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Happy Birs'sday, Doctor Bashir

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Happy Birs’sday, Doctor Bashir

 

Chapter 1: Blinding Sweet

Cardassia, 2391         

 

Garak stood in the shadows and watched the shuttleport bustle around him. Travelers shuffled past, unaware. Tinny announcements croaked overhead. At the freight bays, cargo boxes were moved to pallets and on with quiet efficiency. Impatient patrons filled the café across, passing time over padds and drinks and broadsheets. It was early; the smell of rokassa was on the air.

Such watching came easily, he was surprised to find. Tain’s training didn’t tarnish, it seemed, even after years of disuse.

Even if part of him had hoped it might, just a little.

Garak had stood here before, in those years of Tain’s. Almost on this very spot. It looked different then, cleaner and more sterile, but it felt the same. There’d been a group of dissidents—five young men attempting to purchase a cargo berth off-planet. He’d stood in the shadows, stalking, a shadowcat on the prowl. There’d been exhilaration as he coiled, ready to pounce.

He felt a hint of that coil now. The thrill of stealth. Of the chase. He had missed it.

“Yaaaaaaaaaaad…”

His daughter’s whine, however, uncoiled that coil with ease.

Beside him, she plopped to the ground dramatically, drawing knobby knees to chest with a huff. “How much loooonger?”

Guls, that voice. Just a few years ago it had been as small and sweet as the trill of a desert lark. Now it put him more in mind of braying zabo in the fields.

“Not much longer, lis’sea. Do try to be patient.”

She stared up, pale eyes intense. There was no blood relation, but people often assumed one. It was certainly because of the eyes. “Can I get a rokassa?”

“You already had a rokassa. Too much will rot your teeth.”

“Our teacher says that’s not true. She says that’s something grandmothers say because rokassa used to be expensive. Before the growth projects.”

“Well, you’re more than welcome to test her theory if you don’t mind your teeth falling out …”

She shot him a dubious look but moved on all the same. “Who are we’re waiting for again?”

“I told you. An old friend.”

“Why are we meeting an old friend here? The official arrival area is—“

Ch’up, my dear,” he warned.

“And how come you didn’t mention it to Da?”

Garak sighed. No, this was nothing like the old days. It was, in fact, more stressful. And his back was killing him.

“Does Da not like this friend?” she pressed.

“Fate is not kind to children who ask too many questions.” Every once in a while, he opened his mouth and Mila’s words emerged.

“My teacher says good Cardassian citizens should ask questions. That questions are the root of knowledge and that not asking them leads to tyranny and oppression.”

That one, he felt. The children’s teacher was young, and this new generation of Cardassians…He tried to understand, but sometimes, hearing the things that came out of his children’s mouths…

He sighed. “Far be it from me to doubt your teacher, but, in this case, I can guarantee more questions will be the root of a week without games on your vidpadd.”

Their eyes met, and he could see her daring herself. Trying to decide if it was worth the risk.

In Issi’s estimation, it was almost always worth the risk. His daughter in too many ways. “Maybe I should ask Da what he thinks.” She smirked. It was the same look she got when she thought she had him cornered in a game of kotra.

The trouble was, in this instance, she had cornered him.

He smiled, though he knew he shouldn’t. Julian would disapprove of rewarding such behavior. But really, she was getting quite good. “My dear, why don’t you go to the café and buy yourself a rokassa.” He pressed five gray credits into her hand. “I imagine that will quench both your thirst and your curiosity, yes?”

Issi nodded brightly, already halfway to the shop.

“And get one for you brother, too!” he shouted at her as she disappeared into the crowd. For a brief, heart-tightening moment, he was taken aback by how tall she’d grown. Almost as tall as the women she passed, though, thank the state, she was still years from that. She was also, however, a very long way from the toddler who’d pressed herself to his leg and circled his knee in chubby, barely-scaled arms.

He glanced at Issen standing on his other side, tapping a beat with fingers against leg. Even taller, he and Garak would be eye to eye soon enough. His limbs were growing gangly; his neckridges thickening.  He seemed older than his twelve years, though many children who’d grown up in the want after the Fire seemed older than they should. 

You’ll keep my secret, won’t you?” Garak said to him quietly.

The boy gave a curt nod.

“Thank the state I have one loyal child.”

Issen stayed silent and kept attention turned down, but Garak didn’t miss the tick of lips. Amusement.

Garak still heard the nurse’s dismissive words when he looked at his son, sometimes. Heard the tone she’d used, as if holding up a piece of rotten fruit for inspection before chucking it into the waste pile. The girl is fine, but the boy doesn’t speak.

Back then, Issen had barely moved, crunched in a corner, silent. Issi sat beside him, glaring at anyone who passed. It had been only a month since their mother had died—one of the hundred plagues that seemed to flare in those first desperate years. Julian had done everything he could, but…

Julian had offered the boy a slice of leejat, and the boy had taken it and smiled in a way the nurse assured them she’d never seen before. That had cinched it for Issi. She’d clung to Garak then and assured him it was okay that Issen didn’t talk. That she spoke enough for the both of them.

At first, Garak now shamed to admit, he’d felt the same as that nurse. The same as any Cardassian before the Fire might have. The boy, in any other time, would have been eliminated. Or stuck into a state facility to live out a series of walled-in, solitary days that was hardly better.

But Julian had convinced him. Garak knew—had known from the day Julian first suggested, in timorous tones, that they might adopt the twins—that, in Issen, Julian saw himself. Himself as he might have been, if the board had arrayed itself elsewise.

And Julian had been insistent: Issen did talk. The problem was that no one knew how to listen.

In the last seven years, Garak had discovered that, of course, Julian was right. Issen spoke occasionally now, sometimes in floods of words without pause, sometimes in terse monosyllables. But even when there were no words, Garak had learned to hear what Issen said with a quirk of lip, a change of posture. Garak had come to love him—to love both children with the same startled and unlikely intensity with which he’d come to love his husband.

And frankly, these days especially, Garak was grateful for one child who knew how to measure their words.

He set a gentle hand on Issen’s back. Issen nodded acknowledgment.

“Garak?”

The name surprised him, and he cursed himself for the distraction. Tain would have had no patience for him.

“Elim Garak?”

The Cardassian face that greeted him was that of a complete stranger.

“It’s me! Varak Paran. From Empok Nor…?”

That was the code. Excellent. “Ahh, yes. Paran! How have you been?”

The man set down the shoulder bag he’d been carrying and embraced Garak firmly. With an interior wince, Garak accepted it, though Order training tightened his attention. He kept hands away from any vital targets and arms at angles unable to pinion.

“Oh, you know me! I’ve been fine…I’ve been fine. Can be hard to find a job these days, but I thought I might strike out. Head for Kora II. Heard they’ve got some work on the new growth colonies there.” The man looked a little impatient, dull eyes belying the smile pasted across his face.

An amateur. Garak would have to teach the boy a thing or two about selecting a middle man. Nevertheless, Garak forced himself to exchange a few more bland pleasantries about Kora II and about the progress of the gehoon crops there before he felt it was enough. “Well, I wish you success, then, Paran. And do say hello to your mother for me, when you next see her.” He extended his hand.

The other man took it. He palmed the fifty-credit chit Garak held out. Garak was rewarded with a dataclip at the same time.

It was a bit like old days, he supposed.

The other man walked away, and Garak followed his bobbing head until it was lost in the crowd.

It exchanged itself with Issi’s face, bright and lips shining with iced rokassa.

“Was that him?” she asked as she handed another drink to Issen. “The old friend?”

“Yes, it was.” Garak wasted no time pulling a padd from his bag and inserting the data clip.

Green letters scrawled across the screen.

Garak—

You weren’t kidding about how hard it is to get Federation goods through the Cardassian borders. But, as always, the River provides. I found everything you wanted, but whether or not the enclosed are “teal”…I’ll let you be the judge.

I’m sorry I won’t be able to make it, but pass on my best wishes to Doctor Bashir. I hope I can visit sometime in the future, assuming you guys ever start letting us Federation types back through. I have to tell you, I don’t know how you’re going to pull this off, but I’ve definitely learned not to underestimate you.

Best wishes,

Nog, Capt, USS Defiant

 

Garak clicked the padd off with a smile. He’d known the Ferengi would find a way. It really was a good thing he hadn’t killed him.

“Uh, Yad?” Issi was tugging at his tunic. “Your friend forgot his bag.”

Issen was pointing to the dusty gray duffle bag sitting just beside them.

Garak grinned. “Well, we’ll have to hold onto it for him, won’t we?” He swiped it up from the ground and put it over his shoulder.

Issi’s eyes grew large. “That’s stealing, Yad. Da won’t let you.”

“It’s only stealing if we keep it, lis’sea. Now let’s have a look, here. Just so we know what we’re holding onto.”

The girl opened her mouth to object, but when the scanner beeped in acceptance of his fingerprint and the lock popped open alluringly, curiosity got the better of morals, and she leaned in to peek. Even Issen turned his head.

Several rolls of what was almost teal paper. Some odd cone-shaped devices that, if Garak remembered correctly, made the most horrendous noise. Something Keiko O’Brien had once assured him was traditional headwear for the occasion, and…yes. There they were.

He pulled one out. The odd, rubbery material shone in the overhead lights.

“What…what is that?” Issi said, poking it with a long claw. Issen made an excited noise.

“It’s a human thing, lis’sea. They call it a ‘bah-loon.’” He shook it a little and both children jumped back with a laugh.

“What…what’s it for?”

“Like many human things, my dear, it serves little practical purpose.” He sighed and replaced it. “Other than, I hope, to make your Da very, very happy.”

“How will that make Da happy?” she asked with the obvious disbelief of a young girl who had been lied to many times.

He gave her a broad smile. No, it wasn’t the old days, but it had its own kind of excitement. “Let’s go back to the shop, and I’ll show you how to blow them up.”

Both children agreed it had been their best outing in ages.

 

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

As a general rule, Cardassians didn’t believe in luck. There was fate and there was purpose, reward and consequence: luck was something only children believed in.

