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Happy Itask'haran, Mister Garak

Chapter Text

“What’s that you’re humming, Julian?”

He paused the arc of the tricorder, checking himself. Had he been humming?

“No need to stop. It’s a nice distraction from this.” Wincing, Jadzia shifted her arm, ringed purple and brown around the wrist.

“You really must stop challenging Kira at springball." He clicked the tricorder closed with a sigh. “I’m afraid you’ve managed to break it this time.”

“I almost had her!”

“That’s what you say every time, Jadzia.”

“Yeah, and, eventually it’s going to be true.”

He pulled out the osteoregenerator, shaking his head. “No, eventually you’re going to end up with something worse than a broken wrist or a sprained ankle.” This was her third springball injury in a month.

She leaned closer and gave him a little smile. “Then it’s a good thing I have such a capable and understanding doctor.”

That crush had cooled long ago, but damn, she was something.

And she knew it, of course. “So…what was that you were humming?”

The truth was he didn’t know, but the tune had been stuck in his head all afternoon. Earlier that morning when he’d gone by Garak’s shop to ask about lunch, he’d found the Cardassian tucked away in a corner of the backroom, cutting a swath of bright orange cloth. Quietly, in the background, the song had been playing.

Julian had never heard it before. What was more, he’d never heard Garak listen to music of any kind before. Yet there he was, bent over the cloth, humming along and…yes, he was certainly tapping one foot in rhythm.

“In a musical mood today, Garak?”

Garak didn’t look up from his work, but his foot stopped. “It’s customary to ring the bell and wait, Doctor.”

“Ahh, but you don’t always hear the bell, do you? And besides, it’s not as if I can sneak up on you. You always know when I’m here, bell or no.”

“My hearing may not be what yours is, but there’s nothing wrong with my sense of smell.”

“Smell? Are you saying I smell?”

“No need to take offense, Doctor. You all smell. If we Cardassians ever do retake this station, we’re never getting that mammalian stink out of the carpet.”

Garak’s hands moved with their usual efficiency, body language unchanged, but the lightness of his tone was absent. Garak’s insults typically had an obvious tilt of enjoyment—a teasing quality Julian had come to both expect and enjoy. Today, however, it was half-hearted, as tacked together as the jacket on the dress form beside him.

“I was coming to see if you’d be interested in lunch. I finished The Empty Chair last night, and I have plenty of—“

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to join you today, Doctor.” He finally looked up to offer a tight smile. “I’m positively drowning in alterations, and this commission for Quark will be the death of me. I tried to explain to him that Viderian jacquard simply wouldn’t work for this shape, but...” He shrugged.

Overhead, the music fell into a pleasant refrain. The instrument was something foreign—stringed but bright—and the tune itself had an almost dizzying, cyclical quality. Quite catchy, actually.

“What’s this you’re listening to?”

“Oh, I asked the computer to play something melodic and uplifting. Clearly it’s not working…computer, end music.”

Something about the whole exchange had been off, but Julian knew better than to ask outright. He’d endured enough lectures about his too-human lack of subtlety and his personal tendency to pry, thank you very much.

So they’d agreed to check-in tomorrow, and, Julian had decided firmly, that was that. He would respect the man’s privacy.

Of course he’d spent the remainder of the afternoon obsessing, running through every permutation of what it might be as he monitored cultures and skimmed the latest medical briefings from Starfleet. Garak wasn’t ill, at least not that Julian could tell. There’d been a few months after that incident with the implant where Garak had gotten headaches, but they’d sorted that eventually. Of course, the psychological results of the implant’s loss were another matter, but apart from not wanting to discuss a short story today, Julian hadn’t noticed any of the usual signs of depression.

Maybe the Klingon attacks in Cardassian space were worrying him more than he’d let on.

Or maybe he really was just a bit busy.

“Julian, you’re humming it again.”

“Oh…oh. Sorry.” He turned off the regenerator, glad for a mind that could wander while still performing  medical procedures with precision. “Alright. I just need to get rid of those bruises, and you’ll be no worse for the wear.”

When he came back into the room with the dermal unit, Kira had joined Dax, inspecting her wrist. Dax must have said something amusing, and Kira’s face glowed with a smile.

“Well, Major. I believe our patient is going to live to fight another day. I see more springball in your future.”

“And more infirmary visits,” Kira sighed. “I told Captain Sisko we would be ready for our shift in ten minutes. Don’t make me a liar, Doctor.”

“I’ll do my best.” The blue beam flickered on, rinsing the purple away as easily as dirt under water.  

Could Garak be depressed? He’d certainly been depressed before, and Julian hadn’t a clue. Of course, the man had also been operating on a constant high of artificial endorphins, so that might have flummoxed even the most observant practitioner. He walked through the interaction that morning again, examining the relevant details. Did Garak look as if he’d been missing meals? As if he’d cut any corners in his fastidious grooming routine?

This time he heard the humming. It was Jadzia.

 “See? It’s catchy, isn’t it?”

Kira snorted. “That has to be the first time anyone has ever referred to the bhalat itask as ‘catchy’.”

He and Jadzia both looked up. “What?”

“The tune you were humming.” Kira looked between them, confused.

“I’m sorry, Major. Garak was listening to it earlier today, and I’m afraid I’ve been humming it ever since.”

“Oh, well…wish him happy birthday for me.”

“Happy… birthday?” Oh…that was an interesting hypothesis. “That song—bhalat itask—it’s some sort of Cardassian birthday song?”

Kira shrugged. “They’ve played it at every seren’arat I’ve ever seen.” Her tone made it clear she wasn’t interested in elaborating.

Jadzia, on the other hand, looked like the proverbial cat with the cream. “ A birthday! Are you going to throw him a party, Julian?” Her smile definitely implied if you don’t, I might.

“Oh, I don’t know. Garak doesn’t really seem like the birthday party sort.” But even as he said it, he wondered. Would Garak want a party? Was that what lay behind the strained smile?  If so, why only this year? Last year, the year before…Julian searched for his memory of the same stardate in years prior. Nothing unusual.

“Cardassian birthdays are complicated, Jadzia. I wouldn’t get involved.” Kira stood and gave the doctor a questioning look.

“Oh—oh yes. Everything’s, you know, ship-shape. Bristol fashion. But do try to give it at least a week before you two have at it again.”

The women exchanged smiles and thanked him as they left.

“Oh, and Julian?” Jadzia poked her head back in.

He looked up.

“Let me know if you need any help with the party.”

*************

Despite Jadzia’s enthusiasm, he knew to heed Kira’s caution as well. Cardassian birthdays could be complicated, she’d said, and that would certainly be in keeping with the general Cardassian affinity for all things byzantine. The last thing he needed was to sit and endure a pre-cake reprimand about trying to inflict his human cultural practices where they weren’t wanted or needed.

No, before he could decide whether a birthday party was an appropriate next step, he needed a bit more information.

And there was really only one man on the station whose experience with Cardassians didn’t solely involve debasement, violence, or oppression.

“Is there something I can do for you, Doctor Bashir?” The constable looked up with an expression that added this had better be good.

“Oh, it’s not urgent, but if you have a moment…?”

“I’m scheduled to inspect a Tellarite freighter in twenty minutes.”

“That should be more than enough.” He took a seat at the desk. “I just wanted to ask you a few questions about, um…Cardassian birthdays.”

A look of genuine surprise. “Cardassian birthdays?”

“Yes. You see, this morning, when I went to speak with Garak, he was listening to some music. Kira said it was the bhalat itask. Does that mean anything to you?”

Odo nodded. “It’s played at the seren’arat of a Cardassian’s itask’haran.”

“I’m afraid half that sentence was a mess.”

Sometimes it was impossible to tell if Odo was actually put out or if he simply didn’t know any other way to answer a question. “An itask’haran is something like a birthday, but it’s not celebrated every year. Cardassians only celebrate itask’haran once every das’sak—about a decade in Earth standard years. And they don’t begin celebrating until at least the third das’sak.”

Well, that explained why Garak had only ever given him a birthday present for his thirtieth. He wondered if he’d have to wait another decade to get his next Cardassian enigma tale. He was fairly certain he could manage the wait. “So is the celebration like a human birthday party? Gifts, food, that sort of thing?”

Odo sat back and crossed his arms. “You’re thinking about having a birthday party for Garak.”

“Right in one.” He gave his best smile. “Do you…do you think that would be appropriate?”

“Are you sure it’s Garak’s itask’haran? Maybe it’s a friend’s or a family member’s, and he’s celebrating in the only way he can.”

Julian hadn’t considered that. He supposed it was possible: sometimes he felt the slightest bit melancholy when his mum’s birthday rolled by. His father’s… melancholy wasn’t the word. “Okay, well, assuming for the time being that it’s Garak’s, do you think a birthday party would be appropriate?”

Odo considered. The constable’s opinion was certainly worth quite a lot when it came to Garak. Sometimes, in fact, Julian wondered if Odo didn’t know more about Garak than anyone else on the station, himself included.

“I think you need more information, Doctor.”

