is, in a sense, a potential for claustrophobia on Garak's part that's feeding Julian's concern. It wouldn't surprise Julian in the least, if Garak felt a need for a little room; if he's still recovering some equilibrium himself, after everything. After Julian shut him in a wall and didn't let him out. After Tain—after his father—after learning there's been a Changeling on the station, looking like Julian, for weeks.

(Nothing at all to do with the way Julian had felt to learn Garak had been having lunch with it, with it and with Ziyal; he doesn't even know which element of that scenario is more to blame for the awful squeezing feeling in his chest—)

For all he knows, Garak isn't even there. Perhaps he takes his lunch in the back of his shop, these days. Though of course he'd be quite aggrieved with himself, if he were to spill crumbs over his worktable—Julian imagines it, and wants to laugh, but can't quite manage.

At any rate, the point is: Julian would rather not risk it.

So he's been going to Quark's instead. Odd hours, just in case. Working a shift and a half, and then stepping out for a break to eat in the late afternoon, station's time.

And the day it happens, he thinks at first he's been caught out. Not that he has anything to feel guilty for, of course; but it sends a quick panicky jolt through him, the idea that Garak's about to confront him over—something, seeing an identifiably Cardassian figure at the bar.

But he realizes, after one endless frigid moment, that the Cardassian's too tall. Too tall, a bit too broad. Hair too long. He manages to make himself move to a better vantage point, gets an angle that permits him to evaluate the Cardassian's profile, and it's no one he knows at all.

Which is actually more puzzling than not, under the circumstances. Cardassia's officially joined the Dominion. For a long time, Garak was the only Cardassian living on the station, but there had still been Cardassian traffic, Cardassian freighters and tourists and visiting officials. That's all meant to be over, though, now that they're at war.

And, indeed, Julian sees that the Cardassian's being given a bit of a berth—though of course Quark's perfectly happy to accept his latinum, no doubt.

But whoever he is, he must be here for a reason. It must be all right, or someone would already have called security.

And Julian certainly won't complain over having someone new to occupy his attention for a little while.

He steps forward and nods at Quark, and then introduces himself. The Cardassian looks surprised, but not displeased—tilts his head, and introduces himself in return as Nemen Trakel. And then the mystery neatly solves itself, when he adds mildly, "And if you're the doctor here, then you must have met my mentor, Tekeny Ghemor."

Of course. That explains it. And what a delicately Cardassian way to talk around the fact of Ghemor's current condition—little wonder Trakel had been surprised, to have the station's doctor come up to him but without urgency, no bad news to share. Julian's performed his evaluation, and Ghemor is as comfortable as Julian can make him; probably still talking to Kira, right now.

"Yes, I have," Julian agrees aloud, and takes a self-conscious half-step nearer, to add more quietly, "I'm so sorry."

Trakel accepts this with another nod, and a wry, grim little slant to his mouth that makes Julian abruptly warmer toward him. This must have been a long time coming, and yet of course that won't make it any easier. Poor fellow.

"I'm his personal aide," Trakel says. "He was too kind to leave me behind on Cardassia, when he fled. I'd have been a guest of the Obsidian Order within a day." He shakes his head. "He'd have come here alone, if I'd let him. But I didn't like to think that something might happen on the way, and—" He stops, jaw briefly tight. "And no one would be there," he concludes at last.

Julian looks at him. There was something speaking in his voice just then, some additional shade of implied meaning in his tone. And of course Julian knows why Ghemor is here—to tell Kira things, things he doesn't want to go with him to his rapidly approaching grave.

"You don't suppose anything—might still happen," Julian says cautiously, endeavoring to make his inflection more eloquent than the words might be alone.

And Trakel looks back at him with narrowed eyes, something that's nearly amusement. "Oh, I wouldn't be surprised in the least," he murmurs. "But I imagine there will be less room for unanticipated events to occur under your care than there would have been on the transport."

Julian stifles a sigh. Fantastic. As if palliative care weren't enough of a strain by itself, intellectually aware that there's nothing he can do even as the gut of him yearns wordlessly to try anyway, not to rest, because what is this brain of his even good for if he can't—and now he's got to worry someone might sneak in and assassinate the man, too.

"So you are familiar with the ways of Cardassians, then," Trakel says, very dry.

Julian snorts, unable to prevent it, and shakes his head, and offers Trakel an equally knowing smile. "Oh, yes."

Trakel eyes him, thoughtful, assessing, leaning idly against the bar. "I suppose I should have guessed you had some particular interest," he says mildly. "I must admit my welcome hasn't been warm, Doctor; you appear to be the exception, rather than the rule."

Julian bites the inside of his cheek to keep from grimacing. If only Trakel knew how right he was.

But it's not a reference to Julian's enhancement, and he shouldn't treat it as though it is. Trakel isn't confronting him over anything—he's being kind. Complimentary.

"It isn't anything personal," Julian says aloud, and adjusts the smile to something more apologetic. "Everyone's just a bit on edge, that's all."

