A twenty-six-hour cycle, even after so many years living planetside again, was a hard thing to shake. Matters of maintaining a regular schedule were made even more difficult by the rolling blackouts, which seemed to roll longer and longer as different parts of the power grid collapsed and were hastily rebuilt. Garak wished that he could divert Civil Engineering's efforts to failing junctures before they went down, but that type of proactive maintenance was more than the government seemed able to coordinate at the moment. There was nothing for it, then, but to wait until failure got someone's attention.
Squinting at the maps and diagrams in front of him, Garak at last gave up and acknowledge that the sky had grown too dim to be useful illumination. He sighed and turned on the lamp beside his desk, hoping it'd caught enough solar energy during the day to last him through the night. He should have had it charging by the window earlier in the day, but he'd gotten off-rhythm again and slept well past noon for the third time that week. Or was it the fourth? It was easier than it should have been to lose track.
He was unmoored again, the irony being that he'd now been tied to planetary gravity for the longest stretch of his adult life. Cardassia's mass could keep his body in place, but everything else felt like it was spinning out around distant stars.
It was a brutal business, being in charge of things. Not in charge of everything , of course; he'd been smart enough to avoid that particular patch of hell. But Cardassia had found itself much more in need of a planner than of a spy or even a very good tailor, and he had, by some patriotic obligation, found his way into the place that need had opened. At times he'd felt like the only being on the planet with a functioning brain. Deep down, he liked those times. They made him feel necessary.
When the knock sounded at his door, he very nearly did not answer. He'd just turned on his light, though, making it much harder to get away with later lies about having gone to bed early. "Come in," he called.
Of course; the power. With a grunt, Garak pushed back from his chair and stood, stretching his arms above his head. He was dressed only in a light tunic and pants, nothing fit for dignitaries or other esteemed visitors, but perhaps that would teach them to make appointments instead of simply knocking. Then again, perhaps they had made such an appointment, and one or more of his various assistants had neglected to mention it to him. Curse them all that they'd all gone home some hours earlier, that they couldn't even answer his door for him. He put his hand to the knob and drew the panel back.
For a weighty moment, his eyes refused to tell him what he was seeing, and his brain refused to believe what little they would say about it. Perhaps he'd fallen asleep and was at this very moment face-down on his desk, some stylus pressing marks into his cheek. Even in a universe of infinite possibilities, there was no way that Julian Bashir was standing on his doorstep.
A somewhat sheepish Julian Bashir, no less, from what of his face was clear in the dying light of day -- to say nothing of how much of it was shadowed by a dark growth. It took Garak's eyes a moment more to realize that it must have been one of those mammalian tendencies to sprout hair, simply let go to its natural conclusion. "Evening," he said in the tone of voice he always used when he was trying to be suave. Sometimes it even worked.
Garak all but pinched himself. "Doctor?" he asked, as though imposters appeared at his front door on a regular basis, as though anyone else in the world might look -- and smell , for that matter -- the way Julian did.
"In the flesh." Julian's smile brightened with effort, then fell, slipping first from the edges of his dark eyes. The lines around them were heavier now. Garak had watched him age when they were together, fascinated at how time shaped human faces. Somehow, though, he'd never actually believed the process would keep going without his being around to observe it. What a disappointment it was, to learn the universe still went on without him. "Is ... is this a bad time?"
"No! Heavens no!" Garak had been caught completely off-guard, but that was no excuse for being a shoddy host. He stepped aside from the doorway, ushering Julian in. "I simply had no idea you were coming. Otherwise I might have planned a grander reception, or at least put on cleaner shirt." Every word from his mouth sounded strange to his ears. He was talking too much, trying to preemptively scare away silence. Bad habits could always be counted on to rise to the surface like bodies. "Or perhaps taken greater pains to light your way, given the state of things."
In the glow of the lantern from the desk, Garak could see Julian a little better now. He was neither in uniform nor in medical attire; he was in civilian clothes, dark and plain, that covered him nearly throat to toe. Over his shoulder he carried a duffel bag, and he clutched his hands around its straps in a way that made him look for all the world like a child who had decided to run away from home, only to encounter second thoughts as streets became less familiar with every step. "I have something to tell you," he said with the force of someone who had to speak up then, before losing his nerve.