Spoken like a true detective. “What sort of information?”

“Most itask’haran are celebrated with a seren’arat. A small meal followed by the playing of the bhalat and the exchange of gifts of special meaning.”

Oh, well, that sounded familiar enough. They might still be able to get a room at Quark’s. Perhaps just the senior staff. Quark knew a few good Cardassian recipes and had socked away plenty of kanar. All Julian had to worry about was a “gift of special meaning.”

As if he could sense Julian planning, Odo held up a hand. “But…there are some itask’haran that are more important. The fifth and tenth itask’haran are celebrated with more…ceremony.”

That did not sound as promising. “A bigger party? I mean, I don’t have too much time. Would it be the sort of thing I could pull together in a day?”

“Oh there’s no celebration on the day itself. That’s considered vulgar. The fifth and tenth itask’haran are meant to be days of contemplation, work, and cleansing. The person fasts, and there’s some sort of bathing ritual and usually a haircut or a scale polish, as I understand. The seren’Ora isn’t until a few weeks after.”

A scale polish? Julian allowed himself only a moment to consider what this might entail before he forced himself past it.

Well, it was convenient at least. A few weeks should be more than enough. “Ok. A seren’Ora. How, um… is that different from the seren’arat?”

“More elaborate, though I must say I’ve never attended one. I believe gifts are considered inappropriate at a seren’Ora, but there’s a substantial feast and a lengthy recitation. There’s dancing as well, I think. And speeches. A bit more formal than what I’ve observed at Lieutenant Dax’s parties.”

Julian chuckled. That wasn’t saying much. Most stag nights were more formal. “Alright. So bigger party with more words and fewer gifts. Got it.”

“No, Doctor. The seren’Ora is the largest celebration that an individual Cardassian will ever experience. There are entire spaces built to hold seren’Ora. An entire genre of poetry devoted to it. It is…a major undertaking.”

So…perhaps a back room a Quark’s might not work after all. Cardassians. Everything had to be so complicated. With lists. And speeches. And why did every sodding thing need a genre of poetry? Birthday? Here’s a poem. Celebrating a professional accomplishment? A bit of epic verse for you. Drinking tea on a Tuesday? I’ve just the haiku…

Still, if this truly was Garak’s fifth itask’haran, having it pass while stuck among a bunch of Federation types who wouldn’t know a seren’Ora from a seren’arat might be a real blow. He knew well enough how painful exile was for his friend: how much he had suffered behind that stretched smile. But this…maybe this would be some sort of consolation…? Of course it might be a bit of work, but he was willing to memorize a bit of Cardassian poetry and find a place with a nice dance floor, if that’s what it took. He felt sure he’d be able to get all the cultural details he needed: the tricky part would be not giving himself away in the process.

 After the incident with the implant, he’d decided he absolutely needed whatever could be recovered from those purged Cardassian medical databases: after all, he couldn’t very well go running to Enabran Tain anytime Garak got a case of the sniffles. He’d done a little research into “microscanning the purge trace”, as Miles had said, and it hadn’t taken him too long to grasp the theory of what needed to be done. Within three weeks, he’d recovered about half the medical files.

He’d had more success with the socio-cultural databases. He’d restored almost the entire collection within the month.

He’d kept it to himself, of course. It wouldn’t do to have questions asked about how the station’s chief medical officer had managed it, and he could only play that “extension engineering courses” routine for so long. But the recovered data had certainly come in handy fact-checking some of Garak’s more outlandish assertions regarding Cardassian culture. To date, the tailor was running at a roughly 1:3 lie-to-truth ratio. Really, lower than one might expect.

Julian would simply need to pepper both Odo and Kira with questions about seren’Ora so each would assume the other had supplied an answer. He could always ask Quark, too, just to cover his bases.

“Wait, Odo…you said you’d never been to a seren’Ora?

The constable had gone back to perusing the padd in front of him and gave only a half-hearted nod.

“Then…how do you know all this? Were there seren’Ora on the station?”

“Not here. But Gul Dukat was showing holoimages and telling stories about his father’s for years afterwards.” He rolled his eyes. “It did force him to leave the station for a week, though, so I think the Bajorans might have celebrated that seren’Ora just as much.”

Ugg. Sometimes he forgot that Odo had dealt with Dukat for years before any of them had arrived. Remembering made him forgive Odo’s gruffness all over again. “So, before I do any birthday planning, I need to be sure it’s Garak who is celebrating and find out if this itask’haran is his fifth or not?” He was willing to assume it wasn’t his tenth.

Odo nodded. “And…might I suggest you find out one thing further?”

“Please do.”

The constable stood and looked down the length of his too-smooth nose. “Perhaps you should also be sure he wants a celebration at all.”

************************

Julian was vaguely aware that he should be listening. Garak had been talking about themes of attachment in The Empty Chair for a good two minutes, gesticulating with such emphasis that a stalk of masok undulated at the end of his fork. But all Julian could think about was how…different he looked.

It might not have been noticeable in another part of the station: in Quark’s, say, where the lighting was kept low enough that no one noticed the cheap flatware or the slight tilt of the dabo wheel. But here in the garish light of the Replimat, the large scales down the side of Garak’s neck gleamed, and the small scales bracketing his chufa sparkled like rhinestone adornments. So that’s a scale polish. It was actually…rather striking.

Of course, Garak tended to take a great deal of care with his appearance, and Julian had to admit that, apart from the few rough days of withdrawal after the wire’s deactivation, Garak was always somewhat striking. But this was of a different sort. Less fashion, less fuss—more…natural shine.

“Well, Doctor? Don’t tell me you agree. I don’t believe I’d know what to do.”

Focus up, Bashir. He certainly didn’t agree. Sometimes he wondered if that was the whole point of Garak’s every assertion, in fact. “Of course I don’t agree. I found the whole thing quite depressing, frankly.”

“Depressing? Whatever for?”

“She died, Garak. What do you mean ‘what for’? She died, and her children left weeping to live with some uncle. How is that not depressing?”

“Doctor, I’d expected better than such a blunt analysis. How did she die? Why? What did she accomplish with that death? Before it?” He glanced over his shoulder to return the wave of a passing customer. “Aging and death are inevitable, but what you accomplish for—”

“You’ve cut your hair!”

He’d blurted the words across Garak’s, and the face it earned him was beyond withering. “Honestly, Doctor. I’m contemplating death and legacy, and you interrupt to…notice my coiffure?”

He leaned forward with a knowing smile.  This is going to be good. “It was your itask’haran yesterday, wasn’t it?”

Irritation vanished, Garak’s face going blank. It was as close to true surprise as he’d ever seen on the Cardassian.

“Oh, come on. Scale polish, haircut. And is that…” He sniffed the air theatrically. “Kis’sa oil I smell? Perhaps from some sort of…ritual bathing?”

Garak sat back, letting the fork of masok lower fully to his plate.

”Yesterday was your fifth, wasn’t it?” Oh, I’ve got you. Come on, now, you didn’t expect that…

There was a long pause before Garak conceded. “Yes.”

He knew he must be smiling like an idiot, but he was going to let himself, at least for a bit longer. He’d managed to put Garak on the back foot: it deserved a bit of celebrating. “Well, then, happy belated birthday, Garak.”

He wasn’t sure if he imagined it, but the bite his companion took from the masok seemed rather more aggressive than was strictly necessary.

Alright, Julian: don’t revel in it too much. It usually had a nasty way of coming round to bite him, and Garak had that look now—the look that always gave Julian the impression of an old-fashioned adding machine, clicking and calculating relentlessly towards an answer.

“Thank you, Doctor. And allow me to preempt your next inquiry. No.”

Julian blinked. “No?”

“No, I won’t require a party. And I’d be grateful if you’d pass that along to Lieutenant Dax as well.”

Dax usually invited Garak to the parties she threw for senior staff members and mutual acquaintances like Quark or Morn. Garak had politely declined every invitation but one: the occasion of Julian’s thirtieth. And while he’d seemed to enjoy himself at the time, when Julian had asked later what he’d thought, Garak merely said “I enjoyed the cake” with an unsaid and nothing else hanging undeniably in the air.

 Of course, Julian had predicted Garak wouldn’t go along with this easily. When was anything with Garak easy? That, he’d long ago admitted to himself, was part of the fun.

He soldiered on. “Well, if this were just any itask’haran, I might believe that, Garak. But Odo tells me this one is rather a big deal. And your party doesn’t have to be like one of Dax’s if that’s what you’re worried about. I can give you the most solemn, poetical seren’Ora imaginable. I mean you might have to help me out with a few of the cultural details, mind, but—“

No, Doctor.”

There was something terribly final in the way he said it. “No? Why not?”

“I appreciate the thought, Doctor, I do. And your willingness to arrange a seren’Ora is a testament to your generous nature.” Garak smiled, and, oh, that scale polish really did brighten his face. “But it is wholly inappropriate, for a variety of reasons you can’t understand.”

A challenge if ever he’d heard one. “Well, then, help me understand.”

The smile slipped slightly, and Garak gave a sigh that clearly said I knew you weren’t going to leave it.