Garak did occasionally consider, however, that his own life might be a reasonable counterargument. The first few months after his and Julian’s Enjoinment, in fact, awareness of his good fortune had been near constant. Each time he’d looked at the man who stayed with him—who had stayed for him—the feeling of having somehow inexplicably tipped the scales threatened to overwhelm him.

He was getting maudlin in his old age: it was the only explanation.

These days, that lucky feeling hit him less often but with no less force. It came sideways in little moments. He would be moving through the routines of the day, gray and smooth, when it took him unawares. Some movement or apt phrase or striking silhouette would bring it back: a pleasant sort of panic, that awareness of unearned joy. It felt warm at the center but hot to the touch.

Currently, it struck as he entered the living room to find his husband stretched on the long chaise, legs bunched beneath slender body, torso covered in padds, one arm tucked behind his head. The sun had long set, and the dim lamps poured gold over already golden skin. Though it was a mild spring night, sweat beaded there, and Garak could taste it on the air. Completely absorbed in whatever was on his padd, Julian rubbed at the stubbly hair on his chin absently, full lips in a pout of concentration.

Beauty that burns, the poet Kavit had written. Merciless as the sun and blinding sweet. Garak regularly understood just what he’d meant.

Eyes finally glanced up, and the pout disappeared into a deep breath and a stretch. “Finally. I take it Sen  has succumbed to sleep at last?” He pulled his legs up further, making room for Garak at the end of the chaise.

Garak sat. “I believe so. I had to let him get up to finish the circuit board he’d been tinkering with: he had some idea he simply couldn’t let go of.”  In fact, Issen had been practicing his portion of the poetry recital for Julian’s upcoming seren’Ora, and hadn’t wanted to stop until he’d gotten through the entirety of it without error. The boy was remarkably tenacious. “I wonder where on Prime he picked up that obsession with work over sleep.”

Julian set his feet in Garak’s lap with a playful poke at Garak’s middle. “One can only assume from the father who stays up until sunrise working and reworking the same spot of embroidery on a wedding tunic. I don’t sleep well when you’re not in bed, by the way.”

“Oh, I do apologize. I should have told Tinat S’sava to put his Enjoinment on hold: my husband needs his beauty sleep.”

 “How else am I going to stay this beautiful?”

Garak grabbed Julian’s foot, bracing his other hand under a firm stretch of calf. They exchanged smiles. Garak felt that burn. “I’m not convinced you can help but be beautiful, my dear.”

“Mmm. You old charmer.” Julian rolled his eyes and handed forward the padd he’d been reading. “This morning’s Caller. Have you seen it?”

Garak took the padd reluctantly. He was in the mood for something entirely other than reading. But he could be patient.

On most days, Garak read the major broadsheets during slow moments at the shop. This morning, however, had been decidedly lacking in lulls, and he hadn’t seen. The face smiling up from the front cover was older than when last he’d seen it but had the same air of easy condescension. The caption beneath claimed to picture the current President-Elect of the Federation Council.

“Looks like she’s the one,” Julian said, propping himself up slightly.

Garak took in the familiar face, keeping tight control over his reaction. One didn’t forget Lwaxana Troi, Daughter of the Fifth House, Holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx, and Heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed. During those years of exile, she’d been an infrequent but profitable customer and an excellent source of station gossip. He’d rather liked her…then, at least. Now…well, things had changed in those intervening years.

“Indeed.” He handed the padd back to Julian with as much grace as he could muster.

“You don’t approve?” It wasn’t really a question.

“As far as I knew her, she was a perfectly charming woman.” It wasn’t really an answer.

“Elim Garak, the days when you could lie to me are long past.” It had the air of admonishment Garak had come to expect on this topic. “It’s because she’s a Betazoid, I take it?”

“My dear, I have no quarrel with Betazoids,” he said, trying to mean it. “But if the Federation was looking to smooth relations with Cardassia, naming a Betazoid was hardly the politic choice.”

“Hasn’t this ridiculous animosity run its course, Elim?” He was sitting up fully now, animated with those human passions Garak found at once annoying and particularly endearing. A different sort of burning, in fact. “Cardassia has found her footing. Betazed has recovered…Can’t we leave the past behind?”

Garak didn’t answer. He couldn’t give the answer Julian wanted.

It had been sixteen years since Betazed and Cardassia had both gone about the quadrant, holding out their begging bowls. As the two planets most devastated by the war, they had been quite large bowls.

In those early years of recovery, the Federation had been essential and, even Garak had to admit, remarkably equitable considering Cardassia had been, until the Fire, the enemy. Early Federation aid had helped to rebuild vital infrastructure and to begin the growth projects that had reclaimed so much lost land for agriculture. Starfleet officers and Federation citizens had stood side by side with Cardassian teams to rebuild roads and combat unavoidable outbreaks of virulent disease.

What Cardassia needed most, however, after those first desperate years, were high-grade industrial replicators. They were the necessary component for Cardassia to regain some of her independence and to allow Cardassians to take the lead on their own recovery projects. They would allow Cardassians to begin rebuilding their own bridges and roads and cities instead of relying on Federation supply lines.

Cardassia had sent representatives to the Federation Council to plead their case. They made an impassioned appeal and presented proposals for the use of said replicators. They invited suggestions for replicator use from Federation liaisons. They even conducted the entire affair in Standard, impeccably and diplomatically expressed. All of Cardassia, even those who might not appreciate the Reunionist agenda, had to admit that Ghemor and his like represented the Union well that day.

They were told that the Federation would maintain its current aid arrangement.

Relations had been strained, to say the least, as the ‘casts showed holos of Cardassian diplomats exiting those gleaming halls on Earth only to return to their ramshackle offices empty-handed.

Several cycles later, the ‘casts had shown another story entirely.

The Federation had sent two hundred high-grade industrial replicators to Betazed.

Bad feeling went from a smolder to outright conflagration. ‘Casts and broadsheets exploded with resentment. It hadn’t taken long for the story to spread and for the fledgling Cardassian press to take it to its logical extremes. Some said it was designed to pressure Cardassia into joining the Federation. Some said Starfleet feared Cardassia would use replicators to create weapons. Many said the Federation wanted nothing more than to keep Cardassia abject. Harmless.

A block of Starfleet aid barracks had been burned to the ground in Culat. In Cardassi’or, a group of Starfleet volunteers had been accosted and beaten in the streets. Garak had tried to keep Julian indoors, but of course, the man had been stubborn. He’d endured only some uncouth shouting, luckily, and by that time, of course, he’d learned enough Kardasi to shout right back.

It had taken only two more octals before Federation aid workers and Starfleet officers were instructed to evacuate the Union for their safety.

Garak had girded himself to lose Julian, but to his—and everyone’s—surprise, Julian wanted to stay. He applied for citizenship, and they’d vowed to be Enjoined on that day. A terrible day for Cardassia, but, in the end, one of the best thus far for him.

He looked over at that man, at his husband, who was still staring through pleading eyes. “We might not agree with what the Federation did, Elim, but…it was needed. Betazed suffered after the war, too. And Ambassador Troi helped them through it.”

“You don’t have to remind me,” he said, reaching for a padd of his own. He didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to acknowledge the worry that gnawed at him each time something pushed the Union and Federation further apart. “I think, just now, however, I’d prefer the intrigue of Alea Mari’s latest enigma tale to the heavy fare of intergalactic politics, if you don’t mind.” He powered on the padd with an overly elaborate sigh. “After all, I am but a plain, simple tailor. Politics are, perhaps, too grand a thing for me.”

Julian laughed and planted a kiss on his cheek before settling back down onto the chaise. “Plain and simple. I haven’t heard that one in a while.”

That’s because now, my dear Julian, it’s true. He thought it with only a trace of bitterness. Too true. He’d had such good fortune in most things—it didn’t do to dwell on the losses.

Julian was still looking, wistful, at the broadsheet in front of him. It made him look younger somehow. “Do you remember when she came to the station—er, Ambassador Troi—and made everyone fall in love with each other?”

“Only second-hand, my dear. Luckily for me, I kept to myself during those garish Bajoran festivals.”

A wicked smile. “Oh yes. Thankfully. If you had been out and about, there’s no telling who you might have fallen for,” he said with an obvious tilt to the innuendo. “Someone for whom you shared a secret desire…”

“Hmm, yes, well that Bajoran florist was quite attractive.”

A scoff. “Are you trying to make me jealous, Elim? Twenty-five years later?”

“Oh, I hardly think you have a right to jealousy. You had a dalliance with then-Major Kira, if I recall.”

“Oh, God, don’t remind me. You know, we never breathed a word about it after that. Not once.”  Julian blushed a pretty shade of pink.

It was one of Garak’s favorite colors on the human. “Really? We talked about it.”

“What? You never told me that!”

“We had some long nights in that basement.” Garak had been so bored, and it had been such good fun to feign a fit of jealous pique and hear the Colonel splutter an unwieldy mix of outrage and apology. Come to think of it, she had turned a lovely shade of pink as well.

“Well…what did she say about—no, you know what, never mind.”

His smile strained a little, and Garak recognized the look. Julian got it more and more often these days, when they spoke about their past. The sweet pain of nostalgia. Of loss.

After the breakdown in diplomatic relations, relations of all sorts between the Federation and Cardassia had been severely restricted. Communication channels into Federation worlds were regulated and, eventually, outright prohibited for all but approved persons in government and media. Goods from the Federation were restricted to the point of being near impossible to receive. For a time, old-fashioned paper or padd letters had been the exception, but even those hadn’t been realistic options in years. There weren’t people left on Cardassia who cared enough to try.

Julian hadn’t been in contact with anyone from his former life—their former life—in almost twelve years. As long as the two of them had been Enjoined.

And it rankled.

“It’s strange…it’s been sixteen years, but it feels like a whole lifetime ago.”

“It is a whole new life, Julian. I’m sorry it’s had to be that way.”