Garak nodded, his brow furrowing. Here they were, together for the first time they'd seen one another face to face since parting on Deep Space Nine. What could be news so bad Julian had made the trip all the way from Federation space to deliver it in person?
Julian took a deep breath. "I've asked to be posted here." He pointed to the floor, though Garak supposed he meant something a bit more general than the scuffed slate tiles of Garak's common room. "To Cardassia."
For a man who once prided himself on never being more than twenty percent surprised by anything, Garak found himself at a complete loss for words. He pressed his lips together. "Might I, without sounding inhospitable, ask you why ?"
That made Julian laugh, at least -- and there it was, that handsome grin he always slipped into when he was truly pleased. For all the secrets Julian had ever kept even from Garak's sharp eyes, it was a pleasure to know he could never have hidden behind that one. "The official reason is Toritt's Syndrome," Julian explained. "Five percent of the Cardassian population has shown early signs already. A decade from now, it might be as high as twenty-five percent. And now we're seeing evidence of it on other planets that were also exposed to radiation from Dominion weaponry. That is a clear looming public health crisis, one I'd very much like to help avert. But to do so, I need a population I can study, and even better one with which I already have a great deal of familiarity.."
"A noble cause," Garak agreed. He could see how the Federation would have agreed to such a heroic petition for reassignment. Was he going to be bitter about the fact that the Federation only seemed to care once the malady had begun appearing outside of Cardassian space? Absolutely he was, but he had already decided to keep that to himself. "And is there an unofficial reason?"
Julian pressed his lips together and looked at his feet, then shrugged the duffel off his shoulder and placed it gently on the ground. "Can we sit?" he asked softly, without looking Garak in the eye.
"Of course." Garak led him to a nearby couch, all the while keeping his face a pleasantly neutral host's mask, one honed by decades of near-constant use. Julian was dying, that was it, and he'd decided to spend his remaining six months throwing himself into his work, selfless to the end. Garak was about to sit down on a piece of furniture and find out that the only friend he had left in the universe would soon be gone. The effort needed to keep his breathing steady could have powered starships. Five years of letters and occasional too-brief glimpses across subspace channels, seven years of dancing around in the confines of a space station, and this was where it all ended: Julian Bashir, come to make the best of their time together that had just run out.
Which was why Garak was spun off his axis for the second time in five minutes when Julian folded his hands in his lap and finally lifted his chin, meeting Garak's gaze with a near-palpable intensity. "Have we been flirting?"
For a moment, Garak had no idea what to say.
"You see," Julian continued after a beat, when the growing silence had made it clear that Garak would not be able to muster an immediate response, "I ... well, I think we have. I'm almost entirely sure we have. I know I have, and I have just made a rather major life decision based on my belief that we have, and I didn't tell you about it beforehand because I didn't want you to say no, and I have to believe that at least some of this is actually about my work -- which it is -- and I don't know, you're certainly somewhat like this with nearly everyone, but also I know you're not actually like this with everyone , so--"
"Yes," Garak said, fearing that if he didn't cut things off now, Julian might literally keep babbling until the heat death of the universe. "Yes, that is what I have been doing this entire time." While being this forward was somewhat anathema to his entire being, he felt compelled to be honest by the sheer relief that this conversation had not in fact gone in a funereal direction. In a matter of moments, the future had contracted to a handful of months, then expanded far beyond where Garak could ever have expected. He could be forgiven for playing a few cards away from his chest.
"And--" Julian cleared his throat. "Not with everyone."
Garak paused, then nodded his head in agreement. "Sometimes with everyone. Always with you."
"Alhamdulillah," Julian sighed, and he grabbed both sides of Garak's face and pulled him in for a kiss.
Now Garak was entirely adrift. He had, of course, thought about kissing Julian before, on several occasions in exquisite detail. Despite having resigned those thoughts to the realm of pure fantasy quite early in their relationship, Garak hadn't put them away entirely at all. He had always imagined that he himself would take the lead under some romantic circumstances, perhaps in tuxedoes or formal uniforms, looking cool and completely in control as he bent down to brush his smirking lips ever so lightly against Julian's, which would of course be parted in a gasp of swooning expectation. At no time had he imagined that he would be the one entirely swept off his feet.