“No, really. If it’s inappropriate, that’s fine. But I want to know why. I want to be sure this isn’t you delighting in your own misery instead of accepting my…‘generous nature’.”

Garak took on the familiar mien of a school teacher with a particularly slow pupil. “First of all, a seren’Ora must be held on Cardassian soil. Surely Odo told you that.”

 Oh. Damn. Of course he’d worked that out. “Well, no, though he did say he’d never seen one before.”

“Precisely. Everyone returns to the Union for their seren’Ora, Doctor. Part of the ceremony involves planting a flower in a community garden. In a Cardassian garden. Something which, as I’m sure you’ll recall, is impossible for me.”

“Alright, but, what if we planted in the hydroponics bay. It’s a Cardassian-built station, and that’s a community garden.” Someone somewhere must have a soil sample from some Union world, and Keiko had a small hydroponics setup where people could grow fresh produce from their homeworlds.

“That is fulfilling the letter and not the spirit of the thing,” Garak replied, waspish.

“I got the impression you weren’t bothered by a bit of creative semantics.”

“I prefer bald-faced lies to technical truths, Doctor. Besides, that’s not the main issue with a seren’Ora on the station.”

“Okay…then what is?” We can figure this out, he insisted silently.

“I assume Odo informed you that we do not celebrate itask’haran before the age of thirty. Do you know why that is?”

“Oh, I’ll guess it has something to do with…sacrifice. The state. Am I close?” He’d sat back, letting the words come out as petulant as he was feeling. This was meant as a kind gesture, and now he was getting lectured—and not in the usual teasing way he secretly enjoyed. No, Garak sounded genuinely peeved.

“Because a life isn’t worth celebrating until it has lasted long enough to itask’haran, Doctor.”

“I don’t…the translator doesn’t make sense of itask’haran in that context…”

“There isn’t a direct translation. Itask’haran doesn’t translate to ‘birthday.’ Itask’haran was originally an architectural term referring to the construction of a building’s support structure. Celebrating itask’haran is celebrating all that one has done to stabilize and strengthen the family, the community, the Union. By the fifth das’sak one should have accomplished many things that itask’haran. Started a family. Worked in whatever capacity the state required. Given one’s talent and skills to the service of Cardassia. The foundation of the seren’Ora is people coming together to recognize these contributions.” Garak’s voice grew bitter. “Tell me, Doctor. Who would attend this seren’Ora of yours? Can I perhaps expect some kind words about all the trousers I’ve mended? Or about how very much Nora Moryl liked the cut of her wedding dress?”

While Garak’s face betrayed nothing but clipped frankness, Julian was sure there was more in those blue eyes. Something…mournful. Something that caused the last few embers of the excitement he’d felt to cool completely. Ahh, yes. The familiar feeling of your own zeal coming back to bite you in the arse.

Something of it must have shown because Garak sat back and schooled himself to sincerity. “Forgive me, Doctor. You are attempting—albeit in most irritating fashion—to be kind. But I hope now you understand why I ask you not to throw a party. I…appreciate the thought, but…” He forced a smile that hurt Julian as much as it must have hurt him. “I assure you: it’s an unnecessary one.”

Julian sighed. That put an end to that. “Well…perhaps you’ll feel differently on your sixth.”

Something played across Garak’s face: for a split second, those eyes went deadly cold, and Julian felt the chill of it run him through.

He didn’t need him to say anything: after three years, Julian knew precisely what had passed across that face. Precisely what Garak had been thinking.

If I’m still here in ten years, none of it will matter anymore.

And then, so suddenly Julian might have wondered if he’d imagined it, Garak was the plain and simple tailor again. “Yes, perhaps you’re right.” He wiped delicately at the corner of his mouth before pushing out from the table. “Now, Doctor. I’m afraid I must get back to work. I do hope you’ll pass this information on to anyone else who might get any ideas about showing pity on the station tailor, hmm?” With what might have seemed a warm smile to anyone else, Garak set a hand on his lightly. It was cool and soft, and the slight texture of those scales on skin caught his attention. “And for lunch next time, do let’s try to have a conversation about The Empty Chair.”

Well, that was that.

At least, that’s what Garak had intended him to take away from the conversation, it seemed.

But Julian couldn’t shake the coldness he’d seen only a moment before. Couldn’t wash away the bitterness he’d tasted on the air. Could I perhaps expect some kind words about all the trousers I’ve mended?

Something more was going on. Something bigger. Was this why Garak had suggested The Empty Chair? Was he preoccupied with questions of death and legacy? Was this some version of a Cardassian mid-life crisis, sharpened by the indignity of exile?

Whatever it was, there was nothing plain and simple about it.

As he watched Garak disappear down the promenade, Julian knew two things with sudden and terrible certainty.

First, his friend was in a tremendous amount of pain.

Second, he was going to find a way to throw a seren’Ora, even if it—or Garak—killed him.

Chapter Text

Garak stood at the mirror, smoothing the front of his tunic and wondering for at least the fifth time if he ought to have gone with a darker color. His figure wasn’t what it had been—well, what could one expect at five das’sak, really—and darker colors tended to shave off just a touch of belly. But at what cost? He refused to become one of those middle-aged men that walked around in drab blacks and browns, oiling his hair and wearing only v-cuts designed to offset a thickened waist.

No, he was going to age in style, and tonight, that style was a nice claret linen, shot through with navy and gray and, if one looked closely, the shining bob-and-weave of silver thread. 

The doctor, however…well, who ever knew what that man might wear, especially to the holosuite. Garak had made several holosuite costumes for him, one being a fairly nice tuxedo, in an old style. That would be lovely, no doubt. Probably too much to hope for something like that delectable racquetball…hmm…what would one call that? Bodysuit? One-piece?

A wrapper. A silver wrapper as on a Delavian chocolate.

He tutted at himself for the thought. No, there wasn’t going to be racquetball. Or any of the doctor’s usual holosuite games. Garak had known the moment Bashir invited him to the holosuite and told him to “wear something nice.”

“I need more information than that, Doctor. Nice but casual? Formal? Should I dress in the human style? Will I need a jacket? A tie?”

The doctor had waved him off. “Wear something…Cardassian, I guess. One of those tunics or something.”

Well, that had been obvious, hadn’t it?

There was nothing so predictable as the doctor taking up a lost cause, and the moment Garak had told him in no uncertain terms that he didn’t require a birthday celebration, it had been inevitable. The doctor would do it—it was in his nature. The incident with the wire had proven that.

And so, for the last two weeks, Garak had been left to wonder. Each time business slowed or the tap-tap-tap of his sewing machine lulled him into thoughtfulness, he’d put the question to himself. Like any good interrogator, he began lightly, curious, then with more force. With accusation.

Did you do it on purpose, Elim?

He’d known there was a good chance the human wouldn’t be able to resist. Yet, he hadn’t denied it. He hadn’t spun some elaborate lie to throw Bashir onto a different path. It would have been easy. Five separate lies occurred to him even at that very moment.

But he hadn’t. He’d given the doctor just enough reluctance to let himself believe he meant it. He hadn’t even called Bashir’s bluff when the man had invited him, in that too-blinking, awkward way, to the holosuite for dinner.

Just admit it to yourself, he growled, turning the bright light on the truth. You wanted to test him. You wanted to see if he would do it for you.

Which was beyond pathetic. Elim Garak, feared interrogator and promising agent of the Obsidian Order, the son of Enabran Tain himself…reduced to manipulating a green boy into arranging his seren’Ora. And not even, particularly, because he wanted the party. No, the truth was worse.

He wanted the illusion.

The illusion that the human had the same feelings for him—that their relationship was equal, balanced. That the gesture was one of affection and meaning.

But, of course, it wasn’t. The doctor did what he did out of pity and kindness and, maybe some general sense of friendship. He could hear it in that lovely, accented voice even now: “It was no trouble, Garak. I’d do the same for any patient.”

And now he was about to attend his seren’Ora aboard a Bajoran space station—no doubt in whatever projected facsimile of backwater Cardassia Quark had in storage—with a host of aliens who had no idea what any of it meant.

A seren’Ora hosted by a man who barely considered him a friend.

Even Tain had brought his wife out of storage to arrange his seren’Ora. It was the only time Garak had ever seen her, in fact. (Maybe the only time Tain had seen her). But a seren’Ora had to be thrown by a spouse or a child, and Tain certainly hadn’t been about to call on Garak to perform the duty.

And if you had no spouse or child?

Then your life—and you—were of no consequence. Pretending that such an individual could itask’haran was beyond farce. It was a mockery of everything a seren’Ora stood for.

He smoothed over the fabric once again, frowning at himself in the mirror.

Well, at least he would look good for his farce.

He arranged his face in several different configurations: a smile of gratitude. Of amusement. Of surprise. He catalogued the more convincing ones, tucking them into muscle memory—accessories to accentuate his suit.

He’d played the plain and simple tailor for quite a while now. If he could convince Morn that he loved to hear stories about those seventeen siblings or feign believable delight at the details of Nora Moryl’s nuptials, then he could pretend to accept this shame with some semblance of grace.