Julian looked suddenly worried. “Elim, don’t—you don’t need to apologize. I wouldn’t trade what we have here—what I have—for all the stars of the Federation. I just…sometimes I miss them, that’s all. You understand, don’t you?” He held up his hand, palm out, sweetly.

Elim reached forward and pressed it to his. “Of course I do, my dear. It’s normal to wax nostalgic with advancing age.”

Julian batted away his hand with a growl. “Evil man.”

“I did try to warn you. And, speaking of your advancing age, you still haven’t selected the material for your seren’Ora mijast.”

Julian groaned in a way all too familiar. That’s where Issi learned it, then. “Can’t you choose it? I’m useless at that, as you’re always reminding me.”

“It’s tradition, my dear.”

Cardassian tradition. Which I’m already honoring despite my general dislike for big birthday parties.”

Garak smiled and slid an exploratory hand up his leg. The light in Julian’s eyes told him it was a welcome one. Good fortune, indeed. “Oh? What makes you think this is going to be a big celebration? I’ve nothing big planned.”

“Elim Garak, you are the worst liar,” he chuckled, before leaning up to kiss Garak deeply.

It burned.

There was nothing in his life that should have earned him this. This was all luck.

“Doctor,” he said, pulling the other man close. “There may be hope for you yet.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: The River Bottom

 

Garak hated visiting the hospital where Julian worked. Everything there was sickeningly familiar, from the gleaming surfaces to the aura of efficiency to the antiseptic stench. Garak had worked in rooms much the same, though here stark whites and grays replaced black. In the end, though, the effect was the same, everything painted in the broad strokes of sterile, quantified pain.

Julian had caught on. Each time they met for lunch, Garak picked the café down the street or the park across the way—never the hospital cafeteria. If I didn’t know better, Julian had teased, I’d think you were afraid of doctors.

Garak stared at the sullen, closed office door. Well, to be fair, there was certainly one doctor he tried to avoid.

“Mister Paran?” the young woman at the desk said politely. She had the same glossy look of the floors in the hallway.

Paran. Yes, that was him. “Forgive me, madam. I was far away.”

She gave a nod that was a dismissal. “Doctor Parmak will see you now.”

Right on time, the old bastard. Garak took a deep breath. That stiff-backed  arret wasn’t going to be happy when he realized who his three o’clock really was. If they were to avoid a scene or security or any other drama that might alert Julian to his presence, Garak was going to need to find that place deep down—that cold serenity. Like the dark, steady current at the river bottom, Instructor Calyx used to say before a sparring match. Away from the roiling surface and into the depths. That’s where the mind and body do their best work.

He steadied himself against that river bottom for only a moment longer before sweeping into the room with an unmoving smile and a deep bow. “Doctor Parmak, s’sava. Thank you for seeing me.”

The man sat at a sturdy desk, papers stacked neatly as if to assure visitors that work was being dealt with properly and in an orderly fashion. At the end of his long nose, round spectacles glinted. His hair was plaited down his back in that intricate Indari fashion, shocking white. It had been that way even then, some thirty years ago when they’d sat across from each other the first time.

The old man was aging well..

Garak sat.

They stared at one another. The ramak’s hide chair creaked as he crossed his legs.

“Mister Paran.” Parmak sighed as he removed his glasses and set them on the desk in front of him. Fingers found the length of a scar below his ear, as it did whenever he saw Garak. Whether the ritual was conscious or not, Garak had never been able to tell. “I wouldn’t say it’s a pleasure.”

“Forgive my deception,” Garak said, sincere. He didn’t like starting an already unpleasant conversation this way. “I…wasn’t sure you’d see me if I’d given my name.”

“A well-founded fear.” Parmak sniffed and, as if aware his fingers had drifted, pressed them together on his desk with precision. “I’m not eager to sit with you, as you can imagine, Inquisitor.”

The word bounced off—at least, for now. “Nor I you, Doctor. But I’m afraid I…need your help.”

Garak had to give Parmak some credit. A lesser man might have snarled or jeered. And certainly, Garak admitted, with cause. His interrogation of Parmak, though a matter of distant years, was nevertheless a reasonable grievance. The result had been three years in a labor camp and the loss of dexterity in his right hand—a cruel price for a surgeon.

Of course, Garak hadn’t sent him to the camp. Garak hadn’t given him the scar. Garak hadn’t even tortured him. Truth be told—or at least one version of it—Garak had done little but sit and stare, much as he was doing now. Parmak had been guilty. Parmak had been sentenced. That the dissidents ended up on the right side of history didn’t change that.

But truth was a jewel with countless facets, and Garak understood how this man might have a more personal—and more bitter—version of it. He didn’t begrudge him that.

And, to Parmak’s credit, he didn’t break nearly so easily these days.

Parmak sat up straighter. “If this is a medical issue, I can recommend—“

“It’s not a medical issue.”

There was a twitch, barely there, just below the eye. The old man was trying to touch his own river bottom, it seemed. “Then I think I can say, Mister Garak, whatever help you seek is outside my purview.”

“I should be clear, s’sava.” A little respect never hurt. “This concerns my husband.”

The hard set of the man’s mouth softened, though eyes remained wary. Parmak and Julian got along like the flower and the rain. As much as Parmak loathed Garak, he adored Julian, almost from the first day they’d met. A mutual feeling, too—and one that engendered an annoying stab of jealousy, however brief. Garak had long known Julian respected something in Parmak that he didn’t have. And it smarted.

And Parmak knew it. “Continue.”

Garak had spent his time in the waiting room thinking of the right way to broach the subject. “Perhaps you are aware of the human custom of celebrating ‘birs’s’—forgive me, birthdays?’” He tried to keep his voice light even as he tripped over the odd Standard sounds. “They’re something like itask’haran but celebrated ann—“

“I’m familiar with the tradition. Julian has mentioned it.”

Parmak didn’t smile, but he didn’t need to. Garak felt it. Parmak was the only other Cardassian on the planet that used Julian’s first name. It tripped off his tongue like the glint of a knife.

“Excellent,” he somehow managed. “Well, as you may also know, Julian will celebrate his fifth dassek soon. Naturally, I’m arranging his seren’Ora, but I’m hoping to surprise him with a number of human birthday traditions as well.”

“I’m sure you’ll manage the deception.”

River bottom, river bottom…. “Of course, I wish to invite you to attend. And I hope I may count on you to provide erbit’sa as well. I know it would mean the world to Julian.”

This, at least, Parmak seemed to appreciate. “I would be honored.”

“Excellent,” he resurrected the unmoving smile and slowed, like a man trying to squeeze his cart through a narrow passageway. This was going to be the tricky bit. “And…it is the human custom to provide…gifts. Something like at a seren’arat, but usually, for the fiftieth birthday, I’m given to understand, the gifts are intended to be, perhaps, a bit more significant.”

He had managed to pique the other man’s interest, and Garak watched as, for a moment, Parmak forgot their enmity and put his mind to this new task. “Ahh. A gift. Thank you for telling me. I’ll begin considering options.”

Garak half-raised a hand. Somehow he knew Parmak would understand.

“Unless,” Parmak sighed, “…of course you already have something in mind.” Ahh, there was the enmity again. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he gestured impatiently for Garak to continue.

“Lately, Julian has expressed some…feelings of disquiet at being so thoroughly separated from his friends in the Federation. He hasn’t seen any of them in more than a dassek, now.”

“Your husband’s sacrifice is one that no one at this hospital will forget. His commitment to Cardassia and  to your family is entirely admirable.”

Already working on the drekking erbit’sa, the bastard. He probably had it all written out, perfect and waiting. “Of course I would have to agree. Nevertheless, he is only human. His sentimentality has gotten the better of him recently, and he has begun to speak longingly about old times. Old stories. Old friends.”

“He has a gentle heart. I’m sure the separation is difficult.”

“Yes. That is why I was hoping…well, I was hoping we might invite a few of his friends from the Federation to the seren’Ora.”

That got the old man’s attention. His eyes widened. “Federation citizens are not permitted on Prime without express legal authorizations from either the Head Archon or the Castellan.” It was an unnecessary statement and Parmak knew it. It was a sentence to cover his shock at the suggestion. It didn’t take long for him to cover it, though, and his eyes went the opposite direction, narrowing. “But I suppose insignificant legalities are no hindrance to someone like you. Hack into the Central Hub, forge a few documents…” He made a gesture that dripped with disdain.

“The thought had occurred to me.” Up until now, he’d done his best to avoid looking Parmak directly in the eye. He knew the effect that could have, and he didn’t think it would earn him any regard in this case. But now, he couldn’t help it. He needed the other man to see—to see that he meant it. “However, as I’m always trying to prove to my beloved husband, I’ve left that sort of thing in my past. So I thought I might try the proper way and ask for your help.”

 “My help? What on Prime can I do?” He sat back. “I’m no good at deceptions as you’re well aware.”

Garak gave a nod and took his eyes away. “It’s common knowledge that you are a close associate of the recently-elected castellan and that many persons in the Assembly are associates from your work with the Reunionists. A well-placed word from you, s’sava, and a request would no doubt be given fair consideration.”

“You can make the request, Garak. Any citizen can petition the Assembly. It’s the way of things now.”

The muscles in his lower back tensed as if to brace him for the blow his ego was about to take. “You have far more influence, Doctor. A request from me would receive scorn at best and, at worst—"

“They’ll assume you’re manipulating them,” Parmak finished brutally. “Imagine that.”

They watched each other close, and Garak felt himself lose footing on that cool river bed. They were back to this. They came back to it every single time.

Several months after the Fire, with immediate wounds cauterized and bodies long buried, Garak had chosen to stay with the operation crews while Julian had joined Parmak in one of the triage hospitals. At first Garak had been asked to manage a small provisions center, handing out Federation-donated blankets, tents, and ration bars. Occasionally, when times were good, they had shoes or water filters to distribute, too.

