Actions

Work Header

Under the Blind Moon

Chapter Text

Julian didn't know what to think. When he’d sent out his communiqué, he’d assumed the reply would be written in Garak’s typical cordial manner, and the fact the Cardassian had called him out on it in his response sent a wave of shame through his thin frame.

“Greetings from Cardassia, wish you were here” indeed.

At this point, he wasn’t even surprised that Garak had known enough of him to read between the lines of his, in hindsight, overly simplistic message. Julian’s tone was unmistakably formal and polite, his communication worded as something he might’ve written to a distant friend (one who rarely stayed in touch) and intended solely as means of maintaining a sense of contact. No wonder his plain and simple tailor friend reacted poorly – the letter he had penned had been overly impersonal; the manner and format of the response he had gotten made him feel like a scolded child.

Garak had always been inordinately good at that. What used to fill him with feelings of foolishness and inadequacy, even though his old friend could always moderate his chiding with a tactful dose of stern yet affectionate reproach, now engulfed him with an oppressing weight of utter, humiliating shame.

What had he been thinking? Here he was, still on Deep Space 9, happily diverted by his relationship with Ezri, feeling more optimistic about his prospects and his future, and so damn certain of his reaffirmed place in the universe that he felt like extending a message to his absent not-quite-friend, almost as if no time had passed at all and they were back at the Replimat for one of their lunches; merrily discussing the station gossip and latest news.

He should have known.

The realization struck him like a blow to the gut. He had expected a reply more in tone with his own – a polite and friendly exchange of mostly meaningless pleasantries, yet what he had received in return was a stinging mixture of a cold shower and a slap to the face.

He had expected a detached and coolly polite news exchange from his spy friend’s lying fingers, crafted with the finest precision to come across as perfectly amiable and nothing more. He clutched the edge of the console and slumped over. His heart was beating an erratic staccato in his chest, making him painfully aware of every throbbing vein and muscle in his body.

The dust. The dead. The rubble and the utter devastation. Julian’s throat constricted painfully with internalized reproach. How could he have forgotten the reality? Cardassia lay in ruins. He knew that, of course, at least intellectually. It was finally dawning on him that while he was enjoying the way his life had turned out, the man he never fully got to know was being systematically dismantled by his present circumstances.

He had known Garak was a survivor and therefore had no doubt the ex-spy would have the affairs of his home planet well in hand.

How very wrong he was.

Julian collapsed into his chair and buried his face into his hands. The image, never properly witnessed, burned in his eyes like the biting, sand-choked wind of Cardassia. Just imagining all those starved people, wandering the ruined streets of their homeland listlessly, all those proud and perfectly poised Cardassians reduced to desperate animals scrounging through the rubble for food or their loved ones… Garak’s delivery was almost casual in some places. The brief and to the point mention of mass graves choked him. He had learned from the tailor about the value and beauty of subtext and needed no time at all to realize exactly what Garak had meant with that summary of events. It may have read as a simple report, but Julian knew better. Burial was deeply significant to Cardassians and the very notion of dumping the dead together en masse so… disgustingly irreverently, only served to illustrate the overwhelming sense of despair and turmoil the entire race had been thrown into.

He could hear Garak’s heart breaking anew every time the rebuilding process was mentioned. The image of the once meticulous and immaculately dressed man stuck in a tool shed, forced to keep the doors open to stave off his crippling claustrophobia, forced to face the rubble of the only home he’d ever known, staring him in the face so brazenly indifferent to his plight made Julian want to crumple.

It had occurred to him that Garak lied as easily as he breathed and that any part of his reply could be merely an elaborate construct designed to accomplish some nefarious goal of his, but the openness of the delivery and the delicate contents had him shaking his head to dispel the awful thought. Why would Garak fabricate so much raw pain, where a simple: “Please, come to Cardassia” would have served? A bitter chuckle emerged past his constricted throat as he realized his friend would never be quite so obvious, yet…

It all felt too real, too visceral to be anything other than the cruel, unvarnished truth.

He didn’t even notice he had started rocking back and forth in his chair until he wondered why he felt so cold. Rising to his feet abruptly, he all but sprinted to the bathroom where he bowled over the toilet and heaved until his throat was on fire and his mouth tasted like bile.

The reflection he witnessed in the mirror was rumpled, wide-eyed and bone-weary, covered in a thin sheen of glistening sweat, trembling chin mottled with sick grotesquely displaying his shame.

I’m a bad friend. Julian thought in merciless recrimination.

He’d sent Garak such an inane message, not expecting much of a reply beyond the perfunctory and had the gall to be upset over lack of reply for several months. Instead of turning on his vaunted augmented brain to look for logical reasons why the man wasn’t able to send out a reply, he had quite quickly settled on the easiest and laziest of them all – that his friend simply didn’t care enough.

While he was here, cheerfully and ignorantly and arrogantly living on, his old friend’s life was falling to pieces around him while the Cardassian watched impotently from the side-lines. Except that wasn’t true either, was it? Garak was in the thick of it all, trying to make some sense of the ruin his life had become, trying to rebuild his beloved Cardassia and bleeding in every sense of the word at the cruel mindlessness of it all.

This had all happened months ago.

And Julian wasn’t there.

It had never even crossed his mind.

With a whimper, he collapsed to the floor and wept.

Chapter Text

Julian was only half-listening.

Ezri’s soft and enthusiastic chattering over dinner was soothing, so he allowed himself to slip into his thoughts.

It all made perfect sense. In hindsight, of course, as all things were wont to do.

Garak’s words from the Dominion’s prison camp sprang to mind as vividly as the moment they were uttered:

I should never have come here. I should have let that monster die forgotten and alone... All my life I've done nothing but try to please that man. I let him mold me, let him turn me into a mirror image of himself, and how did he repay me? With exile. But I forgave him. And here, in the end, I thought maybe, just maybe, he could forgive me...“

Tolan mentioned something about Garak having the soul of a poet and Julian couldn’t help but agree.

Garak had an undeniable talent for storytelling, and what better medium than an epistolary memoir? The text was by no means overly verbose; it flowed quite nicely, creating an intriguing sense of suspense by switching between the distant past and the present, making you crave more of both narrative threads. He smiled softly as he remembered their lunches together, always so intellectually stimulating as they tore into their respective culture’s classics with excited abandon. At least on his part, that is. During their heated debates, Garak could be quite gleeful but always came across as poised. Julian had envied that type of collectedness once upon a time. Now, when he knew what lay behind it and how steep the price for obtaining it had been, his joy turned to ashes in his mouth.

It must have shown on his traitorous face, because Ezri’s gentle tone turned to worry.

“-lian, what’s wrong?”

He snapped out of his thoughts and focused on his girlfriend. Ezri was so sweet and he allowed himself a moment to indulge in her soft features and her gentle concern. He realized she was waiting for his reply, and he sighed before he could squash the urge to. The words tumbled from his lips.

“Oh, nothing. Rough day at work, is all.”

She offered him a sympathetic smile and squeezed his hand across the table. Her hand was soft and he trailed his gaze across her dainty spots. She was warm and comforting, an important characteristic for either a counselor or a girlfriend. He loved her and he was grateful for her support, but he didn’t wish to get into the discussion about his feelings. Especially considering this had absolutely nothing to do with her. Julian was a grown man; he could cope on his own.

“I’m sorry, Julian… Why don’t you tell me about it?”

He could spin an elaborate lie and for a brief moment he actually considered it. It would make Garak proud, no doubt, to see his often inept pupil try to emulate the master, but he couldn’t make himself lie to Ezri when she was so open and sincere with him.

“It’s utterly boring and I would rather relax and not think about it, is that ok?” He asked, looking at her pleadingly.

“Of course, Julian.” She smiled reassuringly. “Did I tell you Morn came to see me?”

Julian shook his head and went back to his meal, giving Ezri the appropriate responses as necessary while his brain returned to many tasks which always ran in the background. His research was going well and he considered several new avenues of approach to the latest development, already internally cataloging the materials he would need to obtain for it. Distantly, he realized he was eating significantly slower than was his custom. Garak would have been pleased.

His thoughts swirled away from research as his mind settled on parsing his friend’s epic. The story of a simple childhood, spent working dutifully for the good of the State, no matter the humble capacity; a gentler time already rife with signs of how it would all end. It was such a quintessentially Cardassian piece of literature it almost made him laugh out loud. It was almost like a transcript of one of their farcical trials, or an unknown, yet utterly predictable enigma tale.

He had known the identity of Garak’s father in advance, ever since that deliberately staged scene of Enabran Tain’s deathbed confession. He could still recall with perfect clarity the multi-layered shock he received just watching it all play out. Garak had so gently coaxed the truth from the dying man and Julian was left entirely blindsided by it. He had never expected actual truth from the ex-spy, and the way the old interrogator went about it, even though it was probably entirely for his benefit, left Julian feeling like he had ordered Tain be tortured. His manipulative friend had lied to his father on his deathbed, drawn out something painful and buried, and Julian couldn’t tell who was supposed to benefit from that. Did Garak merely want to be acknowledged by his father in the end, or did he feel he owed Julian some small measure of truth after years of lies? Perhaps it was both or none of the above. Garak’s motives have always been inscrutable. Despite the complicated tangle of emotions, Julian could still vividly recall the awe that pierced him as cleanly as a shot from a phaser; marvel at the fact Garak, a consummate liar, had allowed him to witness a moment of such vulnerability. It was a secret of such importance that it essentially served as the cornerstone of the Cardassian’s entire personality. Surely allowing Julian to witness it meant something.

Garak spoke of masks and humans taking everything at face value, and even though Julian yearned to argue against it with a passion, a small part of him chided himself for his hypocrisy.

Garak had lied to him, yet after this huge missive, so crassly direct for Cardassian standards, Julian felt like an absolute moron. How could he, after all this time, have the audacity to claim he was the wronged party? He had lied and obfuscated and misdirected just as much as Garak did. The fact he had done it out of self-preservation and fear of rejection used to make him feel justified. Now he couldn’t find any difference in their actions. Except Garak had done it for Cardassia, and Julian just wanted to cover his own arse; potentially also saving his family in the process. Wasn’t that also a Cardassian notion? Do it for family?

He knew how the story was going to end, but for the first time in his life, he could see the beauty in the concept Garak had tried to teach him so long ago. Just because the ending was known, and the guilty parties identified, didn’t mean the journey to that conclusion wasn’t worthy of being explored.

How fitting that the only way he could have learned to appreciate Cardassian literature was to have it pre-chewed for him by his unofficial mentor. Garak could have been a great writer, as popular as Preloc or Shoggoth, had he not been molded from birth into a perfect unfeeling scalpel, a tool in the service of the State. Were they truly so different in the end? Garak didn’t seem to think so. Despite his barbs on account of Julian’s genetic enhancements, it appeared the old spy saw Julian as his own person. What did he call it? Ah, “arranged”. He was obviously trying to evoke a parallel between the two of them. In a way, they were both just victims of the hubris of their fathers.

Garak’s conflicted nature bled off the page and Julian felt like a heinous criminal for prying into his friend’s pain, no matter how freely it was offered.

Julian, who had always been fascinated by human emotion and tried so hard to develop his stunted emotional and social awareness, found himself stripped bare of all artifice and shallow perceptions in face of something so overwhelmingly real.

He could almost feel the confusion of a younger Garak, thrown into an institution designed to break him apart and reassemble him into something proficient, vicious and obedient. He felt the struggle the unprepared student faced as he stumbled under the oppressive weight of everyone’s never properly explained expectations.

That first day when an uncertain and still innocent Ten Lubak went to fetch the cleaning supplies read so clearly. They had punished him for showing up alone and Julian was almost completely certain that Garak would have been punished regardless, even if he had shown up with more squadmates. Julian could already imagine the harshness and biting words tearing into a confused, unguarded mind for daring to think safety lay in numbers and blaming him for cowardice.

Indeed, that test seemed perfectly designed to “teach” the students, no matter their choice. Their own miniature version of Kobayashi Maru.

It was sickening.

“Would you like some dessert, Julian?”

He blinked and smiled.

“Sure, some I’danian spice pudding would be nice.”

He watched the Trill take their plates to the replicator and observed dispassionately as they vanished.

He hadn’t eaten that particular dessert in a long time.

“So, how’s the I’danian spice pudding today?”

“What’s wrong with it?” Ezri asked, pointing in the direction of his plate with her chocolate-covered fork.

“How’s the spice pudding? Is that all you have to say for yourself? How can you just sit there and pretend the last ten days never happened?”

Garak was right. If Cardassians remembered everything they’d ever done during every moment they experienced in the present, it truly did approach the way Julian’s own mind worked. How did Garak know that?

“Oh, nothing’s wrong with it.” Julian said lightheartedly, giving her his most dashing smile. “I’m a bit full and am reconsidering having dessert, but it tastes so good I’ll eat it anyway!”

Ezri laughed at his antics and went back to her chocolate torte.

“If you are full, then I won’t offer you any of this decadent Delavian chocolate cake!”

Julian joined her amused, care-free laughter and agreed it was for the best he didn’t try any.

Especially since it reminded him of another individual with a fondness for Delavian chocolates.

Sentiment truly was the greatest weakness of all.

Chapter Text

Julian didn’t know what was wrong with him.

He’d wanted to ask Quark, but couldn’t allow the perceptive Ferengi to have that kind of leverage over him, so he’d lied through his teeth and bought a time slot at Holosuite 4, a whole evening’s worth; claiming he wished to program something himself for the fun of it.

He couldn’t risk anyone knowing about this. Let them think he was going to spend an evening with scantily-clad 20th century women dressed as a secret agent, or some other nonsense, despite him being in non-descript civilian clothes.

As the metal doors slid shut behind him, he got to work on a panel, busying himself with inputting the desired parameters. The ground beneath his feet turned into grass and brutalist monuments rose around the clearing, jutting against an alien sky. The temperature increased to 32°C, and an arid wind blew softly across his face. He frowned in concentration as he added details he wanted to the program, working in complete silence.

So, his Cardassian friend found his deeply furrowed brow odd. For a man of his age, anyway. Julian didn’t know what to make of that comment. Most of Garak’s writing made sense to him, even though he could tell there was so much left out. Occasionally, though, there would be a comment such as that one, which left him puzzled. Was it simply a curiosity of human physiognomy which prompted the observation, or was there more to it?

Julian refused to look too closely at the scene he was trying to recreate, wanting to take it all in at once, and only after it was done.

What scents were there, he wondered idly, trying to fool himself into believing he was truly on the planet in question, all the while knowing his imagination, though considerable would invariably fail to capture the reality of the place he so yearned to see. Probably because it had been bombed into oblivion. He wondered idly what was left of it anyhow and felt somewhat relieved that it didn’t matter how different his rendition was if there was nothing left to compare it against.

With a sigh, he stared at the floor, shuffling along until he saw a patch of different vegetation and sat down in front of it, only allowing his eyes to focus once he got comfortable on the ground.

The first thing he noticed was how alien the grass felt. It had a thicker membrane than the one at home and he knew exactly why that was. This grass had evolved to retain water better in its harsh desert environment. It wasn’t nearly as vibrant as the grass back in England. Nowhere near enough rain; he mused.

He looked up at the sky and noticed that the sun, even at noon, wasn’t as blinding as it would be back on Earth. Reedy clouds trailed across the sky, further obfuscating the muted star. The sensation was utterly strange – he had always equated light with heat, but here, such preconceived notions dissipated as the heat rose another degree. It was still far from the highest temperature Cardassia had to offer, but it was about the brightest it could get.

Garak had complained that lights were always too bright on the station. Now he could see why. This was alien to him but completely normal to Garak. This was the man’s home. His baseline.

Julian’s eyes took in the rigid magnificence of the monuments of the Tarlak Sector. Even an imagined version demanded his attention and respect. It was an affront to the more genteel sensibilities of utopian, 24th century Federation tastes, but he rather supposed that was normal. It was Cardassia.

There it was again, Julian could almost hear Garak’s amused, admonishing voice telling him off for equating Earth tastes to those of any of the other Federation planets, openly mocking the veiled colonialism his opinion demonstrated. The Cardassian always could dismantle any argument Julian presented. At first, it used to intimidate him, after a while it irritated him, only to permutate into a shame so deep Julian felt he could never be rid of it.

This was the place young Garak felt most at ease. Here, among the monuments, and a meticulously arranged public park his father… his spiritual father tended to with such reverent dedication. Julian allowed his eyes to go where he was most reluctant to allow them.

In front of him, well within reach, a patch of breathtaking flowers grew proudly. He imagined the gardener Tolan showing his painstakingly gained craft to the young man whose soul he wanted to save. Despite the heat, Julian trembled.

They truly were exquisite, Edosian orchids. So was their poison, if the botanical database was to be believed.

Unable to help himself, he reached for the flowers and caressed their thick petals. They were startlingly smooth to the touch, almost as if they had been polished. Even if he hadn’t known how dangerous they were, there was something about the configuration of the flower which almost made it look like an ornamental knife. Such a beautifully delicate flower.

He plucked a single bloom and brought it to his nose. It had a most subtle smell and he was half-tempted to actually taste it.

Garak would call him a fool, no doubt.

Garak wasn’t here, though.

Garak wasn’t there either. This place was no longer there.

Julian’s heart clenched when he remembered what happened to such parks in Earth’s history during times of war and utter devastation.

Was this place of beauty one of those mass graves now? Would they ever even try to turn it back into a place of solitude and contemplation? Did Garak miss it?

He must, Julian thought. It was devastating. This place held such personal significance to his plain and simple friend that he couldn’t imagine the man not feeling pain over it.

Julian was startled by the realization that he couldn’t imagine any place in his own past he would be so sad to see go. The only item of emotional value he possessed was Kukalaka, and since his parents insisted on moving around constantly, there never was a place he’d managed to grow roots. DS9 was the closest he ever got.

He looked at the orchids again.

These were Garak’s roots. They were a bond between a truly plain and simple gardener who tried his best to raise a child that wasn’t even his, all the while knowing he could hardly oppose a man like Tain. He felt sorry for Tolan, sorry that the man’s most treasured possession – his knowledge, had been used to assassinate someone down the line. The worst thing was, Julian could tell the gardener had known what Garak would do with the information but shared it anyways. Perhaps he had hoped his nephew would turn away from the path Enabran Tain had chosen. Too bad the path had been too well-trod by that point.

Julian had always wanted to solve the enigma of Elim Garak and wondered why the man would choose to simply hand over the keys to the kingdom to him, of all people.

The pages he was sent screamed of a deep and pervasive sense of loneliness and isolation that had been forced upon him. They spoke of a man who wanted, no, needed a connection to the world and people around him, but had been denied outright. Stripped of his emotions, needs and wants, it only made sense Garak would turn cold and hollow. Except... that wasn't quite true, was it? Even at his worst, Garak was never truly empty.

Julian blinked at the setting sun. The colors bloomed and exploded across the sky, taking his breath away. The intense indigo, crimson and magenta spread across the horizon, painting a vivid picture contrasted by the savage contours of the monuments. Julian stood up with a jolt and took off towards that mirage of a horizon. He ran and ran across the immaculately kept plain, past the obelisks and geometric monstrosities, dodging their elongating, grasping shadows until his legs gave way and he collapsed in front of a sculpture reminiscent of a crescent-shaped altar, reaching into the sky.

Darkness coalesced in front of him and he watched mesmerized as a pale moon slid across the alien, star-dappled sky, only to nest in the bowl shape of the monument in front of him.

It was the Blind Moon.

More than anything, he wanted to freeze the moon in its orbit, but that would break the illusion, and he couldn’t bear it.

This…

This was his friend’s beloved Cardassia.

Even this fleeting glimpse of its beauty rendered Julian speechless and incoherent.

His augmented brain deserted him. At any point, Julian could measure distances between objects, their circumference, weight, even likely chemical composition. He could always say what time it was on Earth, Andoria, Vulcan, Qo’noS, Bajor and a dozen other planets. Therefore, it stood to reason that he could calculate exactly what stardate it was on Cardassia, based solely on the configuration of its starry sky.

Except he couldn’t.

As he stared at the ghostly moon, dipping into the bowl of the gleaming white marble monument erected before his eyes, he felt as insignificant as a grain of sand floating on Cardassia’s winds.

While his mind receded like water flowing down the drain, his body was exploding with warmth. Tears welled in his eyes as he lay sprawled over the grass, his chest heaving with something indescribable and unknown; his eyes unblinking, riveted to the foreign sky above.

He lost all sense of time, all sense of self.

That was how Quark found him, hours later, staring into the ceiling. He let himself be shooed away and ignored the Ferengi proprietor’s musings on strange hu-mans.

How could he even begin to explain that it wasn’t the drab metal paneling and holo-emitters his eyes were seeing, but a vast Cardassian sky?

Chapter Text

Julian had always felt right in his infirmary.

It was his domain.

It may have not been the place he would have chosen for himself at fifteen, but it had become the centre of his world regardless.

He may have hated his parents for what they did to him, for all their meddling and their typical human desire to see their offspring excel in a prestigious field. It was such a cliché, yet he was forced to admit that he couldn’t imagine himself doing anything else.

Sure, tennis would have been fun, but medicine had become his raison d’ ê tre . He truly had no regrets. He may have had to grow into it, but it didn’t make it any less true.

His treacherous mind decided to allot a portion of his mental processes to the thought of a certain other person who had grown into his own version of parent-approved destiny.

Of course, his Cardassian friend’s choice of career ran almost entirely opposite to his own – where Julian had taken an oath to do no harm, the Obsidian Order operative had likely given a similar, albeit inverse oath, to do anything necessary for the good of his Empire.

Now, Julian had a far better idea about what Garak had asked forgiveness for, so long ago.

He had interrogated, tortured, killed and betrayed countless people for Tain, like a good little dog.

Like an obedient, well-oiled cog in a complex fascist regime.

“The missing pieces of the mosaic of Cardassian civilization.”

Julian wanted to be angry. Truly.

Only he would remember all the times Garak had unsubtly reminded him not to trust him. Julian had always known the tailor was an unapologetic liar and he could still remember the feeling of blind mammalian fear at their first encounter. With one glance, he’d known exactly what Garak was – a predator.

In the 24th century, humans liked to pretend that they’d evolved past their more primitive instincts, but one look at that smiling Cardassian face sent Julian’s fight or flight response into full red alert. No matter how unruffled and unbothered by the glib exchange he’d tried to appear; he had known deep in his bones that the man before him was dangerous.

In retrospect, it was a wonder their relationship had managed to survive the blind fright of that first meeting.

No, Julian was forced to admit to himself, it made a sick sort of sense. The impending danger had actually excited him back then. He had run to Ops like an overly excited puppy and blabbed enthusiastically, at length, to anyone that would listen.

He’d been fascinated.

Enthralled.

He shook his wandering thoughts away and focused on treating an engineer who stumbled into the infirmary with second-degree plasma burns. After administering a hypo for the pain, he started running a dermal regenerator over the patient’s burnt forearm. With professional detachment, he noticed she was rather young and quite attractive – fresh from school would be his guess. She had luscious black curls tied into an elaborate ponytail, with several wild tendrils framing her face. Her blue eyes twinkled at him, but he ignored her, choosing instead to focus on her injury.

Apologetic rambling filled the air as she began to explain how she came about her wounds. In a distant corner of his mind, he ran calculations about the temperature of the plasma needed to cause second degree burns, considered what gift to buy Ezri for her birthday, compared the shade of their hair, noticed there was something about his patient which vaguely reminded him of Ziyal and that the shade of her blue eyes was a touch too green; a touch too wrong.

He’d dismissed the engineer with a smile and a recommendation she be more careful in the future.

Once she was gone and the infirmary blissfully empty once more, he sat into his chair and took his PADD; opting to write up a report due tomorrow at 08:00 hours.

Something else was overdue, but he was staunchly ignoring it.

It’s not like he knew what to answer.

He was busy.

People could be busy and have no time to answer.

Garak’s damning words floated to the forefront of his mind.

“I know we have grown apart and that’s as it should be. We learn what we can from certain people, then we move on after we’ve taken what we need.”

Garak had taken Calyx’s deadly grace, Tolan’s knowledge and work ethic and was now likely attempting to learn something from Doctor Parmak as well.

Julian wondered what Garak had taken from him?

“When we learn nothing new about ourselves in a relationship that’s when the relationship is over. Or it’s over the moment we’re afraid to learn something new about ourselves.”

This line, more than any other in Garak’s sprawling narrative, had shaken him to his very core.

“But what I have been learning about myself…whatever it was inside me that was sparked and challenged when I first met you… is deeply connected to this story. I’m an unfinished man, Doctor, like a suit of clothes hanging on a display rack waiting for the final touches that may never come-“

The words gleamed with sincerity, shining in the darkness like the starry sky of Cardassia. It spoke to Julian of unfinished business.

Their friendship had never been quite close enough, the level of trust needed for it looming above them like an unmet prerequisite, stern and mocking and ever out of reach. He’d always assumed Garak was the one holding them back, but now knew better than to leave responsibility solely at the Cardassian’s door. After all, he was also the one with secrets.

Now, more than ever, Julian found himself empathizing with Garak. Their loneliness was comparable, both the self-imposed and the expected kind. They both longed to find a person they could connect with completely and honestly; and they both fell short.

Julian had Ezri, though. She was lovely, intelligent and insightful.

Who did Garak have? Had he found his Palandine? Was he reading too much into Garak’s developing friendship with Dr. Parmak?

And why did it matter anyway?

They had drifted apart. They both knew it, both acknowledged it. They both obviously felt it was for the best.

Except… for that niggling, insidious feeling in his mind that refused to go away. A dark thought, floating like a Pah’Wraith over his thoughts.

Damn that Cardassian attention to detail! Damn Garak and his infuriating fondness for subtext!

Damn the man for making him question something he had thought he’d managed to put to rest.

“I know we have grown apart and that’s as it should be.”

Plain and simple Garak had never been plain and simple. And if everything was true, especially the lies, then all was most definitely not as it should be.

Julian deduced that his evasive friend was trying to clear the air between them, likely finding it impossible to deal with bad air on all fronts.

He knew he should answer the man.

He owed it to him. Every quiver of his body told him so.

Except he just couldn’t.

Where would he even begin?

Chapter Text

Julian had taken Ezri to the arboretum for a date. It was the least he could do, after all the exhausting shifts they endured this week. They both deserved a break.

They strolled around the converted cargo bay and marveled over the lush foliage, towering trees, flowering snaking vines and various bushes in several stages of bloom.

It was a welcome oasis from the oppressive sterile environment of the station. He supposed Cardassians could hardly be called upon to produce comforting décor.

They stopped at a window which framed a stretch of glittering space beyond the pressurized walls of the station.

Ezri sighed contentedly and molded herself against his side. He draped an arm around her and held her close.

Mmm, this is wonderful.” She muttered in satisfaction and he voiced his agreement.

He wondered why this window suddenly seemed more beautiful than usual; it’s ribbed oval delicate and aesthetically pleasing. Distantly, he compared the station’s design to all the different kinds he’d seen over the years and startled when he realized just how drab Federation designs were in comparison to Deep Space 9. The Federation designs were so focused on practical and utilitarian that they looked alarmingly plain and banal in comparison to the original Cardassian design of Terok Nor, majestic with its delicate rings and elegantly curved pylons. Starbase 375 looked like a clumsy child’s toy in comparison.

It took him 2.3 seconds to orient himself and his eyes wandered surreptitiously to the upper left side of the window.

In that direction lay the star system housing Cardassia Prime.

He could feel Ezri shifting in his arms and he turned to look at her. Her lips were quirked up and she was looking at him expectantly. The blue of her eyes showed her feelings plainly and he allowed himself to fall into it.

He kissed her long and hard as stars burned in the background. They were ensconced in dense foliage, completely protected from view and he recalled secrets shared and bared under the pale moonlight.

Of all the stories, all the lies, he found it ironic that a love affair was the thing which had brought the enigmatic Cardassian to ruin and earned him an exile.

There was something tragically romantic in the notion of a most devout son and spy losing himself so completely to love.

He pulled Ezri closer, let his hands roam her skin, took in her shivers and swallowed her moans. This was his Palandine, wasn’t she?

Julian could hardly blame Garak, she sounded like a fine woman – passionate, competent, resolute. Also bold and wild enough to dissolve a hardened spy’s impenetrable shell by watering the seed she had planted while he was a mere boy.

It sounded like a love worth throwing everything away for. At least until life came knocking and showed you how foolish you were.

Time and experience made fools of even the wisest men and Julian had never felt particularly wise.

Ezri giggled.

“Julian, are you sure you want to do this here?”

Her tone implied embarrassment, but also a sense of eager curiosity. For a moment, it felt so familiar that he couldn’t help himself. With a laugh, he said:

“Look at you! Is that a glimpse of Jadzia or Curzon I see?”

Ezri blinked at him and blushed.

“I-“ She stammered endearingly: “I think I’d prefer we do this in our quarters.”

Julian smiled and gave her a last peck, taking her soft hand in his.

He turned his back on the window full of stars and ignored a pinprick of light which shone dimmer than the others, from the left upper corner of the viewport.

When they’d gotten to the room, he had turned out the lights and made love to her slowly.

Her eyes were just a shade too light.

A single shade.

He closed his eyes and knew exactly where that dim dot was, beyond the dark gray bulkhead.

Chapter Text

Julian wasn’t sure what had possessed him, but he took to monitoring all incoming traffic from Cardassian space.

The reports were not exactly encouraging.

There were news of several diseases spreading across the war ravaged colonies, reports of alarming lack of medical or indeed any kind of supplies, rumors of famine and laments over the destroyed infrastructure.

Of course, it wasn’t something Cardassians wanted advertized, but the unaffiliated freighter captains ferrying supplies to their destroyed homeworld all spoke of unimaginable squalor and terrible conditions.

Well, Garak had invited him to Cardassia, hadn’t he?

“Nothing would please me more. You’re always welcome, Doctor.”

That was the last line he had written.

The end of his self-proclaimed memoir offered a glimpse of a man who seemed more at ease, a man who started out with a plea for Julian to come heal a broken world, and ended on a proud note - inviting now a witness to show him his progress.

Julian looked at his life.

He was content here, he had Ezri and he had his research… Yet, he missed Miles. The Irishman had grown on him considerably over the years and his absence was keenly felt. He missed the darts, the holosuite adventures and the drinking until they both sang bawdy songs horribly out of tune.

He missed the captain, now gone, lost somewhere in time with his Prophets.

It was a horrible thing to think, but he missed Jadzia too, despite all her memories living on in his girlfriend; Ezri was not Jadzia. He loved her, sure, but theirs was not the friendship it had taken him years to build with the symbiont’s previous host.

Kira was still here, but they had never been particularly close, vestiges of his abrasive young self likely to blame for it.

He frowned. So many of his friends saw him as something to be improved back then. They’d all found him annoying and thought he talked too much, never failing to point out his unfortunate tendency to overshare.

Garak had been no different in that regard, Julian mused, for he too had done his best to change him. Funny thing was… Garak had been the first to give him a chance. Oh, he scolded Julian and ribbed him, but Julian had always felt the man did so with a kind of affectionate exasperation. Garak had always given him the impression, well… that he found Julian genuinely endearing.

He was my first friend. Julian thought. Why had he never noticed that before? Before there was Jadzia, or Miles or Kira There had been Garak.

Shame rose in his gut as he looked out into space from the Promenade.

He had repaid that friendship poorly.

And yet, the person Garak had chosen to lay his heart bare to was Julian.

It made him feel like the worst sort of ingrate.

Guilt gnawed at him from the inside as he looked in the direction where his friend waited for him.

Julian wanted to see Cardassia. He wished to see that vibrant sunset; to touch the Edosian orchids Elim had planted in his yard next to the rubble monuments. He wanted to see the man’s self-proclaimed totem. He wanted to join a meeting of the Oralian Way.

The image of playing children asking the tailor to mend the clothes they’d torn by climbing a tree or playing hide and seek was as alluring as a siren’s call.

He wanted to see what was left of the Tarlak sector.

He wanted to see the Blind Moon cradled by that marble monument.

He wanted to take a shuttle full of provisions, medical supplies and water purifiers and fly to Cardassia Prime, use most of his accumulated shore leave and stay until he was forced to leave.

He wanted to set up a field hospital in Garak’s garden.

But most of all, he wanted to see his friend’s familiar, ebullient smile.

Perhaps there, on a war-torn Cardassia, now rebuilding and ever industrious, he could finally find what he needed and ask his dear friend for forgiveness. There was an absolution only Garak could bestow and Julian felt its jagged edges keenly in his chest. He wasn’t sure exactly what he would say when he was face to face with the ex-spy.

I am sorry I forgot about you.

How trite. How true. How very awful. Eminently unsuitable and lacking any subtlety.

I am sorry it took me so long.

How maudlin and sentimental. It would offend him, surely.

I am sorry I never saw the truth.

Julian had never wanted to see it. The mystery was too alluring, even as it corroded the basis of a relationship that never got the nourishment it needed to flourish, never met experienced hands of a gardener capable of gently supporting its roots until they took.

You said you thought I would always give you a second chance, but now I find myself in need of one in return.

Julian stared mute and unblinking at the dim, red star in the distance.

He didn’t need the program in the holosuite anymore. It was saved on a data rod and safe in his pocket. He was half tempted to give it to Garak, but decided against it.

He didn’t need the artificial Cardassian sky anymore.

After all, he could see it every time he closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

“You’re taking leave on Cardassia Prime?!” Kira gaped at him in disbelief.

“Yes. I thought I’d use the opportunity to see how Garak is doing. We know the situation is grim from scattered reports, but I want to see for myself.”

“I suppose that is the reason why Quark was talking about aiding a humanitarian mission to Cardassia and grumbling about not exploiting a friend the way a good Ferengi would?”

Julian smiled sheepishly and rubbed his neck awkwardly.

“That’s it. He helped me assemble the supplies and acquire some portable generators, water purifiers and the like. I heard the lack of infrastructure was one of the biggest issues, I’m sure they could use any help they can get.”

Kira looked at him with narrowed eyes.

“Still, that’s a lot of trouble to go through for Garak.”

Julian felt his hackles rise.

“It’s not just Garak, Nerys! The diseases are rampant; they lack personnel, facilities and provisions! How can I just stand aside and do nothing?”

Kira rolled her eyes at his dramatics and spoke more soothingly.

“I just thought you’d want to take Ezri to Risa or something, not go play frontier medicine again.”

Julian sighed. She’d never let that go, would she? It was years ago!

Ezri knows. I even offered she come with me, but she said she’d rather stay here and take command courses. I think she’s tired of counseling.”

“With everyone still recovering from the war, I’m not surprised.” Kira said.

“Yeah.” Julian nodded.

“Still, two months leave, Julian? That seems like a lot to spend on such a dreary vacation spot.”

“After I use those up, I’ll have two weeks left over and I can take Ezri anywhere she wants to go.”

Kira laughed.

“I see that was the deciding factor, wasn’t it?” She quipped and grasped his shoulder playfully.

All he could think about was whether Garak would do the same when he saw him again.

“I don’t know why she puts up with you.” Kira laughed boisterously and Julian felt insulted. Why was it so hard for people to grasp that someone might genuinely like him as opposed to merely tolerating him? Was he so damaged, so awkward that people couldn’t see past it still?

“Must be my dashing good looks.” He fired back, noticing with disappointment the mirth on Kira’s face. Garak would have seen through his statement in a nanosecond.

That, at least, was something he could count on and look forward to.

“When does your transport leave?” Kira asked in a more sober tone.

“In an hour, I better swing by my quarters and grab my bag.”

“Good.” Kira said. “Oh, and say hi to Garak for me.”

Julian found himself giving her a significantly warmer smile at that.

“I’ll be sure to do that.”

Chapter Text

Kira had managed to surprise him a second time before he left; she’d arrived at the airlock with Ezri and allowed the Trill her goodbyes before handing him a sturdy black cylinder around a meter long, claiming it was a gift for Garak.

Julian was left perplexed and asked what it was. Kira shrugged and said:

“Something he might like. Tell him it’s delicate. And don’t open it! I want it to survive the transport, all right?”

Julian promised, embraced Ezri once last time, wished her good luck with her command courses and embarked the freighter after having waved to them both.

As he found a place to sit, he took care to gently put down his luggage.

By force of habit, he swiveled his head around and stared in the direction of the freighter’s bridge. He could triangulate the location of Cardassia’s home system blindfolded at this point. He wasn’t a religious man, but couldn’t fail to notice the coordinates seemed to have become his Mecca. Julian felt like a stubborn compass, always invariably pointing to true North. He sensed the ship undocking and then pulling away from the station. His eyes followed the spot as the ship reoriented itself to jump to warp.

Julian’s gut churned.

He hadn’t managed a single message. Deeply concerned that any further communiqué over subspace would come across as trite, he’d tried to convince himself that it didn’t matter, that once he got there, he would think of something. After all, he was no longer that tongue-tied, stammering young fool. Also, more importantly, Garak wanted to see him.

Julian wondered whether his prolonged silence might have been taken as betrayal.

Garak has had quite enough of it in his life. No matter how expected it was, no matter if he took it all in stride, betrayal shadowed him persistently and left an indelible mark.

First, the man had been betrayed by Tain (and Mila, let’s not forget her) then by his fellow students at the Bamarren Institute - One Charaban (Barkan bloody Lokar), even by his (not his at that point) Palandine. Pythas Lok, Dukat and then Tain again. Some humans still believed in the concept of karma and would gladly point out Elim Garak’s fate as completely deserved, but Julian just couldn’t see it that way.

So much of the memoir was written from a place of never acknowledged vulnerability.

Beneath that perfect Cardassian mask, lay something far more human than Julian ever could have suspected. Now he felt bad for ever having distanced himself from his first real friend.

The image of Garak’s training at the Pit entered his mind’s eye once more. The sweltering, oppressive heat which induced hallucinations, conjuring images of his parents and making him think he had imagined a beautiful woman stepping in from who-knows-where. Even exhausted, delirious with effort and pain, at the very edge of endurance, young Elim had felt drawn to her, like a moth to the flame.

Julian wondered whether the erosion of his physical and emotional barriers had enabled or merely hastened the process of falling in love with Palandine?

Yet another image rushed to fill the vacant space in his brain’s backlog of mental processes.

The constant comparisons between Julian and Parmak. Garak felt indebted to the man; that much was clear. The other doctor’s fondness for his old friend was obvious, if being addressed by first name was any indication.

Julian had never dared.

It was a piece of information he had been given by Tain, and since Garak had never volunteered it, Julian had jealously guarded it to himself. Even after he had heard it from the dying lips of the head of the Obsidian Order, he dared not use it. They hadn’t been that close anymore and it had felt inappropriate.

To feel jealous of the shared camaraderie between the two men was ridiculous. Parmak seemed like a good, compassionate man and Julian could hardly begrudge Garak a source of solid emotional support. Ezri was most certainly his.

It was obvious Garak was a man haunted and tortured by his past. Julian wondered idly whether the last lines written, so brimming with hope, were enough to dispel a lifetime of dreadful experiences.

The ex-spy spoke at length of the consequences their militaristic upbringing had wrought. He seemed no longer as apologetic, or as eager to find excuses for the system whose virtues he’d once so vehemently upheld and defended. The way he spoke of Ziyal’s murder and his understanding of Damar’s actions told volumes. He was a man changed, a man who had learned to forgive.

Perhaps that was who Elim had always been, underneath all the brainwashing and conditioning.

“I need to know someone forgives me.”

Julian’s forgiveness had been extorted by circumstances, because he wasn’t so callous as to deny a dying man his last wish.

Parmak’s forgiveness, on the other hand, was freely given. Even though Garak had interrogated him, making his life hell. How could such a thing be so easily forgiven? Was it simply because current circumstances allowed for nothing less?

How had Dr. Parmak put it?

“Poisonous pedagogy, Elim,” he replied. “We believe what we are taught.”

He had no idea what the man looked like, but he fancied he could imagine it well enough, stooped and sodden, dragging an unresponsive and weeping Garak back to his shed, cleaning and dressing him and making him tea.

No, Julian was not the first person Garak had allowed a glimpse into his nightmares. Nor would he be, he suspected, the last.

The words of Bamarren’s unyielding martial instructor floated in front of Julian’s eyes. Calyx had accused:

“You have no grip, no focus. How can you find your strength if you can’t hold your place? Living in your dreams is like living in exile.”

The implication was clear and it doubled as foreshadowing. Calyx’s words seemed prophetic, for Garak truly had lost his place in life because he dared dream.

It was no more cruel than the awful tortures and murders the spy would go on to commit, but Julian felt it in a more immediate sense.

There was, after all, more than one kind of exile.

Julian’s life had always been one of emotional exile. By necessity and by choice alike.

Just another similarity Garak must have intuited.

Julian was surprised anew by his friend’s uncanny astuteness. But therein lay their crucial difference: where Julian fell comically short, Garak excelled, despite being forced to quell his natural instincts in favor of those drilled into him.

Julian came to an arresting realization about himself at that moment. Jules hadn’t died in that cold facility; he was alive in him – that lack of emotional awareness he so despised about himself was something not even the surgeons and geneticists of Adigeon Prime could take away or overwrite. His social awkwardness and lack of introspection… was all that was left of Jules.

Julian had always considered his lack of emotional acuity a flaw but was slowly starting to realize that it was one of the few characteristics that actually defined him and gave him any sort of distinct personality.

He put a hand over his mouth and gasped.

Garak had seen it. He had noticed Jules.

Everyone else in his life tried to stifle that immature side of him, but Garak had been the only one to actually try to teach him and coax him into evolving on his own. Unbidden, his eyes welled with tears and he buried his face in his palms.

Miles’s comment to him after being replaced by a Changeling was that the thing he’d been supplanted by was easier to get along with. No matter how much he loved the Chief, the comment had cut to the quick. The thought of being so easily substituted and unnoticed burned.

But Garak had never made him feel unnoticed, a fact which made him so absurdly grateful he wanted to fall to his knees in the man’s garden, pelted by an unrelenting, sandy rain of Cardassia.

He wanted to be forgiven.

He wanted to be seen.

But most of all, he wanted a place that was welcoming to broken things.

Chapter Text

Julian awoke with a start, his eyes roving wildly around him to try and ascertain why the ship was suddenly rocking.

A crewman’s voice blared over the speaker system:

“We will land on Pullock V shortly and we’re stopping for two hours to take on cargo. Inbound passengers should get ready to disembark. If anyone else wishes to leave the transport to stretch their appendages, feel free, just don’t be late for take-off. Remember, we leave for Cardassia Prime at 15:00.”

Julian rubbed the sleep from his eyes and pondered the announcement as shuffling of other passengers filled the limited space. People drifted by in a poorly coordinated file, carrying and dragging their gear along. Making up his mind at last, he got up and stretched his long limbs.

Julian knew less than two hours on the surface were not very likely to teach him much, but since he doubted he would ever find a reason to set foot on this planet again, he felt it would be a waste not to at least have a look.

As he disembarked, he realized two things: It was bloody sweltering outside, and the infrastructure around him seemed surprisingly intact. The landing pad let out into a set of lowered ramps all fanning out in different directions. The area around him seemed a curious mixture of warehouses, various little establishments, and a sprawling market. He let his feet wander and took in the sights; this was a bustling port, teeming with people and goods and strange smells. He passed by a food stall selling some kind of spiny magenta-colored fruit and another, slightly larger metal stall where a portly Cardassian man was merrily roasting chunks of some unidentified type of meat and skewering them on a kind of dark-green reed. There was a line of Cardassian customers chatting away while waiting for their food and Julian was struck by the sheer normalcy of it all. If he’d had more time, he might have considered waiting in line for a chance to try it, but he realized he’d rather see more of the place in what little time he had.

Scattered about were little restaurants, likely the Cardassian equivalent of fast food, vibrant in color and smell. Raucous laughter filled the air and Julian felt slightly perplexed and more than a little foolish. Why did he imagine Cardassians were always invariably solemn and cold? Perhaps because the only examples he’d had were not truly representative of the race as a whole. Surely Garak and Dukat couldn’t pass for an average Cardassian. How could they?

The institutes trained their elite. Dukat had been a more public face, whereas Garak operated in the shadows, but they had both been high-profile individuals and as such likely had as much in common with an average Cardassian as a human high-ranking Starfleet officer would have with a simple florist.

As he passed by a stall laden with colorful fabrics, his feet ground to a halt irrespective of his wishes. A heavy burgundy cloth caught his eye. It was interwoven with a sleek geometric pattern and felt surprisingly yielding and soft to the touch, which belied its visually coarse texture. Julian knew almost nothing about textiles and lamented the fact he never bothered to ask Garak about it. Even as a proclaimed fashion disaster, he could tell the older Cardassian had a keen eye and a good sense for the trade.

“Oh, I can see our local specialty caught your eye!” An amiable, lilting voice snapped him out of his reverie. In the doorway of the small store next to the fabric-laden stall he’d been obliviously browsing, stood a young Cardassian woman. Julian guessed she was in her mid-twenties. Her shiny black hair lay pleated across her gently sloping shoulder ridges. Unhelpfully, his mind supplied the image of Palandine caressing her neck in front of young Elim and his throat dried. He’d never thought about it before, but… What if… Were the neck ridges…

“It’s a lovely fabric, but I am not quite sure it would match your complexion... Maybe something like this?” She reached for a lighter emerald fabric and unfurled it so it caught the light, shimmering enticingly with coppery accents.

Julian blinked stupidly, wondering how he should explain that he had no intention of buying anything when she giggled and teasingly inquired whether he’d stayed out in the sun too long.

Caught out, Julian found himself blushing. No, he did not spend the last minute pondering the sensitivity of Cardassian neck ridges, not at all. Gathering his wits, he answered with a gusty laugh.

“Uh, no. That’s not it. I just saw that fabric and it reminded me of a friend. He’s a tailor, you see and it seemed like a medium he’d enjoy working with.”

“Marvelous!” She clapped her hands and smiled. The corners of her eyes crinkled pleasantly and Julian was struck by how genuine she seemed.

“That would explain why you chose the color,” she nodded sagely. “I am guessing the gentleman in question has a cooler skin tone than you?”

Julian blinked and scratched his forearm bemusedly.

“Uh, I guess? He is Cardassian, after all.”

Her smile only grew more delighted at that (if at all possible).

“Oh! My father is also a tailor! I’m apprenticing under him! It’s rewarding work, especially with all these aliens around.” At his questioning look, she sputtered and gestured wildly with her hands.

“Oh, no, no, that’s not what I meant! We get a lot of traffic here now, especially with the supply lines being reestablished across the Union, and there are a lot of Federation types too, Ferengi as well – their fashions are so vibrant and rich - it’s a wonder to behold!”

Julian was unable to suppress an amused smile at her impassioned rambling. She was 100% genuine in her love for the subject and listening to her wax poetic about Andorian designs and Vulcan simplicity had Julian fondly remembering the way Garak had also been similarly passionate and single-minded about his love for Cardassian culture and art.

Perhaps a defining Cardassian characteristic was not argumentativeness in itself, but rather its root cause - passion. One that was carefully controlled and concealed in their public figures, but apparently not so in plain and simple cloth merchants.

She was effortlessly and disarmingly charming. He had a feeling his tailor friend would agree.

Once she ran out of steam she halted, took a deep breath and seemed slightly embarrassed by her outburst.

“Sorry about that,” she apologized. “My father says my tongue is as loose as a pack of wild riding hounds.”

“It’s quite alright,” Julian assured her. “It’s nice to see someone so enthusiastic about their work.”

She grinned widely at that and her embarrassment melted away.

“It’s good and honest work.” She proclaimed proudly. “It also makes people happy, and I think that’s very important.”

Julian found himself agreeing with her and said as much.

The girl stood straighter at that and tried to school her features into what he assumed was her salesman mask. He was forced to admit it was a very pleasant, open one.

“I am sure your friend could make something lovely with a bolt of that red wool damask you were looking at earlier.”

Julian sighed and admitted he hadn’t intended on buying anything and that he wasn’t even sure what they traded in here. The girl assured him they were flexible and took everything from gold-pressed latinum to bartering goods such as livestock. When he lamented his lack of livestock, she laughed and asked him what he had to trade.

If anyone had asked him later why he’d agreed to take one bolt of burgundy and emerald fabric each, he knew he’d be quite unable to explain.

All he knew, as he boarded his transport at 14:45 hours, was a feeling of warmth and hope burning in his heart, gut and step.

Chapter Text

Julian was very surprised when he realized how many of the passengers they'd picked up on Pullock V were Cardassian. In fact, the only passenger on the ship who wasn't Cardassian was him.

It shouldn't have been such a surprise, really. They were headed into the heart of Cardassian space and he supposed no alien in their right mind would go to Cardassia Prime nowadays unless they were part of the Federation relief effort or an extremely adventurous volunteer. Julian supposed he fell somewhere in the middle.

He had arranged the two bolts of fabric to be put with the rest of his cargo and reminded the captain (a somber looking Bolian by the name of Xam Qegit) to beam the crates at the coordinates Julian would send once he actually found his friend’s house in the ruins of the Paldar Sector.

He noticed the Cardassians were trying not to stare at him too obviously (the adult ones at least), but the few children aboard weren’t as successful at hiding their curiosity and unabashed interest.

“Mother, what’s that?” A little boy of about four years old asked, pointing straight at Julian.

The mother’s solemn grey eyes flickered to his face briefly and she seemed to hide her embarrassment behind a stern face.

“The proper question would be: Who is that, not what, son. And he is human, a Federation race.”

Julian schooled his face into utter seriousness, trying not to appear either offended or amused. Curiosity was strong though, and he found himself listening in and trying to watch from the corner of his eye.

“What is Federation, mother?”

Julian could hear the woman sigh. He’d be lying if he claimed her answer to the boy didn’t interest him. What did an average Cardassian think of the Federation? Did Garak’s opinion match with theirs? Did all Cardassians just see a sprawling Empire engaged in a never-ending quest for growth using a diplomacy-based expansion model to absorb countless planets without a drop of blood being shed? Julian supposed that might be frightening to some if they came from a society which hinged so heavily on propaganda and manipulation.

“The United Federation of Planets is like our Cardassian Union, except other races live there.”

“No Cardassians?” The boy looked at his mother in wide-eyed wonder.

“No, dear,” she said in clear exasperation. “No Cardassians there.”

“Why not?” The little one inquired in childish bewilderment.

The woman let out a long suffering sigh and said:

Elim, you are too inquisitive today. Settle down and let me rest, we’ll have a lot of work to do once we land on Prime.”

The boy shut up obediently and plopped to the floor, where he proceeded to jab his little fingers on a Cardassian PADD, likely playing some age-appropriate game.

Julian was left gobsmacked.

It wasn’t even the tired mother’s mild explanation that had his mind spinning, although Julian was sure it was a contributing factor. Too many pre-conceived notions were crumbling around his ears today.

First it was the unexpectedly friendly cloth peddler who left him refreshed and invigorated and now there was someone who didn’t outright demonize the political system he hailed from. All that aside, here he was, in a transport full of Cardassians and there was hardly a hostile look – merely weary travelers, going home.

And that little innocent boy who shared the name with a man who got taught all the wrong things.

What was it Tolan had said?

“Look at them. With young minds you can plant anything and it grows into ideas and beliefs.”

That day Garak spent with his uncle at Tarlak sector was significant.

Tolan had tried to reach Garak before it was too late, not realizing the futility of his efforts. Tain, Bamarren and Lokar had beaten him to it, molding Elim with sharp angles.

A simple touch on the shoulder from the man who had been his father (in all but genetic material) was of such import that Garak still remembered it vividly. Julian couldn’t imagine anything sadder than that.

And here sat a little boy called Elim who seemed to have a mother with a better head on her shoulders. If he were religious, he would pray the fates or gods be kind to the child; kinder than they had been to his namesake.

Julian remembered being surprised to read that Mila had been so ambitious. He could understand that a mother would want her child to get ahead in the world; after all, it was exactly what his parents had done. It rankled that it always seemed to be at the child’s expense. Mila had wanted her son to rise above the service class and attain a higher status. What she failed to understand was that Garak would have been much happier to stay a gardener and tend to the public spaces of Tarlak Sector.

That tailor’s daughter seemed happy with her job.

Tolan had seemed equally fulfilled and proud of his.

Garak’s job only ever brought him pain. Julian was ashamed that he failed to notice something so vital.

How many other things had managed to slip by him over the years? What other nuances remained stubbornly out of reach because he failed to pay attention?

What else did he miss?

“So much of what we see and hear is not the truth of any given situation; sometimes it’s necessary to close the eyes and be still, to extend our awareness beyond what we’ve been conditioned to believe is our field of sensory operation. Only then can we learn the patience to trust that all the information that we need will come to us.”

Could it be so simple?

Julian willed his senses to sharpen and looked around. He allowed his mind to abandon all thought of future research, all analyses of Garak’s letter, all lingering reflections on societal perceptions and let it be filled entirely by the information hidden in his surroundings.

His mind worked the incoming sensory data with frightening speed, calculating the air composition and noting the oxygen levels were on the lower end of recommended, but not low enough to cause any problems yet. There were 27 Cardassians in the passenger section, little Elim with his parents (his father was quiet and withdrawn, lost somewhere in his own world and the mother was dozing off in her seat); another family with three children, one of them a tiny bundle in his father’s arms and an assortment of loners, couples and what appeared to be an ancient Cardassian woman with the longest white hair he had ever seen who was currently admonishing her grand-daughter for braiding her hair wrong.

“You must smooth each strand, my dear. Not so willy-nilly. You’ll make me look as unkempt as a Targ!”

“And that would be such a shame, Grandma, if a Klingon mistook you for one and hunted you down.” The teenager sniped sarcastically in what Julian would characterize as typical teen behavior were it not for the gentle smile and the twinkle in the girl’s eye. She must love the old matriarch quite a bit, Julian mused. He also noted how the girl took the criticism to heart and slowed her movements, indeed smoothing every strand gently as she wove the silvery tresses into a sophisticated pattern. The delicate motions entranced him; the intricate movements of the girl’s nimble fingers interlacing the old woman’s flowing hair with such a reverent attention it commanded all of his focus. At certain points, the girl would take proffered hair ornaments from her grandmother’s wrinkled gray hands and secure a few sections of hair to the back of the old lady’s head. It continued like that for the better part of an hour and Julian noticed, with likely poorly concealed interest, that the teen’s arms and fingers were beginning to cramp, at least judging by the way she flexed her digits and had to raise her arms minutely; frowning at the way her body responded. Despite it all, even after more admonishments from the cantankerous madam, not once did she complain or even attempt to stop. Her hands worked tirelessly at the increasingly complicated coiffure she was constructing and Julian felt his respect for the girl grow.

It was such a seemingly banal thing, doing an old woman’s hair. But to this girl, it demanded her full attention and Julian marveled at the respect, patience and effort the young lady was pouring into the ritual. No, this definitely wasn’t a simple thing. His heart hammered in his chest as the child struggled to keep her attention on the last few stubborn strands of hair. The delicate plaiting was taking a toll and she was now biting her lower lip in unwavering concentration. If she were human, Julian was fairly certain she’d have been sweating profusely from the exertion. With rapt attention, he observed the thin, trembling fingers tucking and then pinning the last tiny plait in place.

“Fetch my mirror, dear.” The matron said and he could hear the girl’s neck pop softly as she leaned down to rummage in the bag. Once the object in question was wordlessly and obediently procured, the girl snapped a latch and what Julian had presumed to be an ornate copper-case housing the precious object, opened and unclasped into two matching mirrors. The teenager patiently handed one of them to her grandmother and propped the other one behind the elaborate hairdo unprompted. Julian wouldn’t be surprised if this was something the two did often.

The ancient Cardassian raised the mirror and in that moment Julian felt like he was watching a Hebitian queen.

“It’s acceptable, Kaya.” She said simply.

Julian was tempted to call the harridan something awful when he noticed the girl’s reaction.

Kaya’s eyes welled with tears which she tried to blink away and her entire face lit up with a look of such unmistakable pride it took Julian’s breath away. The same kind of pride was clearly mirrored in the subtly softening look in the grandmother’s eyes.

This covert exchange between the two would have completely passed beneath his notice even a mere day ago. He felt absurdly humbled and extremely privileged to have witnessed it.

“Don’t cry, silly girl. A woman should die with dignity. Have I not managed to teach you anything?”

Kaya wiped her tears away surreptitiously and straightened her back until she looked almost perfectly poised, but the crack in her voiced betrayed her strong emotion.

“Don’t be silly, Grandmother, you will outlive me by a century at least.”

The old woman let out a put-upon sigh and patted her granddaughter’s knee gently.

“Flattery might open many doors, my child, but there are some doors death closes quite definitively. You must make peace with that.”

“Grandma, I-Kaya choked on the words, tears spilling down her now openly anguished face.

“You are a competent young woman now, Kaya. Don’t forget that. I may be going back home to Prime to see the beauty of its sunrise one last time before life fails me and I am buried where I belong, but you will get an opportunity there to pursue your dream. Our home planet has lost so many people they need every last able-bodied and astute individual to help them rebuild a society all Cardassians can be proud of. Your status will matter not a whit in such circumstances.”

The girl closed her eyes in an effort to stop them from leaking and buried her face into the old woman’s chest. He averted his eyes from the sight, leaving them a modicum of privacy and wondered what issues of status worried the girl.

Was she service class, or was it a question of being orphaned once her grandmother died? Not for the first time, Julian lamented the lack of information available on the subject and cursed himself for not asking Garak more when he had the chance. All those years and he never bothered asking about these things, choosing rather to read the books his friend recommended in the most superficial manner possible. What an unmitigated idiot he’d been.

He distracted himself from the two women whose conversation dropped into almost entirely inaudible murmurs by watching other passengers.

There was a woman around Garak’s age, poring over a PADD and staunchly ignoring everyone around her. She might be going to Cardassia Prime on business. Research of some kind? She traveled very light from what he could see.

His eyes flickered over to little Elim who was now wandering around, obviously bored. The child was very inquisitive from what Julian could gather and he felt his face stretch into a fond smile. It had never occurred to him that Cardassians had their own popular first names and that there was bound to be people sharing the same one. Julian was not perhaps the most common of human names, but it wasn’t exactly exotic either. He wondered idly where on the spectrum from very common to exotic Garak’s first name fell.

He had no idea what it meant, but he concluded it was a nice name. It sounded… gentle, somehow.

His gaze wandered to a young couple who seemed quite taken with one another and chose to listen in on their conversation. They were speaking in hushed tones and he guessed other Cardassians couldn’t hear them, but his enhanced senses allowed him to overhear every word.

Crin, you should stop worrying so much. The admission process must have changed; the docents at the Art Institute would have to be fools not to take you.”

The young woman’s voice was impassioned and fierce, but her companion shook his head.

Cardassia Prime needs builders, doctors and farmers, not artists.”

“That’s not true! It is in times like these we need artists the most - to bridge the gap between unimaginable horror and an uncertain future!”

Eja, stop living in dreams… You grew up privileged; you are used to having opportunities a service man like me could never even begin to imagine. Before the war, no one in their right mind would sponsor a sewage maintenance worker’s son for anything! And now…”

“Now we at least have the chance. Without the war… we never could have gotten enjoined.”

Her voice was a curious mixture of heartbreak and hope.

Crin spoke softly, his voice full of admiration and respect.

“I never would have wished something so terrible to befall your family. I was content to watch you from afar.”

The refined young lady was quiet for a long moment and then leaned her forehead against his in a gentle and intimate gesture. He had soft features for a Cardassian and Julian noted that the young man’s ridges weren’t as pronounced as he would expect for a fully grown male of his species. Perhaps he still had to grow into them.

Eja gave a broken little laugh and murmured softly:

“Losing everyone in the bombardment wasn’t what I’d have wanted for myself either… It was mere luck I was away from Prime when it happened. I was told there’s nothing left of the house… You will go with me to Coranum, won’t you? As the sole survivor, I am entitled to the rubble. Maybe something survived… If the looters haven’t gotten to it first, that is.” She finished bitterly.

Crin looked at her solemnly, like a man vowing to do everything asked of him, no matter how impossible. His gentle brown eyes burned with determination.

Julian watched him offer his open palm in a familiar gesture Garak and Ziyal used to perform. Eja aligned her own palm with his and Crin repeated the gesture with his other hand. The girl looked at her beloved and her face was a web of complexity. Once both of their palms were aligned on either side, Julian noted curiously that Crin interlocked his fingers with Eja’s and after a breathless moment, she responded in kind, grasping his hand firmly. A breathless little gasp escaped her and the gesture was repeated with the other hand.

“I offer you my hearth and home.” She murmured earnestly, almost like she was giving an oath.

Crin’s eyes blazed in the half-light and his voice turned firm and unwavering as he responded with:

“I offer you my blood and bone.”

Eja looked at him like he was the most important thing in existence and Julian assumed it was so.

“I give you the softness of my skirts.” She continued, her voice more fervent than before.

“And I give you my grain.” Crin promised, his voice aquiver with something close to uncertainty.

“I promise to grow your roots.” Her voice vibrated with passion.

“And I promise life-giving rain.” Crin finished breathlessly.

Eja seemed to be blinking away tears and brought her forehead back to his, breathing deeply.

Whatever that little ritual had been, Julian was certain it was over. The pair breathed softly, their eyes closed, their fingers still twined and Julian could swear their heartbeats were perfectly synchronized as well.

It was obviously terribly romantic. He only wished he knew what it meant. For a race so obsessed with meticulous record-keeping, they seemed equally and frustratingly meticulous about keeping said records out of alien hands. What Julian wouldn’t give for a book on Cardassian customs!

Julian was certain that a lot of the nuance and beauty of the lovers’ speech was lost in the process of translation and he wished he could take back time so he’d get the opportunity to hear it in its unspoiled form.

Taken by his idea, he turned his universal translator off and immersed himself in the harsh vocalizations of Kardassi that surrounded him.

He could no longer rely on words to give him crucial context, but he kept watching and listening anyways. There was a unique cadence to it, he could tell. Pity the language in its native form sounded quite challenging for a human vocal apparatus to produce. He wondered if greeting Garak in his native tongue would prompt one of the man’s rare impressed looks.