"But not you?"

"Oh, well, I—" Julian hesitates, briefly stymied by the thought of attempting to capture his wildly confused sentiments toward Cardassia, Cardassians in general, and certain Cardassians in particular in words. "I suppose I've always been—fond of Cardassians."

He stumbles over it a little. It sounds odd, though it wasn't meant to; his ears are hot. But it's probably the best he can do for the moment, so he doesn't try to take it back. He clears his throat and offers Trakel a blandly amiable sort of look, the kind that usually makes people decide not to hold any accidental innuendo against him.

But most people aren't Cardassians, and most people don't take deliberate deception as read.

"Is that so," Trakel says, even more warmly than he'd been speaking a moment ago, with that air of amused benevolence Cardassians tend to adopt in a good mood. "But of course you didn't come in here to talk to me, did you? Sit down, please. Let me buy you a drink."

And that traps Julian neatly in a spasm of indecision—because he did come in here for a drink, a drink and his late lunch, and if he tells Trakel no and then steps away and orders his own drink, well. That's a bit ruder than he'd like to be, when Trakel's been perfectly pleasant and courteous. But at the same time, he isn't—he never intended to insinuate that he was looking for—

"Oh, I," he hears himself say, "I couldn't, really. That's very kind of you, but I—"

He's too slow. Quark knows perfectly well what Julian's likeliest to order, especially since it won't be alcoholic, not in the middle of a shift; he's already sidling up along the bar with a good old Tarkalean tea.

"For you, Doctor," he says, eyes darting back and forth between Julian and Trakel in a way that says he can't decide whether to call having a Cardassian in his bar at a time like this good or bad for business.

Trakel was already standing by the bar when Julian came in; Julian's come toward him, but didn't pass him. He's in between Julian and the tray, and it isn't strange, not really, that he should save Julian the trouble—take the glass himself, and pass it along into Julian's hands.

Except that isn't what he does. Which is to say he takes it, certainly, with a nod that Quark returns before bustling off. But he doesn't hand it to Julian, not right away.

He holds it. He holds it and he looks at Julian, in a steady assessing sort of way—meets Julian's eyes and doesn't look away, as he tips the rim of the glass to his mouth and takes a sip.

He does hand it over, after. Julian accepts the cup on autopilot, and only belatedly registers the slant of Trakel's mouth when he does it, warm, pleased.

Oh, damn.

Damn, damn—

"Ghemor sought sanctuary among the Mathenites, you know," Trakel observes, mild, leaning in a little. "A pleasant enough people, of course, and I'll always be grateful to them for taking us in. But strikingly unattractive, by Cardassian standards." He makes a graceful, speaking sort of gesture toward his face, his mouth. "The sapient descendents of rodents, I believe. Prominent upper teeth. Twitchy. Fur everywhere."

"Is that so," Julian hears himself say.

"Yes, indeed," Trakel murmurs.

He lifts a handle, curls it around Julian's shoulder. As if amiable, as if to guide him toward the bar and into a seat, except—except it doesn't quite stay there. Thumb, first, skimming sideways toward Julian's throat; fingers spreading out to span the place where a shoulder ridge isn't.

"I beg your pardon," Julian says, not unkindly but firmly, easing out from beneath it.

Except he doesn't really need to, because almost as soon as the words are out, Trakel's blinked and lifted his hand away.

"Oh, I—I do apologize," he says quickly. "I didn't mean to offend you." His mouth twists a little, wry. "It has been an awfully long time since I've done this sort of thing."

"No harm done," Julian assures him.

And he'd already felt a dim suspicion beginning to form, the shape clarifying itself, edges crispening as it's exposed at last to the light.

But then Trakel inclines his head a little, hands raised palm-out, and adds mildly, "If you already have someone drinking from your cups, all you had to do was say so."

It means something. Means something to the degree where it's earned itself an idiom. Of course it does—and Julian has to swallow down a half-hysterical laugh, thinking of a dozen different pages from a dozen different novels, his own petulant bewilderment that the narration should feel the need to mention so often that people were drinking from things, at moments that had seemed utterly random—

Garak had given him the books. And Julian had always had questions that seemed so much more significant, about the plots, the characterization, everyone's motivation, the context of historical settings. He'd never bothered to ask about anything as minor as an irrelevant bit of blocking showing up now and then, when there were so many other things he didn't understand.

And of course, of course, Garak had never done anything so ordinary or pedestrian as tell him.

Julian bites down on the inside of his cheek, hard, unsure whether the thing lodged in his throat is laughter or a load of frustrated swearing. Maybe both.

Either way, he doesn't want to let it out right now. So he swallows it down, and smiles politely at Nemen Trakel, and makes himself say, "Quite right—I'm so sorry. Let me buy your next to make it up to you. What was it like, living on Mathen? I've never been."