From there, Garak had gone on to help streamline the distribution of resources to all the local provision centers. The ‘streamlining’ primarily involved discovering who in the supply chain was skimming from the top and selling or exchanging items for questionable services. People were desperate enough to do almost anything for a packet of spices or a high-volume water filter in those days. Garak had merely found those who took advantage of that fact and…persuaded them that equitable distribution would be more in their interests.

After only a year and half, Garak found himself the head atal for Torr district. He was given the responsibility of organizing the district’s communications, of assigning work details to all citizens drawing rations, of organizing the various growth projects, and of liaising with the Federation aid workers in their infrastructure repair work. He found he was uniquely suited to the task: his manner and history kept people in line, as did his tendency to assign known reprobates to the least desirable work details. The Federation aid workers were happy to interact with anyone who spoke Standard and didn’t look at them with complete disdain or bafflement. And, more to Garak’s surprise, he found that he enjoyed the work. He was helping rebuild Cardassia in a very tangible way. Parmak and the Reunionists and their ilk were working on a grander stage, but he was the one handing food to the families. He was the one checking in to be sure the growth projects were on schedule for harvest by the sixth octal.

And then came the election.

Garak had been charged with the smooth and peaceful administration of the district’s first election. Among many things, the first official castellan would be selected.

It wasn’t an easy task. Torr was a roiling mix of progressive Reunionists and conservative Restorationists, and at a time when loss and anger still bubbled close to the surface, every speech was a potential firestarter—every debate a prelude to violence.

Julian had thrown himself into Parmak’s Reunionist cause, appalled that anyone would want to tread the same path that had led Cardassia to its ruin. Garak, however, had remained neutral. He didn’t agree with the Restorationists, of course, but a part of him-- an unreasoned, instinctive part—understood better than Julian the desire for the familiar. The former.

He understood both sides, and he took neither. He insisted that anyone assigned to help him keep the peace was of his mind, intent only on peace and not on protecting any one side. He’d turned away several volunteers who seemed more interested in advancing agendas.

Julian seemed to respect his decision.

Parmak did not.

Garak had never been entirely sure how it happened. He only knew that, one Vhelet morning when he’d gone outside to water and weed the vegetable garden, Arati Mhevet had been waiting for him with a solemn look and a padd. She seemed to have some idea what news he was to receive, and, as he’d finished reading and handed it back, stunned, she apologized. Not a true apology: it was the sort of apology one gives to someone who’s injured themselves doing something idiotic. Sympathy in its most pathetic form. He hadn’t known Mhevet, who had been the de facto head of constabulary units in Torr, but he knew enough of her history to deduce her feelings about him and anyone with his past.

He had thanked her and gone back inside to make a pot of tea.

The constabulary and the interim leadership for the city agreed: Elim Garak was to be removed as atal immediately and to have no role in the operation of elections or in resource provisioning. Further, he was barred from service to the interim leadership in any capacity. The directive cited the concerns of a number of anonymous citizens with his service record prior to the Fire, most especially his involvement with abductions and interrogations conducted by the Obsidian Order.

The suspension, he was informed, was temporary, pending the outcome of the election.

To be fair, after the Reunionists had taken the majority, Castellan Ghemor had been nothing but civil and had even invited Garak to discuss the matter privately in the newly-built official residence. There was nothing grand about the castellan’s residence then, and Garak remembered the uneven state of the floors. The small crack at the corner that he’d stared at as he’d listened to Ghemor apologize. Explain.

The moment Garak had seen Kelas Parmak standing behind the castellan, he’d known how the scene would play. 

Ghemor was kind and acknowledged all Garak had done since his return to Cardassia. Had thanked him for his work and his sacrifice and the risks he had taken alongside Corat Damar.

But it wasn’t enough. There was a shadow, and enough of one that they couldn’t take the risk. Ghemor had at least been good enough to appear apologetic. You understand, don’t you?

Garak had asked, with as much equanimity as he could muster, to be allowed to work once more in the atal’s office. He couldn’t be atal, of course, but he wanted to be useful.

When Ghemor had asked Parmak’s opinion, Parmak had met Garak’s eyes. Garak could still feel it low, in the pit of his stomach, whenever he remembered.

I don’t believe this man should be allowed near power of any kind, Castellan.

The worst of it was Garak did understand. He understood entirely.

And so Garak had opened shop and gone back to mending trousers and sewing enjoinment tunics. Castellan Ghemor had been good enough to invest a small sum in his operation and had even asked Garak to design several mijasts for official functions.

Julian had made a fuss, of course. He’d tried to march into Ghemor’s lean-to office, even, though thankfully, the security that stopped him had been patient and understanding of the strange human who flung flawless Kardasi curses. 

We can fight it, p’rimit, Julian had said. You’ve proven yourself. You’ve proven yourself and then some.

It was the only time Julian and Parmak had ever fought.

That—Julian’s faith—had been enough, somehow. Eventually, he’d convinced Julian that it wasn’t a fight worth having. That their life—and Cardassia’s—would go on without him in public service.

It will never be as good as it could have been, Julian had whispered, burying his nose in Garak’s hair and wrapping his arms around Garak’s waist.

He could still feel that, too, when he remembered it, warm and deep down. How amazingly lucky he had been.

He looked across at Parmak, and suddenly, he found the river bottom once again. He knew what he needed to do.

He needed to confess.

“Doctor, s’sava. I know we’ve had our…differences. But I’m asking for Julian. I will never be able to repay him for what he’s done. For me. For our children. For Cardassia. But I want to try, and I will do everything in my admittedly limited power to do so. Including begging you, if I must.”

The old man’s face was still, but his fingers tapped. Fidgeted. He stared at Garak for a long time, dark eyes never seeming to blink. Garak began to understand what it must have been. What it was to be stared down by a man who held your fate in his hands.

I might break, too, under such eyes.

“Garak, I don’t pretend to like you. I don’t pretend to regret what’s happened, and I still believe that men like you must be kept from power at all costs.” He leaned forward on his desk, weight on elbows, fingers steadied. “But, for your husband…I will try.”

Garak smiled. A smile that moved. “Thank you, Doctor. I am immensely grateful.”

Parmak replaced his glasses and waved a dismissive hand. “Send my assistant a list of names and dates. I’ll do what I can.”

“Thank you, s’sava. I believe it will make Julian very happy.”

Though he didn’t raise his eyes, this made Parmak smile in return.

Garak had almost made it out the door, before Parmak called back.

“And Garak…?”

He froze, bracing himself.

“Next time, use your own damned name.”

Garak chuckled as he closed the door.

 

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

Though Julian often accused him of such, Garak didn’t consider himself a pessimist. He didn’t come down either way on the fundamental tilt of the universe, actually. In matters of the proverbial half-empty-or-half-full glass, Garak tended to concern himself more with whether or not he was thirsty. Neither hope nor despair seemed terribly productive.

But the moment the viewscreen chirped and he was starting into the unpleasantly surprised face of Miles O’Brien, Garak reassessed.

He’d waited until the mid-afternoon quiet of the shop, the children distracted by vidpadds and schoolwork. In northern Jalanda, it ought to be the middle of the work day just the same, which, he’d thought would give him a higher likelihood of reaching the desired party. Why she and her husband were on Bajor would, he had decided, make an excellent first topic of conversation.

But to no avail. This was the glass at its half-emptiest.

“Garak?!”

He forced a smile nevertheless. “Chief. A pleasure.”

The man blinked rather more than was necessary. He looked like a man trying to regain his footing on a trolley cart that had taken a sharp turn. “I’m, uh, I’m not ‘Chief’ anymore.” He indicated his civilian attire, a hideous pea green top Garak guessed did not improve in the bits off-screen. “I retired five years ago.”

“Ahh. Of course. Forgive me.”

“’S fine.”

There was a long, uncomfortable pause.

Garak soldiered on. “I had thought I might connect with Professor O’Brien at this time of day…?” He tried not to sound disappointed.

He failed.

“Oh. No Keiko’s at work,” He seemed similarly unhappy with this development. “She’s usually out until around six or so.”

“I see. And…Colonel Kira? My information says she is also to be contacted at this node…?”

He glanced down at the message from Parmak to confirm. The message included, along with official communication allowances and temporary travel visas, the current locations and contact data for the listed parties. Courtesy, no doubt, of the Cardassian Intelligence Bureau, who he was sure had thoroughly researched all the names he provided. Garak didn’t like that, but he wasn’t a fool. It was hardly the first file CIB kept on him and Julian. They’d kept tabs since there was a semblance of a bureau to do so. Garak had, in fact, left a few messages here and there kindly offering to teach them more effective means of covering their tracks.

Today, however, they’d made his job easier. Especially given the discovery that, in fact, four names on his list were currently reachable via the same communication node on Bajor. An interesting story indeed, no doubt.

“She’s just ‘Kira’ now, too. She’s, uh—she hasn’t been militia since Bajor joined up.”

It was a laden statement, and Garak wanted to ask more but held his tongue. In good time.

“And yeah,” O’Brien continued. “She and Zee are with us here. But they’re out at the moment.”

“Zee?”

It took the other man a minute to understand. “Yeah, I forget. It’s been a while. Zee’s Kira’s daughter.”

He looked down at the list: her name was not included. Curious, but this would take entirely too long if he asked every question that came to mind. He brushed past it. “And Mrs. Yates-Sisko and child? They’re also in residence?”

“Yeah, well, it’s Kasidy’s place, really. But she’s been off on a cargo run for the last month, and Jin’s out with Kira, too.”

This name, at least, had been included in the contact data. Jinial Yates-Sisko, age 16, daughter of the Emissary. Cardassian Intelligence must have loved that.

He scrolled down the padd as if searching for some other option.

There wasn’t one.

Well…the Chief it would have to be then. “Ahh. Then I find you alone today.”

“’Fraid so.”

There was another pause in which both men acknowledged the truth. Of all those to reconnect, they were the least enthusiastic to do so.

“I thought communications on Cardassia were a bit, um, restricted. The last letter I got from Julian said they were basically prohibited.” A doubtful look. “How are you…”

The man’s distaste at the word Cardassia and anything that followed it, though not entirely absent, had diminished during the intervening years, Garak was happy to note. His distaste at Garak, on the other hand…

“Not to worry, Mister O’Brien. This is a sanctioned communique. My days of circumventing security protocols are well behind me.”