After barely a beat of contact, Julian pulled back, breathing heavily. In the lamplight, his dark eyes sparkled. "I've had a lot of time to think about this, and I--"
Oh no, Garak wasn't going to let him finish that sentence, not when there was still so much kissing to be had. He grabbed the back of Julian's head, running his fingers through Julian's soft hair, and pulled him in for another kiss, a deeper, heavier one. If Julian could manage to miss that their dozen years of friendship had been all but equivalent to courtship, Garak was not now going to leave him with any uncertainty about how much Garak wanted this -- indeed, had always wanted this, from nearly the moment they'd first met.
Julian made a lovely little sound as Garak leaned forward, raking his fingers through Julian's thick hair. His human body was a furnace, brimming with warmth just behind the soft surface of his skin. No, Garak's fantasies had never prepared him for anything like this, but they didn't matter anymore. He reached his other hand up to take the side of Julian's face the way Julian had grabbed him at first, and oh, that was the feeling of Julian's body melting against his. Julian whimpered into the kiss, grabbing at the sleeves of Garak's shirt for balance.
Garak wasn't going to allow him that balance. Julian had knocked Garak so badly for a loop; why should he deserve any stability in this? If they were spinning, they were spinning together. Garak leaned forward, using the leverage to push Julian back against the sturdy arm of the couch. He had to be sure that this was no idle fantasy on Julian's part, either, that he hadn't spent all the time between them building up some thought of satisfaction by light hand-holding or gentle petting, or however humans and their mates behaved. He was on Cardassia now, and he needed to know what he was asking.
It was gratifying, then, to realize that their change in positions had only heightened Julian's interest. Julian's breathing was heavier now, and his smell had become keen with arousal. His heart was pounding so hard that Garak could feel Julian's pulse where their lips met. A somewhat vindictive spike welled up inside him -- they could have had this all before, they could have been doing this for years , if only the dear doctor had mustered his courage before time and tragedy split them apart.
No, that wasn't fair. They could not have had this before, courage be damned. As with the power grid, there were no preemptive measures to be taken. Sometimes, one simply had to wait until something exploded.
And an explosion was indeed what it felt like as Julian's fingers worked their way up to the wide neckline of Garak's shirt. They hesitated there, and Garak had a moment of wondering whether the reality of his cool, nonhuman skin was the element that would make Julian change his mind. But no, there was no hesitation -- there was only calculation , as Julian's fingers traveled up the ridges of Garak's neck with a doctor's expert care, but an assassin's aim. Perhaps the dear doctor had done his homework regarding Cardassian anatomy and erogenous zones, or perhaps he was merely some sort of sexual savant. Either way, the touch won a deep gasp from Garak, one strong enough to break the kiss between them.
Garak pulled back from the embrace just enough to realize that Julian was smirking , smug as he'd ever seen the young doctor (or perhaps just the doctor now, as neither of them were so young anymore). Julian's fingers lingered just over that spot, a quiet warning that the touch had been no accident, that he could take charge of this encounter at any moment -- that Garak was on top of him because he wanted Garak on top of him. It was oddly thrilling to be put in one's place.
"I've had a lot of time to think about this," Julian said, his voice gone soft. When he spoke, Garak could feel the warmth of those words on his lips. "And I think it's time you and I stopped pretending we aren't what we are to each other."
At this distance, Garak could see flecks of silver in Julian's dark beard, dotting it like stars in the night sky. He was indeed a wonder. "And what are we, doctor?" he asked with a smile, leaning in so they were nearly nose-to-nose. He traced the outline of Julian's body with one of his hands, feeling his way down Julian's chest to his hip. It was strange how natural such gestures had already become, as though they'd done this a hundred times before, and there were fewer things for them to learn than there were to remember.
Julian glanced back over toward the front door, and Garak followed his gaze to the duffel he'd left there. It seemed so small at this distance, certainly not enough to contain everything one might need for a permanent post on a foreign world. How many sets of clothes could even have fit in there? Certainly not many. What would he wear, only his scrubs and that baggy blue-shouldered uniform? This man was obviously not capable of taking care of himself. Thank the heavens he was here.
"For starters," Julian said after a moment, "I was hoping I could persuade you to be roommates. At least for the time being, seeing as the transit systems in this sector are down and I hadn't secured any other lodgings anyway."