Julian felt compelled to at least try.

Chapter Text

At the first blare of the ship's internal comm system, Julian switched his translator back on.

“We’ve been cleared for landing on Cardassia Prime and should touch ground in approximately fifteen minutes. All cargo delivery shall be dealt with as previously arranged. Thank you for your patronage and stay safe.”

Julian stood and popped his neck and shoulders to which he received some alarmed looks, but he paid them little mind. He could safely say he wasn’t the most liked person on board. While there haven’t been any incidents and he’d been left to his devices, the business-like lady from before was scrutinizing him as if he were a particularly disgusting specimen, and one of the burlier men was being terribly unsubtle with his glares. Julian wondered what the problem was. Was it truly just xenophobia? Or was it a more general kind of distrust towards people whose intentions were unknown? Would he be equally untrusting if he were in their shoes? Julian didn’t know. At least no one had been openly hostile, verbal or otherwise.

Anyhow, a strange play was unfolding in front of his eyes and he noticed the Cardassians moving in concert as if according to an unspoken rule. The ancient woman with blindingly white hair (and a wonderfully stylish updo) was unquestioningly allowed to go first. She seemed satisfied by the looks of deferral and everyone else’s respectful nods.

They weren’t nods exactly, more like deliberate inclinations of their faces downwards, coupled with averting their eyes to the ground.

It was a dance of deep respect; executed flawlessly by everyone in the group, including the children. For a moment, Julian thought she must be someone quite important, only to remember a very old conversation with Garak. It had been a few days before his thirtieth birthday. He’d been complaining about his age to a bemused Elim, who didn’t understand his childish grousing.

“I wasn’t aware that humans saw growing old as a negative experience. On Cardassia, advanced age is seen as a sign of power, dignity.”

At the time, he’d dismissed Garak’s words for empty platitudes, but the curious way his lunch companion emphasized that last word now gave him pause. On Cardassia, elders obviously enjoyed immense respect. He wondered what age a Cardassian had to be to receive this kind of treatment.

Was Elim now in a category which would afford him such regard?

How old was his friend anyway? Julian had always assumed Garak had over a decade on him, but whether it was a fifteen, twenty or twenty-five year difference, he couldn’t safely say. It cast every interaction they’d ever had into an interesting light. Julian was aware he had the unfortunate tendency to come across as a bit of a brat, but Garak never seemed to mind it overly much. Perhaps such irreverent behavior amused him.

Garak had been quite brazen at their first meeting, hadn’t he? Taking the reins of the conversation and guiding it along despite Julian’s bumbling efforts to steer it in a different direction. As a matter of fact, looking back on that first interaction, Julian was slightly mortified by his inelegant performance. He’d been so wrong-footed, so tongue-tied and so terribly nervous.

And those damned hands on his shoulders. What the hell had that been about? Julian assumed it was just the spy’s tactic to keep him uncomfortable and off-balance. He chuckled to himself. It had only half worked, hadn’t it?

How would that gesture read to a Cardassian? Would it be demeaning? Mocking? Provocative?

Julian swallowed thickly.

The people around him were clustering and clutching their children, spouses or possessions as they waited for the ship to touch down. This file was almost suspiciously orderly and he noted that a small hierarchy had crystallized before him. The old woman stood closest to the exit, supported by her teenage granddaughter who also carried their luggage. Behind them stood the officious and unpleasant lady who’d been scrutinizing him earlier, immediately after her the couple with several children and the baby, then Elim and his tired parents, followed by a smattering of couples interspersed by loners and the two young lovers, Eja and Crin, stood side by side at the very end of the file. Assuming being human (or any other form of alien) was the lowest one could get in the pecking order, he didn’t even bother trying to cut in.

After all, when in Rome…

He took his duffle bag, slung the mysterious black cylinder over his shoulder and strode past a third of the line to stand patiently behind the young couple.

The young man’s eyes widened in surprise. Julian wondered what crucial social context must have eluded him this time when the soft-featured Cardassian spoke:

“Do you wish to precede me, sir?”

Eja looked over her shoulder crossly and nearly hissed at her partner.

“What are you saying, beloved? He is not Cardassian!”

Crin merely looked at her soothingly and explained:

“That may be so, but he is a Starfleet officer – a soldier. He may be an alien, but he still outranks me. Come to think of it, he outranks most people in here. They just didn’t bother pointing it out to him because they think he’s-“

“There’s no need to point out anything, Crin! He’s not one of us.”

Julian schooled his face into a mask of benevolent politeness. The young lady’s upbringing was really showing. In love with a service man or not, her opinions could hardly all be fully progressive.

“On my home planet, Earth, we consider it polite to wait at the end of the line once it has been formed. Of course, there can be exceptions made for pregnant women or the elderly, but it’s essentially a first-come-first-served kind of deal. We make absolutely no distinction according to gender or class.”

Eja looked utterly scandalized, but her partner seemed equal parts curious and amazed.

Julian gave him a mellow smile.

“How do you get anything done then?” Eja asked skeptically.

“Politely and respectfully towards everyone.” Julian said simply.

Eja narrowed her eyes at him and asked haughtily:

“Even criminals?”

Julian wondered what she was trying to accomplish. Crime was severely punished on Cardassia, everyone knew that. He sighed.

“Yes, even criminals. At least we try to.”

“Whatever for?” The young woman’s eyes widened in disbelief.

“Experience has taught us that people respond better to being treated with respect than they do to being treated with disdain.”

Julian watched her mouth snap shut and her face close off. At once, she turned away from him and Crin’s soft gaze followed her. Despite her poorly concealed shock at his likely inflammatory statement, Julian was glad he’d voiced his opinion. Still, he wasn’t unsympathetic – it was just the way she was taught.

“I am sorry about that,” Crin offered apologetically. “You have to understand, this is a very difficult time for our people. You may find our sense of hospitality somewhat lacking in present circumstances. I hope you don’t take offense at my beloved’s words, she’d meant no disrespect.”

Eja hissed something about being needlessly servile at her lover, but he seemed to dismiss it with a gentle fondness.

“Regardless, my name is Crin Pem. May I ask for yours?”

Such politeness perplexed Julian. A son of a sewage maintenance worker seemed about the lowest on the totem pole of Cardassian complex societal hierarchy and Julian wondered whether that meant he had to be unfailingly polite to everyone because of it. First stirs of pity gripped at his heart and he felt such a kind man deserved a chance to get accepted to whatever Institute he wished.

“It’s Julian Bashir, I am a doctor.” He offered pleasantly.

Crin’s eyes lit up and a most endearing smile blossomed on his smooth gray face.

“Do you hear that, Eja? A doctor! Are you staying on Cardassia to help in one of the hospitals?”

The boy’s sincere enthusiasm was so disarming that Julian couldn’t help but laugh in capitulation.

“I am bringing some supplies with me to aid the relief effort. I’m afraid it’s unofficial and at my initiative, which means it’s sadly limited in scope, but I am hoping it will provide at least some small measure of comfort to those it reaches. I didn’t ask ahead about work in a hospital, but I wouldn’t be opposed to volunteering for awhile. I can certainly open a small field hospital somewhere if it’s needed.”

Crin’s gaze revealed naked admiration, but it was Eja’s wavering little voice that pierced him next.

“Why would a random human wish to help Cardassia?” There was a measure of weary accusation to her tone, but it was tinged with disbelief.

Julian looked at her softly.

“Because I am a doctor. I cannot stand idly by and ignore such suffering; it would go against everything I believe in.”

“You could have gone to one of your Federation planets, like Betazed,” she scoffed. “Why Cardassia?”

Julian sighed wearily and relented; offering her the truth:

Betazed can get help from almost any Federation doctor, but I chose this planet because… a friend lives here. He invited me and I kindly accepted.”

“You have a Cardassian friend?” She looked at him incredulously, like he’d suddenly sprouted extra limbs.

Taking a page out of Garak’s book, he offered her the most dazzling smile from his bedside manner arsenal and said sweetly:

“Is that so hard to believe?”

She sputtered, but commented no further because the hissing sounds of the freighter’s airlocks releasing obviously brought her back to reality of their imminent disembarking.

He watched as some of them shielded their eyes from the glare of the late afternoon sun. Julian plodded along, waiting for everyone else to disembark first, which was done remarkably quickly and in an orderly fashion.

When his turn came, he gripped the straps of his luggage tightly and stepped out into the oppressive heat of Cardassia. The first lungful of air made him cough and he realized it must have been the dust. Slowing his breathing and making certain he only inhaled through his nose from now on, he attempted to get his bearings. What must have been a minor port once, now lay strewn about grotesquely. He looked towards the city and the skyline was… nonexistent, to put it politely.

Every way he looked lay complete devastation: gutted buildings, charred land and hastily assembled dwellings stretched across the landscape.

Sadness filled his heart. This sight must have been devastating for Elim.

“Hey, you lost?”

Julian startled. The voice seemed awfully young.

“Yes, you, brownish skinny alien. You look like you need a guide.”

Julian blinked stupidly and turned right to the source of the casual insult and noticed a gangly boy of perhaps eight, staring up at him impatiently.

“Why do you think I need a guide?” Julian asked curiously.

The child shot him a look of utter annoyance and Julian has the impression the boy had concluded he was an idiot.

“Only first-comers loiter around so obviously.” The gangly creature rolled its dark eyes in exasperation.

Julian had no response to that.

“As I said, you obviously need a guide, so, first you’ll tell me where you want to go and then I’ll tell you how much it’ll cost you. All right?”

Julian huffed incredulously at the imperious manner of the diminutive Cardassian before him. He wasn’t sure what the kid was playing at, but then he remembered how bad the situation was for the people living here and he didn’t have the heart to refuse him.

“May I know your name before you take all my money?” Julian quipped.

He could swear the boy’s eye-ridge twitched and then his guide shrugged.

Rekat.”

“Nice to meet you, Rekat. My name is Julian.” He offered the boy a sincere smile.

Not that it made any difference. Rekat seemed to brush off his pleasantries as meaningless and pressed on:

“Where are you headed? And tell me you have something decent to trade in there. I don’t work for free, you know?”

Julian straightened and turned serious. Most of the supply crates held useful items, but the cargo wouldn’t be delivered until he found Garak’s coordinates and had it all beamed down. He pondered his options for a moment and decided he could spare a single package of Delavian chocolates; after all, he had three. He unzipped his bag and pulled out a package.

“I have some Delavian chocolates, if that’s worth anything to you.”

Julian swore he saw a flash of calculated greed in those little eyes and the boy seemed mollified.

“Everything is worth something to someone. I’ll take it. Now, where are you headed?”

“Uh, to a place in the Paldar sector.”

Rekat whistled and said:

“Which part? Depending on your answer, I might have to charge extra.”

Julian recognized the ploy for what it was and played along.

“Oh, it’s close to a kind of makeshift rubble memorial. Supposedly people go there to pray for their dead.”

Something seemed to click in the boy’s eyes and Julian assumed that meant Rekat knew exactly where to go.

“Shame.” The child spoke candidly. “That’s one of the safer places.”

Julian knew it might be an absurd thought, but he’d like to believe it was safe because Garak kept watch.

“Then there’s no problem, is there?”

Rekat shrugged again and said:

“Hope you got some water, you’ll need it. It will take us around three units of time to get there.”

Julian had half a dozen water packets in his duffle bag, along with chocolates, an energy bar and some light, wrinkle resistant clothing. Nestled in there was a shaver, a tricorder and a small medkit – he felt naked without one.

Julian offered one of the water satchels to his guide who took it with no words of thanks. Clean water must be a rare commodity on Cardassia at the moment.

“Follow me.” The boy commanded and promptly took off in the direction of the broken skyline.

Julian steeled himself and followed.

Chapter Text

Julian observed the filthy Cardassian child leading the way. He was certain he’d never seen any member of the species so disheveled or dusty. His clothes looked old and hung slightly on his narrow frame, but they appeared carefully mended. Julian hoped the boy had someone he could turn to and rely on – the source of those tidy patches, perhaps.

There was not a lot of foot traffic. Or any other kind of traffic, to be honest.

Every now and then, a skimmer would gleam somewhere in the distance, but the streets were mostly empty. The only activity he could see were small clusters of people busy rebuilding. It seemed like harsh, back-breaking work, but the Cardassians were all moving swiftly and efficiently with no complaints whatsoever. Their unity of motion and sense of purpose touched Julian. He felt… uplifted. There was a strong sense of solidarity in the local community. These people had roots, and no matter how harsh their land was, how unyielding the heat their sun gave off, they were doing their best to rebuild.

A lot of the main thoroughfares had been cleared of rubble, but the pavements were uneven, cracked and in places riddled with small craters. Ground vehicles would have a hard time getting over such terrain, and on foot, it was slow going.

His little guide would occasionally bark out directions and Julian did his best to follow. They meandered across the ravaged cityscape and the sights pulled at him. There were ghostly imprints of previous elegance, shimmering like dissolving holograms - superimposed against the wreckage of once meticulously designed buildings and public spaces. Cardassia had once been severe and rigid, yet there was beauty and elegance in its unyielding strength. His mind ran endless calculations, wove complex algorithms and reconstruction matrices and he could almost, almost see Cardassia as it was before the war.

Imposing and beautiful.

Austere and refined.

Garak’s home.

And perhaps, most of all…

Elim’s beating heart.

He ignored the stinging in his eyes, blaming the humid, blasting wind. Most of the tailor’s life had been an exercise in patience, self-effacement, and sacrifice for things that didn’t seem especially worth it. Things he didn’t even seem to want. Of course, Julian had no idea whether any of the assassinations or interrogations made a lasting impact on the welfare of the Cardassian people, but he supposed an operative had to truly believe in what they were doing, at least most of the time, or they’d go insane.

Julian shook his head. None of this mattered. It was all in the distant past. Those were the formative years; actions taken long ago nobody could take back or amend. Garak had chosen to move past it.

Was it only Julian still dredging it up and keeping the foul specter alive?

He didn’t want to be.

Garak had been grateful to him for reminding him of his purpose.

Garak had thanked him for giving him a life to live.

Julian wondered when he managed to forget the valuable life lesson he’d been taught by Lisa Cusak? The memory was more bitter than sweet. She’d been trapped on an L-class planet after the ship she commanded, the USS Olympia, crashed through a strange energy barrier, leaving her the sole survivor; slowly dying of carbon dioxide poisoning. The phenomenon of her transmissions being sent into the future and the Defiant’s responses managing to get to her in the past still felt like a miracle. She died hoping help was on the way. They were only three years and two months too late.

She had taught him to voice what he felt, to remind his friends he cared about them, even if he didn’t always show it. Especially because he rarely showed it.

Why had he not extended that courtesy to Garak, he wasn’t sure. Perhaps their friendship had grown too distant at that point. And here he was, making a pilgrimage across a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape. All the things he couldn’t say, couldn’t cheapen by writing them and sending them over subspace, he would carry with him to his final destination. He would accumulate dust in his hair, eyes, mouth, and clothes. He would perspire in the perpetual march, walking until his muscles seized and he felt every stretch of itchy skin, every extended tendon, and every protesting joint. He had to. He owed it to Garak.

“I’m an unfinished man, Doctor.”

They both were. Julian knew it.

Just another coincidence.

“I believe in coincidences. Coincidences happen every day. But I don’t trust coincidences.”

No, this trip was no coincidence. Did Garak know what an impact his missive would have? Did he calculate the odds for it in that brilliant head of his? Perhaps he already knew Julian was coming. Someone on DS9 could have tipped him off. What a waste of a good surprise that would be. Not to mention a waste of penitence.

Was this just self-castigation? Julian wasn’t sure. It didn’t feel self-destructive enough. He was getting something from this. There was an idea in his mind, a concept he couldn’t grasp. Sadly, it was still vague and unformed, leaving Julian blindly snatching at its penumbral edges. It proved stubbornly elusive, but could no longer pass unnoticed now that Julian knew it was there. There was something about Cardassia that drew out the unexplored, unvisited places in his mind.

Once again, his eyes found industrious individuals repairing some kind of machine in the ruins, and if they could make sense out of such chaos, perhaps there was hope for him yet.

Julian squeezed a gulp of water from a packet, attempting to soothe his raw throat. The heat was oppressive, it was around 38 degrees Celsius, with about 87% humidity in his estimation (give or take a percent or two). He thanked his ancestors for passing on genes and adaptations suitable for surviving desert conditions because he shuddered to think what state a Scandinavian would be in at this point. It wasn’t so much the heat, as it was humidity, though. Compared to the moderate 22°C at DS9, this was quite hellish.

Garak must love it. At least he would no longer be cold. That thought at least made Julian smile.

“We’re almost out of the Tarlak Sector; we should be there in about twenty metrics.”

Julian acknowledged his little guide’s words with a nod and followed. He debated asking Rekat about the Tarlak Grounds, but he wasn’t sure he had the energy to see the monuments now. He suspected the disappointment of watching them all crumbled away would be too much to bear in his current state. Besides, he had time.

The superior quality of the architecture was noticeable once they crossed into the Paldar Sector. The designs were more elaborate here, despite most of the buildings being in no state to show it. A lot of the houses were razed to the ground. The streets of Elim’s childhood were gone.

Julian sighed and pressed on.

Rekat took him around and through increasingly narrow passageways and Julian thought how ironic it would be if he got killed by falling masonry within a hundred meters of Garak’s home. Unable to suppress it, he chuckled to himself.

“What’s funny?” The boy asked suspiciously.

“Nothing.” Julian smiled. “I am simply looking forward to seeing my friend again.”

“Well, do you know how far from the memorial cairns this friend of yours lives?”

“Not far,” Julian assured. “I’ll know it when I see it.”

Rekat looked at him and grinned deviously.

“In that case, you won’t mind if I leave you there?”

Julian regarded the boy and smiled in bemusement.

“Why would I mind? That was the deal, wasn’t it?”

His little guide did the first unexpected thing then. He laughed. It was a sincere laugh, too, with closed eyes, belly clutching and everything.

Rekat was a good boy. Julian softened and forgot all about the pain in his shoulders and feet, and as such was quite unable to stop his hand from reaching out and ruffling the child’s hair.

With wide eyes, Rekat jumped away and cussed him out in something his translator must have found entirely too indecent to even attempt to convert into the Queen’s English.

“Not the hair, shitstain! Do you know how hard it is to keep it clean and tidy?! Not to mention how expensive the oil is! Don’t you know anything?”

Julian was surprised by the outburst, but he wasn’t offended. He knew Cardassians valued cleanliness, but saying that out loud in these circumstances would be in poor taste, so he allowed himself to be berated at length about his alienness and stupidity.

He tried, he really tried, but the more colorful the boy’s raving got, the more he felt his face contort and he started laughing like crazy. Deep, body-shuddering laughs too, ones that make you double over and tear up.

Locked in his little temper tantrum, Rekat grit his teeth and nearly growled out:

“Are you mocking me?”

Julian settled down and felt a sense of utter calm envelop him. Mock a child?

Oh, Elim. How could I ever do that?

“I apologize, Rekat. It was inconsiderate of me. Ruffling a child’s hair is considered a sign of affection where I’m from and I must have forgotten why I shouldn’t do it. Once again, I am sorry. I wasn’t mocking you, either.” Here, Julian let his voice drop lower and dipped his head down in what he hoped was a decent enough gesture of respect before he spoke once more:

“I just found it… nice when you laughed, that’s all.”

Rekat looked at him warily and dead-panned:

“You’re stupid.”

Julian snorted but accepted it with good grace.

His guide seemed at least partly mollified by his apology and huffed:

“Well, as soon as we round that corner over there, you’ll no longer be my responsibility, so I don’t care.”

Julian sensed there was something strange about that statement, so he asked the boy to elaborate.

Rekat rolled his eyes.

“Guides are responsible for the people they lead. If they are no good, people die.”

Julian narrowed his eyes.

“Who dies? Bad guides or bad customers?”

With a predatory flash of teeth, the tiny Cardassian explained with glee:

“Either. Both.”

Chapter Text

“Well, let’s get moving, the sun’s about to set and we’re almost there.” Rekat instructed.

Julian wiped his sweaty palms on his dusty uniform. He shouldn’t have worn it, he knew. He wasn’t here in any sort of official capacity and it could potentially send the wrong message, but he hadn’t wanted to ruin his civilian clothes. Starfleet uniforms were at least durable and resistant to most forms of environmental abuse. It was even doing an admirable job of keeping him cool in this heat, but he knew any kind of prolonged exposure to Cardassian climate would invariably put the poor thing through the wringer. Julian fervently hoped Garak wouldn’t complain about the smell since there was not much Julian could do. He had brought an antiperspirant, but it clearly wasn’t cut out for the job.

Rekat took him through the remains of a razed building and through a demolished doorway whose matching door was lying discarded in a pile of rubble nearby.

The boy came to a dead stop about a meter ahead and pointed a finger to his left.

“They’re right through there; you can see the edge of one of them from where I’m standing.”

Julian practically leaped to the spot and searched frantically for the promised marker. He thanked the boy with a distracted smile, handed him the box of chocolates and let his feet guide him to the indicated place.

Julian's heart was hammering in his chest and he could barely hear his little guide's parting words through the roaring of blood in his ears. Nothing penetrated the intense focus, and the crunch of mortar and dust underfoot barely registered. He glided ever closer to his destination like a man possessed. Where was it?

Where was the garden of Edosian Orchids; where was Tolan’s shed?

Once he rounded the bend, he found himself between towering piles of rubble jutting into the sky. With all the surrounding area reduced to dust, they stood a proud landmark. With trembling fingers, he touched the nearest one. Every stone, shard and bent piece of metal had passed through Elim’s calloused fingers.

Julian stood there, immobile, trying to catch his breath. The light around him was dimming and he tore his eyes from the monuments to take in the riot of strong colors painted across the sky by the setting sun.

He thought he had never seen anything half as beautiful just as fate conspired to prove him wrong.

For right there, in the chaotically resplendent light of the bleeding Cardassian sun; on his knees, with his back turned to him, sat a very familiar figure.

Julian watched utterly transfixed, drinking in the sight of his long-lost friend puttering around what looked like a flowerbed of achingly wonderful flowers. The backdrop of Tolan’s shed and surrounding ruins awash in a sea of crimson light stole what little breath he had left. The uncharacteristically thin figure pruned the plants and rearranged the soil around them efficiently.

Julian was struck with a powerful need to make sure it really was Garak, even though his mind was already supplying him with an endless stream of proof, from the shape of the exposed nape to the distance between the shoulders. His hair was longer, his clothes dustier but it was him. It could be no other.

The unconscious desire to eliminate the distance between them breathed motion into his recalcitrant limbs. He moved along a trajectory, his footfalls sure and measured despite his mind screaming faster, FASTER with each insufficient step.

He ground to a halt about ten meters away and willed his traitorous body to stifle the rising panic. Would Garak even want to see him? Julian stood there frozen, his body quivering with something inexplicable and all-consuming.

And when the warm, welcoming voice washed over his raw nerves like a soothing balm, he clutched his left forearm with bruising force to stop the trembling.

“You’re early, Doctor.”

Julian’s mind jumped into overdrive. He couldn’t help but analyze everything. Garak’s voice was lightly teasing, subtly pleased and so very welcoming. But how? How could he have been noticed? Garak’s back was still turned!

He stammered in shock.

“How… how did you know it was me?”

In the next second, he was nearly startled out of his skin as Garak’s head snapped back, sending the jet black strands of thick hair flying around his face. The gardener’s eyes were wide, his mouth was slack and Julian could barely process when or how the man managed to rise to his feet with such unnatural, rigid grace.

The expression on his dear friend’s face told him the truth, for once.

Nobody had notified Garak of his coming. Not even a practiced spy could fake a reaction of such complete surprise. The Cardassian had heard him approach but had no idea it was Julian. Regardless of that, he had been expecting someone; someone who came by frequently, if Garak’s relaxed state had been anything to go by.

Oh. That made sense. Julian thought with a sinking feeling in his gut.

He chuckled awkwardly and said;

“Wrong doctor, I’m afraid.”

Julian’s stomach felt like a pot of squirming gagh. Everything in the past few months had been leading up to this moment and now when it was finally upon him, Julian felt just as tongue-tied and incompetent as he’d been when they first met. The thought might have been endearing or comforting once upon a time, but now it made him feel inadequate. It cast into relief his immaturity and emphasized the depth of his incompetence.

He was no more than an Edosian Orchid cut off from its roots; kept beautiful by stasis, but essentially dead - prevented from decay solely by being stuck under glass. In that moment, Julian felt like a painting lacking the final brushstrokes; an android without a positronic brain, a suit of clothes left unfinished on the display rack…

He spread his arms impotently and managed a feeble:

“Surprise!”

He knew his smile was sour and uncertain and embarrassing, but had no strength or artifice left to modify it. It was so mortifying, that he would come all this way and still have nothing to say.

Think of Lisa. Julian chastised himself. Remember your lessons.

And then the sun set behind the horizon, plunging the world around him into crimson shadows. He had no time to take it all in, because the sun rose once more, pale gray and radiant, dispelling and banishing every shadow in his cluttered mind like a holy relic exorcizing a nest of screaming demons; purging a whole Hell’s worth.

Garak all but ran to his side and grabbed his shoulders, keeping him at elbow length, his face animated with warm surprise and the widest, most pleased smile Julian ever remembered seeing on the man. For the first time, he could see no artifice on the Cardassian’s face.

Julian shuddered in relief, his mind and body draining of struggle, for he was forgiven.

He was absolved.

With a choked sound, he collapsed into Elim’s arms and clung to him tightly.

I missed you . He thought. But that wasn’t what crossed his lips.

“It’s so good to see you, my friend.”

Chapter Text

Julian sagged against Garak's now thinner, but by no means any less sturdy frame. He sought comfort in the visually familiar yet physically never experienced feel of the body molded against him. His cheek was pressed against the raised neck ridges and he tried not to move, so as to not offend. The body against his was solid, cool and overwhelmingly real.

Julian breathed in deeply. Garak smelled like soil; rich and sweet and heady and it made his head spin.

All too soon for comfort, his friend disentangled them but remained close enough in his personal space that Julian could drink in every last subtle nuance of his expression.

“I am so pleased you came!” Again, the warmth and sincerity of the words wormed their way into Julian’s thrashing heart.

Feeling abashed all of a sudden, Julian dropped his gaze and felt his head inclining minutely. There was an overdue apology forming on his lips and he was determined to make it.

“I know it was unexpected, and that I’ve put it off for a frankly unacceptable amount of time, but I felt your letter deserved a proper response, one I could only make in person.”

Once their eyes met again, Garak was looking at him in curious assessment.

“I came to apologize,” Julian pressed on. “Your… missive gave me a lot to think about.”

There was no response forthcoming, save for the gentle nudging in the tailor’s eyes, bidding him to continue.

“To be honest,” Julian admitted sheepishly. “I am still mulling everything over and I felt that… I needed to come here.” He struggled with his words and agonized over the tangled concept resting malformed in his brain, but forced it out anyways.

“There’s something hidden in the words you sent me; a lesson I feel I need to learn, and one I intuit I’d been running from for most of my life. Compartmentalizing it away used to be easy, but…”

“My words shook something loose up there.” Garak offered knowingly.

Julian took the offered straw with the pathetic gratefulness of a desperate man and nodded.

“Yes. I need to be on Cardassia to grasp whatever it is that is eluding me.”

Garak beamed at him.

“And I am glad to be of service, dear Doctor. Whatever it is you seek here, I shall endeavor to assist you with.”

“Thank you, Garak.” Julian said, exhaling with unabashed relief.

His enigmatic friend grinned widely and a teasing little glint flickered in his joyful blue eyes.

“You may be several years too late to take in the sights, but there is still plenty left to see, if you wish. I’d like to share my Cardassia with you.”

The softness of that smile just about undid Julian in his already frail mental state. How could he voice the words rattling around in his head?

You already have. I have seen the Cardassia of your youth and I can no longer unsee it. It’s burned into my memory vividly, pushing aside every other glorious vista I’ve seen with a relentlessness of a beautifully invasive species.

Julian put his hand on Garak’s shoulder and gave it a small reassuring squeeze.

“Don’t worry, my friend. Even in its present state, Cardassia is breathtaking.”

Garak’s eye ridges furrowed slightly and Julian recognized a look of pleasant surprise mingled with pride gleaming in that gaze.

Julian took it in and felt his face respond with a relaxed smile brimming with fondness. He jolted awake and removed his hand as he remembered something important.

“Damn it, I forgot all about the gifts!” At Garak’s puzzled look, he laughed airily. “You didn’t honestly think I came here empty-handed, did you? That would be terribly rude!”

“Perish the thought!” Garak said dramatically, “Did you bring an extra-dimensional bag for it too, or do you travel lightly?”

The joke made Julian burst into a fit of liberating laughter.

“No, but I can show you a magic trick if you cover your ears for ten seconds?”

Garak’s face was a mask of “Dear Doctor, you and your shenanigans” and it only amused him further. Julian was delighted to see Garak comply with his wishes, albeit with the most exaggerated put upon face in history. Julian turned around and hit his communicator.

“Captain Qagit? This is Julian Bashir; do you copy?”

With a crackle, his communicator came to life and spewed a reply.

“I can hear you, Mr. Bashir. Have you reached the coordinates for the drop-off?”

“Yes.”

“Stand by, beaming down.”

Julian turned around so he could see Garak, who was still holding hands over his ears, but the image of indulgent placidity was quite ruined by one of his patented wide, closed-mouth smiles.

As the shimmer of the transport coalesced into a sizeable pile of crates on the cleared ground nearby, he theatrically gestured towards the metallic mound and said:

“Happy Birthday!”

Elim burst into delighted laughter and breathed out in amused huffs. The loveliness of the familiar configuration of his friend’s facial ridges stretching and rearranging to accommodate such clear joy made Julian feel better.

“Where is my cake?” Garak looked around suspiciously. “You’d better hope it survived the trip!”

Julian chortled.

“No cake, I’m afraid,” Julian offered his most insincere apologies. “I may have the next best thing though.”

He didn’t know what to give first, but he opted for the most logical choice currently presented. He unzipped his bag, rummaging around for his quarry and tried very hard not to grin at the avid look on Garak’s face.

“I have several things for you, first of all… these.” With a flourish, he held out the two packs of Delavian Chocolates.

Garak’s eyes widened in delight as he extended his arm to accept the gift of his favorite confections.

“Uh, “ Julian mumbled. “I apologize if they had… melted a little in transit. I have been traipsing across Cardassia City for about three hours now.”

Garak’s delight hadn’t dimmed one iota when he boomed:

“Then I shall drink them instead!”

Julian shook his head at Garak’s adorable antics.

“I also brought something else, but I’ll have to find the right crate; give me a moment.”

Garak nodded, but approached the crates in interest. Julian looked at him and quipped:

“Are you going to be looking over my shoulder into every crate until I find the right one?”

Garak nonchalantly fired back:

“You haven’t remembered which one you put it in? You are too young to be going senile already, my dear Doctor.”

Julian shook his head and approached the crates. He actually knew which one held the bolts; the fabric was laid across the water packets in a crate in the middle of one of the stacks. Why not make a little show of it? He’d have to show Garak what he brought sooner or later.

He popped open the first crate, knowing full well what he would find inside. It was a deliberate choice, because it was perfect for ribbing the Cardassian.

“Oh, not here it seems. These are Federation-issued field rations.”

Garak’s face scrunched up in distaste.

“You are lucky you opened with the chocolates.”

Julian snorted.

“Be grateful they are the superior version; these release all the nutrients needed to sustain the body for three days. But,” Here Julian opted for some theatrics of his own. “Just to prove to you I am not completely heartless, I took the liberty for bringing two extra crates full of my own version; which tastes significantly better.”

“How thoughtful of you!” Garak made a mock bow.

“Yes, I quite thought so myself.” Julian said deliberately smugly.

“Do you wish to see what else is there?” Julian inquired officiously, enjoying their little back and forth.

Garak made an elegant swish, opening his palms wide.

“By all means, Doctor. Do not hold me in suspense!”

The next fifteen minutes were spent in good-natured bickering as Julian kept opening crates, expressing his dismay over where he put Garak’s gift and the Cardassian putting his sharp tongue to good use. They pored over crates of preserved foodstuffs, some even Cardassian in origin and those drew a genuine little quirk of lips from his argumentative friend. The medical supplies were acknowledged with minimum fuss.

The first serious reaction came as Julian opened a crate of portable generators.

Garak’s eyes blazed as he looked at him with an expression bordering on newfound respect.

“How many are there?” His friend asked with dignified excitement.

“Twenty. I would have gotten more, but then I would have needed a bigger freighter. I wanted to bring more, but DS9 could only spare about five. I made a deal with Quark for the rest.”

“Don’t apologize.” Garak cut him off fervently and started pacing around. Julian knew immediately that the tailor’s industrious mind was already considering where these would do the most good.

“Do you know how useful these will be? Our power grid is mostly shot. First by sabotage and then in the Fire. These could power several hospitals across the city, industrial replicators needed to create vitally needed replacement parts, or feed thousands each day if we hooked it to one of the surviving public Replimat terminals… Have no doubt, Doctor; they will be put to good use.”

Julian flashed a reassuring little smile and said:

“Then these next few crates might come useful as well.”

“Why, do you have a portable sonic shower stashed in there?”

Julian let out a guffaw.

“No! But it might be the next best thing.” He offered as he snapped the lid off.

Garak all but peered into the massive crate like an overly excited child. His reaction was certainly one of unrestrained exuberance.

“An industrial grade water purifier!” Elim’s face brimming with the sheer potential for the use of such a machine reminded Julian of the kind of uncomplicated happiness boys experienced when they got a blinking toy model of a new starship.

“Why, Doctor, I could kiss you!”

Julian scoffed, but was unable to hide a blush at those words. All he managed to say was a grumbled:

“Oh, he says that only after he sees the purifier.”

Garak looked at him fondly and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Are you afraid it won’t compare to the other gift you prepared for me?” Julian’s startled eyes met his.

What gave Garak that uncanny ability to cut to the core of an issue with hardly a beat? Julian could only dream of being able to do such a thing. Calculations took no time at all, but matters of intuition and social custom often left him baffled.

“Whatever it is, I am sure I will like it.”

The reassurance felt strange coming from Garak. Strange, but not unwelcome. Julian dropped the pretense and walked over to the stack of crates he needed. He removed the top two crates with a grunt of effort and wiped his brow. He was sweaty and dusty and as such, couldn’t take any chances with the pristine cloth. Coming to a decision, he fished a sonic sanitizer from his kit and allowed the subtle vibrations to wash over his hands until they were clean. Once all the grime and sweat was gone and his skin felt tingly and refreshed, he gently removed the crate’s lid. At this point, he didn’t care how ridiculous he seemed and with a soft sigh, gently caressed the burgundy fabric. He barely heard Garak stir, when the man in question appeared beside him.

“Give me your hands, Elim.” He commanded, only to internally freeze. This wasn’t how he wanted it to go. Was it too soon? Too intimate? Too… undeserved? He couldn’t tell, but the words were out now and he couldn’t take them back.

When he dared look up at the Cardassian’s face, the man was regarding him strangely. There was no outward reaction, though. No quip, no admonishment, merely a mute acceptance and a pair of gray, weathered hands smudged with soil extended in his direction. Julian took the sanitizer and slowly ran the device over Garak’s hands until all the dust had fallen away. The tailor’s hands were coarser than he remembered, calloused and rough. For a moment, he considered using a dermal regenerator but thought better of it. He didn’t want to take all the evidence of the man’s hard work away. It would feel as if he was snatching away some hard-earned lesson, some crowning achievement. He settled for examining them for injuries visually, but there were none.

He supposed Parmak would have tended to any injuries if it were necessary.

Instead of dwelling on it any further, Julian reached into the crate, gently pulled out the bolt of rich burgundy cloth and chanced a look at Garak. The ex-spy’s face was inscrutable, solemn. A complicated emotion swirled in the intense blue of his gaze, but its meaning eluded Julian. Unaware of what was guiding his actions, he allowed the restrained, stunted part of himself to take the reins for once. Gently, he lowered the textile into Garak’s expecting arms and prayed his gesture would be well received. With difficulty, he spoke through a barrier in his throat.

“I saw this when I stopped over at Pullock V. I can’t really explain it; it just called out to me. When I saw it, it reminded me of you. I thought…” He swallowed thickly. “I thought you might like to make a suit for yourself out of it, if you had the time and the will, of course.” Julian was aware he was rambling, but he couldn’t stop. There was suddenly a torrent of words struggling to burst out of him and he listened to the feeling, allowing it to guide his actions.

“You know I am terrible at fashion, but… I could imagine you in this. I think it would suit you.”

Garak listened to his inelegant speech without a word, clearly absorbing everything the way a well trained operative would.

Julian’s gaze fluttered away, latching onto the emerald fabric he had ended up buying for himself on a whim. It seemed so… pretentious now. What had he hoped, that Garak had nothing better to do than sit around all day, making him clothes? The mere thought was absurd. Yet… as his eyes roved over the coppery filaments glinting in the deepening twilight, he was startled to realize the night was brighter than he expected. His eyes, wide in realization, found the night sky, glimmering away mysteriously above his oblivious head. Two moons shone brightly in the sky and a shiver passed him when a distant, soft pulsing of light glowed far off in the distance. He may have never seen them with his eyes before, but he recognized them all the same.

“The Taluvian Constellations…” The muttered, almost reverent comment was torn from his throat and he couldn’t look away. Their rhythmic dance of light was hypnotizing. Julian felt their unreachable mystery fill him, the way water filled the glass of a thirsty man, or the way a mother’s soft voice filled the dreams of her restless child. He spoke to the night sky, openly, brazenly.

“I bought the other bolt for myself. I know what you’re thinking, my plain and simple friend, “What an idiot, this Doctor Bashir.” And you are right, as you so often are, Garak. It seems redundant to realize so far into the game, that I never bothered coming to you for a suit, even though we both know it would undoubtedly be the best piece in my awfully clashing wardrobe. I was seized by a deep selfishness to relive a moment from my past I had scorned and ignored so unmindfully. I should have come to you sooner and allowed you to come up with something tasteful and appropriate, let your rich imagination drape me in something eye-catching and eye-opening. And in my sizeable and pervasive ignorance, I cannot even explain why I never bothered to commission something of that sort.”

Julian’s eyes drifted to Garak’s still, blue pools.

“What a waste, right?” Julian finished self-deprecatingly.

Garak’s eyes shone brightly in the gloom and his voice pierced the darkness around them.

“I’d be delighted to amend that, if you will let me.”

There was obviously some crucial subtext Julian was missing, but he was entirely too grateful in that moment to refuse the man anything.

“It’s all yours.” Julian said, deeply relieved to be acknowledged and understood.

Why was it only Garak who understood? Was it their shared sense of exile? Or was it the similarity with which they both alienated their true selves? They both seemed to have that in common, that insidious compartmentalizing mechanism, except Garak had always been using it to keep his desires and feelings at bay, while Julian used it to escape from the ever-present feeling of emptiness.

He didn’t feel empty now. Cardassia seemed to have what he needed. There was something in its sky, a hidden quality to its soil, an elusive characteristic shared by its people that tugged inexorably at an unused, rusted part of Julian that begged for attention.

“I’ll set up a perimeter alarm around these crates, at least until I arrange for a skimmer. If you have a detailed inventory, I will look it over and make appropriate arrangements. We should get these distributed as soon as possible, but it can wait a few hours. You should rest.”

Julian nodded. There was much to be done, and his unwelcome introspection could wait. He gently took the bolt of emerald fabric and deposited it on top of the one already laying in Garak’s arms. After another indecipherable look, he closed the crate and stalked after the retreating Cardassian.

Almost at the threshold of the tool shed, Garak stopped and turned around.

Julian felt at that moment, that it would be easier to discover the secret behind the pulses of the Taluvian Constellations than it would be to decipher the look in Elim’s eyes.

The Cardassian spoke quietly, with an unmatched dignity so ingrained in his race, his posture rigid.

“I offer you my hearth and home.”

Julian’s heart rate spiked.

Could he repeat the words Crin spoke to his beloved Eja? They seemed wildly inappropriate. And Julian didn’t wish to speak any untruths. He was tired of those.

What would Lisa say? Or Leeta? Or Miles? What would an honest person say?

The answer crystallized in his mind like a complex antidote formula. The truth. They would speak from their heart. Julian had to try and use his, no matter how stunted the poor thing was. His voice barely penetrated the thick black distance between them.

“Does this mean you forgive me?”

Julian felt a sense of complete relief when Garak’s face and posture softened.

“If this is something you need, I shall. I have not forgotten, you know.”

The shrewd gaze was a clear reminder of the scene that he’d been replaying in his mind several times over the past month. He had “forgiven” Garak a long time ago, and it seemed the man never forgot it. The idea was perplexing, frankly. Julian didn’t feel that his compassion deserved to be remembered or cherished half as gratefully. He wasn’t lying when he told his dying friend so long ago that he would have done it for anyone. Honestly, it was shameful that there had been a moment in his mind when he had contemplated withholding his forgiveness because he’d been angered and disappointed by Garak’s lies. The man lay on the hospital bed, fading fast and Julian had just decided to do the right thing. It had been nothing more than the polite, compassionate Doctor routine. It disgusted him now.

Back then, he’d been merely fond of Garak. The lies irritated him just as much as they appealed to him. Now, when he looked at the man, he was blown away by the differences he saw. Gone was the forced joviality, in its place stood an unapologetic Cardassian, unbowed and unmoved. For the first time, he seemed serious and any smile his face formed was free of its habitual artifice. It was both confusing and fascinating.

Julian followed the man into the shed and looked around. Even in the dark, he could tell the space had been cleared out as much as possible, likely to store only the bare essentials and create the maximum available amount of breathing space to accommodate Garak’s crippling claustrophobia.

“Have you made any sort of accommodations on Cardassia?” Garak asked with his back turned and placed the two bolts gently on a gray tarp covering what looked like an empty table. It was kind of hard to see in the darkness, but on the right, his enhanced eyesight discerned the contours of a workbench littered with tools and half-melted components. Obviously Garak had been hard at work, with likely limited success. In the right corner was a cabinet, housing a very rudimentary kitchen. Things were about as tidy as one could expect them to be in such conditions. Shadowed shelves covered nearly every available wall and were laden with boxes, tools and various kinds of implements Julian had no name or use for.

“No, not really,” Julian stumbled. “I mean, I had assumed…”

To the left, he could now see a narrow cot fitting snugly against the wall and a limited floor space in front of it, likely to facilitate both movement and ease Garak’s mind. Above the bed, a small solitary window filtered in the only illumination currently available in the shack.

Garak looked at him over his shoulder and spoke reassuringly.

“As had I. You are welcome in my home, at any time. Surely it can’t have escaped your notice?”

Julian flushed. Garak had welcomed him repeatedly and at length. He would have to be a complete fool not to notice. The Cardassian had offered him his hearth and home. Having an extra person taking up valuable space in such confined quarters couldn’t be easy for Garak, not even if it were someone he valued as a friend.

“I thank you for your hospitality, Garak, truly.” He offered earnestly.

The man nodded and cast a dubious glance at Julian’s sparse luggage.

“Is this the moment you tell me you’ve had the foresight to take some equivalent of a sleeping bag, or did you assume that it would be me, in my endless generosity, who would supply you with something suitable?”

Julian felt himself turn crimson. He had indeed forgotten to take that small detail into account.

“No matter, we shall improvise. Something we’ve all collectively become quite good at.” Garak exhaled dramatically, but Julian was relieved to note the man didn’t sound too upset over it.

“I’m an imposition, I’m aware of that…. I’m sorry-“

“No, no!” Garak forestalled his contrite little speech. “I opened up my home to you and I shall do my best to find you a place to sleep; it’s the least I can do after the unexpected boon you brought me. I assure you, Doctor, having you here is no hardship at all.”

Julian tried his hardest to discern the sincerity of the tailor’s words, and as far as he could see, the sentiment rang true. His shoulders relaxed and he sighed. Perhaps his heartbeat would return to its normal rhythm somewhere this century.

“If you can spare one of those water packs in your bag, I could offer you some red leaf tea?”

Julian smiled, shaking his head. Of course Elim had time to visually catalogue the contents of his luggage when he opened it to deliver the chocolates, at this point he wasn’t even surprised, merely fondly exasperated by his friend’s antics.

“If I give you two, will you make some for yourself?” Julian countered.

Garak’s smile came slowly, but brightened the tiny room.

“Of course, my dear. It would be my pleasure to share a cup of tea with you.” With that, he pivoted around and turned a small work light on. It provided enough illumination to bathe the room in a secondary layer of shadows, but enabled Julian to clearly see every step in the preparation of the tea.

“I would offer you Tarkalean tea, but I’m afraid I’m fresh out.” Garak said wryly and it made Julian smile.

“Feel free to take a seat on the cot; you look dead on your feet, Doctor.”

Julian looked around, flustered to notice there truly seemed to be no place else to sit, at least not in here.

“I’ll take those water packs now, if you don’t mind?”

“Oh, no! Not at all.” Julian bumbled and rummaged around his bag to find them. When he stepped closer to hand them to Garak, the Cardassian’s fingers brushed his. The look in those pale eyes reminded Julian of something, but he couldn’t for the life of him figure out what.

Garak then turned around, filled an ancient-looking black kettle with water and put in on what Julian assumed to be a hot plate. Seeing no good reason to remain standing, Julian dusted himself off as best he could and then sat on the edge of a familiarly solid bed.

“I hope you don’t mind if I use the time until the water boils to set up that perimeter alert, do you?”

“No, of course not. I’ll just relax here.” Julian said lamely, cringing internally at how awkward he sounded.

“As you should.” Garak gave him one of the old wide smiles and Julian wasn’t sure what to think about it. Luckily, he was spared further scrutiny as Garak picked up a box from one of the shelves and walked out at a brisk pace. A part of him wanted to help set up the protections around the cargo, but a bigger part of him was tired and needed a moment to gather his thoughts.

There was a distance between them now, and its presence was keenly felt. It didn’t use to bother him back on DS9; there was always so much going on to distract them both, yet now he couldn’t help but notice how wide the chasm between them had grown. It reminded him of the time Ezri had first come aboard the station. Seeing her had been a punch to the gut, it had been way too soon since Jadzia’s passing. Regardless, she had also been a way to reconnect to a friend he never thought he’d see again. While Julian was grieving, he’d managed to ignore the fact Garak was falling to pieces in front of his eyes (cracking those codes was akin to treason in the man’s mind) as well as the fact he did absolutely nothing to help him. It was a moment curiously missing from the memoir he was sent and he wondered what its omission meant. Did it mean Garak had forgiven him, or that he hadn’t expected anything from that Julian back then?

Such an appalling friend he was, selfish and self-absorbed. He’d latched onto Ezri desperately, looking for a ray of light in the oppressive darkness of their uncertain, war-filled future. Had that been a mistake? He loved her, she was exactly what he needed, so quirky and fun and full of life in her own way. Even though she was a Dax, with eight lifetimes of memories and accumulated wisdom filling her heart, she didn’t intimidate him the way Jadzia used to sometimes. She didn’t make him feel outclassed or overwhelmed. He wondered what Ezri the councilor would say about a man who seemed to be drawn to people who outsmarted and outmatched him? Perhaps it spoke of some disturbing Freudian concept - some glaring deficit in his personality.

Garak had almost thrown himself out the airlock; Julian could still see his distraught friend pounding frantically at the metal doors, as if inviting death in to claim him. Even after that, he chose not to approach the Cardassian. Ezri had obviously been the right choice back then and he knew that intellectually.

Why did it feel morally corrupt, though?

Chapter Text

Julian slumped and buried his face in his hands. The air was warm, yet he was relieved to note the temperature had already dropped to the imminently more acceptable 33°C. Pity he felt like too much of a mess to properly appreciate not feeling stifled.

He simply couldn’t get it out of his mind. As he sat there, in Tolan’s humble shed which now served as Garak’s makeshift home, he wondered why he’d allowed things to get so bad. Once upon a time, they met over lunch almost every day, discussing their reading and bickering over it good-naturedly. Despite Julian being more or less married to his job, those conversations were often the highlights of his days.

Why did he accept their dwindling frequency? What made him forget the importance of that first friendship aboard DS9? What moment marked the decline in their relationship?

And Garak… He felt their weakening bond more acutely than Julian did. After all, why else would he write about it?

“Still, you and Dr. Bashir have created a strong bond.” Odo had said. Garak’s reply haunted Julian from the first time he read it.

“Not really” Garak had answered quickly. “I’m afraid that what I have to offer has run its course. It’s certainly no match for darts.” I heard the bitterness of my tone, and so did Odo.”

Other people had certainly picked up on their bond and its apparent importance, even going so far as to remark on it. Julian could try to comfort himself with the knowledge it was just Odo, who was certainly one of the most perceptive people Julian ever had the pleasure of meeting, but if the changeling could see it, then certainly others could have as well. Curiously, after that initial period in their friendship, none of the Starfleet personnel ever gave him any grief over having contact with the station’s sole Cardassian occupant. Despite everyone being aware Garak was most certainly still loyal to his homeland, nobody interfered.

What did they see that put their minds at ease?

Garak had been bitter about their gradual estrangement; that much was obvious. It had never been the spy’s fault, though. It had been Julian gradually pulling away; so slowly he’d failed to notice it. Was it after the wire? Or the Bond holosuite program? Garak had barged in on him because he was jealous of Julian spending so much time in the holosuites, first with Miles and then alone. The tailor had just wanted to be included… And what did he get for his trouble? A bullet to the neck. The stubborn old fool didn’t even seem to mind. If anything, it seemed to make him respect Julian more.

Afterwards, Julian detested himself. He had pulled the trigger on one of his closest friends, to save Kira, Worf, Jadzia, Miles and Sisko. It was only logical.

Why did it still make him queasy, though? Was it simply the concept of shooting a person from the back that he found questionable, or more reasonably, that he as a doctor found harming people abhorrent as a rule? Surely he would feel just as awful shooting Jadzia, or Miles if they had been in Garak’s place, right?

Wrong.

Back when he’d gotten stuck with Miles on a planet with rogue Jem’Hadar who were trying to cure their addiction to ketracel-white, he had both reason and a chance to attack Miles and prevent him from destroying his efforts at the cure, but he didn’t. He couldn’t harm him.

What made Garak an easier target to shoot? Was it the fact he didn’t care as deeply about random Jem’Hadar as he did for his superior officers and long-time friends?

Or was it because he had a feeling Garak would understand, no matter how warped that thought was?

A soft whistle of boiling water filled the shed. He wondered whether he should go fetch Garak, but the man in question must have heard the sound because he stepped into the shed barely a moment later.

“Still awake?” Garak quipped as he put the box down.

Julian couldn’t find any words to respond with, so he said nothing. His industrious friend didn’t seem to mind and filled the silence himself.

“The alarm is set if anyone tries to touch the crates and I’ve managed to place a transport jammer which should prevent anyone attempting to beam it away.”

“Sounds reasonable.” Julian shrugged.

A metal spoon scraped the insides of a small tin and came away with crushed red powder Garak proceeded to stir into the boiling water before neatly pulling it out and putting the lid back on.

Without anything better to do, Julian watched the Cardassian’s economy of movement. Every step, every flex of fingers was measured, slow and sure. Deliberate. It’s been so long.

“Here’s the inventory you asked me for.” Julian handed Garak a PADD containing the detailed list of goods he’d brought.

Garak inclined his head in thanks and took the proffered device, his eyes beginning to scan the contents at once. Occasionally, he would nod or frown, his face slowly becoming awash with possibilities Julian could see being calculated.

“Water filters!” Garak exclaimed excitedly and raised his eyes.

“Yes,” Julian acknowledged. “These are small, and you can place them in closed containers. They release color into the water based on the severity of the contamination. There are instructions of course. Once you determine what the contaminant is, you can set it accordingly and it needs from around five minutes to an hour to purify the water. When it turns completely clear, it’s safe to drink.”

Garak gave him a shrewd yet appreciative look.

“You went quite out of your way to assemble all of this. That’s not even what I had in mind when I invited you here, Doctor. You needed only bring yourself, and perhaps lend a hand for a day or two. The Federation remains stubborn about the amount of supplies we receive and I can tell you, it’s not nearly enough. Cardassia will need a lot more if we are to rebuild our society, but you are here as a civilian. I did not expect you to bring all this, but I want you to know it is much appreciated and will most certainly be of great use. Thank you for your generous gift, Doctor.”

Julian waved his hand dismissively, feeling awkward about being praised for what was (in no small part) a bribe and an attempt at apology.

“It was no trouble. I wanted to help.”

“I see your kindness hasn’t diminished with time. I shan’t forget it, my dear.”

The praise sat in Julian’s gut like a slab of lead.

“Please don’t say that, Garak. I don’t deserve it.” He couldn’t meet the man’s eyes. How could he even begin to voice what was on his mind? Ezri had hinted that he needed therapy, but he’d dismissed her with a smile because he felt there was nothing she could do for him that she wasn’t already doing. Happiness found in the holosuites or in the pursuit of a new relationship always gave him a much needed high and provided an escape from his problems. Had he ever even tried to face them? Oh, he was good at taking on responsibility, but never for his innermost thoughts. Those were under lock and key, stashed in an airtight container and surrounded by impenetrable force fields. No one ever had access there.

The incident with the Lethean came to mind. That brush with death had been terrifying, and he’d been so proud to have figured the alien’s plot out. He’d always assumed his assailant had taken Garak’s form because of their ambiguous friendship but was beginning to suspect there was more to it than that. There always was when the tailor was concerned. Perhaps the reason for Lethean’s choice lay in the fact that Julian suspected that, intuitively, Garak knew him best.

Maybe…

Maybe Garak had always had access to his innermost self, even if he never used it. After all, the former spy was often found in possession of information he shouldn’t have (the incident with the Cardassian orphans on Bajor came to mind, and the way Garak had gotten access to his bedroom back then).

Had he always been there? Since when? Julian couldn’t tell.

“Here’s your tea, Doctor. I’m afraid I have nothing to sweeten it with.”

Julian blinked distractedly and took the proffered cup gratefully.

“That’s alright. I’m sure it’s perfectly lovely as it is.”

Garak indulged him with a humming noise of agreement and pulled out a small stool from under the workbench. Once it was placed opposite Julian, the man sat down with a steaming mug of his own, cradling it contentedly in his palms. The heat obviously wasn’t scalding to a Cardassian. If anything, Garak seemed to relish the warmth.

“It’s good to see you no longer freezing to death.” Julian only half joked.

Garak cracked a beatific smile and inclined his head. The delivery of his words was simple, a stated fact he seemed glad of.

“It is good to be home.”

Julian looked at his cup, the murky garnet-colored liquid steaming softly in the half-light. He wondered whether it would be stupid to ask Garak to turn out the light. The illumination wasn’t overly bright, or harsh, but it cast a halo around his content friend’s form and it made Julian uncomfortable. It was ironic that he, who spent a lifetime running from his own shadows, would now feel comfortable in someone else’s.

“Shouldn’t you conserve energy? The light, I mean, it would be a shame if it burned out when you needed it most.”

Obviously getting the hint, Garak got up gracefully to turn the light off and Julian let out a long sigh. Closing his eyes, he made himself more comfortable on the hard bed and leaned against the wall. He could hear Garak sitting back down, the stool creaking nearly inaudibly.

Extend my awareness…

With his eyes closed, he focused solely on the moment he was currently experiencing. The radiating heat from the mug resting on his knees and seeping through his trousers; the specific aromatic smell of slowly cooling tea with the subtlest of shifts in air currents caused by the fragrant, rising steam; the solidity and texture of the wall against his back - it all painted a vivid picture and he found his sight was quite unnecessary.

He could hear Garak drinking his tea, and the timing of each subtle sip coupled with the man’s slow breathing told Julian the beverage was being savored like a rare treat it likely was. Then again, the tailor had always been fastidious about eating his meals. Julian focused on those languid intakes of tea and breath and let them wash over him. Through his closed eyelids he could perceive the subtle source of light coming from the window to the left. He imagined the muted shafts of light falling across the space around him, bathing everything in a soft glow and warm shadows.

Exquisitely slowly, he brought the tea closer to his mouth, stopping for a long moment to appreciate its rich scent. It seemed both excruciatingly familiar and undeniably unknown and he inhaled the vapor just to see whether it tasted the way it smelled. It was petrichor after a light rainfall; the melting of a marshmallow, it was dark orange and soft pink; it was the way your toes curled in the warm, moist sand and the sound of the wind at the top of a tall tree, so high up in the canopy you could see nothing but a sea of rich green clouds.

With bated breath, still and anticipatory, he brushed his dry lips against the warm rim, allowing his skin to test the surface tension of the redolent drink.

62 °C.

He sipped cautiously, at first feeling no flavor from the masking heat. Would it taste different from the replicated version he used to enjoy? Allowing the liquid to cool in his mouth, he focused on the emerging flavors. There was a complex tartness to it, which was something he usually avoided when it came to tea, but after he swallowed it, the aftertaste was light and sweet. The spiciness came gradually, in a delicate build-up. As he continued to savor his drink, his stomach settled, his heart rate slowed and an indulgent lassitude filled his limbs. A feeling of contentedness washed over him and his face relaxed. He felt like he was floating on the surface of a warm pool, deep in some primordial jungle. For the first time in a long while, he felt at peace with himself. It was a welcome respite and he relished it.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you savor anything half as much. It would seem real red leaf tea agrees with you.” Garak noted with amusement, but Julian could hear satisfaction in the man’s voice.

“It is good tea.” Julian said simply. “And a good lesson.”

Garak seemed content with such an answer and they continued to sip their tea slowly in companionable silence. At some point, Julian allowed his eyes to open. He had expected darkness, but once his vision had adjusted after a few moments, he realized he could see everything surprisingly clearly. Rays of ghostly light illuminated the converted living space, casting muted shadows across the laden shelves. The corners were nests of darkness contrasting the man in front of him. Every ridge and scale on that deeply content face was contoured by umbrae. Garak’s eyes were closed and he sat upright and still. Julian drank in the sight as patiently as he had taken his tea. This leaner version of Garak was strange, but he assumed this may have been the way the man looked when he was some fifteen years younger and an active operative. The statuesque form before his eyes was fascinating and Julian closed his eyes firmly.

He wanted it to be like a first meeting. After all, this was no longer the same man he met all those years ago. He had outgrown Julian.

I need to grow too.

What would he see if he opened his eyes now?

Julian blinked and focused on the motionless Cardassian. The features exuded such enviable dignity and wisdom it made Julian wish to absorb it just by virtue of closeness. The sloping ridges of the man’s almost ornamentally scaled neck evoked in him a grace, an elegance he could almost pinpoint the origin of. It reminded him of the contours of Terok Nor’s pylons, so effortlessly refined in their geometric simplicity. Perhaps it was humans who were rigid, with their circles and their squares - not Cardassians who preferred the softer shapes of ovals and arcs.

Where he used to see lack of color, there was now another dimension compensating for it in depth. Where once he saw threatening features of a predator, now the sophistication of form greeted him. Where there was once otherness, his eyes only saw familiarity.

A face he both knew and didn’t. A rediscovery of a fascinating story one managed to forget with the erosion of time.

Garak’s eyes opened and locked instantly onto his, as if he had already been looking in his direction and never stopped. Once upon a time, such a thing would have flustered him, frightened him.

Now, there was only solemn acknowledgment. They were both very different people now. Their shared history was put aside and a new path to understanding was paving itself in the moonlight stretching between them.

“What have you come here for?”

Garak’s question hung in the air, suspended like a droplet of water in a frozen computer program.

Calm acceptance of his faults settled in Julian’s heavy limbs.

I came to see you. I came to apologize. I came to beg your forgiveness.

“I came to start over.”

A kind smile tugged at Elim’s lips and Julian held in his breath. Would he get rejected and sent back to DS9, their friendship irrevocably destroyed? Was this just Garak’s perfectly executed revenge? Julian didn’t want it to be. He needed the man’s forgiveness about as desperately as Elim had once needed his.

Elim…” Julian breathed leaning forward. His right hand lay the cup on the bed beside him half-consciously. A need to make himself perfectly understood burned in him and his brain jumped from calculation to calculation, memories whizzing past like a roll of burning celluloid film. He latched onto a single image and let it take possession of him. Ziyal smiling and extending her palm in greeting towards Garak.

His body fell away. He could no longer feel it. The sensation was utterly alien, almost like an out of body experience. All that remained was a tingling sensation in his palm and the wide, terrified gaze locked on the Cardassian who held his fate in his hands. With a soft, indecipherable exhale, Garak shifted forward to meet Julian’s palm with his own.

Everything burned. Julian’s throat, his eyes, the stretch of cold clammy skin of his palm melting into the coarser, gray texture of Garak’s less delicate hand. Relief waged war on his insides, running hot and cold in intermittent bursts. He felt like an explorer on the cusp of some amazing discovery, if only the test results would come in at last.

The sound of softly crunching footsteps snapped him violently out of his thoughts.

Elim, are you still awake?”

Julian was startled to see a wide, eager grin light up Garak’s face. Their palms disconnected and Garak got up swiftly as if imbued by a new energy and walked towards the exit, stopping in the doorway. Julian’s vantage point offered him a decent view of Garak, but not much else.

“I am right here, Kelas.”

The warmth in that greeting was grating.

“We had an emergency operation and it dragged on, I’m afraid… Is that red leaf tea I smell? Also, where did that pile of crates come from? Have you cashed in on some old favor?”

Garak’s easy laughter filled the darkened shed and Julian wanted to melt into the wall.

“The crates were as much a surprise to you as they were to me, and I thought the occasion deserved some small indulgence.”

“Have you saved some for me?” The words were softly measured and spoke of respect and fondness.

“Of course, Kelas. Do come in.”

Chapter Text

Julian didn't know how to feel. He and Garak just had a moment where some sort of agreement seemed forthcoming, and then an unexpected interloper appeared.

Of course, he was being completely ridiculous. This person was obviously Garak’s friend and he’d be a horrible person if he behaved anything less than amiable.