O’Brien snorted, and Garak found it oddly gratifying to be disbelieved on this count.

“And I can assure you that, had any communication been possible, Julian would certainly have reached out.” Off screen, Garak allowed himself to clench and unclench his fists. “He’s missed you.”

This, at least, seemed to please the other man, and when he smiled, deep wrinkles creased his face. Time had improved him, Garak decided. He looked less dour for it. “And how is Julian? Can I speak with him?”

“I’m afraid not. However, I am calling on his behalf.”

A flicker of worry. “Is… everything alright?”

“Very much so. Julian is thriving, I’m happy to say.  Everyone here in Cardassi’or is exceptionally grateful for his talents and his services. He is much adored.”

O’Brien chuckled. “God, bet he loves that, eh?”

They both shared rare, understanding smiles. “Indeed he does. But the adoration is certainly well deserved.”

A nod. “And, uh, you two…you’re…?”

“Enjoined, yes.”

The human’s expression didn’t move, but Garak knew.

Sixteen years ago, this man had tried to talk Julian out of coming to Cardassia. The last time he and Julian had spoken, this man had tried to convince Julian to come home. To convince him that resigning from Starfleet would be something Julian would regret for the rest of his life.

That fact rolled out between them in the hiss of the open communication channel.

 “It’s, uh…it’s been a long time. I wish…”  He made a face. Garak recognized its pinched discomfort only too well. O’Brien was a man for whom such emotions were difficult to express. It was one of the few things they had in common.

“As do we,” Garak interrupted, saving the human any fumbling for the right words. “Actually, I was hoping you and Doctor O’Brien might come for a visit. And your many housemates as well.”

“A…a visit? Is that—“

“Julian’s fiftieth is fast approaching, and the fiftieth birthday is a rather important one on Cardassia.”

“I remember. Julian threw you one.”

Even the brief flash of memory—the way Julian had grabbed him and kissed him there on the holosuite—made Garak smile in earnest. Still one of the best memories of his life. “Indeed he did. And I would like to return the favor.”

“I assume, somehow, we have permission from the Cardassian government…?”

“I was able to obtain travel visas for you.”

O’Brien’s face grew wary again—as if he feared broken fingers had been a part of the process.

“As I said before, Julian is well-loved here. He’s made some powerful friends who are happy to make an exception in his singular case.”

O’Brien looked vaguely impressed. “So we’d, uh, we’d just fly in for the occasion?”

“With your permission, I can send the official invitation along with all the necessary details: dates, times, travel regulations. And, of course, while Julian and I hardly have room to lodge so many in our home, we will be more than happy—”

The quiet of the shop split in two as Issi came tromping in from the backroom, voice the same rusty whine as a phaseblade through metal. “Yaaaaad! Issen won’t—” She froze at the human face staring back through the viewscreen. “Oh. Um.” Her cheeks and neck went slate gray. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

Yes, perhaps today, the universe was tilting in a particular direction. 

He shot Issi a look—that look—but laid gentle hands on her shoulders just the same. “Mister O’Brien, this is our daughter Issi.” There was nothing for it but to make the introductions now. He would have to think of a means of keeping Issi quiet later. “Issi, this is Mister O’Brien. One of your Da’s very good friends from Earth.”

When Garak finally turned back to the viewscreen, there was a look in O’Brien’s eyes that Garak had never thought to see directed at him. It was a look of kinship. “You…you and Julian have a kid?”

“Two,” Issi volunteered. “Me and my brother. Yad and Da adopted us after our mother died from rog’sun fever. When—”

“Enough, lis’sea,” he said as gently as he could manage, trying to turn her back towards the backroom. “Mister O’Brien will have time to hear the entire story when he visits for Da’s seren’Ora.”

“Whoa!” The girl’s eyes went wide. “People are coming here? From the Federation?”

“We are,” O’Brien chimed in. His voice had changed too, like an instrument fully warmed. It sounded familiar to Garak, and he realized it was the voice the man had used with his own daughter. “And we can’t wait to meet you. And your brother. And see your Da.”

Issi was too sharp, Garak knew, not to catch it. He braced himself. “But… but not to see Yad.”

Three hells, having a perceptive child could be a true pain in the kajok.

There was a pause, as O’Brien’s mouth opened and closed. It was quiet enough to hear the sounds of the city, muted, outside.

Ch’up, lis’sea,” Garak began. “Mister O’Brien—“

“Of course, your Yad, too.” O’Brien cleared his throat and looked Garak square in the eyes with a nod. “Any friend of your Da’s is a friend of ours.”

Well…that was certainly unexpected. Garak had long accepted that he and Julian would forever have different memories of Miles O’Brien. They had never discussed it, and that suited Garak fine.

Today, Garak saw in the other man’s eyes. This was a way that, perhaps, they might find common ground.

 “Of course.” He bowed his head gratefully. “We look forward to seeing you, Mister O’Brien.”

“Uh, Miles. It’s…it would be fine if…”

“Miles,” he corrected. It felt odd, using a first name, but if the human could soften his stance, Garak could make this accommodation. “Please extend my greeting to everyone, most especially Professor O’Brien. We look forward to seeing you all in a few weeks. I include, of course, your own children in that. They’ve been cleared for visas as well, should they desire.”

O’Brien—no, Miles—smiled even more genuinely at this.

Garak pressed a few buttons on the console. “I’m sending you the relevant details now. If you have any questions or concerns, my communication node is included. I have somewhat restricted access, but I will be available.”

“We’ll be looking forward to it.” The other man shifted a bit, and his eyes, with obvious discomfort, met Garak’s own again. “Oh, and, Garak?”

Garak paused, finger hovering over the button to disconnect. “Yes?”

“Thanks. For calling. For…doing this for Julian.”

It was O’Brien who disconnected first. Garak was grateful not to have to think of something to say in return.

Well, it was a promising start.

Occasionally, it seemed, even a half-empty glass could be refreshing.

“Yad?”

When he turned back to her, Issi’s smile was obvious.

“I’d like a rokassa from the stand across the street, please.” She held out an expectant hand.

Against his better judgement, Garak smiled back. One day, he was going to have to teach her a lesson about trying to manipulate her elders.

But not today.

He gave the plait at the back of her head a teasing tweak and pulled a credit chit from his mijast. “Don’t forget to get one for your brother, too.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: The Thing about Love

 

During his first year on Cardassia, Julian had known hunger—known it in a way few in the Federation ever would. He knew the sluggish flow of thought and the tremble of limbs. The way even the scent of heated mud could make your mouth water. The muddle of emotions that jostled against an empty belly, unbidden and difficult to tamp down. Anger. Violence. Despair.

That had been real want, the kind that, if you weren’t careful, could reawaken long-slumbering parts of the brain.

His stomach rumbled, and he thumbed forward on the padd trying not think about Indari blue cream custard spread over crunchy tak.

His hunger today was nothing like that. This hunger was self-inflicted and only thirty hours old. Nevertheless his body remembered, even fifteen years later. It snapped back into need, a small stowaway panic gibbering at the back of his mind. He needed to eat now, it insisted.

But this was the custom. Odd way to celebrate one’s birthday, but this was how Cardassians did it. And he did try to observe these things when he could.

He paged forward again. It didn’t help.

He put the padd down and exchanged it for the computer console built into his desk. He prodded at it absently, reviewing, for the third time that evening, the Pediatrics rotation for the next two octals. He made a half-hearted attempt to rearrange, to improve, but it didn’t take long to realize it was a farce. He was polishing new scales, as Elim would say. The schedule was fine; he’d already perfected it. He was the thing that needed fixing.

“Julian?”

Framed in the open doorway, Kelas smiled as if he knew precisely what Julian was up to—precisely what he’d been thinking. Then again, Kelas almost always gave that impression. It made him seems somehow both immensely intimidating and immensely comforting at the same time. “I’m not interrupting, I hope?”

“Kelas! No, come in, come in.” He gestured to the chair on the other side of his desk.

“I don’t want to keep you. I only wanted to wish you a—” He paused, as if arranging each syllable with care. “Hah-pee Buhrs’s-day.”

Julian warmed, and, for a moment at least, forgot the hollow in his belly and the doldrums in his head. “Thank you, my friend. That means a lot.” Though most in the hospital knew it was his birthday, Cardassians didn’t acknowledge birthdays but once a decade, and, even then, they didn’t do so on the day itself. The birthday was a day to work and fast and contemplate, and so, for the most part, Julian was simply left alone. He’d resigned himself to this fact, though it rankled a little. It was hard to escape the impression that everyone had simply forgotten. Elim usually made a small hala cake the following morning as a compromise. Sometimes with fresh leejat and—

There he went again. His stomach grumbled, and he shifted in his seat, willing it to stop.

Kelas grinned but didn’t say anything as he took the seat across. “I’m glad to see you didn’t cut your hair too short.”

“Oh, yeah, I’d forgotten.” He reached up and felt the newly blunt ends which were longer than he’d been wont in his youth but at least two inches shorter than the day before. Elim had lamented having to cut even that much, but in the end, he sat behind and rubbed kis’sa oil deep into the hair, snipping. With each fallen lock, he’d paused to kiss Julian’s neck.

No, the bathing and hair-cutting ritual Julian certainly didn’t mind. He could still smell the kis’sa oil on the air around him. He could still feel where Elim’s hands had gripped his shoulders after, too.

He shifted for another reason entirely. “It needed to be cut a bit before summer anyway.”

“It suits you.” Kelas leaned back, and Julian knew from the look on his face, he’d definitely seen through the smiles and the talk of hair to what was beneath.

Kelas was frustratingly good at that.

“I thought I might have missed you.” He said it carefully, but Julian could sense him circling in. “Your shift ended hours ago.”

“Oh. Yeah. I just wanted to be sure I had everything in order. Make sure I’d updated the case notes for Ossun and Gisat.”