It's easy enough to sustain a little polite small talk for a few minutes, both of them careful to skirt round the awkward subject of Ghemor's failing health. Trakel really doesn't appear to be harboring any hard feelings, which is a relief. Julian wouldn't even have minded sitting down with him to eat that late lunch he came in here for, except—

Except, he discovers, he's not hungry anymore. He's far too preoccupied to be bothered.

 

 

Because he'd thought it was just Garak being Garak. Some peculiar little habit of his, testing his prospective lunch companion's taste in drinks; or an indulgence of paranoia, ordering a beverage for himself but then drinking from someone else's, even if it was only ever a sip.

But—the things Trakel had said. The way he'd looked at Julian, that warm assessing stare. The way he'd leaned in, and his hand on Julian's shoulder. If you already have someone drinking from your cups

It does mean something after all, it must.

And Julian's reasonably sure he knows what.

If only, he thinks wryly, he had anywhere near as good an idea what to do about it.

As it is, he goes round in circles in his own head for the rest of the day. He knows what he wants to do about it; oh, he'd meant to be careful, he really had, and he doesn't want to rush it, doesn't want to press if it'll only make things worse. And it would be just his luck, to work this out right at the moment it's become irrelevant: now that Garak's got other options, options who've never walled him up in a hole and left him there.

But if he's right about this, about what Garak's been doing all along—years, and Julian had had no idea, and Garak had kept on doing it anyway. Knowing full well Julian didn't understand it, and perhaps might never; carrying on silently, over and over, futile and endless. It should be frustrating to think of, when Garak could have damn well said something. But instead it pinches Julian's heart in his chest, tight, till it aches.

If he's right, and there's even a fraction of a chance that Garak hasn't given up on him—he's not going to let it slip through his fingers.

He's done letting things pass him by because he's afraid to be seen, afraid to expose himself and stick his neck out and reach for them. The worst secret he's ever had about himself came out. The worst thing that could possibly have happened to him, the thing he'd spent all his life fearing and dreading—it happened. It happened, and he's still here; and there's a certain darkly giddy freedom in that.

And he might have missed his shot. He's got to be prepared for that. Because it's true that Garak doesn't touch Julian's shoulders the way he used to, doesn't stand closer than he should anymore. It's plausible that even if Garak had been hitting on him at first, had carried on with it for a while just to amuse himself, he's long since given up on naive thickheaded Julian Bashir.

That's what's always stopped Julian before. He could have said something himself, when he'd first realized "friendship" fell undeniably short of containing all that he felt toward Garak. But he didn't, and he hasn't. It's that uncertainty that stalls him, that hopeless imprecision. Julian's so used to being able to calculate the odds—to being able to alter them, as a doctor, with his own two hands.

But Garak? Julian never knows what Garak's thinking, what he's going to do or why. And it's fascinating, magnetic, keeps him on his toes. But it also means he's never been able to guess quite what to expect. If he'd ever spoken up, done or said anything unmistakable—it's always felt equally possible, that Garak would smile at him warmly and call him my dear; or look at him with bland attentiveness, polite and coolly distant, and say I beg your pardon, Doctor?

And Julian's been trying so hard to keep himself safe, for so long. Julian's been trying so hard not to let himself make a mistake.

Except the last time Garak had drunk out of Julian's glass, it had been barely two days after they got back. Impromptu celebration at Quark's, because they were still alive and no one was a Changeling anymore—suddenly there had been a crowd, cheering and slaps on the back, and drinks. Drinks: and Garak had taken Julian's, had met Julian's eyes over the rim of it and sipped, and then set it down by Julian's hand again without saying anything and smiled just a little. Julian hadn't known, hadn't understood. But Garak had done it anyway.

And Julian can't just let it go. Not now. He can't.

 

 

Dinner, he decides. A cue that Garak will undoubtedly perceive: not lunch, not their everyday usual. Something new. And if Garak would rather not—try something new, with Julian, well. All he has to do is say no.

He doesn't ask in person. He goes back and forth about it, but in the end he decides it's for the best. A message over the station's comm system, that'll do the trick. He'll have time to compose it, to word it carefully, instead of just blurting out whatever fool thing his mouth comes up with while his brain's busy spinning its wheels in panic.

He spends hours and hours picking over it, rewriting the same three sentences a dozen times, and then makes himself send it before that dozen can become twenty.

There probably won't be an answer right away, he reminds himself afterward, staring at the space where the unsent draft no longer is. That was part of the point—for Garak not to feel pressed to answer Julian right to his face. He'll be able to take his time, think it over. Pretend he didn't see it for a week, and then answer; or pretend it never arrived at all, which will be an answer of another kind. It'll—

A soft tone. Julian blinks at his PADD, startled, and fumbles to thumb the key that will display his incoming messages.

I'd be honored, my dear doctor.

Well. Well—all right, then.

 

 

Garak is precisely on time.