He didn’t exactly have time to make himself any more presentable, since Kelas chose that moment to step through. Without missing a beat, the man followed the former spy, not even sparing a glance at the left side of the shed where Julian currently sat on the cot. Surely he would be introduced soon. Until that occurred, he was content to take hold of his mug and pretend he was busy. And invisible.

Think of the regnar, Julian. Withdraw your presence. You are not here.

It was a tricky thing to implement, since what Garak described felt borderline fantastical. Still, he forced himself to adapt to his environment. He wouldn’t move, wouldn’t disturb the gentle shafts of light illuminating the shed and would time his breathing to one of the other Cardassians in the room. How hard could it be?

“So, what’s in those mysterious crates out there?” Kelas asked once more, fishing for information from Garak who was currently obviously stalling for time by refilling his cup. He handed it over to the other doctor along with the PADD containing the shipment manifest. Julian stared at the newcomer’s back, trying to glean as much information as he could. The man was taller than Garak, with a curiously narrow neck. If he were human, Julian would have called him wiry or sinewy, but since he was Cardassian, he possessed a slightly more defined bulk. His hair was longer than Garak’s and lay against his concealed shoulder blades, bound by a simple metal clip. Julian couldn’t remember ever seeing a Cardassian man with hair accessories. Though, he had mostly only seen soldiers, so that didn’t have to mean anything.

Elim! This is incredible! Do you know what we could do with all these portable generators?”

“I know, my dear friend. We shall find good use for them.”

“Now we can finally do something about that contaminated water reservoir under the Torr Sector… Where did you get all of this?”

Julian noticed Garak was watching him, but his expression didn’t waver for an instant. He seemed to be enjoying this little subterfuge and allowed Julian his observations, while Kelas drank from Garak’s cup and hummed in satisfaction.

“An old friend of mine dropped in.” He said with a fond smile. “I think he’s anxious to meet you.”

Julian sputtered in his corner, inwardly cursing Garak for putting him on the spot. The stupid spy was grinning at him unapologetically, clearly enjoying his embarrassment. But worst of all was the doctor swerving around so ungracefully Julian swore the man gave himself whiplash. The shock on that unfamiliar gray face was a bit funny, though.

Kelas, meet Doctor Julian Bashir.”

Julian suddenly found the situation hilarious and his reaction reflected that. He took a cold sip of his tea and waved to the man.

“Hello.”

“And Bashir, meet Doctor Kelas Parmak.”

The Cardassian doctor’s eyes were huge and dark, the PADD pressed to his chest and Julian couldn’t help but think of that old idiom: Like a deer caught in headlights.

To his eternal amusement, Garak pried the mug from Parmak’s unresponsive fingers in an attempt to salvage the precious liquid.

“By grace, Elim! Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”

Garak chuckled and patted his friend’s arm affectionately.

“Of course not. I dare say you frightened him about as much as he frightened you.”

“He doesn’t look frightened to me…” Parmak grumbled and tried to calm his breathing.

Garak looked Julian in the eye knowingly as he said:

“He knows better than to show it.”

Julian accepted the good natured jab and replied by raising his cup in toast.

“I’ve had an exceptional teacher.”

Kelas looked at Garak shrewdly and said:

“I knew you were friends, Elim, but I had no idea you managed to corrupt him so completely.” With that, he turned to Julian. “You have my deepest sympathies, Doctor Bashir. Elim sometimes doesn’t know the meaning of restraint.”

Julian chuckled. Garak had been right to describe Parmak as sweet. Still, all this first-name basis business made him feel strange. Why did the other doctor get the privilege when the tailor only ever called Julian some variation of his professional title? He was half-tempted to tell Kelas to call him Julian, if only to mess with Garak, but that didn’t feel right either.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. Elim has been an epitome of restraint as long as I’ve known him and I am quite certain any action he took was carefully measured and quite deliberate.” Julian kept his tone and smile purposefully light, but Garak would know perfectly what he meant.

“Such praise!” Garak exclaimed theatrically. “Please desist, Doctor! You’ll give me a big head, and Kelas here would be dreadfully upset over that.”

Parmak gave Garak a pointed look of exasperation and Julian realized, while he may have been having a double conversation, Kelas and Elim were sharing a wordless moment right now. He couldn’t consciously explain what irked him about it, but something simply didn’t sit well with him. Julian supposed that’s what being sidelined by a friend looked like.

I had done this to Garak, hadn’t I? When I became friends with Miles, I just… disappeared on him.

He wanted to hit himself. One look at Kelas and he could tell, with absolute certainty that he was a fiercely loyal man. It was also clear that his loyalty was to Garak.

No, not Garak.

Elim .

Parmak seemed to have earned the right to call Garak by his first name, and was obviously completely comfortable using it. The reverse was true as well.

Julian flashed back to the Dominion prison camp and its aftermath. He’d been replaced and nobody noticed… Not Miles, not Jadzia, not even Garak. Looking at the pair of Cardassians so at ease in each other’s company, Julian felt replaced again.

Why did it have to be a Doctor? That was just rubbing the salt onto a wound. It felt inconsiderate and cruel and… Here he was, doing it again, being selfish. Garak had needed a friend and Parmak had been there when Julian hadn’t. It was as simple as that. If anyone was an interloper, it was Julian.

“I must thank you for your generosity, Dr. Bashir.” Parmak bowed to him formally. Julian could tell the man was completely sincere and wondered if that had been what drew Garak’s attention. “Cardassia is in dire need, but our behavior hasn’t endeared us to the rest of the galaxy. The Federation’s efforts may be insufficient, but they are the only ones extending a helping hand, and we are grateful. It is a kindness we shan’t soon forget, I promise you.”

Julian was taken aback by the vehemence of the gentle man’s words. Still, Parmak seemed to be operating from a misapprehension and Julian felt it his duty to set the man straight.

“I know the Federation is currently too tied up to be of much help and that’s one of the reasons I came. Starfleet cannot spare anything at the moment, so I took matters into my own hands. I pulled some favors from my friends back on the station; used all of my accumulated replicator credits and even sold my holo image to Quark!” He burst into embarrassed laughter.

“Doctor!” Garak was appalled. “You do know how he plans to use it, right?”

“What do I care whether he uses it to turn me into a Risian masseur or to give himself oo-mox? It got me those portable generators and that industrial grade water purifier. Next to helping you, my embarrassment means less than nothing.”

Kelas was looking at him in surprise, but Julian only cared about Garak’s reaction. He had spoken the truth… He didn’t do all this for Cardassia, he did it for himself, to ease his guilty conscience. But most of all, he did it for Garak. How could he stand by and forget his friend’s suffering in the ruins of his home planet, living in extreme deprivation? While he knew Cardassia needed any supplies desperately, he couldn’t abide the image of the once strong and solid tailor reduced to this emaciated frame. The man was clearly dehydrated and malnourished. Julian just couldn’t bear it.

“That… is a very Cardassian sentiment, my dear.”

“I mean it, Garak.”

Kelas saw fit to break the tension.

“I hope Elim has offered you a tour?”

Julian smiled and Garak interjected:

“Naturally! It might take a trifle long, since I will be forced to describe an awful lot of things that are no longer there…”

“How long are you staying on Cardassia, Dr. Bashir?”

Julian looked at Garak, realizing belatedly that he never told him the time frame. It just never came up.

“I hope it’s a week at least, my dear Doctor.” Garak was looking at him challengingly and Julian wondered whether two months was a rude stretch of the man’s hospitality.

“Uh, not quite.”

“If you tell me you are leaving in two days, I might do something unfortunate.”

Julian was baffled by Garak’s sudden flash of anger.

“Surely you can extend your stay for a bit, Doctor?” Parmak offered reasonably, then turned to Garak and placed a calming hand on the man’s suddenly rigid shoulders. “Elim, you’re being rude to our guest.”

Where did that “our” come from? Did Parmak count himself as a host because Julian was Garak’s friend and it was no more than a courtesy, or…

“You misunderstood!” Julian defended. “I planned on staying for two months, I used up most of my leave, but now when I see what a drain in your resources I am likely to be-“

“Absolutely not!” Garak exclaimed resolutely, his voice brooked no argument. “I offered you my home, and you will stay here for those two months!”

“Garak… Just because I brought you supplies, it doesn’t mean you’re somehow indebted to me. They were a gift, just like the chocolates and the fabrics.”

At the mention of fabrics, Kelas’ back straightened and looked at Garak questioningly. The tailor sighed and pointed to the table where the bolts lay covered by a tarp.

Wait. When had that happened? Julian couldn’t remember Garak covering them when they first came in.

Kelas stared in the indicated direction and flipped the tarp over. A small gasp gushed past the man’s lips. He was quiet for a moment, but then his hand reached out and touched the crimson fabric, almost like he knew which one was intended for Garak.

“It’s very beautiful,” Parmak spoke softly, sincerely; his voice expressing a hint of some suppressed emotion. He tore his hand away and turned to face Garak. “It would look marvelous on you, Elim.”

“Thank you.” Garak said simply.

Julian watched helplessly as Parmak walked into Garak’s personal space and observed the slow dance of their palms coming together in an excruciatingly languid way. There was so much left unspoken between the pair and Julian was struck by the idea that these two were on their way to becoming more than friends. Garak withdrew his hand first.

“It is getting late and I should leave you to your guest. Do you want me to talk to Alon about the distribution of the supplies?”

“No need, I will contact him tonight. I’ll keep in touch.”

“Good.” Kelas said, with a marginal, yet noticeable amount of stiffness gripping his spine.

With that, he turned to Julian and said:

“Should you wish to volunteer your expertise during your stay here, I would be delighted to find you a temporary posting somewhere. Good doctors are a rare commodity on Cardassia at the moment, and all of them are horribly overworked. A helping hand would be most appreciated.”

Julian nodded in assent.

“I would like that.”

Kelas bowed respectfully once more.

“I see Elim’s assessment of your virtue hasn’t been exaggerated. He is lucky to have you.”

“No,” Julian waved his hand dismissively. “I’m the lucky one.”

The smile on Garak’s face was subtle, but Julian could see a curious heat emanating from it.

With one last incline of his head, Parmak thanked Garak for the tea and retreated from the shed into the darkening night. Julian wanted to ask what all that had been about but didn’t feel like poking that particular hornet’s nest at the moment. The situation reminded him of those invisible, sub-space mines from AR-558 and the last thing he needed right now was to walk into a Houdini. He wanted some peace and quiet.

He observed Garak, who was absently caressing the rim of his mug. Did he interrupt something between the two, like a date or something? The thought was mortifying.

Regardless, he was relieved to see the man go. Parmak would have all the time he wanted with Garak after Julian left. These two months were necessary to try and mend his strained friendship with the Cardassian, and he was loath to leave without mending fences.

“You must be tired from your journey, Doctor. Why don’t you try to get some sleep while I borrow your communicator to make some arrangements?”

“Where would I sleep?”

“Where you are sitting right now, I imagine. I won’t be using it tonight, there’s too much work to do.”

“I can’t steal your bed. You need your rest too! Besides, when was the last time you ate?” Julian was aware his tone was rapidly becoming accusatory, but he worried for the stubborn man in front of him.

“I had some light lunch earlier, there’s no need to worry about me.”

Light lunch, my foot! Julian thought. If Garak has had a single filling meal in the past several months, Julian would eat his boot.

“I promise to go to sleep as soon as I see you eat one of those nutrient-delayed rations.” He crossed his arms and looked at Garak mutinously.

Garak rolled his eyes in an overly exaggerated manner and all but whined.

“Must you subject me to that poor excuse for a meal? I would much rather have one of those delectable chocolates you brought me.”

“A piece of chocolate is not a filling meal, Elim, and you know it!” Julian didn’t know why he allowed his temper to flare or why he was allowing himself the liberty of addressing Garak by his given name. He had even jumped to his feet and placed his now empty mug on the workbench with slightly more force than was strictly necessary.

Despite his little outburst, Garak was regarding him affectionately.

“I will share the morning meal with you, will that suffice?”

“You’re starving, Elim! Why are you doing this to yourself?” Julian asked imploringly, nearly shaking Garak’s shoulders to knock some sense in him.

“Ah, but we almost match now, Doctor! I don’t remember being this trim since my thirties!”

The joke was a poor deflection and Julian cut right through it, tightening his fingers around Garak’s upper arms.

“How can you even joke about that?” Julian watched the humor drain from his friend’s features. Garak let out a weary sigh.

“What else can I do? Tears are a luxury on Cardassia.”

Julian deflated.

“Besides, dear Doctor, this is not the first famine we’ve faced, and it likely won’t be the last. A Cardassian can get by on surprisingly little.”

“And why do I get the feeling you give away what little you do manage to get?”

“What would you have me do? Send the orphans away? I have enough atrocities on my conscience; I don’t need to add watching starving children to the list.”

“You can’t help Cardassia by driving yourself into an early grave; damn it, Garak!” Julian shouted and let go of the man, pacing around the confined space restlessly.

“Your worry is touching, dear Doctor, but unnecessary. I have survived this long, and thanks to your generosity, we can now stave off the worst by pairing those power generators with surviving replicators at strategic places in the City, and distributing the rations as needed. Once we replicate the spare parts, we can restore some of our power grid and put that water purifier to good use. After we get access to clean water, we can think about growing some crops. It won’t be easy, but we need to learn to be self-sufficient. There won’t be any more spoils from glorious conquests to fill our warehouses, not for a long time.”

Julian was struck by the sincerity of that sentiment. Garak hasn’t only been changed by this ordeal, he was actively trying to change and improve the world around him. Like a good gardener, he would nurture this Cardassia, and like a good tailor – he would mend it. Julian could almost see the chaotic tapestry of disparate shreds of fabric being stitched together by Garak’s competent hands.

Unable to help himself, Julian reached for Garak’s hands and took them gently. These were the hands healing Cardassia, one stitch at a time. It was such a monumental, daunting task, but the Cardassian undertook it with calm acceptance and awe-inspiring dignity. There was a whole planet to heal, a whole race to feed, a whole social system to overhaul. How could any one man take on so much?

He looked into Elim’s eyes, soft and glimmering in the gloom. How could he have left the man struggling under all this weight for so long?

“Let me help you.”

“I will eat, Doctor, stop harassing me.”

“No,” Julian shook his head. “That’s not what I meant. Let me help you restore Cardassia.”

“I knew you were a brilliant and ambitious man, Doctor,” Garak chuckled. “But I had no idea you had such an expedient plan. Will two months suffice?” He said sarcastically.

They wouldn’t. Julian was well aware of that. He could urge Starfleet to send more help, but he knew that wouldn’t be enough. Strangely, he felt his place was here. This entire world was a dying patient.

“I can always take unpaid leave. Or ask to be assigned here in some capacity. I don’t care, Garak, can’t you see?”

Garak said nothing.

“I will stay as long as I need to. Please,” He entreated passionately. “Let me help you build a new Cardassia. Let me see your world the way you wanted me to, the world you showed me in your letters, except better and freer for everyone – especially for all the little boys called Elim who can finally get to choose their own path.”

Garak regarded him with muted astonishment and his shoulders sagged in defeat. Their foreheads met and Elim stilled, apparently resigned.

“There’s no stopping you when you get this stubborn, is there?” Garak murmured with his eyes closed.

“You know me, I don’t give up easily.” Julian huffed.

“That’s one of the reasons I admire you, Doctor.” The Cardassian admitted wearily.

Julian jolted away and looked Garak in the eye.

“Can’t we dispense with such formalities after all we’ve been through together?” Julian asked, tired and fed up with the constant reminder of their decayed closeness.

“Addressing someone by their title is a sign of respect.”

It was a valiant attempt, but Julian didn’t care anymore.

“It feels so impersonal. Besides, I didn’t hear you address Parmak with his title.”

Garak extricated his hands and turned around, slumping against the table with his palms splayed out against the crinkling tarp.

“That’s different.”

Julian’s acute hearing barely caught that.

“Why is it different? Because he was here when I wasn’t?”

No answer was forthcoming. Julian watched the moonlight bathe the scales of Garak’s exposed neck. They weren’t as thick as Dukat’s; as a matter of fact, they made Elim’s back look quite unprotected and vulnerable.

Garak turned on his heel and stood straight, his hands clasped behind his back. It was the posture of a soldier.

“It’s different because he uses my name freely. I allowed it because we are good friends, and that is the natural progression of friendship.”

“You never allowed me such liberties.” Julian stated grimly.

“You never tried. You knew my name and you didn’t use it! What was I supposed to do, Doctor? Force you?”

“You never gave me leave to use it!”

“Information is meant to be used, my dear Doctor, not wasted. I revealed my name to you through Tain.”

“What?” Julian spat.

“Have you forgotten the man’s deathbed confession?”

Julian couldn’t believe his ears. Curse Garak and his circumspect, backward Cardassian logic!

“I knew your name for years before that, Garak!”

The Cardassian ground to a halt. Gears were turning in that complicated head of his, Julian could tell. When he finally came to some sort of conclusion, Garak uttered only one word.

“How?”

Understanding immediately, Julian shrugged.

Tain.”

Grim comprehension stole across Garak’s face.

“Of course. The wire.”

“I wanted to know the truth, so I asked him about Elim.”

“And he told you it was me.” Garak said bitterly.

“Not before telling me I was being a bad friend to you by trying to keep you alive. What were his exact words, again? Ah - You should let him die. After all, for Garak, a life in exile is no life at all.

“He wasn’t wrong.”

Julian’s blood boiled.

“This is what he said after I thanked him for the information that would save your life,” Julian attempted to modulate his voice and speech patterns to match what he remembered Tain saying. “Don't thank me. I'm not doing Garak any favors. He doesn't deserve a quick death. On the contrary, I want him to live a long, miserable life. I want him to grow old on that station, surrounded by people who hate him, knowing that he'll never come home again.

“At least he was wrong about the last part.”

It was at this point that Julian exploded.

“He was wrong about everything!” Like a man possessed, Julian paced the length of the shed, feeling like a caged animal. His arms twitched in emphasis as the flood burst through the gates.

“He was wrong to set you on such a cruel path and he was wrong to rub it in my face that you were special because he never needed to order you to do anything. He implied a willingness on your part, a cruelty that you don’t possess, unlike him. The only reason you went along with his sick plans is because you were looking for his approval, as every son does! And he used it against you, the bastard! Just like he used your claustrophobia or your love for your mother. He used Tolan’s love for you to get information to have people assassinated, for God’s sake! He was a monster and he tried everything in his power to turn you into one, but he failed! He failed, Garak, and you know why?”

He ended up right in front of Elim’s calm face.

“I have a feeling you will tell me.”

Julian let his voice drop into an impassioned whisper.

“He may have managed to corrupt your morals, your thoughts and your ideals, but he couldn’t convert your heart. It is incorruptible, Elim! Look at you! Look at Cardassia! Everything bad about the current state of affairs is Tain’s fault.”

Gently, Julian placed a hand on Garak’s cheek and absentmindedly caressed the small ridge underneath his left eye.

“But everything that’s right… That is your doing. Elim…” Julian felt his eyes moisten. “You were never meant to follow in your father’s footsteps. You were meant to erase them.”

The silence stretched between them, carried by the specks of dust illuminated by the filtered light. Garak’s stillness didn’t bother Julian. Greedily, he drank in the sight of this new man. His mouth operated independently from his brain for the millionth time, but he didn’t mind.

I’m sorry for not seeing it sooner.

“I’m sorry for not seeing you sooner.” Julian murmured apologetically.

“You’re here now.” The man meant it.

Julian nodded and withdrew his hand.

“I’m glad I came.”

“As am I.”

Chapter Text

After visiting the extension of the shed Garak had mentioned in his letter (it was a bloody outhouse) and relieving himself, Julian took the opportunity to change out of his dusty uniform. It was a much-needed relief, wearing a sleeveless shirt in this heat. He paired it with some thin cotton trousers and walked back into the shed feeling much lighter.

He found Garak deep in conversation with someone, obviously putting his Starfleet-issued combadge to good use.

Considerate enough not to interrupt what seemed like a delicate negotiation; Julian walked over to the cot and lay down. From this vantage point, he had a clear view of the door, which he supposed was the whole point, but could no longer see Garak who was sitting on his stool in front of the workbench.

Alon, I know the rest of the planet needs help, but we need to fix our infrastructure first! Cardassia City is the capital of the entire Union, and if we can’t create a central hub for refugees and medical emergencies, there will be chaos.”

A voice crackled over the comm:

“You mean, more than there already is?”

“Yes. Stop being so stubborn, Ghemor! You know we can’t be everywhere at once. As soon as we get power production and water treatment underway, we’ll be able to send help anyplace you want.”

“For everyone’s sake, I hope you are right.” A sigh traveled distorted as if over some great distance. “I’ll send you some suggestions for the locations of water filters, and arrange for a skimmer first thing in the morning. Make a route and prioritize the power generators along with the water purifier.”

“I know, it will be ready by the time the skimmer gets here.”

“I’ll try to get a hold of some competent engineers for you.”

“That would be much appreciated, thank you Alon.”

“Anytime, my friend. Remind me to thank this Doctor of yours in person before he leaves Cardassia.”

“You’ll have plenty of chances; he is staying for two months.”

“Good. Any chance he’d be willing to lend a hand in one of the hospitals or research centers?”

“Hah!” Garak exclaimed. “You won’t be able to keep him away.”

“Excellent. See you tomorrow, Elim.”

“At first light.”

A muted chuckle crackled in the air before the connection was dropped.

Julian lay silent, breathing deeply. It was now well past midnight and the temperature had dropped to 29°C. It was still hot, but he hoped as the night progressed, it would knock off at least a few more degrees. He could hear Garak sigh and rise from his seat to stretch his limbs.

“I believe you will appreciate the irony, Doctor, so I will tell you. While you lounge about so indecently exposed, I should be freezing, but I am not.”

“This is considered cold on Cardassia?” Julian blurted out.

Garak laughed and sailed into view.

“Of course, my dear. Anything below 35°C is considered chilly to us.”

Julian shuddered.

“I am guessing you got used to the station’s 22°C over time?”

“Used to?” Garak snorted in outrage. “Goodness no, who could get used to such glacial temperatures? Regardless, 30°C no longer bothers me. I’d prefer more, but alas!”

“It’s 29°C, actually. Go you, adapting so well to hostile conditions!” Julian teased.

“I can tell you, my dear, the conditions were quite hostile! Why, if I had a slip of latinum for every time a Bajoran looked at me like I was Dukat himself, I would be the wealthiest man in the Union!”

Julian could imagine it all too well and gave a little chuckle.

“If I had known this temperature made humans shed all their clothes, I would have dragged you into that Cardassian spa program a long time ago.”

Julian sprawled over the narrow cot and looked at his friend, cracking a massive grin.

“I should have known you’d be scandalized by my choice of wardrobe.”

“What can I say, my dear? Magenta is not your color.”

Julian moaned in disbelief.

“First he complains about too many clothes, then he complains about the color… What’s next?”

“I could point out that cut does absolutely nothing for you, but I shall restrain myself.”

“Oh, come on Garak! What’s so wrong with it?”

“Where do I start?” The tailor exclaimed theatrically. “It’s baggy and hides that lean waist you should be accentuating, not to mention that it’s at least two sizes too big, and don’t get me started-“

“All right! I get the point!” Julian huffed in surrender. “Dare I ask for the positives, or are there none?”

Garak’s smile was all teeth.

“Well… There is one.” The way Garak used the widening on his eyes for maximum effect and intrigue made Julian want to play along.

“No!” Julian said dramatically. “Say it isn’t so!”

“Oh yes, my dear Doctor. Call me an eternal optimist,” Here Julian rolled his eyes. Garak was the worst cynic he’d ever met! “But I dare say the way this shirt, and I use the term loosely, displays your collarbones is positively obscene.”

Julian knew that Garak was just messing with him, but it still made him feel slightly self-conscious.

“Don’t get me wrong, dear, I don’t mind you wearing this to bed; but I certainly hope you don’t wear it in Kelas’ view, the poor man would have a heart attack.”

Unable to control it, Julian felt his cheeks flush.

“I didn’t know collarbones were considered… scandalous.”

“Think back on it, Doctor…” Garak admonished. “Have you ever seen me, or any other Cardassian with such a plunging neckline?”

Natima Lang wore one.”

Garak sighed in exasperation.

“She is a woman. The same standards don’t apply.”

“So, what you’re telling me is that if I go out like this, on Cardassia, I’ll cause a diplomatic incident?”

Garak looked at him with curiously raised eye ridges.

“Oh I daresay there will be some kind of incident, just not necessarily a diplomatic one.”

Julian stammered in indignation.

“Are you… insinuating what I believe you are insinuating?”

“I’ll put it this way, if you get invited to a side alley, just run.”

Julian choked on his mortification and Garak, the great bastard, seemed to be enjoying his discomfort way too much.

“But, you already saw me like this back on DS9! You never said anything!”

“There was no need to say anything. Your human fashions were accepted there.”

“You still could have told me!” Julian protested.

“And deprive myself of such a lovely view? I think not.”

Julian knew this was just harmless banter, but the innuendos were getting a bit thick. He enjoyed them, from time to time, but now it made him nervous. His heart was racing again, and he willed himself to calm down. There was no need to spoil such a light-hearted moment with his incomprehensible overreactions. It’s been so long since he’d seen the Cardassian so carefree; it would be positively criminal to ruin his fun.

“Well, you will just have to get used to it. During the day, I’ll be sweltering away, so at least at night I want to be comfortable!”

“By all means, Doctor!” Garak said sickeningly graciously. “I wasn’t complaining.”

“I suppose you consider this a compliment?” Julian looked at him, exasperated.

Garak only smiled mischievously.

“You have grown more perceptive! Good for you. Now, I really am afraid I must bid you good night, there’s a lot of work to do.”

Julian nodded and lay back down, making himself comfortable. Luckily, he’d gotten used to the hard beds back on DS9, or this would have been unbearable. The pillow was a bit worse for wear, but when he burrowed his face in it, he discovered it bore a pleasant scent. With a yawn, he wondered what Garak washed it with.

Not five minutes later, he was fast asleep.

Chapter Text

Julian was awoken by the feel of a calloused hand upon his shoulder.

“Wake up, my dear. It’s time for breakfast.”

Julian mumbled something incoherent and tried to rub sleep out of his eyes.

Wha- It’s still dark outside!”

“Do you really want to miss your first Cardassian dawn?”

Julian halted and realized he had no response to that.

“Fine, lead the way.” He said sleepily and scrambled inelegantly out of the bed. Despite the perfectly comfortable temperature, Julian wished Garak would have left him to sleep for at least a while longer.

“Aren’t you cold like this, Doctor?” Garak asked and Julian groaned.

“No, I’m not cold, Garak. It’s 25°C, for God’s sake.”

“I am gratified to see that your powers of observation function unobstructed despite the early hour.”

“Where are we going, anyways?” Julian yawned and stretched as far as his limbs allowed him.

“Out back, to the clearing.”

Still bleary eyed, Julian followed unenthusiastically.

When they rounded the shed, Julian noticed the outlines of a vaguely familiar table in the distance, standing out against the twilight. It was flanked by two crates which were probably meant to serve as chairs and it was only as he got closer that he realized there was a hand against the small of his back, guiding him to the crate on the right. He allowed Garak to play the role of genial host and obligingly sat on the proffered container. Stifling another yawn, he looked at the table set in front of him.

There was a freshly brewed pot of that lovely tea from yesterday, steaming away in the gradually dwindling darkness. As Garak poured them both a cup, Julian hummed in satisfaction.

“You will spoil me.”

Garak gave him an amused smile.

“Don’t get used to it. I am all out of red leaf.”

Julian took the fragrantly steaming mug and shot his breakfast companion a grateful look. The message was clearly received; this was an indulgence they could no longer afford. It was sort of sweet that Garak went out of his way to make the experience of dining out amidst the ruins pleasant.

In the middle of the table, serving as centerpiece was a single pastel-colored bloom, floating on a small saucer and Julian’s eyes widened. It was one of Garak’s prized Edosian Orchids.

“What-“ Julian started. “You needn’t have cut your beautiful orchids for me, Elim!”

Garak offered a smug little smile over the rim of his cup.

“It could hardly be considered a romantic outing without a flower arrangement, isn’t that right?”

Julian gave him a withering look. It was too early for banter.

“You’re insufferable in the mornings, anyone tell you that?”

Garak beamed, then leaned in conspiratorially.

“Once or twice.”

Just when Julian was starting to wonder whether the breakfast was a hoax, he noticed two familiar foil packets sitting before each of them and snorted.

“I should have known this was too good to be true.” Julian grumbled, to Garak’s obvious amusement.

“You seemed quite adamant to force one of these down my throat yesterday, my dear Doctor. Does my cooking displease you?”

Julian wanted to be mad at Garak’s silly behavior, but he couldn’t find it in himself to complain if it meant the Cardassian would finally get a nutritionally balanced meal.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” He said. “I am sure it will be delicious.”

Garak regarded him with mock irritation and took another sip of his tea.

“I suggest you eat that before the main event, it would be such a shame if the taste detracted from the experience.”

Julian quirked his lips and followed the suggestion. They chewed in silence for a few minutes and Julian tried hard not to let his revulsion at the blandness of the rations show. If Garak’s smile was anything to go by, he clearly failed miserably. Luckily, the tea helped. He was quite tempted to close his eyes and simply enjoy the moment when Garak’s voice pierced his reverie.

“It’s starting.”

Blinking rapidly a few times, Julian turned his gaze towards the horizon.

At first, there was nothing but pale gray light, invading the dark canvass of the sky like watercolors. Julian watched with bated breath as the color gradually transmuted into the softest cherry blossom pink. As Cardassia’s star peeked its way across the edge of the ruined world, Julian forgot to breathe altogether. The colors bloomed across the sky like a benediction, casting their warmth across the ruined landscape. Involuntarily, Julian’s hand reached out towards the horizon, almost as if he could touch the painting and feel the texture of the colors on his skin. All too soon, the sun rose above the land and took all the magic of the exquisite hues away.

Once his shock and loss abated somewhat, he turned back towards the table and startled when a weathered gray hand covered his.

His gaze flew upwards.

“Thank you, Julian.”

His heart swelled in his chest as the day quickened around them. To his amazement, he knew exactly what his friend meant, without needing it explained. The feeling of comprehension was so heady it almost made his head spin and he could feel his face transform with joy. After all these years, he finally understood. This is what it felt like to see eye to eye, to understand a concept that previously eluded you.

This is what it felt like to see the world without blinds.

“I see it now, Elim. I guess there’s hope for me yet, hm?”

Garak nodded subtly and Julian could see the man’s eyes glistening. It was such a vulnerable look, but Julian had a feeling there was no one stronger in the world in that moment. He covered Elim’s hand and caressed it soothingly.

“I want to see everything. Will you show it to me?”

Garak took a steadying breath and nodded.

“May I suggest you get dressed for the day? If those engineers arrive soon, I will never hear the end of it.”

“Oh? Will they accuse you of being a filthy xenophile or a Federation collaborator?” Julian teased.

“My, my… What a vivid imagination you have, dear Doctor.” Garak said dismissively. “They will obviously accuse me of both.”

“And we can’t have that, can we?”

“Naturally. Now go.”

“Are you sure you don’t need help with the table?” Julian asked.

“In the interest of saving time, I’d rather not.”

“Suit yourself.” Julian shrugged. “Just don’t go complaining to me if you pull a back muscle.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it!” Garak inclined his head in mock respect. “I would go complaining to Kelas.”

With a last eye roll, Julian traipsed back into the shed to get dressed for the day.

It would probably be a busy one.

Chapter Text

Julian was experiencing an inner debate. Ironically, it was about clothes.

He wasn’t sure whether he should wear his uniform to appear more professional, or whether he should go for civilian clothing to look less conspicuous. That was the state Garak found him in when he returned to the shed, carrying the table.

Julian turned around to ask for the tailor’s advice when he noticed the startled look in his friend’s eyes. He was about to ask what was wrong, or if he had some deadly venomous creature crawling in his hair, when he noticed the source of Garak’s apparent distress.

“Why aren’t you ready yet?” The Cardassian asked nearly accusingly.

“I wanted to ask your advice, since I don’t want any trouble while I’m here-“

“Wear long sleeves, and for the love of the state, don’t walk around like this.”

“What?” Julian asked, puzzled. “I was just changing!”

He didn’t understand why Garak was so upset, was the sight of a bare alien torso so disgusting to Cardassians? It was especially confusing, considering the man’s blue eyes were currently roving across his form on a downward course. He couldn’t be sure whether he was being assessed for vulnerabilities (seeing how humans were generally more fragile than Cardassians), or for his brazenness. It made him feel slightly uncomfortable and then Garak decided he should drive the point home by sliding his gaze back upwards. When their eyes met, Julian felt his cheeks redden.

“The sooner you tell me what to wear, the sooner I will get dressed! So, Starfleet uniform or civilian clothes?”

Comprehension dawned in his friend’s blue eyes as he pondered the options.

“I was afraid wearing the uniform might stir some negativity, but then again, leaving a more positive impression of the Federation could be worth considering. If I decide on civilian clothes, I could better keep a low profile, but I also invite more questions and risk looking unprofessional.”

“You have given it some thought, then. Good,” Garak said approvingly. “You’re starting to think more like a Cardassian.”

The infuriating grin was back.

“What do you think is the better option, Doctor?”

“I don’t know, Garak,” Julian cried out in frustration. “That’s why I’m asking you!”

“I could tell you to go like this.” He said smugly.

Julian glared at the man.

“I am pleased you find the prospect of my embarrassment funny, Garak.” He narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms. “For all I know, I might actually get lynched if I go out like this!”

Garak laughed uproariously.

“Would you please be serious for a moment and help me pick out an outfit so I don’t make an arse of myself?”

Garak merely smiled deviously.

“How our fortunes have reversed, dear Doctor! You never listened to my fashion advice before.”

“That might be because “I hate it” and “That looks horrendous on you” is not valid advice!”

“I beg to differ,” Garak said sanctimoniously. “It clearly means you should not appear again in that particular offending garment.”

“If I threw out everything you hated in my wardrobe, I’d be walking around naked.” Julian sniped.

Garak’s answer was a quirked eye ridge and an infuriating little smile.

“As amusing as this little interlude is, my dear, we’d best get ready. Keep the trousers of your uniform and take…” Here he cast a critical look over the shirts strewn over the bed and picked one up. “This one. It’s the most structured thing you have and thus the least offensive to our sensibilities.”

“Thank you.” Julian said sarcastically, snatching the chosen garment out of Garak’s hands. “You could have said that immediately and saved us all this trouble.”

“And miss your outrage?” Garak grinned. “What would be the fun in that?”

Julian rolled his eyes and proceeded to get dressed.

“Oh, and put your communicator in your pocket.”

“Yes, dear.” Julian grumbled.

Just as he was putting his boots back on, the whooshing sound of some sort of engines made him perk up.

“I think our ride is here.” Julian commented.

Garak swiveled towards the doorway and stood still for a moment.

Oh . Julian realized. Cardassian hearing wasn’t as acute. It was entirely possible that Garak hadn’t heard anything until he mentioned it.

“You appear to be right. Pack what you need while I greet the pilot.”

“I’ll be right out to help load up the supplies.” Julian promised.

Once he made sure his bag contained only the medkit, sanitizer, his leftover water pack and an energy bar (which he didn’t need, courtesy of field rations, but someone else might), he slung it over his shoulder and stepped out of the shed. He found Garak efficiently dismantling his perimeter defense and running over the manifest with three Cardassians, two women and a man.

One of the women was opening the big crate containing the water purifier and frowning about something to her male colleague, while the third Cardassian pored over a PADD Julian realized must have been the delivery schedule Garak had drafted while he’d been asleep.

“This might take the better part of the day, sir. If we had an operational transporter, we’d be done in a few hours, but…”

“Could we hook up one of the power generators into the skimmer’s transportation systems?” Julian asked on an impulse, so used to providing input in similar situations that he didn’t have time to think whether his opinion was even needed.

The woman he assumed to be the pilot turned his attention to him.

“In theory, maybe. But our engineers aren’t overly familiar with Federation technology. It might take them longer to fix the skimmer’s transporters than it would to manually move cargo.”

It was in that moment that Garak stepped in.

“I believe the good Doctor and I should be able to make a workaround. It shouldn’t take longer than half a time unit.” Then he turned to the two engineers who were whispering something over the water purifier, clearly already engrossed in their work and addressed them. “That should give you enough time to familiarize yourself with the schematics of the generators and the purifier. Everything you need should be on that PADD.”

The woman spoke in clipped tones.

“I foresee some issues with compatibility, but we should be able to work something out.”

“I have every faith in your abilities.” Garak said, respectfully inclining his head. “Now, Doctor, why don’t we have a look at this transporter system?”

Julian nodded and opened one of the crates to fetch one. He carried the generator to the skimmer parked a bit further away and walked inside after Garak. It would be an extremely tight fit, he realized. It wasn’t an overly spacious vehicle, and while it might serve for some minor supply runs, it clearly wasn’t intended to haul large amounts of cargo.

“Follow me,” Garak ordered. “It’s this console here.”

Garak tapped the commands and grumbled.

“The pilot said the ship’s engines couldn’t provide enough output to power the transporters, but she didn’t mention a malfunction in the system itself.”

Julian was familiar with the controls and could probably operate these relatively easily, but fixing them was another matter entirely. Luckily, Garak seemed confident in his repair skills, since he pulled out a toolkit from a wall-mount and pried the access panel off. Julian peered over the man’s shoulder and looked at the mechanical guts of the system. A component was fried, that much was obvious, but he didn’t know exactly what its function was.

Garak pulled out a tool and prodded one of the components. Whatever he was doing took about five minutes, then he declared:

“The central power converter is damaged beyond repair. Luckily, I was able to get the auxiliary one back online. We can re-route with this field generator and it should work fine. For awhile, at least.”

Julian nodded and let Garak work, occasionally handing him tools.

“I wish I had asked Miles more about integrating Federation and Cardassian systems; it would have come in handy right now.”

“Seems like a wasted opportunity to me, Doctor.” Garak muttered distractedly.

“It’s not my fault the jargon always makes me tune out!” Julian said defensively.

Garak looked at him shrewdly.

“And are you not equally guilty of doing the same? I distinctly recall many instances when your companion’s eyes would go glassy during one of your speeches on obscure virus’ infection mechanisms, or some such.”

Julian blinked and realized Garak was absolutely correct. He was aware that people tuned him out when he got too medically verbose, but didn’t realize he was doing the same.

“I concede your point.” Julian offered graciously.

“You are awfully agreeable today, my dear. Must be all this invigorating Cardassian air, hm?”

“Maybe I’m finally growing up.” Julian shrugged. He no longer wanted to be perceived as an inconsiderate and selfish person. He no longer wanted to be that person.

“Experience usually has that effect on us.” Garak said meaningfully.

But was it Garak, Julian wondered? Were these Kelas’ words, or Elim’s?

“I was a horrible friend to you.” Julian blurted out.

Julian lamented his sudden inability to hold his tongue, especially considering there was no reply forthcoming. What else could he say? He couldn’t turn back the time. Strangely, he didn’t even want to. Whatever happened in his past had been necessary, no, instrumental in teaching him lessons without which he’d be floundering even now. He now knew why he never seemed to be able to learn crucial social skills. There was no basis for it, nothing to build upon. How could he form any sort of meaningful relationship with another sentient being if there was no honesty involved? It was like trying to build a sandcastle in mid-air on a particularly windy day. The scattering particles would always be both sad and frustrating.

“I hated your lies.” Julian admitted.

“I was under the impression they amused you.” Garak said lightly.

“They vexed me.” Julian confessed. “The theatricality and gusto with which you performed them were amusing at times, I admit that… But they were frustrating, all the same.”

Garak sighed.

“You are aware, dear Doctor, that I couldn’t have done otherwise?”

With a long exhale, Julian nodded.

“I know. But I was genuinely trying to get to know you - the real you.”

“And then I shattered too many of your illusions.”

Julian knew exactly the conversation Garak was referencing.

“You said some hurtful things, but you were in agonizing pain. We all say things we otherwise wouldn’t when operating under so much stress.”

Garak abandoned the repairs for a moment and focused on him. Those unswerving, determined eyes made him unaccountably nervous. Would his frail, newfound comprehension survive the man’s next words? He desperately needed it to, for he couldn’t bear the thought of appearing as foolish as he used to be.

“The wording of your arguments has improved. I am pleased you learned from our little lunches.”

“So, what did I mean by my last statement, then?”

Garak indulged him with a soft sigh.

“I shall ignore this little outburst of misplaced insecurity and oblige you.”

Julian knew he must be looking both pathetically relieved and embarrassingly grateful, but he didn’t care. This was important.

“Thank you, Garak.” He said sincerely.

“You correctly assessed and acknowledged the intention behind my words back then; they had indeed been designed to wound you. Next, you graciously pointed out the extenuating circumstances which brought about my disgraceful behavior. And lastly, you inferred that I would not have otherwise shared those hurtful sentiments aloud, had I not been in such a dire state.”

There was more. Julian could feel it, hovering ominously between them like unspoken words often did. Compelled to fill in the blanks, he let it all out.

“You meant what you said. A part of you hated me, resented me. And while you never would have voiced it in any other circumstances, the pain gave you the excuse to say it.”

Garak smiled proudly at him.

“You’ve come a long way, Doctor. I’m gratified to see that my efforts weren’t entirely in vain.”

Julian felt like he was having an epiphany. For the first time, he felt like he’d managed to grasp the double meaning behind the enigmatic Cardassian’s words.

“Entirely in vain… Does that imply some resentment over me not getting here sooner?”

The man decided to go back to his repairs, but Julian could see a little smile gracing his gray lips.

“If only we could work on your awareness of the proper time and place to be having these conversations; that would be splendid.”

Noticing the teasing tone, Julian accepted the chastisement in the spirit it was meant and fell silent.

Soon they would be underway and it was best to let the man finish working within the allotted time. There would be plenty of time to talk later.

They had two months, after all.

Chapter Text

Julian felt like a sardine. The four of them were packed in the front, elbows and knees bumping regularly in the confined space. The other Cardassians didn’t seem to mind, in fact, it looked like they didn’t even notice it. The lack of oxygen bothered him, and he wondered why Garak wasn’t having a panic attack already. The interior was positively crammed with cargo, extending well into the seating section. It was a minor miracle they had room enough to even sit. Curiously, any thought of claustrophobia seemed the furthest thing from Garak’s mind, since he was currently engrossed in conversation with the two engineers. The overly technical back and forth was impossible to follow, considering he never really bothered learning the intricacies of Cardassian engineering.

Instead, he focused on the animated look on his friend’s face as he listened to potential issues and gave pointers and insights into the intricacies of Federation technology. Garak was efficient and seemed to come alive with the discussion. Now, more than ever, Julian was glad he came. He had two months to help out with the rebuilding efforts, and he was determined not to waste them. Even if that meant being completely ignored by literally every other person present.

It’s not like he wanted or even needed their approval.

Still, it was quite fascinating to observe their interactions. How much of these people’s faces were masks? He doubted they had anything on Garak - now that was a master of dissimulation! These people’s masks seemed smooth, but they were easier to read. The female engineer was polite and respectful, but Julian could see so much more behind that façade – the cautious excitement over fixing such a vitally needed part of the infrastructure, the slight unease with his presence, but also a subtle undercurrent of wariness towards Garak. He wondered what that could be about.

The male engineer seemed tired, likely in several different ways at once. There was something harried about the way he kept punching his PADD, almost like he was attempting to catch up to a huge backlog of work and trying hard to hide how overwhelmed he was. The female engineer was obviously his boss, and an exacting one at that.

The pilot kept quiet and focused on the helm. She appeared to be entirely focused on her task, to the exclusion of everything else.

And Garak, well… He was friendly, but not too friendly. There was a subtle vibe of I-am-your-boss-and-I-expect-you-to-get-it-done, even if it was softened by the look in his eyes which said: “Just do your best, kid.” Julian was fascinated by the layers of meaning unfurling before his eyes. It was all so much more complex than he’d thought. Was this how all Cardassians navigated their social engagements? Put into perspective, it really put a spotlight over his lack of finesse from the beginning of their friendship. Now, he couldn’t understand why Garak, a consummate conversationalist, would subject himself to such undignified floundering. Julian realized he must have been totally exasperating to talk to back then. His attempts at subtlety had been laughable, and his frustration too obvious. No wonder Garak mocked and teased him all the time.

Julian supposed that’s what teaching advanced astrophysics to a five-year-old might feel like; a concept could be explained, but the child would likely retain every tenth word, keep latching onto unimportant details and, in the end, understand none of it.

He’d been such a child.

“We’re reaching the first drop-off coordinates, sir.” The pilot said.

“Excellent!” Garak exclaimed jovially and it made Julian wonder what purpose it served in this context. The pilot was legitimately respectful, if detached, so it couldn’t have been for her benefit. Why such theatrics?

He observed the engineers’ reactions keenly. The woman seemed to find it slightly alarming, while the man gave a small, determined smile. If he didn’t know any better, Julian would theorize that Garak wanted to keep her off balance and encourage her companion at the same time.

With surprising grace, Garak maneuvered around the crates to get to the transporter console.

“Hailing the Research Center, sir.”

“Patch them to me.” Garak said firmly and Julian heard an unfamiliar female voice over the comm.

“Ghemor told me to expect a shipment; do we need to send porters?”

“No need, we’ve managed a temporary fix to our transporters. Where do you want the supplies?”

“I’ll send you the coordinates shortly, one moment.”

Julian observed the tailor’s relaxed but immobile form and was struck by how professional and at ease Garak seemed in the role of a transporter chief. That’s what happened when a person was ridiculously competent, he mused. It probably didn’t hurt the man was a spy, trained to blend in seamlessly.

Hah . A tailoring joke.

“Materializing, stand by.”

A moment later, the commline came alive once more.

“You forgot something.” The female voice said with audible annoyance.

“Adjusting coordinates now.” Garak said and Julian was perplexed by the rich amusement in the man’s voice. What was so funny?

“Energizing.” Garak said and Julian blinked in confusion.

“What the-“ He said with mounting alarm, only to witness the world around him dissolving.

Once he landed on his behind, the view of a middle-aged Cardassian woman sitting comfortably in a chair greeted him. She was grinning.

“Try to be more careful in the future. The package seems fragile.”

Julian was incensed.

“Garak!” He yelled indignantly off the floor.

Delighted laughter traveled over the line.

“It’s clearly no worse for wear.” Garak’s smug voice remarked nonchalantly.

“Luckily, for all involved. Now leave me to my work.”

“Not even a word of thanks?” Elim snarked.

“I was not impressed with the delivery.” She said, even though her expression belied her words.

“Au revoir, my dear.” Garak spoke and then the line got cut, but not before Julian managed another undignified squawk of the smug bastard’s name.

“Get off the floor, please,” The woman (clearly high ranking) commanded. “It’s unbecoming.”

Utterly humiliated, his face flaming, Julian attempted to rally his wits and got up as gracefully as he could. He straightened up and assumed his attentive officer stance.

“This isn’t Starfleet Headquarters, Dr. Bashir. Will you salute me next? At ease, if you would be so kind.”

Julian blinked stupidly a few times, but complied to the best of his ability.

“I am sorry, but you seem to have me at a disadvantage, Madame…”

“Head Medical Researcher Zeyem. For brevity’s sake, call me Head Zeyem. If I like you, I might allow simply Zeyem, but for now, stick to what I said.”

Julian nodded and she continued.

“I was told by Ghemor that you are a qualified physician.” The appraising look on her face revealed she had serious misgivings about his qualifications. “It remains to be seen if Federation standards match ours.”

With that, she got up and Julian stared at her like a hapless child.

She was huge. Head Zeyem practically towered over him, and it wasn’t just the superior attitude. The woman was what could only be described as stocky, but he couldn’t help but be intimidated nonetheless.

“How well do you know Cardassian physiology, Mr. Bashir?”

Noticing the way she omitted his professional title, he concluded she was being disrespectful on purpose, likely to give him a hard time. He wanted to straighten his spine and turn unyielding but thought better of it. She clearly disliked Starfleet, or the military, or the stuffy protocols – hell, maybe all of the above. Appearing rigid was likely not the right way to earn her respect. Making up his mind quickly, he allowed his posture and expression to relax. He’d make no excuses about the unavailability of data, or flatter their record keeping. It was time to be effortlessly charming and bring out the big guns. Subtly.

“Oh, well enough to mend broken bones and remove a defective anti-torture device from the potstcentral gyrus of a former Obsidian Order agent.”

One look at Zeyem and he knew that answer was the least expected thing he could have possibly said. She had clearly hoped for him to become defensive, or to explain everything he knew in excruciating detail to overcompensate for his discomfiture, but he had obviously managed to surprise her.

“I will give you open access to our anatomical database, to begin with. Since I was told you have an almost Cardassian memory, I will expect you to pass muster until the end of the day.”

Julian was flabbergasted and entirely certain it showed. He was expected to learn everything about Cardassian physiology in a single day? The woman was mad!

And entirely implacable, it seemed, for she motioned for a console with her hand and sat back down in her chair, proceeding to ignore him entirely. Knowing well enough not to protest, he walked to the console and accessed the files.

This would be a long day, but it would be completely worth it, because at the end of it he’ll get to strangle Garak.

Chapter Text

Julian's brain felt like mush. It took him all of five seconds to realize he'd need to put all his enhancements to work if he stood a snowball's chance in hell at even skimming the entire thing. He was used to slowing down his thought processes to pass for normal but had to abandon all pretense if he was to succeed. And damn it all, he wanted to impress the crap out of Head Zeyem. Garak too, while he was at it.

That bloody, infuriating Cardassian! Now he knew why Garak had been so nice over breakfast. He was trying to butter him up!

Not even bothering to hide his frustration, Julian flipped through the files furiously. Pages after pages of information flickered across the screen, and he kept at it with a rabid determination. Everything from skeletal structure to musculature and tendons, nervous system, types of blood cells, hormones, neurotransmitters... Everything he never had the chance to learn was flickering before his eyes tauntingly. The intricacies of the Cardassian digestive system blended into the molecular composition of their resilient epidermis, and facts about their reproduction swarmed around him like a horrifyingly persistent plague of locusts. As he raced through the data with the tenacity of a man on a suicide mission, he drew comparisons to human physiology.

It would be quite interesting if he had time to spare to ponder it, but he didn’t have the luxury, so he focused on the most glaring things.

Cardassian vision was superior, as they could see farther and had no issues with low light.

Their hearing was less sensitive than a human’s and their ears couldn’t pick up sounds under 15 decibels.

Their brain shared remarkable similarities to the so called reptilian part of the human brain, and had obviously evolved differently from there. This explained certain behaviors.

Their gestation period was around six months.

Cardassians were surprisingly resilient to most forms of anesthetics, requiring either a dose high enough to outright kill pretty much any other species or, apparently, their own anesthetics which could be found no place else. Julian was pretty sure the compounds effective on Cardassian biology were lethal to other humanoids, even in small quantities. He wondered whether this method was used by their assassins. It’s not like he’d be surprised if it were.

There were many things of note, but he simply had no time to spare on analyzing them. He’d been here for five hours already, without a second to rest, and still had more information to absorb. His body was going numb, so he would occasionally stretch his limbs, but otherwise kept at it.

As he was reading a particularly tedious section about the cardiovascular system, an insidious thought occurred to him.

Now he knew what this was about.

Garak was punishing him!

When he’d asked the man for forgiveness, Garak said he’d give it to him. As in, he wasn’t forgiven yet, but he could be. If he played his cards right.

If he suffered enough.

Julian wanted to telepathically reach out and throttle the scaly bastard. As if it wasn’t enough that he had to spend his vacation getting roasted in this blasted heat; now he had to work for a tyrannical Head of Medical Research, all without knowing exactly where he was, why he was there, and what was expected of him.

Except memorizing everything there was to know about Cardassian physiology in less than a day.

Sweat was getting in his eyes and he wiped it away with his sleeve, cursing the day Garak sent him his blasted missive. He could be back on the station now, enjoying a temperature bearable to a human being (it was currently 43°C in the room) and sipping a nice, cool drink with Ezri.

It was decided. As soon as he got back to Tolan’s shack, he’d murder Garak. Somehow. Now that he knew entirely too much about Cardassian physiology, a whole new array of possibilities opened before him. He currently had the means to employ 47 different ways to achieve the man’s demise, ranging from nearly instantaneous to drawn-out and agonizing.

He was currently leaning heavily towards long and agonizing.

To drop him like this, without warning, into a completely unknown place, with this despotic woman! Did he not even deserve the consideration of being told the most basic information concerning him?

Before he had the chance to continue indulging in his self-righteous indignation, he felt something clonk against the console. He lifted his gaze angrily at the interruption and then noticed it was Zeyem, holding out a glass of water, looking at him and clearly expecting he take it.

Not sparing a thought to what he was doing, he picked it up, drained it completely and handed it right back without a word. At the moment, he couldn’t care less about what she thought about his rudeness, he had better things to do. He breathed in deeply to regain his lost focus and threw himself into the database once more without sparing her as much as a single glance.

The Kardassi symbols swam before his eyes like an irritating afterimage you got from staring into the sun for too long. Everything was blurring together, but he blinked furiously, refusing to capitulate. He was angry at the never-ending stream of data, fuming at Zeyem for being a slave-driver and positively livid with Garak for pretty much everything else currently wrong with the universe.

This must take a Cardassian student at least a full year of dedicated study and he was expected to learn it in a single day? Lunacy! If he wasn’t already passably familiar with Cardassian physiology, this would have been a futile endeavor. At some point, he realized Zeyem had been full of it when she said he’d have access only to the anatomical database. The information branched out into microbiology and virology, genetics, exhaustive lists of hereditary conditions and pretty much everything but the kitchen sink, even though he could swear he’d find that too if he squinted hard enough.

This was starting to feel less and less like a crash course, and more like a deliberate and insidious new form of torture. His shoulders ached, his eyes burned and he’d cracked his neck for the third time in the last twenty minutes. When he looked at the time, it was past 18:00. He’d been stuck in this same room since approximately 07:00, and he felt absolutely knackered. He needed to use the bathroom, but dared not show weakness by asking for it. He could hold out a while longer and he would.

At this point, he was 100% certain some of the information served the express purpose of confusing him. There was most certainly junk in this database and he wondered who in their right mind would store such unconfirmed information, half-finished studies and dubious testing; disjointed, poorly classified samples serving as a testament to shoddy research.

Fed up with it all, he straightened out and abandoned the console.

“I don’t know who you employ to do your research, but the methodology is atrocious. I refuse to be subjected to any more of it.” He wanted to add: And now you will excuse me while I find the nearest bathroom before my bladder explodes right in front of you, that would be dreadfully rude of me, wouldn’t it? He willed his body to start reabsorbing the excess fluid. There was no faltering now.

Zeyem looked at him inscrutably before launching into a rapid-fire cross-examination of his knowledge. Realizing he would be extensively tested for his recall and retention, he loosened his facial muscles and gave the most pertinent answers possible. The more he answered, the stranger the glint in her steely blue eyes became. At some point, he realized his tone was being filtered through a cheeky smile. A distant thought was spared to wonder whether he was now mirroring the smile Barkan Lokar found so irritating on Elim long ago. And just like young Ten Lubak, he found himself utterly incapable of modulating it. Once the questions came to a halt, she sat there in silence for 9,7 seconds and then rose to her feet.

He realized he was being handed a PADD and took it, swearing to himself he’d scream if it was more medical data. Curiously, it was the floor plan to a building; an amended one. What used to be a five-story building with two subterranean levels was now lacking its four uppermost floors. There were helpful labels for all surviving rooms, designating their use. He realized he was currently in the Head Researcher’s office. His eyes roved the plan greedily, taking in the locations of all the bathrooms and realized this office had one. Next, he ran a quick analysis of everything this building contained: a centralized storage room on basement level one, several laboratories, operating and diagnostic rooms, the central processing core room and a whole level now designated for patients. Especially interesting was a part of the layout designated simply as “Quarantine”.

He was severely tempted to throw the device at her and dash for her bathroom, but refrained.

This was all a test of endurance. If Elim was capable of standing unmoving for hours in the blazing, relentless heat of the Mekar Wilderness, Julian could hold his urinary needs in check.

Apparently noticing he seemed finished with the data, she plucked the floor plan out of his hands and placed it on her desk uncaringly.

“Follow me.” She intoned clearly, in a voice that brooked no argument. Unable to do much else, he did as she asked.

He catalogued the facility visually and noticed there didn’t seem to be a lot of staff here. The corridors were eerily empty, at least until they got to the area designated as the infirmary.

At the whoosh of doors, he was hit with frantic activity all at once. There were Cardassians lying on what was entirely too many cots for a space this size, and they were being treated by what looked like two haggard male nurses and a female doctor.

As soon as the staff noticed Zeyem, they gave her almost perfunctory nods of acknowledgement and went about their business.

“Junior Researcher Ghar, this is Dr. Bashir. He is here as a volunteer.”

The clearly overworked doctor looked at him, and her eyes widened. She was clearly surprised by his presence. Why that was, he couldn’t tell at first glance.

“Pleased to meet you, Researcher Ghar.” Julian inclined his head politely without averting his eyes. She seemed younger than him and he deemed his reaction appropriate.

“Yes, yes, likewise…” She muttered and repeated his gesture. That seemed to imply they were equals and he supposed she couldn’t know his seniority at first glance. These Cardassians were strange.

“Triage the patients, please.” Zeyem addressed him and he nodded.

He took his tricorder out and started scanning each patient. Several of them were unconscious, and the ones who seemed aware of their surroundings looked either too weak to protest being treated by a human, or beyond the point of caring. Most were adults.

He made a circuit of the room and presented his findings.

“All of these people are malnourished and dehydrated. The woman over there has a crushed femur and damaged nerves in her left leg, it will require extensive reconstructive surgery and soon, or she will lose the limb. That man has a ruptured liver, but it should be easily treated, and the girl over there has a severe lung infection.”

Zeyem looked to Ghar, who shrugged and nodded.

“Treat the man and the girl and then prep for surgery with me. Nurse Gaddik, take the woman with the crushed femur to the operating room 3.”

“Yes, Head Zeyem.” The man obeyed.

Say what he might about the lack of staff, they did seem quite efficient. And terribly overworked.

Julian cracked open his medkit, took out his tools and got to work. The liver was mended within a few minutes and then he went to the girl and asked for 30 cc’s of the Cardassian equivalent for treating severe bacterial infections. Operating on automation, he extended his hand absent-mindedly and waited. Nurse Jabara would have it in his hands in approximately 3,6 seconds.

When 4 seconds elapsed, he frowned and turned around to see what the hold-up was.

Ghar was looking at Zeyem with a slight veneer of panic shining in her eyes and the other male nurse who was still unnamed seemed hesitant.

Zeyem barked out:

“You heard the man! What are you standing around wasting time for?”

The nurse jumped as if bitten by a wild animal and scrambled around for the needed hypospray.

7,9 seconds too late, he was handed the requested medicine and dosed the child.

Then he turned around, handed the spray back to the nurse and faced Zeyem.

“Head Zeyem, I will require something to operate in.”

“Naturally.” She said. “Let’s go.”

One thing he could say for sure, this woman certainly wasted no time. He assumed that’s just the way it had to be while working under such constraints.

They passed down a semi-circular corridor and she pressed her thumb against a locker mechanism. With a sharp click, the metal doors unlocked. She reached out and handed him a dark brown smock, which he assumed was their equivalent of surgical scrubs. Once he took hold of it, she closed the closet shut and continued down the corridor at a punishing pace.

When they were in front of the operating room 3, she pressed a button on the side panel and the doors whooshed open with some difficulty. Zeyem pushed them open the rest of the way and stepped in. Knowing that wasting time was not an option for the patient, he got dressed, sanitized his hands and put on his own pair of surgical gloves. The nurse stood by, but Zeyem dismissed him. The man left obediently, leaving the two of them alone.

“Our equipment is not in the best state currently,” She conceded. “If it gives out mid-surgery, you will have to compensate.”

Julian knew immediately what that meant. If the machinery broke down, he would have to cut the leg open. He fervently hoped it didn’t come to that.

In lieu of a verbal response, he gave a grave nod of understanding. They were both professionals here. Medicine used to be practiced long before their technology was sophisticated enough to enable doctors to enjoy a relatively bloodless profession.

A war torn Cardassia didn’t have that luxury.

Marshalling his focus, he stepped closer, breathed in deeply and began.

Chapter Text

Julian was dead on his feet. The smell of Cardassian blood filled his nostrils and he suspected the scent would persist in his memory for days.

The power went dead mid-surgery and when the back-up generators came to life some fifteen seconds later, the machine he was using flickered and died. He knew he had no time to even attempt repairs, so he mutely asked for a scalpel and Zeyem assisted.

They were three hours in, and Julian’s fingers were starting to cramp. Assembling bits of bone and fusing them back together manually was exhausting and entirely too delicate for comfort, but he managed. He was a physician and a damn fine one at that. He’d be damned if he didn’t save this woman’s leg.

Once the femur was put back together and he could no longer detect any stray bone fragments, he focused on the damaged nerves. Distantly, he noticed Head Zeyem’s hands occasionally stroking their patient’s hair. The gesture was confusing, but he couldn’t focus on it now.

Once he deemed the nerve damage sufficiently healed, he went about closing her leg. There would be no scarring but the patient had lost a lot of blood and he’d be panicking right about now if he hadn’t seen Zeyem injecting her with synthesized blood about half-way in.

Finally done with his ordeal, he spotted a chair in the corner of the room and collapsed into it. Bone-deep weariness settled over him and he felt tired. His adrenaline levels were dropping and there was now a pounding in his skull. He’d kill for a raktajino and some pain meds right about now.

“There a washroom through that door, go clean up.”