“Ossun and Gisat are excellent doctors. I’ve no doubt they’ll perform well in your stead.”

“I know. I know they will. I’m just…well, Elim and the kids will be having dinner. No sense heading home for that.”

“Everything will be fine, Julian.”

“I know. Of course I know. I’m just—“

“Julian.” He leaned forward. “S’sarat.”

Julian stopped, attention caught.

Sixteen years earlier, when Julian had just arrived on Cardassia, he and Kelas had worked in the same emergency unit. When they weren’t accompanying digging details, they served at triage, medicating and operating and doing whatever could be done with the few supplies on hand. It wasn’t unusual to work two or three day shifts. Often he and Kelas would sleep in one of the side tents between shifts, and it could be a full octal or more before Julian saw the tiny shack he and Elim shared. It was in those exhausted, dusty quarters he and Kelas had forged this friendship. Julian had been overwhelmed by Kelas’s devotion, knowledge, and gentleness. Kelas had been bolstered by Julian’s own tenacity and willingness to improvise. Julian had never felt as in-tune and productive with another doctor in his entire career.

Then there had been S’sarat.

There’d been a cave-in in an old building in upper Torr. The march of bodies had been endless, and he and Kelas stitched and amputated and lost and won for hours upon hours. Someone had brought ration bars, but they sat, untouched on the side table. Their makeshift surgery had become a gruesome conveyor belt. At one point, Julian had been forced to pull thread from his tunic to finish a stitch.

The second they’d brought the boy in, glassy-eyed and stiff, both he and Kelas had known it was a lost cause. But they’d tried anyway, probing the gaping wound. Cauterizing. Sterilizing. It was a sort of useless benediction, but they’d done it anyway, as if neither wanted to admit.

When it was over, the nurse had stepped in just long enough to use the dentscanner and complete the death certificate.

And what was the cause of death?

They had stared at one another. Though it had been just a few minutes earlier, neither could recall. They’d blinked and stammered and even Julian’s augmented mind had come up blank. The boy was nothing more than a wash of dead gray skin in a fog of it.

The nurse asked, delicately, how long they’d been working.

He’d looked to Kelas. About 50 hours? Since Vhelet?

Kelas nodded.

The nurse’s face had told them all they’d needed to know.

Doctors, she’d said, handing him a small, precious cup of water and forcing a ration bar into his hand. It’s S’sarat.  

It had been four days.

Ever since, when either of them had been pushing themselves too hard or refusing to step away or simply neglecting home and health, a simple “s’sarat” was all that was needed to be said. It was a sign to put down the scalpel or the hypo or the regenerator and take a rest.

Julian sighed and pushed back in his chair. And it was a reminder he needed to now, as he very well knew. “You’re right, Kelas.”

“Everything here will be fine. We can comm you if there are any major concerns.”

“I know! And, of course, I trust you. And Ossat and Gisun. It’s not that. And I’m happy for the time with Elim and the kids. But…you know it’s hard to step away. Vret, I haven’t been gone for two octals since we adopted the twins.”

“And even then, you were in and out of here more than was good for you,if  I recall,” Kelas chastised. “I don’t want you in and out of here, Julian. It’s your fifth dassek. You should celebrate it. Enjoy it.”

“Ugggg,” he moaned, scrubbing at his face. “Fifty years. Please don’t remind me.”

“Is this more of that ridiculous human obsession with youth?” Kelas clicked his teeth in dismissal. “I fail to understand how a healthy, accomplished man—“

“I know, I know. ‘Power and dignity.’ You sound just like Elim.”

Kelas sniffed, cooling, and Julian instantly regretted saying it. Elim was the one topic he and Kelas did better not to discuss.

He set the padd down on his desk and sighed. “It’s not the age, really. It’s just… Well, first, I’m bloody starving.”

He was happy to see that this managed to smooth over the awkwardness. “That I understand. Human’s aren’t equipped for hunger.”

It was the sort of statement Julian had balked at early on but that, now, he had to admit, was true. Cardassians did tend to have sturdier constitutions. A fact Elim never failed to remind him of. “You don’t have to tell me.”

“And, second…?”

He should have known that the older man wasn’t going to let it go that easily. “It’s the seren’Ora.

That did surprise him. “The seren’Ora?”

 “Yeah…I mean, I’m sure Elim has something lovely planned. He’s ace at that sort of thing. It’s just … I guess I’m starting to understand how he must have felt. During those years on the station.”

Julian appreciated Kelas trying, despite how very much the other man obviously didn’t enjoy this topic. “And how is that?”

Julian had gone back to the memory many times in the last few days. Twenty years earlier, when he and Elim had sat at their replimat table and argued about whether or not Julian should throw him a seren’Ora. How Elim had grimaced, the pain concealed but just visible still, at the corner of the eyes. In the strained placement of the hands and set of the shoulders. It is wholly inappropriate, for a variety of reasons you can’t understand.

He did understand, a bit, now. “He felt alone.”

A slow blink and a fractional tilt of the chin. “You’re far from alone, Julian. And your seren’Ora is a chance for us to show you that. A chance for us to express our gratitude for the sacrifices you have made.”

“And I’m grateful for it. Don’t think I’m not! The life I’ve built here… I would make every choice precisely the same. None of it has felt like a sacrifice.”

The words dropped from Kelas’s lips not harsh but unflinching. “Until now.”

Julian couldn’t admit that. Couldn’t even nod in assent. “The whole purpose of this seren’Ora is to look back on who I’ve been. What I’ve done. On how I’ve contributed to my friends, family, community. But so many of my friends—those who I’ve known and cared for—won’t be mentioned. Won’t speak. Can’t be there. More than half of my life will just be…missing.”

Kelas’s half-chuckle seemed absolutely out of place, and Julian checked himself, wondering if somehow he’d said something amusing. It did still happen, occasionally, that he stumbled into some bit of phrasing that had a second meaning. It still happened more than he wanted to admit, actually, though it wasn’t his fault that there was such an overlap between phrases for tailoring and sex in Kardasi. Sometimes he wondered if Elim led him into the entendres purposely, actually.

Eventually, Kelas’s amusement settled and he crossed his legs casually. “I’m sorry…I was just remembering…Enabran Tain attended my seren’Ora, did you know that?”

Julian shook his head. He liked hearing that name about as much, he imagined, as Kelas liked saying it.

“Oh yes. He gave a very winning speech, too. Ear-splitting krek after.” Kelas’s eyes grew distant. “He brought a bottle of 2325 breet vintage. It tasted like babat melons on the finish, I recall. And he danced with my sister. I’d never seen her so nervous. Probably thought she’d be taken in for detention if she flubbed the mor’ij.” A gentle chuckle. “It was a beautiful night, the events that came after notwithstanding. Full of surprises, as a good seren’Ora should be.”

Julian couldn’t help but smile along with him. It reminded him of that night in the holosuite. Dancing, kanar, Cardassian stars. A kiss that still caused a dizzy little rush when he thought of it. 

“And not a single one of the people who attended that seren’Ora is alive now.”

The rush turned heavy. Sank and stabbed with the heat of guilt. God, Julian. Of course.

“These days, itask’haran is as much about the bravery to continue. To rebuild and remake.” He smiled and leaned forward, laying a gentle hand on Julian’s desk. “If half your life is missing, then truly, my friend, you are one of us.”

It was true, and he felt like an ass for not thinking of it sooner. Every Cardassian had lost their life from before. Every seren’Ora was now a story of what had come after. That was the song of every Cardassian life.

From the very start, Julian had known Kelas would be different. The older, bespectacled man had appraised him over ration bars and hydration packs after their first day combing the ruins. His voice had seemed too strong for the slight, stooped man who produced it.

You’re not very Cardassian, he’d said.

Julian had braced himself for the worst: he’d known he’d face such prejudice. Cardassians weren’t exactly known for their warm embrace of outsiders.

I’m not very Cardassian, he’d admitted in his best Kardasi, offering a smile. But I will try to learn.

Kelas had simply smiled back. Oh, I do hope not. I’m not so very Cardassian myself.

Whatever fates had put this man in his path, had been kind. Not to Elim, perhaps, but certainly to him.

 “As always, Kelas, you’re right.”

“Just what I like to hear,” he joked, giving Julian a pat on the shoulder. “Do keep that in mind for my tenth dassek. I expect to hear something to that effect in your erbit’sa.”

Julian laughed. “I’ll add it to the draft.”

“Now…I understand that it’s customary for humans to give gifts on every itask’haran, including the fifth dassek?”

“Actually, we give gifts every year, yeah.”

Kelas looked a little surprised.

“Yes, I know. Decadent. Elim is always reminding me.”

“Ah. Well, while a gift will hardly be appropriate at your seren’Ora, I’ve brought you a little something this evening. For your buhrs’sday.”

Oh. That was unexpected. How many birthdays had he celebrated here? Even one itask’haran. This was his first gift from anyone other than Elim and the kids. “Kelas. You didn’t have to do that.”

“Rather the point of a gift, I understand,” he said dryly, setting it down on the desk between them.

It was a small ceramic circle covered over only by white linen.  When Julian made no move, Kelas reached forward and drew away the cover.

The smell hit him immediately. Heaven.

Tak!” It was in his mouth before he’d even thought. The sweet blue cream melted, all fat and sugar and umami against his desperate tongue. It was the most delicious thing he’d tasted in at least the last dassek. “Oh guls. I’ve been thinking about tak with cream all day.” He made a number of other noises that might have embarrassed him in a less ravenous state. “And this is homemade cream, isn’t it?”

“Just like Amma used to make.” The words were half a laugh.

Julian wiped at his lips, a little in awe that he’d finished the entirety of the tak in such a short go. “You, um, you won’t tell anyone I broke my fast, will you?”

“Your secret is safe with me.” He peered over his spectacles, mock severe. “As long as you promise to go home to your family and relax.”

He put a solemn hand over his heart and tightened his shoulder in the manner of a solider with marching orders. “Yes, s’sava.”

