Julian Bashir couldn't for the life of him remember when it had started, but he could pinpoint with precision exactly when the realization of it had hit him like a warp core implosion.
A dark and terrible new political situation had awaited them when they'd returned from the Defiant's maiden journey to the Gamma Quadrant. It hadn't taken long to embark on a mission to close the wormhole and save the Alpha Quadrant from the forces of an overwhelming enemy, with the help of a friend who would deny to the death that he was an agent of the Cardassian government… but in the end, Garak hadn't had enough time to lodge a final protest. He'd looked up into Julian's horrified face, offered one last merry smile, cracked a final joke… and then the light in his eyes had gone out forever.
Julian would never have left him there if Commander Sisko hadn't physically dragged him away. Racing to the shuttle, he'd felt blackness crushing his heart with ever-increasing force. He had understood — for the first time in two years, really understood — and he'd cursed himself for being a blind fool, and had accepted that this adventure might end in his own death with a certain amount of relief. If he died he wouldn't have to face the ongoing pain of never seeing Garak again, never again hearing his laughter, never again warming to his smile that both praised and challenged a certain young Starfleet officer who, for reasons not entirely clear, he'd taken under his wing and allowed to hold his hand when he'd lain dying.
Julian had saved him then. A brief reprieve, and the time they'd won had been wasted. Two and a half seconds wasn't enough to convey all the emotions that had revealed themselves as Garak drew his final breath, even if Julian had been able to find the words to frame them in the first place.
It hadn't ended as he'd anticipated, of course. The whole thing had been an induced dream, and when he'd come out of it there had been a couple of days of cognitive dissonance, of coming to terms with reality again. But by the time they got back to the station he'd had his head on straight and wasn't surprised to run into Garak on the Promenade, even if the circumstances of that "chance" meeting eerily resembled the events in the simulation.
Meeting the Cardassian's smiling gaze, Julian reflected that he might never figure out when he'd first started to love this enigmatic impossible man — but he knew exactly when he'd realized it.
The question now was… what was he going to do about it?