Julian wanted to be angry at the woman for not letting him rest, but he obeyed nonetheless. As he stepped into the dimly lit washroom, he saw a sonic shower and felt a longing to indulge. He could work fast. Stripping as fast as his body allowed, he rushed to the toilet and relieved himself. Once he was done, he stepped into the shower stall and let out a pleasurable sigh as the device did its magic. As soon as he stopped feeling disgusting, he grabbed for his clothes and gave them a pass too, because who knew when a new chance to clean them would come by? He watched the smock go back to its original color, then turned the shower off and dressed in haste. The tiny mirror on the wall reflected his tiredness cruelly. He slapped himself to look more awake and slung the smock over his arm.

As he stepped out into the room, he discovered the patient had been removed, likely at Zeyem’s request and she took his scrubs, tossing them into what looked like a laundry bin.

“Let’s go.” She said and he sighed in defeat, but schooled his expression into grim determination and allowed her to lead him where she willed.

They seemed to be heading back to her office and his suspicions proved correct as the doors to his torture chamber du jour opened. Zeyem went to the replicator and motioned for him to sit in the chair opposite hers. Too grateful to complain about hard Cardassian chairs, he sank into it and stretched his arms as far into the air as he could before stifling a yawn.

“I’d offer you something to drink, but we can’t really afford to waste our replicators on anything other than water and specific medical compounds at the moment.”

“That will be fine, thank you.” He said graciously.

She replicated them two identical glasses and handed him one. The water was tepid, but he didn’t care. He allowed himself a moment of much-needed respite. He could hear her settling in across the desk, but kept his eyes closed. Operating in the half-light had been straining on his eyes and he just wished to rest them for a moment.

“A skimmer will pick you up every day at 06:30. You will work here until 17:00. Your time will be divided between research, triage, and surgery as needed.”

He blinked a few times, unable to respond in any meaningful way.

Her gaze was cold steel, but her shoulders dropped a fraction. She still cut an intimidating figure.

“You are likely unaware of our circumstances, so I shall endeavor to explain,” She began, her voice flinty. “Approximately 80% of our infrastructure was destroyed. The remaining 20% is in various stages of disrepair. Some parts of the city either have no power at all or experience frequent outages. This facility was designed with its own generator and computer systems and is, as such, self-sufficient. Our systems were damaged in the Fire, and we lost a significant portion of our most sophisticated medical equipment, but all things considered, this building is surprisingly intact as far as medical facilities go. There is around half a dozen other hospital centers in Cardassia City, all functioning in similar conditions. This used to be a Research and Diagnostic Center, but we had no choice but to open our doors to a broader spectrum of patients.”

“I see.” Julian said simply.

She ignored his remark and continued.

“We are currently the only medical research facility on Cardassia Prime. Do you know what that means?”

Julian had a vague idea, but was fairly certain his notions were superficial, at best.

“You are treating everyone you can, mostly for dehydration and malnutrition, which isn’t exactly what you specialize in, is it?”

“No, it is not.” She said calmly, taking a sip of water.

“There are more serious medical conditions you could be addressing, but you are too swamped by the influx of patients to give it proper attention.” He speculated.

“Go on.” Zeyem prompted, looking at him shrewdly.

“You have an established quarantine area, which likely means you are dealing with some sort of virulent outbreak.”

She remained silent and clearly waited for him to expound upon his opinion.

“You are clearly severely understaffed and-“

Here she interrupted him with an impatient hand gesture.

“We have three nurses, two doctors, one of which is Junior Researcher Ghar, and me. None of us specialize in surgery. The rest of our staff has been reassigned to the only relatively intact surgical center in the Barvonok Sector. All serious cases are rerouted there.”

“The woman we operated on…” Julian began, only to be interrupted once more.

“If you had failed, I would have been forced to send her there and she would have probably died en route.”

Julian sobered instantly.

Something softened in her gaze, almost imperceptibly.

“I heard you are to thank for the medical supplies and provisions I received today.”

He expected her to continue, but when no more seemed forthcoming, he said:

“I just brought what I thought might be of use.”

“And of use it shall be, Dr. Bashir. I shall see you out now. Make sure you get enough rest for tomorrow. If you will only be staying here for two months, I intend to make full use of you.”

Feeling strangely like a piece of property, he just nodded dumbly and allowed himself to be escorted off the premises. When he stepped outside, he was greeted by the vibrantly crimson twilight. When had it become so late?

“Welcome to what’s left of Coranum, Dr. Bashir.” Head Zeyem commented solemnly.

Chapter Text

Julian pondered Zeyem’s words long after she had gone.

Garak had been right, Coranum was completely destroyed. Julian thought Paldar had it rough, but the oldest part of Cardassia City was just… gone. There were a scant few buildings which managed to preserve at least a portion of their ground floors, like the Research Centre, but the rest was a flattened, charred plain of rubble.

Once more, his mind wandered to his Cardassian friend’s letter and its many descriptions of lush greenery. Plant life was not exactly in abundance on this planet; even before the war, but Julian had a sinking feeling it was so much worse now. If Coranum Grounds were burnt away into nothing, and Tarlak suffered a similar fate, what did that mean for the only surviving rainforest on Cardassia? If Morfan was gone… The thought was terrifying.

“Dr. Bashir?” A calm male voice enunciated clearly, startling Julian out of his doom-filled thoughts.

He was met with a tall, strongly-built Cardassian who was looking at him with polite interest. Julian wondered whether word really traveled that fast, or if Garak had turned into a worse gossip than Jadzia in his old age. Did every single Cardassian on this dusty rock know his name?

“I was sent to collect you and escort you back to Paldar. I’m afraid there were no skimmers available.”

Now he had a chance to hear the man’s voice, he realized it was familiar. Everyone sounded slightly different over a comm, but if he wasn’t mistaken, this could only be… Well, he could be cunning too.

“Five Lubak, I presume?” Julian said nonchalantly and offered his hand for a handshake. The distinctly human gesture could serve to make the man slightly uncomfortable and he was quite happy to do so. Stupid, sneaky Cardassians!

The man he was facing didn’t seem at all uncomfortable or thrown off by the gesture and shook his hand firmly with a warm smile.

“I see Elim has been reminiscing again! He’s gotten more maudlin since his return, but I find it refreshing.”

With that, the man dropped his hand and motioned in the vague direction of the Paldar Sector.

“I suggest we speak on the way, the streets aren’t as safe as they used to be.”

Only then did Julian realize the man had a Cardassian disruptor at his waist. He fervently hoped it wouldn’t be needed and nodded his assent.

“This at least saves me the hassle of introducing myself.” Ghemor commented lightly.

“I am sorry, Mister Ghemor,” Julian said contritely. “I’ve had a long day.”

“Don’t worry,” the politician said kindly. “I was not offended.”

Perhaps Garak’s characteristic of cutting through to the heart of the matter was more universal than Julian had suspected.

“How is the Reunion Project going?” Julian inquired, genuinely interested in the answer.

Ghemor gave him a pleased little look, one only a man truly passionate about something could give.

Cardassia is changing, Doctor.”

Despite the brevity of the answer, Julian grasped the meaning behind the words. The Cardassian society has largely been stagnant; its militarism deeply entrenched for hundreds of years. Everyone was used to it and the fact things were actually changing spoke volumes. According to Garak, their old tactics and power dynamics were crumbling. This was a pivotal moment in Cardassian history and he was currently speaking to the man spearheading the movement for a more open and tolerant society. It was actually a privilege to be here and see at least some of it happening before his very eyes.

“I am honored to bear witness to it. You seem to be doing right, from what I could gather.”

“Has Parmak been at you too?” Ghemor gave a delighted laugh. “You should be thanking him instead, Dr. Bashir. He spends more time furthering our cause than I do.”

“Proselytizing, Garak called it.” Julian said, already relaxed in the man’s company despite himself. There was something unaffected about Alon Ghemor’s posture and behavior which just seemed to put him at ease. The effect was probably felt even more keenly by Cardassians.

“Such a good word,” Ghemor mused. “Elim’s always had a way with words. Once you actually got them out of him, that is! He used to be as uncommunicative as a rock, that man!”

“I can’t imagine,” Julian shook his head in bemusement. “When I first met him, he was so opinionated it was impossible to shut him up.”

Ghemor visibly sobered at those words. Now, Julian could see what might draw people to this man. He had an honest face but it was more than that. There was a healthy dose of cautiousness and confidence which in tandem with his open expression made him appear entirely trustworthy and dependable. Garak’s self-confidence was more elusive, hidden within his words and skill, but never so openly displayed. Julian supposed it came with the territory.

“We have all changed, good Doctor. The world has left us little choice.”

This was true, Julian mused. He voiced his thoughts freely.

“Humans believe that times of great strife show people for who they really are - stripped of their veneer of politeness and restraint. War and hunger are excesses which push our deepest selves to the front. On Earth, we have observed that in times of disaster, people are capable of both their most selfless and most selfish deeds.”

“Survival asks no permission. I understand.” Ghemor nodded.

“I know next to nothing about Cardassian proverbs.” Julian lamented.

“I would have assumed you’d be quite proficient by now, considering you are good friends with a Cardassian.” Ghemor remarked.

“Ah!” Julian exclaimed. “Consider who that Cardassian is for a moment, will you?”

The skin around Ghemor’s eyes wrinkled in clear amusement.

“Garak mostly spent his time torturing me with the Never-Ending Sacrifice. I suppose he had to do something to amuse himself.”

“Well, it is a quintessential piece of Cardassian literature.” Ghemor said soberly and Julian very nearly groaned out loud. “Even if it is dreadfully dull.” The man conceded with a conspiratorial little smile.

“Thank you!” Julian exclaimed in both relief and exasperation. “At least someone agrees with me!”

Ghemor offered a brief smile and then his face slipped into something more serious.

“Differing tastes in prose aside, I was hoping to speak with you undisturbed.”

Julian inclined his head in understanding.

“Now’s as good a time as any.”

Ghemor didn’t waste time acknowledging his response and continued:

“I have been told the supplies you’ve brought came from you.”

“I was awake for that part of the conversation, so I’m aware Garak told you. You really needn’t thank me, though.”

Alon Ghemor looked at him quite shrewdly at that.

“Basic courtesy demands I do, Dr. Bashir.”

Julian sighed. The more people thanked him, the dirtier he felt. A part of him was glad Cardassians weren’t telepathic or empathic like Betazoids, or he’d be either severely judged or half-way through a therapy session by now. He was entirely too tired for any kind of verbal sparring.

“Give us a month, Dr. Bashir. Then we will show you exactly what good came of your generous gift. Would that suffice?”

Julian couldn’t hide his bewilderment even if he wanted to. To be perfectly honest, visual confirmation would soothe his guilty conscience more than any words of gratitude could. And anyway, what did it matter what his motives were if it helped these people? His insensate rationalizations were completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The supplies he brought would make a difference, no matter how small, and that was more than enough. Even if he ended up returning to DS9 with his tail between his legs after Garak finally sobered enough to tell him his condescension was unwelcome and undesired.

The thought of failing in his mission to make peace with the man and hopefully mend their friendship twisted in his gut like a squirming eel. He wanted to deserve his redemption.

“Yes…” Julian whispered. “I’d like that.”

“Good.” Ghemor nodded somberly. “Now, onto the reason why I came today.”

Julian snapped to attention.

“I am aware you are not a very high-ranking officer in Starfleet - which isn’t unusual for medical personnel - but I also know you have certain connections which could make our voice heard in the Federation and I was hoping you would help us with an important matter.”

Julian considered the words for a moment. He could tell it was serious and had a hunch as to what it was.

“Is this about the lack of Federation support in your rebuilding efforts?” He asked tentatively.

Ghemor seemed relieved and spoke frankly:

“Just so. I am aware that the Federation also suffered heavy losses, and the fact our governments have never been on particularly good terms with one another isn’t lost on me, but we would like to petition for more aid. Some of my compatriots would rather die of hunger than demean themselves by asking for help, but I don’t share their opinion. The populace doesn’t want to starve to death, and the fact some of our former leaders cannot see past their ridges shouldn’t affect the civilians. Even a little would go a long way, Doctor. And I don’t expect you to take my word for it; I shall use the supplies you brought to prove my point in a month’s time.”

Julian now knew exactly why this man was the face and voice of the new Cardassia. He looked beyond what he was taught and judged his next course of action based solely on what was necessary to the people he represented. Ghemor looked like a man who wouldn’t allow his pride or personal comfort to eclipse the greater good. Julian could also tell there weren’t very many Cardassians like him, and if someone silenced this fledgling voice of reason, Cardassia might very well simply slide back into its old dysfunctional ways. Now he knew why Parmak and Garak were so protective of this man – he was, quite literally, a beacon of hope for all those who wished for change.

Julian decided he quite liked the man.

“I will help however I can. If you wish me to pass on a message to Starfleet Command, I’ll gladly do so. I would also submit a personal report concerning the things I’ve seen here.”

“That certainly wouldn’t hurt, Dr. Bashir.” Ghemor said wryly. “We are well aware your word carries more weight than any one of ours. Just don’t tell that to anyone, it would certainly pinch some scales!”

Julian laughed at the descriptiveness of the idiom.

“It would ruffle some feathers, I understand.”

“Truly?” Ghemor looked at him with shining eyes. “How strange that a species without feathers would use such a saying.”

“Huh.” Julian halted. “I’ve never thought of it that way.”

“We may all seem so very unyielding to Humans, but you will find Cardassians enjoy nothing better than a fine debate. Even when we disagree and especially if we do, we leave the conversation enriched. My advice to you, Doctor – do not be afraid to engage. You might be pleasantly surprised.”

 

The truth was, Julian was already pleasantly surprised by most of his interactions with Cardassians so far. He had hoped to smooth things over with Garak, but he hadn’t expected his trip to be so eye-opening from the get go.

Things were so strange now. DS9 was his home, more than any other place he’d ever been and he supposed that spending over seven years in one place would make it so. Still, ever since Miles left and Kira took command… Things weren’t the same. While he was infinitely glad the whole ordeal with the Dominion was over, he was beginning to feel useless. Now he was more or less a glorified CMO on a regular space station. This was the real reason behind his research proposals – he was bored out of his mind, at least professionally speaking. Which reminded him, he’d have to find a way to send a message to Ezri quite soon. She should know he’d arrived safely and how he was doing.

They continued the trek towards their destination in companionable silence. The night had fallen in earnest now, blanketing Cardassia in deep blue shadows. The sky he longed to see was obscured by thick clouds and he could barely see any pinpricks of light in the dark gray canopy. This also meant he could hardly see anything around him. Ghemor obviously sensed his apprehension and gently guided him along, subtly pointing out any obstacles in their path. Julian was forced to remember that Alon Ghemor was a fully trained graduate of Bamarren. He wondered if that made him more or less dangerous than Garak. The strange thing was… He didn’t consider Garak dangerous, not insofar as it concerned him. Not for a long time now. And Ghemor was giving him a similar impression. The man was certainly capable of killing him, but instinctually, Julian knew he wouldn’t. He had no reason to. After all, Ghemor could hardly get Federation help if he killed a Starfleet officer vacationing on Cardassia Prime, Julian thought wryly.

“He speaks highly of you.” The man commented in a very off-hand manner, which instantly made Julian suspicious.

“There’s no need to look so uncomfortable, Doctor. Your humbleness does you credit.”

Julian could set him straight, but didn’t feel like arguing his point. He was about the furthest thing from humble one could possibly get. His good memory was sometimes a curse because he could recall precisely how many times he’d been called arrogant in his life. The number was in the three digits range currently. He used to feel a sort of competitive pride when he did better than his peers, but then he’d remember that none of his achievements were his own merit. They might have as well given that Carrington Award nomination to the team of geneticists on Adigeon Prime.

“I don’t know how open Elim is with you, but you should know that you’ve left a deep impression on him.”

Julian wanted to believe that. He desperately wished it could be true that he’d made an impact on the mysterious tailor he met almost a lifetime ago. Instead he sighed in defeat.

“Not all deep impressions are good.”

“A significant influence should never be dismissed by tacking on the labels of good or bad to it.” Ghemor said meaningfully, his eyes the only light in the suddenly oppressive darkness crawling around them.

“I… hurt him.” Julian said truthfully. He had no idea what made him feel comfortable enough to discuss it – he’d certainly never felt comfortable talking about it with Ezri. Perhaps the inability to see the person he was speaking to helped.

“That’s what we all do to those we care about the most. It’s an inevitability of existence, I’m afraid.”

There was something profoundly comforting about Ghemor’s words - a benediction bestowed upon foolish mortals who were to be forgiven instead of condemned for their inherent weakness and fallibility.

It was these words he was still turning over in his head as Tolan’s shed came into view, greeting them with a muted light shining from within as a beacon in the void.

“Garak!” Ghemor called out brazenly. “I’ve brought your Doctor!”

“Which one, Alon?” Garak’s amused voice reached them.

“Do you hear that, Bashir?” Ghemor addressed him, “It would seem you are part of Elim’s collection now.”

Julian felt slightly uncomfortable with their easy banter and watched as Garak glided into view. He and Ghemor grasped each other’s forearms at the elbow and laughed like old friends. The politician teased:

“You definitely have a type, my friend. I shall torment Kelas over that when I see him tomorrow.”

Julian had an uncomfortable feeling in his stomach. The implication seemed obvious and his suspicions over Garak’s and Parmak’s involvement were renewed.

“Don’t be cruel, Ghemor. You know very well that dear Kelas is irreplaceable.”

It sounded like teasing – the phrasing, the intonation, the body language all told him so, but something didn’t quite add up and he couldn’t figure it out.

“Suit yourself, Garak. I’d best leave now – plenty left to do before I turn in. Keep me apprised of any developments.”

“Of course.” Elim inclined his head minutely and looked to the ground for a fraction of a second. What was that? Julian thought. That was the same gesture of respect granted to the old matron from the transport. Perhaps it was also reserved for people of a superior station, except he’d know if Garak had used it ironically, but he hadn’t. The respect was genuine and freely given. Just another proof of the kind of esteem he had for the man.

“Step inside, dear Doctor.” Garak said and swept his hand through the air in a gesture of welcome.

“Home, sweet home.” Julian said tiredly and stepped over the threshold.

Now he got to decide how to spite Garak for landing him in hot soup with Zeyem this morning.

Chapter Text

Julian entered the shack and looked around in a perfunctory manner. His eye was immediately drawn to the bed, which now had a mattress lying on the floor in front of it, taking up pretty much all the space available. His immediate thought was that Garak shouldn’t sleep on the floor since it might trigger his claustrophobia – the bed was raised, so it gave an illusion of room. Besides, it offered a better view of the door and Julian knew how vigilant the former spy was.

“I see you found me a place to sleep, thank you.” He said sincerely, even if his tone revealed how tired he was.

“You are my guest, dear Doctor. I won’t have you sleeping on the floor.” Garak said imperiously, but his voice echoed a similar kind of tiredness. He must have had an equally grueling day.

“Doesn’t the bed offer a better vantage point? I don’t want you to have a panic attack because you were too gallant for your own good.”

Garak gave him a soft look.

“I have an alarm system for that. Besides, it’s been a while since my unfortunate condition was set off in here and I believe we have nothing to fear on that front.”

“Only if you’re sure. I really don’t care where I sleep.”

“If that is the case, then the bed is yours. It will save me the trouble of jumping over you if I need something in the middle of the night.”

Julian sighed theatrically, quite unable to suppress a grin.

“Ah, Garak. Practical as ever.”

“It is a virtue.” The man said with a small tilt. The head movement was minute, but Julian saw it. It was a gesture Julian saw Garak perform before in instances where he would concede a point – which wasn’t all that often.

Julian tried to remind himself he was still terribly upset with Garak for his rude behavior earlier in the day; Zeyem had chewed him out and spit him out, his head hurt something fierce and his muscles ached in a way that signaled they would be sore tomorrow. The day had been productive, though, and that was something he couldn’t bring himself to regret.

That didn’t stop him wishing for some scones with moba jam. At least he’d managed a quick sonic shower. He was well aware it was a luxury most Cardassians couldn’t afford. He was quite spoiled, wasn’t he – all things considered?

The reprimand was at the tip of his tongue when Garak sighed and tossed a PADD aside in frustration.

“Tough day?” Julian found himself asking instead.

Garak pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered:

“Indescribably so. The engineers Ghemor found didn’t live up to expectations.”

“Let me guess,” Julian interjected. “The woman messed something up in her over-confidence?”

Garak offered a fleeting smirk.

“Bravo, my dear Doctor! It’s exactly as you said, in her haste and overblown sense of personal competence, she failed to double-check all the intricacies of system compatibility and turned the purifier on prematurely – blowing out the city’s entire power grid in the process. It took us two hours to bring it back online and we have been set back at least a full week’s work to make a second attempt. At least the purifier wasn’t damaged by her incompetence.”

Julian laughed a smidge hysterically at that.

“So you are the ones to thank for me having to cut a patient’s leg open mid-procedure… I’ll be smelling Cardassian blood for days and dreaming about femur jigsaw puzzles for months! I should send that engineer some flowers, what do you think?”

Garak halted for a moment and then started laughing his head off. It was the most unrestrained Julian could remember seeing him, even if it was slightly morbid. Buoyed further by the absurdity of the situation, Julian’s choked laughter mingled with Garak’s.

This kind of insanity could only happen in real life, for truth was usually far stranger than fiction.

Julian was clutching his stomach and watched Garak double over, similarly afflicted by mirth. If anyone came upon them at that moment, they’d think them both certifiably crazy.

“I should be mad at you for the stunt you pulled this morning!” Julian squeezed out between shuddering guffaws.

Garak managed to get his body under control and straightened out, his posture suddenly naught but dignified. It made Julian snort and dissolve into helpless laughter. The poise the tailor exuded didn’t reach his voice, however.

“You’ve gotten more proficient at the art of conversation, my dear; I can no longer be sure what you mean.”

“Really?” Julian looked at him incredulously, his body stilling slightly. “You find nothing objectionable in the way you shipped me off to Zeyem?”

Seemingly just to irritate him, Garak spoke smugly.

“Quite the contrary, Doctor, I believe it was perfectly expedient and well executed on my part.”

Julian looked at him incredulously, feeling his anger overcoming the tiredness.

“You beamed me down like a piece of cargo! I landed on my ass in front of a scary-looking Cardassian lady, like a complete idiot!”

Garak covered his mouth with his hand to prevent a snort and his eyes reflected unadulterated amusement.

“It’s not funny, Garak!” Julian huffed furiously. “I was mortified!”

“It can’t have been that bad, if you can refer to Zeyem that way.”

The man’s nonchalance was maddening. Julian was severely tempted to get into the man’s personal space, poke him in the chest with his index and berate him at length about making him look utterly unprofessional in front of his new boss. And while he was at it, he’d rant about not being told he’d be going anywhere in the first place. But when he took his first angry step forward, he found his personal space invaded instead. Garak was standing close, too close for comfort and the look in his eyes was unfamiliar – which frightened him.

He won’t harm me. Julian’s mind reminded him, but his body didn’t get the memo it seemed, because his heart-rate spiked and he felt the adrenaline rush acutely. What was wrong with his physical responses? Did this mean he was still wary of Garak?

Alarmed by the man’s stillness, he took in every slight movement like he was prey on the lookout for its predator. When Garak merely held out his open palm, Julian felt like a heel. His entire body sagged in relief and he brought his own palm in alignment with a soft sigh. This day had him too high-strung. He was obviously too tired to think straight.

In the welcomed relaxation of the moment, he closed his eyes and simply enjoyed the uncomplicated physical contact. Elim’s palm was coarse but warm. Julian allowed himself the luxury of letting it linger and felt as if the gesture was draining his stress away. Admittedly, it was a nice feeling after such a taxing day.

“We should go to sleep.” Garak murmured softly and Julian could feel his subtle breath dancing across his skin.

“Sure.” Julian agreed, opening his eyes and letting his hand fall away. “We could both use it.” He let the encouragement show in his eyes and smiled despite his fatigue.

Garak’s hand lowered a split-second after his and he suddenly looked every bit as tired as Julian felt. It was as good a time as any to change into his sleeping attire, which he did expediently and dropped onto the bed bone tired. He could already feel himself drifting off as he watched Garak fold his clothes with care and place it on the table in a neat pile. The man must have caught his eye because he could hear his warm voice in the soothing darkness.

“Good night, my dear.”

It’s so good just to hear his voice again, Julian thought to himself.

“Good night…”

Elim .

Chapter Text

It's only been a week, but Julian felt exhausted. He’d known all along it would be this way; his vacation to Cardassia was never intended as one, but he was starting to wonder whether he was a masochist at heart. He would either spend his days up to his elbows in Cardassian guts or in relentless research into several infectious diseases, with occasional chats with the rest of the staff to break the monotony.

After a whole week he could tell that: a) Zeyem seemed a mostly hands-off kind of boss; b) Doctor Ghar was barely qualified for the position as she was essentially still in training; c) Nurses Gaddik and Trengem basically lived at the Research Center since their apartments in Torr were destroyed and d) they were all pretty cautious around him (with the exception of Head Zeyem).

The work was really rewarding for the most part, even if it left him nearly catatonic with exhaustion. The 07:00 to 17:00 had been a massive lie since he tended to stay at least three hours longer on average. Sometimes, it was even his choice.

And when the hospital skimmer would ship him back to Garak’s in the evening, he kept on researching the viral strains. He could always be doing more, but he paced himself. Operating on less than 70% of his capacity was no good for anyone. If he kept exhausting himself like this, he was bound to make a mistake, which he was trying to avoid at all costs. He was no good to these people in this state, so he put the PADD down on his chest and closed his eyes.

Garak had even longer days than he did; this was the third time this week Julian had arrived to a dark and empty shack. Already used to the dimness, he didn’t bother with the lights and had gone straight for the bed to lie down while he read up on something.

The heat had also been a problem, but today – with the sky so overcast, it was manageable. 33°C was quite cool by Cardassian standards.

Julian relaxed into the mattress, not even noticing its hardness anymore. In the stillness of the late afternoon, he rested. His thoughts, usually so frantic and immediate, slowed to a steady, languid thrum. Cardassia was so much more than he expected – more of a ruin, for one. More relatable.

Just… more.

Cardassians were not entirely the way he had imagined them, either. They lacked that certain theatricality both Garak and Dukat possessed, and he wondered if that was also a learned behavior, a sort of crowd-pleasing tactic to employ against the masses. Or, in the tailor’s case, on unsuspecting human doctors. He could feel his facial muscles pulling into an involuntary smile. Once upon a time, he had enjoyed it quite a bit. A part of him even missed it. Garak was so rarely smiling these days. Each day brought good and bad news in equal measure, but the man would usually force a smile regardless. Julian hoped it wasn’t just a front to put his human sensibilities at ease.

The wind was picking up outside, isolating him further from the rest of the city. The gentle whooshing of air through the rubble created a unique sound vaguely reminiscent of waves crashing against a pebbly shore. Did Cardassians dream? Julian rarely dreamed; if he did it was usually to relive a memory.

The darkness was so inviting and he yawned. He could afford to sleep a bit before Garak got home… That way, he’d be able to converse with the man on more or less equal footing.

***

“The kanar will go to waste.”

“Nonsense. The night is young.”

“It would be rude to drink without him.”

“My sweet Kelas, he doesn’t even drink kanar. The last time he tried it, I had to watch him suppress his silly human gag reflex.”

That seemed so familiar…

Elim…” A soft sigh gusted nearby like an echo of the outside.

“There’s no need to sound so disappointed. There is plenty of time left.”

“I am sorry I was late…”

“Patience has its rewards, dear Kelas.”

“Coming from a man who usually accuses me of that same trait-“

“Accuse? Preposterous, my dear…”

“Don’t give up on me now, Doctor. Patience has its rewards…”

Elim, you’ve gotten more defensive. Please, tell me what’s wrong.”

“I am perfectly fine, my dear overbearing Kelas.”

Garak. That was his voice.

“If a wound is not treated, it will fester. You know that.”

“All my wounds have scarred over.”

It was the sound of walls snapping into place… Retreating back into…

“But to the point where he’s unreachable? Where nothing penetrates? How can he express even his basic needs if he’s trapped inside a shell?”

Thoughts bled through, fighting for supremacy.

Am I still asleep? Julian wondered.

“Clearly not all of them, my poor Elim.”

Parmak Why was he dreaming about them?

“I am too tired, Kelas. Could we leave the toast for tomorrow when we will all be better rested and able to enjoy it?”

Julian wished he could open his eyes and wake up.

The darkness creeped around the edges of his vision, blurry like milk glass.

They are standing so close…

“You know I can’t deny you anything, don’t you?” Dream Kelas said, his voice full of promise and…

Yearning.

Garak’s sigh drifted in and a distorted image of their palms meeting between them flickered in and out of existence. Kelas’s fingers were starting to intertwine with Garak’s but the man pulled his hand away.

“Don’t.”

That didn’t sound like a man stuck in a shell.

“I am sorry, Elim.”

“Words are wind.” Dream Garak said firmly.

Their darkened forms elongated like shadows swaying in the candle-light. They met in the middle, mingled and then all was quiet once more.

I am dreaming… Julian reminded himself.

He was just dreaming.

His fingers twitched as the wind howled around him.

Something clattered to the floor and he jolted awake into a half-sitting position. The shed was dark and quiet around him. There was no trace of either of them.

It was just a dream. Julian sighed with relief.

“It was just a dream…” He whispered, not knowing why he felt the need to repeat it out loud.

Blinking the sleep from his eyes, he picked up the fallen PADD and got back to work. He’d gotten quite enough sleep for one night.

Maybe Garak would have some good news for a change.

When he eventually got home.

Chapter Text

It was another hour before Garak showed up. The thick blanket of clouds was hiding the sky completely tonight. Julian realized how lucky he had been that first day on Cardassia, because every subsequent night the starry sky had been obscured by at least a partial cover.

As soon as Garak opened the door to step in; dusting himself off while he was at it, Julian greeted him with a deliberately domestic: “Welcome home!”

Garak gave him an amused little look and asked, “Why are you sitting there in the dark?”

Julian shrugged.

“I don’t want to waste power. Besides, the PADD’s bright enough to read easily.”

“Well, we deserve to be wasteful today.” Garak said curiously brightly and turned the light on.

“Oh, how extravagant!” Julian snarked. “What’s the good news?”

This earned him a little satisfied smile from Garak who started to tidy up his workbench.

“The water purifier has been successfully installed and hooked to our power grid. As of tonight, Barvonok, Torr and Akleen Sectors have access to clean water. If all goes according to plan, the rest of the city should be connected by the end of next week. Nobody will have to go thirsty anymore.”

Julian’s face stretched into an amazed smile.

“That’s incredible, Garak! We should celebrate this!”

Garak snickered.

“Way ahead of you, Doctor. Ghemor and Parmak are planning a little celebration for tomorrow night. Kelas has offered to cook – don’t ask me how or why, it’s best to leave him to whatever kindly deluded thing he commits himself to, and Alon has volunteered a fine vintage of kanar.

Julian’s face scrunched up in distaste and Elim laughed.

“You will toast, and I will hear no arguments! It would be dreadfully rude to refuse.”

The dramatic tone Garak used implied he was talking out of his arse and Julian found it really funny.

“Fine!” Julian attempted his own theatrics and sprawled over the bed like a swooning damsel, using the PADD in lieu of a fan. “I shall merely fall into anaphylactic shock and pray to the gods that the gallant Dr. Parmak will save me before I tragically expire in your arms!”

“You aren’t allergic to kanar, Julian.” Garak chided him for his obvious lie.

Julian was too amazed by the use of his first name to care. This was only the second time (that dawn was the first) Garak had called him by his name. Julian still alternated between the man’s two names, depending on his mood or tiredness.

“You hate Shakespeare, Elim, why can’t I hate the taste of kanar?”

“No, my dear Doctor, you hated Quark’s watered down version of kanar. Alon won’t offer us such swill.”

“That’s not what I remember!” Julian exclaimed. “You were drinking it straight from the bottle-“

“Yes,” Garak interrupted in an utterly dignified manner. “When I was mentally compromised.”

Julian looked at him cheekily.

“You seemed perfectly lucid when you accepted my proposal to finish the bottle someplace quiet.”

Garak had that infernal teasing glint in his smile again.

“My dear, I would have followed you into the waste-disposal centre if you had offered it to me then!”

Julian laughed, mirth filling him with warmth at the fond memories. They used to be quite ridiculous, the two of them.

“You weren’t that drunk!” Julian accused.

“It would have been nice if we had finished that evening the way you proposed it to me.” Garak admonished wistfully. “Instead, it turned out to be nothing but a ploy to get me to the infirmary.”

“It was a necessary subterfuge. I was actually surprised you didn’t see through it immediately!” Julian grinned in a winning manner.

Garak sighed and abandoned his tools, pacing the length of the shack to come sit by his side.

Julian made room for Garak and dropped his legs off the side of the bed.

“You know you could have told me, don’t you? I would have helped you. There was no need to let it get so bad.”

Garak exhaled and leaned against the wall, turning his head to face him.

“Asking for help is a sign of weakness. Placing your life fully in the hands of another is a dangerous prospect – surely that opinion no longer surprises you?”

“Did you honestly think I would hurt you, Elim? Me – a Federation doctor?”

“There are many ways a brilliant young physician can cause harm undetected.”

That blue gaze held steel and mist in equal measure. Julian couldn’t figure it out.

“I never wanted to hurt you…” Julian confessed, feeling frighteningly vulnerable and much too exposed.

“You didn’t.” Garak said reassuringly, patting his hand which rested on the mattress between them. “You have always been kind.”

Julian averted his gaze and shook his head. The hand didn’t retreat and he was pathetically grateful for it. He hadn’t been kind.

He’d been polite.

He’d been courteous.

He’d been friendly.

But never kind. True kindness presupposed the existence of genuine caring – true emotion.

His emotions were always easily excitable but never deep. They flitted from one subject of fascination to another in an endless stream of superficial impressions he gorged on to hide what he truly felt, even from himself.

Especially from himself.

Julian guessed it was ironic that Cardassia was the one place in this universe where he couldn’t run away from himself. Ezri had been trying to get him into therapy, but he had assured her he was fine.

And he was fine, for his standards, anyways – safely compartmentalizing everything into neat little rows of meticulously labeled boxes, all meant to conceal the gaping hole in the wall behind the shelf. He’d always been a shiny façade hiding a structurally unsound edifice. Even the ruins of Cardassia held more meaning than his inner being. How could he ever share it with Ezri? Who wants to be told they are dating an empty husk which constantly needs a fresh stream of stimuli to keep functioning? He may be oblivious sometimes, but even he knew she deserved better.

Unaware, he clutched Garak’s hand.

Cardassia may be broken, but Julian was even worse off. Cardassians would rebuild, would unite in a single purpose – they had always been good at that, even when their goals were war and exploitation, but Julian…

That’s why it hurt so badly when Garak had called him a Vulcan, so long ago, in the Defiant’s infirmary. The comparisons to a computer hurt him deeply because they were dehumanizing, but that racist comment hurt even worse and not because he thought it was true on the surface level.

It crushed him to think even Vulcans had emotions, even if they worked hard to suppress and control them, whereas he had nothing to suppress except for an endless well of fear that his defect would one day be made public. That was why he reacted so badly when his genetic enhancements came to light – he had assumed someone would connect the dots and see him for what he truly was – a shallow excuse for a human being.

It was 30°C and he was shivering. How could he be cold in this climate – it made no sense.

The world was a dark blur, undulating before his eyes. The heart beating in his chest was straining to rip itself straight out of his ribcage and his skin felt clammy.

I need Kukalaka , he thought desperately. I need an anchor – why did I leave him on DS9, why?

He could hear a child whimpering outside the shed and wondered numbly if they got hurt playing by the monuments. Maybe Garak would go outside to see what was wrong and leave him alone to fall apart in private. He was about to comment on it when he felt his hand being moved.

“Just cry, Julian. There’s nobody here. Cry as much as you want to.”

Blinking twice to clear his eyes, he realized his face was drenched in tears. They ran down his cheeks like two unbroken streams and he was rocking like a little child. He was so afraid. He needed Kukalaka.

When he felt the pull on his hand, he had no strength to resist and the next thing he could see was the fabric of Garak’s thick shirt. There was a comforting hand around his back and another twined in his hair.

I’m scared . He thought desperately as tears overflowed from his eyes.

Shhhh, my dear.” Elim’s gentle voice soothed, “You’re safe.”

I’m so scared .

“I’m here. It’s all right.”

Another shudder broke through his uncooperative limbs.

You don’t understand . He kept thinking. You don’t know…

“Nobody can hurt you here.”

The gentleness in that usually so rich and playful voice broke something inside him.

That wasn’t the point! That was never the point! His mind rebelled, but his hands only grabbed the man’s tunic as he wept, entirely unable to verbalize his thoughts.

Shhhh, my dear. It’s all good.”

No, it’s not good! It’s not!

It’s not good because…

“I’m no good!” He cried out, voice raspy and broken and shrill, piercing through the armor and the force-fields and the darkness and the lies.

“You are good, Julian… I know you are.”

No!

“Jules was good…” He sobbed, clinging harder and trembling. “He was stupid and he was slow, but he was good! Then they poked him full of holes and made him smarter, and they made him believe he was normal. It felt good to be smart, to understand what a cat is, or why fire burns to the touch… But they took his soul, Elim! They took my soul and now I am-“ His voice broke and he drew shuddering breaths, trying to force the shards through the scarred tissue.

“They didn’t take your soul, Julian. They wouldn’t know how.”

“They did!” Julian bawled and convulsed in Garak’s firm embrace. “I’m not human, Elim, I’m just pretending!”

“Nonsense, my dear Doctor. You’re as human as they come.”

“I’m a black hole, Garak! Things go in, but nothing comes out! I just take and take until there’s nothing left and then I move on to a new star, like some kind of insatiable parasite!”

“It’s called compartmentalizing, Doctor. It’s perfectly normal for a Cardassian.”

Stop deflecting!

“It’s not normal to feel nothing! It’s not normal to abandon relationships once the novelty wears off! I did that to every single woman I’ve dated – to Palis, to Leeta…”

To Ezri

He felt like a monster – a dirty, disgusting, irredeemable creature.

“And I did it…” Julian whimpered, curling into himself as far as he could.

To you.

It was too much.

“I’m not even a real human…” He wept disconsolately, his impotent hands grasping at the man’s chest in a mockery of communication. He was a terrible surgeon – looking for his heartbeat in another person’s chest.

“Then be Cardassian.” Garak offered simply.

The words pierced through him like a clean sharp scalpel lancing a dangerous abscess.

Perhaps…

Perhaps he’d been searching in the wrong place. Could this be the answer? Was this the truth he’d been looking for?

The hand lovingly carding through his hair moved to his face and he allowed Elim’s movements to guide him. When their faces were almost level and their eyes met, Julian was struck by the beauty he saw. Everything he came here for – understanding, acceptance and forgiveness – was freely offered in Elim’s soft gaze.

“Your place can be here, if you wish it. You were always welcome.”

And there it was – the light of the moon shining upon them like a benediction and Julian felt…

Free.

Chapter Text

Julian felt comfortable and warm. He was held in a warm embrace and it felt wonderful. A steady rhythm of someone else’s breathing filled his senses as the only thing he could hear. Something smelled sweet, like moist soil in an English garden, except more elusive and exotic. Sighing in bliss, he burrowed deeper into the arms of the person lying beside him. It was early yet, around 05:00 in his groggy estimation and he opened his eyes to visually verify whether dawn had broken yet.

He awoke to the sight of gentle rays of cherry blossom pink stealing across his sleeping companion’s face. Even asleep, there was something vigilant about Garak’s features, even if it was muted by a rarely witnessed softness.

Elim

Yes. That felt right. He may be Garak in the outside world, but in here… He was Elim – caring, watchful, open. Julian observed with rapt attention as the first feeble rays of light caressed the Cardassian’s scales and ridges; the interplay of subtle shadows and muted highlights dancing between every contour was mesmerizing. It looked so much more interesting than the smooth plane of human skin. Perhaps that’s why he’d always been drawn to Trill – their spots were utterly fascinating. Ezri’s were particularly exquisite.

Thinking about her felt strange. He’d sent her an update a few days ago, but didn’t hear back from her yet. She was probably busy.

Garak shifted minutely in his sleep and Julian’s attention was captured once more.

Julian couldn’t remember ever having cried as much as he did last night. The feeling of exultant liberation was still with him and it was all thanks to the sleeping Cardassian he was currently tucked into. He’d been so lost in his mind yesterday, it was embarrassing. Apparently, he had needed therapy. Admitting the truth to himself was exactly what he’d been missing.

No matter how difficult it was to admit it, he was a broken man. Deeply.

But it didn’t have to stay that way. Garak had been kind enough to coax him through the arduous process of admitting his worst faults. Progress never came easy to Julian. Each attempt at introspection was a grueling prospect that took a lot out of him. So much so that he rarely even attempted it anymore. He guessed he must have put it off for too long.

He gazed at Elim’s serene visage with a profound sense of gratitude. Even at his most lost; Garak had found him with ease. Julian wondered how the tailor managed it. It had to be one of the greatest mysteries in the universe.

Curiously, Julian noticed he felt completely at ease. Here he was, lying in a man’s arms, and felt not an ounce of discomfort. Such was the beauty of a platonic relationship, he mused. He felt protected and safe, almost as if he possessed some secret knowledge or unique insight into Elim’s sleeping mind which told him so. The arm wrapped around him was comfortingly heavy and protective.

Overcome by warmth and a blanket feeling of complete safety, he drifted off into a pleasant dream.

***

There was a strange feeling of pressure against his forehead. He struggled with the drowsiness he felt and tried to comprehend what it was. The moment his eyes fluttered open, he was greeted by the sight of gray neck ridges peeking out of a familiar set of clothes. The curious sensation which woke him was Garak pressing his lips against his forehead in a clearly soothing gesture.

Julian squirmed and muttered sleepily: “Are you kissing my imaginary spoon?”

Garak’s disused voice was gravelly and chastising.

“Please refrain from referring to it as such. It’s a derogatory term and you know it. Besides, it has a name.”

Julian smiled drowsily and murmured in a soft voice.

Chufa, was it?”

“Yes. Much better.” Garak smiled contentedly with his eyes closed. Julian thought he looked so relaxed. It was unusual.

“Why are you kissing my chufa, Elim? I can’t feel it like a Cardassian could.”

Garak only smiled lazily.

“Not every feeling is perceived by our bodies, Doctor.”

Julian thought he knew what Elim was referring to. The ever-elusive and much speculated upon subject of souls. Many species believed in their existence. Julian had never been sure but he supposed it was a nice thought. It was certainly something he wished to believe in. How nice would it be if there was a non-corporeal yet self-aware part of him that could continue his journey once his physical form inevitably failed him?

“For the sake of the argument, what did you feel?” Elim asked, his blue eyes peculiarly bright in the early morning light.

“Safe.” Julian answered without thought.

Elim gave him a supremely self-satisfied smile and said,

“Excellent.”

Julian gave him a bemused grin in return and tried to stretch.

“The Research Center skimmer will come pick you up soon, I suggest you freshen up.”

Julian nodded through a massive yawn and disentangled himself from the warm body of his friend.

It was time to face a new day.

Julian was sure it would be a good one.

Chapter Text

Julian was utterly distracted. This was probably the fifth time he read this patient’s medical file and he retained absolutely no information. He shook his head and tried again.

“Julian!”

This almost made him fall out of his chair. Zeyem never called him or any of her regular staff by their first name.

“Yes, Head Zeyem?” He asked, wondering if she’d noticed how scatter-brained he currently was.

“Where are you, Doctor Bashir?”

Julian blinked stupidly for a few seconds to get his brain in gear.

“Uh, here?”

Zeyem looked at him pointedly.

“You are not here, Bashir. You haven’t been here the entire morning.”

He looked to the floor sheepishly. It would seem he was caught after all.

“I’m sorry, Head Zeyem.” He said, genuinely contrite. His job shouldn’t suffer just because he was having a personal epiphany. It wasn’t fair to his colleagues or his patients. Julian was well aware that he should have left his problems at the door when he punched in this morning, but the feeling was unshakeable and wouldn’t be denied.

“So, where were you?” She asked, pursing her lips. He’d be scared if she was as stern as she usually was, but there was an almost childish curiosity in the undercurrent of her tone. “Were you lost in the past or the future?”

Julian gave an awed smile, bewildered by the fact he actually understood what she was trying to ask.

“Neither,” He attempted to explain, “I was in the present.”

She looked at him scathingly.

“No, I mean,“ He took a quick breath to marshal his thoughts, “I wasn’t present in this moment, but in a moment that has happened very recently. I guess it has spilled over into the here and now.”

“I am assuming it is something of great import?”

Julian smiled abashedly.

“Yes, Head Zeyem.”

“Well then,” She paced around him. “May I know what it is so we can get it out of your system before you waste any more of our precious time?”

For once, Julian wasn’t fooled. She wasn’t angry, not really. This was likely an attempt to be subtly supportive – the Cardassian way. Tough love, he mused.

Julian wasn’t sure how to begin. So many things were still fresh in his mind and they were vying for his attention quite chaotically. He grabbed a thread of thought and started there.

“Have you ever… had a moment of clarity? Like, a single flash where an answer to a question you’ve been pondering for years just suddenly comes to you?”

A subtle movement of her eye ridges answered in the affirmative.

“A lightning behind Akleen. Yes.”

“Is that an idiom?” He asked in eager curiosity.

“It is. Tret Akleen, the founder of the Union was supposedly giving an important speech when a flash of lightning tore across the sky during the most rousing part. Generally, the saying signifies a moment of inspiration and clarity of purpose.”

“Clarity of purpose…” Julian pondered and concluded it certainly made sense. Scratching his head, he asked her:

“What was your lightning behind Akleen moment, Head Zeyem?”

She huffed and rolled her eyes.

“If you are asking such a personal question, you might as well call me Zeyem.”

Julian stammered: “I meant no disrespect-“

“None taken, Bashir, now kindly shut up or I will change my mind.”

Julian promptly snapped his mouth shut.

“I’ve always had clarity of purpose, Dr. Bashir. I come from a long and distinguished line of politicians. The Zeyem family name used to be illustrious; no Council was formed without at least one member of our family. I am talking here about the civilian government, Doctor. We had a proud tradition we were expected to uphold. Luckily for me, I had three older brothers, so that particular duty was never placed on my shoulders. They got shipped off to the Institutes and I was mostly left to my own devices, which suited me perfectly. My Father was a profoundly ambitious man and his ambition and looks are about the only things I inherited from him. Therefore I, even as a little girl, knew exactly what I wanted to do with myself. Women were expected to go into the sciences, where they traditionally excelled. I was perfectly content with such a career, with one exception. I was determined to be the best. I would stand at the very top of my field, create cutting-edge implementations for the betterment of Cardassia and absolutely nothing would stand in my way.”

Julian was fascinated by her conviction.

“So I joined the Medical Institute, where I dominated my peers in every conceivable way and graduated at the very top of my class. My years of hard work had paid off. Even freshly graduated I had options many of my peers could only dream about. Research Centers across the Union vied for my attention desperately – I could have picked any one of them.”

There was a storm brewing in her words.

“After nine long years spent honing my mind, I went home triumphant! We celebrated my success over dinner, drinking my Father’s prized kanar and I felt proud that he would take one of the last bottles out of storage for me. I suspected nothing as my Father stood up to hold a speech in my honor. It was long-winded and exultant and I raised my glass to my scintillating success. My future was limitless!”

Julian very nearly gripped the edge of his seat in suspense. Disaster was just around the corner, he could feel it in the concealed tension of her body.

“When he announced I was to be enjoined to a Gul, the kanar turned to acid in my mouth.”

“He arranged a marriage for you without consulting you?” Julian exclaimed in outrage.

Zeyem laughed.

“Arranging a match for your children is not only customary on Cardassia, it is expected. Especially for a family as high-profile as mine.”

“If that is not the part you objected to, then… was he an old man?”

The powerful woman gave him an exasperated look.

“Marrying a man 10 to 20 years your senior is seen as prestigious, Doctor. I had no issue with the man’s looks or his age.”

“Was it his personality you hated?” Julian guessed.

“Not as such. We are quite proficient at ignoring our spouse’s more… unsavory traits, shall we say? Appearances are everything.”

Julian considered the options. If it wasn’t the man itself, perhaps it was…

“Oh! He was a Gul!”

“You’re catching on, good.” She commented, clearly pleased he finally understood. “Enjoining to forge political alliances is common sense as well as common practice, but understand this, Bashir, families were neatly stratified. Keeping our designated roles as civilian servants was important and we upheld that with nearly religious fervor. Until my brilliant father decided he needed to broaden his power base by allying himself to a prominent Gul.”

“I had noticed a certain… disdain for the military in your words, the first time we met.”

“Indeed. I am not subtle about it. I have no reason to be, anymore. My family is mostly gone and so are the vast majority of our social structures.”

“So… You rejected the marriage proposal?”

Zeyem chuckled like he said a most amusing thing.

“It is not in our power to reject a match made by our parents, Bashir. The higher you stand in the hierarchy, the less freedom of choice you have.”

“But you clearly got out of the marriage somehow?”

“Oh, yes.” She showed a particularly predatory grin. “I had a moment of clarity, Doctor Bashir, and I took it.”

“Why do I have the feeling I will hate what I’m about to hear?” He said worriedly.

“Because you likely will, Doctor. I will no doubt offend your Federation sensibilities with the unorthodox solution I chose for my problem.”

What did you do, Zeyem? Julian thought.

“If I got enjoined, I knew my career would be over before it began. I would be expected to breed like a prized riding hound and my considerable intellect would go to waste. My Father thought he was so clever, using me as a resource to fuel his insignificant office. He was a fool to propose such a fine, fully trained mind become nothing but a receptacle for some witless man’s seed! I could not allow his shortsightedness to dictate my life or the welfare of Cardassia. My mission was more important than his.”

Julian’s eyes widened in horror, which she seemed to pick up on.

“Oh, yes. That was exactly what I did, little Bashir.”

“But-“ Julian protested, “Wasn’t there an alternative?”

“None that had an acceptable outcome. This way, the Gul could go someplace else to find a fertile woman, I got to keep my career and nobody would ever foolishly offer me marriage again.”

“But, they could have used another’s ovum-“

“Doctor.” She spoke in a deadly quiet tone. “There is no part left in me capable of sustaining a life other than my own.”

Julian was rendered speechless.

“Spare me your pity; I have no need of it. I am perfectly content with the way things turned out.”

“You’ve never regretted your decision?”

“Not for a moment.” She said resolutely. “It’s ironic my family have always considered themselves married to Cardassia when I am the only one who ever truly got close to that ideal.”

Removing one’s womb was such an extreme thing to do, but he couldn’t judge her. Her position had been unenviable and she had every right to decide what to do with her body and her mind. If she was content with her choice, who was he to question it? It was simply lamentable that such an excessive action had to be taken to circumvent their awful social norms.

“Now, I am more interested in your little self-discovery.” Zeyem prodded him. “What was it you found so illuminating, Doctor?”

Illuminating…

All he could remember was the look on Elim’s face when he was offered forgiveness at last, with the moonlight bathing those expressive ridges in ethereal light. Despite himself, he smiled.

“What could have prompted my usually focused human to lose his place, hm?”She said in a teasing tone.

Is that what it meant?

Julian fell quiet, a look of vague astonishment dawning on his face. Yes, that was exactly it! With crystal clear realization he muttered:

“All my life, I was trying to keep my place, even though I knew I didn’t fit.”

He continued, considerably bolstered: “I agonized over keeping that place, no matter how wrong it felt.”

“And now?” Zeyem prompted.

Julian didn’t rightfully know.

“I guess… I have found a place that fits me better, a place I am welcome.”

Zeyem looked at him curiously.

“Are you used to being unwelcome?”

He considered her question carefully, for it could refer to almost anything. Choosing a pertinent answer, Julian spoke openly.

“Yes. I am used to it. I guess I haven’t realized how sick I was of it. In my quest to feel wanted, I lost something important.”

“Your place.” Zeyem offered simply.

His eyes lit up.

“Welcome back, Julian Bashir.”

He beamed at her like a praised child.

“Thank you, Zeyem.”

She gave him an indulgent smile and squeezed the very edge of his shoulder lightly.

“Now get back to work.”

Grinning at her sternness, he complied.

Chapter Text

Elim, are we supposed to bring something as a gift?” Julian asked, panicking slightly.

“My dear, stop exaggerating and get dressed.” Garak retorted.

“It’s a human custom to bring a gift, how is that exaggerating?” Julian huffed incredulously while rummaging through his meager selection of shirts, thoroughly aggravated by his limited options.

“We are not expected to bring anything but ourselves, Doctor. Now, would you stop that infernal fidgeting and pick something, or I will come there and dress you myself.”

The threat was real, so Julian focused on the task at hand. Seconds ticked by and he was no closer to making a choice. He’d already worn some of these and they were a bit dusty. As he furtively tried to smooth the fabric over, he was nearly scared out of his skin as two hands reached under his shirt and slid upwards.

The only thing he managed was a scandalized: “Garak!” And then he was turned around, facing a deeply concentrated Cardassian who had a most irritated expression gracing his scaly features.

“We will be late because of your dithering.” Garak admonished him, but Julian barely heard it over the roaring of blood in his ears. The hands stripping him were efficient and professional, but the touch lingered a fraction of a second past the point of comfort.

He is a tailor. Julian kept reminding himself. This is normal.

Yes, perfectly normal.

Then why was his pulse racing at the touch of the man’s cool skin against his ribs?

He scared me, that’s all.

The simplest explanation was usually the correct one.

Garak picked the most basic white shirt Julian had and draped him in it, placing his unresponsive arms into the sleeves. Julian’s brain shut down entirely and all he could do is watch completely paralyzed as Elim touched his bare skin while dressing him. The coarse texture of his palms was somehow electrifying, leaving gooseflesh in its wake.

Before he even knew what happened, his shirt was buttoned up and he was patted on his shoulder and pronounced passably presentable. All throughout, Elim didn’t even bat an eye and Julian wondered what was wrong with him.

“Let’s go, my dear.” Garak placed his hand at the small of Julian’s back and pushed him forward.

“How far away does Ghemor live?” Julian inquired, trying to stop thinking about his incomprehensible reaction.

“A fifteen minute walk provided nothing unexpected occurs.”

Julian nodded and fell into step after Garak.

“Are we expecting trouble?” He asked the vigilant Cardassian.

Elim grinned wryly and stated in his usual imperious manner: “One who expects trouble is seldom disappointed, my dear Doctor.”

Julian sighed. He could hardly expect Garak to change his cynical ways, but would it be too much to ask to be addressed by his first name? All this Doctor business was getting wearisome. Even Ghemor was more often addressed as Alon these days. Why did everyone have that privilege over him? It was getting ridiculous.

Elim… Are you angry with me?”

The question seemed to perplex the man, who merely raised his eye ridges questioningly.

“What makes you say that?”

Julian kept thinking about it but came up short.

Honesty, Julian. Use it, he encouraged himself.

“Why do Parmak and Ghemor get to be Kelas and Alon, and I don’t get to be Julian?”

Garak blinked. Julian decided to grasp at straws.

“It this where you tell me my name means something horrible and completely undignified in Kardassi?”

“Of course not, my dear. Luckily for you, it has no equivalent. Which is more than can be said for dear Kira.

“What does Kira’s name mean?”

“I shouldn’t be telling you this, but you asked. It may not be pronounced exactly the same, but it is a fair approximation for our word, kirr’ha – which means underage prostitute.”

Julian gaped and put his palms over his mouth to stifle an incredulous cry.

“That’s terrible!” He fought a chuckle trying to emerge.

Garak shrugged and looked at him significantly.

“It was unpleasant for all involved, I assure you.”

Julian choked on air.

“I guess that would partly explain Dukat’s obsession with poor Nerys.” Garak commented in an off-hand manner.

“Dear Lord, Garak!” Julian exclaimed with clear revulsion.

“I know!” Elim continued in a dramatic fashion. “That man had managed to father seven children on his legitimate wife and would have likely managed twice that many with his extensive harem of Bajoran comfort women if they didn’t keep getting rid of the fruit of his loins.”

Julian was aghast.

“I didn’t know that!”

“It was a terribly kept secret.” Elim shrugged.

“Did Dukat know?”

“What do you think?”

That scathing gaze told him everything he needed to know.

It made a warped kind of sense. Dukat had been a self-proclaimed benevolent dictator and if he truly was as predatory as was rumored, it would make perfect sense for the man not to want too many of his little bastards around.

“I will never understand how that degenerate managed to contribute to the creation of a soul as sweet and innocent as poor Ziyal.”

“I’m sorry, Elim. She was really kind and I know she cared for you a great deal.”

“The dear fool loved me.” Elim’s face contorted into a mask with a painful, bitter-sweet smile.

Julian’s pulse was racing. He hadn’t known that. Perhaps it was just platonically.

“What she saw in me, I still don’t know.”

That didn’t sound terribly platonic. An unsettling thought creeped up on him. What if they had been lovers? It’s not like he could expect Garak to be entirely truthful; his long letter notwithstanding. Even when the implication was clear, his writing was never explicit. Compelled by a force he couldn’t explain, he all but blurted out:

“Were you lovers?”

He regretted his insensitive question the moment the words passed his lips. After all, it was none of his business who Elim chose to sleep with. The look on Garak’s face was one of stunned incomprehension.

“Doctor, it can’t have escaped your notice that she was but a child.”

Instead of accepting that answer and retreating into safe topics, his mouth operated independently from his intent.

Zeyem told me age differences are not that big a deal on Cardassia.”

Garak’s eyes narrowed as he lengthened his gait.

“There is such a thing as too large an age difference. Nigh on forty years is a bit much, even by our standards.”

“Was that a no, then?”

Anger flashed in his friend’s blue eyes and Julian knew he had gone too far.

“I never as much as brushed against her inappropriately. I regarded her as something akin to a favorite niece. If there is one boundary we do not cross, it’s family. Unlike your species.”

Julian was stunned by the allusion to incest. He was medically aware of the practice in the past, but it didn’t exactly happen anymore. At least not on Earth, an insidious voice in his head reminded him and that voice sounded suspiciously like Garak.

He had pushed Elim too far. Ziyal had always been a sore spot and Julian knew it, preferring to avoid the topic altogether. It never came up in casual conversation and Garak had never expressed the need to discuss it, at least not with him.

And why would he when Julian had the emotional capacity of a Cardassian vole?

Julian stopped and grasped Garak’s elbow to halt the man before he marched off too far. He had to apologize immediately, while the wound was still fresh. He hadn’t come all this way to hurt his old friend and he had to make Garak understand that.

Elim, I’m sorry. This was horribly insensitive of me. It was not my place to pry into your pain.”

The tailor scrutinized his expression and Julian fervently hoped it would pass muster. The weight of that scornful gaze was oppressive and utterly unbearable.

With a sigh, Garak visibly deflated.

“Please, Julian, stop asking these kinds of questions in public.”

“I will, I promise.” Julian made a solemn vow, willing his honesty to show in his voice and body.

“I prefer we argue over terrible human literature, if that’s alright with you, Doctor.”

Conflicted over the use of his name being followed by that cold title, he defaulted to a nod and followed Elim the rest of the way in silence.

Hopefully during their dinner, he could remember to avoid sticking his foot in his mouth.

Chapter Text

Julian was relieved when they arrived at their destination. Garak's chilly countenance still hadn't thawed, but he was optimistic that the man's habit of concealing his true feelings would work in his favor for once. He really didn’t wish to air their dirty laundry in front of Parmak and Ghemor.

With one last significant look from Garak, they descended a staircase on a large plot of land which lay strewn with rubble. The edifice had probably been quite impressive once upon a time. Twilight fell around them, casting crimson shadows across the descending steps. Elim preceded him and Julian watched his friend’s familiar silhouette. He was too thin. Julian was used to Garak’s solid bulk, and the sight of the man’s form trimmed down to an unnatural degree made his chest ache.

Elim’s now marginally longer hair was curling at the ends and framing some of the scales on his back. How wide those shoulders seemed now, contrasted against the growing darkness.

His right palm itched. Should he…

No.

The impulse was still there, but he resisted it.

Not now. Not in public. He wouldn’t give the tailor another reason to be angry with him.

When they arrived to a sturdy metal door, Elim’s fingers flew across the door panel, obviously inputting some kind of code. Why was Julian not surprised Garak had the codes to the home of the leader of the Reunion Project?

The doors whooshed open and a voice greeted them from further in:

“Garak, see yourself in! I’m helping Kelas with something here.”

The former spy didn’t bother with a response and made himself right at home.

They descended a ramp and Julian was greeted with a startlingly comfortable-looking room. The floor was covered with dozens of overlapping carpets and he was stunned when Garak stopped him before he could step onto them.

“Shoes off.”

Julian just looked at him blankly.

“Is… this some Cardassian custom I am unaware of?” He asked, wondering if Garak was just pulling his leg, but he could see the man crouching to remove his footwear.

Ghemor’s house, Ghemor’s rules.” Garak shrugged and stepped out of his shoes. Julian knew he should be complying with his host’s wishes and avoiding the prospect of further aggravating the now barefoot Cardassian crouching beside him, but he was thoroughly distracted.

He had seen diagrams, x-rays, images, but never did he have the opportunity to see a Cardassian foot in the flesh. The operations he had performed so far hadn’t included it, and even if they had, he had the unnerving feeling it wouldn’t have helped him much.

The nails were darker than he expected them to be, and the delicate scaling curving around the ankle and flaring down the sides like a subtle dusting of granite pebbles was arresting. He tore his eyes away in panic and caught Garak’s gaze by accident. Who knew what kind of taboo against staring at their feet Cardassians had? He could have just mortally offended someone, for all he knew!

As if to mock him, Garak gave a sly little smile.

“If you wanted to see, all you had to do was ask, my dear.”

Julian flushed beet red and looked away.

“Do I need to undress you again, Julian?” Garak teased mercilessly and Julian flailed, looking at him with wide, terrified eyes.

“No! There’s no need!” Julian assured gracelessly and grabbed a boot to pull it off, managing to unbalance himself in the process. His mortification was complete when two firm hands clamped around his shoulders to steady him and he witnessed the look of devious joy all but radiating off of Garak.