“And who knows. Perhaps your seren’Ora will surprise you. I have a bottle of breet vintage itching to be decanted.” A flicker of discomfort. “And, say what I might about your husband, he threw a lovely Enjoinment. I expect this will be nothing less.”

Julian knew precisely what that admission cost Kelas, and he smiled. Yes, this whole fugue of his was ridiculously ungrateful. How lucky he was. To have a friend like Kelas. To have two, healthy amazing children. To have a husband he cared for and who put up with his long hours and his sloppy housekeeping and his insistent refusal to pick out anything relating to his seren’Ora, even with it only two octals away.

It was a new life, yes, but a fantastic one. One so many had been denied.

He gave Kelas a long embrace, put his travelpadd in his pocket, and headed home.

 

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

Julian had learned many things since becoming a father. Some lessons were, of course, of the broader, more philosophical sort. The sort Miles had gone on and on about when you got him sozzled enough. How your perspective on life changes. How you understand the shape of existence more deeply. How it throws your parents’ actions into an entirely different light—for better or worse.

But just now, as Julian stepped through the front door to find only silence and darkness, he reflected on one of the more practical lessons of parenthood.

When things are quiet, something is wrong.

He paused and listened and heard nothing. He could see a short way down the corridor. The lights were off, doors shut tight.

“Elim?” He flipped on a lamp and listened closely.

There was no answer.

Somewhere deep in his gut, tak and fear rumbled. “Elim?”

They should be here. It was dinner time, and Elim was relentless about keeping the kids on a schedule. If they’d gone somewhere, Elim would have commed.

He pulled out his padd to check. He already knew he’d see nothing.

“Issen? Issi?”            

From down the hall—perhaps from the dining room?—came  the listless shuffle of a chair.

He inched forward far enough to see a pool of light spilling through. There was someone there. He could hear the rise and fall of breath.

Julian’s mind provided, in a flash, every session of Starfleet hand-to-hand combat training he’d suffered through at the Academy. And then the more practical go-for-the-soft-bits training Elim had insisted on giving him when they’d arrived on Cardassia.

“Elim, if that’s you, and you’re trying to pull some sort of—”

But it wasn’t Elim. It wasn’t Elim at all.

Not-Elim was sitting at the dining table, grinning. In front of him, recently decanted, was a bottle of what Julian’s nose informed him was scotch.

The smell of the scotch and the rich Indari cream and the rush of adrenaline churned together in his stomach and spun in his head. He might have fainted.

He settled on a nice long swear instead.

“Kiss yer mum with that mouth, do ya’?”

Julian couldn’t speak. He could hardly move.

So Miles did it for him, wrapping him in a long, warm embrace.

Sixteen years it had been, but time l meant nothing to Julian’s augmented mind. He remembered each embrace he and Miles had shared precisely: each handshake, each pat on the back. The two of them had never touched for longer than two point four-seven seconds. That was just Miles’s way.

This hug lasted a full five seconds.

“Miles…I…I…” He pulled back to check the other man’s face. To look at it. To be sure, as Elim liked to say, he wasn’t behaving like a tender-scaled hatchling who didn’t know a sandviper from a sarnak vine. “It’s really you! What on Prime are you doing here?”

“A little Cardassian birdie told me someone was having a birthday party.”

“You’re…you’re here for my seren’Ora?”

“Ah, yeah. Seren’Ora. That’s the one.” Julian knew the man well enough to know that he’d had at least one glass already.

“But… how? How did you…?”

“Dunno the specifics, but apparently a few of your friends were able to get us temporary travel permits. Customs was bloody brutal, and I’ve never seen a travel regulations list like the one the lady at the shuttleport gave us, but…” He shrugged. “I got the scotch through.”

“Thank goodness for small victories,” Julian mumbled, beginning to feel happiness unravel against the shock. A few of his friends…it was Kelas. Had to be. That bastard had been in on it the whole time. Probably why he was so insistent Julian go home.

Suddenly, he couldn’t help but laugh. “I—I can’t believe it.” He reached out a hand to clap Miles on the shoulder as well. It was as much to prove that the other man was real as anything else.

“Me neither, but…” He gestured to the room around them.

God, Julian had missed this. He hadn’t really realized until they were both standing there, together, in the flesh, with the sharp tang of MacCallan’s on the air. He could almost cry—might have, if he hadn’t also known how uncomfortable it would make Miles.

Something in the twinkle of those brown eyes told him it didn’t need to be said. Miles knew. He was feeling it, too. “Now, Doctor Bashir. Sit down and have a nip and tell me exactly how you ended up married with two kids an’ I didn’t know.”

They talked for a while about Elim and the twins. They talked about his job at the hospital and Elim’s tailoring shop. They talked briefly, though sips, about fatherhood. But as much as they talked of what had changed, Julian was struck by how much hadn’t. They fell into it as if no time had passed. The only indication of the sixteen years between, in fact, were the lines across their faces and the slow, careful pace with which they drank.  At this age you couldn’t be too cautious.

He smiled as he swirled the offending liquor in his glass. Couldn’t stop smiling actually. “And you? I imagine you’re over the whole Engineering Department at the Academy now, eh?”

A slight grimace and a sip. “Well, I was. I was. For a couple of years there, actually. And Keiko was in the Botany department, and Molly was actually studying there, too. Not, er, botany, but at the Academy.”

“Oh? Is she an officer now?”

“A counselor. On the USS Lorde. But she was there with us for a bit, which was nice.”

“But…?”

“Oh, well, Keiko got offered a job at the central university in Jalanda. Er, on Bajor. Big promotion. Head of Biological and Environmental Sciences. And they were doing some agricultural research on soil reclamation that was right up her alley.” He shrugged.

“Wow, that’s fantastic. But—I mean, you two aren’t living apart again?” At the time Miles and Keiko had been apart on the station, Julian had been too young and self-obsessed to really consider what that was like for Miles. Maybe he couldn’t really have known until he had a husband and children of his own.

“No, no. Neither of us wanted that again. I was eligible to retire and…well, she’d left her job for me before. Just seemed fair. So we moved to Bajor. Keiko works at the university; Kirayoshi is there. We moved in with Kasidy and Jake and Jini; it was supposed to be temporary, but, you know, we never left. She’s on Captain Sisko’s land still. Lots of room. I even have a workshop out back. With room to putter. It’s relaxing, and Keiko’s dead happy. Which means I am, too, when it comes to it.”

Julian smiled. “Miles. You’ve gotten soft in your old age.”

The other man snorted. “Yeah, well, that’s marriage, isn’t it? You understand. You…you did that for Garak.”

Garak. Elim.

A warm lurch of joy that hit him sideways. Elim had done this. Had planned this—helped make this possible.

How was he ever going to repay him? “I did.”

“And you’re dead happy, looks like?” Miles asked.

Julian nodded. It was more true than he could possibly express. “An understatement.”

Miles picked up his glass—picked it up but didn’t drink. He looked into it instead. “I was wrong, Julian.” He said it simple, clean. “You made the right choice coming here. And staying with him.”

The burn at the back of Julian’s throat was more than that of scotch. He pressed the tears back with a pull.

“Can’t believe Garak managed to make an honest man of you. Shoulda, though. Keiko told me. Been gloating like you wouldn’t believe ever since we got here.” He seemed to remember something. “Shite, speaking of, what time is it?”

Julian glanced at the chrono on the wall. “Almost eight. What do you mean? Is Keiko here, too?”

“Yeah, and she’ll have my skin if we’re not on time.” He pushed the top back into the bottle and stood quickly. “Let’s hope that skimmer Garak left can move ‘cause we’re already ten minutes late.”

“Late?” Julian stood, too. He was happy to note that standing posed no difficulty. “Late for what?”

And then, suddenly, he understood. There wasn’t going to be a seren’Ora two octals from now.

This was going to be a birthday party.

“Oh, and, uh, you’d better get changed.” Miles gestured to the end of the table.

Hanging over one of the chairs was the most luxurious, perfect tuxedo Julian Bashir had ever seen.

 

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

The seren’Ora pavilion Elim had chosen was not the most popular or the largest in the city. In fact, it was tucked into one of Cardassi’or’s smaller parks, just past the Darvat and well removed from the pomp of Tarlak. This park, however, was Julian’s favorite. He and Elim had strolled here twelve years ago, when they’d had the most important discussion of their lives. When he’d told Elim he intended to stay and that he didn’t give a damn what that meant for his career. It was the only time in their almost twenty years that he’d seen Elim Garak obviously moved. Elim had proposed Enjoinment that very moment, there, just beside the river where this pavilion stood. Back then, the ithian trees had been saplings; the fields bare, yellow dirt.

Now white blossoms glowed in the light of the moons overhead, and tall harat grasses stretched to the horizon. The pavilion itself, though modest, shone, golden light rolling down its steps, welcoming its guests.  Around the eaves, gilded Kardasi script traced lines from Kavit’s most famous seren’Ora work. Lines Elim had recited at their children many times. Though the mighty tree grows tall, lo! its humble roots dig deep; though our fathers must pass on, we their humble words shall keep.

It didn’t bode well that he was almost in tears before he’d made it to the top of the steps.

The almost tears, however, converted to ridiculous grins the moment he saw it.

A typical seren’Ora wasn’t much on decorations—a fact he’d been grateful for when programming Elim’s. But this pavilion was practically drenched in streamers, and he had to admit that the teal color was a fantastic complement to the deep golds and umbers of the architecture. Balloons—proper human balloons—floated at the pavilion’s ceiling. The rafters were hardly visible past the blanket of them. At the back, centered in a place of prominence on the wall, a banner proclaimed in the shaky, careful style of the very young HAPPY BIRS’SDAY DOCTOR BASHIR. He didn’t need to be told: it had been the children at the hospital, no doubt.

It was perfect. So bloody perfect.

“Julian! Miles!” He hadn’t noticed Keiko O’Brien hanging streamers, until she spoke. “You’re late.” Her frown was sweet and indulgent and, when she embraced him, Julian laughed.