“Bashir to Garak,” his comm chirped in Bashir’s voice. Its usual enthusiasm was stretched. Almost nervous.

“Yes, Doctor?”

“I’m, um, heading down to the holosuite now. Care to join me or shall we meet there?”

He practiced the face of “somewhat surprised” once more, committing it to memory. Yes, that should do nicely.

“I’ll meet you in the holosuite in five minutes, Doctor.”

 

********************************

He had to give the doctor credit: for a series of projected lights and replicated matter, it really did feel like Cardassia.

He’d assumed Bashir would modify one of Quark’s programs and that they would end up in some hastily stripped-down version of a Cardassian pleasure den. Somehow, however, the doctor had managed to reproduce a proper seren’Ora pavilion. One Garak recognized, in fact. It was the largest pavilion in Lakarian City, bordered by blooming ithian trees and set atop a series of stairs that were alternately gold and silver. He had attended a seren’Ora there once, for a friend of Tain’s. He remembered the small carvings of riding hounds along the eaves, each chasing the next. At the corners, two hounds stood on their back legs, front paws pushed together, snouts thrown toward the night sky as if in dance. The touch against his memory made it all feel, for a moment, achingly real.

“I take it you’re not going to storm out on me, then?” The doctor was wringing his hands in a rather endearing way. He really was quite nervous.

“Not yet, Doctor. How—“

“Oh, I almost forgot! Computer, activate musician sequence alpha.”

At one end of the pavilion, a quartet of Cardassian musicians appeared: one played the ramak’s-hide tabor, two the azal, and one a Soralian-style flute. They had whisked into life with instruments at the ready, and no sooner had he registered them, than the bright strains of the bhalat echoed up to the pavilion’s tapered roof.

Certainly better than hearing it piped through the thin audio of his shop. He couldn’t help but nod along, pleasantly.

Seeing this reaction, the tension in Bashir’s shoulders loosened, and he smiled.

Guls and gettle, that smile. Sometimes it took everything he had not to grab the human and devour him on the spot, especially now, in the photolantern’s light, with the stars—his stars—dancing in those eyes.

And the tunic. Somehow the doctor had managed to get himself a Cardassian-cut mijast for the occasion, and, while Garak might normally be annoyed to discover the human taking his business elsewhere, the cream-colored boucle hugged that trim figure in such a flattering way, Garak could forgive the betrayal just this once. The competing tailor, whomever he might be, had an eye for beauty, at least. The squared neckline had been altered to account for a lack of ridges, but it accentuated that long, shapely neck just the same, and, best of all, presented the barest swell of collarbone to view.

Perhaps this had been a fine idea, after all.

“Doctor, I must ask: how is it—“

“Mister Worf!”

Worf?

He glanced over to see the Klingon standing awkwardly at the top step, clearly uncertain what to do.

Well, that throws a bit of cold water on that.

“Forgive me. I must be early.”

“No, no, no, come on up. You’re right on time, as always.”

Right on time indeed. Part of him immediately balked at the idea of a Klingon attending his seren’Ora, especially now, when their worlds were quite literally at war. But the doctor didn’t think that way, and, if he was entirely fair, this particular Klingon had proven himself of use to the Union. As such, when Worf wished him a happy birthday, he gave his politest of nods.

“Here you are.” Bashir had retrieved a basket of kur’yurut  from one of the side tables and opened it in offering. “You and I can be the first to partake.”

Worf looked at it doubtfully.

“It’s kur’yurut. It’s…a bit like bread, I suppose, but baked into a braid of just over two meters.” He unfolded a length of it and pulled off the end with flourish. He continued his explanation through a generous bite. “Symbolizes long life. Go ahead…just tear off a bit and wish Garak here ghenar vo’it.

Where had the doctor learned all this? He really had gone to some trouble to learn the nuance. And, honestly, nuance wasn’t always the young man’s forte, so it was doubly pleasing.

Worf was followed shortly by Lieutenant Dax and, along with her, to Garak’s great surprise, Major Kira. The Major’s body language spoke of a hara cat entering a den of snakes—and he couldn’t say he begrudged her that. He tried to offer her a look that said, You’re doing this for the doctor. I understand.

Captain Sisko arrived next, along with his son and young Nog. The two boys looked precisely how one might expect teenage boys to look when being forced to attend something at which poetry would be recited. Nevertheless, their enthusiasm picked up when the word feast was mentioned, and their wishes of ghenar vo’it almost sounded genuine.

Odo, he could see, was watching him closely, no doubt wondering how he truly felt about it all. The constable and he were kindred spirits of a sort, and the wry smile the other man gave him over the kur’yurut spoke clearly. You’re doing this for the doctor. I understand.

The O’Briens arrived with Molly leading the way. The little girl came bustling up the steps, two at a time, and ran straight to him with a grin he couldn’t help but return. Wordless, she held up a piece of paper for his inspection.

“She’s been waiting to show you that for a week,” Mrs. O’Brien explained coming up behind her with the proud smile of a mother. She leaned in a bit and whispered. “It’s you eating birthday cake, in case you couldn’t tell.”

Without the explanation, he might not have guessed, but now he saw it: the jumble of green and red and gray was most certainly him, and the black frame around him undoubtedly his shop. Across the bottom the girl had written in shaky, meticulous letters “HAPPY BURTHDAY GARAK.”

“My thanks, young lady. I do believe your handwriting is already more legible than our dear Doctor Bashir’s.”

The doctor pulled a face that made the girl and Mrs. O’Brien both laugh. “I’ll allow that, Garak, but only because you’re the guest of honor.”

“It is pretty bad, Julian,” the Chief chimed in from behind. He gave Garak an uncomfortable nod.

“This must be a special occasion. The Chief and I have agreed on something.”

The doctor’s face was no longer quite as amused. “Look, you two agreeing on my flaws is nothing new. You’re just not usually in the same room when you do it.” He pushed a bite of kur’yurut at O’Brien.

The man frowned at it but popped it in his mouth all the same. After a few speculative chews, his eyes lit with approval. “Yeah, that’s…that’s not half bad.”

“Now, wish Garak ghenar vo’it and go pick on someone else, if you please.”

And to Garak’s surprise, the Chief did.

The surprises kept coming, as no fewer than five of his regular Bajoran customers appeared, each taking their kur’yurut and wishing him ten years of prosperity in Kardasi with only a few pauses of discomfort. One of them was Nora Moryl, and he felt a pang of shame for all the times he’d complained about her loquacious and exacting manner.

“Miss Nora, how kind of you to attend.”

She smiled. “Call me, Moryl, please. And…I know Doctor Bashir’s invitation said that giving gifts wasn’t a Cardassian custom, but…I couldn’t help myself.” She handed him a small box wrapped in bright purple. “They’re maka—chocolate-dipped moba-fruits. It’s a traditional Bajoran birthday treat. I—“ Her face suddenly drew in worry. “I hope that isn’t offensive? A Bajoran gift at a—“

“Not at all, Moryl. I am…humbled to receive them. You know I have a fondness for ch—”  

“If I can have everyone’s attention! Your attention, please, everyone? Everyone?”

The chatter around the pavilion slowly gave way to the doctor’s insistence, even the holographic musicians falling into respectful silence. Garak wasn’t sure, but he could have sworn that, in the distance, he heard the whisper of skimmers. It really was a very convincing replica.

The doctor took his place on the small lectern at the head of the feasting table, and, without a bit of explanation, began the introductory recitation.

It was Umata Len’s Below the Garden. Len was his favorite Cardassian poet—a fact he had certainly mentioned to the doctor several times—and this was her only seren’Ora work. Where the doctor might have obtained a copy was as much as mystery as the rest of it. When this was over, he vowed to set himself to discovering the precise how and whom of the human’s sudden wellspring of Cardassian knowledge. For now, however, he merely clasped his hands behind his back, took in the smell of the ithian, and let the doctor’s voice wash over him.

But…there was something about that voice, though. And his translator…

No, it wasn’t the translator. It definitely wasn’t. The translator wouldn’t have mistaken sus’strait for sus’strat.  And those sibilants were a bit too yielding. Oh…and that vowel had the lazy drawl of Standard.

The doctor was reciting the poem in Kardasi.

He looked up at the young man in surprise. Bashir caught his eye for a moment and gave him a half grin quickly covered over by a more appropriate, more somber demeanor.

 You needn’t have practiced the surprised smile, Elim. The doctor was doing a wonderful job of eliciting the more genuine one this evening. In fact, he was fairly sure his smile now said less “surprised” and more “child who’s just received the largest bag of ghevet candy he’s ever seen.”

Oh dear…the doctor somehow managed to turn the phrase “roots locked in strength and service” to “roots locked in strength and soup.” There was a stifled titter from young Sisko as his translator provided the nonsensical version, but otherwise, everyone at the table maintained polite smiles. As soon as the doctor had finished, all the guests clapped.

And Garak, without a single thought, knocked hard against the table with several loud raps.