Julian had half expected him to be early, and had made all the arrangements in advance just in case: adjusting the temperature settings so his quarters will be at least a half-dozen degrees warmer before Garak ever steps through the door; dimming the lights, which is simply the considerate thing to do, but nevertheless manages to feel transparent and torrid, and leaves the back of Julian's neck hot. Dressing down to civilian clothing, because the last thing he wants Garak to do is assume that this is official station's business of some kind, or that Julian is attempting to remind Garak of his own rank and standing—that his position on the station's staff is, surprisingly, secure even in the aftermath of his deception, where Garak has at best claimed asylum—

God. He isn't even sure the clothes lie right on him. They aren't tailored, or at least not by Garak. Julian does own a few things that are, but it would be utterly impossible to wear them now: thinking of Garak's hands against the fabric as he'd made them, and then facing Garak in person with them on, about to try to say the things Julian is planning to try to say. It would be—it would be too much. He's going out on a limb with this quite far enough already.

The point is, it's all sorted, and he's still got a good ten minutes to waste.

He putters a bit, teetering back and forth between self-consciousness and something not unlike anticipation. If he's wrong about this—about everything, about Garak—he doesn't know what he'll do. Realistically, of course, they'll manage somehow or other; but that won't stop it from feeling like an utter disaster, in the moment.

(It'll be embarrassing, certainly. Painfully uncomfortable, almost definitely. But worse still than that will be the loss of what could have been: the things Julian has thought of and longed for and wanted, and he could almost certainly have had them, if he hadn't taken so long to understand this one little thing. Discomfort is bearable. Embarrassment can be survived. But regret—regret leaves an ache that he knows will linger.)

And he ought to be prepared for it. He ought to be ready to be wrong, or as ready as he can be. But if he's right

He wonders wryly what's taking Garak so long. Surely he isn't nervously pacing in pointless circles. It would be a tactical advantage, to be early; isn't that the sort of thing Garak would think? But then perhaps he realizes Julian might assume as much, and intends to disconcert him by being late instead.

He makes himself sit down. Breathes in, breathes out. Flattens his palms against the table. The atmospheric controls are doing their job, and it's warm in here now, a comfortably dry heat. However this goes, he mustn't lose sight of what really matters. Even if Julian's wrong after all, it'll be good to see Garak, good to know that perhaps they haven't eaten their last lunch together. Sitting there at his own table alone, he's suddenly and abruptly regretful for all the time since Internment Camp 371, for having dodged and hidden and fled Garak at every opportunity. It had all been such a muddle, that's all, and he'd—he'd wanted to be close to Garak after, to reassure himself that Garak would let him; he'd wanted it so terribly and selfishly that he knew he'd better not let himself—

The door chimes, just then. Julian glances over at the chronometer, and blinks: precisely on the hour.

He stands and moves for the door controls, automatic, calling out, "Just a moment," and helplessly trying to guess what he's meant to read into that. Perhaps it means nothing at all; perhaps it's meant to mean nothing. Garak hadn't wanted to come early, to appear as though he meant to discomfit Julian, but he hadn't wanted to be late, either—to look as though he'd had second thoughts, or as though he were reluctant to come. Maybe he's thought it all through just as thoroughly as Julian has.

Or maybe, Julian thinks to himself, rueful, he's just trying to be politely punctual.

The door hisses open, and there's Garak. And Julian looks at him standing there and feels something that had been knotted tight in his shoulders, his chest, come abruptly loose. All this time he's spent working himself up, and somehow he'd managed to forget just how much he likes being around Garak.

"Come in," he manages. "Come in, please."

 

 


 

 

Garak might be willing to confess, if only to himself, that he isn't entirely certain what to expect from Julian this evening.

Or—no. Dr. Bashir. Best not to fall prey to unwarranted optimism, under the circumstances.

He has some theories, of course. He'd anticipated that Dr. Bashir would be moved to discuss matters sooner or later; there are any number of things he might find himself troubled by, thinking over the events of the last several months, ranging from Garak's excruciating and inexcusable failure to realize he'd been replaced by a duplicate to that unforgivably melodramatic scene Garak had made of himself with Tain.

(He could never have told Julian any of that. He wouldn't have known where to begin, even if he could have abided making himself so transparent, so indecently vulnerable. There had been no way to do it except to stage it—telling Enabran they were alone when they hadn't been, and neatly positioning his own sincerity, that he must of course then act as though they were alone well enough to make Enabran believe it, as a crucial element in carrying out yet another deception—)

Dr. Bashir hasn't been to the replimat at lunchtime in weeks. But that fact, in isolation, is frustratingly resistant to clear interpretation. There are any number of potential reasons for it, and Garak is well aware that at this point his own conclusions aren't to be trusted. If his judgment has ever been reliable where Dr. Bashir is concerned, it certainly isn't now.

(He hadn't noticed. He hadn't noticed. He'd been so focused on redressing his own idiocy, well aware that he was overinvested, easing himself away one step at a time with all the attention and precision he hadn't dedicated to assessing Julian's appearance and behavior.

He likes to tell himself he'd set himself up by Enabran's deathbed with Julian looking on because he'd wanted Julian there. Because they were, and are, still friends in the ways sentiment would decree matter most.