“Your words hardly inspire confidence, my dear.”

“And you only use my name as a weapon!” Julian muttered all flustered. “First when you were gloating over shipping me to Zeyem like an unwanted parcel, then earlier today when you needed to shut me up, and now to embarrass me! It’s like you enjoy seeing me squirm!”

Julian knew his tone was disgracefully petulant, but he was bothered by Elim’s behavior and chose not to hide it this time. He’d wanted honesty and now when he was providing it, seeing some in return would be nice!

“You were never unwanted.” Elim said quietly, almost like he was sharing some sordid secret. The look in his blue eyes was eloquent and gripping. “As for the other two instances you hold against me, I didn’t want you to shut up, since that would be a tragic waste of your delightful conversational ability and as for squirming… You make such a compelling case in its favor.”

Julian was suddenly running hot.

38°C.

Incomprehensible.

With that, Elim released him and Julian all but sank to the floor to remove his boots in a position which wouldn’t enable further humiliation. It was too hot for socks, so he removed those too. A wide gray hand drifted into his field of vision.

When he looked up, he could see Elim’s gentle smile. He took the proffered hand and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. Garak was still deceptively strong when he wanted to be.

Once he was at full height he realized their hands were still clasped and that there was exactly a 23.7 cm gap between them. He could swear it was the smallest 23.7 cm he had ever seen. Unable to speak, he watched in muted fascination as Elim lowered his forehead and leaned it against their clasped hands which hovered between them at shoulder-height. Julian had no idea what the gesture meant, but he could tell with a 100% certainty that he had never seen it performed by any other Cardassian. Curiosity burned in him and he was about to voice it when Ghemor’s clear voice pierced their little bubble.

“There are our lovebirds! Do you need a metric? Should I come back later?”

Julian all but jumped away, to Ghemor’s obvious delight.

“Are all humans this shy, or is Bashir the exception?”

Garak made a mocking bow and jumped on the Let’s-humiliate-the-human bandwagon.

“He isn’t usually so bashful, Alon, but I suppose I have the dubious honor of bringing it out of him.”

Ghemor gave an amused huff.

“Come to the kitchen, we need help bringing out everything. Poor Kelas has been stuck there for hours.”

When they entered the spacious room, Julian was amazed by the contrast between the sitting room and this one. They were like night and day – one full of warm textiles and artworks, the other bare and sterile. It was sweltering in here, to the delight of his Cardassian companions. He fiddled with the collar of his shirt and popped the first button. The kitchen was buzzing with activity.

Kelas was behind the stove, currently stirring something unfamiliar in a pan. If he had to compare what it looked like to a human dish, Julian would probably call it some kind of a stir-fry.

Parmak turned around just enough to greet them warmly, even if a bit distractedly.

“Glad to see you have arrived safely, Doctor Bashir! Welcome!”

Garak gave an affected pout.

“No greeting for his service class bodyguard? You wound me, Kelas.”

The long haired Cardassian’s face warmed with a sincere smile and he extended his hand across the room, palm open.

Elim bridged the distance and pressed his palm against Parmak’s briefly, obviously satisfied.

“You can take the food out there, I should be done with this in a metric.”

“Yes, Doctor!” Elim saluted, to Kelas’s fond amusement. “You heard the chef, men. Let’s go!”

Julian exchanged an amused look with Ghemor, who clearly found Elim’s shenanigans just as entertaining. He watched the two former Bamarren students load their arms with bowls and plates of dishes he couldn’t identify. The only thing left on the table after they departed the kitchen was a bowl of what looked like salad and a pitcher of water.

“The glasses should be in the cabinet over there, Bashir.”

Julian followed directions and took four, stacking them into one another for easier transport.

“You may join them in the sitting area, I won’t be long.”

Nodding in assent, Julian picked everything up and strolled out of the kitchen onto the soft carpeted floor. The mismatched carpets were very lush and curiously soft. He supposed it only made sense to rest your feet on something so decadent. It would be a terrible waste to ruin them by trampling all over them in shoes.

“Come sit with us, Doctor Bashir!” Ghemor beckoned from the floor. There was a space in the middle where the food had been arrayed and the two Cardassians were sitting comfortably with their legs crossed. Bemused, Julian approached them and lay down the items he brought. He sat to Elim’s left and copied their sitting posture. This entire room, with the carpets and sculptures and tapestries proved how little he actually knew about Cardassians.

Garak handed him a thick light-green cloth and Julian could see Ghemor putting it across his lap, so he did the same.

“Is this customary on Cardassia?” He asked, unused to eating on the floor.

“Intimate celebrations are held in such a fashion, yes.”

“Fascinating,” Julian commented, “I never thought I’d see Elim like this.”

Even though Garak was perfectly poised, there was just something novel about seeing him sitting on a cloud of carpets with his legs crossed. He couldn’t see Garak’s feet anymore and had to fight the incomprehensible urge to blush again. He’d really made a fool of himself, hadn’t he?

They’re just feet! Get a grip! Everyone was barefoot, so why was he fixated only on Garak? It was ridiculous.

Ghemor gave a benevolent little inclination of his head.

“Life has a strange way of arranging circumstances for us.”

In that moment, Kelas emerged from the kitchen, carrying the last dish and six bowls with utensils.

“Now we can afford to wash the dishes I thought we should do this properly.” He said with a subtle smile.

“Wait, I thought Paldar wouldn’t get water for another week?” Julian inquired.

“You are correct,” Ghemor said serenely, “I am fortunate enough to have a water tank with a filtration system. I used to ration it so any of my neighbors could get it, but now I can afford a little drop in water levels.”

“Don’t get used to it, my dear.” Elim told him. “Kelas has gone dreadfully overboard with this little celebration.”

Parmak knelt to place everything on the floor and handed everyone a bowl.

Julian thanked him politely and placed it in his lap.

After that was done, Kelas took the remaining two bowls and poured water in them, placing one between Garak and Julian, and the other between Ghemor and himself.

“Wait for the kanar.” He said pleasantly and rose once more.

“This looks delicious!” Ghemor shouted after Parmak.

Julian had to suppress a smile.

“You would know,” Kelas retorted upon his return, carrying a spiral glass bottle. “You ate half of it while I was cooking.” He admonished Ghemor the way a doting mother would.

“Do you know how long it’s been since I tasted something that didn’t come out of tinfoil or a clogged replicator?” Ghemor dead-panned.

Garak laughed and Julian felt himself relax.

“By rights, I should deny you any. I am sure you’re already full.”

“Customs declare we all have to eat together.” Alon said in a pleasantly reconciliatory manner.

Parmak sighed and sat next to Ghemor.

“Ever the politician.” Parmak chided gently.

Ghemor offered a little enigmatic smile and reached for the glasses, pouring them all a hearty dose of kanar. Julian watched in apprehension as the viscous liquid crawled down the glass like a slimy snail.

“You don’t like kanar, Doctor?” Ghemor inquired as he passed him a glass.

Elim and Parmak laughed at his discomfort and he rubbed his neck self-consciously.

“It’s…” Julian searched for words, “An acquired taste.”

Parmak chuckled. “Oh, Elim. The things you do…”

All three men laughed and Julian was left to ponder what was so funny.

“Well,” Ghemor cleared his throat and let loose his booming, clear voice, “A toast to a brighter future for us all, and to the Restoration of Cardassia!”

Julian observed as the men raised their glasses solemnly into the air, bringing them closer, but never touching and he followed their example. They remained that way for a few seconds and then they all took a sip in silence. Not to be the odd one out, he followed suit.

The thickness was strange and the taste rather overpowering, but he didn’t want to just gulp it down. He allowed the viscous liquid to sit on his tongue for a while longer to see if that would make it less awful. Maybe it needed to breathe, like wine?

He closed his eyes not to be distracted by the others and gave himself a long moment to analyze the taste. The first thing to hit was the sting of alcohol, reminding Julian of a kind of cloying herbal liqueur. He ran his tongue against his teeth to try and separate the aromas. He could tell some flavors apart, but not attribute them to anything in his memory. The closest equivalent he could name was anise and cayenne pepper, but even that comparison was flawed. This tasted entirely unique. Glacially slowly, he let it slide down his throat. It was warm and sweet and heady, just like that cup of red leaf tea he’d had when he first arrived.

It was still an alien flavor, no doubt about that, but his body no longer felt compelled to bring it up. There wasn’t even a twinge of nausea. Both surprised and pleased, he opened his eyes.

There was a moment of awkwardness as he realized all three of his dinner companions were looking at him. Parmak was a picture of serenity, Ghemor bore the look of a cat that got the canary and Elim merely looked surprised.

“What?” Julian asked, slightly perturbed by the scrutiny.

Elim!” Ghemor exclaimed boisterously. “You lied to us! You said Bashir hated kanar!”

“Hate is such a harsh word, Alon.” Garak tutted.

Parmak had the look of a disapproving parent again and Julian had a vague sense of what was happening.

“How did you expect me to react?” Julian said with narrowed eyes at the scheming Cardassians surrounding him.

“Isn’t he a sharp one, Kelas? You can sure pick them, Elim!” Ghemor grinned and took another sip.

“I’ve always been a man of discerning tastes.” Garak stated primly.

“Of course.” Ghemor said cheerfully, “So discerning that you swore to me Bashir would cough, swallow and scrunch up his face like a constipated vole.”

Julian’s mouth dropped open in outrage.

“Garak!” He looked at the man accusingly.

In turn, the tailor seemed completely unperturbed.

“I don’t see why you would take Alon’s word over mine, my dear. You don’t even know the man.”

“True.” Julian almost pouted before leveling Elim with an icy glare. “But I know you.”

Ghemor guffawed at that.

Parmak interjected calmly. “I believe Elim’s exact words were: You will have the opportunity to witness the dear Doctor choke and swallow like a disappointed woman.”

That got a reaction out of Garak whose eyes widened at the betrayal and he exclaimed mournfully:

“Et tu, dear Kelas?”

“It’s not my fault you lost the bet with Alon.”

“What bet?” Julian looked at them in confusion.

“Darling Kelas refused to participate and is now claiming moral high ground, Bashir.” Ghemor waved his hand dismissively, as if bored.

“Were they betting on how I would react to the kanar?” Julian asked shrewdly, feeling dangerously close to smacking Garak.

“Indeed.” Parmak confirmed, unruffled. “Alon bet you would excuse yourself and find a discreet place to spit it out.”

“Well, I for one, am glad we were both wrong!” Garak said magnanimously.

“Is Doctor Parmak the only one who had any faith in me?” Julian asked, incredulous.

“If by faith you mean having an antiemetic on hand, then by all means.” Garak proclaimed generously.

“It pays to be prepared.” Parmak shrugged.

“You’re all awful.” Julian grumbled and drank more of his kanar in protest.

Ghemor was shaking with noiseless laughter, Parmak was dignified in his amusement and Garak patted his shoulder affectionately.

“You are one of us now, Julian. Congratulations!”

Julian didn’t know how he’d managed to obtain such a dubious honor, but he cracked a smile regardless.

This was a good place.

He liked it.

Chapter Text

Julian had to admit Dr. Parmak was a talented cook. They were about halfway into their food, and Garak had taken it upon himself to pair certain dishes for Julian, so he could get the full effect of the flavors. While he couldn’t claim to like every single thing on offer, he was surprised by the fact he found most of it quite palatable, and some of it startlingly savory.

All three Cardassians would occasionally offer information regarding the food, such as ingredients, historical significance and more. Just listening to them engage in what was essentially dinner conversation was fascinating. The information flowed in a strangely equitable manner. None of the men dominated the conversation; allowing the others to interject and add details as necessary. He found the dynamic itself more interesting than what they were trying to teach him. It appeared effortless and was extremely considerate to all parties speaking. Julian spoke the least, which astounded him. The others made every effort to include him, but he graciously led them back into the conversation by asking pertinent questions and just listening to them speak. He felt absolutely no need to impose his opinion on anything; he merely let the discussion flow around him.

Julian noticed they all seemed more relaxed as the evening progressed and the kanar kept flowing. He was currently on his third glass and had to admit the taste was growing on him. It went really well with some of the food, as he discovered.

He noticed the bowl of water they had received was used as a palate cleanser and that Garak and he were expected to share one; while Parmak and Ghemor shared the other. He’d wondered whether there was a reason for it but concluded it didn’t really matter. As he wasn’t much of a clean freak, sharing the same bowl with a friend was hardly an insurmountable problem. Still, as he sipped his drink, Elim’s eyes locked with his. The tailor was sipping water from the bowl and let his eyes linger on Julian’s face, who gave a wide smile in return.

Each of the men responded to alcohol differently, he noticed. Parmak got slightly giggly, which was funny to watch as the other two used it against him mercilessly, making him laugh at every opportunity. The doctor would get all flustered and Julian found it disarmingly adorable.

Ghemor lost some of his intensity and turned a bit mellow. He didn’t become sweet, but he was more sedate, almost like he got wiser all of a sudden. His jokes still amused, but some of that teasing nature was subdued. He seemed satisfied with everything.

But the most curious of all was Garak, whose behavior didn’t change as much at first glance. The only difference Julian could see was in the man’s smiles, which got less… sharp, for lack of a better word. There was something soothing about them now which Julian couldn’t place. Was this the smile Palandine saw young Elim make? Was this the smile which she claimed could make you want to tell him all your secrets? Perhaps not, but it certainly drew Julian’s eye. Between bites of food and snatches of banter, his eyes would seek out Garak as persistently as they used to seek out the location of Cardassia back on DS9.

He couldn’t help it. It occurred to him that he had never seen Garak look more genuine than tonight. Elim’s posture was relaxed, his gaze still occasionally teasing, but mostly gentle, and there was a pleasant kind of warmth spilling over into his voice.

Julian was so glad he came to Cardassia. Seeing this was worth the hardship of enduring the sweltering heat, the oppressive humidity and the cloying dust. It was also worth all the aggravation caused by Zeyem and the slow-going research.

“Ah, Kelas.” Ghemor said lazily, patting his full stomach, “You would make someone a good wife.”

“Are you volunteering, Alon?” Garak ribbed him affectionately.

“Are you kidding, Elim? I’d marry him just for the cooking alone!”

“Well, too bad,” Parmak said with as much dignity he could muster. “Because I am not interested.”

Ghemor laughed good-naturedly.

“Pity. You are quite easy on the eyes, as well.”

Julian couldn’t tell if that was true or not. Who knew what Cardassians found attractive?

“Oh?” Julian found himself asking, “I don’t know what the Cardassian ideal of beauty is. Can you enlighten me?”

“I have one word for you, Doctor.” Garak butted in before anyone else had the chance to speak. Dukat.”

Whaaaat?” Julian drawled in disgust.

Ghemor’s eyes glistened with mirth.

Elim isn’t wrong. At least from a purely physical standpoint.”

“But the man is revolting!”

Ghemor chuckled.

“You’ll get no arguments from anyone here, Bashir. You asked about the ideal, and he fits the physical criteria. The sharp features, piercing eyes, long neck-“

“Well-defined neck ridges and scales…” Parmak added, and Garak finished in disgust: “Wide shoulders, tall and in possession of a tiny waist.”

“So,” Julian said skeptically, “Would that make Ghemor the most attractive Cardassian in the room?”

This made Ghemor’s eyes widen and he started clapping, almost like Julian had just given an amazing performance of a particularly challenging Klingon opera.

“I thank you for the compliment, Doctor Bashir!”

Parmak chided them softly – “There is more to attraction than a list of physical attributes.”

They all showed gestures of agreement and drank in that name.

Julian looked each of his companions over and tried to see them the way a Cardassian might. Ghemor was the tallest of the three and had the most imposing physique by far. His facial features weren’t sharp, per se, but they were well defined. He fit most of the beauty standards, except his neck wasn’t that long.

Parmak won in that particular department. While slighter in build compared to the other two, his neck was long and elegant, and his ridges were well defined. His waist wasn’t particularly waspish, but he was lean. There were subtle streaks of white in his long, black hair, which gave him a dignified air. His face was stern, but kind and Julian thought it was stupid to discredit someone’s beauty based on their facial structure reflecting a pleasant personality. Still, he could see what might be attractive in a more sharply defined face – a commanding look usually reflected a kind of assertiveness and boldness, which was, in turn, a sign of self-confidence, and that particular trait was attractive across many species.

In comparison, Garak’s physique wasn’t something that would leave many swooning, but he radiated such personality and wit that it rendered the point rather moot. His eyes were a nice shade of blue and were currently open and warm. Julian drank him in, his eye ridges quirked in mischief, his glinting eyes and his easy smile, and didn’t see any flaws. He was just… Garak.

Plain and simple Garak.

Julian felt warm and fuzzy inside, which he attributed to his fourth glass of kanar. At some point, they all poured more for themselves and he was no exception. The food was gone at this point, but aside from setting down their bowls and utensils, nobody made a move to get up and clear the mess.

“I find it ironic, gentlemen, that we find ourselves having such an obscene amount of fun in a basement.”

Parmak snorted most inelegantly and stated: “Only you would say such an elitist thing, Alon.”

“Is this a class difference thing?” Julian asked, remembering vaguely that service class usually lived in basements and that the ruling class lived on higher floors.

“My compliments, Elim! You taught him well!”

“Too well.” Parmak said shrewdly and promptly retreated into his glass.

“There’s no such thing.” Elim said primly.

“To answer your question, Bashir, yes. This is where my servants used to live, and it was a storage space for all the unwanted things that weren’t refined enough to be displayed in the house. Now, it’s the sum total of my family legacy.” Ghemor said with a note of bitterness.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Julian countered. “Your actions will determine your legacy.”

This made Alon go quiet and pensive.

Parmak spoke softly:

“In the Fire, many families retreated into the basements along their servants. Those who were too proud or too arrogant to do so are no longer with us.”

“Poetic justice!” Ghemor grinned and raised his glass mockingly.

“It certainly made your Reunion Project a possibility.” Garak said in an uncharacteristically somber way.

“What happened to your servants?” Julian asked, suddenly apprehensive.

“Oh, they’re safe and sound. I dismissed them from my service when they reconnected with their family on the other end of the Union. It would have been cruel to keep them here. In a way, it was most beneficial for me.”

“How so?” Julian wondered.

“He gets to learn how to slum it like a service class man.” Garak grinned deviously.

“The delights of self-sufficiency, my friends!” Ghemor laughed and drank bottoms-up.

“I have been trying to teach you how to cook, Alon, but I am beginning to suspect it was a ruse to turn me into your personal chef and I can assure you this is the last free sample you get.”

Ghemor mimed getting shot and sprawled on the floor pretending to be critically wounded, which elicited a round of hearty laughter from the rest of them.

“Help me… Bashir…” Ghemor rasped, extending his trembling hand beseechingly.

“You’ll live.” Julian dead-panned and poured himself more kanar. Garak laughed like mad and put his hand on Julian’s shoulder.

“Such ruthlessness! I am proud of you, my dear!”

“Yes, very Cardassian.” Parmak said while rolling his eyes.

Julian chuckled and sipped his drink. After a truly magnificent meal, the liquor tasted pretty good. He spared a fleeting thought to the fact he might feel sick in the morning, but he didn’t care. The company was delightful and he felt warm and cozy.

How strange that he should feel so completely at ease on one of the most ruined planets in the quadrant, and in the company of a spy, a politician and a fellow doctor? It almost sounded like the beginning of a cheesy joke.

Two doctors, a politician and a spy share a bottle of kanar…

He shared an amused look with Elim and smiled into his glass.

Chapter Text

They had gotten up to leave Ghemor's well after midnight, but at that point; Julian's inner chronometer was beyond messed up.

Alon's parting words were a deeply amused:

“Take your human home, Elim, before he does something else unfortunate to my carpet!”

Julian had wanted to cry out in outrage that it wasn’t his fault he spilled the kanar while laughing at something ridiculous Elim had said, and that he wasn’t some untrained animal to soil people’s carpets as par for the course, but Garak had chosen that moment to help him put his boots back on and Julian kept trying to swat his hands away, with little success. It was annoying and distracting and he wanted to sleep.

“I’m not a pet, Elim.” He pouted. “And I can dress myself!”

Garak looked at him with an infuriating grin and said as cool as a cucumber:

“After having to help you into your shirt today, I’d say one of us is certainly wrong.”

“Technically, that was yesterday.” Julian corrected pedantically.

“I don’t want any details!” Alon waved them away. “Now, leave. I know for certain you both work tomorrow, and I am not above tattling to Zeyem.”

“You wouldn’t dare!” Julian shook his fist, but his swaying and stumbling rather ruined the effect.

Alon’s face was deviousness incarnate and he said:

“I put you there, Bashir, I can pull you out.”

“Stop tormenting my poor human and go pester Kelas. Better yet, go make yourself useful and wash the dishes. If I hear you’re using him for manual labor again, I will hack your door console to lock you out.”

Ghemor just laughed and left their company, clearly not taking Garak too seriously. Julian thought that was a mistake. Elim definitely could make good on his threat. Just like he did with the shirt today, damn him.

Yesterday.

Whatever.

Julian watched in inebriated fascination as Garak’s bare feet disappeared into his shoes.

What a waste. He has such well-defined arches.

He shook his head. Maybe he was more drunk than he wanted to admit. Garak appeared fairly unaffected by the alcohol. It wasn’t fair.

Garak put his arm around Julian’s waist to support him and Julian wanted to protest that he wasn’t an invalid, but the words died in his throat. The gesture was somehow… more intimate than it had any right to be. Wasn’t this what he wanted? To bridge the distance, the gulf between them? Wasn’t he tired of dancing around issues and hiding his thoughts?

He was so tired of lies.

They dwelled in his past and haunted his memories like soul-sucking little insects, reminding him of every single thing he left unsaid. Garak’s lies didn’t bother him anymore. The man lied to protect himself, not to harm Julian.

Still, he would not discuss anything heavy while they were out and about. He had promised. He would keep his word.

This is important. I can’t screw it up. I won’t.

But therein lay the beauty of communication, for he could bridge the gap without an uttered word. His legs may be only half-functional, but his arms still listened to the commands issued by his brain, so he slung his arm around the tailor’s firm shoulders to show his participation in the man’s efforts to get his unresponsive arse home.

“You should have stopped drinking after your fifth glass, Doctor.”

“None of you did!” Julian huffed petulantly.

“We are better predisposed towards that particular drink, my dear.” Garak explained the way he would to a particularly dense child.

“Hey, I’m not drunk!” Julian defended.

“No, dear Doctor, you are clearly staggeringly sober.”

“Your sarcasm, although sexy, isn’t appreciated at the moment.” Julian fired back, not even embarrassed by his choice of words. It’s not like Garak was the only one who appreciated a nuanced conversation. Pity it was usually at Julian’s expense.

Garak looked at him with clear astonishment, which passed all too quickly for Julian’s tastes and transmuted into a slightly impressed expression.

“It’s gratifying to see you so brazen, my dear. Perhaps kanar agrees with you after all?” Garak teased. “Although you might wish to moderate your intake in the future.”

“You weren’t complaining when I was drinking it.”

“But Alon was!”

“That’s not my problem.” Julian slurred as dismissively as he possibly could.

“That should teach him to be so generous with his fine vintages.” Elim snorted.

Julian snickered and they shared a conspiratorial look. It was a look of pure understanding which communicated – we need to obtain another bottle from Ghemor.

“You have his access codes…” Julian trailed off slyly.

“Oh, no. He changes those often.”

“Then how-“

“He changes them for me. But there is a person for whom he doesn’t.” Garak was currently giving him a you-should-know-exactly-what-that-means look.

With dawning realization, Julian stage whispered: “Kelas…”

“Exactly.”

“You sneaky Cardassian…” Julian said with fond admiration.

“I know how much you appreciate a good secret agent mystique, my dear.”

I appreciate you, not your damned mystique.

Julian just grumbled.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that – are your speech centers affected? Should I go fetch Kelas? Or Zeyem, perhaps?”

“Shut up, Garak.”

Ahhh, a headache.” Garak said with exaggerated significance. “Say no more.”

Julian’s hand twitched in a suppressed desire to pinch a particular scale on Garak’s neck which he now knew would leave Elim’s right arm feeling slightly numb for the next hour at least, but refrained. Oh, the things he did in the name of friendship!

“You’re so… infuriating, Garak!”

With a dramatic sigh, Elim stated:

“Ah, the perils of being considerate to one’s drunk friends!”

“Oh, yes,” Julian drawled, rolling his eyes. “Woe is you, so unappreciated and reviled.”

“Ah, it slurs the truth so flagrantly!”

It? Julian nearly growled. “First I get referred to as a pet human, and now I’m an it?”

“Aren’t you? Alon seems to think so.”

“Are you deliberately trying to piss me off?” Julian tightened the hand on Garak’s neck ridges in warning – he was seriously reconsidering sparing Garak that hour of numbness.

“And why would I wish to do such a thing?” Elim said with wide-eyed innocence which was so fake it was practically insulting.

There it was again, that insidious feeling that he was missing something vital. His brain was trying to kick into gear and puzzle it out, but kanar had obviously addled at least a portion of his wits. Sadly, it was the bits he needed. What rotten luck.

Didn’t Cardassians… What was it Miles had said about that engineer Gilora Rejal, was it? She had been arguing with him and supposedly…

Oh.

Ohhhh .

“I know what you’re doing, Garak, and it’s not gonna work!” Julian said self-importantly.

“I am certain I have no idea what your alcohol fueled ramblings mean, Doctor.”

“Oh, sure, play dumb.” Julian huffed indignantly.

“We’re almost home, my dear. Could you save your harsh criticisms for then?”

The condescension was dripping from Elim’s voice, as thick and intoxicating as that kanar they’d been drinking. Julian’s insides were a furnace and a curious anger surged within. He gripped the ridges on the man’s neck and pinched the right scale in retaliation.

He watched shock flit across those smug Cardassian features and realized Elim’s knees had buckled for a moment. That’s not what was supposed to happen! He’d wondered whether he’d merely miscalculated in his tipsiness, or whether he had misremembered it, which would be significantly worse.

“You’ve definitely grown more bold in my absence, my dear.” Garak said appreciatively.

Julian visibly gulped.

“Uh… That’s not what was supposed to happen…” He slurred contritely.

If anything, Garak was even more pleased by this development. It was maddening and incomprehensible.

“In that case, your quarry is a centimeter to the right.”

Julian’s eyes went wide. This offer of information… Why would Elim correct him? Did he expect Julian to try again? Did Garak want to make an example of him? Julian knew the Cardassian could disable him in at least a dozen ways within the next two seconds and didn’t feel encouraged by the odds his inebriated mind was busy calculating. His mobility was too compromised to make the fight even remotely fair.

But what scale did he press in his drunken haze?

What was a centimeter to the left?

He sifted through the hastily assembled mental catalogue from that Cardassian anatomy cram session with Zeyem and discarded options left and right. The next scale over was… Damn it, what was it called?

Julian shook his head, hoping it would loosen the information in his brain and make it fall out.

Great. Now I’m thinking of myself as a slot machine.

Its name was… was…

Kinat’hU .

It was a sensitive scale and the database claimed it to be one of the trickier parts of their anatomy to treat for nerve damage, since the nerve cluster situated within it was closely linked to…

Julian went pale.

“I… I’m sorry, Elim!” He stammered in panic.

Elim merely looked at him and laughed in one of his more disarming ways. He seemed more amused than angered and Julian was absurdly glad for it.

“You transformation is nearly complete, dear Doctor. Only a Cardassian would apologize for such a thing.”

“You, you’re not mad then?” Julian asked hopefully.

“Why would I be? You tried to temporarily disable the use of my right arm, and ended up accidentally-“

“No! I, ah-“ Julian stammered, “I’m sorry, truly. I miscalculated, I swear.”

Elim huffed in gentle exasperation and picked Julian up, obviously tired of their slow pace.

It was completely undignified to be carried like some sickly princess, but Julian supposed he deserved a little humiliation for what he just did to his friend, so he locked his arms behind the Cardassian’s neck to ease his burden. The world from this vantage point was strange, the colors blurred and the rocking motion of Elim’s steady footsteps was oddly grounding.

“I had so much fun this evening,” Elim.

Garak.

Elim.” Julian said quietly.

“I share your sentiments wholeheartedly, my dear.”

The voice was soothing, rich and familiar. Julian felt a curious warmth spreading through his limbs.

“Julian,” He muttered against Elim’s ear. “Call me Julian.”

At first, there was no response but the subtle increase in the strength of the man’s grip. Julian didn’t know why, but that felt nice. He felt the man’s nose brushing his cheek and a soothing gust of breath past his ear.

“You’re lovely when you’re drunk, Julian.”

Instead of being riled up, he surrendered into that tone of voice, so full of warmth and sincerity. His heart felt curiously full.

Maybe Garak was right.

Maybe kanar truly did agree with him.

Who would have thought?

Chapter Text

When time came for Garak to put him down, Julian was reluctant to let go. He guessed it could be a primitive part of his brain that liked to be held, and Elim was such a steadying presence it was impossible not to feel reassured and protected. He recalled the way the man comforted him during and after his little meltdown the other day. If someone told him years ago that the safest place he’d find for himself would be on a destroyed planet, in the embrace of a Cardassian, he’d have laughed at the absurdity of the claim. Well, the only one laughing now was likely the Universe itself.

“I have to put you down, my dear.”

Julian whined.

“I know it’s a shame, as you’re keeping the chill of the evening at bay, but you need to get dressed for bed or Zeyem will have your pretty little head tomorrow.”

“I hate it when you’re all reasonable…” Julian grumbled and allowed Elim to put him down. He staggered around the shack and went to relieve himself.

A lot happened today. It was kind of hard to parse in his current state. He’d been having too much fun at the celebration to chase the thought at the time, but now, when he was finally alone, he had the opportunity to think.

He had honestly expected to find Parmak irritating, but there was no trace of that tonight. The Cardassian doctor was a thoughtful and considerate man. Julian realized they were only similar on the surface. They were both doctors, both idealistic and passionate about their profession and interests, but that’s where the similarities ended.

Parmak appeared genuinely patient and compassionate, compared to Julian who was only ever like that with his patients. Outside of his field, he’d often revert into a spoiled brat who sought instant gratification and had the unfortunate tendency to get preachy, whereas Parmak never passed judgment, opting for a more inclusive perspective. He was a natural mediator and Julian was having a hard time understanding what he found so grating about him in the first place.

Parmak’s patience only served to highlight Julian’s immaturity.

No wonder Garak liked the man so much. He didn’t have to babysit him half the time. If anything, Kelas’ mothering was probably soothing for Elim.

Why did gentleness come so hard to Julian? He was kind and affectionate to his girlfriends, but never really to his male friends. It seemed backward and stupid. The Cardassians clearly had no such reservations – they offered small touches all the time. There was less emphasis on personal space among friends, even if the distance and propriety was rigorously enforced in public. It was curious, but he supposed it made sense. Their private lives were fiercely guarded and they would need a safe space to unwind from being so uptight in their job environment.

Julian liked this newly discovered facet of Cardassian culture and if his reaction to being held by Garak was any indication, he seemed to need as well as crave it. He wasn’t sure why Elim’s touch helped, but he wanted to explore the concept further. Perhaps he was too repressed when it came to friendships with men. Even with Miles, it had taken him ages to create a stable rapport. Sadly, Julian was forced to admit physical affection was not something he excelled at, outside of romantic relationships, where he believed himself dedicated enough to pay due attention to his partner.

He’d call Ezri tomorrow to see how she was doing. He hoped her classes were going well.

Done with his business for the moment, he washed his hands with the rain-water from Garak’s makeshift tank and smiled in the gloom. This place would likely get connected to the water main next week. He was sure it would be a welcome relief for everyone.

He tottered back to the shed and was unsurprised to see Garak already ready for bed, bundled in a thick blanket. The sight was ridiculously endearing.

“Are you cold, Garak?” Julian asked with a quirk of his lips.

The Cardassian huffed disdainfully.

“I thought you were past these mundane observations, dear Doctor. Of course I am cold!”

Realizing there was an opportunity here to test his comfort zone; Julian decided to capitalize on it.

“Scoot over there.”

Clearly puzzled, it took Elim a moment to comply. He probably didn’t immediately figure out what Julian wanted, but it likely became apparent when he sat next to the huddled figure and coaxed the blanket open.

“You might as well use me for warmth while I am here.” Julian quipped as he wrapped the blanket tightly around them. He could barely see his companion’s features in the dark, but they seemed uncharacteristically mellow.

“Such generosity! Who am I to refuse this tempting offer of tantalizing heat?”

Julian gave a slight chuckle and tentatively put an arm around Garak. It was a half-hug at best, but even that made his heart pound in discomfort. It wasn’t fair to the man, he knew. Why should Elim suffer his half-baked gestures of affection? A part of him felt guilty for experimenting this way. Should he tell Garak what was on his mind? Or would it be too gauche?

If Garak found this uncomfortable, he definitely didn’t show it. Julian felt the Cardassian shift and a steady hand snaked around his ribs, coming to rest on top of his scapula. The fact Julian’s gesture was apparently, if not welcomed, then at least accepted with good grace made him relax marginally into the embrace. He breathed in deeply to attempt to further calm himself and was distantly aware of a pleasant scent coming from somewhere nearby. It was the same scent he had noticed on Elim’s pillow, the first time he fell asleep on the man’s bed. Julian had no idea what it was but was beginning to realize it likely came from Garak himself. He would be subtle, but he had to determine what it was.

Mmm…” Garak all but purred. “You’re as warm as a clear spring day on Cardassia.”

Julian chuckled.

“I tend to run at 36,7 °C. That should be just above chilly for you, shouldn’t it?”

Garak buried his nose in his hair, making Julian’s heart stop for a moment.

“Not to me… I’m used to feeling cold.”

It was a simple, if slightly drowsy statement of fact, but Julian felt pain lance through his chest at it.

Elim was used to loneliness and the Federation’s inconsiderate setting of 22°C on DS9. No wonder he allowed Parmak so close, the man was uncharacteristically warm for a Cardassian. If Julian hadn’t come, would Kelas be here, thawing Elim’s frozen heart and warming his cold bed?

The image made him twitch.

Julian felt his forehead suddenly running a degree hotter. That sweet scent was still teasing his nostrils and his memory. What was it, damn it? Well, whatever it was, it was certainly driving him to distraction.

Elim gave a contented little sigh and Julian felt him go lax next to him.

Julian felt like a fool. He could have seen this honest side of Elim if he hadn’t stepped away years ago. If he had only reached in further instead of retreating…

Stupid. Stupid, Julian.

Still, he was here now, offered a new chance to make things right between them and he would do everything in his power to do so.

“You’re a dangerous man…” Garak spoke slowly, as if he was struggling not to fall asleep. “I could get used to this warmth…”

Julian’s heart raced once more.

What warmth was Elim talking about? The physical or the emotional kind? Julian was having trouble separating them at the moment.

Despite his misgivings, he wasn’t unaffected by the current position they found themselves in. Elim’s cooler temperature was soothing and if his thumb did occasionally brush against Julian’s shoulder blade, he found he didn’t mind overly much. With a soft sigh, he burrowed deeper into the kindness he felt and allowed his breathing to slow.

The last fleeting thought before blissful oblivion claimed him was that the source of the elusive scent seemed to be…

His…

…hair.

Chapter Text

Julian couldn't remember sleeping so well since before the Dominion war. That was the thought that followed him on his way to work.

He really tried to focus, but he could tell he was failing, not so much at his job, but at being subtle enough about his distraction in front of the entirely too perceptive Head Zeyem.

Bashir, Bashir…” She tutted in mild displeasure. “Let me guess, you’re stuck in the past again?”

He blushed slightly at her chastisement and merely nodded.

“I know you were celebrating yesterday, but you should indulge in memories when you are not at work.” Zeyem enunciated clearly and narrowed her sharp eyes for maximum effect.

She muttered something about overly-excitable humans and went off to do her own thing, leaving him with Junior Researcher Ghar.

Ghar looked at him tentatively and he could tell she was curious, but was holding back, likely because of some misguided sense of Cardassian propriety.

“Just ask, Researcher Ghar.” He sighed wearily.

“It’s not my place, Doctor Bashir.” She said with an annoying dose of deference and fell silent.

Ghar, listen. I’m not Cardassian, so I am not offended by a colleague asking questions about my day-to-day life. If you cross a line, which I doubt, I will merely decline to answer. Is that acceptable?”

She looked at him like he’d grown a new head, but rallied remarkably quickly.

“I am sorry, Doctor, it’s just that we don’t really hear of any celebrations these days… Nothing to celebrate, not really. It’s an extravagance we cannot afford.”

“I know.” Julian said somberly. “The information isn’t widespread yet, but they’ve managed to install a new water purifier on the water reservoir under the Torr Sector. By the end of the week, the entirety of Cardassia City will have access to clean water.”

Her face blossomed into the most heartfelt emotion he’d seen on her yet.

“Truly? That’s great news! That should eliminate dehydration for most of our patients!”

“Hence the celebration.” Julian affirmed. “Now, I think we should go back to our research before Head Zeyem comes back and bites our head off.”

With a soft chuckle, she complied.

***

Julian was knackered as he stumbled into Tolan’s shed in the late afternoon. Garak was already home for a change.

“Garak!” He said jovially, “I didn’t expect you here so early!”

“Judging by your expression, you seem pleased.” The man offered a bright grin.

“Of course I am pleased.” Julian smiled. “We both work so much, I barely get to see you.”

The corners of Elim’s expressive eyes crinkled in joy.

Julian watched him get up from his stool and offer him his open palm. Happy to oblige, Julian pressed his slightly sweaty palm against Garak’s. The man’s skin was refreshingly cool and he let the contact linger until Elim disengaged – about 17.3 seconds later. This time around, Julian noticed he could feel the Cardassian’s pulse. It was slow and steady, like a wide river.

Julian went to sit on the bed, as was his custom, and stretched. He let his eyes roam the shack and skimmed its contents in daylight, for a change. Elim was tinkering with some device again, and Julian left him to it. As he relaxed into the wall, he noticed the black cylinder Kira had given him resting under the table. With mounting horror, he realized he forgot to give it to Garak when he first arrived. What a stupid oversight! He’d been so happy to see the man, so relieved and so overwhelmed at the same time that he completely blanked out.

He couldn’t be too flustered about it.

Play it cool, Julian. You can give it to him when he finishes work.

He rose to his feet and went to pick up the cylinder. As he crouched on the floor to fish it out from its hidey-hole, he realized he was being watched. Giving Elim what was supposed to be a reassuring look, he chided himself for his appalling lack of self-control over his facial muscles.

“Just finish your work first.” Julian suggested, hoping Garak would give him a grace period to come to his senses.

“It’s nothing that can’t wait, my dear.” Elim said sweetly and let his tools down.

“Well, in that case… I think it’s time I give you this.” Julian said sheepishly. “I should have done it sooner, but-“

“There’s no need to explain, Julian. I understand.”

Julian blinked. Well, if there was anyone perceptive enough to recognize how flustered Julian was that he’d managed to forget, it was Elim. Flashing his friend a grateful smile, he stood up and extended his hands to give the mysterious gift to the Cardassian. A sneaking suspicion crept up on him and he narrowed his eyes at the former spy.

“You haven’t gone and opened it without me, have you?”

Elim gave him a genuinely bemused look.

“That would be dreadfully rude. I knew you’d remember eventually.” The tone of voice was the softest kind of teasing Julian had seen the man employ. That at least proved that Garak knew he simply forgot. Julian had to admit he had expected a little bout of humiliation first. Perhaps the tailor was mellowing with age.

Or with Kelas. An insidious voice in his head offered. Where had that come from?

“Yeah,” Julian murmured. “You know me…”

He fervently hoped Garak would like the gift, because Julian had absolutely no idea what it contained.

Standing there as an absolute moron, he fidgeted while Garak was removing the lid. Why opening a gift required such delicate dedication, Julian couldn’t fathom. There was a subtle rustle of some kind coming from within and it sounded like parchment or paper of some kind.

Garak upturned it delicately and coaxed it out. Julian observed the unfurling of the poster just as avidly as Elim did. It was actually a drawing, one of Ziyal’s.

Julian watched Elim’s brow ridges shift and felt horrible as he realized Garak’s eyes went wide and tormented. Shifting closer so he could better see the picture, he noticed it was actually a charcoal sketch - a portrait.

Of Garak.

In his shop, mending some garment with a kind smile on his face. There was a blurb of Cardassian symbols in the lower right corner.

In Ziyal’s elegant hand, it read:

“Stitch by stitch, a humble work;

In his eyes and his hands;

Only kindness.”

Julian felt his own eyes brimming with tears. This answered Elim’s question, didn’t it? This was what Ziyal saw. It was a love letter in the form of a portrait. His friend’s hands were shaking and he drew a shuddering breath.

“It’s a beautiful sentiment, isn’t it?” Julian’s voice quivered. He hadn’t intended to hurt the man, damn Kira and her lack of foresight! She said it would be something Garak might like! This was an insensitive gift at best, and salt onto an open wound at worst.

“Where did you get this?” Elim whispered, choking on the words.

Kira, she must have been going through Ziyal’s possessions-“

“Yes…” Elim said in a daze. “I didn’t want to touch her things, even though Nerys offered…”

“I’m sorry, Elim.” Julian’s voice bled with sincerity. “If I thought the gift would hurt you, I never would have-“

The words died in his throat as Elim looked at him in complete heartbreak. Anything he could have said was suddenly trite. Julian wanted to apologize again, but the sight of the usually strong and immovable man in silent tears undid him completely. He gently pulled the drawing out of Elim’s lax grasp and set it on the table. All the while, Elim’s blue eyes followed him.

Julian’s face was awash in tears, but he offered not a word. His hands reached for Elim’s glistening face and he wiped the Cardassian’s tears gently in complete silence. In that moment, there was nothing strange about two grown men standing perfectly still with tears streaming down their faces. Julian’s heart swelled – he could finally repay Elim’s kindness for the other night, so he smiled an encouraging, bitter-sweet smile and pulled Garak into a gentle embrace.

The Cardassian trembled in his arms, but Julian just stood there as a pillar of support, rubbing the heaving back soothingly. Elim’s hands wrapped tightly around his back and clutched at his shirt.

“I’m here, Elim,” Julian echoed the wise words. “It’s all right. It’s going to be all right.”

Garak wept and convulsed in his arms, but made no sound.

“You can let your voice out,” Julian soothed in hushed tones. “Just let it all out.”

At that, he felt the body in his embrace go unnaturally still. Julian’s heart was hammering in his chest insistently and he felt like any moment now Garak would push him away, berate him and tell him his help was unneeded and that he was hated.

Instead, the softest whimper reached Julian’s ears. It grew like a breeze through the reeds until it turned into a heart-wrenching keen. Julian had heard Klingons mourning their dead, but theirs was such a crass, primal cry. A Cardassian, this particular Cardassian, making such an unrestrained mournful sound wiped away everything Julian used to think he knew about sadness. After all, he could feel the emotion in the hollow of his bones, reverberating, ricocheting through his veins, halting his heart and freezing his blood.

He couldn’t take such sadness; he had never felt anything like it and wasn’t equipped to handle it. The only thing he wanted was for it to stop.

“That’s good, Elim.” He said instead, pushing through his irrelevant feelings of discomfort. “That’s really good, just let it all go.”

Elim was trembling again and Julian stood his ground, holding the man upright; never ceasing his gentle ministrations. He would repay the favor and he would make Elim better. He deserved it; that and more – so much more than Julian was capable of giving. Kelas would have been more suitable for this task, as comforting and compassionate as he was, but he wasn’t here.

Julian was.

For once in his life, he was determined to be what was needed of him, but not in a hospital setting.

Elim was his friend.

His dearest and oldest and truest friend.

Julian would hold on to dear life and give of himself until it was enough. Everything – words, support, tears, blood and bone. He would give it all.

Anything you need. Anything you want, Elim.

Whatever merciful Hebitian gods existed, must have taken pity on his damaged soul, because he could feel the intensity of Elim’s thrashing decreasing. Slowly, but surely, the raging tide receded back into the ocean.

Once his sobs had subsided, the man muttered:

“Yes, Julian.”

“Yes, what?” Julian asked, puzzled.

“It is a beautiful sentiment.”

“I’m glad you agree.” Julian murmured and felt Garak disengage. He observed the man for any further signs of distress, but why ever that was, the storm seemed to have passed and he allowed his friend to calm down on his own. He could adapt to whatever it was Garak needed.

That was why he allowed the man to take his hands in his and raise his knuckles to his gray lips. It was the briefest of brushes and Julian could feel Elim’s cool breath ghosting over his skin.

“Thank you, my dear. I will cherish it.”

“Maybe we could replicate a nice frame for it, what do you think?” Julian asked, trying to lighten the mood.

“That would be lovely.” Elim said with a sincere smile and relinquished his hold on Julian’s hands.

It all felt so very strange now that it was over.

I did it. I helped him.

Julian smiled warmly.

The glow inside his chest was one of triumph and fulfillment.

Chapter Text

After obtaining Zeyem blessing for a fifteen minute break and a subspace call to DS9, Julian settled in behind his console and pressed the call button. He had so much to tell Ezri!

After about thirty seconds, the call connected and her pretty face appeared on his screen.

Ezri!” He said happily and watched her soft features reciprocate a smile.

“Hello Julian,” She said, “I have a session in half an hour, so I can’t chat longer than that.”

“Oh,” Julian rubbed his neck absent-mindedly. “That’s fine; I only got a fifteen minute break. Head Zeyem runs a tight ship.”

“That’s your boss at the Research Center, right?” Ezri enquired and Julian confirmed.

“The one and only. She’s one tough lady.”

“You seem fond of her.” The Trill observed and Julian smiled sheepishly.

“Yes, I suppose I am. She’s very efficient and stays out of my hair for the most part. And she’s wicked sharp, too, you should see her research into airborne pathogens, it’s-“

“Julian, I don’t have time for one of your professional monologues.”

Taken aback, he snapped his mouth shut. He’d done it again.

Thoughtless.

“Sorry, Ezri.”

His girlfriend just sighed and amusement stole across her face.

“I know how you get when you’re passionate about a project, Julian, and if I had more time I’d listen, but I’ve just been a bit stressed.”

Oh. Did she need support? Probably.

“What’s wrong? A tough case? Morn having issues with his mother again?”

Ezri rolled her eyes at his attempt at levity and said wearily:

“It’s these command courses.”

“What about them?”

“Every time I’m faced with a stressful decision… The other hosts pop up. Tobin keeps biting his cuticles, Torias floods me with escape routes, Curzon chides me for my indecisiveness and Joran just wants to shoot everything!”

Julian couldn’t help but laugh at her descriptive floundering.

“It’s not funny, Julian!” Her temper flared. “I am trying hard to accomplish something and my boyfriend is traipsing around Cardassia, playing frontier medicine!”

“Hey!” Julian felt a prickle. “That’s not fair!”

Ezri deflated.

“I’m sorry, Julian. I’m just… having a hard time with all this.”

Constructive. He needed to say something constructive.

“Why don’t you try getting your female hosts to run interference? Jadzia was always cool under pressure.”

Ezri gave him a venomous look which kind of reminded him of Jadzia.

“That’s not the point, Julian! I have to be able to do it myself, not let the other hosts overwrite my personality whenever the situation calls for it!”

“I never suggested that!” Julian got agitated, but attempted to rein himself in. She needed support, not an argument. “Listen, perhaps a nice night to yourself would help you relax. Take a meditation program in the holosuites or something.”

Ezri seemed to be fighting an impulse to say something scathing, but she refrained.

“Never mind.” She huffed. “How are you? Aside from work?”

Julian gave a soft smile at that.

“I’m really glad I came here. Cardassia is a ruin, but the people around me are wonderful.”

“Oh? Who are you referring to?”

“Well, there’s Doctor Parmak, he’s a sweet man – you should see the way he mothers Garak, it’s too funny to watch! Then there’s Ghemor, he’s the leader of the Restoration Project, he’s trying to change Cardassia for the better. It is so incredible to witness! I think he might actually succeed if nobody manages to assassinate him…”

Mhm.” Ezri smiled. “And how is Garak?”

Julian grinned.

Elim’s great. You should see him in his element, so competent – coordinating repairs and supply runs, always tinkering in his shed… It’s kind of awe-inspiring actually.”

“Well, say hello for me, Julian.”

“I will!”

With that, she dropped the call and Julian was surprised to see the fifteen-minute mark was still far off. Finding himself with eight minutes to spare, he wondered what he should do. Calling Ezri back would be pointless, she was obviously busy. He had a feeling he did something wrong and wanted to apologize for it, but there was currently no point. There would be another chance soon.

He could always call Nerys.

Brightening at the prospect, he input the necessary commands.

Her harried face filled his screen as she said:

“For the tenth time, I said- oh, Julian!”

“Tough day?” He inquired as she visibly relaxed into her chair. She was obviously hard at work.

“Sometimes I don’t know how we’re managing to keep this rusting bucket afloat,” She sighed. “I think the station misses the Chief’s magic touch and is getting huffy like a spoiled child in his absence.”

“I miss him too.” Julian smiled a touch sadly.

“We all do.” Kira said matter-of-factly.

“I gave Garak your gift, by the way.”

“Oh? Did he like it?” Nerys asked nonchalantly, but Julian could tell she had her own misgivings about the choice.

“That was quite insensitive of you, Nerys.” Julian’s brows knitted. “I’ve seen him shaken before, but never like that.” He stared at her crossly and got even more indignant when she seemed dismissive.

“I’m serious, Nerys! He was weeping in my arms!”

Kira seemed flabbergasted at that.

“Garak? Weeping? You’re joking!” She said boisterously, obviously trying to convince herself.

“I’ve never seen Elim like that, Nerys. I don’t think anyone has. If it hadn’t been so cathartic, I’d be furious with you.”

She sighed and sank further into her chair in defeat.

“I was going through her drawings and saw that one. It felt… wrong to keep it. I know she was in love with Garak, and that love can be blind, but… No matter what happened between them, it was time to let it go. He at least deserves a token to remember her by.”

“He thought of Ziyal as a favorite niece, just so you know.” Julian commented.

“Did he?” Kira seemed surprised. “I could never be sure.”

“Garak considered her a child and said he’d never as much as brushed against her inappropriately.”

“And you believed him?” Nerys said incredulously.

“Of course I believed him. Why would he lie about that?”

“I don’t know.” Kira shrugged. “He seemed quite eager to harm Damar at first.”

“He forgave Damar, in the end.”

“It’s easier to forgive someone who is dead.” Kira said shrewdly.

Nerys… you considered Ziyal family. Why is it so inconceivable that Garak felt the same way?”

This seemed to make her ponder.

He’d been so adamant when he made the claim to Nerys, but now he wasn’t so sure anymore. What if Garak had lied to him? It wouldn’t be the first time. Except then he remembered the man’s broken voice and his anger at the implication, and the never-ending tears and knew his doubts were misplaced. Elim was being honest. He lost someone important to him, someone who was a bright spot of sunlight in his cold, drab existence. The loss would be staggering for anyone, but he suspected it was doubly so for a man so profoundly lonely.

Kira’s voice snapped him out of his musings.

“I allowed my hatred for Cardassians to blind me; it was just easier that way. With creeps like Dukat around, suspicion was omnipresent.”

“It’s perfectly understandable, Nerys. Anyone would feel the same in your place.”

“I know that. I also know I had good reason to mistrust Garak, what with him being a former Obsidian Order operative, but that should be no excuse. I had no way of knowing it then, but he showed himself a capable and mostly honorable man, which is more than I could ever admit to anyone. If you tell him that, I’ll put you on waste disposal duty for a month!”

Her threat made him laugh and he raised his hands in surrender.

“I’ll be good! I promise!”

“You’d better,” Her threatening face smoothed into a serious expression. “I never bothered to see things from his perspective, Julian.”

He merely nodded. He was guilty of much the same.

“I know what you mean…” He trailed off. “He was always cold on the station, you know? And the lights were too bright for his eyes.”

“I used to take pleasure in any Cardassian’s discomfort, but after Tekeny and Ziyal… I just can’t. I had to make peace with the realization that I should direct my anger at the Cardassian government or Central Command and not every unsuspecting civilian out there who was unfortunate enough to be born with ridges and gray skin…” With a weary exhale, she closed her eyes and massaged her forehead.

Julian wanted to make her understand Garak better. He wasn’t sure what that was supposed to accomplish, but felt the impulse keenly nonetheless.

“He’s lost so much weight, it’s frightening. I almost didn’t recognize him at first.”

That’s a lie, Julian.

Kira looked at him, her face a somber mask.

Julian pressed on.

“But he seems… happy. Exhausted, yes, but also more… genuine. I knew he missed Cardassia, but I never could have guessed just how much.”

“Perhaps I should come visit when I get the time.” Kira said, lost in thought.

Julian beamed at her.

“I think he’d love that.”

Chapter Text

It was rather late when he got home. The day was already waning and the light was spilling from the shed, which meant Garak was already there. With a sudden spring in his step, Julian stepped in.

“Hello, my dear.” Elim greeted warmly and Julian gave him a bright grin in response.

“Always hard at work, I see.” Julian observed as he approached the table.

Garak offered a small huff.

“Designing your suit barely qualifies as work.”

“Really?” Julian bubbled with excitement. “Can I see?”

Elim smiled slyly and stated:

“That would ruin the surprise, and of the two of us, you’re the only one who appreciates those, so I felt I should indulge you.”

Julian laughed.

“You appreciated my surprise, Elim! Don’t pretend you didn’t!”

“I’ve had too few of those in my life, so you will excuse my deeply ingrained skepticism.”

That was true. Nowadays, Julian thought Garak’s life had been just a series of unfortunate events. Only the man’s skills and knowledge enabled him to live this long. A less capable individual would have been dead ten times over by now. And wasn’t that the crux of everything? The man was raised on lies. He didn’t even know who his father was until well after his indoctrination was complete. If he thought about it, even Tain’s actions, as atrocious as they were, made a twisted sort of sense. As the Head of the Obsidian Order, he must have had many powerful enemies, those who would have liked nothing better than to harm him through those he was closest to. Since he obviously never married (as far as Julian knew), if anyone ever found out he had a lover or an illegitimate child, they would have made prime targets for getting back at Tain.

In a way, the only thing standing between Mila’s and Elim’s certain death was a complex web of lies.

No, this is just my housekeeper with her husband and son. They are bland and boring service class people. They are beneath me, just servants, nothing more.

Perhaps the lies weren’t just a web, but a safety net as well. After all, if nobody knew you had a secret child, nobody could harm him. Julian used to think this was simply Tain’s selfishness, but what if there was more to it? Wouldn’t it have been easier to just kill them? The sadist clearly had no compunction ordering his enemies’ deaths on a daily basis. If he wanted to be rid of his offspring, he could have foisted him off on an orphanage and been done with it.

And yet, not only had he kept the mother of his child close, working for him until he retired, he orchestrated (somehow) for the world to think she and her brother were a married couple with a son. He gave Elim a family, such as it was, and kept him close. Perhaps the way he molded his son was also for Garak’s wellbeing. Sure, working in the Obsidian Order placed Elim in constant danger, but he was highly trained, extremely competent and more than able to take care of himself. No matter what else could be said for Tain, he made sure his son could navigate as well as survive the dangerous waters of Cardassian society.

The lies, viewed this way, could be considered a gift. Perhaps the most important gift a father could give to his son.

“Elim, promise me one thing… Don’t die here. Escape. Live.”

There was something between the lines, Julian could see it now.

I should have killed your mother before you were born. You have always been a weakness I can't afford.“

Yet he hadn't. Tain kept her safe and nobody ever found out about Mila. Either that, or nobody lived long enough to manage to harm her.

“So you've told me, many times.”

Elim knew and he didn’t care.

I was very proud of you that day. “

Julian's memory was jogged and he was astonished when he realized this wasn't the only time Tain's parting words were significant.

”I can see that Garak hasn't changed a bit. Never tells the truth when a lie will do. That man has a rare gift for obfuscation. Doctor, Elim is Garak's first name. Now run along home. And please, tell Garak that I miss him. “

You don’t end a conversation with a lie. Why would you? Endings are important. They stick with you, just like opening lines of a novel do. Tain had spun an elaborate lie about wanting Garak to suffer alone and despised, and there might have been some truth to that – he certainly wanted his son punished, but in retrospect, the lengths he went to seemed too excessive – they didn’t match his supposed intent at all. Why save his disgraced son by sending him away from all of his enemies, and then extend protection by making sure there were explicit orders not to get rid of him, which even Dukat was forced to obey? And later, why allow a random human doctor unmolested entry into Cardassian space? Why give away information about a highly classified piece of technology to an enemy officer?

When he thought about it now, Tain would have gotten in serious trouble if that ever came to light, after all, what the man did by divulging such sensitive information was essentially treason.

Former Head of the Obsidian Order betraying state secrets to save a disgraced operative?

No.

To save his only son, his only weakness, however…

And please, tell Garak that I miss him. “

In the end, it seemed Enabran and Elim shared more than a life of secrets and lies.

There was common ground, brittle and unexplored.

Sentimentality .

“Research giving you trouble?” Garak enquired from his stool.

“Huh?” Julian startled. “Uh, no. Sorry! I was miles away…”

“Anything you’d like to share?” Elim looked at him in mischievous curiosity.

“This will sound strange…But… I think Tain actually loved you.”

Garak’s eyes went wide with genuine emotion. There may have as well been a neon sign on his forehead, saying: “What brought this on, Doctor?”

“Why would you even be thinking about Enabran Tain, my dear?”

Julian rubbed the nape of his neck as he tried to formulate a response.

“You know my mind can run, well… Multiple threads of thought at the same time?”

“It usually serves you well, yes.”

Julian’s lips formed an uncertain little smile which disappeared as fast as it formed.

“Nowadays, I use it to… re-contextualize certain concepts I used to take for granted.”

“I see.” Garak said simply.

“I used to view life in simple terms, Elim. You know that. Things were black or white, good or evil, nice or unpleasant. Such views served me well until I reached the first real hurdle life threw at me.”

Elim put down his work and gave him his full attention. It was unnerving, yet also comforting. There it was, proof of his fallacies – life was never simple. How could he feel uncomfortable and safe at the same time? It was such a contradiction, but it existed simultaneously, like some strange, low-level paradox.

“I thought that way until I met a plain and simple tailor.” He finished, feeling strangely light.

A long look passed between them, charged with nearly eight years of history and meaning. It felt more like eighty. An entire universe was opening up before his eyes, and he felt like a science vessel hurtling through space at previously unimaginable warp speed, parting subspace gently like one would open sheer, gauzy curtains to let in the first light of a shy dawn.

Elim’s face was open, yet strangely blank. Julian remembered another passage from the memoirs he received.

“His eyes had a depth and eloquence that told me everything I wanted to know. How ironic that my lust for conversation was satisfied by someone who rarely spoke.”

Perhaps that lust for conversation was nothing more than an inelegant, inefficient form of expression creatures like them used to make themselves understood. They were all just blind, weak and starving children, wandering around in the perpetual darkness with desperately open arms, hoping for a single brush of fingers to ease their journey through oblivion.

Elim rose from his chair, never breaking eye-contact and Julian observed him, unwilling to miss a single nuance of expression.

Julian’s body was no longer his own.

He floated above the surface of his skin, tendrils of vaporous light extending, grasping, reaching outside himself for something solid and real. It was alien and strange, yet he felt unbothered by it. The look in his dearest friend’s eyes flowed into him like a cold mountain stream. His cracks filled with glacially cool water and he felt his mind expanding into a never-ending green plain with swaying, heavy grasses undulating across the vast expanse like a vibrant ocean teeming with color and life.

The warm touch of sun caressed his skin and he closed his eyes to drink it in. He was no longer Jules, the little broken boy; nor was he Julian, an upgraded, desecrated, empty chassis moving through the world’s greater mysteries thoughtless and unaware. Perhaps this was the secret space where his soul dwelled – this rolling meadow extending for thousands of leagues, never-ending and unbroken by sentient life’s violations.

Julian wanted to manifest this plain on Cardassia. He wished to see its deserts flourish, its oceans clear, its skies crystalline and resplendent with millions of glittering stars. In his mind, he could already feel the kiss of that warm, yet subdued sun against his lips. He sighed in bliss and surrendered to its warmth.

The heat was so real against his skin he could almost feel it like the softest of touches. As he opened his eyes to share it with Elim, he was greeted by a look he couldn’t name, and a closeness he couldn’t explain.

Julian had no heartbeat anymore. He couldn’t feel it. Instead, he’d become solid ground, warm and pliant.

I want to grow .

The gardener stood before him, patient and soft. Then, ever so slowly, his hands buried into the barren soil and breathed in life where none had existed before.

Chapter Text

Julian observed in silence.

Timeless.

Elim stood before him and watched.

Immobile.

Julian felt like he was the inside of a star – always burning.

What was it between them now, in this new understanding?

Their palms reached for one another, in Julian's case almost unconsciously. On both sides, mirrored, connected – complete. Just as his fingers started curling around Elim's, he picked up frantic footsteps from the outside. His head snapped towards the door and his companion was immediately on alert, disentangling them and stepping in front of Julian.

“-lim! Elim!”

Garak’s posture relaxed a fraction when he realized whose voice it was he was hearing.

Parmak burst through the door, breathless and grave.

“Was there another riot?” When Parmak made a dismissive hand gesture, Garak enquired further. “Don’t tell me someone managed to get to Ghemor?”

“No.” Kelas wheezed.

It was serious enough for Parmak to be running here from far away, judging by his respiratory distress.

“They found one of your orphans. Stabbed.” The immediacy in that tone, wrenched something open painfully in Julian’s being.

“Dead?” Garak asked, his voice a mixture of ice and fire.

“No, he’s at my hospital in the hands of a good surgeon. They’re fighting for his life.”

“Why have you walked here?”

“There were no skimmers.” Parmak said gravely, still gasping for breath.

“You could have asked Alon-“

“I said there were no skimmers!” The Cardassian doctor nearly growled.

Garak ignored the man’s uncharacteristic outburst and set into motion immediately. Procuring a disruptor from one of his many boxes, he set about assembling a small bag of odds and ends. Julian didn’t fully grasp why, but Garak never did anything without good reason, so he grabbed his own work bag and slung it over his shoulder.