As soon as he’d done it, his own surprise mirrored that on the faces around him. He hadn’t given krek in years, but here, in this oh-so-close version of his world, krek had come as naturally as breathing.

“That’s how Cardassians clap.” It was Kira who explained, in a voice that very much said why am I here.

“Indeed it is, Major. Forgive me if I startled.”

“Not at all, Mister Garak. I think I might like to try for myself, and Doctor Bashir certainly deserves a second ovation.” Captain Sisko rapped on the table, and, gladly, many of the other joined in.

The doctor did look enchanting when he blushed.

As the evening progressed, it grew clear that the doctor wasn’t the only one who had put work into this event. Mrs. O’Brien (“please, Garak—call me Keiko”) had gone to what he imagined must be quite a lot of trouble to obtain a small bed’s worth of Cardassian soil and an Edosian orchid (“Odo said you might like it?”). He tried not to focus on the memories and emotions the sight of the blossom raised, instead relishing the feel of dirt against his fingers, fancying that he could feel the difference—that he could tell this was truly of the Union.

It would be sent, Keiko informed him, to the world where the soil had been obtained—the relative backwater of Avenall V, but still—and added to the community garden in the city of Sarnet. He wondered, as he looked at that delicate bloom, barely opened as if afraid to hope, whether he would ever get a chance to see it growing and thriving in Sarnet.

There were times when he wanted to believe in the old Hebetian superstitions about prayer. He said one, as Tolan had shown him, just in case.

Quark and Rom contributed to the party as well, bringing in a seemingly endless array of Cardassian delicacies for the feast. As Rom laid each out with flourish, Quark took it upon himself to narrate, giving the dish’s name, ingredients, and some rather, to Garak’s mind, unnecessary editorializing (“zoval steak—if you’re not a meat-eater, don’t worry, it hardly qualifies” or “zabu stew, it tastes as blue as it looks”). But each dish betrayed a sense of presentation Quark’s usual bar fare never hinted at, made with obvious care and attention.

And they were delicious.

“Quark, I don’t believe even my own mother made ossmat so smooth.”

“You work for the Cardassians a few years, you learn not to get lumps in your ossmat.” He had joined them at the table and was dipping a length of punatur into the sweet, green ts’santa. “The secret is sifting the flour at least three times. Four if you really want it perfect. Tedious, but…”

“Ahh, but patience is the most essential ingredient in any recipe,” Sisko chimed in, asking Quark several more questions about what sort of flour was in ossmat and how it compared with earth-based grains.

While they two men compared culinary styles, Garak watch Chief O’Brien reach back to snatch his fourth bite of kur’yurut. So there is something Cardassian the Chief can tolerate. Garak toyed with the idea of informing him that in doing so he had implicitly wished Garak a further forty years of prosperity, but eventually decided that if the human was going to play nice, he would too.

It was no surprise that Lieutenant Dax had been unable to keep out of the party arrangements, but he was surprised at the restraint of her contribution. “I know it’s not terribly Cardassian, but a little bird told me you like chocolate cake, so…”  Quark placed it on the table. It was three-tiered and without the abomination human’s called “icing,” just as he liked it. Across the topmost layer, small chips of ghevet spelled out “Ghenar Vo’it Garak” in Kardasi script.

The spice-and-butter smell of the candy unearthed a nostalgia for childhood he hadn’t known was there. “Where in the name of the state did you get ghevet?”

The Lieutenant favored him with a mysterious smile. “Can’t a lady have her secrets?”

“I can sell you those secrets, if you’re interested,” Quark added, sotto voce, as he handed him a slice of cake.  

As everyone settled into dessert and conversation, Garak found himself sitting back, watching the faces of the guests and letting the sighs of music draw over him. Ghivak’s Songs of the Morfan Sea heaved and subsided in the background, and smiles flickered like lightflies around the table—even Major Kira occasionally broke at some quip of Dax’s or Bashir’s. Mrs. O’Brien was showing Molly the carved hounds around the eaves, and the Chief was…yes, sneaking yet another piece of kur’yurut. Odo frowned at some observation of Quark’s, and Jake and Nog were helping themselves to seconds of, well by the look of it, everything. Even Worf, a relative newcomer, was involved in a heated conversation with Sisko about some encounter he’d had in his previous tour of duty.

And Garak ate his cake, doing as he had been trained to do—taking in every detail.

Still sitting on the outside looking in, eh, Elim?

The thought might have soured his mood, but the doctor picked precisely the right moment to distract him by tapping a piece of flatware against his glass. This somehow had the effect of instantly silencing the entire table. I’ll have to remember that one.

“Alright, well…thank you to Quark for that incredible meal.” The Ferengi gave a proud nod. “And with only a 35% service fee.” An even prouder nod. “And a generous automatic gratuity only 10% higher than you offer in your bar.”

“Please, please…anything to celebrate our favorite tailor.”

The doctor gave only a slight roll of his eyes before clearing his throat to continue. “Now is the time when guests provide erbit’sa—testimonies of itask’haran for our Mister Garak.”

Ghevet soured in his stomach. Well, the evening had been better than expected—he should be grateful for that. If he had to sit through speeches about the evenness of his stitching or how he had managed to find the perfect shade of green for Moryl’s gown, well…it would be short, at least.

Of course it will be short, Elim. Tain mocked from within, as he always did in moments like these. What do you think? Twenty minutes? Like the erbit’sa of a hygiene drone...  The memory of that jovial laughter, so cold and sharp at the center, always cut. Always hit its mark.

The erbit’sa at Tain’s seren’Ora had gone on for well over four hours, and he, along with thirty other guests had provided them. They’d drunk golet-vintage, and Tain had worn the most spectacular jeweled dagger. The entirety of the Detapa Council had given erbit’sa, and no small number of Legates from the Central Command. And Garak had listened to all the stories, all the accomplishments and burned with earnest admiration. Someday ,he’d thought. Someday that will be me. Someday, I will have stories. Accomplishments. He’d even allowed himself to imagine what Tain might say on that day. By then, perhaps, there could be pride. Acknowledgment.

Pride, he feared, was about to suffer a rather ignominious defeat.

“Keiko, I believe you said you’d like to give our first erbit’sa?”

The doctor relinquished his spot at the lectern to Mrs. O’Brien, and she turned and favored Garak with a gentle smile before she began. Don’t worry, it said. I won’t say anything embarrassing.

She spoke briefly but eloquently, describing their work together in the garden on the port-side of cargo bay 36. He’d helped her with an infestation of shuttlemites that had threatened to ruin an entire half of her rice and grain beds. Shuttlemites were a common pest on space stations and long-haul vessels in this part of the sector, but Mrs. O’Brien said most Starfleet ships and facilities were equipped with sanitation fields that eliminated them and so her experience was somewhat limited. 

Perhaps the doctor had advised the guests in the proper form, because Mrs. O’Brien’s erbit’sa worked hard to emphasize how Garak had contributed and how those contributions had enriched the lives of everyone on the station. She spoke of grikt grown for the Klingon restaurant, of her own family eating true grown rice. Of the halu cakes served at the temple’s Bakara Festival, which had only been possible because Garak helped manage the soil of the six-grain needed for baking them.

Perhaps it was pathetic, but he did feel he’d contributed there. And, though Tain would have scoffed, perhaps Tolan would have been proud.

The doctor gave krek against the table, and the rest of the room followed suit.

The next few erbit’sa were equally inoffensive, and now he felt sure the doctor had given the speakers guidance. There was no mention of tailoring at all. Captain Sisko spoke of the affair with the Bajoran terrorist and the Cardassian boy they’d sent home. Odo spoke of their collaborations in improving station security—a diplomatic way to describe their unspoken but continual dance of rewritten and rebroken security protocols.

Then, to Garak’s eternal surprise, the next to offer erbit’sa was Major Kira.

She gripped the sides of the lectern with white fingers, but the words offered were clean and sincere. She spoke of her abduction by the Order and Garak’s part in helping facilitate her rescue.

At that, he noted, Captain Sisko’s face gave nothing away. The man really was very good.

“It might have been easier for Garak to ignore what he’d heard. Ignore it and allow me to remain where I was. But he didn’t. And regardless of his motivation in that—“ She let the accusatory weight of the phrase hang for a moment before her voice turned sincere. “Regardless, I owe him my life.”

He blinked, wondering if he’d heard that properly.

“Thank you, Garak.”

He said and did nothing. She returned the lack, sitting down without another word.

It took a great deal to truly shock him. This had managed it.

“Yes, um, thank you, Major. The…the next party couldn’t be here, but she did send this pre-recorded holo.” The doctor called for a viewscreen that appeared in midair behind the lectern.

Fear opened a hollow in his chest. She? What she wasn’t already present? Other than…

How would Bashir know? Odo, maybe—he knew the shapeshifter had suspected—but they never would have been able to…

His fears, however, were entirely misplaced. Instead of a matronly Cardassian face, the viewscreen flickered on to show a matronly Bajoran one.

The fear sharpened into anger. Drek and vret. The Tozhat arrangement had never been intended for public display.