But sometimes he suspects that what he'd really wanted was to place a secret in Julian's hands. Knowingly, deliberately. Enabran, and that day, the riding hound: something so tiny and personal the Founders would never bother to learn it even if they could, something no duplicate Julian will ever know. Something he could give up to Julian and Julian alone, desperate recompense and tacit apology in one.)

Perhaps Dr. Bashir would like to start fresh. Set aside the lunches that are now tainted by association with his duplicate self, but retain some element of functional association with Garak. Perhaps he's been asked to do so; perhaps his narrowly-retained Starfleet commission remains his by virtue of his utility, as the lone pressure point Starfleet can bring to bear on the one Cardassian who might willingly be of use to them now that Cardassia itself has formally joined the Dominion. Admittedly, that would be far more practical than Garak has come to expect Starfleet to be, but he does try not to make a habit of underestimating people.

Or perhaps—

Perhaps the lies are simply too much to bear, at last. Perhaps Dr. Bashir is—how do they say it? Washing his hands of Garak, that's it. And this will be a firm but not unkind farewell, a carefully staged conclusion Garak can't possibly pretend to misunderstand.

But when the door to Dr. Bashir's quarters swishes open at last, Garak is treated to the sight of the doctor himself standing there, in civilian clothes that are a very charming shade of blue and show off his lovely collarbones to far greater advantage than his standard uniform, and in remarkably flattering lighting.

Remarkably—low lighting, he realizes after a moment. That's what makes it flattering; the lack of otherwise ever-present glare, that Garak can open his eyes all the way without strain and drink in the look of him.

Garak glances past Dr. Bashir at the ceiling. The lights are indeed wonderfully low-intensity, certainly dimmer than he must typically keep them. And—Garak had taken the flush of heat along his ridges at the moment the door opened for a mortifying physical reaction best ignored. But he accepts Dr. Bashir's verbal invitation and steps inside, and it isn't him at all: the air in Dr. Bashir's quarters is, blissfully, a strikingly pleasant temperature, rather than ten degrees too cold.

Intriguing.

And uncouth to draw attention to it, but—he supposes perhaps he's just that critical fraction too selfish not to hunger for explicit confirmation. "Why, how considerate of you, Doctor."

Dr. Bashir ducks his head a little, a reflexive display of modesty in the face of a compliment; but he doesn't look uncomfortable. His mouth slants. His eyes are soft. "Call it enlightened self-interest," he says after a moment, mild. "I could hardly enjoy my dinner knowing you were uncomfortable." He pauses, then. "It's good to see you," he adds, more quietly still, but—warm.

(A strikingly pleasant temperature, one might say, where Garak is so much more often braced for a persistent chill.)

"You really didn't have to go to all this trouble," Garak prods, as delicately as he's able. "The replimat's always served us quite well, as I recall."

"Well, of course there's nothing wrong with it," Dr. Bashir says instantly—as though he fears he's managed to insult all their years of lunches beyond telling, with a single invitation. "I only—" He stops, and looks at Garak, and something thoughtful, intent, passes across his face. "After everything that's happened, I suppose it didn't seem quite right to just—go back to having lunch together, as if nothing had changed. But I didn't know where to start, and I think I left it longer than I should have. I'm sorry."

Remarkable, Garak thinks absently. It's one of the things he's always found fascinating about Julian, that bluntness. That willingness to concede aloud with such directness, without treating the concession itself as failure or error: What do you mean? I don't know. Whatever you want. I'm sorry.

"You have nothing to apologize for, my dear doctor," he allows himself to say quietly.

"I'm not finished," Julian rebuts, unhesitating. "There's another reason. I didn't want to push things. I didn't want you to feel—trapped."

He winces even as he says the word, clearly conscious of having chosen a term Garak might not care for but equally clearly unable to come up with another that conveyed his meaning properly. How does he manage to make such excruciating transparency so inexplicably charming?

And he seems he hasn't been avoiding Garak for his own sake, but rather for Garak's. An equally charming notion, Garak decides, if also wildly unnecessary.

"I should no longer be surprised by your thoughtfulness, Doctor," he says aloud after a moment. "And please rest assured that under ordinary circumstances, I appreciate it a great deal. However, I can't help but suspect that in this particular case, you were overthinking matters, as it were."

Julian's mouth slants further still: rueful. "Strong words indeed," he murmurs, "coming from you."

If he intends it as a chastisement, it doesn't sound like one. It sounds—fond.

He's set the table for them, though of course the food will presumably be replicated hot in a moment; Julian has probably already entered the actual order, and was simply waiting on Garak before he actually materialized any of it. He ushers Garak over to one place setting, and vanishes briefly. And, sure enough, he returns with a selection of dishes Garak recognizes: replimat orders past, mostly, things he recalls having eaten with gusto or complimented.