After securing his door, Garak and Parmak set out. Despite his haste and obvious worry, Elim didn’t rush ahead faster than Kelas could keep up.

Your orphans, Elim?” Julian chanced a question.

Garak sighed and offered a brief explanation.

“Many children lost their families in the Fire. Some had always been orphans. They were never treated well in our society. When I saw roving groups of them, scavenging around the ruins…”

Parmak stepped in. “They would get hurt all the time. We lost many to cave-ins, suffocation… Elim took some of them under his wing and taught them how to stay safer.”

“Do we know why it happened?” Elim asked with a half-worried, half-murderous look in his eyes.

“His little sister ran to our hospital, like we taught her to. She only told me he was trying to barter with someone. You know how he is, Elim. Mouthy – headstrong…”

“Wait, who got stabbed?” Julian asked in confusion.

Both men said almost in unison: “Rekat.”

Parmak’s look at Elim confirmed it.

“What?” Julian cried out. “I know him! He was my guide!”

Both men looked at him wide-eyed.

“He took your advice, Elim…”

“If it got him stabbed-“

Parmak forestalled any further self-blame and wrapped his arm around the tailor’s waist. It looked like the most natural thing in the world.

Of course Elim would take comfort from his lover.

Julian frowned. This was no time for such irrelevant thoughts.

They had to get to the hospital in Barvonok where Parmak worked. As a doctor, Julian had hoped he would get the chance to see it, but these circumstances were definitely not what he had in mind. His mind raced to the Cardassian child he had the good fortune to meet. Rekat had managed to get him to Elim safely, after all, and now… the boy was lying on some operating table, likely struggling to cling to life.

“Garak…” Julian addressed him softly, “Rekat is a tenacious little boy. If Doctor Parmak has faith in these surgeons, everything should be fine.”

“Your platitudes are unnecessary, Doctor. We shall see for ourselves when we arrive there. May I suggest we pick up the pace?”

The brush-off was sudden and jarring, leaving Julian unbalanced.

Still, there was nothing he could do at the moment but get there as fast as possible.

They jogged and ran most of the way, only slowing to allow Kelas to catch his breath, but never stopping. It was 18 minutes and 27 seconds later they came to a stop before a sprawling medical complex. The entire left wing of the building was collapsed, and the majority of the central area as well, but the right wing was mostly intact. Some of its top floor was flattened, but the rest looked fine, at least on the outside.

Parmak walked briskly to what was once one of the side entrances and pressed a small device against the door panel, which opened the door for them.

“I’m bypassing the main reception, Elim.”

“I know.”

“Why?” Julian asked.

“Because they wouldn’t let me see him otherwise. We’re not kin.” Garak said uncharacteristically bitterly.

“But… that’s needlessly cruel! Can’t a person’s friends visit?” Julian was aghast by such callousness.

“No. Only family. Of course, I could lie, but that would needlessly complicate matters.”

Which is why I am using my authority to get you through. Bashir is a doctor, I can always invent some excuse to justify his presence. Now, follow me. He’s upstairs, on level two.”

“Weren’t the operating rooms in the basement levels?” Garak asked.

“Not since the power outages. Our back-up systems are shot and even we cannot operate in complete darkness.”

That made sense. In the daytime, the few windows on the upper floors would be a source of much-needed illumination. That would be insufficient for his human eyes, but it wouldn’t be a problem for a Cardassian. They walked briskly up the stairs and Julian was starting to get worried about Kelas, who was now openly wheezing. Judging by the streaks of white in his hair, the man was slightly older than Elim. He looked fit enough, but he probably lacked stamina. Out of all of them, Elim was the only one rigorously trained for prolonged bouts of strenuous physical activity, despite not being on active duty in nigh a decade. Julian was young enough to not mind overly much, but his muscles were starting to protest.

“Have they at least allowed Phela inside?”

“I presented her as a sister, she should be waiting just outside the operating ward.”

“What do you mean by that, is she not his real kin?”

Garak shot him an annoyed look, almost as if he was challenging Julian’s intelligence.

“Oh…” He had to think. Garak’s judging look was unbearable. “They aren’t blood related, but they… bonded?” Julian guessed.

Parmak sighed sadly.

“The children emulate the Cardassian ideal. They form their own little families and are fiercely loyal to them.”

“That’s so sad…” Julian observed.

“Can we save this philosophical debate for later?” Garak snapped.

Parmak and Julian exchanged a brief look. It was no more than an acknowledgment.

Stay quiet.

Let him process.

Julian obeyed the unspoken suggestion and followed the resolute Cardassians up the last flight of stairs. Parmak breezed past a few nurses like a man on a mission and halted in front of a pair of doors. He activated a console next to them and an image flickered to life on the screen.

Bashir, come here.” Kelas beckoned without taking his eyes off the screen.

Amazed, Julian realized he was watching the surgery from above, and Parmak was currently fiddling with some settings to zoom in. The audio was a bit garbled, but it came through well enough for his Universal Translator to pick up.

“Clamp it.”

This was good. They boy was obviously still alive.

“We’ll need another transfusion.”

“We cannot waste any more on the boy.” Said the male doctor.

“It would be pointless to let him die now!” One of the female nurses said mutinously.

“We won’t let him die,” A tired female voice said. It was the surgeon. “Now shut up and let me work.”

“She’s dead on her feet,” Julian observed. “She might make a mistake.”

“We have no choice, Bashir. She’s the only one willing to invest her time in this.”

That was terrible, Julian thought.

“Use mine.” Garak stated firmly. It took Julian a moment to connect the dots.

Parmak sighed.

“Your blood types don’t match, Elim…”

“Then use a separator!” The blazing anger in his eyes was fearsome and protective.

“If there’s another blackout-“

“You will improvise.” Garak said imperiously, in a voice that implied he wouldn’t accept no for an answer.

“You… are too stubborn, Elim.” The look in Parmak’s eyes was one of capitulation. “Very well.”

After punching in a few commands, Parmak spoke:

Parmak to Hejod; I have a volunteer for the transfusion, but we will need to use a separator.”

The female surgeon responded with a relieved exhale.

“Sweet rain, Kelas! Bring the donor in.”

Realizing he was unlikely to be admitted into the room along with them, Julian reached for Garak’s elbow, offering a reassuring squeeze.

“I’ll be right here, watching. I promise.”

Garak’s thunderous expression softened marginally and he nodded slightly, then fell into step next to Parmak and they both disappeared behind the double doors. Julian glued himself to the console, needing to take in every detail. He watched with mounting worry as Kelas lay Garak on what looked like a reclining chair and hooked him into the machine. It reminded him of one of those ancient dialysis machines, except less bulky. He observed the way Parmak smoothed Garak’s hair and was reminded again of Zeyem’s almost identical gesture during their first operation together. Did it have any special meaning?

Watching the cord connecting the man to the child, Julian was struck with two emotions of opposing, yet equal strength – admiration for the ease with which Elim would offer his life’s blood for a little boy Cardassian society would rather forget about, and an almost crippling fear for the man’s safety.

Garak was strong and agile for his age, but he was also nowhere near peak physical condition. He was still borderline dehydrated and malnourished – just over a week of rations couldn’t compensate for months of deprivation. This would harm him and compromise his immune system, but Julian understood the reasoning all too well. The feeling of helping to save someone’s life held no equal, and he supposed Elim had had enough of harming people.

If he thought about it, his Cardassian friend had always had a bit of a soft spot for orphans. With his own history of narrowly avoiding their fate, Julian supposed it was only natural to feel that way. He used to think Garak could be quite heartless, but the closer he got to the man, the more he realized it was just one of the many masks the tailor employed.

Just another lie to keep him safe…

The double doors swung open and a little girl of perhaps five walked out.

“Are you Bas’shear?”

He blinked and replied in affirmative despite the mangling of his name.

“You must be Phela?”

She observed him mutely and replied nothing.

“I met your brother, Rekat.” Julian said kindly. “He was my guide.”

That provoked a response. Pride lit up in her eyes as she said assertively:

“He’s a very good guide!”

Julian graciously agreed.

“Yes, he got me to my destination safely.”

“The Tailor said you were his friend and that I should keep an eye on you.”

“That’s a lot of responsibility for a little lady like you.” Julian attempted to make her smile.

“Not a lady.”

Oops . Perhaps that was a sore spot.

“I didn’t know we could be friends with others.”

“What others?” Julian asked, confused by her statement.

“People like you.” She dead-panned. “Aliens.”

Julian had no idea what to say to that.

“Are you really a friend of The Tailor?” She asked suspiciously, clearly doubting his qualifications.

“Yes, Phela. We are good friends.”

She seemed to scrutinize him and then shrugged. He recognized the gesture immediately and couldn’t help but smile.

Rekat shrugs the same way you do.” He smiled.

She pursed her lips and stared at him like one would at a curiously disgusting bug one was about to dissect.

“The Tailor said I could see Rekat on the screen. I wanna see.”

Julian noticed immediately that she wouldn’t be able to reach the console and he saw no chairs nearby she could stand on.

“I would have to pick you up and hold you so you could see. Is that ok? Do I have your permission to do that?”

She looked at him blankly and repeated.

“I wanna see brother.”

Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he gently reached for her and picked her up, settling her against his hip. Instinctively, she put her arms around his neck and peered at the little screen unblinkingly.

“Do you see that tube connecting your brother and Eli-, uh the tailor?”

“Yes.”

“That’s blood Rekat needs to survive his surgery.”

“The Tailor’s… blood?”

“Yes, Phela. He is giving his blood for your brother.”

The stern little girl started sniffling. Julian cursed himself for opening his mouth. He now had an armful of an increasingly loud and crying Cardassian child.

Parmak was currently monitoring Elim’s vitals and Julian attempted to focus on the tiny visualization, but didn’t want to zoom in too far and lose Rekat’s image.

“It’s not scary, Phela. Rekat is strong. He will survive.”

That female surgeon, Doctor Hejod, was making every effort to save the poor child. Rekat looked so tiny on that operating table.

“I’m not scared!” The girl protested stubbornly.

Julian worried for the boy. He was also concerned about Hejod. But most of all, there was an insidious and pervasive feeling of dread for Elim’s safety. The longer this went on, the chances of him remaining in this hospital increased. And in such poor conditions… It was common for people to contract something else and perish for the most banal reasons.

He wouldn’t allow it. If it came to that, he would take Elim to Coranum, to the Research Center. Zeyem would allow it.

Still, the girl in his arms was nearly wailing now and Julian was running out of ideas how to soothe her.

“Why are you crying, Phela?”

“The Tailor… he is giving his blood…”

“It’s a perfectly safe procedure, sweetie.”

“No…” She sniffled. “He’s not our family, but he is giving blood…”

“Is that rare? Giving your blood for somebody other than family?”

Parmak’s gentle voice interjected.

“Transfusions are only common among family members, and only in emergencies. We can synthesize blood just fine, but our reserves are too low, so we’ve been forced to supplement.”

Huh. Julian didn’t even notice Parmak leave the operating room.

“Donating blood to a child would usually be a father’s job.”

Julian looked at the sobbing child with sympathy and understanding. So that’s what this was about… Transfusion was a deeply symbolic gesture. What humans would do for nearly anyone in an emergency, Cardassians reserved solely for their closest family members. Elim’s gesture was essentially unheard of and as such touched the poor girl. Would she want to be part of Elim’s family? Would Rekat?

Could single Cardassians even adopt? How did adoption even work here?

He didn’t know.

He didn’t know much of anything, just like Elim said years ago.

“Are there adoptions on Cardassia?” Julian asked.

The girl fell silent and sniffled every now and then.

“Rarely.” Parmak said sadly. “If an extremely talented child is found, a childless couple can petition for adoption. In rare cases when a family is left without an heir, even including nephews and cousins twice removed, the option exists. Unfortunately, only the most promising children get chosen. The rest are put through basic education and then reassigned as the cheapest labor available. It’s a travesty.”

Cardassia is changing, though? Why not do something about it? Surely Ghemor’s voice carries some weight.”

Elim and I are pushing for it, Doctor, believe me. But it’s never high on the list. Cardassians are so used to the non- status of orphans that they don’t even spare them much thought. Perhaps now, with old families wiped out, and high-profile orphans cropping up all over, the matter will be given more serious thought.”

“Is The Tailor Rekat’s Father now?” The little girl asked hopefully, her pretty brown eyes filling with tears and Julian’s heart broke for her. “Do you think he would give me blood too? A little drop! Just enough to…”

Julian swallowed and held her tighter. He looked at Parmak pleadingly, hoping the man would have the information he lacked.

“There is a story told among orphans, Bashir, a tale of a strong man or woman, who comes and saves them. Actual adoptions, those precious few that do come through, include a formal ritual of mixing the parent’s blood with the child’s. To them, this would be the equivalent of a dream come true. Sadly, a real adoption needs paperwork, reviews of suitability, and is a long and arduous process which cannot be skipped. At least not yet.”

“So… The Tailor is not… Rekat’s Father now?”

“No, my dear.” Parmak said softly, pressing a kiss to her chufa. “They wouldn’t let him, not yet.”

“Maybe one day?” She asked so full of hope, Julian’s chin wobbled.

“Maybe one day.” Kelas smiled wistfully, clearly doubting such a positive outcome.

“Do you need to be married to be able to adopt?” Julian asked.

“Yes, usually. There have been exceptions in the past, but they are uncommon. Now that I think about it, this could be a perfect opportunity for unattached or widowed Cardassians to adopt a child that could succeed them in their line of work… That is an option many would find both pragmatic and appealing in these circumstances.”

Julian nodded.

“That way everybody wins…” He murmured.

“We want to do the right thing, Doctor Bashir. We just need a chance. With a lot of our databases down, this chaos might actually be working in our favor. I have seen people shelter children and keep them off the streets in the past few months. These arrangements may not be official, but they are happening more and more often. This gives us hope.”

“The war was a terrible thing,” Julian agreed. “But there’s a chance for something good to come out of all this suffering.”

“In that name, we move forward.” Parmak inclined his head politely.

“Shouldn’t you be in there, keeping an eye on Elim?” Julian asked, unnerved by the man’s stillness on the screen.

“He sent me away.” Parmak said with a hint of sadness in his voice. “He despises my fretting.”

“If he said that, he was lying.” Julian said, confident in his assessment. “Garak would never admit to any weakness or vulnerability, but he appreciates when someone takes care of him. He might never say it, but kindness is not something he is capable of forgetting. Trust me on that.”

Parmak looked at him searchingly and took him in with a thoughtful expression.

“His irritation was genuine.” The Cardassian doctor offered.

“Likely it was, but who was it directed at?” Julian asked, his mind working the problem like a dog worried a bone. “The person who stabbed the boy? Himself for the way his body is betraying him? Or something else entirely I didn’t take into account?”

Parmak blinked slowly, pondering the implications of Julian’s words. A complex emotion manifested on the man’s gentle face and a new determination blazed in his eyes.

“You may be right, Bashir. I believe I will go back there. In the state he is now, the worst he can do to me is spew some vitriol.” Parmak bowed at him minutely as if Julian had done him some great favor and said solemly: “Thank you for the advice, Doctor.”

“You’re welcome.” Julian said peaceably, but as soon as the man turned, his face fell.

Why was he giving advice to Garak’s lover? Shouldn’t Parmak know Elim better than anyone at this point? The man shouldn’t need Julian’s input at all.

Inhaling deeply, Julian focused on Hejod’s movements and the surgery itself. He could vaguely understand what was going on – whatever had caused the wounds had perforated a bile sack, which caused mayhem in the boy’s abdominal cavity. He tried visualizing it from a different angle, the surgeon’s angle, but his peripheral vision caught movement and his focus was torn from the place he was supposed to be watching onto the two men in the background. Parmak was gently touching Elim’s forehead, brushing the ridges on his forehead with an upward motion. The gesture looked soothing and intimate, and for once, Elim wasn’t protesting and allowed Kelas to proceed.

Julian hated the paleness and the tiredness on that familiar face. Elim’s lids seemed heavy and moved slowly, and Julian could feel his body releasing adrenaline without his say-so. He was stuck here, separated from the operation, reduced to a passive observer; clutching the little Cardassian girl the way he used to cling to Kukalaka when he was younger, seeking refuge in something small and warm.

More than anything, he wanted to be in there, in Hejod’s place, saving the boy as fast as his augmented brain and hand-to-eye coordination allowed, just so he could see that grotesque crimson ribbon clear out into its imminently more acceptable state of transparency.

He watched helplessly as Garak’s motions dulled, and felt his facial muscles contorting in horror as Elim halted Parmak’s hand when the doctor wanted to stop the transfer.

The voices barely came through, but his superior hearing caught them.

Elim, you have to stop. They have enough.”

The raspy reply held all of Garak’s conviction, but none of his strength.

“We stop when the surgery is over and not a moment sooner.”

Elim, don’t do this!” Parmak pleaded and Julian swore he could hear the added “To me” At the end of the man’s sentence. “I am your doctor now and I am warning you, much further and we will risk losing you too.”

“You wouldn’t let that happen, Kelas. I have every faith in you.”

Julian nearly gasped at the cruelty of that blatant manipulation which even Parmak seemed to sense viscerally.

Elim, please… Be reasonable. Cardassia needs you.”

I need you. That’s what those words meant.

“My life – my decision. I shall give of myself however I see fit, now… If you dare stop the transfer…”

The threat seemed genuine, but Parmak didn’t seem to care.

Hejod, how much longer?” He asked in a harried tone which contained all of his anxiety.

“If I had someone as competent as myself assisting me,” She said emphatically, clearly making a dig at the other male doctor in the room, “I would be done in ten metrics. This way, it might take a full time unit. I don’t know!”

Desperation was evident on Parmak’s face and Julian felt its twin roiling in his gut.

I could do it. I know I could. I could save them both.

Julian felt a kind of panic he had almost forgotten he could experience. It was immediate, consuming and impossible to fight.

“We have a human doctor who’s been performing surgeries at the Research Center in Coranum for the past week and a half. He could be here, in scrubs, in less than a minute.”

“Do you vouch for this human, Kelas?” She asked him in a voice as sharp as a scalpel.

“I do, and so does Head Zeyem.”

At that, Hejod’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Why isn’t he here already?” She cried out. “Get to it!”

Parmak ran out the room like a pack of wild targs was on his tail, and Julian heard the male doctor protesting:

“This is against the regulations, Hejod. We can’t be compromising our facility and this procedure by bringing in an unknown element, a human no less-“

“If it were up to you, you would have left this child to die, Merur. You have no right to speak on the matter.”

“He’s but an orphan! How is he of benefit to Cardassia?”

At this, the female surgeon started shaking in rage.

“Well over a billion dead on Prime alone, many of them our youth – our future, and you dare skin scales over saving a boy dying in front of our very eyes! You disgust me! Get out of this room and make yourself useful kissing some gul’s ass!”

At his hesitation, she thundered:

“Out!”

He didn’t get the chance to see more, because Parmak came bursting through the doors with familiar drab attire trailing after him like a morbid flag.

Phela, I have to go.” Julian put her down and pet her cheek affectionately.

Her eyes were wide and frightened, but she mustered a solemn expression and said:

“Help Rekat. I will wait.”

“No,” Parmak said. “I’ll take you in, Phela. I don’t care.”

“Won’t you get in trouble for that?” Julian asked and in that moment, a furious Merur sped past them, sparing Julian a particularly affronted glare of revulsion and disappeared down the corridor in furious silence.

“Now that Merur is gone, I doubt it.”

Julian grabbed the scrubs and ran into the operating ward, listening to Parmak’s instructions on where to go. He entered a small antechamber and donned the operating garb, grabbed a pair of his gloves from the kit and startled as Parmak slicked his hair back with some kind of oily substance which seemed to harden slightly.

“No shedding during medical procedures. We have no head-gear, unlike humans. Apologies for the abruptness, but we have no time.”

“It’s fine.” Julian uttered dismissively and pushed the door open.

Hejod, this is Bashir.” Parmak introduced.

She barely spared him a glance, and addressed a nurse:

Eijal, increase the lights by 40%.”

The female nurse complied and Julian sighed in relief. That would make his job significantly easier. He strode purposefully to the side of the table opposite Hejod and took a better look into the abdominal cavity. His mind went into overdrive and he picked up his medkit, taking out the necessary tools.

“I’m more familiar with these, it’ll go faster. I will take care of the vascular damage, and you focus on the ruptured organs.”

“Agreed.” Hejod acknowledged, and Julian immersed himself in his work, trying valiantly not to look at the crimson ribbon, dangling between his patient and his dear friend.

If he looked, he was lost.

He couldn’t afford it.

So he stared into the boy’s open stomach and did his job.

Chapter Text

Hejod had miscalculated, and so had Julian. Her estimation had been ten metrics, but after that mark passed, they were still not done.

A nurse would step in every minute or so to wipe his sweaty brow, but he didn’t even have the time or the mental capacity to thank them, because all of his focus was on the delicate procedure he was assisting with. They were actually doing several different surgeries at once, and he kept track of Hejod’s movements so he could support her efforts by repairing the blood vessels leading into the afflicted area, then once she was done, fix them further down the line.

Despite his mind’s unswerving attention to the task at hand, there was a warring and entirely independent sensation pulling at him like a hungry tide lapping at a sandy shore. An insidious mirage flickered in his peripheral vision, more frightening than any nightmare. Parmak was bustling around, administering something to Elim, who was now lying entirely immobile on the chair.

That awful lack of movement from one, and excessive movement from the other, stirred a most unpleasant kind of dichotomy Julian could feel keenly in his body.

This was wrong. Elim was only ever still if he was stalking his prey, the way a good predator was supposed to. His was a stillness imbued with purpose and a kind of enviable patience Julian could never hope to emulate. The lack of movement now signaled something entirely opposite – a lack of vigor and will, yet purpose remained.

Purpose was all that was left.

No matter the cost, his life for Rekat’s.

Julian felt frustrated and afraid, but he didn't allow it to influence the movements of his hands.

Every second longer was squandering Elim's gift.

Every drop that spilled out of Rekat was a horrifying waste.

Concentrate! Don't look!

His vision blurred, but he blinked it away.

You don't need Kukalaka. You are not Jules. You are Julian. You can do this.

So do it.

More determined than ever, he re-doubled his efforts and worked as fast as his instruments allowed.

5 more seconds; then move on.

Hejod, stop!” He cried out, unnecessarily harshly. “Siphon that blood off, there’s another tear in here.”

“Noted.” She acknowledged. Eijal!”

“Yes, ma’am.” The nurse obeyed swiftly, and Julian got back to work.

Parmak’s frantic movements in the background only spurred him on.

Hejod, I need a measure of synth-blood for Elim, or we’ll lose him too!”

Julian’s heart stopped.

His hands didn’t.

“Unplug him, now!” She commanded without taking her eyes from her task. “Eijal, authorize a dose.”

“Your authentication code or Merur’s?”

“His. I’m docking his pay for the stunt he pulled in here earlier. If he wasn’t a passably decent doctor, I’d have him fired. We’ll figure the shortage out later.”

The nurse didn’t bother with the reply and unlocked a container in the corner, pulled out the stasis-kept unit of blood and ran to Parmak’s side.

Julian was almost done.

Elim, no!” Parmak cried out, but Julian had no time to look, no time to hear; he had to fix, mend -faster.

Faster!

But hear he did, because a stubborn part of him couldn’t help but pay attention.

The Cardassian equivalent of a flatline hummed in the air.

Ignore it.

He had to.

There was a job to do.

The faster he was done here, the better for Elim.

Julian felt dizzy and his knees were weak, but he locked them stubbornly and cursed himself for his weakness.

Be Cardassian. Compartmentalize.

With a lump in his throat and a stinging in his eyes, he shut the world out.

It could wait.

The world narrowed to the view in front of him and everything else faded away.

Hejod’s hands wove between his and there was nothing left in the entire universe, nothing but the whirr of their instruments and gentle prodding of their fingers.

Another blood vessel mended.

Tuck.

Rearrange.

Regenerate.

Reattach muscle.

Halt.

Wait for Hejod.

Resume.

37 seconds to go.

Double-check.

Scan.

Test.

No more hemorrhaging.

12.6 seconds.

The awful slowness of his dermal regenerator.

Infuriating.

Unnacceptable .

4.3 seconds left.

“Come on…” Julian murmured in frustration.

Done.

“Good job, Doctor Bashir.” Hejod said tiredly.

Julian barely heard it.

In the very next moment, he was moving - swiftly, gracelessly, desperately to a new point in the room.

He saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing.

There was none of that endless stream of data flooding his brain.

Nothing on the temperature or the atmospheric pressure in the room.

No feeling in his limbs, only their blind obeisance.

Only an unmoving, gray face lolling to the right, as if still looking at the boy whose surgery was a success, but seeing only darkness, as his eyes were closed.

Elim!” Someone cried as the world was plunged into darkness.

Not now… Not after everything…

The world was trembling under his feet.

An earthquake.

Had to be.

Bashir, come to your senses!”

A whimper greeted him and he wondered why it sounded familiar.

Elim is alive, he will be fine, he’s just unconscious!”

Those words pierced the haze surrounding him and he shook off the barriers in his mind which separated his job from his private life and when he did, his knees buckled. Parmak held him up and Julian felt all strength leave him.

Safe.

Alive.

He collapsed in Kelas’s arms, gasping in relief.

He had succeeded.

It was over.

Chapter Text

It was well after midnight and Garak was still unconscious.

Julian knew there was no real cause for alarm, not anymore, but watching the man sleep not of his own volition left him feeling unsettled.

They had carried him to a room in the convalescence ward. Rekat was still in the ICU, but seemed stable. Kelas had taken Phela to his office and let the girl sleep on his makeshift cot. She was worn out completely, the poor child.

Julian wondered if Parmak was running some kind of interference, because none of the other staff came to toss him out. He was clearly not Garak's family, but nobody said a word. He got some shifty looks, but he was left unmolested.

He held Elim's hand and took his pulse.

It was steady.

All 39 times he'd measured it.

Elim was fine, he knew that intellectually. They had given him an immune-booster to forestall any complications and had him on a saline drip, but his tests checked out. He was malnourished, but otherwise remarkably healthy.

His little stunt would have killed a lesser man.

Though, to be honest…

A lesser man never would have offered his blood for a Cardassian orphan.

Elim You crazy bastard.

A part of Julian was mad and worried, but there was a definite presence of an emotion that was winning out slowly.

Pride.

This was proof that Elim had come a long way. From a man whose motivations you could never discern, he had become someone who you could depend on, someone that could surprise you with their selflessness.

But was it selflessness, truly? Garak was as determined as if he was paying some heavy debt. Was it the conviction of a sinner desperate to repent, or the inability to let even one person he knew perish? It could be that he was simply tired of losing people he cared about; after all, Garak never had many of those. Even before his exile, the only person he truly opened up to was Palandine. She was gone now. So was Ziyal. Garak liked and respected Pythas, but the other man’s nature prevented a closer bond. Now he had Parmak and Ghemor.

And his orphans.

And…

Julian.

If that’s what he wanted.

Elim lay there unmoving and Julian wondered why he was being pulled into the man’s orbit so relentlessly. At this point, there was no grand design, no plan, no manipulation. There was absolutely nothing Garak had to gain by this, after all, he was home now and needed no leverage over a naïve young Starfleet officer to gain access to information that might become useful down the line.

Whatever it was that originally brought Garak to him was long past its expiration date. He certainly didn’t need Julian any more, except perhaps as a source of supplies and a voice for Cardassia at Starfleet. It was only logical, and yet…

It didn’t feel that way.

Elim could have continued his amiable charade when Julian arrived, but he hadn’t.

It was all so personal now, more raw and real and damn did it feel right.

This is what true friendship could be like. Worrying openly about one another, taking care of each other, communicating openly and honestly… Julian had always strived for something like this, but Garak hadn’t exactly been cooperative before. Much to his shame, neither had Julian.

Short-sighted, that’s what I am. Reckless. Fickle.

He’d come to Cardassia to be forgiven.

Foolish.

Garak could have thrown it all in his face, but he didn’t. Even when he was unaware of the cargo Julian had brought along. Their strange friendship appeared to have survived the distance, both physical and emotional, but where did that leave them now?

He wanted to ask him that.

He just wanted to hear the man’s voice again.

He wanted Elim to tell him he was fine, even if it was a lie.

Anything.

“Just… say anything.”

That lunch he had with Miles when Garak had been missing was telling, but he understood himself so poorly then. His efforts to engage O’Brien in a literary debate were doomed from the beginning, but he had plowed on to fill the silence because it had been oppressive and suffocating.

It was clearer now. He had been worried about his usual lunchtime companion. Missed him. Depended on him.

Feared for his safety.

How easy it had been to rationalize it away, back then. Ah, I’m just a scatter-brain, Miles, don’t mind me as I worry about a man you would rather toss out an airlock.

How unkind his thoughts were even now.

The touch of Elim’s hand left him feeling both grounded and bereft. It was a queer sensation he couldn’t quite place. The doors whooshed open behind him and he wondered if he would finally be evicted from the room and the hospital. If he pretended he belonged there, would they leave him alone?

He needed to calm his breathing.

Bashir, I thought you might want to know how Rekat is doing.” Parmak’s soft voice reached him.

He relaxed and turned towards the man without letting go of Elim’s hand.

“Of course, how is he?”

“The latest bloodwork is encouraging. They detected no anomalies and they are going to keep him here about a week for observation.”

“That’s great!” Julian smiled, feeling relieved. “They won’t refuse treatment?”

“They aren’t allowed to.” Parmak explained, “But the level of medical attention might vary, unfortunately. Old prejudices die hard.”

Julian nodded solemnly and looked at Garak’s sleeping face.

“I hate that he fainted before he knew the outcome of the surgery…” Julian murmured. “I hope he isn’t dreaming about it.”

Parmak just stood there as a silent sentinel.

“He’s had quite enough nightmares in his waking life.” Julian stated, surprised he’d voiced the thought aloud. Perhaps the fact Parmak was fiercely loyal to Elim helped.

“He will have something nice to wake up to.” Parmak said quietly, likely not to disturb the other patients.

“Yes. Rekat is doing well, that’s bound to cheer him up.” He agreed and squeezed Elim’s hand a little.

“I will take my leave now, Doctor Bashir.” The Cardassian excused himself.

“Are you sure?” Julian asked, bewildered by the brevity of the man’s visit. “Don’t you want to stay by his side?”

Parmak gave him a kind look and stated gently:

“I took an additional night shift to justify my presence in the hospital.”

“I will leave you to your work, then.” Julian inclined his head respectfully.

“If he wants to call me when he wakes up, he knows how to.”

With that, the man made his exit.

Julian returned to his vigil.

The quiet of the Cardassian night gave him time to think. He wondered whether Tolan would be proud of Elim for what he had done for an abandoned Cardassian child. The man’s words filled his mind once more. While discussing the Hebitians, Tolan had said:

“They valued the soul, Elim. They were organized – they had to be, they had determined enemies – but their energy wasn’t devoted to the conquest of others, to accumulating resources they couldn’t produce themselves. They were able to support themselves, and this self-sufficiency allowed them to nurture and celebrate their group soul with art and culture.”

The ancient Hebitians obviously had the right idea, but the climate change destroyed their chances of fighting off their enemies, the Cardassians. Were they the same race that simply splintered off at some point? It seemed that way. Their kinder ways stood no chance against their militaristically-minded cousins.

What made them open to the concept of souls?

Julian wondered whether there were any Hebitian specific genetic markers he could explore.

Their ideals survived in some form; otherwise the Cardassian education system wouldn’t be trying quite so hard to dismiss them.

“I’d been taught that the first Hebitians were a primitive people and had died off in the climatic catastrophe; that the survivors had built a new civilization that became superior in all ways.”

But they hadn’t. Hunger and desperation drove them to surrender, whereupon they had been wiped out and assimilated. Julian shuddered at the thought. The only reason this didn’t happen to Bajor is their fierce resistance. He had no idea how many Bajoran women had been raped and left with children. The same thing likely happened to the ancient Hebitians… It was a dreadful prospect, but Julian wasn’t naïve enough to doubt it.

Calyx had supposedly called Elim an “air man”. It was clearly an allusion to their Hebitian ancestry. It bore the connotation of several different words – dreamer, idealist - a fool who wastes his time with silly notions inapplicable in reality. Julian was sure Garak had gotten this from some Hebitian ancestor of Mila’s and Tolan’s.

“Mother often complained that he didn’t have a grasp of what she called our “power-driven reality”, and he would reply that his reality was driven by the same power that grew his plants and shrubs.”

If only Tolan had been given more time with Elim! The power he spoke of… did he refer to the power of life? Of thought?

The tendrils of light the Hebitians portrayed on their reliefs… Coming from the sun, passing through Oralius – that spiritual entity which guided them toward the higher ideals, and spreading through it into the people and the planet below.

Good people tended their planet carefully, like Tolan did. Despite the harshness of the land, he made the grounds fertile with his efforts – and he was just one man! What could Cardassians do if they embraced self-sufficiency like Ghemor pushed for?

Was Julian’s strange vision of a green Cardassia achievable?

“The first Hebitians had an advanced culture that was sophisticated on every level, Elim. Yes, it was solar based, but they were able to support themselves, and this is what most of the planet looked like.”

Tolan had tried to show Elim a vision of a better world, but Garak couldn’t even fathom it back then.

“It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? We live in constant struggle with the land. We’ve become as hard and dry…”

What if that was the point?

Harsh conditions produced harsh people. Even Garak had remarked upon it, first as he observed the Hebitian frieze, and then as he watched the forest of Ba’aten in awe. If this was true, it stood to reason that improving the land would produce a profound effect on its inhabitants. After all, the greenery was so rare on Cardassia that any parks used to be highly prized. Now… there was nearly nothing left.

So… what would happen if there was suddenly a huge green plain, stretching for miles? Would it touch the hearts and minds of the individuals living on this war-torn world?

Could this planet be healed? Terraformed?

Why not?

The idea took root in his mind like one of Elim’s and Tolan’s Edosian orchids. If such a fiddly flower could be coaxed to grow in these harsh environs, couldn’t they expand Ba’aten, to begin with? As the last surviving rainforest in the entire Cardassian Union, it could be such an important symbol. Could they then reclaim some of their deserts, as well?

Julian had never been to a meeting of the Oralian Way, because there had been no chance. He wondered whether it felt a bit like this.

Inspiring.

Invigorating.

Could he make a strong enough case for the Federation to send a terraforming team to Cardassia Prime? It could be a wonderful project to improve the relations between the Union and the Federation, if only both sides agreed to it!

Julian, who had been wandering around purposelessly since the end of the Dominion war, found his inner fires stoked and surging into the darkness; engulfing his doubts. He was so eager to present his idea to Elim, but the man was still out cold.

He took his chair closer and debated whispering into the man’s ear. Could that wake him?

Would stimulating one of his pressure points be better?

He didn’t want to overstep just because he was anxious to speak to the man.

Julian leaned in and whispered into his ear:

Elim… Wake up. I have something important to share.”

The Cardassian gave no signs of awareness.

“You will like it, I promise.” Julian tried again.

Still no response. He placed his index and middle fingers on the man’s face to take his pulse again. Steady. Strong.

That was a comfort at least.

Watching his friend lying before him helpless and essentially dead to the world sparked a realization in Julian.

I care for him.

Genuinely.

His heart swelled with the emotion, strong and undiluted, heavy and heady like that kanar he’d tasted and learned to appreciate at Ghemor’s.

I love him .

It felt right to admit this to himself. Elim was a curious choice for a friend, nobody could deny that, but Julian knew their bond was one of true and reciprocated affection and esteem. He respected the Cardassian’s skill and tenacity, his sharp wit and even sharper tongue, which never stopped spinning stories. True or false, what did it matter? There had always been honesty and truth even in the most blatant lies Garak served him.

They had gotten closer in these past… how many days? Week and a half? God, was it really just ten days?

It wouldn’t be the first time ten days proved significant to their friendship. After the wire, Garak had been… more relaxed around him. Julian had been too relieved that the man didn’t bring up their fight to look deeper into what was happening. Garak had… opened up then, hadn’t he? Just as Julian had begun his long and slow retreat.

I didn’t notice…

Julian sighed. He was tired of not noticing things, tired of being the last person to pick up social cues.

He took Elim’s hand in his again and lowered his forehead onto the tailor’s shoulder. He breathed in deeply to regain his equilibrium. That sweet scent he was becoming familiar with was almost entirely drowned out by the smell of Cardassian hospital, but he could still distinguish it if he focused. It helped steady him.

Elim…” He mumbled into the man’s shoulder, certain nobody else in the room could hear him. All the other patients were asleep. “Stop being so bloody stubborn and wake up so we can bicker like we always do.”

When the man showed no signs of awareness, Julian started caressing the soft side of his hand.

“I never want to see you so heroic again. It’s wonderful, but I don’t think I can bear it.”

Only calm, barely audible breathing broke the silence. Cardassians were curiously quiet when asleep.

“You won’t wake up until I say something thoroughly embarrassing, will you? Perhaps this amuses you, Garak. You can just lie there and have me spill all my secrets without needing to lift a finger.”

The man’s chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm.

“I had wasted so much time analyzing the wrong things… Can you forgive me?”

Nothing.

“You must be proud of your interrogation tactics. I must admit they are quite effective.”

More than anything, he wanted Elim to wake up and tease him in that fond manner of his. He would say something infuriating, like:

Interrogation tactics? Surely you jest, my dear Doctor! I haven’t even posed a single question.

“Great. Now I am imagining having a conversation with you. The imaginary you is currently laughing at me.”

The silence around them was broken only by the occasional retreating footsteps beyond the closed doors.

“I liked the way you were at Ghemor’s… That was the most relaxed I’d ever seen you. Perhaps going back to Cardassia was all you ever needed.”

Julian nuzzled the fabric of Garak’s tunic.

Elim…”

I should tell you… You’ve waited so long for this, haven’t you?

The body he was resting his head on jostled slowly, in a distinctly languid way one moved while asleep. Perhaps the pressure on his shoulder was uncomfortable. Julian raised his head to watch Elim settle into a more comfortable position, which turned out to be facing him.

Are you asleep, or are you just messing with me?

The face was relaxed in slumber and offered no clue.

Julian melted a little.

“I don’t even care if you’re pretending to sleep at this point, Elim. But if I were you, I’d be very worried. You’re essentially at my mercy, and Zeyem’s database was very thorough.”

The man’s lips quirked at that.

“Is that a promise, my dear?” Elim murmured with his eyes closed. He sounded quite drowsy.

“If you transport me to an unknown location without prior consent again, you bet it is.”

Elim’s eyes opened slowly, heavy with sleep.

“So you wouldn’t be opposed to being transported to an unknown location if you consent to it first?”

The Cardassian asked in his usual maddening manner.

“That eager to get rid of me?” Julian’s eyebrows shot up. “Because I could have sworn you wanted me here… Must have been my overactive imagination!”

Garak accepted the little verbal spar and retorted:

“I obviously only want you for your skills, Doctor.”

Julian sighed, but knew Garak didn’t mean it. It was just a little game they played. The steps of the old familiar dance were familiar and well-practiced. He loved the back and forth. Yet, it’s been a long day and he wanted plain and simple, for once.

“I love you, Elim, so… don’t die on me. It would be a tragic waste for Cardassia.”

Elim’s eyes glimmered in the gloom like twin stars.

“I shall endeavor not to, then. Wouldn’t want to disappoint my adoring fans, would I?”

Julian wondered why his first words went unanswered and his turmoil must have been evident, because Garak gave a long-suffering sigh and muttered a sleepy:

“And I you, Julian.”

Elim closed his eyes at that and fell asleep once more.

Feeling lighter after he had shared what was on his mind, Julian reclined in his chair, made himself as comfortable as he could and shut his eyes.

Elim’s hand was warm.

Chapter Text

Julian was awoken by the sound of Parmak's voice.

Bashir… Wake up.”

When he cracked his eyes open, a massive yawn emerged and he was too slow to cover it with his hand.

Wha-, whasamatter?”

“I tried reasoning with Zeyem, but she wouldn’t relent. You have to get to work.”

With a small groan, Julian peeled himself off the chair he had dozed off in.

“Do I have to walk there?” He all but whined.

“Fortunately, no. There’s a skimmer taking a few patients to the Research Center and I arranged for you to come along.”

Julian gave a sigh of relief and realized his right arm was numb when he tried to move it. During the few hours spent sleeping, their fingers had somehow gotten intertwined. He gave Elim’s hand one last affectionate squeeze and gently extricated his own.

“When does it leave?” He asked, getting up from the chair and hearing his spine crackle in protest.

“In ten metrics. Say your goodbyes, I shall wait outside.”

“No need,” Julian said dismissively and landed a feather-light kiss on Elim’s forehead. The man was still asleep. “Rest well, Elim… And don’t you dare do something stupid while I’m gone, you hear me?”

With a last fond look, he followed Parmak out of the room.

While they were descending stairs, Julian’s brain conjured up a thought he had managed to ignore yesterday.

“Did you find out who assaulted Rekat?”

Parmak’s voice was grave.

“No. Phela hasn’t been able to describe who it was since she was too upset at the time, and it would be pointless to expect more from her. She saved his life by running to the hospital as fast as she could. At this point, the only one that can tell us more is Rekat, but they will likely keep him under a while longer, to rest. Waking up now, in panic, with his sister absent and neither me nor Elim at hand to soothe him is a recipe for disaster.”

Julian understood.

“Please, Parmak… Don’t let Elim go off half-cocked. He’s in no state to be traipsing around on some revenge quest.”

“I will escort him home and keep an eye on him after my shift ends.”

Don’t worry, Those words meant. I’ll take care of him.

“Thank you.” Julian said gratefully. He wondered what Parmak will be forced to do to make Garak give up on his investigative impulses. How would he distract Elim? With a heated debate? Wait… Weren’t those just Cardassian flirting?

He really didn’t need the mental image of two amorous Cardassians right now, especially because he knew them personally.

All those times they bickered over lunch… How much of it was actual flirting, and how much was it just Garak trying to be patient with him? Knowing Elim, he was likely getting a kick from Julian’s obliviousness to the potential meaning of their little literary spats. Either that or the tailor was flirting to pass the time, seeing as there weren’t many people around who would even talk to him and was just trying to keep his conversational skills sharp.

Parmak took him to a back door which led out to a skimmer pad.

One of the nurses was currently escorting a patient into the vehicle.

“They know you’re coming, so you may board now.”

Julian nodded, but then halted.

“Wait, have you notified Ghemor about-“

“Yes. Alon is aware of the situation. Who do you think tried interceding with Zeyem after I failed? She’s as immovable as a mountain at times.”

“Oh… All right. Will you stay with him until I come back?”

“Of course, Bashir.”

Nodding in gratitude, Julian strode off to the skimmer and boarded.

He somehow knew this feeling of worry would be following him until he got back to Tolan’s shed at the end of the day and saw Elim was well and definitely not embroiled in some cloak and dagger nonsense behind his back.

Who am I kidding?

***

He kept staring at the chronometer and wanted to throttle himself each time he did. He knew exactly what time it was. He had no need to keep checking so compulsively approximately every thirty seconds.

“Are you sure you aren’t part-Cardassian, little Bashir?” Zeyem’s firm voice floated towards him.

“Fairly certain, Zeyem.” He said jokingly, knowing that leaving room for doubt was an appreciated maneuver in Cardassian conversation.

“Two air men! Mercy upon my old, dutiful soul!” She said with exaggerated haughtiness.

“I shall take that as a compliment, Zeyem.” Julian inclined his head respectfully, knowing that his reconciliatory gesture was quite ruined by his cheeky grin.

“Only you would!” She huffed.

“Well, excuse me if I have a lofty dream for Cardassia’s future!”

“Hah!” She snorted, startling Julian. A poised, intimidating woman like her – snorting? Now that’s something you didn’t see every day.

“And what is this lofty dream? It wouldn’t have anything to do with curing this little outbreak of ours, would it?”

Julian had the good grace to flush. He guessed he deserved that. Regardless, she had asked, so he may as well tell her. Might be a good idea to run it by someone before he presents his crazy idea to Elim.

“It is something that could cure a deeper kind of affliction, I think…” He said. “Zeyem…” He trailed off, “What do you know of the first Hebitians?”

She leveled him with a withering stare.

“Old widows’ tales, Doctor Bashir? And here I was thinking you were a man of science…”

“I don’t propose anything unscientific Zeyem, just… keep an open mind, all right? I was once told it was the essence of intellect.”

She narrowed her sharp eyes at him, but didn’t interrupt.

“The Fire destroyed your infrastructure and took many lives, but that’s not the only thing that was affected. The dust has been obscuring the sky and creating storms that are making things even worse than they already are. But… know what’s really effective against the wind?”

“Well-planned infrastructure.” She glared at him and he got the feeling she was losing patience with his long-winded explanation.

“That too, but I’m not referring to that.” He decided to switch tactics. “Tell me, have you seen Garak’s garden?”

She seemed taken aback by this question. “Bashir, if you are referring to the impressive feat of Garak managing to keep a plant alive in these circumstances-“

He plowed on irreverently. “So you admit it’s impressive?”

“Growing Edosian orchids has been impressive even before the Fire.”

“And Cardassia has lost most of its few remaining green zones, hasn’t it?”

“Nearly all, by my reckoning.”

“Entire families used to go to Tarlak Grounds to enjoy the scenery.” Julian led on.

“I believe it is time to present your grand idea, or I will keep you here over night.”

She must have known how cruel a threat that was, but Julian was willing to call her bluff.

“The only reason why Cardassia had been so brutal with its expansionist policy is the fact your homeworld doesn’t allow you to be self-sufficient. Your resources are depleted and your eco-system is likely in the worst shape it’s even been. Now, imagine there was a way to make it better?”

“Our scientists haven’t managed it in thousands of years, Bashir, so you can save your misguided, condescending-“

“The Federation has very advanced terraforming technology. On Earth, over three hundred years ago, we had depleted and cut down most of our rain forests. The loss in biodiversity was staggering. As the winds stripped away the fertile forest soil, deserts spread. It continued until humanity acknowledged what it was doing to the planet that sustained us and made a concerted effort to change. We started planting trees, whole forests worth. And a curious thing happened… Within a few years, as the saplings grew, so did the grass. Sheltered by the canopy, life crept back in. Funghi, flowers, insects, birds, rodents… And predators. Nature found a way. All it needed was a little push.”

Zeyem regarded him curiously, almost like she was opting to reserve judgment.

“Wouldn’t seeing your world blossom be a wondrous thing?” Julian said passionately. “Just imagine how transformative, how impactful it would be to walk down a grassy field and watch the sun set over the mountains?”

Cardassia needs farmland, not meadows to frolic on.” Zeyem said scathingly.

“Once the land is alive, you can use it for crops – in moderation. I’m sure the Federation wouldn’t refuse, how could it? Everyone knows Cardassia was hit the hardest by the war!”

“As far as I’m aware, they have been insultingly reticent in offering their assistance.”

“They cannot be sure of your current political climate. I already promised Ghemor I would send a detailed report and put in a good word. Now I will also send a suggestion for a joint terraforming project. It would be a perfect opportunity for our people to work together on a common goal everyone could be passionate about.”

“Federation? Passionate about helping Cardassia? I used to think you were naïve, Bashir, but now I’m beginning to suspect you’re delusional as well.”

“The people in that line of work are passionate about breathing life into dead or dying worlds. They don’t care about politics at all!”

“They may not, Bashir, but the people who deploy them do.”

That was actually a fair point, but Julian was unwilling to let it go without at least trying.

“Well, I will try my hardest to push this through to anyone that will listen. I will pester every admiral, forward it to all news agencies, create such public pressure and outcry if I have to, that they’ll have no choice but to listen!” He stopped to catch his breath.

Finally, a small smile blossomed on Zeyem’s usually stony face.

“Seeing a human so passionate about the welfare of Cardassia… If only my compatriots could see you now… I was skeptical about you, Bashir. Not just your qualifications. Why were you sent here, I wondered, and by whom? Ghemor wasn’t certain you could be taken at face value and I agreed wholeheartedly. We overruled and dismissed Garak’s claims of your unusual kindness as pure sentimentality on his part. It doesn’t matter who was correct in their assessment anymore, Doctor, because any person willing to further our cause even half as passionately as you is an ally. And Cardassia can most certainly use any allies it can get.”

“So…” Julian stammered, “You don’t think my idea is crazy?”

“Oh, I never said it wasn’t crazy,” She looked at him fondly. “Only an air man can dream of such impossible things.”

“I still don’t feel that as an insult.” Julian smiled hesitantly.

“Definitely delusional.” She said as if offering a lamentable medical prognosis. “And yet, a part of me wishes you to prove me wrong, little human.”

“You’re just a big softie, aren’t you Zeyem?” Julian grinned at her, wishing he had the guts to share an affectionate touch with her. She looked quite maternal in that moment.

“I don’t have to take insults from my employees, Bashir, now go back to your research.”

“You don’t pay me, Zeyem, so I’m technically not your employee!” He said cheerfully.

“No, you are a volunteer, which means you have even less rights than an employee.” Zeyem said slyly.

“A volunteer could always… Volunteer someplace else.” He countered deviously.

“Oh, he could… But he doesn’t dare.” She said shrewdly and leveled him with a look deadlier than the strain of Rudellian Plague they were researching.

He swallowed and conceded defeat.

Better not piss her off further. Who knows how imaginative her retribution could be?

Very. He mused.

Chapter Text

17:00 hours came and went. Julian kept looking over his shoulder to see if Zeyem would dismiss him as she usually did. Her deeply concentrated face was made of stone. Whatever it was she was focusing on, his furtive glances couldn’t penetrate.

He sighed and looked at his data again. This new disease was insidious. It followed no discernible pattern, was transmitted through touch and if left untreated for over a month, resulted in massive organ failure. He’d been bashing his head over it, on and off, ever since he came to Cardassia, but the illness eluded his efforts at gleaning its patterns. He transferred the new data on it to his PADD for later; perhaps inspiration would strike when he wasn’t trying to think about it so hard.

Also, when he wasn’t distracted and eager to get back home.

He sighed again and heard Zeyem groan.

Bashir, stop your infuriating moaning. Come here.”

He stashed his PADD into his bag and practically skipped to her desk.

“Yes, Zeyem?”

“For all our sakes, I hope Garak stays out of trouble. The way you’re whining now, I can’t imagine how useless you’d become if it were a more serious matter - I might end up killing you out of sheer annoyance.”

Julian lowered his head like a scolded child.

“Take this to Garak, and congratulations.”

Puzzled, he looked up and saw her handing him a little brass tin, which he picked up dutifully.

“What is it? And congratulations on what?”

“It’s tea. Choban variety,” Zeyem grinned. “And congratulations because you get to go home.”

“I can leave?” He asked enthusiastically. At her acknowledgment, he very nearly dashed out of the room, stopping when he was just about to open the doors to tell her:

“Thank you, Zeyem. I think he likes this kind. He’ll appreciate it!”

She laughed and waved him off.

He wasted not another second and sprinted out.

***

He’d been lucky to catch a ride in the skimmer and a part of him suspected Zeyem had prepared it for him. It was ridiculously thoughtful.

He disembarked and thanked the tired pilot for dropping him off before strolling up towards Tolan’s shack, hoping he wasn’t going to be greeted by anything unpleasant.

I hope Garak isn’t trying to conduct a manhunt remotely.

That was, of course, only one of the possibilities.

I hope he isn’t overworking himself. Maybe Parmak was smart enough to slip him a sedative.

Then he thought about all the other things Parmak could be slipping Garak and he choked on his preposterous idea.

Oh God… I really don’t want to walk in on that.

Julian supposed, medically speaking, there was no reason to abstain from… Ugh. Even contemplating this made his insides squirm in discomfort.

It was none of his business! After all, Parmak must have been worried sick yesterday, and since he’d been forced to work he was unable to stand vigil by Elim’s bed even though he probably wanted to. In any case, Julian fervently hoped that any such… shenanigans, if there were any, had occurred earlier in the day while he was working. Elim was discreet enough not to leave any trace or evidence of such things, which spared Julian considerable embarrassment.

Determined to give the men advance warning of his approach (just in case), he took a deep breath and knocked on the closed doors, wondering why he was feeling so flustered.

Nobody wants to imagine their friends… getting a… leg over.

He coughed to clear his throat as much as his straying thoughts.

Right.

Why was nobody opening the door? He could hear some kinds of whispers behind the doors, and was it him or did they sound… hushed? Was that… a hiss? What the hell?

He knocked again, feeling his face flaming.

When a disheveled Parmak opened the door, Julian wanted to die of embarrassment.

“Oh, Zeyem let you go early today, Bashir?”

Julian could hear Garak’s snickering from within and felt so utterly mortified he considered telling the men he’d give them ten minutes to get presentable while he went for a walk or something.

“Uh…” He stammered. “Yeah. Must have taken pity on me.”

“She’s not inconsiderate, just… principled.” Parmak explained in a tired voice.

Julian now wished she had kept him longer, so he didn’t have to watch Parmak fixing his wrinkled tunic in front of him.

“Do come in, dear Doctor.” Garak beckoned from within the shed, sounding quite chipper for a man who nearly exsanguinated to death yesterday.

Julian’s eyes went wide as he hesitantly stepped over the threshold. Garak was sitting on his stool, dressed in nothing but a pair of trousers. He had his shirt in hand and was currently fiddling with one of the seams.

Julian choked at the sight.

Whyyyywhywhywhy His inner voice was naught but a high pitched whine at the moment.

Uhhh, should I come back later, when you’re done?” Julian stammered like the blundering idiot he was.

“It will only take me a moment to fix this seam, my dear. I shan’t scandalize you much further.” Elim said with a wicked glint in his eyes.

Julian was pretty damn certain there was absolutely nothing wrong with that damn seam, and even if there was, didn’t want to think about how it got that way in the first place.

Kelas has just been taking a nap, weren’t you, my sweet?”

Parmak looked at him scathingly and sighed.

“I was. Until you woke me up to tell me to go see who was at the door.”

Julian didn’t think this situation could have gotten any worse, but he’d been wrong.

“I couldn’t go out in my state of undress, dear Kelas. That would have been quite… inappropriate.”

Julian couldn’t give less of a damn about Garak’s state of undress, but the implication, which was all but 99.99999% confirmed made his cheeks burn. But… those soft ridges that ran down his arms and ended at the elbows, they looked… aesthetically pleasing? Also, his back looked utterly fascinating; what with the wide scales on his neck becoming smaller and less noticeable the lower he looked-

“Inappropriate!” Parmak snorted and politely excused himself to go to the bathroom.

Julian wanted the floor to swallow him and spit him out somewhere on the other side of the universe, preferably somewhere in the vacuum, so his suffering would end.

He wanted to tell Garak he should be more discreet, or turn away and stop watching, but he couldn’t do either. Instead, he put his foot in his mouth for no good reason.

“Do I even dare ask how you ripped that seam?”

Garak quirked his eye ridges devilishly and said in an exaggerated tone of suffering:

“The incompetent brutes helping me to the skimmer ripped it!”

“How terribly inconsiderate of them.” Julian retorted sarcastically. He should have expected such an obvious lie. At this point, he wasn’t even surprised. Garak has had the entire day to fix the stupid seam and only chose to do so now when Julian was due home? Right. Did Elim still take him for a fool?

Zeyem sends her regards, by the way.” Julian said and handed Garak the brass tin.

Elim took it with obvious interest and unscrewed the lid.

Choban! How considerate of her.” He said, obviously pleased.

Julian wanted to comment, but the sight of Elim’s bare chest was a trifle distracting. His chula was prominent, framed by shadowed scales and – oh – there were ridges there too, smaller, more ornamental almost, just like the male Cardassian diagram showed and just like he saw in the operating room at the Research center that one time he had heart surgery, about four days ago, but then it had been his job and he could be clinical, detach himself from the sight, which was quite impossible now, completely impossible in fact, and he stared like a rabbit caught in headlights, frozen stupid by the light.

“How brazen you are, my dear.” Garak murmured in a supremely self-satisfied way.

Julian huffed and tore his eyes away, gluing them firmly onto Elim’s blue eyes which were mocking him mercilessly.

“M-m-me?!” Julian stuttered in shock. “I’m the brazen one?? I’m not the one on display, so- so- Shamelessly!”

Elim’s smile was smug and his tone superior.

“You lounge about this place half-covered or, indeed, in several instances, mostly uncovered and I’m the shameless one?”

Julian sputtered gracelessly. That was completely different! It was bloody hot on Cardassia, what was he supposed to do?? Marinate in his sweat the entire day? Then Garak would complain about his smell, why was he being so damn unreasonable? Also, Julian didn’t always change in the shed, just those two times before! And he most certainly didn’t show off his damn… afterglow!!

“Welcome home, my dear.” Elim said sweetly and offered his palm.

Julian just stared at him in disbelief. This couldn’t be normal behavior! Still, he felt compelled to return the gesture, so he did. Ugh. He really tried not to think where that hand had been just before he’d knocked but failed abysmally and his mind filled with images of the two men exchanging-

NO.

Busy wrestling with his appalling lack of self-discipline, he nearly missed Garak’s maddening grin.

“My, my… What are you imagining right now, Julian? What’s that silly human idiom again, ah! Penny for your thoughts?”

Julian’s heart was pounding in his chest like a war drum. Why was Garak doing this to him? It was positively mortifying!

“Could it be you are… Garak lowered his voice conspiratorially and cast a look around as if he was making sure nobody was eavesdropping, then murmured entirely too closely to Julian’s burning face:

“Jealous?”

The thought was preposterous! He wasn’t jealous, there was no way! He was simply uncomfortable with the couple’s open display of sexuality, that was all!

“Don’t be absurd, Garak. I have no reason to be jealous, isn’t that right?” He looked at the Cardassian sternly, trying to project confidence.

Elim gave him a delighted little laugh at that.

“None whatsoever, my dear.”

Elim, don’t be cruel.” Parmak chided from the doorway and Garak grew more serious and decided to get dressed.

Why did Elim listen to Parmak when he almost never listened to Julian? Was it his youth, his species, or his general demeanor that made him the butt of the Cardassian’s jokes?

It was strange, how Garak could make him feel both as an equal and an inferior simultaneously. For some reason, he didn’t want to feel inferior anymore. Why did he allow Garak to walk all over him? Julian was many things, but meek was not usually one of them. He swaggered, he was cocky and he was audacious, so why was he willing to allow Elim such leeway?

It couldn’t be that the tailor was still holding his forgiveness ransom, because he wasn’t, so why did Julian feel so wretched?

Chapter Text

It didn't take long for Parmak to excuse himself and Julian felt relieved. It was bad enough he’d be forced to spend the rest of the evening with a … satisfied Garak. For some reason it gave him the shivers.

He felt disturbed and for once, knew exactly why. The feeling of being left out, treated as an afterthought… As an unruly child. Garak and Parmak had every right to be happy together, and as far as Julian was concerned, they had his blessing. Nobody deserved happiness more than Elim.

But did they have to rub it in? It would be equally indiscreet if he’d brought Ezri here and let them see the… aftermath; her flushed and breathless, him disheveled and glowing… Even when he was dating Leeta, he kept their private business… well… private. Mostly. Risa was an exception. Risa didn’t count.

Because Garak hadn’t been there to watch and be scandalized by it.

To be fair, that likely wouldn’t even faze the man. As a spy, he must have seen all kinds of weird, unspeakable acts, and some minor public indecency likely ranked quite low on the list of disturbing things he’d seen. Julian wondered whether he was projecting, though. What did he know of Garak’s personal life? If the man hadn’t written to him, he never would have even guessed Elim had a thing for men. Or non-Cardassians. Julian had never seen the tailor with anyone except Ziyal, but she turned out to be the only one Garak apparently wasn’t attracted to in the least.

“Do you want me to make some choban, my dear?”

Julian didn’t care about tea. He wanted to resolve this feeling of… whatever. With a sigh, he relented.

“All right. I’ll try it.”

If Garak picked up on his listlessness, he decided not to remark upon it. The one time Julian would have liked the man to sink his teeth into a subject, he was choosing not to. It was absolutely infuriating.

“It’s not as sweet as red leaf, so I wonder whether you’ll like it or not.”

Julian looked at the man, at his industrious hands and thought he would gladly take poison if they were the ones delivering it.

I trust him .

He couldn’t quite remember why, though.

Julian turned his back on Elim and undressed. It took him all of 20 seconds to change into his sleeping attire. He knew it was too early to do so, but the stresses of the past few days suddenly caught up with him and he just wanted to sleep. He lay on the cot, turning his back on Elim and closed his eyes.

There was something wrong with him. They had made such progress in these past eleven days, so where was this hollow feeling coming from?

He had fallen apart in Elim’s arms and confessed his most shameful fear, only to be forgiven and accepted.

He had watched Elim act like a perfectly content man at Ghemor’s celebration.

He had seen the Cardassian shed tears and tremble with grief at finally processing Ziyal’s feelings for him and her death.

And this morning, in the dead of night, he had all but extorted the words he never thought Garak would reveal.

Julian had to admit it – he’d been wrong.

Before, when he was new to the station… For the briefest of moments, he considered the implication of Garak’s words at their first meeting. He could still replay that first conversation word for word…

“…if you should require any apparel, or merely wish, as I do, for a bit of enjoyable company now and then, I'm at your disposal, Doctor.“

In hindsight...

“I'm so glad to have made such an interesting new friend today.”

Friends… Julian sincerely doubted that had been part of the plan. Garak simply needed an in with the Federation and Julian was the most logical choice. Kira would sooner have shot Garak than spoken to him, Odo was implacable, Sisko too powerful, Jadzia too wise and O’Brien too obviously prejudiced. Julian was simply the only one left. When he thought about it that way, he despaired.

Their friendship was built on lies.

And yet, somehow, that unstable foundation proved enough for them. Self-interest changed into interest, convenience grew into companionship and courtesy evolved into affection.

Julian felt a tear slide into his hairline.

It’s a miracle we managed to get this far .

That singular drop melted into two.