"Hadn't--" Garak's eyes narrowed as he searched Julian's face for any hint of duplicity. But no, it was true. Garak was at this moment witnessing the last moments of a leap of faith, when the leaper's feet began to realize there might still be ground beneath. "Really?"
"I had to believe you'd say yes," Julian said, closing his eyes and sighing. "...Or that you'd say no, and take pity on me, and we'd have a good laugh over how ridiculous I'd been, and you'd let me sleep the night on your couch."
In a universe of trillions of sentient beings, only Julian Bashir would have done something as foolheartedly romantic as take a placement on a resource-strapped planet in the hopes that neither time nor distance had diminished a former spy's possible feelings for him -- and only Julian Bashier would have been lucky enough to be right. "You may have the couch if that's what your heart desires," Garak said, letting his lips brush Julian's as he spoke. "But most of my house has been turned into my office, and workspaces for those assigned to assist me. As such, I must warn you, I have only one room left in use as an actual bedroom, and it contains only one bed."
Julian kissed him lightly. "Might I impose on your hospitality enough for half of it?"
Garak chuckled. "Well, of course, dear doctor, as you have come all this way to perform such a great and noble service to the people of my ailing planet, I suppose I can muster a show of the gratitude of the Cardassian people by--"
"Garak," Julian said, stopping Garak's ramble cold. "Shut up and kiss me."
They were the words Garak didn't know he'd been waiting for over a decade to hear. He did just that, taking Julian's mouth with his own again, letting his cheeks enjoy the strange friction of Julian's beard. He slid his hand up Julian's side again, lifting his shirt and revealing his soft, smooth midsection. Of course he'd seen human bodies before -- as a tailor, he'd seen just about every kind of body, sometimes in quite unexpected configurations -- but there was a great difference between taking measurements and getting his hands at last on Julian Bashir. If he had indeed fallen asleep at his desk and was now in the midst of spectacularly vivid dream, he was going to be beyond furious with his subconscious upon waking.
The couch was, however, far smaller than his dreams would likely have made it, and their positions only made it clear that it had been designed for sitting, not for less vertical activities. Garak placed his hand against Julian's midsection and held it there, feeling the soft tidal motions of Julian's breath. "Would you like to see it?" Garak asked, his voice quiet and hopeful. His heart all but leapt from his chest when Julian nodded.
Getting up was a bit of a procedure, one far less graceful than Garak might have hoped. His dignity was salvaged only by how it was an awkward process for the both of them, one that made Julian laugh as he himself made his way to his feet. No, they were not young men anymore, in body or in heart. Young men would not have known what to do with one another like this. Oh, surely they would have thought that they'd known, and would likely have destroyed entire worlds in the process of working out their half-cocked passions and their dangerous secrets on one another.
"Here," Garak said, taking one of Julian's hands in his own. Instead of leading him through the darkened house, however, Garak pulled them close, until they were standing chest to chest. Julian was just a hair taller than Garak was, a difference that at a distance could be forgotten easily. This close, however, Garak found himself keenly aware of the angle at which he had to incline his chin to look Julian in the eye.
Julian put his free hand on Garak's hip. "Is this ... are we all right?" He pressed his lips together, a precious gesture of nervousness that hearkened back to the first days of their acquaintance.
"I simply..." Garak took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he drew Julian's face toward his own. Instead of kissing him again, though, he pressed his forehead to Julian's as shut his eyes. The silence built around them, creeping in until every instinct of Garak's was screaming for him to fill it, to chase away any sense that he might not be completely and utterly in control of the situation. He beat those instincts back, holding tight to Julian until it was clear that, no, he was not in control. He had not been in control for some time. He had come untethered in the night, until not even Cardassia's weight could keep him in a steady orbit.
But what was a mere planet when compared to Julian? Garak found that he was holding on to him perhaps too tight, except that he could feel Julian's clinging back with the same quiet intensity. Garak felt like he should say something, but he knew that if he started speaking, he wouldn't stop, not until his words became the force that pushed them away from one another again. Garak wouldn't let that happen this time. Julian had been bold enough to cross whole star systems to be here; the least Garak could do was keep his mouth shut.
After a long moment, Julian took his fingers and placed them under Garak's chin, lifting Garak's face until their gazes met again. "Me too," he said, his voice little more than air in the growing night.