He shot a look at Quark, but the Ferengi was assiduously not looking. Quark had helped make most of the financial and material arrangements, and had also, apparently, sold him out to some interested party. Or perhaps Odo had gotten it out of him somehow.

However it was, I promise I’ll find out. He directed the thought venomously at the back of the Ferengi’s large head.

The Bajoran woman, Matron Deela, explained the situation in her usual brusque manner. Each month, the Center received a small stipend for the Cardassian orphans in its care. In addition, there were occasional gifts in the form of Kardasi books or music, and, on holidays, new clothes. The matron marched several children through, most wearing something he’d tailored in the last year or so. The young girl whose dark eyes had haunted him for several months after their encounter was the last. With a shy smile, she held up a book, and, though it had clearly been read, the edges of the cover frayed with use, the title remained clear: The Never-ending Sacrifice.

Something inside warmed and anger settled. Yes…as much as he’d hoped to keep this arrangement to himself, he had to admit: this was itask’haran—or as close as one could manage in this Federation wasteland. Mila might not be joining them, but perhaps…well he wanted to imagine she might be proud of this.

The young girl with the dark eyes leaned forward and pressed her palm to the holocamera, black braid tipped forward over one shoulder. Her voice was as small as it had been that day. “Tures’sin, Garak S’sava.”

The reply shaped itself inside, though he didn’t allow it to sound. Baras’sin, lis’sea.

The holovid went dark, viewscreen guttering out and leaving only the sound of wind through ithian for several long, empty seconds.

It was Sisko who filled them. “Well, Mister Garak, I think I speak for everyone in this room when I say—” He offered three quite loud raps on the table.

It took some time for the echo of krek to die out entirely.

He smiled. Well, that was…almost gratifying. Best not get used to it, Elim. Everyone loves you when your sewing orphans new clothes, but the moment you, say, hack into the personal accounts systems of every person on the station to discover precisely who’s been paying Quark large sums in the last two weeks, well…he ought to enjoy it while he could.

“And, now, I believe, it’s down to me.”

That voice cut through every thought in his head. He had the absurd instinct to flinch, but Order training had long taught his body to obey something more calculated than instinct. He dredged up the usual harmless, carefree smile. This will be amusing, his face said, while inside, all he heard was please get this over with quickly.

A week prior, when he had realized fully what the human was planning, his first concern had been what he might wear. But following hard upon, had been worries over this. The doctor was going to have to give the final erbit’sa—was going to have to put what he felt were Garak’s best qualities into words.

It was either going to be sublime or…rather disheartening.

He braced himself for the pain of either.

“I…I’m sure it’s no great secret that when I first met Garak three years ago, I was….well, I was terrified, truth be told.”

“It’s ‘no great secret’ because you went hopping around Ops like an overexcited puppy,” he heard the Chief mumble. The Major and Captain Sisko barely concealed their laughter.

 “Alright, alright, yes, but…could you blame me? All the whispers about this Cardassian tailor spoke of deceit and subterfuge. Of danger.” 

Garak looked down at the table and allowed himself a private smile, remembering that moment in the Replimat. Oh how delicious the young man had been. That quivering little stutter. Those big willing eyes. The electric jump the moment hands met shoulders. Guls, he’d thought to take the man hard against the wall within the week.

He’d underestimated the doctor’s obliviousness, though.

And then…well, then the chase had become as much fun as the idea of consummation. And then…then there was a bit…more.

“And let’s face it, all those first little whispers turned out to be…true. But in these last three years, I’ve started to hear new whispers about our resident tailor. And no…not plain or simple. I’ve heard talented. I’ve heard funny. Dedicated. Bright. I’ve even heard charming.” He directed a titled grin at Jadzia who gave a little shrug. 

Well, that was…surprising.

“And those whispers are true as well. The more I’ve grown to know Mister Garak over our lunches in the Replimat, the more I’ve come to see a fuller version of the truth. Oh, not from anything he says, of course, I’ve learned that lesson at least—” He gave Garak a knowing nod, and most laughed, himself included. “But I’ve come to see the truth in what he does—and has done—for everyone around this table.”

The doctor paused to take a sip of kanar. It was a good speech, perfectly as he might have expected. Community-focused, friendly, and reflective of the young man’s personal brand of naïveté. He really had done well.

“I’m sure most of you know that Garak and I regularly discuss—and, yes, argue about—literature. Most recently, Garak recommended Umat Taks’sun’s The Empty Chair, a Cardassian tragedy—and, it is a tragedy, Garak—”

Garak was surprised to hear himself laugh aloud. The young man was giving him that teasing look, leaning into the lectern slightly. On Cardassia, such words—and what would have amounted to such obvious flirtation—would be supremely inappropriate for any part of seren’Ora, most especially for an erbit’sa.

Very occasionally, not being on Cardassia had its bright spots.

 Garak raised a hand as if in surrender. “An argument for another day, Doctor.”

“No doubt…yes, where was I? Oh yes, The Empty Chair. As is often the case when we’ve argued about a text, I’ve found myself thinking about it quite a lot these last weeks. You see, in The Empty Chair, Taks’sun tells of a mother who dies on a scientific expedition for the military, leaving her three young children to live out their remaining childhood with a poor uncle on a remote farming world. In the story’s final scene, the family sits down to a meager meal, and the uncle pulls up a chair to sit beside him at the table, empty. The children rejoice at the sight of the empty chair...Really some of the most spectacular rubbish Garak has foisted on me yet.”

There were chuckles around the table. Now they were taking a turn he was less fond of. Where is this going, Doctor?

“I knew, of course, that from the Cardassian viewpoint the empty chair celebrates the mother’s sacrifice for the Union and is therefore something to glory in. But for me that empty chair symbolized little more than the cruelty of chance. Of love lost. Of death. Honestly, I almost put the book down and commed my mum right then and there. But, these last few weeks, the more I thought about that chair, the more I found myself on a sort of middle ground: somewhere between the human and the Cardassian. I realized that a chair only feels empty when it has been truly full—when the person who occupied it was loved and appreciated and integral to life of the table. So the emptiness is a celebration…the empty chair reminds her family of what they had. Of what she was.”

It took all Garak had to stop from interrupting, as if this were lunch and they were picking up the familiar argument again. The point, as usual, had eluded the good doctor entirely. This interpretation sullied the whole beauty of the thing…

“And so, as I sat down to write this erbit’sa, I could think of nothing to fully convey Garak’s contribution more appropriately than this.” He turned to face Garak fully, addressing him across what suddenly felt a very close and intimate space. “If ever your seat at this table is unfilled—if ever I find myself sitting alone at lunch in the Replimat—the chair across from me will most certainly be very empty.”

Night-locusts had begun singing in the trees. They were quite loud.

Well…perhaps it was a …fair point after all.

Not trusting any words—or his own voice—he stood and offered forward his palm in yut’amn. It was the first time he’d offered the young man the gesture—the first time he’d acknowledged any sort of regard whatsoever.

And it was most certainly the first time he’d let private sentiment win out over public caution. Uncomfortable to say the least.

But the doctor didn’t draw out the torment. With that blinding smile, the young man pressed palm to palm. Warm. And soft. It lingered, even after their hands pulled apart.

The krek was ear-crackingly loud, but oh so welcome. It broke him from his trance.

The doctor called for kanar all around (Sisko gave the two young men a very final shake of his head), and they toasted. And drank. And everything fell back into the relaxed buzz of friends, all those kind words fading back into the music and the night.

Garak couldn’t help but glance over at the chrono on the wall behind. A little over an hour. Nothing grand, to be sure, but he couldn’t find it in himself to feel anything but satisfaction.

Perhaps his erbit’sa had been shorter than Tain’s. Perhaps, even, the stories and accomplishments were humble.  

But not one person in all those four hours had spoken of Tain with anything other than well-rehearsed, professional respect.

Gently, from the far corner, the lightness of the bhalat picked up again, wrapping around him with the comforting tenderness of home. If ever I find myself sitting alone at that Replimat table, the chair across from me will most certainly be very empty. He would hear that in his mind, he knew, for a long while.

No, he didn’t need long-winded speeches. The warmth of those words in the doctor’s voice was enough.

********************

Garak had never cared for dancing, and he’d allowed himself to hope that the doctor hadn’t uncovered this particular bit of the ceremony. But, as soon as the table was fully cleared, Bashir called for program sequence gamma, and the table dissolved, replaced by the traditional sleek black of the dancing space.

As the doctor explained the simplest forms of the various ij’za to the guests, Mila’s voice returned to Garak from memory. Dancing is a form of speech, lis’sea. She’d shown him how to hold his palms just before himself, palm and thumb and middle digit pressed to his partner’s, forearms apart. She’d taken a sharp turn to the music, and he, on instinct had followed her through the curve, never breaking contact. She’d smiled.  Your feet may speak as eloquently as your tongue. She turned the opposite direction. This time he’d faltered, and their hands had fallen apart—the cardinal sin of any ij’za. She’d tutted. They can also embarrass you in ways your tongue cannot.