And knowing what he knows now, he can't claim to be surprised that Julian has remembered a dozen little moments where he happened to express an offhand preference so exactly. It undoubtedly required a brief exertion of Julian's unfettered mind at the absolute most. Considerate, of course.

But Garak isn't going to make the mistake of assuming it means something it doesn't.

He exclaims over it all, allows his genuine pleasure to slip its leash. Julian smiles and ducks his head again and says courteous things about how much he hopes Garak enjoys it. He's brought out a bottle of kanar, too—Quark's, he explains, and obtained at a discount, since Quark is undoubtedly already feeling something of a drop in demand for Cardassian liquor on the station.

It's all going very well, and Garak has succumbed to a certain cautious optimism. Perhaps they'll come out of this intact, despite the odds.

And then, when Julian's done pouring, he sets the bottle down—and picks up Garak's newly-filled glass, instead of his own.

Garak goes still in his chair.

Julian is looking at him, eyes steady, expression deceptively mild. Garak ought to look away, perhaps start eating; he's made it this far on the power of sheer self-deception, plus a pinch of unabashed willingness to take advantage of Julian's good nature. He could pretend it isn't happening at all, and perhaps if he does it hard enough, long enough, Julian will take pity on him and go along.

But he doesn't. He doesn't look away. Because for all that it very clearly signals impending disaster, it's also unbearably gratifying in all the wrong ways, a hot itch prickling at the edges of his scales, to watch Julian lift Garak's glass to his mouth and drink from it.

Just a sip, that's all, and then he sets it back down on the table next to Garak's hand.

Garak doesn't move.

"I was in Quark's yesterday," Julian says, conversational. "There was a Cardassian there—Nemen Trakel, his name was. I'm sure you've heard Tekeny Ghemor is here, and apparently his personal aide came with him. Anyway, we were having a very pleasant conversation, and it seems he rather liked the look of me—"

Garak keeps his expression blank and inquiring, and very carefully doesn't so much as dream of gritting his teeth.

"—and when Quark brought me my tea, he took it off the tray as though he meant to hand it to me. But he didn't."

"He didn't?" Garak hears himself say, and is awash with a bitter sort of pride at the blandness of his own tone.

"He didn't," Julian agrees, ingenuous, marveling. "He took a sip out of it first, of all things. We had a bit of a misunderstanding over it, in fact, but he was very courteous about the whole thing."

"Was he."

"Oh, yes. A gentleman. He let me know," Julian adds, "that if I—let's see, how did he put it? If I already had someone drinking from my cups, I should have simply said so. Isn't that interesting?"

Still salvageable, Garak decides distantly.

"Ah," he says aloud, and does permit himself to glance away, then. He doesn't move his hand, either toward the glass or away from it.

(He hasn't yet deluded himself thoroughly enough to indulge in drinking from it. As if it would mean anything, as if Julian had done it for any reason except to make a point; as if grasping that desperately after the form will somehow bestow upon him the substance—)

"Well, little wonder, I should think. I'm sure you've already guessed at the origins of the gesture?"

"Oh, I can just imagine," Julian says. "I can only assume Cardassians attempted to poison each other even more frequently than the warlords and kings of ancient Earth. You must have had tasters, or something like it?"

"Is that what you call them?" Garak asks, and almost wants to laugh. Such bluntness: to name the position so explicitly for precisely what the holder is required to do, no more and no less. Taster. He shakes his head and looks up, and manages to approximate an amused little smile, of the sort he might normally direct at Julian for any number of reasons. "Well, I'll spare you the lecture on Cardassian terminology and etymology. Suffice it to say that it was at one time a much grander gesture, taking on such a risk at no obvious benefit to oneself except perhaps a temporary claim on the cup-owner's good opinion. It was regarded as reckless, melodramatic—"

"Melodramatic? Cardassians? Surely not," Julian murmurs.

His voice is warm again. He's entertained. That bodes well for Garak's chances, surely, if only he can manage to avoid any more foolish missteps.

"Oh, indeed," Garak says aloud, tilting his head in half a nod, widening his eyes, a picture of sincerity. "In the modern day, however, it's rather more symbolic. An indication of potential willingness to—to one day reach the point of reckless melodramatic gestures, you might say. An implicit compliment, that you look at the owner of the cup and can imagine yourself so invested."

There are certain traditionally-minded romantics who are inclined to imbue it with greater meaning, admittedly. But it would benefit no one to say as much to Julian right now.

"I believe I follow the logic," Julian says. "And is it traditionally reciprocated?"

Garak blinks up at him. He's still standing—a hip against the edge of the table, looking down at Garak in that soft steady way, and, all at once, briefly but dangerously unreadable.

"Goodness, no," Garak says, a bit more sharply than he meant to. "What would be the point of that? A declaration with its foundations in willingly assuming risk for the sake of guaranteeing the safety of another loses all its meaning if you then require them to take on the same risk for you in return. What a bewildering idea."