Our friendship is mended, so why am I crying?

It made no sense and Julian hated when things made no sense. It reminded him uncomfortably of his failings.

Failure was a concept he’d never been able to make peace with. What good was his augmented DNA if he could still fail?

The wind was picking up outside. He could hear the sand prickling against the exterior surface of the shed’s wall.

He remembered his first thoughts upon trekking across the ruins of Cardassia City.

The dignity of its people.

The faded glory of its architecture.

The unrivalled beauty of his first sunset and the exultant joy of their first sunrise.

That initial taste of red leaf tea.

The burn of kanar and its deceptive warmth and sweetness.

And…

That smile when he realized I’d come.

That memory alone was warmer than the star Cardassia revolved around, sweeter than red leaf tea and more intoxicating than Ghemor’s fine vintage of kanar.

He clutched his chest and wondered what hurt so much.

Elim was safe, alive and right there behind him, puttering in his miniature, makeshift kitchen making them tea.

Then why did Julian feel so alone?

He hadn’t felt alone, not once since he came to Cardassia, so what changed?

Nothing.

I just brought my broken pieces with me .

How foolish it was of him to expect a mended friendship could fix him. How naïve.

Elim … Why don’t you stitch me back together again, like I tried to do with Kukalaka? You’re a much better tailor, I’m sure you could manage it.

But he shouldn’t be expected to, that was wrong. Julian had to fix himself. How ironic that a man who could cure almost anyone, failed so abysmally at diagnosing and healing himself?

Cardassia was obviously good for Elim, even as destroyed as it was.

Parmak was good for him too.

Julian wanted nothing more than to be just as good.

I want to give you a green Cardassia. My greatest, most ambitious gift - for anyone.

Julian curled more into himself and tried desperately to hold onto the image which had enraptured him only a day ago, barely a meter from the place he was currently lying. For some reason, the green field wasn’t as lush, and the sun wasn’t as warm. He looked at his hands and noticed they were dark. No light was shining from within, reaching out eagerly to embrace the sights around him. Whatever that moment - that lightning behind Akleen - that spark had been, had gone out as quickly as it had appeared and he felt utterly lost.

It seemed he couldn’t even be a Cardassian. Perhaps Oralius’ teachings and guidance weren’t meant for messed-up people like him.

He wanted Kukalaka.

He craved to be normal.

He needed

More than anything… More than air, more than water, more than-

Yes. Right there-

A warm hand carded through his hair and he trembled at the feeling like a newborn.

“I have upset you somehow. Won’t you tell me what’s wrong?” Elim’s soothing voice washed over his jagged, splintered mindscape.

It’s real… In his eyes, I am real.

Tears came regardless, in utter silence.

It was enough, wasn’t it? As long as Garak saw him, that was good enough.

“Talk to me, my dear.” Elim cajoled ever so gently and Julian wanted to answer but lost all his words.

He wriggled around instead and buried his face in the man’s chest, breathing in with his mouth open, great, greedy gulps of air.

“If you cannot talk, show. Show me what you want. Show me what you need of me.”

How? How could Garak tell?

The trouble was, Julian had no idea what he wanted. He just knew he did.

Want.

Something.

Anything.

With trembling hands he half-pulled, half-pushed the man down onto the cot with him and oh, Elim was so perceptive, so adaptable that he followed and obeyed even those disjointed, unspoken commands of his.

Julian’s heart fluttered and thrashed in intermittent bursts.

Elim’s hand stopped its stroking movements through Julian’s hair and he arched back into the tailor’s touch.

“Good…” Garak soothed and continued his ministrations, but it only doused his anxiety for a few seconds.

More .

Julian molded himself against Elim’s side, desperate for warmth.

“Show me…” Elim whispered into his ear and Julian trembled from head to toe. It almost felt like he was in the man’s thrall.

“You are safe here, my dear. I won’t judge.”

No, he wouldn’t, would he? Not when he knew what it felt like, all too well.

Julian shifted minutely, crawling deeper into the man’s secure embrace.

There it is…

That scent which soothed him.

 

Julian felt like a dying star, fading and collapsing unto itself.

More than anything, he wished to be reignited.

 

He could feel Elim’s neck ridges against his cheek, his nose and his mouth. So smooth. Pliant.

Surprising.

The wind whirled around outside, casting small pebbles into the walls and clattering the windows.

Elim smelled so sweet.

Julian’s heart was buzzing in his chest.

Supple gray skin rested against his parted lips and he breathed in like he was drowning.

Then Elim’s hand traveled to the nape of his neck, causing his skin to erupt in gooseflesh and making him gasp into the man’s neck. Then, he felt himself stiffen.

A soft brush of thumb against his ear made him moan incoherently.

His body was thrumming.

Alive.

His tongue darted out to moisten his parched lips and he felt liquid fire spreading through his limbs.

It was beginning.

 

Ignition.

Fusion.

Hydrogen to Helium.

 

“Listen to what your body is trying to tell you, Julian. Follow its lead.”

Julian whimpered.

 

“Nothing bad can happen. Don’t think… Just do.”

Julian listened…

Shivered.

And obeyed.

 

His lips met warm skin, connected.

Retreated.

Reached out again - no more than a tentative brush.

Garak hummed underneath him.

In encouragement.

In appreciation?

Julian dared try again and Elim let out a breathy moan.

In pleasure .

 

A distant, distorted voice was speaking in the back of his mind, but he couldn’t hear it well enough to discern who was speaking or what was being said.

His hand crawled across Elim’s chest, trying to find the ridges he’d only seen today.

The warm, solid body shifted and Julian felt a curious, breathless sense of anticipation.

A coarse palm was caressing his cheek and he knew he should open his eyes. He wanted to see with all his senses, wanted to check if that golden light was back, and then there was a pressure against his lips, soft yet insistent, smooth, warm - pliant. He responded with a fervor he couldn’t explain and pushed back into the sensual touch.

The taste was utterly intoxicating and he lapped it up like he’d never tasted anything half as addictive.

Before he knew what had begun, it was over and Elim’s soft voice reached him:

“Are you sure this is what you need?”

Julian’s eyes snapped open and he watched the Cardassian hovering above him, with a clear question shining in his gaze.

Elim seemed… Slightly out of breath. Only slightly. Almost imperceptibly.

A part of Julian wanted to shatter that self-control by reaching out and –

And what?

What had he been doing?

 

His skin was flushed, his breathing ragged and his lips swollen.

 

Julian’s eyes widened in horror.

 

This was… It was…

Wrong.

What about Ezri? And Parmak?

 

What had he done?

 

“I… I need to clear my head.” Julian muttered and all but escaped, stepping into his boots and grabbing the clothes he wore today, intending to go out, somewhere, anywhere, but the howling wind and the tinkle – chink – whoosh from the outside reminded him he could go nowhere.

Elim got up quietly, appearing completely unperturbed and calm. The Cardassian passed him by and Julian saw him preparing tea, like nothing had ever happened.

How could Garak be so unnaturally calm about this?

Wasn’t this betrayal towards his lover?

How did Cardassians even feel about fidelity outside of marriage?

Julian had no idea. He lowered the clothes onto the table, leaving them rumpled and sat onto the cot, where he proceeded to bury his face into his hands.

I need to tell Ezri. I never meant for this to happen. I have to. It’s only right.

It would hurt her. He knew that for certain.

Perhaps a lie would be kinder, but then it would eat him alive and he was clearly already falling apart at the seams. He couldn’t take much more.

Why did it happen?

Why did he allow it to happen? Was he so far gone that he would seek comfort like an animal?

I am disgusting…

“Drink your tea, my dear. It should be cool enough for you.”

Julian looked up in turmoil and accepted the cup numbly.

“How can you be so calm?” Julian muttered, half soothed by Garak’s reaction and half dismayed.

“You needed me and I provided. There is no need to make it any more complicated than that.”

Julian was taken aback.

“You actually mean that, don’t you?”

“You should know me well enough at this point to be able to judge that for yourself.” Garak said simply and sat down next to him.

The lack of space between them should have disturbed and unnerved Julian, but he felt his anxiety ease marginally instead.

“I should start using statements instead of questions.” Julian murmured.

“I meant what I said before, my dear. You have learned.”

“Not enough.” Julian lamented, cradling the unfamiliar tea.

Never enough .

“I believe you will find that we are, most often, our harshest archons.”

Julian agreed, but that didn’t absolve him.

“What about Parmak?”

“What about him?” Elim said coolly. “He has no say in the method I choose to employ to soothe you.”

“Are you honestly going to sit there and tell me he wouldn’t be hurt by what just transpired between us?”

Garak gave him a hard look.

“Doubtless he would, but I don’t intend on telling him. Do you?”

“No.” Julian shook his head. He’d be telling Ezri because it was the right thing to do, the responsible thing to do, but not… He wouldn’t be able to tell Parmak. If Elim chose to withhold it, that was his business.

“Then he shall remain blissfully ignorant and unhurt.”

“That seems a bit cold.” Julian said.

Garak looked at him, honestly bewildered.

“Sparing someone I care deeply about is considered cold? Such strange creatures you humans are.”

Julian fell silent at that and took a sip of his tea. It tasted slightly bitter.

How fitting.

“I’m sorry, Elim.” He said in deep shame. “I keep getting lost in the maze of my own mind. I can’t even tell what’s going on half the time.”

Garak smiled at him affectionately and patted his knee briefly.

“Growing pains, my dear, nothing more.”

If only Julian was just a cutting of some exotic flower that Garak could coax into bloom with ease…

“You really think so?” He muttered hopefully.

“I know so, my dear Julian.”

And in that moment… Julian believed him.

Chapter Text

The next day, Julian had his hands full. The infirmary was full of children and the elderly, each with respiratory issues. The dust storm yesterday was a particularly bad one.

Each time he made a child cough, he wondered how Rekat was doing. Was the boy awake? Was he healing nicely? Had Phela been allowed to see him?

As he triaged the patients, treating them all with a kind smile, and the elderly with a deferential little incline of his head, with his eyes to the ground, he noticed something curious. They seemed surprised. It wasn’t an unpleasant or shocked or revolted kind of surprise either, but a warm, accepting kind.

He wondered whether he’d made another blunder, but at this point didn’t want to modify his behavior. He would treat everyone with the same amount of respect, because, as he had told Ghar – he wasn’t Cardassian. The customs and social norms that came naturally to these people would never be his default. However, he could learn. Adapt.

Once the infirmary emptied and there was finally a lull in the action, he approached Ghar.

She looked at him curiously and waited for his question with polite attentiveness. Her demeanor showed she was more relaxed in his presence, but still had minor reservations. Julian was fine with that.

“Junior Researcher Ghar,” He addressed her with her full title, as was polite, “May I ask a question pertaining to Cardassian customs?”

Her eyes widened a bit, but she schooled her face into a mask of amiability and politeness.

“Of course, Doctor Bashir. I don’t… mind when, hm, foreigners show interest in our culture.”

He caught her discomfort and her split-second consideration not to use the more derogatory term of “alien”.

“I have noticed the people we treat are… surprised at my bedside manner. Am I doing something wrong?”

Her narrow shoulders dropped a fraction as she relaxed. It was obviously a safe topic of discussion.

“I wouldn’t say you’re doing something wrong, not really. It’s not offensive or anything. It’s just…” She hesitated, clearly trying to gauge his reaction. When he kept his expression neutral, she continued, “You show everyone the same… respect.”

“Shouldn’t I?” He asked, bewildered.

“Well… A Cardassian wouldn’t.”

“Why not?” Julian asked in surprise.

“Because… well…” Ghar seemed uncomfortable all of a sudden. “This place used to be open only for the inhabitants of Coranum, so proper deference was expected… But now, when we take everyone…”

“Now you have patients of lower social status.”

“Yes.” She blinked, clearly discomfited.

“And you don’t think they are deserving of respect?”

“I do!” She said vehemently, “But not such… such… deference!”

Julian didn’t exactly approve, but he couldn’t judge either. They were used to their class society and now…

“The lines have blurred, haven’t they? You can no longer know who is on your operating table. Patients don’t get vetted before they are admitted, not anymore. Therefore, any child could be either the son of a Gul, or an orphan. Any elderly citizen could be a retired archon or a low level file clerk.”

“Well… we can tell who is important. It’s all in the way they carry themselves.”

“Are you telling me nobody’s demeanor changed after the Fire?”

She sighed at that.

“There’s no use hiding it, I guess. You were right, Doctor Bashir. It has gotten considerably more difficult to discern who is deserving of which courtesy. Your approach, while… not… nuanced, errs on the side of caution.”

“Thank you for answering my question honestly, Junior Researcher Ghar.” He inclined his chin by a fraction, keeping his gaze locked on her.

“Your gestures are more fluent now, Doctor Bashir.” She gave a small, but encouraging smile.

“I am pleased to hear that. In the future, if I blunder, you have my permission to correct me – immediately if need be.”

Ghar laughed at that.

“Of course!”

***

He waited for the end of his workday to call Ezri, as he didn’t want to leave it for tomorrow. He had forced himself to do his job impeccably because he’d been appallingly distracted lately and he could tell it was ruining his standing with Zeyem. Julian didn’t want to leave an impression that could suggest a lack of professionalism.

So, he had swallowed his anxieties, repressed them, locked them up and did his damned job.

The call was taking its time to connect. Julian knew she usually wasn’t on shift at this time, but rosters change. It was hardly unusual.

When the screen flickered and her image appeared, he tried to smile, but didn’t quite manage it.

“Julian? What’s wrong?” Ezri asked with her usual, unaffected concern and Julian felt awful.

I’m wrong.

“Did something bad happen?”

Better start at the beginning, then… Julian thought bitterly.

He sighed and began to explain.

“The orphan boy who served as my guide when we disembarked was found stabbed. Supposedly, he was trying to barter with someone and… we don’t know the rest. It turns out Garak knows the boy, so we rushed to the hospital where Doctor Parmak works to see how the surgery was going.”

“That’s terrible, Julian! Who would do that to a child?”

“Someone desperate? Or simply vicious? Cardassians consider orphans… well, the lowest class of citizen imaginable. If that. I’m not sure.”

“Is the boy ok?”

“He is, I was allowed to assist in the last leg of the operation and he is going to recover.”

“That’s great!” Ezri said, but noticing his dejected expression, likely realized there was more to the story. “You’re shaken. What happened?”

Julian sighed and buried his face into the palm of his left hand, while his elbow rested on the console.

“Donating blood to people outside of your family is considered a bit of a taboo on Cardassia… There was… resistance to giving the boy more synth blood, since their stores are low and he is not a priority… “

Ezri looked shocked at such callousness.

Elim just marched in there and demanded they take his blood, even though such a thing is unheard of, and sat there until the end of the surgery, too stubborn to stop…” Julian choked.

“Is… is he ok?” Ezri inquired gently, realizing, obviously, that this was the root of the problem. She’d always been quite perceptive.

“While I was operating, he…” It scared him still and his vision blurred. “He flatlined, Ezri.” Julian finished in a whisper.

She just sat there, shocked into silence.

“He flatlined and there was nothing I could do because his blood was now in the boy I was operating on and I couldn’t let him die!” Julian shouted helplessly. “So I tuned the sound out, I tuned out the sound of my oldest friend dying, so I could make sure the child lived!”

At that he burst into tears, shaking and uncaring that Ezri could see him so weak.

“Garak’s… dead?” She blurted out in disbelief.

Julian felt something cracking inside him, fissures spreading like lightning across the night sky. For a long moment there, in the operating room, he’d been convinced Garak was…

“No… They brought him back… he’s… he’s fine now.” Julian managed to say through the sobs. “I’m sorry Ezri, this was only yesterday and I…”

“You almost lost a friend and a patient, it’s normal to be shaken up.”

Julian nodded and wiped his face in his sleeve.

“I was just so relieved… It all came crashing down and I had a bit of a meltdown. I was so out of it, so tired, Ezri… I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“This might have been triggered by a previous trauma, Julian. Have you considered that?”

Previous trauma? Of losing patients? That did hit hard, but it was nothing he couldn’t compartmentalize away. But losing Garak…

There was this one time, when his shop exploded and Julian found him injured, but he had never been in any serious danger of dying…

There was also the infamous incident with the malfunctioning implant, but he had mostly made peace with that one.

Then he recalled the Dominion simulation and there it was – the disruptor blast catching Garak right in the chest, not strong enough to kill immediately, but even worse, giving him a chance to die in Julian’s arms…

“Doctor, I'm afraid I won't be able to have lunch with you today.”

Those were his final words and oh, did they hurt, even now.

 

“Breathe, Julian, just breathe. Slowly!”

 

He realized he was hyperventilating.

 

“The simulation…” He muttered, more to himself. “I saw him die in the simulation…”

“It’s all right Julian, in!” She commanded and he obeyed. “Now slowly, out.”

He’d been so helpless in that simulation. Even if it was all a lie, he had seen the light go out in Elim’s eyes…

The pain was unimaginable, but now he at least knew where it was coming from. That simulation was something he didn’t know how to deal with even back then, so he’d buried it. Entombed it. And let it rot.

Now he knew why he sought out Garak yesterday, why he clung to him so desperately, why he searched for his pulse with his lips when his overtaxed augmented mind and coordination deserted him.

“I fell apart yesterday, Ezri. Elim, he… He tried to comfort me.”

“What did he do?” She asked, mildly alarmed.

“He… do you know how parents sometimes pet their children’s hair to calm them down when they’re crying? He… he did that. And he hugged me.”

“Huh. I didn’t know he had it in him.”

“I was so terrified, Ezri, and I didn’t know why, but he made me feel safe… Stupid, right? How could I feel safe in the arms of a man who did awful things in the name of his State, a man who tried to kill most of the senior staff at some point; even me, with that ridiculous genocide attempt… It makes no sense!”

“Why not?” Ezri said. “You have been friends, of a sort, for years. Safety is subjective, Julian. If you didn’t trust him, you wouldn’t feel safe. And if you didn’t trust me, you wouldn’t be sharing this with me.” She said softly.

“You know I trust you with my life, Ezri.” Julian said earnestly.

“And you obviously also trust him with it, too. And he you, to some extent.”

That thought was calming.

Still, he hadn’t gotten to his original point. It would be absurdly easy to get out of it now, to finish the conversation like it had been a therapy session, but he wouldn’t lie, because that would be wrong.

And he was sick and tired of being wrong.

“I was very out of it, Ezri… I couldn’t even speak anymore.”

“You were in shock, that is perfectly natural.”

Not to him it wasn’t. He could work past the point of breaking, and had, many times. This was different.

“I felt like I was fading, like I was losing my mind! I have no idea what came over me… He must have thought… I don’t know why he did…”

“Did he do… something strange?” Ezri asked tactfully.

Was it? Strange?

Yes, Julian supposed it was.

“He…” Julian muttered hesitantly, “He kissed me.”

There, it was out now. Julian waited in trepidation for shock, anger, resentment, screaming, anything.

“On… the forehead?”

Julian shook his head.

“The cheek?” Ah, there was the simmering, concealed anger, bubbling up.

“No.” He said and bore the brunt of her piercing gaze.

“Are you telling me that Garak, the spy, the tailor, that Garak; kissed you, on the lips, while you were completely incoherent and couldn’t defend yourself?” Ezri was close to fuming now, her blue eyes flashing angrily like burning plasma. “And you didn’t stop it?”

“I stopped! I did! I told him it was wrong! And I don’t even know why he did it, he’s dating Parmak!”

“Excuse me?” Ezri said icily.

“Yeah!” Julian huffed. “They’re lovers.”

“You didn’t mention that before.” Ezri said unblinkingly.

“I wasn’t sure before! I didn’t wish to speculate-“

“So, you saw them… together?”

“I saw proof they were… intimate.”

“How intimate?”

“God, Ezri… Don’t remind me, please. Sexually intimate, ok?”

She seemed to consider this for a long moment, then spoke:

“Why would Garak, who is in a relationship, kiss you – who are also in a relationship? He knows enough about human customs not to make a blunder like that.”

“I don’t know why he did it, Ezri… Maybe he did it for the shock value. It did jolt me out of my stupor, that’s for sure.”

“I don’t recommend his methods, Julian, as dubiously effective as they may be.” She said skeptically.

“Yeah…” Julian agreed.

“Are you sure Garak loves this man?”

Julian pondered Elim’s words from last night.

“Sparing someone I care deeply about is considered cold? Such strange creatures you humans are.”

“Yes, Ezri. I am sure. And Parmak would do anything for him. They really seem happy together.”

“Then… it might have been just a way to shock you. Julian,” She warned. “Be careful. Don’t let it happen again.”

“Of course not!” He said indignantly. “It won’t, I promise.”

“My shift started five minutes ago, so I have to leave, but Julian,” Here, her voice softened. “Call me again soon? If you want to talk about that fear some more? You know I’m here for you.”

He knew.

“Thank you Ezri. I love you.”

Her smile was warm.

“I love you too, Julian. Stay safe.”

With that, the line went dark.

***

Today was one of those days he got to walk home because there wasn’t a skimmer available. He set a brisk pace towards Paldar, hoping nobody would stop him if he looked mean enough.

He’d been remarkably lucky with skimmers so far, but he knew his luck would eventually run out again, so today, he got to walk back to Garak’s on his own. He remembered the way, and since the sun was up, it wouldn’t be an issue to navigate back to the shed.

Julian wondered whether Kelas would be there when he got back.

He didn’t think he could look the man in the eye. After all, how do you face the person whose partner you’ve kissed? Knowingly or unknowingly, that was infidelity, and Julian, no matter how adventurous, had certain lines he did not cross.

If he hadn’t been out of his mind yesterday, it never would have happened.

Why didn’t he stop it?

If he’d been revolted by either the action, or the person, he would have.

But he trusted Garak. Is that why he allowed it?

He had ended up lying to Ezri regardless, because Julian wasn’t actually the one who stopped anything. Elim did. The compulsion to groan at his own stupidity was great, but he choked it down.

What would have happened if Elim hadn’t stopped to ask?

It was a disconcerting question he had no answer to, and that was terrifying.

He was relieved when Tolan’s shed came into view. When he came closer, he realized Garak was puttering around his garden again.

Oh. The dust storm yesterday. It hadn’t even occurred to him what might’ve happened to the orchids.

I was too busy falling apart.

“Hello Elim.” He greeted and knelt next to the gardener. “Are the orchids safe?”

“My dear!” Garak smiled. “I didn’t hear the skimmer today.”

“I walked.”

“Any trouble?” Elim asked as he used a delicate brush to remove the dust from the flowers.

“None, mercifully.”

“As you can see, the orchids have survived. A bit worse for wear, but nothing a little care cannot fix.”

How had he never noticed the care Elim put into everything he did? No task, no matter how humble, was given sub-par effort.

Ziyal had noticed.

Then again, she’d been in love with Elim. People generally tended to be more aware of those they were attracted to and had feelings for.

Julian looked at Garak, so engrossed in his work. His focused face did indeed look kind.

“Would you like to try?” Elim asked, and Julian let out a surprised little gasp. “Here, hold it like this,” Garak said and took hold of Julian’s palm, pushing the handle of the brush into it gently and closing his fingers around it.

“Hold the bloom with your other hand gently,” Elim instructed and Julian was feeling a bit strange, but complied anyway. “Now slowly, reach in and brush it aside.”

Julian attempted it, but Elim tsked and corrected:

“More assertively, it won’t break.”

Julian felt his cheeks going warmer a fraction.

“That’s much better, now again.”

After about a dozen passes with his brush, he was starting to get the hang of it. It was kind of relaxing, once you got into the rhythm of it.

“There! All done!” Elim said fondly and Julian chanced a look.

He wished he hadn’t.

Garak was looking at him in a way that was eerily reminiscent of yesterday and Julian could swear the man’s gaze flickered downwards for a split second, almost like he’d been reminded…

And that was terrible, because it was now all Julian could think about.

The pressure.

The texture.

The taste.

Oh God, the taste.

Mercifully, Elim chose that moment to get up and dust himself off. Julian followed his example and handed the man his brush back. They both headed for the shed.

Once inside, Elim closed the doors behind them and headed for the workbench.

Julian, as usual, sat on the bed and fished a PADD out of his bag to get some more work done.

But as soon as he got comfortable, he was transported to yesterday.

The sweet scent.

The smooth scales.

The warmth.

It was utterly maddening. Why was it so hard to stop thinking about it?

He had imploded mentally yesterday precisely because of his bad habit of not facing his traumatic experiences, or any other kind of heavy emotion. Perhaps it was time to break that terrible habit and start facing his issues head-on.

With resolve already shaken, he looked Elim’s way. The man seemed absorbed in whatever it was he was tinkering with.

This longer hair looked… unusual. Not in a bad way, though. It wouldn’t stay as tidy as it used to when it was shorter, but the way individual strands escaped and curled around his scales and ridges was… pretty.

Julian’s pulse quickened.

I can’t stop at the first sign of discomfort… I need to break through whatever this obstacle in my mind is.

The memory assaulted him again.

The feeling of complete safety.

The touch of Elim’s hand.

The goosebumps.

He wrenched his attention to the present and observed the tailor’s hands dismantling a device with expert precision. Garak’s fingers weren’t elegant, but their movements were. Fluid, graceful, deliberate.

In his hair.

On his face.

Brushing against his ear.

Julian swallowed. He needed to concentrate. Garak’s ridges were looking paler than usual.

Extending down his arms…

His chest.

His back.

Julian tried to get his breathing under control, but couldn’t. This wasn’t working.

Why wasn’t it working?

Stubborn and determined, he looked once more. He would figure this out, he had to.

Garak was humming something as he worked. Since when did the man hum while working?

His voice, so soothing…

His words.

That little moan of appreciation…

Julian was feeling a bit light headed. His blood was pooling somewhere it really really shouldn’t.

That’s a natural reaction . He tried telling himself. They had been… doing something which could be interpreted as intimate, yesterday. But why was it spilling over into here and now?

I’m stuck in the past again… I need to hold my place.

But what was his place?

Ezri . My place is with Ezri.

He took a deep breath to calm down.

Our quarters, our life together.

This shed.

The way she looks at me.

Elim’s gentle gaze.

The way she supports me.

Elim’s firm embrace.

The way we complement each other.

The way we complete one another .

The way…

Elim was looking at him from across the shed, his face bathed in the warm rays of the afternoon sun.

Julian’s entire being sprang to life. His skin vibrated with electricity, his veins hummed as blood rushed through them, his fingers dug into the firm mattress seeking…

Elim was on his feet, heading his way and Julian stared ahead helplessly – breathlessly.

When his friend sat by his side the way he did yesterday, Julian felt like his heart was going to explode.

And when Elim smiled at him, knowingly, like he could read his every thought, Julian wanted to close his eyes, but forced them open. He had to be vigilant, had to stop this, whatever it was, whatever it could become and when he faltered and his traitorous eyes sought out Elim’s lips, they were stretching in a cunning way, taunting him.

Breathing hard, he tore his gaze away and when Elim moved closer, Julian was ready.

He jumped away.

Garak was regarding him curiously and Julian was surprised to note he could actually read the man behind the mask.

It was disappointment.

It was sadness.

“Julian… You are allowed to change your mind.” Elim said cryptically, his mask snapping back in place, but Julian knew.

It was…

Resignation .

Chapter Text

Everything changed after that night. Julian watched helplessly as the frail equilibrium of their renewed friendship crumbled, bit by bit, every day.

Elim would still speak to him, but the conversations lacked their usual spark and Julian couldn’t help but wonder what had transpired to change things between them so irrevocably. Unable to figure it out, agonizing over the prospect of losing the man’s kindness and friendship after all this time, Julian found himself sliding into old patterns of drowning in work to compensate for any personal struggles he was experiencing.

The words gnawed at him, relentless and deadly, their deceptive mildness dissipating as more and more symptoms of the ailment kept cropping up.

You are allowed to change your mind.”

What about? He didn’t know. He could read Elim, but not the meaning behind his words. There was a crucial piece of context missing and he despaired over it.

This was the third time this week he caught Elim sewing with emerald fabric and stowing it away the moment he got home. The situation was growing untenable, but he was so painfully aware of how ill-equipped he was to deal with it, that he attempted to simply weather it out.

They could now work, side by side, in absolute silence. It used to be comforting, but it was no longer so. The silence grew thick and heavy, spreading its oppressive shroud over the shed.

Julian hated it.

This silent Elim was… disconcerting.

Wrong .

The man no longer hummed and Julian swore he caught moments of such weariness that Elim’s usually immaculate posture slipped. The sight of those proud shoulders slumped as if in defeat threatened every last ounce of resolve Julian possessed.

He wanted to reach out and ask what was happening, but each time he tried, Garak would deflect, offer no news on Rekat’s assailant, shift the topic of conversation to Julian’s work and let him prattle on for as long as he wished.

Julian lost all taste for prattling.

And at night, when the darkness was thickest, he lay awake on the cot and cast his gaze below, trying to get a glimpse of the man’s back, silhouetted against the black void.

Each time, his hand would twitch in desire to smooth the strands of jet hair away from the pale back, but the promise he made was a heavy shackle he refused to shake off.

I can’t… I mustn’t encourage anything .

So he would turn, lie on his back and stare at the ceiling, praying for dreamless sleep to come swiftly and drag him into a space where his thoughts were less jagged and immediate.

Each morning, Elim would be gone.

There were no more breakfasts together.

Julian would get dressed for the day in silence and leave for work.

He would swelter through the day; perform surgery, triage and research.

Their quarantined patients were starting to die.

They lost four this week alone.

 

And then he would head back home and be greeted by the empty space and grasping shadows. He couldn’t take it, so he left and headed for the Necropolis. He let his feet take him to Elim’s totem, where he stared at the recitation mask and wondered whether he would find the words if he slipped it on. Would Oralius speak through him?

They still hadn’t gone to a single meeting, even though Julian had been requesting it nearly every day for a week. Elim was always too busy. The tired look in the man’s eyes corroborated the story, but Julian had the sinking feeling he was to blame for the anguish he could now see in those blue eyes.

He had wronged Elim somehow and he had no idea what his transgression was, save for the fact it was a grave one.

In front of him, Elim was shutting down.

Elim , one of the most composed and controlled people he knew, allowing Julian to see exactly how much he was hurting…

Perhaps it was a punishment.

It wasn’t, though.

It was hell.

This is hell . Julian thought, his carefully maintained façade of indifference crumbling in front of the religious icon.

He needed someone to talk to and Ezri was absolutely out of the question.

It had to be someone who knew Elim well.

Not Parmak though. Julian wouldn’t be able to face him.

Ghemor .

Mind made up, Julian clutched his bag tighter and strode off into the dying light.

He all but ran there, his mind choosing the most unhelpful images imaginable to keep him company on the way.

The delicious dinner they’d shared.

The scintillating conversation over a glass of truly magnificent kanar.

Elim’s relaxed state and the soft look in his clear eyes.

I can’t go on like this.

He needed answers and hoped, prayed, desperate enough not to care that he didn’t believe in any Gods. Alon would at least hear him out, Julian knew without a doubt. The man was the epitome of reasonableness.

I need to know what I did wrong.

So he pressed on, nearly running now. His legs carried him faster than usual, his anxiety fuelling the frantic movements.

He all but ran down the stairs to the man’s basement home.

The doors were locked.

He pressed the buzzer, knowing he had no chance of guessing the code.

Nothing.

He pressed again, insistently – hard - almost like that could make it louder.

Then he waited.

Ten seconds.

Fifteen.

Ghemor, please… I need to speak with you!” He said out loud, not knowing why. For all he knew, the man wasn’t home and the door’s comm system was broken.

Twenty-five.

“It’s about Elim, it’s important. I wouldn’t be bothering you otherwise.”

Fourty -five.

Still nothing.

He waited in silence, slowly coming to terms that the man likely wasn’t home. And why would he be? He was notoriously busy.

Swallowing down his despair, he placed his palm on the door to brace himself against the rising panic.

Julian felt trapped.

He was trapped here.

Garak no longer wanted him here; that much was obvious. It wouldn’t be too farfetched to conclude he had shared whatever bothered him with Ghemor and Parmak, and they were now all turning their backs on him.

Alon, please!” Julian pleaded. “Five minutes is all I ask!”

“That seems serious.” Ghemor’s voice reached him and Julian nearly jumped out of his skin when he realized the man was standing behind him, likely just having come home only to find an incoherent, rambling human arguing with his front door.

“Come inside, Doctor. I will assist you any way I can.”

At that, Julian moved out of the way so Ghemor could input his code and Julian memorized it without even trying to. It’s not like it mattered. He knew the code was likely to change the moment he left. Alon was nothing if not careful.

Sighing in relief, Julian stepped through.

As they descended the ramp, Julian tried to figure out how to word his request for clarification. A part of him hoped Ghemor already knew the source of Elim’s distress so Julian would be spared the sheer agony of trying to explain it.

When he crouched to remove his shoes, he remembered.

Elim’s bare feet.

He shook it off and removed his shoes. He didn’t bother with socks.

“Come sit with me.” Alon invited as he walked across the soft expanse of carpets and Julian noticed there was now a low table with a few comfortable-looking deep blue armchairs in the middle. Ghemor settled into one of them, eerily similar to the way he was seated during the dinner. Julian followed numbly and sat on the place Garak used to occupy. Even if it was now covered by a chair.

“Now, tell me what’s happened.”

Julian breathed in deeply and fought a shiver.

“It’s Elim. I’m worried about him.”

“Do you think it is a medical issue from the transfusion?”

“No.” Julian shook his head minutely, only to remember a specific eye movement and a flicker of the hand was the equivalent gesture on Cardassia. Belatedly, he performed it, then continued. “It must be something I’ve done. He’s been… shutting down before my eyes. It scares me.” He said earnestly and locked gazes with Ghemor, willing the man to read the truth of his turmoil from his eyes.

“Have you tried asking him about it?”

“Of course I have!” Julian exclaimed, concern bleeding through his tone. “He deflects it every time. I don’t know what to do. All I know is that he changed completely ever since…” He couldn’t even say it.

Pathetic.

Coward.

“What preceded that shift in his behavior?” Ghemor asked.

“It… it was two days after the operation. I came home and we discussed something… personal.”

“And after that discussion, his demeanor changed?”

“Yes.” Julian said listlessly. “I have no idea what I did wrong. I just want things to go back to the way they were – he doesn’t have that spark anymore, when we speak… He hides the suit he’s making for me the moment I step through the door and he slouches. Slouches! Garak! You could usually mold rulers using his spine!”

Ghemor just looked at him with an assessing stare.

“Did he confide in you?” Julian asked in desperation.

“I cannot say he has. Though, to be perfectly frank with you, Doctor Bashir, I likely wouldn’t tell you even if that were the case.”

“That’s fair…” Julian muttered.

“One of Garak’s many virtues is his ability to keep his secrets. While I have noticed a certain… dullness to his movements, I hadn’t managed to divine its source.”

“Dullness…” Julian whispered. “That’s an apt descriptor. I hate it.” He grasped himself by the forearms.

“Sometimes, we cause the changes in someone once our own behavior shifts.”

That made sense. Julian was the one who… Pulled back.

Again.

But how could he not!

“I wish I hadn’t seen them together…” He groaned and buried his face in his palms.

“Seen who together?”

Julian looked at Ghemor incredulously.

Elim and Parmak, of course. Who else?”

“I don’t understand your meaning, Bashir. Is that some human expression I am unfamiliar with?”

Julian blinked dumbly.

“Uh, yes. It’s a… well, not quite a euphemism, but close enough, I suppose.”

“Euphemism? What for?”

“For a romantic relationship.” Julian said awkwardly. So, Cardassians could be wrong-footed too.

“Between Kelas and Elim?” Ghemor said in clear surprise, almost like it was an absurdity.

“Who else??” Julian exclaimed exasperatedly.

Bashir, I think there has been a misunderstanding.”

“Obviously!” Julian rolled his eyes. “I just wish someone told me what it was so I could clear things up!”

Elim would never be unfaithful.” Ghemor said seriously, like it was some sacred notion.

Julian blushed fiercely. Well, Elim had been unfaithful, but he’d die before he openly said so to Ghemor.

Bashir, Elim chose you. He would never dishonor you by carrying a dalliance behind your back.”

“It was hardly behind my back, Ghemor.” He said with narrowed eyes. “They were being horribly unsubtle about it, which surprised me; because I always had the impression Elim was a very discreet man.”

“What did you think you saw, Bashir, that made you jump to that conclusion?”

This angered Julian.

“What I think I saw?” He said, visibly appalled.

“Yes. The evidence of this… affair you purport, what is it? You should be aware that this is a serious accusation you’re leveling here.”

“Are you honestly trying to tell me Parmak isn’t utterly besotted with Elim?”

“I never claimed otherwise, Doctor, I merely believe your jealousy is misplaced.”

“I’m not jealous! I have no reason to be jealous! Elim can sleep with whomever he chooses to. I know not even marriage prevents that kind of behavior from some Cardassian spouses, so why would it stop Elim?”

He was unattached, after all.

“That kind of… straying from the norms is considered unacceptable in polite Cardassian society.”

“It didn’t stop him before.” Julian remarked bitterly.

Palandine had been enjoined with Lokar and Elim carried on with the affair regardless.

“Listen, Bashir, I don’t know what made you believe that, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that Elim wouldn’t do what you propose. And even Kelas, the enamored fool he is, wouldn’t dare make a move. Anything that may have been between them before you arrived stopped the moment Elim offered you his home. He chose you over Parmak. It is definitive and every Cardassian above the age of six knows what a serious matter that is. Kelas may long for Elim as much as he wants, but even he knows he no longer stands a chance and he would never tarnish himself or the man he cares for by making a move at this point.”

Julian sat there with his mouth open, uncomprehending.

“Could you repeat that?” Julian stammered.

Ghemor sighed.

“Even a blind man can see how devoted Elim is to you. I’ve never seen him more care-free. He’d always been reserved, and glimpses into his soul were precious and few. As soon as you arrived, he was suddenly open, his every emotion readily discernible. That celebratory dinner merely confirmed it for everyone involved.”

Impossible.

Ghemor’s words made no sense.

“You… You are trying to tell me there’s nothing between them? That they aren’t… lovers?”

“Most definitely not. I don’t think they ever were. I think Kelas planned for more, but it didn’t go the way he desired.”

What a fool he’d made of himself if this was true!

If it was, then…

That would make him the only one who’d been unfaithful.

His indignation and anger evaporated without a trace, leaving behind a deep, lasting sense of shame.

Elim loves you as deeply as a Cardassian is capable of, and contrary to what non-Cardassians may think –it is an emotion more profound than they could ever imagine.”

Julian’s eyes were wide as he stared at Ghemor.

It couldn’t be.

It made no sense.

Then…

All the teasing, all the bickering, all the wicked smiles and innuendos…

All those times he looked at me fondly…

Elim loved him.

His brain froze completely.

Every touch they ever shared was screeching past him in his mind, leaving burning tire tracks like one of Bond’s spy cars as they careened off a cliff.

How far did it go?

When did it start?

“Does this resolve your dilemma, Doctor?” Ghemor inquired with rigid dignity and Julian nodded absently.

“Yes… You’ve been incredibly helpful.” Julian inclined his head and averted his eyes for a long moment to indicate his respect and deep appreciation.

“It’s gratifying to see you adapting so naturally to our gestures, Bashir.” Ghemor said in a kinder tone. “I am sure Elim appreciates it as well.”

“I owe him that much.” Julian said sincerely. “All these years… I never noticed how much of his natural behavior he modified for my sake, to make me comfortable. He adapted to my human mannerisms with such skill and ease, I didn’t even notice…” He sighed deeply.

He was such a fool.

“He was trained for it, don’t take your lack of awareness to heart.”

Julian smiled gratefully.

“I should go and… hopefully Elim will be home when I return.”

“Resolve this, Bashir. There’s no reason either of you should suffer unnecessarily.”

“I’ll try.” Julian vowed solemnly, even as he knew full well it would be a daunting prospect, because… If Elim had been acting on his feelings since Julian arrived, that would make the ensuing conversation an awful and gut-wrenching prospect.

Julian was struck by a terrible thought.

Had he ever even told Elim he and Ezri were dating?

He thought the man knew, the way he seemed to know everything else, but Julian realized with an awful lurch in his stomach, that he had never actually told him.

This meant that everything that happened was…

My fault .

He left Ghemor’s in a daze.

Chapter Text

Julian stumbled back to the shed, mulling everything over in his mind.

It still hadn’t all sunk in properly.

And how could it?

He felt like someone had kidnapped him and dropped him off on a deserted, unfamiliar planet. All foundation was just… gone. The ground beneath his feet – stripped away, the crutch he’d been holding on to – broken.

By not writing Elim about Ezri, which was by accident entirely and not by design, he had doomed them to this… strange limbo.

Ghemor claimed Elim loved him.

He didn’t want to believe it.

Elim?

The very definition of self-control and mystery?

In love?

With Julian?

That was the absurd part of it all.

He wanted to scoff at the notion, laugh in its face and dismiss it outright as a grotesque impossibility.

If not for that niggling feeling, struggling for dominance from a walled-off corner of his mind, whispering insidiously:

You knew he’d been flirting… You knew.

So what if he knew? It was just a joke most of the time, a way for Garak to keep his conversational skills sharp and get the extra kick of flustering him. That was all it was.

Wasn’t it?

Since when did Garak not do exactly what he intended to do?

Yes. His intent was to cause mayhem and make Julian uncomfortable.

Why would he do that? The way he looks at you means something.

It meant he was being more devious than usual, that’s what!

Really? The sly voice dripped venom in his mind. Then why can you read his every emotion?

He’d never been able to read Elim with anything approaching accuracy. The man’s masks were impeccable.

When was the last time you saw one, then?

Julian knew exactly when he’d last seen one.

“You are allowed to change your mind.”

It had been a brave face. A way to hide his pain. And Elim failed to bring it back up seamlessly, because too many things bled through.

All of this began because Julian…

I jumped away when he tried to lean in for…

Garak had been self-destructing before his very eyes this entire week, and only now did Julian realize why.

He wanted to get close to me and I pushed him away.

Julian felt the shackle of his promise keenly. It weighed heavily on his limbs.

I promised.

Ezri didn’t deserve this. She was blameless.

I keep my promises . Julian reminded himself.

But his limbs weren’t the only things weighing him down.

I have to resolve this.

Julian had changed from that man who could do nothing but watch in silence as Garak tried to vent himself into space.

He couldn’t bear to stand by and do nothing any longer.

I promised myself I would be what he wanted if he needed it.

The conflicting promises warred in his mind, clashing relentlessly and creating a din of utter chaos. He didn’t know how to reconcile the two.

I need to clear this up or it will kill me .

It was a melodramatic thought, but he felt it to be true in every phantom pain lancing through him.

Death by a thousand cuts .

He felt like he’d been dying a long time now, without even realizing it.

Doctors truly made the worst patients.

When he saw the light was on, he sprinted the rest of the way.

All but wrenching the door away, he cast his gaze around desperately for the man.

When their eyes met, Julian allowed everything he felt to lay there on the surface for Elim to find.

Please. See it.

But Elim seemed to shrink in on himself, almost like he had no strength left to keep standing and turned away.

He was gripping the emerald fabric and Julian could see the shape of an intricately tailored jacket before Elim’s hands shook and he flipped the tarp over it like it was unbearable to keep touching it or even looking at it.

“Elim… We need to talk.”

Garak kept his back turned and Julian swore the man went as rigid and as still as a stone at those words.

“I would prefer not to.” Garak squeezed out, almost like the words were blades slicing through his throat on their way out.

“We have to!” Julian entreated. “I can’t keep watching you like this!”

“Then leave.” Garak whispered, as if more to himself.

Julian expected the tailor to continue with something along the lines of: “Like you always do,” or, “That’s what you’re good at,” but there was nothing.

Julian felt an anguish so deep it stole his breath, sapped his vigor and stripped him to the bone. A wounded Elim would usually lash out and lay into you with such cutting remarks you were reduced to ribbons, but now… not even that much.

“Elim, please!” Julian begged. The sound was alien to his ears, but it was unmistakable. He was well and truly begging, and his voice was shaking. “It was all a big misunderstanding!” He cried, wishing desperately for Elim to turn around and his hands reached out for the closed-off figure sitting on that stool. Julian’s hands draped over the pale ridges adorning the man’s neck and he stood close enough to notice every tiny tremor in that usually steady frame.

“I should have known.” Garak said bitterly.

“Elim,” Julian insisted. “You don’t have to keep doing this to yourself. I know now that there is nothing between you and Kelas!”

At that, Elim sprang to his feet, wrenching himself violently out of Julian’s tentative grasp.

Scared at the sudden murderous energy he could detect, Julian babbled on.

“I always thought you were a very discreet and private man, so when I saw Parmak opening that door – disheveled, rumpled… Remarking on how I was home early, and you – half-unclothed, mocking me, selling me that cock and bull story of a ripped seam, when you just probably ripped it when you and him… I… I was shocked.”

Elim’s face went from murderous to cold and calculating.

“You assumed I was… a philanderer. How highly you think of me.” There was too much real indignation in that sarcastic phrase.

“I’m sorry!” Julian pleaded, “It didn’t stop you with Palandine and… Why would it stop you now?”

Any light left in Elim’s usually clear gaze flickered and died.

He went completely unresponsive.

Julian cursed himself for his tactlessness. This sounded like Julian held it against him, when it was actually nothing but an afterthought used to ease his own guilty conscience.

“Did our time here… mean nothing to you?” Elim asked in the flattest tone imaginable. Julian never knew the man could even sound like this. It was…

Soulless.

Detached.

Empty.

“How can you say that?” Julian cried out, beginning to tremble. “It meant everything!”

Garak closed his eyes and Julian saw him making a valiant effort to pick himself up and muster at least some dignity.

“How long have you been operating under this… misapprehension?” Elim asked, still visibly shaken, but trying to cover it with an angry glare.

“Since… since I came.” Julian said, unable to be anything but completely honest. “I wasn’t sure, of course, what with your circumspect, ambiguous Cardassian ways, but I suspected… Your letter, Elim, you…” Julian trailed off, desperately trying to find the right words, but knowing he would have to settle for the truth. He had no ability to make up palatable, beautiful lies like Elim could. He’d always been such a… blunt instrument.

“You kept comparing him to me… All the time… I could see you were getting closer, cared for one another and… It cut in places I didn’t expect. I felt… replaced, supplanted. I felt like back then, with the changeling, when nobody noticed that thing wasn’t me.” Here, he shuddered and felt his eyes growing wet. He plowed on.

“Everyone kept telling me they liked that version of me better… could you imagine how that feels, Elim? Being told you would be so much better if you weren’t you anymore? If-”

“I have some idea.” Garak deadpanned.

Julian realized… Yes. Elim knew exactly what that felt like. All his life he’d been pulled away from what he was so he could be something people around him found more acceptable. At that, Julian started crying in earnest.

“I’m sorry, Elim, even now I say such thoughtlessly cruel things. Of course you know, you’ve lived it all your life. What you were had never been good enough for Mila… or Tain. You were expected to bury your emotions, to live in opposition to what you desired most and… Palandine… She made you feel alive and brought out something you’ve long tried to suppress. She proved to you that you still had a heart, that you were not just a tool for other people’s convenience and plans. She saw you. Just like…”

Julian’s breaths were shallow and quick.

“Just like you… saw… me.”

And how, how does one remain unaffected by such a profound thing?

“And nobody ever saw me, Elim! My parents saw a way to increase their status and brag about their brilliant son who was a doctor, so fucking noble and accomplished! Me? I’m a husk! A child they replaced when the one they got no longer suited them! Who wanted a slow learner, a weakling, a… a retard?” He was gasping and whimpering, but couldn’t stop.

“My peers saw me as a threat. They never treated me like I was one of them, almost like they could sense I was off - abnormal! So I hid myself, my mind, my true capability… I shackled myself to put the people around me at ease because I wanted so badly to be accepted that I relinquished the last part of me I actually liked!”

Julian sobbed and grabbed Elim’s shoulders not to fall to pieces.

“I started to hate what made me different. I started to hate my superior intellect and my reflexes and poured everything into making myself useful. I was a tool, Elim! I let myself and everyone around me turn me into an instrument and I comforted myself with the thought that, at least, I was an instrument for good! I was healing people! I was useful!”

His palms were shaking as he took Elim’s face into his hands, feeling the contours of his descending ear ridges on his skin.

“Aren’t we… the same? That’s what you were trying to say in your letter, wasn’t it?”

Garak was looking at him in a way Julian couldn’t fathom. The emotion was too complex, too deep to even begin to grasp. Just like Ghemor said.

Julian brought himself closer and leaned his forehead against Elim’s. He needed to feel it.

“Was I wrong?” Julian’s lips trembled with unsuppressed emotion. “Am I wrong?”

If Elim told him he was, he felt he would fly apart and never reassemble again.

Silence stretched on and Julian’s heart was beating uncomfortably in his chest.

Everything hurt.

 

The spoken.

The unspoken.

The in-between.

 

He screwed his eyes shut painfully and held his breath, feeling like his life might escape with the next exhale if he wasn’t careful.

“You aren’t wrong…” Elim whispered. “I certainly never saw anything wrong with you, my dear.”

The softness in that voice broke him and as he breathed out in a rush of despair and relief and sheer unadulterated agony, Julian held Elim tighter.

“And there was never anything wrong with you either, Elim… It’s the world that was wrong.” He said earnestly and felt a long-sustained knot in his chest dissolving.

This was…

It felt like…

Forgiveness .

“I forgive you, Elim. Survival asks no permission. You survived. It’s as simple as that.”

He couldn’t see, but he felt the subtle pull of Elim’s cheeks.

Even with eyes closed, he could see the gentle smile – warming his unworthy presence.

 

No.

If we are both the same, then…

We are both worthy.

 

And Julian felt a surge of something unfamiliar and unbearably warm welling up and overflowing from inside. His inner landscape shifted, expanded, grew and blossomed. The endless plain came to life under a softly twinkling Cardassian sky, bathed and blessed by the light of its trinity of moons. And only in his inner landscape did the Blind Moon shine so resplendently.

He felt like a slave released from bondage.

 

“How intoxicating it would be, for all our shackles to be self-imposed.” Elim recited in solemn exultation and Julian recognized the quote immediately.

It was a line from the Never-Ending Sacrifice.

One he hadn’t had the capacity to understand back then. It was during a conversation a Legate had with his aide. They’d been discussing their duty to the State, but Julian could see the subtext now.

How fitting and beautiful the response was.

“Then I shall dream of a strong Cardassia...” Julian answered, feeling the full importance of that exchange at last.

For only within a strong and stable Cardassia, were her subjects free of their duty.

Only after all her enemies were defeated and all her problems solved…

Julian used to see in it a statement that one could never be done with duty, because it was eternal, but now, he could see the plea for freedom beneath it – sent out into the void – a need to be released from the never-ending sacrifice so one could simply… be.

“I understand now, Elim.” Julian said joyfully, opening his eyes to communicate his ebullience. “I finally understand!”

“Yes,” Elim said. “I believe that you do.”

Julian gave a gusty laugh.

“I feel like I could do anything right now… Is that strange?”

“No…” Elim said warmly, “It’s not strange at all.”

“Can you forgive me, Elim? For jumping to conclusions?”

The look in those clear blue eyes was kind.

“You’ve never been able to do anything I couldn’t forgive you for, and this is no exception.”

Julian felt humbled beyond belief.

“Julian…” Elim said quietly, making his heart race.

There was a question in those eyes; it lurked in the corners of the man’s lips, timid and unexpressed.

“May I kiss you?” Elim whispered and Julian, oh, how he wanted to say no, but his body was already disobeying and engaging in the ritualistic gesture of its own volition, entirely irrespective of his feeble internal protestations; raising his chin in a little undulating motion which was the equivalent of a Cardassian yes and then, both faster and slower than he expected or wanted, he could taste Elim again. Electric currents raced down his lips, dissipating and spreading; their impulses racing across his nerve endings.

It was the taste of petrichor, the ghostly light at the bottom of a cup of red leaf tea and the smell of the resplendent Blind Moon, shining on his darkened plain.

If Elim needed this, Julian would give.

Anything.

Everything.

And when they separated, Julian’s lips tingling and heart thrumming, the words spilled out of him like an unbreakable vow, voiced by a part of him that ran on instinct alone.

And for the first time, he felt what it was like to have a soul.

 

“I offer you… my blood… and bone.”

 

Everything.

 

Elim shuddered in his arms and embraced him.

Julian knew the main issue wasn’t resolved, but he didn’t care.

It could wait.

The whole world could wait while he basked in this feeling.

Chapter Text

The next several days were a steady return to a state of equilibrium. Elim stopped hiding his suit like a dirty secret, but instead would stash it away gently with an enigmatic smile.

It was ridiculously endearing.

They would chat in the mornings over tea and Julian could feel something mending in him every time Elim smiled at him.

Even when the subject was awful, like the fact the person who harmed Rekat slipped through the cracks by likely running away from Prime, Elim didn’t revert into that disconcerting state. If anything, he was now… sweeter than he was before. There was warmth apparent in every gaze, gesture and word.

Julian felt like he was the only person in the universe privileged enough to see it and he loved it.

Still, an awful thought remained.

He still hadn’t told Elim about Ezri.

Nor the inverse.

He didn’t know how to do either.

Elim was still a bit frail and Julian was determined to handle him with care, which consisted of gentle palm presses, making sure Elim was always bundled up well for the night, and, more than once to slip next to the man to sleep. This seemed to comfort the Cardassian more than any words Julian said. For all of his reservations, distance and walls, Elim was a surprisingly tactile creature – affectionate and even, dare Julian think it, tender.

It was strange at first, but Julian marveled at how fast he got used to it.

Elim had gotten him through the worst personal and emotional upheaval, and the least Julian could do is open up to the man’s tenderness. His dreams were filled with the soothing smell of Elim’s hair and his mornings were comfortable, wrapped in the man’s embrace.

As long as Elim needed him, he wouldn’t break his heart.

Or Ezri’s, for that matter.

This was fine, for now.

Or so he kept telling himself.

***

“You seem in a good mood today, little Bashir.” Zeyem stated and Julian smiled at her over his console.

“I suppose I am!” He said, sounding rather revoltingly chipper for Cardassian tastes, but he didn’t care.

Zeyem chuckled.

“Bliss in the nest, I suppose.” She gave a long suffering sigh and Julian didn’t want to push his luck by asking for a clarification.

“Go help at the infirmary, Ghar has her hands full.”

Recognizing a clear dismissal when he heard one, he gave her a cheeky grin and headed for the infirmary with a spring in his step.

He greeted Ghar in a friendlier manner than usual and approached her to see what needed to be done.

Together, they set a dislocated shoulder, mended a little boy’s broken arm and took care of some patients who needed nothing more than some supplements and immune-boosters.

Once the infirmary emptied out around 16:00 hours, Ghar gave him a bemused smile.

“Word has gotten out, Doctor Bashir.” She said with a daring little glint in her eyes, which was quite uncharacteristic for her.

“Word about what?”

She gave a girlish giggle and said:

“About us having a very respectable human doctor here who treats everyone like royalty!”

He looked at her in utter bewilderment.

“Excuse me?”

“You have noticed many people today came with no real medical need, haven’t you?”

“I have, but what does that have to do with anything?”

Cardassians dislike wasting other people’s time, Bashir.” She said like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“I still don’t understand.” He reiterated.

“They came here just to see you, Bashir, because they were curious!” Ghar said enthusiastically.

“Uh…” Julian muttered, not knowing what to say.

“It’s a good thing.” She said kindly. “That means word of mouth has been working in your favor, because these were people we haven’t treated before.”

“Well, if they aren’t uncomfortable in my presence, I guess that’s good enough for me.” Julian said with a smile.

“I never thought I’d see such a thing, Bashir. We are raised to be wary of other species or to outright dismiss them as savages… You… well,” Here she hesitated a bit but finished her sentence regardless. “You proved us all wrong. You were respectful, kind and competent. If you spoke Kardassi, I’m pretty sure there would be a line of people at our doors, trying to court you!”

Julian laughed despite feeling slightly uncomfortable by the praise.

“Well, I am taken, so they wouldn’t have any luck.” He said lightly, even though it left a bitter taste in his mouth.

He guessed he could still feel this morning’s dose of choban.

“Good thing, too! That might be the only thing deterring the mob!”

He wanted to ask why the mob would be deterred by something they didn’t even know, when Trengem burst through the door with a critically injured patient and Julian ran to assist.

Chapter Text

Julian was beat. Utterly exhausted.

He flopped onto the cot gracelessly and slung an arm over his eyes.

“Another operation?” Elim inquired gently and Julian groaned.

“Three in a row – skimmer accident. The helm gave out mid flight and they crashed at the northern edge of Coranum.”

“How many wounded?” Garak asked.

“Seven. One got through it with nothing but scrapes and bruises, but the rest weren’t so lucky.”

“Any casualties?”

Julian sighed.

“The pilot. I tried saving him, but his heart gave out in the middle of the operation and I suggested an artificial one, but Zeyem deemed his head trauma too severe. He never would have made it.”

“You did your best, my dear. No one could ask for more.”

“I turned into Mr. Popular, Elim. I keep getting little gifts from my patients. In the Federation, that would be kind of inappropriate.”

Elim laughed.

“Word must have gotten out,” The tailor remarked mischievously.

“Oh yes,” Julian said sarcastically. “Ghar keeps telling me there would be a whole line of people just waiting to court me if only I spoke Kardassi.”

“They would be disappointed.” Elim said wryly.

“Of course they would, my Kardassi sounds like someone is skinning some poor animal alive.”

Garak laughed.

“You hardly even tried, my dear.” Elim chided him, “At least you make a fine dying honge impersonation! It could serve as a good party trick.”

Julian groaned and grabbed the pillow to toss it at Garak, who caught it effortlessly.

“Not everyone is ridiculously talented like you, Elim!” Julian groused. “How many languages do you even know?”

Elim just grinned in his old, devious manner and said:

“That would be telling. I must reserve some mystique so you don’t leave me when a supple young thing with shiny purple hair comes your way…”

“You say purple hair and all I can see is Zeyem, please stop! You’ll give me nightmares…”

“She is a spitfire, isn’t she? Looks remarkably young, too, though I wouldn’t tell her that if I were you. Cardassian women take offense at that.”

“What? “

“It’s the inverse with your species, I’m aware... Our ideal is older and wiser, not pretty and shallow.” Elim said while looking at him significantly, smirking all the while.

“Oh, so… if I have to produce a number…”

“Aim for five years higher. That’s usually enough to appease their vanity.”

“Noted.” Julian said, bemused.

“I hope you are not too tired, my dear, because I was hoping we might attend a meeting together. You have been asking for it a while now.”

“We’re going to The Oralian Way? Yes! I want to go!” Julian bolted upright in excitement.

“Your enthusiasm is appreciated, but I don’t wish to tire you out unnecessarily.” Elim looked at him shrewdly, knowing he was truly exhausted.

“I am not an invalid, Elim. Besides, a walk would be nice.” Julian got up with a slight yawn.

“Only if you are sure, my dear.” The man said kindly and Julian wanted to touch his cheek, but refrained.

He’d been dodging Elim’s subtle attempts at kissing him since the last time, and substituting them with less risky touches, which seemed to please Garak enough to seem unbothered by the fact Julian was avoiding his lips. Still, each time Elim’s nose would brush against his cheek, or his ear, it created a sort of cascade failure in Julian’s overtaxed brain. He’d remember.

The soft brush of fingers against the shell of his ear.

The touch of Elim’s calloused hands against his ribs.

The alluring, addictive taste of…

Still, he resisted. Repeatedly. Successfully.

The pull was there, though, and he could no longer deny it.

The captivation of a certain kind of gaze Elim would level him with, which was almost hypnotic and definitely magnetic in nature, tugged at him persistently, like an inconvenient itch you weren’t allowed to scratch.

Each time he entertained the thought, he’d scold himself sternly. He wasn’t allowed to kiss Elim.

Garak.

He wasn’t allowed.

I promised.

That didn’t stop his mind from replaying and reliving it at the most inopportune of times. The thoughts were invasive and impossible to weed out – they kept cropping up like an infection you were sure you’ve successfully treated, only for it to come back stronger than before and immune to your treatments. The feel of Elim’s lips was never far from his mind.

It was pure torture.

“Then we should head there now, so we don’t have to rush.”

“Of course, Elim.” Julian said with a soft sigh and followed him out.

***

The walk was long, but enjoyable. Elim was in quite a delighted mood, and he kept offering Julian tidbits of interesting information regarding the buildings or the people they passed. Julian tried to pay attention, he really did, but Ghemor’s words kept echoing in his mind with the persistence of a bad case of tinnitus.

Elim loves you as deeply as a Cardassian is capable of, and contrary to what non-Cardassians may think – it is an emotion more profound than they could ever imagine.”

Could it be true? Did Elim

Just thinking the words was hard.

His heart was racing again.

The look on Elim’s animated face as he recounted some interesting anecdote from his younger years transformed his features into something lovely.

Julian tried to tear his eyes away, but failed.

Since when did he think of Elim as lovely?

How did that happen?

And why was it wrong to even think it?

I promised .

That was true, he’d promised. And he’d kept that promise, except for that single time…

That single time he couldn’t avoid.

Elim needed it.

That’s why.

I did it only because Elim needed it.

I kept my promise.

I’m still safe…

“Ah, dear Doctor, we are almost there.” Elim said in a pleased way and Julian shook his straying thoughts away.

He’d been looking forward to the ceremony for a long time now and he didn’t want his distractions to detract from the experience.

They stopped in front of a ruined corner building somewhere in the Torr Sector and went round back to the entrance. Garak gave him a long, soft look of encouragement and headed down the stairs. Were it not for other people behind them, Julian was sure he’d have had a harder time peeling his eyes away from the man’s neck and the way the jet strands curled ever so gently across his scales.

Once at the bottom of the stairs, they headed left, into a room Garak had described in his letter.

It was a cavernous basement room, filled with chairs (significantly more than 25 now) and it was currently nearly filled to capacity. The slightly raised dais was still there, with its table and the decoration behind it, wearing the semblance of the winged creature with the recitation mask. There was something deeply mysterious and significant about it and he couldn’t help but wonder whether that was the reason why Elim was so drawn to this place.