“Garak?”

He turned to see Mrs. O’Brien smiling up at him.

“I don’t suppose it would be too presumptuous to request the first dance?”

He froze, eyes immediately searching for the woman’s husband. While he got a brief thrill at the idea of needling the Chief, it was quickly replaced by a healthy sense of self-preservation. “Mrs. O’Brien… I would be more than honored, but I—it might be considered—“

“Oh, Miles is dancing with Molly, see?” She gestured to the darling tableau of father and daughter, tiny palms pressed to bigger ones. “Besides, it isn’t romantic, is it? Doctor Bashir said it was perfectly normal for anyone to dance with anyone else.”

“On Cardassia, yes. I just…want to be sure Chief O’Brien feels it is…perfectly normal.”

She laughed. “I’ll protect you, I promise.”

A lovely woman. “Well, in that case…” He held up both palms and offered her a bow.

They swayed, caught in the so-regular rise and fall of a yalt’ij. One-two-and-one-two-and-- and then, on the third sloping phrase, a turn. And repeat. And repeat.

It was…almost fun. Only once did he take a turn she hadn’t anticipated, but the faux pas was met with only a brief stumble and smiles and apology. Dancing was clearly less formal for humans, he was glad to learn. On Cardassia, that would have been the topic of a great deal of whispered disapproval.

The next song was also yalt’ij, but a slower one, and Nora Moryl joined him. For the galloping speed of the nar’ij, the Bajoran florist pressed palms, and Garak found it almost difficult to keep up with the man. Lieutenant Dax insisted on sharing the lively, pulsing kar’ij, and, much to his delight, Odo joined him for the next yalt’ij. While a bit stiff, Garak could tell that the man enjoyed it, even through the knitted bow and strained frown. Beneath all that laconic harrumphing, Garak suspected, the resident security officer had a dancer’s spirit.

When the slow, soulful tones of mor’ij sounded, he heard a resigned sigh.

“Alright, Garak.”

Major Kira held out her palms.

He didn’t move. Couldn’t, for a moment.

“Dax and Bashir insisted. Come on, it’s easier not to argue with them.”

Indeed both parties were smiling at them, swaying gently to the mor’ij themselves. 

“Major, I would be…honored.” He sincerely hoped the word honored hadn’t sounded as forced as it felt.

Mor’ij, thankfully, required little in the way of concentration. It, of all the dances, was intended to be the calmest and most intimate. It was the only form that could be considered…romantic, though he hesitated to even think the word with Major Kira within striking distance.

The doctor knew this, he felt certain. The doctor knew and that was part of the joke.

 He guided her carefully through a turn. “Major, I… wanted to say that I appreciated your erbit’sa. I know we’re not…particularly friendly, so…”

 Her expression darkened. She had clearly been hoping to avoid any unnecessary chatting. “I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true.”

“Nevertheless, I understand better than most. Sometimes speaking the truth is…hard work.”

Her look was appraising, as if she were trying to decide something. “Julian asked me to,” she admitted.

“Ahh, another testament to the doctor’s persuasive skills.”

“Like I said, it’s usually easier not to argue.” She smiled. “Not that you would agree.”

And turn… “Pardon?”

“Oh, come on, Garak. Bashir may be thick as Jalandan oak, but I’m not.”

“Major, I’m sure I don’t—“

“Oh, save the lies for the Replimat, Garak. You’re two consenting adults; it’s no business of mine.”

“No, Major, I think you must—“

“Doctor Bashir?”

He realized with alarm that Major Kira had withdrawn her hands and was motioning for the doctor rather obviously.

And he was crossing the floor towards them…

“Major, I do hope—“

“Julian, I think I’d much rather finish this mor’ij with Jadzia, if you don’t mind?”

Oh. Oh, she knew it was a mor’ij. She was bringing the doctor to him on purpose.

Close your mouth, Elim. You’ll catch lightflies.

“Are you cutting in, Major?” The doctor gave her a wicked smile. “Well then, I suppose I’ve no choice but to do the same.”

And all of the sudden, his palms were against the doctor’s, their bodies close, those eyes sparkling down at him.

Somehow he’d gone from leading the dance to being led.

“Are you alright, Garak?”

You idiot. His movements had slowed, everything off balance. Move. Your. Feet.

Steadying himself through a smile, he found the shape of the turn again. “Yes, doctor. I fear I might have indulged in that last glass of kanar rather too quickly.”

The dance carried them through the awkwardness on sweet sighs of azal, Bashir swaying to the music, turning precisely, as Garak worked hard to keep up with both his thoughts and his form.

The Major had been insinuating something. Had he been so transparent? Were they all thinking the same thing? Had she been trying to—

“It wasn’t Quark.”

This shocked him back a little. “I’m sorry?”

“It wasn’t Quark. Who told me about Tozhat. So whatever nasty trick you’re planning for him, you should probably forget it.”

Clever boy. “I’ve no idea what you mean.”

They slid through several more turns, and, when it became clear that Garak wasn’t going to ask, Bashir clearly couldn’t help himself. “I found out about it myself, actually. Known for months now.”

Interesting. “You’re getting better at keeping secrets, Doctor. I’ve had some influence, I see.”

“Let me guess. ‘There’s hope for me yet’?”

Their forearms grazed briefly, and the touch hit him with a jolt of desire. Who’s the pathetic one jumping at the smallest contact now?

He took a deep breath and straightened his arms. An embarrassing break with proper form; Mila would have frowned.

“I went down to the Center to volunteer,” the doctor continued. “I had some downtime and thought I might visit and…read or something. Imagine my surprise when the matron assumed I was bringing more gifts from Garak S’sava.”

Hearing that honorific on those full lips, so close. Oh sweet boy I could do so much with that

“I must say I was… surprised, Garak. It was an un-Cardassian thing to do, looking after those orphans. I can’t help but think …maybe I’ve had some influence on you, too.”

The next breath almost hurt, catching the scent of kanar and ghevet on the doctor’s breath. Yes, he’d had an influence. There was no denying it.

Though, of course, Garak would have to deny it.

He pressed his fingers to the doctor’s a little more firmly, feeling the delightful silk of human skin against his. “’Perhaps there’s hope for me yet…?’”

The laugh was as bright as the photolanterns that gleamed across the polished floor.

“Why, Mister Garak, I believe there really might be.”

Then, to Garak’s surprise, the human turned his palms and wrapped both his hands with Garak’s, long fingers twining his in yut’mer. He smiled. It was fond.

Garak’s heart gave a dangerous lurch at the last note of the mor’ij .

That smile stuck in him like a shard as the doctor bowed and walked away.

 

***************

These things always seemed to peter out. The seren’Ora had no prescribed ending, and often, guests fell away naturally as the night wore on, leaving only the closest friends and family or the most enthusiastic drinkers.

And this night was no different. Jake and Nog left first, having discharged their obligation, followed quickly by Commander Worf. The O’Briens left to put their daughter to bed, and Quark and Rom returned to the bar to close up. Nora Moryl went home to her new wife, and Captain Sisko mentioned some report that needed finishing. For a time, it was only Kira, Odo, Dax and himself, and dancing was abandoned in favor of a bottle of breet-vintage and the last few slices of cake.

Odo and Kira amused everyone by recounting a run-in they’d had with a smuggler during docking inspections earlier that week. Dax followed with an enthralling fistfight Curzon had won against an Orion slave trader. Bashir just laughed and poured the kanar.

And Garak…well, he was sulking. Oh, not on the outside. He was always able to be the very picture of polite interest to any observer. Obsidian Order training, yes, but more so, retail experience. Customers did like to blather on about all manner of nonsense, and they expected attention.

But ever since the doctor had wrapped their hands in the familiar gesture of yut’mer, he’d felt the discontent building inside him like a duststorm.

He’d loved it, of course—truthfully, he’d loved every drekking thing about the evening except the s’sast, which had a bit more fishpaste than he liked.

And that enjoyment merely honed the edge of this pain.

Tomorrow he would wake up and open his shop and alter trousers. He would close for lunch and sit across from the doctor and argue about—what was it the doctor had recommended? Much Ado About Nothing. Garak already knew they would argue. Calling the play a comedy was already rich grounds for disagreement.

Life would go on, and everything he’d felt tonight—the closeness and the meaning and the sudden overwhelming urge to wrap more than hands in soft warmth—would vanish, like the blind moon at midyear.

You knew it was an illusion, Elim. You knew that, and you still let yourself be drawn in…

And, as usual, the doctor had no idea.

They sat at a table and had the most rousing arguments Garak had ever experienced, and yet, to the human it was just good fun. They sat across from one another, seren’Ora host and itask’harani, and the doctor spoke of friendship. They joined hands in yut’mer—he couldn’t remember the last time he’d made yut’mer with anyone—and the doctor smiled and walked away.

When was Garak going to learn? When was he going to understand that, while the playacting could be fun for a time, the truth of it was always going to circle back on him, hurting a little more than it had before?

Because, somehow you convince yourself that a man like you is beyond sentiment.

He really should know better by now.