"Except it isn't a risk these days, is it?" Julian says, brow furrowing. "Given that Cardassian assassination techniques have advanced far beyond poisoning drinks—"

"Oh, certainly," Garak agrees. "It's the principle of the thing, that's all. Vapors and gaseous mixtures are in style these days, I hear, though some people will have you believe contact poisons are making a comeback."

"Really," Julian says.

It isn't a question; Julian's mouth is slanting again, curving.

"Garak, I'm not going to let you distract me. Not even with the most medically intriguing assassination methods you can think of." He pauses, eyes narrowing. And then he draws a long slow breath, and lets it out, and says, "So that's what it means, then. That's what it's always meant, every time."

Garak looks away. He ought to have an answer. There must be an answer. But he finds to his own dull-edged dismay that he can't work out what it might be, can't decide what Julian is likeliest to accept. Of all the things he'd anticipated Julian might want to discuss, having asked Garak to dinner this way—this was never one.

"And you didn't tell me," Julian says.

Garak closes his eyes.

"I suppose you needn't have," Julian adds after a moment, quietly, "if it was only ever—that you were amusing yourself. A bit of a joke, one I'd never understand—"

Garak laughs. It's easy to do: how droll of Julian, how whimsical.

How utterly ridiculous.

"Oh, come now, Doctor," he murmurs, dulcet. "No need to go inventing such flights of fancy. Surely it's all straightforward enough." He considers the matter briefly, head cocked. "Embarrassingly so, in fact, now that I think about it."

"Garak," Julian says slowly.

"I'll admit I did enjoy myself a great deal in those early days," Garak acknowledges, "being as pleasant and friendly as possible to dear little Dr. Bashir; you were so wary of me then." He allows a smile to twist his mouth, remembering. It had been almost as though he were still himself—still powerful, dangerous, someone worth being wary of. He'd alternated between relishing the illusion and being bitterly, darkly amused that illusion was all he had; that he was reduced to the point of being grateful for it, of grasping after it. "Your suspicion was so warming, Doctor, so comforting. I appreciated it a great deal, at the time."

"You're welcome," Julian murmurs, dry.

"And I realize I've told you a great many lies, over the years," Garak says. "But—" He pauses; he wishes he could call it deliberate, an effort to draw and hold Julian's attention in advance of his next words. But he has endeavored, with varying levels of success, to lie less often to himself than he does to everyone else. And the truth is that it's simply hard to say. "That day."

Julian looks at him. Garak had intended to elaborate; but with that look, he's struck with the sudden certainty that elaboration isn't required.

"That day," he repeats, no longer concerned with specifying which one. "I told you that it was all that remained in my life to look forward to. That lunch with you was the one thing left that I enjoyed."

"The mediocre food," Julian agrees, "and my smug sanctimonious face, as I recall."

Garak permits himself the flicker of a grimace that wants to cross his face. But Julian isn't grimacing, doesn't look upset; his expression is attentive, thoughtful, and he repeated Garak's own words without vitriol.

"I told myself maybe it had been true, afterward," Julian says. "I had to, or I'd never have been able to talk myself into finding you in the replimat ever again."

"Doctor—"

"And that was why. Because you'd been so insulting about it. Because you'd been trying so hard to give me something else to pay attention to besides the word 'enjoyed'. Trying to keep me from looking too hard at it. So I decided you might have meant it."

"I did," Garak says quietly. "And—surely you can understand I didn't care to think that even that should be taken from me."

He can perceive the moment Julian remembers what this particular tangent in their conversation was intended to illuminate: that they are discussing Garak's reasons for not explaining to Julian what exactly it was he was doing every time he drank from Julian's cups.

"It didn't seem worth the risk," he adds, once he's given Julian a beat to absorb his meaning. "And—"

Pure recklessness. Julian would probably have accepted that alone as explanation enough, if Garak had tried to convince him to. But then he's already been found out. He's already been found out; and he's only compounding his error, piling up one secretly torrid gesture on top of another, but—Tekeny Ghemor. Julian knows perfectly well why he was here on the station, and surely he must understand there is significance to hearing the confessions of Cardassians—

"And, I suppose, there was a certain self-indulgent pleasure in the illusion. That you did know," Garak clarifies, when Julian's eyebrows rise inquiringly. "That you'd simply chosen not to address it, not yet. That you were evaluating my motives. Permitting me tacitly to carry on, allowing me the opportunity to convince you."

Julian's frowning a little bit, now. "A—self-indulgent pleasure," he repeats. "To think I hadn't made up my mind about you, to think I needed to be talked around—"

"Sometimes you are so wonderfully Cardassian, my dear doctor," Garak tells him, "and sometimes you are frustratingly difficult to understand."

"Oh, I am, am I," Julian says, but it has the desired effect: he laughs after.

"Surely you grasp the merits of delayed gratification?"

"I suppose I do, but—five and a half years? Isn't that a little excessive?"

"You must understand, Doctor," Garak tries to explain, "that there are few things more—absorbing, and even sensual, to a Cardassian than concealing an answer. Than the implication that there is one, and that it's important, and that it must be won out, pried free. That it won't be given away for the asking; that it'll need to be elicited, and only the clever or exceptionally patient will have any hope of extracting it."