They both searched for meaning, even if the places they went to do so were vastly different.

Julian had always searched for meaning in his work, because it was rewarding to know he’d made a difference. Garak had felt similarly about his work once upon a time…

Except…

Interrogating people could never be as rewarding. It certainly didn’t leave Garak feeling any better. He had tortured Dukat’s father and his thoughts after it was done were:

“No matter how objective I tried to remain, I could never remain totally unaffected by another man’s horror. Fear was a contagious disease.

Julian fed on joy over recovery and healing, while Garak was left with a… dubious feeling of potential accomplishment, at best. The man never knew what his information would be used for, down the line.

And what kind of person can you become when you feed on nothing but misery?

Of course Elim loved Palandine. She was the only thing made of pure light he had. It only made sense he would cling to her with a kind of desperation.

Tolan’s caring words drifted into Julian’s mind’s eye. The man had been dying as he said them.

“Oh, my dear Elim. The soul of a poet, and look at you… your closed face…all those secrets… Too many secrets… it’s like poison. Too many secrets poison the soul.”

Tain had done this to Elim. Poisoned him with secrets. Contaminated the well of his soul.

Spread the disease further.

Made Elim into a carrier.

Despicable.

“Fear and isolation, Doctor. You can’t have one without the other. Fear isolates and isolation is fear’s natural home. Just as my orchids need carefully prepared soil to protect them against disease and pests, fear needs the isolated circumstances to deepen and grow without connective or relational interference. When fear is allowed to flourish in its dark and lonely medium, then any evil that can be conceived by the fearful imagination will emerge.”

 

And it had, hadn’t it?

Elim was afraid of losing his soul, of never forging a stable connection with another.

It broke Julian’s heart.

He’d lost everyone he ever loved…

There was a sense of deep loss, rooted in his chest. He could still recall, with perfect clarity, the soul-crushing keen Elim let out as he cried over Ziyal.

And he didn’t even love her romantically.

What would happen if Palandine showed up?

Perhaps Ghemor was mistaken in his assessment that Garak loved him and that he decided not to pursue a relationship with Parmak when Julian arrived… What an awful misunderstanding, on both sides!

Garak thought Julian came to… What? Seduce him?

Julian felt a gentle nudge and startled out of his thoughts. Elim was guiding him to some empty chairs in the back and he allowed it.

I should tell him. I should just tell him I’m dating Ezri, so he could go back to Parmak

But Elim could have chosen Kelas, despite this unfortunate misunderstanding.

Why… Why choose me?

It made no sense.

I offer nothing.

“It’s starting soon, my dear.” Garak spoke softly.

Julian inclined his head in understanding and watched a smile bloom on Elim’s face.

He likes it when I imitate his customs…

If it made him happy, Julian would oblige. It was, after all, such a simple thing.

Settling in his chair, Julian looked around.

The hall was pretty full. Even now, a few people were trickling in and Julian noticed some would be forced to stand. He guessed more people could afford to come now that the group wasn’t outlawed anymore.

Or there wasn’t anyone left who had jurisdiction to sanction them. After all, the Obsidian Order was no more.

He was the only alien face in the crowd. The shuttle ride to Cardassia came to mind and he wondered how many hostile looks he’d missed while lost in his ruminations. When he looked around, those who were looking at him, seemed… more curious than anything else.

Perhaps these Cardassians were… more open to outsiders. They would have to be, if they truly followed the teachings of Oralius.

Curiously, he felt like he was in the right place. There was a part of him that had been deeply impatient and overwhelmingly eager to come here and participate in the strange ritual which enraptured Elim’s soul so long ago. Could he be touched in a similar way, even if he wasn’t a believer or a Cardassian?

Could a soulless creature experience this collective awakening?

Was there enough of him left to be receptive to it?

He looked ahead and noticed the ritual was beginning – unfolding exactly the way Elim had described in his letter. Two Cardassians, a man and a woman were stepping up to the podium, each picking up a recitation mask and holding it in their hands for a long moment, as if studying its expression. Julian knew exactly what they would do before they did it and observed, breathless, as they looked at each other, nodded and fastened the masks to their faces.

An interminable moment spent studying one another.

There was so much significance in the simplest of things.

Looking at another with meaning. Such a beautiful thing.

Julian wanted to experience it the way it was meant to be experienced.

In native Kardassi.

Ever so subtly, he feigned he was scratching his neck and turned his Universal Translator off.

The faintest, almost subliminal hum disappeared and he was immersed into the unfiltered existence of Cardassia.

His eyes were glued to the two people on the dais, who were now turned to the crowd at the edge of the dais, where they stood poised yet relaxed, looking over the crowd and taking their time to acknowledge every person in the room. When the woman’s eyes found him, he shivered.

There is another, Julian thought, Another who sees my fractured self.

He tried not to shrink away under that gaze. This wasn’t a tribunal and he wasn’t being judged. Or so he hoped.

It was a terrifying thought precisely because he knew he would be found wanting.

 

As he always had been, thus far.

 

I was never good enough.

Not for my parents… Or my peers…

Or my girlfriends.

 

He half-turned to Elim, who caught his eye and smiled.

The warmth in those eyes shattered him.

And then the voices spoke.

Oh how majestic they were.

Julian watched the two figures, mesmerized by the resonance of their voices and the way it carried through a room full of people. It shouldn’t be possible, acoustically, but it was happening regardless. The woman’s gentle, lilting voice was entrancing, and the words flowed like a river and spilled over the crowd like the rays of a bright Cardassian dawn, stealing his breath completely.

He understood nothing, but he already knew the words, because he remembered the translation Elim had sent him.

“The power that moves through me

Animates my life

Animates the mask of Oralius

To speak her words with my voice

To think her thoughts with my mind

To feel her love with my heart:

It is the song of morning

Opening up to life

Bringing the truth of her wisdom

To those who live in the shadow of the night.”

Just thinking about the translation felt blasphemous, because the original was so…hauntingly beautiful. The rhythm of the words and the enunciation… the delicate yet powerful vocalizations of their exotic consonants and vowels… they flowed all around them, unbroken, like a gloriously luminous ocean of photons.

He could imagine it, being immersed in deep, dark water – weightless, suspended, expectant. All around him flecks of light, shining in the darkness like beacons to guide him to the surface. The water was safe, but below him, there was only darkness and he was wary of it.

Weary.

What could it cost him to reach for the lights? To pick one as his destination and swim towards it?

Once the woman’s voice ended, its final cadence echoing in his being, the man’s voice joined the unbroken thread of meaning, weaving into the tapestry his counterpart presented, adding an entirely new layer of meaning.

“It is this selfsame power

Turned against creation

Turned against my friend-“

 

Julian could grasp in the language the pain and devastation of the concept and as the words continued, he struggled to breathe, locked by the sea which was now exerting its full pressure on his frail body.

 

“-That can destroy his body with my hand

Reduce his spirit with my hate

Separate his presence from my home… ”

 

Julian was fighting for oxygen, trapped beneath the waves, clawing his way towards the surface, faster and faster and ever more desperate and when he broke the surface, following a muted, but strong pinprick of light above him, he-

 

“To live without Oralius

Lighting our way to the source

Connecting us to the mystery

Is to live without the tendrils of love.”

 

-was suddenly floating on the surface of an endless ocean, breathing greedily and deeply as his eyes searched for his guiding light. He was staring at an endless starry sky and there it was, before him, his compass, his true North

The Blind Moon.

Pale and radiant.

Julian could see it, as clearly as he could see the two speakers receding towards the table and removing their masks, acknowledging each other respectfully.

Tears were streaming down his face and neck in unbroken silence, but he barely paid them any mind. They were just there.

 

How could he care about that when his whole world was shifting and tilting on its axis?

 

He needed the ritual to continue, because he remembered what came next.

 

The music.

The unity.

The healing.

 

And there it was, as if on cue to soothe his raw nerves and the fraying fabric of his being, the simple melody, drifting on the air, carried along like a gentle breeze. Shivering and overwhelmed, he allowed it to take root in his body and anchor him. When the next voice joined it, he listened, enraptured by the spontaneity and ease with which it found its own place in the already existing frame of reference. The new contrapuntal melodies joined and wove into the fabric of the music, seamlessly.

More than anything, he wished to join it, but didn’t know how to, deathly afraid his meddling would unravel the delicate balance of the unified sound.

It was then he heard a hauntingly familiar voice, carrying a tune entirely complementary to the saturated, yet airy fabric of the existing melodies. He turned to his right in awe and drank in the sight and the sound.

It was beautiful.

Independent, separate and yet… Part of the greater whole, contributing to it, making it complete.

Julian couldn’t think of his own melody, but he could follow someone else’s.

He let his uncertain human throat copy the music and hoped his vocal control wouldn’t slip.

Elim turned towards him and Julian’s heart stuttered in his chest as the unbroken melody strengthened and blended together.

Julian felt a sense of such wonder at the fact they synchronized and then it hit him – it was happening, just like Elim had described – the warmth, crawling up his spine, radiating upwards until it reached the top of his head and then overflowed, cascading down his skin and enveloping him in a curious vibration. His skin tingled and sparked.

His heartbeat melted away into the collective sound and he realized the people all around him were swaying – everyone except….

Him and Elim.

Julian was stuck in the man’s orbit again.

Inexorably.

Inescapably.

Trapped.

Then the names started getting called out – alien, haunting and wondrous.

He remembered what it meant.

People were calling out the names of individuals in need of prayer and healing, in need of this connection which healed their spirit.

He looked at Elim, and not fully aware why, listened to the stirrings within. His throat expelled a sound – called out his name, as clear as a bell. To his surprise, the room accepted his foreign energy and his offering, chanting Elim’s name in gentle supplication that echoed his own.

I want you to be healed and whole , Julian thought. Just like I desire a green Cardassia you can be proud of.

Elim watched him, silent and attentive, his face betraying nothing.

Then he spoke and Julian wasn’t sure what he said until the sea of Cardassians around him started repeating it.

It was his own name, spoken in native Kardassi. It sounded immeasurably gentle.

Elim wanted the same for him.

Julian trembled as he basked in the feeling of acceptance and belonging.

He, who had never found a place, was accepted.

Acknowledged.

Seen .

Elim spoke to him then. A simple phrase, short. Julian didn’t understand what he said, but he felt warmth, so he smiled.

Around them, other names were being called out and carried off by the harmonious din, but his focus was entirely on the man seated to his right.

His bright blue eyes shone in the gloom and his smile was soft and understated.

Beautiful .

Julian could feel the energy of the room calming around him, but his own energy remained vibrant and agitated. Elim’s gaze lingered on him long after a new voice started speaking.

The guide , Julian thought. It had to be. Still, he was captured by the clarity of the look in his friend’s eyes and wouldn’t look away for the world.

The words, feminine yet sharp, loud yet soothing, wrapped around them like a cocoon.

He was safe here.

It was ironic, really.

That he would feel safe in a room full of complete strangers just because Elim was there.

And when his friend turned to hear the guide, Julian just kept watching.

He’d never felt so grounded.

Or so open.

Receptive .

Maybe he wasn’t so broken, after all.

Maybe…

He would be all right.

Chapter Text

Julian focused on the woman in white, unsure why he bothered. She spoke with conviction, passion, and sadness, but Julian couldn’t really understand much. Every now and again he caught a familiar word, but they were so scarce that their meaning eluded him.

Despite that, he felt relaxed and at peace here.

The readings and recitations went on for a while and once Julian had a feeling it would soon be over, he discreetly turned his translator back on.

The expected happened; people remained and spoke to one another. The atmosphere was one of palpable relaxation and optimism.

“Would I be wrong in assuming you enjoyed it?” Elim asked him.

“You know I did, Elim. You don’t even have to ask.”

His only answer was a significant look.

“Doctor! Doctor Bashir!” A male voice called out from nearby and Julian turned around, genuinely surprised someone would call out to him here.

A youthful face greeted him.

Pem!” He called out, delighted. “What a surprise! What brings you here?” Julian said with undisguised delight.

The boy looked slightly abashed at the enthusiastic greeting, so Julian used a slightly more formal one, inclining his head minutely without breaking his eye-contact or his smile.

“Precisely the questions I was going to ask, Doctor Bashir,” Pem said with a slightly embarrassed posture. “A friend of mine joins these meetings regularly and told me I should give them a chance… It’s only my second time, but I quite like it here. What about you?”

Julian smiled and turned to Elim.

“This is the person responsible for me being here,” He pointed graciously at Elim. “It’s only my first meeting and I must say I wouldn’t be opposed to another visit.”

Crin Pem, sir.” The boy introduced himself and all but bowed to Garak, who didn’t seem to find it unusual. Julian thought this amount of deference was strange.

“There’s no need for such formality, Pem. Just call me Garak.”

Pem’s eyes widened at that.

“I-“ He started, but then softened and cracked a hesitant little smile. “Yes. Thank you, Mister Garak.”

Elim sighed next to him and Julian laughed.

“It’s just plain, simple Garak, Pem.” Julian said with a reassuring smile. “He’s not big on ceremony.”

Pem’s ridges darkened slightly and he knew that was the Cardassian equivalent of a blush.

Elim, you are intimidating the poor boy.” Julian chuckled.

“Nonsense.” Garak said, “I am naught but a simple tailor.”

“Everybody knows you and Mister Ghemor are really responsible for the water reservoir under the Torr Sector, sir. We are all deeply grateful.”

Garak’s countenance softened.

“Then you are thanking the wrong man, Pem, because the one who brought the water purifier to Cardassia was none other than Doctor Bashir, here. We merely put it to good use.”

The already respectful look on Crin’s smooth face transformed into complete awe. His eyes dropped to the ground and he bowed deeply, holding such a posture for an uncomfortably long period of time.

Pem, please, there’s no need…” Julian entreated, “There’s no need to thank me, I did what any decent person would do.”

Pem straightened out at that, but the awed look wasn’t gone, it was now merely supplemented with an almost nauseating amount of gratitude.

“Where is your lovely fiancée?” Julian asked, hoping to derail any further outpourings of deference.

“Oh,” Pem blushed again. “My wife, actually.” There was a glow of happiness around him now.

“Congratulations!” Julian said.

“Thank you, Doctor Bashir.” The boy said, clearly still under the impression. It was sweet, really.

“She’s busy at home, she-ah…” Here Crin trailed off, “…isn’t exactly interested in these meetings. I think she needs some time alone to heal from the loss of her family. I called her name today, hoping…”

“I understand.” Julian said warmly.

“I heard your name, Doctor.” Pem said slightly sheepishly. “So I turned around and there you were… Perhaps it was presumptuous of me to approach you, but-“

“No, Pem, please!” Julian pleaded, “I am glad you did. It’s nice seeing you again. Did you apply to the Art Institute?”

Pem’s face fell.

“I have, but… They said they weren’t taking any new students this year, due to… well… the situation being what it is… I expected this, so… Wait, how did you-”

As Pem’s eyes widened, Julian realized his blunder. This was the information he got while eavesdropping. Oops.

“What was your submission?” Elim asked with sudden interest.

Pem rallied surprisingly quickly.

“Ah… A sculpture and some calligraphy.”

“Calligraphy?” Elim said, clearly pleasantly surprised.

“Yes, sir. Early Union style.”

“That is a challenging art form, Pem.”

“I know…” The boy seemed flustered again. “I… somebody once told me I had a knack for it, so I kept it up because it was kind of… meditative…”

“It is.” Elim said approvingly. “May I see an example of your work some time?”

“I- I would be honored!” Pem stuttered and bowed again.

“Bring it by the Necropolis in Paldar near sundown one day. I should be there, usually.”

“Of course!” Pem gushed, positively glowing at the prospect of showing an interested party his work.

Crin! We’re going for a drink, you coming or what?”

“Yes! Coming!” Pem called out to a small group of friends and politely excused himself, promising he would go to Paldar at the promised time.

“What a charming young man,” Elim commented lightly, “A patient of yours?”

“No, actually.” Julian said pleasantly. “I met him and his fiancée at the transport from Pullock V to Cardassia Prime.”

“It’s a shame he is so servile. He gives himself away.”

“What do you mean?”

Elim looked at him shrewdly.

“Surely you have noticed by now that we had neatly separated classes, Doctor.”

“I have. And I know he’s service class, Elim. His father was a sewage maintenance worker.”

Elim got a faraway pitying look.

“What a waste.”

“Why? Do you think nobody will sponsor him for the Institute because of it?

“Color me impressed, dear Doctor. You have become quite observant in my absence.”

Julian sighed.

“Any progress I’ve made was thanks to your letter, Elim…” He looked at the tailor warmly. “I needed that to put things into perspective. So…” He trailed off, feeling slightly embarrassed by the admission. “Thank you, Elim. Thank you for sending it.”

Elim’s eyes were two brilliant lights but he never got to hear what the man was about to say, because a woman glided into view.

Her clothes were white, and so was her hair, mostly. Her eyes were set apart and her face commanding.

Julian recognized her.

Elim’s and Palandine’s guide .

Her stoic façade melted away the longer she looked at Elim and was replaced by a brilliant smile.

“Astraea.” Elim greeted with a polite incline of his head.

She placed her palms on his shoulders and smiled softly, almost as if she was proud.

“You never volunteered a name before, Elim… It was nice to hear.”

Elim replied nothing, but there were makings of a tiny smile tugging at the corners of his lips.

“And you’ve brought someone very interesting with you.” She said slightly suggestively and turned to Julian.

“I have never had the pleasure of hosting a human here before. Welcome to Cardassia, Julian.” She said warmly.

It was strange, being addressed by his first name by someone he just met, especially because it was a Cardassian. Still, he had noticed she had that tendency in Elim’s letter. Perhaps their philosophy endorsed such openness.

“I am very glad to be here.”

“Did you like the service, Julian?” She asked and he flushed, knowing he didn’t understand virtually anything that came out of her mouth, but didn’t want to give himself away in front of Elim, so he said simply:

“I enjoyed it, yes. It was quite… transformative.” He said and chanced a look at Elim.

“It is always wonderful to see two individuals so synchronized.” She said gently and brushed Elim’s cheek with the back of her fingers.

“I always knew the time would come, Elim. Your fateline was so tangled before… That is why I couldn’t bear to tell you when you brought Palandine to us, all those years ago, that your roots were never meant to entwine… Merely intersect on your respective journeys. She gave you but a taste of the light hiding within you, but nobody could bring it out of you until you were ready to embrace it… And I see that time has finally come.”

Her face transformed with pure joy.

“I am so happy for you, Elim.”

Garak’s face was soft and graceful.

“Thank you, Astraea.” He said quietly, as if he was humbled by her words.

Then she turned to him and looked deeply into his eyes. Julian felt like he had no secrets before her, almost as if she could read him like an open book.

“Another lost being… You have found your place on Cardassia, haven’t you?” She observed and he wasn’t even surprised she had surmised as much.

“I… believe so.” He said softly. “I’ve been… adrift for a long time.”

Oralius’ teachings are not exclusive to Cardassians, Julian. Any sentient being who appreciates the power of connection and love can find value in her words. You don’t even have to come here to celebrate Oralius. Just pour your light into the world, like I see you wish to.”

“I… I want to do something for Cardassia.” Julian began and his frightened eyes met Elim’s. “It’s an ambitious dream, for now, nothing more than an idealist’s crazy delusion, but…”

“You wish to manifest your vision in reality.” Astraea smiled.

“Yes.” Julian admitted, his eyes glistening. “More than anything.”

“Then you will find a way. All ideas begin in the higher realm and then it is up to us to manifest it on this one.”

Elim… spoke about it once. I… remember.”

“Then you know what you must do.” She said mysteriously and gripped his shoulder.

Julian didn’t know why, but he felt bolstered by her words.

“Your tendrils are getting stronger, Julian. Nurture them.”

“I will.” He promised with a bright smile.

“Good luck Elim, Julian. You are always welcome here.”

With a final squeeze to his shoulder and a parting enigmatic smile, she disengaged them and approached another group of stragglers.

Julian suppressed a yawn.

“I suggest we head home, my dear.” Elim spoke soothingly and Julian just nodded, too tired to say much else.

Chapter Text

When they finally got back to the shed, Julian was completely knackered and could do little but collapse into bed, but when Elim told him he was cold; Julian crawled off the cot and next to him without a word of protest. He was tired and wanted nothing more than the sweet embrace of Morpheus, so the location where he lay his head mattered little, because as soon as the blanket covered them both, he was fast asleep.

 

He was dreaming.

 

A lush green field was stretching before him, unfathomably vast and he was standing in the grass, barefoot and nude, running his fingers through the tall stalks laden with strange flowers and gently dispersing clouds of wind-blown seeds. He watched them get carried away by the wind and on a whim decided to follow along.

Running through the vibrantly alive plain filled him with energy and he turned his face towards the midday sun, which bathed and warmed his glistening skin. He knew exactly where he was; exactly where he was supposed to be -

Cardassia .

Revived.

Flourishing.

A jubilant avian cry pierced the skies and he looked up. A streak of dazzling purple plumage trailed after the bird which circled overhead and he watched where it was heading.

In the distance, he could see majestic cliffs being buffeted by the aquamarine waters of the Morfan Sea. His feet were light and sure, and he ran across the plain like an arrow, parting the grasses like curtains in his wake.

Nothing could harm him here, of that he was certain.

Floating off the cliff, he flew, just like that bird – elegantly, swiftly, tendrils of golden light holding him suspended in the air and serving as the medium he moved through.

The golden threads connecting him to the sea, the sky, the sun, the cliffs and the wild forest before him, kept him moored.

He drifted towards the rainforest and glided through the overgrowth.

No plants rose to snap at him or scratch him; no predators seemed hungry as they skulked through the jungle, keeping careful watch over him.

He was protected.

Warm.

Safe.

Cardassia was keeping him safe.

Ever deeper into the forest he went, touching the bark on the trees around him. Some were smooth like polished stone, others coarse like sandstone and several wet and slick with dark blue moss.

The light was dwindling, but he wasn’t afraid. Night creatures’ eyes glowed and twinkled like stars, guiding his way. A structure rose from the gloom, glittering in the moonlight.

It was a cave entrance and a beguiling light was pulsing from within, drawing him in.

Light and soundless, he glided closer to it with his arm outstretched; allowing himself to be engulfed entirely.

 

Warmth.

 

He was sleeping on a thick carpet of crimson moss, blanketed by vines and drowsy on the smell of flowers.

Some creature climbed across his ribcage, small and light-footed, making him squirm and giggle.

That tickles… He murmured, laughing at the comforting sensation.

It’s been so long since anyone tickled him.

The wind laughed alongside him, breezing through the lush foliage.

He sprawled over the yielding moss and luxuriated in the feel of the vines snaking across his back.

Mmmm

“Enjoying yourself?” A familiar voice drifted on the breeze.

He merely laughed sleepily.

Get out of my dream and find your own… Stupid Cardassian. Couldn’t even leave his dreams alone.

The warmth of the sun was peeking through the thick canopy, bathing him in light.

So warm…

“I agree.”

Julian grumbled in his dream and rested his hand on a sun-warmed rock. The play of light and shadow on the mottled gray was exquisite.

Even his unconscious mind could perceive him, it seemed.

Still, it was a lovely dream.

Something was fluttering against his skin, butterflies, landing one after another – odd; golden, copper, brass – glittering and coarse. They rested on his back, folding and unfolding their sparkling wings, sending pinpricks of electricity racing across his skin with their delicate little feet.

“So smooth…”

 

How would you know?

You’re not here.

I’m dreaming…

So…

It’s normal.

Dreams don’t make sense.

 

He could feel something brushing against his thigh, gently, carefully.

Fingers.

Crawling up his skin, leaving trails of fire in their wake.

Familiar…

Caressing his ribs on their way up.

Elim

They don’t stop,

 

The warmth accumulates.

He rises to meet it and it’s there – the one who haunts him day and night, the shadow…

The light.

 

And the shackle - heavy.

Unbearable.

 

I am dreaming…

Can’t I be free in my own dreams?

Must I obey, even here?

 

Must I… Elim?

“Only if you wish it, my dear…” The man’s voice echoes through the trees and Julian wants to listen.

And the imaginary touch lingers, sweet and soft, and he trembles from its power.

I am dreaming…

I am safe.

Is it safe? He murmurs to the wind, hoping for a reply that doesn’t come.

 

Fingertips against his lips now, delicate, hesitant.

These are safe.

He may have promised and he will keep it.

He will!

But this is a dream…

So…

What’s the harm?

 

He allows his lips to skim the skin on offer.

So close.

Closer…

 

A firmer touch now.

On his hip.

Grasping.

Pulling him in.

 

He’s flush against another.

Familiar.

Known.

 

And yet… in this entire jungle…

The only unexplored part.

The only unknown.

 

It’s just a dream.

And he is safe.

Just this once and that will be enough.

 

Just once… He murmurs into the moss and feels fingers in his hair.

A warm, tickling breeze against his face.

His lips part.

Are parted.

 

His body writhes into the touch as the memories keep flooding in.

Overwhelming.

Inescapable.

 

He relives it, all over again.

Is reminded.

Elim -ah! He wants to ask for a reprieve, for mercy, but his mind isn’t listening.

 

And the hands never stop.

Don’t listen.

Elim’s clever fingers…

Skilled and determined.

 

Trailing up his thigh, making him shiver.

Across his stomach.

Maddening.

 

The warmth is pooling within him – gathering, growing, coalescing.

 

Something nudges between his legs.

A thigh.

Chiding himself, he trembles.

 

Even in his dreams he has no control over himself.

But…

He doesn’t have to, does he?

Because it isn’t real…

 

The thigh slides between his and he gasps at the friction.

Too good.

Blindingly so.

 

He really, really shouldn’t, but this is all in his head.

 

Why am I even imagining this?

 

“Do you like this, my dear?” Imaginary Elim asks and if he were awake he would say no, he would deny and deflect and run, but here, where there’s no obligation or fear, he speaks the truth.

Yes.

Yes… He breathes more than speaks.

 

He likes it.

Entirely too much.

Obscenely so.

 

Cannot deny it, or hide it, not when he undulates against the body he’s conjured up.

It feels so real.

Because he knows how it feels now.

 

He has slept next to Elim.

In his arms.

Held.

 

And now… His imagination is growing out of control.

The hands continue to explore and map his skin.

“Exquisite…” He imagines Elim saying.

 

But –

He’s not here.

I’m alone…

 

Yet, the hands, even imagined, soothe.

Ignite.

Burn… Burn me…

 

And then he was burning.

From the touch.

From the light.

The heat was growing unbearable.

 

His hips were moving on instinct, seeking closeness, contact.

Found it.

Elim A whimper.

A plea.

“I love the way you say my name…” Garak would never ever admit such a thing, out there.

 

Outside of his delusion.

 

“Like I am some deity you pray to… A forbidden, cast-out God with a single devotee…”

 

The words make him tremble.

With need.

With hunger.

 

He seeks with gasping breaths and receives everything he could never imagine.

 

Ambrosia.

On his lips.

 

Supple and intoxicating.

 

His hands reach out and find purchase.

A firm chest.

Hidden ridges.

 

He touches, crawls higher, discovers a neat row of scales.

Familiar.

So, his fingers count them.

Slowly.

And this time, when he finds the kinat’hU, he caresses.

First with his fingers –

Then with his lips.

And the more pressure he offers, the fingers grip him tighter,

So he bites.

 

A gentle bite turns harsher and the man beside him moans.

It doesn’t sound like anything he’s ever heard before.

“Julian… The voice whispers, full of desire.

 

How can I know what that sounds like?

 

The fingers in his hair grip.

Pull.

Make him moan Elim’s name.

It’s too good.

Too real.

So he rides it.

The feeling.

Bites again and hears a soft, lustful keen.

The sound goes straight to his groin.

It shouldn’t.

But it does.

 

It wakes something in him.

 

A part of him that had lain dormant for so long he had forgotten it was there.

Attraction.

To men.

To one particular – this particular man.

This intimidating, compelling, utterly enthralling being who captivates him, binds him and releases him in one breath; who leaves him breathless while he breathes life into him – who gives as much as he takes.

Always equitable.

Generous.

Forgiving.

 

Elim…” He moans and the hands grip him firmly, pulling him closer still, until he’s lying on top of him, rolling his hips in search of heat.

“Good morning, my dear…” Elim’s clear eyes greet him and Julian blinks. “I wouldn’t be opposed to waking like this more often.”

The tone is familiar.

The glint in his eyes also.

 

But so are their surroundings.

 

The tidy shack bathed in the light of dawn.

The mattress on the floor.

There is no jungle, no butterflies or vines.

No moss.

 

Just Elim.

 

And when he captures Julian’s mouth again, awareness begins to creep in.

He is awake.

Aroused.

Grinding against Elim, unable to overwrite his body with commands issued by his protesting mind, because something else is overruling it.

 

His body, his heart and his soul, working in concert – resisting, fighting –

 

His mind is screaming at him to stop, reminding him of the heavy shackles, but the golden light surges within and simply dissolves them - casting them aside like they are less than nothing.

 

The pressure exerted by his soul, yes, his soul, is crushing.

 

So when Elim’s wicked tongue teases his lips, Julian tastes it.

Accepts it.

Molds around it.

 

The hands are on his hips, gripping, as if desperate, and he shudders, convulses and cries out.

In pleasure.

And pain.

 

Because his promise is worthless.

And the knowledge gained, it’s…

Chaos.

 

So when he collapses beside Elim, deeply ashamed and spent, he allows the embrace and the gentleness because he’s lost all will to fight.

 

He lost.

 

And now…

 

Who do I tell?

 

 

 

And what?

Chapter Text

Julian excused himself lamely to go wash up and when the doors of the outhouse closed behind him, he slumped against the wall, mortified.

What the hell had that been?

I just…

He couldn’t even finish the sentence in his mind.

The dream was wonderful at first, hopeful and bright…

How much of it was a dream?

Who started it?

Did reality bleed into the dream or the other way around?

He wasn’t sure – couldn’t be sure, not unless he asked Elim, and there was no conceivable way he could do that, not in the present circumstances; not when he could hardly look the man in the eye.

Were the words spoken in the dream just his overactive imagination?

Because…

“I love the way you say my name… Like I am some deity you pray to… A forbidden, cast-out God with a single devotee…”

They burned inside him, even now.

Setting every nerve alight.

Conquering him utterly.

It was insanity.

 

Doing his best to push the thoughts away, he set out to clear the evidence of his betrayal from his skin.

He felt ashamed and guilty, even as a part of him, a truly small part, basked in the feeling of being touched and brought to life by Elim.

Elim…

Julian’s cheeks burned.

The memory of the touch excited still.

I have to tell Ezri. I’ve been…

He’d been…

Unfaithful.

That was the right term for it. Regardless of his mental state, or the fact he’d been dreaming, a part of him seemed to want what had transpired between them, seemed to crave closeness and affection-

I have to tell Elim as well. This isn’t fair to him, because he… He doesn’t know I’m with Ezri, he thinks…

Did Elim think Julian came to Cardassia for more than forgiveness?

I just couldn’t bear our friendship disintegrating, like it had never been there… If I hadn’t come…

 

But he had.

By God, he had.

 

Did I give him the wrong idea?

Julian didn’t know what to think anymore.

But the painful truth was now staring him in the face.

He wanted Elim.

The admission, however private and internal made him feel like a degenerate. Here he was, cheating on his girlfriend, no matter how reluctantly, and washing away the proof of his indiscretion, almost like that could change what occurred.

If Elim knew…

The thought of telling Ezri was horrifying, but the thought of telling Elim…

 

It was excruciating.

Excoriating.

Impossible.

 

I can’t tell him… If he’s hated me before…

 

The thought of seeing anger on Elim’s softened features frightened him.

The thought of seeing disappointment, however;

The thought of those slumped shoulders,

Of defeat…

 

It tore him in two. He felt like a piece of fabric tearing not at the seams, but down the middle, threads snapping off and fraying unnaturally, devastatingly.

I can’t tell Elim… I just can’t.

He’d already broken his promise to Ezri, but he didn’t want to break both of his promises.

I will keep one - at least one.

But how could he? When he made that promise to himself, to be anything Elim wanted, he hadn’t known the tailor had any designs of… that particular nature.

And, damn it all, even now, his mind assaulted him with irrelevant data –

Elim’s smell.

Taste.

Touch.

As his mind tried to rebel, compartmentalize, deny, ignore – his heart kept beating erratically in his chest, refusing to still.

 

It’s not irrelevant.

 

Elim’s eyes crinkling with joy.

The corners of his lips quirking up in a mischievous smile.

The way his ridges looked, bathed in the light of Cardassia’s moons…

Julian splayed a hand against the wall and slumped forward, barely able to stand.

Elim was invading his every thought, every memory, every thread and Julian trembled, terrified.

 

Why?

Why wasn’t it working?

 

Why can’t I evict him from my mind?

Chapter Text

A muffled voice reached him through the closed doors.

“My dear, the skimmer will be here soon. You don’t wish to be late, do you?”

Panicking at the thought of seeing Elim in this state, he cried out:

“I’ll be right out!”

“I have brought you clothes so you can change.” Garak said from the other side of the door.

Julian came closer and laid his palm against it. When would be the next time he dared press it against Elim’s?

Would there ever be a time when he would be able to look his friend in the eye and not blush, not feel guilt’s sharp sting and arousal’s scalding downward spiral through his gut? Because right now he couldn’t imagine it.

It was all too fresh and too immediate in his mind.

“Julian, unlatch the door.”

It wasn’t a threat, nor was it entirely neutral.

If he didn’t know any better, he would call that a plea.

Which was completely absurd, because Garak was not a man who pleaded for anything.

“Julian.”

Just his name now. Spoken firmly.

Swallowing, he unlatched the door, knowing he looked a mess.

Elim’s eyes were colder than he expected and when he averted his gaze to take the proffered clothing, a hand stopped his chin from reaching his chest and guided his face back up.

He was pinned under that gaze, like a helpless butterfly under a glass case.

When Elim just sighed and his shoulders dropped a fraction, Julian’s panic reached new heights. Unthinking, he approached and leaned his forehead against Garak’s, willing his breathing to still, but failing.

Elim…” He all but whispered, grasping for the right words to say, but falling abysmally short.

“We’ll talk when you come back.” The Cardassian said resolutely and Julian merely nodded, absurdly grateful for the reprieve.

Garak then handed him his clothes and left.

The sight of that retreating back shattered Julian’s last remaining resolve.

Elim, wait!”

“We have no time for this foolishness, Doctor. Zeyem will be most cross.”

“I couldn’t give less of a damn, Elim.” Julian said, angered by the clear dismissal. Gripping the clothes in his left hand, he eliminated the distance between them.

“And how many times must I ask you call me by my given name?”

Elim’s face was shut-off.

Walled.

Closed.

Julian despised it.

“Using your professional title is respectful,” Elim said condescendingly, “I thought you’d learned at least that much in your time here.”

“Really, Elim? Would you rather I called you Tailor? Or Spy? Oh, how about Son of Tain? Which professional title would you I rather use than your name?” He was spitting out words, heart rate spiking, adrenaline releasing – fight or flight.

Unlike usually, his body had chosen to fight.

Elim’s eyes narrowed.

Julian pressed on.

“Have I imagined it? This morning? Have I imagined what you said about the way I say your name?”

At that, a physical reaction, at last.

Honest.

A subtle, yet undeniable darkening of the man’s ridges as they flushed blue, contrasting against his gray skin.

“Why would I call you anything but Elim? Haven’t I earned that right?” Julian asked, knowing he was acting irrationally.

Still, the man said nothing, merely watching his incoherent ramblings with infuriating calm.

Julian wanted to shatter it.

“Don’t use my title in private anymore.” He very nearly growled at the Cardassian.

“We aren’t in private, unless you haven’t noticed.” Again, calm.

“We’re alone, Elim!”

“We won’t be for much longer, with the racket you’re making.” Garak said sternly.

The disapproval in that tone made Julian want to break something.

“You and your stupid Cardassian propriety!” Julian fumed.

“Pity,” Elim said haughtily, but his eyes were cold. “I thought you’d developed a respect for my culture. Clearly I was mistaken.”

Out of breath and out of options, Julian just stood there, fuming and helpless, impotently racking his brain for the right thing to say.

Perhaps there wasn’t such a thing.

Operating on rage and desperation-fueled instinct, Julian stepped into Elim’s personal space, gripped him by the hair and kissed him roughly.

I am already damned.

Therefore, this didn’t matter.

When the recipient of his none too gentle ministrations failed to respond, his stomach plummeted.

This was it. The moment Elim’ infinite patience dried up and he was thrown off and harmed.

Being actually pushed away hurt, but not physically, no, that pain was entirely irrelevant – it was the pain in his chest that surprised him.

Yet, the look in Elim’s eyes was no longer cold.

It looked like anger, and when Julian’s back hit the wall of the shed behind him, he wondered what Garak would do to him, but the look turned calculating and he knew his fate was being decided in that split second.

Would he be evicted, beaten? Torn to shreds verbally?

 

And then he was.

 

Being torn.

Into.

Backed against the wall, under assault.

Elim held him in place as he kissed him, nipping at his lips as if to punish for his irreverence.

 

If it was punishment, it was the most torturous kind he’d ever been subjected to.

I’m already too far gone.

So he embraced it, meeting the hunger with his own, matching the force, the pressure and the heat.

For a brief moment, it was sheer bliss – molten heat and enrapturing taste, surging within him.

And when Elim disengaged, leaving Julian gasping at the loss, the spy’s words were stern, yet belied by the gleam in his expressive blue eyes:

“See what you reduce me to, my dear? Shameful displays of public indecency. Mila would be appalled.”

Julian wanted to laugh, but he was too busy trying to catch his breath.

I… I did this.

He kissed Elim first.

I have no more convenient excuses, do I?

That’s when the sound of skimmer engines came into his hearing range.

“Shit, the skimmer’s here.” He cursed under his breath and retreated into the bathroom to dress.

To his immense relief, the sound of laughter reached him through the closed door.

That meant Elim wasn’t mad.

Julian hastened to dress and realized something.

 

He could finally breathe again.

Chapter Text

Finally dressed and passably clear-headed, Julian rushed out of the washroom and ran towards the skimmer, where Elim was waiting on him with his medkit.

Grateful for the thoughtfulness, Julian gave the bundle of his sleepwear to Elim and grabbed the bag.

Zeyem will keep you overtime for your tardiness, my dear. Now you cannot say I didn’t warn you.”

Julian laughed.

“Forewarned is forearmed.” Julian agreed.

“One of the wiser proverbs I’ve heard. Perhaps humanity isn’t so frivolous, after all.”

Julian ignored the subtle jab and smiled softly.

“See you later, Elim.” With that, he boarded the skimmer.

***

Julian was doing his job admirably well under the circumstances. He’d worked in the infirmary, and when they ran out of patients to treat, he headed into the research lab.

Zeyem was inside (unsurprisingly), but was currently in a call with someone, so he kept quiet and walked to his usual work station where he checked on the latest test results. They weren’t encouraging.

“It was about time, Vonek. You aren’t getting any younger, either of you.”

A familiar male voice answered over the comm:

“I know, I know. There’s no need to rub it in. And I would appreciate if you didn’t tell Telat anything.”

That was nurse Trengem’s voice. Julian had no idea what his first name was until Zeyem used it right now. How strange.

“So, what do you need my help with?”

“I need a bottle of the 2327 vintage, if you could manage that through your connections.”

“Oh,” Zeyem quirked her eye ridges, “Does that mean you already procured one?”

“Indeed it does.” Trengem said with a hint of pride.

“Ambitious choice for a twinned gift.” She said.

Telat has a taste for it, and who am I to deny my love the indulgence? We get so few, as is.”

“I know just the person to ask.” Zeyem said calmly, making Julian wonder whether he wasn’t the only person with a wish to raid Ghemor’s wine cellar.

“Thank you, Moje. That would be most appreciated.”

Julian tried to hide his bulging eyes and evident shock.

Trengem was actually addressing Zeyem so familiarly! He had no idea she would even allow such liberties to her staff, but then again, Trengem did mention in passing that he’d worked here for twenty-odd years.

So, that’s her first name… Moje.

It sounded way too soft for a woman of her strength and sharpness.

“Do you have the rest?” Zeyem inquired and Trengem replied with a hint of excitement.

“Yes, I bartered until I got what I needed. I know the second edition Preloc will be much appreciated.”

Zeyem let out the sound which was the Cardassian equivalent of a human whistle of appreciation.

“I won’t even ask how you managed to obtain that.”

Trengem sighed over the comm.

“You know people are selling their valued possessions for a glass of rokassa juice these days…”

Zeyem visibly sobered at that.

“What we have been reduced to,” She said bitterly. “Selling off our heritage for a pittance… “

“I know…” The nurse’s voice was weary. “I just need that one bottle, Moje.”

“I will do my best to obtain it for you, Vonek. Just concentrate on spoiling your lover in the meantime.”

This made Trengem laugh and with a final phrase of polite gratitude, he dropped the call.

Julian wondered who Nurse Trengem’s lady friend was, as he’d never heard mention of a lover in almost a month he’d worked here.

To be fair, this was hardly surprising, as Cardassians were somewhat tight-lipped about these sorts of things. Besides, he didn’t speak much with Gaddik or Trengem, as they seemed a little bit unapproachable and he didn’t wish to make them uncomfortable. He was perfectly content talking to Ghar and Zeyem.

“Happy couples all around me!” Zeyem grumbled. “Akleen save us all! The productivity will plummet…”

Julian grinned behind his console, unable to stay serious at her grousing.

But then he remembered…

Happy couples…

There would be one less happy couple once he called Ezri.

He still had no idea what to tell her.

How do you even word such a thing?

Julian had never cheated on any of his girlfriends before. He may be frivolous and excitable, but he’d never given in to the impulse to stray. It had never been a tempting prospect, and if any wondering thoughts occurred, he had them quashed within a few seconds.

But any and all attempts to do this with Elim were fruitless and entirely ineffective.

I love Ezri.

That should be strong enough motivation to resist any temptation, so why wasn’t it?

Why did he fail?

Give in?

 

Fall?

 

And then he was assaulted by the feel of Elim’s firm body, pressing him into the wall of the shed, nipping and kissing and…

Devouring.

The thought was incendiary.

He could feel his heartbeat in his groin.

What’s wrong with me? He thought in desperation. Why can’t I let this go?

 

Bashir, have a look at this.”

Grateful for the reprieve, he threw himself into his work head first and let it consume him.

Chapter Text

Julian waited for the end of his shift patiently. And when Zeyem dismissed him, he notified her he would be making an important call and she allowed him the use of one of the abandoned offices for privacy; which he accepted gratefully.

This was not a call anyone would enjoy.

He let the doors slide shut behind him and sighed. He needed to marshal his thoughts, as well as his courage. Ezri would kill him.

It’s not like she needed to, he was doing a fine job of it all on his own. The guilt had been gnawing at him all day.

Why did it feel right in the moment, he wondered. What had possessed him to reach out for Elim and…

It felt good.

Of course it had – the excitement, sharp and precarious like a finely balanced knife’s edge, and they’d been dancing on it for quite awhile. Perhaps it had only been a matter of time…

Why hadn’t he done this years ago and gotten it out of his system? This was a stupid time in his life to be experimenting like this.

I love Ezri. She doesn’t deserve this.

Moral quandary.

Who does he hurt less?

You are allowed to change your mind.”

The words seemed relevant to the situation at hand, but likely not in the way Elim had envisioned.

“Even a blind man can see how devoted Elim is to you. I’ve never seen him more care-free. He’d always been reserved, and glimpses into his soul were precious and few. As soon as you arrived, he was suddenly open, his every emotion readily discernible.”

Yes… He had to remember that.

Both Elim and Ezri… loved him.

At the moment, he couldn’t fathom why.

He didn’t deserve either.

And both of them deserved much better.

Elim could have Kelas… The man would do anything for him.

The thought nearly made him hyperventilate.

He collapsed into a chair in front of the console and tried to calm the frantic beating of his heart.

He could feel it in his throat.

“Anything that may have been between them before you arrived stopped the moment Elim offered you his home. He chose you over Parmak.”

Chose what? A fickle friend who had no idea what he wanted?

Desire still swirled in his gut, heating his limbs like a gulp of potent kanar.

Why do I feel this way?

Why can’t I stop?

The thought was utterly absorbing.

Consuming.

Eviscerating.

 

He needed to tell.

Get it off his chest and out of his mind.

Apologize to Ezri and…

And…

 

He had no idea what then.

But he made the call regardless.

Needed to be done.

 

“Julian!” She said happily and his heart sank.

How could he break her heart like this?

Worse yet, how could he not?

 

A frown marring her delicate features.

Ugly.

His fault.

 

And worse it got.

Blue eyes narrowed.

The wrong shade of blue.

 

Julian swallowed.

 

Anger and resentment in her gaze.

Churning and bubbling over.

Something too close to hatred.

 

Unable to keep looking, he averted his gaze.

Escaped.

 

“Well.” Ezri said sternly. “That didn’t take very long.”

 

He closed his eyes and gulped.

Knew he was guilty.

Clearly it showed.

 

“So, what was it this time? Hm?” She pushed, her every word a sharp dart aimed at his frail skin. “Were you drunk?”

He shook his head minutely.

“Or perhaps, it was a mutated Cardassian virus?”

That was preposterous. What was she even getting at?

“Oh, let me guess, you got exposed to a rare plant which releases sex pollen?”

When he failed to respond, she allowed the silence to stretch.

 

“Or better yet! Is this the part where you tell me Garak seduced you and that there was nothing you could do because you lost a bet or something equally ridiculous and unconvincing? Well? What was it?”

 

Julian remained mute, incapable of uttering a single word.

“I was asleep ” sounded ridiculous.

He knew it would go over poorly.

 

“Will you really sit there like a kicked puppy and let me do all the work of coaxing whatever it is that you did out of you?” Ezri all but growled.

 

“No! I’m sorry!” Julian said, locking gazes with her again and doing his level best to bear it. He’d never seen her so angry or so disappointed.

 

“What have you done, then! You can’t just sit there, looking guilty and let me imagine whatever horrors…” At this, she tried to rein herself in, but the anger remained.

“Ironic, Julian,” She said venomously, “That a man who usually talks a mile a minute can’t find any words. Where are they now, huh? Where are the medical or literary monologues? Where is that passion?”

At the mention of that word, Julian’s cheeks flushed in betrayal.

Her eyes were sparking with fury.

“Say it. I won’t do your job for you. I’m not your fucking therapist, Julian!”

“I never wanted you to be! I never asked you to be!”

“Then tell me what the hell it is that you did!!” She screamed at him, her usually gentle face distorted and frightening.

 

“I was asleep, ok?!” He shouted back. “I thought I was dreaming – I was walking across a green, vibrantly alive Cardassia, healed from the War and the ravages of the ancient climate changes and there was a lush plain… and a bird crying overhead, flying over the crystalline waters of the Morfan Sea and I followed – I followed where it took me and I flew! Over the cliffs, the ocean and into the rainforest and… I was safe there, I rested there and…”

“And what?? Garak was there, like some primordial Adam, wearing nothing but a fig leaf? Huh?”

“Of course not!” Julian spat. “I’m trying to tell you and this is hard for me, why are you behaving this way?”

An indignant glare was his answer.

“Finish then.” She said coldly.

He tried to ignore her accusatory tone and reminded himself he deserved it.

This was his fault.

“I… I heard his voice in my dream…” He began, looking at the hands folded in his lap. “I felt… animals scurrying over my lying body… Vines… butterflies. I didn’t…”

Her silence was full of recrimination. He didn’t even have to see her face to know.

Everything I had felt… Had been Elim.

And just like that, Julian was ablaze again.

“I thought I was dreaming, and if I was dreaming, then… It wasn’t real – wouldn’t be real, and if it was just a construct of my unconscious mind, then-“

“Then you could give in, right? You could let him do whatever he wanted to you and enjoy it without consequences, am I right?”

Julian wanted to say no, but the truth in her words struck deep and true.

“He didn’t… do anything to me.” He whispered.

“Spare me, Julian!” Ezri cried out in fury. “I don’t want to know how far it went!”

“I didn’t mean to!” He protested. “When I’m awake, I avoid it, I never allow anything untoward-“

“You avoid it.” She said in a dead tone. “You don’t allow it…. As if that’s the point.”

Julian looked at her helplessly.

“I broke my promise to you, I know it’s bad, but if you’ll-“

“Let you explain? Fool me again? Invent some bullshit to allay my fears?” She was breathing hard. “No. No, Julian. Once again, you don’t see what’s right in front of you, even if you’re knee-deep in it.”

“I know I messed up, Ezri, but…”

“But what?” She asked, incredulously.

Callously.

His words vanished.

“Fix this? Make it all go away? Kiss and make up?”

Her words were a rain of fury he deserved to get destroyed by.

“Was that what you counted on, when you cheated on me? Ezri the reasonable, Ezri the gullible, she will forgive me and allow me to walk all over her… Is that what you thought?!”

“No!” Julian cried out indignantly. “Of course not! I would never!”

“Really?” She said in a deadly whisper which chilled him to the bone. “Was that before or after you fucked him? Or he fucked you, most likely. I sincerely doubt you would offer more than a token resistance.”

The crassness of her words was shocking.

“Ezri, I haven’t – we – nothing like that happened!”

“Oh, no, of course not! My mistake!” She cried. “He probably made love to you, candles, rose petals and all!”

“Ezri!” He stammered in shock. “Why are you saying this?”

“Jadzia warned me!” She seemed insensate, rambling and facing slightly away from the console, almost like she was going insane. “She warned me, told me you were immature, oblivious and unfocused – that you flitted from one object of fascination to the next, unable to commit… The eternal child! Spoiled and needy and entirely incapable of understanding himself intimately…”

With that she turned back to him, eyes blazing.

“Do you know the real reason she rejected you? Huh?”

He didn’t. He only remembered she told him if it hadn’t been for Worf…

“It wouldn’t have been you! She never would have chosen you, even if Worf had never entered her life, and you know why?”

Julian had a feeling he shouldn’t be hearing this.

“Because, and I quote: I don’t want to spend the best twenty or thirty years of my life, molding him into something resembling a good partner. No matter how charming he may be, there’s only so much substance to an adventure.

Julian felt that like a physical blow.

Even Jadzia…

Even she thought he wasn’t worth it.

Choking on his inhale; he tried to keep the tears in.

“She warned me you were looking for her in me! And you! You…” Her face was red. “Did you think I was stupid? Or just blind? Did you forget whose memories I have?? I’ve been both a husband and a wife, had uncountable lovers as Curzon, raised children… Did you honestly think I wouldn’t notice?”

“Notice what?” Julian spat.

“Your gradual slide into his arms, that’s what! As soon as you got that letter, you turned distant, always somewhere far away in your mind – utterly consumed by his words! I tolerated it for two months, thinking you just needed more time to process it and then you tell me you’re going to Cardassia, FOR TWO WHOLE MONTHS, that you’ve spent all your credits on a huge haul of relief supplies and I thought, sure, he wants to help, he feels bad, he… And then… You get there… And for several days, I hear nothing from you! Not a word! I thought you’d been mugged and killed the moment you stepped onto Cardassia, or even in transit and once you did eventually manage to find time for me in your oh-so-busy schedule, your message is so INSULTINGLY sparse and I realize that you’ve just forgotten all about me – relegated me to your ever-growing pile of secondary interests… And then… Oh then… You call me!”

Julian wondered what else he’d done wrong.

“And all you can talk about is him. Elim this – Elim that – Elim, Elim, ELIM!” She was out of breath and gnashing her teeth.

“When you told me he kissed you… I knew. I knew it was only a matter of time before you gave in.” Her voice was breaking, but she went on: “Took you only… what, two weeks? Is this a new record for you?”

He didn’t know what to say to that.

“Did you just conveniently forget who you used to discuss Garak with, huh? Did you forget Jadzia used to listen to your little diatribes about his lies and how unfair they were? Was your memory wiped to the point you cannot recall the advice you sought from her? Are you really so oblivious that you don’t think she knew what was simmering between the two of you – always beneath the surface?”

“What?” He said dumbly.

With a look at his uncomprehending face, Ezri burst into hysterical laughter.

“Ohhhh, you don’t know, do you! Garak’s been after you for years! I thought, assumed that he’d given up, just like Jadzia….” She spat bitterly, but then a manic gleam shone in her eyes.

“Imagine my surprise when I accessed the letter – yes – Jadzia hacked your console, for me. Convenient, isn’t it?” Self-satisfied, she plowed on: “Imagine my surprise when I realized it wasn’t a letter, oh no, it was much much worse than that. In hindsight, I should have known. Garak had always been terribly verbose; he could almost rival you, except he had the capacity for self-restraint, unlike you. No… He sent you a novel. A memoir. A fucking, 389 page long love letter, almost begging you to see him; guilting you into it! Dangling everything you’ve ever wanted from him in front of you, like a perfect bait he knew you couldn’t refuse! And you! You actually went! Fell for his traps and his lies-“

“He isn’t lying!” Julian cried out, certain of his claim.

“And there is my proof, once and for all! You defend him! You are in the wrong, you’ve cheated on me, and you defend him!”

“Ezri, I’m sorry-“

“You’re not! You’re not sorry!” She wept angrily. “You feel bad, but you’re not sorry. You’ve found a new object of desire and worship, and you will ride it out until the end, like you always do – milking it for all its worth, until you find something new and exciting which tickles your fancy. That’s your MO, always had been. Don’t even bother denying it, it’s insulting!”

He fell quiet and wished it would stop.

“And I… I just wanted you to prove me wrong, Julian… You said you loved me and you seemed to mean it, but I know better now.”

“That’s not true, Ezri…”

“If it still isn’t clear enough, perhaps I should spell it out for you?” She was nearly shaking with rage.

“There is a very simple experiment I could do right now, which would prove definitively, once and for all, that you don’t actually love me.”

“How can such a thing be?” Julian murmured, too raw to think.

 

“Say my name, Julian.”

“What?” He said, beyond confused by her request.

“Just say it.” Ezri said with remarkable control over her simmering rage.

“Ezri?” He said, unsure what she wanted from him.

“All right.” She nodded. “Now say his name.”

“What, Garak?” Julian blurted out, still uncomprehending.

Her gaze was scathing and cold.

“His first name, Julian.”

His anxiety spiked, sending his heart rate through the roof. He breathed in once.

Twice.

 

Unable to bear the intensity of her accusing stare, he looked down at his numb hands and…

His name.

Just say his name.

What came out was a barely audible whisper.

“Elim…”

Blinking several times, he dared look up.

Wished he hadn’t.

Her face was awash with tears.

Bitter, cascading, heart-rending.

He’d put them there.

My fault.

“If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know,” Ezri hiccoughed, “Then you are hopeless.”

He could only stare impotently at the damage he’d wrought.

“I will gather all your stuff and leave it in the storage.”

“What…” He trailed off. “What does that mean?”

“We’re through, Julian, that’s what that means.”

He wanted to argue, but couldn’t.

Couldn’t wound further.

“I should be angry at him, I really should, but you know what?”

He didn’t want to know.

But she said it anyways.

“I feel sorry for him. Because I know you’ll do the same thing to him, eventually. How long before this obsession with Cardassia wanes? A week? A month? A year?”

Julian didn’t think it would, because… He felt connected here, safe – moored.

Rooted.

“Tell me Julian, and be honest with yourself, for once… How long before it happens again, huh?”

He gripped his knees painfully, wishing she would just stop.

“How long before you destroy him with your half-baked, cheap imitation of love?”

Julian’s moorings snapped, one by one, falling into the sea and whipping in the wind.

Bereft.

Lost.

Alone.

“I don’t want to hear from you – not a single word. Not even when you come back.”

 

He had no home.

 

If you come back.” She snorted bitterly.

 

He had nothing.

 

“And, even though I really shouldn’t, I’m sending you a file. Just so you can see what I’m talking about.” Ezri spat and terminated the call.

Numb and crumbling, he accessed the file.

His hands were trembling.

It was a 13,57 second long video clip, stuck in a loop.

 

With trepidation, he watched his own face, pale and drawn, his eyes widening and then retreating to the safety of his lap and his hesitation, his panic and resolve, all warring until his mouth spoke the softest, gentlest…

Elim…

Unable to look away, he let it play from the start.

The torment in his eyes and the way he closed them for a brief moment before speaking…

Elim…

The tension and then, almost imperceptible release after he said-

Elim…

He stopped the recording. Wiped it in blind panic.

Put his elbows on the console and buried his face in his hands.

Elim…

The way he said it… It echoed in his mind, full of meaning, full of promise, full of…

With a shuddering sob, he allowed the thought to escape the cage.

 

I love him.

 

An aborted wail broke through his fingers.

 

I love… Elim .

 

The cursed words rent through him then, taking away the last of his light.

“How long before you destroy him with your half-baked, cheap imitation of love?”

 

Alone and unfettered-

-he allowed himself to shatter.

Chapter Text

Julian lost all track of time.

It was entirely meaningless anyhow.

It didn’t exist at all, as far as he was concerned.

He sat on the floor, behind the console, hiding like a child.

His head lay against his shoulder blades, mouth agape, eyes staring at the ceiling and hands lying limply, palms open by his sides.

His breathing was weak and shallow and he was dimly aware his oxygen intake was insufficient and his blood pressure low. If he tried getting up now, he would stumble and fall.

Or vomit.

Perhaps both.

Bile tickled his throat even now, reminding him of its presence.

His mind was empty.

Also full.

Neither.

He was confused by the gaping nothingness lurking within him. It skulked about his ankles like a purring cat.

He could almost see it – personified.

He blinked.

Saw only the ceiling.

Gray and chrome.

Dimmed lights.

This state of non-being was soothing somehow.

Simple.

The room was warm.

41 °C.

His clothes were sticky and plastered to his body, but he cared little.

He wasn’t required to move.

So…

What did it matter.

Footsteps, on the outside.

Retreating.

Good.

He would remain undisturbed.

Peaceful.

Empty.

 

It was better this way.

 

A lassitude filled him, grew out of him.

He was a host to a parasitic kind of nothingness.

It had metastasized.

Terminal.

 

So he sat there, numb.

Staring.

Into nothing.

 

He was its focal point, he knew.

Its source.

The poisoned well.

 

There was once someone…

Who said something.

Important.

 

But it didn’t come to him.

Perhaps that meant it wasn’t that important after all.

So he breathed.

That was necessary.

Without it, his body seized up.

He got dizzy.

Therefore, he avoided it.

 

For now.

 

Slow.

His heartbeat.

Good.

Finally calm.

 

It felt like his skin was hardening.

Turning into stone.

Or was it sand?

 

He was seeping through the cracks.

Being eroded.

Barren and dry.

 

Good thing it didn’t matter.

Didn’t hurt anymore.

 

Didn’t… anything.

Anymore.

Nothingness felt warm.

 

Someone was in the room.

Didn’t matter.

He was hidden.

 

Words.

Didn’t understand them.

Didn’t reach.

 

A figure.

He didn’t recognize it.

Eyes fixed to the ceiling.

 

A hand on his shoulder.

He didn’t respond.

 

More words.

 

Vacant of meaning.

Just empty vocalizations.

Animal noises.

 

Garbled.

Meaningless.

 

Something was pulling at him.

Fruitlessly.

For he was stone.

 

Grunts of effort and then a curse.

Sounded like one.

Harsh.

 

Wanted to laugh, but his face wouldn’t move.

Like a death mask.

Baked over his living skin.

 

More words.

More footsteps.

More hands.

 

Male.

Female.

Strong.

 

They picked him up off the floor.

He allowed it.

Let them drag him away.

 

Perhaps he was going someplace softer.

Maybe there would be pretty lights in the sky.

Or a kind smile.

 

Two blue stars.

He missed them.

They seemed important, but he couldn’t remember why.

 

The floor now.

Sterile.

Clean.

 

Just as it should be.

 

Words.

Worried.

 

Why, though?

There was no need.

He was perfectly fine.

 

A new room.

Empty.

A bed.

Being rearranged on top of it so all his limbs fit.

It felt silly.

Couldn’t feel them.

They hung limply, like wet towels.

 

More worried words.

His Universal Translator must be broken.

Nothing came through.

Nothing that made any sense.

 

Beeping.

Medical scanners.

Pointless.

There was nothing wrong with him.

He could have told them that.

Tried to.

 

None of his muscles obeyed.

 

Strange.

He was good at talking, usually.

Wasn’t he?

 

He stared at the ceiling.

It was similar.

Familiar.

 

A feeling of something cold on his forehead.

Round thing.

Who knew what it did.

 

The bustle around him continued.

Three figures.

Now four.

They were multiplying.

Mitosis.

It was funny.

 

Light in his eye.

Didn’t blink.

Made them water.

 

He stared up.

Through the ceiling.

Into the stars.

 

Looking for his.

 

It was somewhere beyond the docking ring.

Past that oval viewport.

In the upper left corner.

 

He wished to reach for it, but his limbs failed him.

It was frustrating.

A tortured keen materialized.

 

Lasted long.

Didn’t breathe.

On and on.

 

Whipping the figures into a frenzy.

Only one was calm.

Barking orders.

 

Felt soothing.

 

Unbroken.

Long.

Whiny.

 

Needy.

 

He needed that dot of light.

He was trapped in a deep ocean and,

The pressure was too strong.

 

His throat tickled.

There was fluid in his ears.

Annoying.

 

Trembling in his body now.

Uncontrollable.

Incomprehensible.

 

Something against his neck.

A subtle hiss.

Calm.

 

The induced kind.

 

His muscles relinquished their hold.

Gave up on movement.

Stilled.

 

The figures retreated.

One by one.

Leaving one.

 

It sat by his side.

Silent.

He wondered why.

 

It spoke.

In vain.

 

He wanted to tell it to save its breath, but couldn’t.

Frustrating.

 

Then the hands were on his forehead.

Smoothing his hair down backwards.

The right size.

 

The wrong texture.

 

Something cold slides down his neck.

Makes the softest noise when it lands.

He blinks.