“Oh, no that can’t be…right, Garak?”

He’d been wearing an interested smile but heard nothing. “What makes you say that, Lieutenant?”

“You can’t be ready to call it a night. It’s your party. You can’t leave yet!”

I really think that I can. “Well, I am getting on in years. I can’t be expected to indulge quite like I used to. But it has been a marvelous evening. Thank you all.”

To his relief, everyone seemed to take the hint.

Odo left with little more than a gruff nod. Kira did the same, but Garak saw something more in the look she gave him on the way through the doors. Something knowing. I need to watch myself around that one.

That left himself, Dax, and the doctor all smiling at one another. Guls, he really was sick of smiling.

“Well, Garak, I hope you did enjoy your evening. And I hope you’re not too upset with Julian for ignoring your wishes…”

“One should think I’d expect it by now.” His expression spoke of levity, but the darting look of concern the Lieutenant gave the doctor told him something in his tone belied it.

“He—well, we—want you to know you’re valued here.”

“So very…kind of you.”

She opened her mouth as if to reply, but then closed it, turning on her heel to offer him only a view of her back. “It was a lovely party, Julian. I know we appreciated it.”

So that’s what three hundred years’ worth of snark sounds like. Not so charming now, apparently.

The whoosh of the holosuite doors came and went, and he kept himself from looking in the doctor’s direction by collecting the small package of maka and Molly O’Brien’s drawing, all the while taking deep, steadying breaths. Plain and simple, Elim. Say thank you, shake his hand, and leave. You’ve a whole bottle of kanar in your quarters, if it comes to that.

There were certainly some days where he missed the oblivion of the wire.

“Is…something bothering you, Garak?”

He wanted to grab the human. He wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him and yell that of course something was bothering him. How could such a bright man be so damnably blind?

But he didn’t grab anything, instead summoning up one last smile and extending a genial hand. “Nothing at all, Doctor. Nothing could possibly be wrong after such a lovely evening. Thank you.”

The doctor didn’t take the hand. His brow was drawn. “It doesn’t sound that way. You sound a bit…upset, actually.”

“Upset? Of course not. I know you’ve put a lot of work into this.”

 “Well, yes, I did, as a matter of fact.” A hint of anger volleyed back at him in the doctor’s tone.

“And of course, I am duly grateful.”

Those hazel eyes heated, the set of lips hardened. “’Duly grateful?’ Is that all you have to say? After all of this?”

And there it is. Something in the smug, self-righteous anger kindled his own fully. “Oh, forgive me. Was I supposed to fall down on my knees in gratitude and sing the praises of dear generous Doctor Bashir, the kindly young man who took pity on this simple tailor?”

“Pity? You think this was pity?”

“Of course it was, Doctor. A bunch of sanctimonious Starfleet officers and their pets getting together to bake a cake and work up something nice to say about the local exile.”

“My, aren’t we feeling sorry for ourselves tonight!”

“I didn’t want this, Doctor! I told you very clearly. Very explicitly.”

“Well, forgive me for wanting to celebrate. For wanting to give you something. I know you hate nothing more than not being in total and complete control.”

“It wasn’t your place, Doctor! It wasn’t your place to do this!”

“Oh, am I not Cardassian enough? Did I make a muck of it, is that it?”

“No, Doctor! It was perfect. The food, the pavilion, the dancing. Every detail was flawless. Except for one tiny thing.”

“Is this about the sodding poem? Because I—“

“We’re not lovers, Doctor!”

He’d blurted it, and it hung in the air as thick and dark as a Torelian cavebat. All around them, the world had gone terribly quiet, save for the pounding of his heartbeat in his ears.

Come on, you ridiculous man. Explain it before you utterly destroy everything

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “The seren’Ora is meant to be arranged by a lover. A partner. An inamorato. To have this—this beautiful ceremony given by a…a friend…it’s a humiliation! It’s the most shameful kind of pity a grown man—“

“Don’t you think I know that, Garak?”

He stopped. What?

“You saw how much research went into this. Don’t you think I realized, in all that studying, that a seren’Ora was meant to be given by a…romantic partner?”

The pause stretched, cold against hot anger.

“Why do you think I went ahead and did it, you infuriating arse?!”

Garak had the absurd sensation of having stepped out of his body, watching the entire scene play out as if on a stage. What’s my line again?

He shook his head, trying to regain some semblance of a hold on things, but managed only fits and starts. “You… knew. This…”

“What? Can’t get it out? Was it all a bit too subtle for you? Then allow me.” The doctor stood straighter. “Elim Garak, I have romantic feelings for you.”

Feeling the vague hint of panic at the edges of his mind, Garak reached for that façade—the plain and simple one he could pull over himself as easily as a cloak. He’d always had a gift for tailoring—be it clothing or faces or personae entire. He was always able to find a mask.

But in this moment all the smiles, the quips, the insouciance had melted away. Anger melted away. Every clicking tabulation of his brain was still.

Say something. Say any-drekking-thing at all, Elim.

But nothing came.

Luckily, the doctor seemed to have words enough for them both. “It…it took me a while to realize it, I admit, but as I started planning this thing and I—I asked myself why I kept planning it. Why it was so important to me. The same as with the implant, but then at least I could tell myself you were my patient. It was in service of my duty. But this… I knew it wasn’t my place, but …I listened to Keiko tell me about your garden. I listened to all the advice you’d given Moryl about her wedding. I listened to Kira admit that, all things being equal, she was glad you were here. I listened to that tiny Cardassian girl talk about The Never-bloody-ending Sacrifice and how damned much she wanted to thank you. And…I guess it hit me. All these lunches and arguments and games…they’ve all been wrapped around a feeling I couldn’t understand. Infatuation, I thought, but…no, Garak. I’m sorry if it offends you, and you’ve every right to not feel the same, but…you’re not just my friend. And…and as for being lovers, well that’s…that’s really up to you.”

Once, during a long-haul spaceflight to Ab-Tzenketh, the freighter he’d been travelling on had moved through a series of unexpected electromagnetic storms. Each time they’d hit a new pocket, the artificial gravity had cut, and the whole world upended without warning, tea cups and baggage and other travelers all careening off one another for several directionless seconds before it restored and all came thudding to the ground.

He was floating like that now, directionless, and yet, somehow, he was also falling, bracing for the impact.

Could this be more of the human’s misplaced pity? He was rather young. Could he have mistaken compassion for something more?

Or was it the translator? Could there be some platonic version of lovers that didn’t come through with nuance intact?

But suddenly human arms were around him, pulling him into heat and musk and, oh, lips. Those lips were on his and…kissing. The doctor was kissing him. 

Well, that wasn’t a translator error.

During some of the doctor’s more pedantic lunchtime speeches, Garak occasionally allowed himself to imagine what it might be like to simply lean forward and shut the beautiful young man up with a kiss like this. He’d imagined the shock in those big eyes—the initial instinct to pull back that, at least in his imagination, gave way to reluctant curiosity and return. He’d imagined the smile of satisfaction on red worked lips. The pink blush on cheeks and neck…

He now found himself experiencing the moment in a perfect inverse.

 Well, without the pink, though he could only imagine how his ridges had darkened and what sort of blue blush highlighted his chufa.

Apparently the doctor rather admired the change, eyes sweeping up and down his neck in admiration. “Well, that’s lovely, isn’t it?”

His own eyes were stuck on those lips. That had just been kissing him. On his lips.

His brain wasn’t functioning properly.

The doctor chuckled. “I’ll assume that means my advances were…welcome.”

He opened his mouth but rejected at least ten remarks all at once. Everything was either too sarcastic or too revealing or—  

“Garak?”

“Mmmm?”

“Stop trying to think of something clever to say and just kiss me.”

One of the doctor’s better suggestions.

How long that went on, he couldn’t have said. Couldn’t possibly have cared. His attention stayed on those human lips, and the two of them sat on the steps of the pavilion, gold and silver beneath them, fading stars above, and between them, very little space.

“So…” The doctor eventually attempted to speak, the shape of his smile pressed light on Garak’s lips, a hand running down neckridge. “I believe there was some tell of you falling down on your knees in gratitude…?”

The doctor’s tone left little doubt of the insinuation, and, when Garak pulled back to give him a faux-scandalized look, he held up both hands quickly. “Joking, joking!” The rising sun highlighted happy lines around the young man’s eyes. “You know, mostly.”

It was beautiful. He was beautiful, damn him. “There will be time for…gratitude, dear doctor. For now, do let’s enjoy what little is left this lovely evening.”

Human fingers twined in his. Night-locusts quieted, and the red of Cardassian sun slid over his scales. The world warmed with it. As did he.

And then the day was undeniably new. For the first time in a long while, the arrival of a new day brought him joy.

Brown eyes met his, bright with daylight and something more. “Happy itask’haran, Mister Garak.”

They exchanged another kiss. Soft human touch traced aural ridges, and he shivered. “Happier than I ever imagined, Doctor,” he managed, before they abandoned words again.

And for once, Elim Garak was telling nothing more or less than the absolute truth.