He falls silent, then, and Julian is still looking at him—brows drawn down a little, but no longer displeased or confused.

The expression on Julian's face, in point of fact, reminds Garak most of the times he's been required to deconstruct a literary technique or reference Julian's found particularly bewildering. An abstracted and tentatively dawning understanding.

And little wonder, really. It isn't as though he's going to put any of this theoretical knowledge into practice. He's so often been intrigued by Garak's own secrets, Garak's own hidden answers—but it's never carried romantic overtones, not to him, and there's no reason why it should start to now.

"So you're telling me," Julian says at last, "that all this time, I've been stringing you along like some kind of—exceptionally well-hydrated Cardassian hussy."

At least he doesn't seem angry. "Hardly that, my dear doctor," Garak says, evenly, amiably. "You weren't entirely incorrect, I suppose; it could be thought of as something of a game, between me and myself, if perhaps in rather poor taste. You were caught in the middle."

Hardly even a lie, really, if you looked at it in the right light.

Julian goes quiet, turning this response over. And then he glances down at Garak's glass, sitting innocuously on the table. "And if reciprocating the act of drinking itself isn't the done thing, as you've said, then what is?"

"I beg your pardon?" A transparent stall for time, mortifyingly amateurish; but surely, surely, he isn't really endeavoring to ask—

"What should I have done," Julian repeats, "if I wanted you to know I was interested in return?"

Garak looks at him, and then away. "Forgive me, my dear doctor, but I fail to see the relevance of—"

But he's already too late. "I did it, didn't I?" Julian says, soft. "I've done it, every time. I accepted the cup back from you, and I drank from it. In the original context, it would have demonstrated my trust in you, my belief that you hadn't poisoned the glass yourself with something you'd deliberately developed a resistance to, or—or cracked a cyanide tooth in it, or whatever else. That you'd meant it, and in return that I believed the drink to be safe."

And that—surely that, at last, has rendered him entirely transparent before Julian's eyes, excruciatingly bare. Surely Julian now perceives the true degree to which he's indulged himself: the—cake. Isn't that what Terrans say? The having of it, in knowing that Julian hadn't given him an answer that counted, didn't even understand the question, that it remained yet to be asked; and yet the eating of it, too, in the brief incandescent moments where for a moment it was as though he'd been answered after all, and the answer were yes. Repeated endlessly, over and over, hopelessly greedy for the illusory comfort of it, whenever he felt tired or empty or alone—

Garak wets his lips, and makes himself look up again. "As I said, Doctor," he murmurs, very level. "Sometimes you are so wonderfully Cardassian."

And then, heart pounding, he lifts his hand from the table, allows it at last to close itself around his glass of kanar where Julian had set it down—lifts it to his mouth, and drinks from it.

He watches himself set it down again, and oh, he'd do anything not to have to look at Julian again, except at the same time there's nothing in the universe he wants more. His gaze feels dragged upward, inexplicably and helplessly compelled; and Julian—

Julian is staring at him. Reaching up to rub his mouth absently, tilting his head, half a shake. "All this time," he says, sounding bewildered, stunned. "I'd say I can't believe it, except it's you. All this time, and you—" He stops. He's—smiling. "Damn you, Garak," he says at last, voice startlingly normal, mild.

"Doctor," Garak says cautiously.

"Damn you," Julian repeats. "I didn't know. I didn't know," and then he's taken Garak's face in his hand, and leans down over the table, and kisses him.

Indelicate. A blunt instrument of a gesture. And—decidedly unambiguous.

"I'm sorry," Julian says, against Garak's mouth, and then kisses him again, brief and firm and unhesitating. "I'm sorry, that wasn't—I suppose I should have held onto that answer. That would have been the Cardassian thing to do, wouldn't it?"

"Ah," Garak hears himself say, "but you are not Cardassian, my dear. And I must concede there's something quite thrilling about being—answered—with such undeniable directness."

Julian grins at him, warm and very close, blindingly bright. "I'm glad you think so," he murmurs. His hands are still on Garak's face; he sighs a little through his nose, expression sobering—rubbing his thumbs along the lines of Garak's cheekbones, fingertips light against the scales along Garak's jaw. "Just tell me next time, all right? Just tell me."

Garak blinks at him. "Next time? Whatever do you mean? What else could I possibly be keeping from you, my dear?"

It comes out marvelously bland, no hint of the dreadful unwarranted giddiness filling him up from head to toe leaking into it, and he congratulates himself dimly on his own skill.

"I'm sure I have no idea," Julian says, very dry. But he doesn't move away, doesn't let go—he looks down at Garak, and there's something impossibly, immeasurably soft in his face, his eyes. Unearned, Garak has time to think, throat aching. Unearned, but then Garak's never been one to refuse a gift, however undeserved; so he stays still under Julian's hands, and lets Julian kiss him again.