“It’s my fault, Keiko,” he sighed, squeezing a little tighter. “Been awhile since I tried to get into a tux. Had a little trouble.”

He started to ask about their trip and if she’d met the kids yet, when he saw Elim step into the pavilion from the opposite side and all other thoughts left him.

Well, that was certainly a sight he hadn’t seen in a long, long time.

He grinned in what he knew must be the most stupid manner. “Nice tux.”

He was gratified to see the other man return his smile. “Same to you, my dear.” 

Julian stepped forward and adjusted his husband’s bow tie with one hand. The other found its way, light and hungry, to rest on Elim’s chest. He hadn’t thought it was possible, really, to love someone as much as he loved his husband in this moment. He thought he might burst with it.

He settled, instead, for a gentle touch to the other man’s aural ridge and a fond look. “I thought your days of being able to lie to me were long over.”

“Hmm. I do like to keep you guessing, dear Doctor.” A tilted grin and a shrug. “I believe this is the part where I’m meant to shout ‘surprise’?”

“That it is.” He leaned forward and kissed his husband. He’d had every intention of making the kiss brief and chaste, but once their lips touched and he felt the tight spun cotton under his hands, he found that chaste simply wouldn’t do. He parted Elim’s lips with his own and closed what little space remained between them. He could hear Miles clear his throat and direct Keiko’s attention to the river and the Darvat visible just from the western side.

Julian took his time.

When they finally parted, Elim was blinking, pupils wide as dinner plates. Good to know he wasn’t the only one having to contain himself.

“Don’t think you’re going to distract me with your wiles, p’rimit,” Elim tutted, taking a step back and straightening himself. “I haven’t forgotten.”

Damn. He had hoped Elim wouldn’t notice, as rare an occurrence as that was. Or that he might take pity.

“I laid it out with your tuxedo, did I not?”

Julian sighed and, knowing, after so many years of marriage, when argument was pointless, he pulled the hat from his jacket pocket and fixed the elastic band under his chin with a sigh. “These are for children, Elim.”

“Well, then, I won’t make you wear one for your tenth.”

It was a unique quality of Elim Garak, Julian had often considered, that you could just as often punch him as kiss him. “I look ridiculous.”

“Only you could look both ridiculous and ravishing at the same time.” This time, it was Elim who closed the space between.

“Come on,” Julian managed to breathe between kisses. “Let me take off the hat, Elim. I—”

The request was momentarily smothered under insistent Cardassian lips. “Mmm. And what else might I convince you to take off, my dear?”

“Elim Garak! In this public place, in a—”

“And here I thought I’d seen the most disturbing things this planet had to offer.”

Both men recognized the voice instantly, and the effect was dramatic, propelling them away from one another like two guiltily necking teenagers.

Once again, Julian could hardly believe his eyes. “Nerys?”

When she smiled, lines traced at the corners of her eyes in perfect complement to the ridges at her nose. “Julian.”

They embraced, and Julian found himself struggling for words. Struggling as he began to realize that more than the O’Briens would be in attendance.

“Nerys…I… you’re on Cardassia.”

“Yeah, well, Miles said if he had to come, so did I.” Behind her, two younger people had stepped up as well. The young man, a human, was willowy and wore a forced expression as though he was trying—and failing—to feign enthusiasm. The young woman, on the other hand, looked absolutely overwhelmed by everything around her. She was Cardassian.

Julian didn’t recognize either until he went to shake the young man’s hand and stopped short. “Wait…Kirayoshi!”

The boy—no, no he was a young man now!—blushed. The resemblance to Miles was uncanny. “Yeah. Hey, Doctor Bashir. Happy Birthday.”

“You’re talking now, I see,” he joked. “Gar, I can’t believe it. You’re all grown up!”

“You’re telling me,” Kira said. “He’s been taller than me for three years now.”

Up until then, Elim had stood back politely, but now took a smooth step forward and gave the young Cardassian woman a very formal nod. “And this must be Miss Ziam Kira, if I’m not mistaken? I am most especially happy to welcome you, my dear. Cardassia welcomes you again.”

The young lady looked uncertain how—or whether—to accept this. “I…I go by Kira Ziam.”

And now Julian made the connection: Miles had told him the story. Kira lived on Sisko’s land as well, along with her adopted daughter. Kira had adopted the girl years ago, from one of the orphanages that still housed Cardassian war orphans. Ziam had been sitting in the foyer, legs folded, painting a flower. Said she reminded her of Ziyal, Miles had reported. But instead of the sweet, even-tempered voice Kira had expected, the young girl, around ten at the time, had looked up, narrowed her eyes, and asked Kira what she was gawking at.

Kira had brought her home four days later, and no one had questioned it a jot. She’d given Kira a second lease on life, Miles said, after her resignation from the militia. Which, of course, was another story, Julian imagined. And one he’d save for later in the night. After a few more drinks, maybe.

For now, he simply gave Ziam a bow which she, uncomfortably, returned. “A pleasure to meet you, Ziam. How are you finding the new Cardassia?” He knew, technically speaking, he shouldn’t use her first name, according to Cardassian traditions. But the girl had used the Bajoran formation, and so he guessed she wouldn’t be too much of a stickler. And frankly, sometimes, Julian got tired of the fuss Cardassians made about names.

 “It’s…different than I remember. But it’s nice to see the river again.” The stretched smile on the young woman’s face made it clear than this politeness was not entirely without pain. “And…and thank you, Garak S’Sava, for the pas’set. It’s…I haven’t worn one in years.” She smoothed at the intricate white dress she wore.

Julian hardly had time to wonder when and how Elim had begun sewing dresses for visiting war orphans before a new young woman joined them, giving Zee a cheerful clap on the back. “And it looks great, doesn’t it?”

No one had to introduce Julian to this young woman—every inch of her face proclaimed that she was her father’s daughter, down to the penetrating warmth of the brown eyes and the wide welcome of the smile. Kassidy wasn’t far behind her, and Jake, too. They all of them wrapped Julian in warm hugs, even before Jake paused to introduce Jinial Yates-Sisko, or Jini as she insisted on being called. She wore a Bajoran earring and on it, Julian recognized the symbol of the Emissary. At this, Julian couldn’t help the pang. He’d hoped he might see the Emissary step into the pavilion and wrap him in a hug, too.

Something of the thought must have shown on his face, as Kassidy took his hand and gave it a squeeze. “Ben’s sorry he can’t be here, but he says ‘hi.’ And that he’ll definitely make it for your tenth.”

 Julian didn’t doubt it. He knew Sisko would keep his promise, and, from the smile on Kassidy’s face, she knew, too.

He didn’t have much time to dwell on sad thoughts, however, as the Chancellor of Q’onos entered, singing the taH-yay-rin-hagh—the ballad of victory over time—in raucous, celebratory tones Julian was entirely certain had never been used in a Cardassian seren’Ora pavilion. Beside him, Worf looked only slightly uncomfortable, though whether from the surroundings or the chancellor’s singing it was difficult to tell. He handed Julian a crate of bloodwine, and, when Julian looked surprised, Martok assured him there were several more crates—they wouldn’t dare to scant a celebration.

If Julian was surprised to see two Klingons given leave to attend, he was even more surprised to see the slight figure of Ezri Dax waiting behind them, clad in full dress uniform, communicator polished to a high shine. For a moment, in fact, he didn’t move—just stared.

My, but she looked different now, too. Older but also more sure—more her own person than when they’d said goodbye. She stood straighter, and the look she gave him had no one else behind it. She’d made the right choice, too, he could tell, leaving DS9 after the war.

“Nice hat.” Ahh, but there was that glimmer of hte familiar--a twinkle of mischief that was Dax through and through.

He pulled her into a hug, pausing only long enough to take the ridiculous hat off first.

 “Julian…it’s good to see you.” She gave him a peck on the cheek. “And to see you like this. What a life you’ve made.”

“And look at you! Miles said you’ve been spearheading the refugee resettlement work with the Romulans? I’m surprised the Diplomatic Corps could spare you!”

Another shared smile in which they both acknowledged that what he really meant was that he couldn’t believe either the Federation or Cardassian government had agreed to it.

“Even we diplomats get a few days off, here and there. And I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather—oooh!”

She staggered out of the path of two charging Cardassian children who were both enthusiastically chasing a third with a balloon. In fact, a number of children appeared to be in various stages of awe over the unique Earth birthday décor. In a corner, Issi was lecturing a gaggle of younger Cardassian children on the use of the noise-makers, which she had charmingly translated into Kardasi as barri-barriada or “fun-screamer.” One very eager toddler played a repetitive, grating rhythm on his barri-barriada before a parent scooped him up for a hushed but enthusiastic talking-to.

It wasn’t only the children, in fact. Several of his colleagues were holding a balloon up to the light, rotating it curiously and prodding it with their claws.

“This is going to be the talk of the hospital tomorrow.”

Julian’s first thought upon seeing Kelas was that he was almost an entirely different man in his formal mijast, polished and put-together in a way Julian never saw at the hospital. Lavender sand-silks made the man’s eyes sparkle, and the braid over his shoulder was the same white as the ithian blossoms all around. He gave Ezri a warm smile and a formal bow, introducing himself with an ease Julian wouldn’t have expected given the situation between their two governments. Ezri responded with equal warmth—a born diplomat—before she excused herself to say hello to the O’Briens.

 “A lovely young woman,” Kelas said, before turning his attention back to Julian. “Can I hope, then, that your seren’Ora is looking a little more—“

He didn’t let Kelas finish. He buried the man in an enthusiastic hug.

There was a splutter and a few indistinct noises of surprise before the other man hugged him back, though with obvious awkwardness.

Julian didn’t let that cut it short. He let every last ounce of gratitude make itself known.

“I’ll—I’ll take that as a yes,” Kelas mumbled after he’d been released.

“Guls and gettle, Kelas. Of course it’s a yes. I—I couldn’t have imagined. I can’t imagine how much work it must have been to get all these people here. It can’t have been easy.” And it couldn’t have been, Julian knew. Kelas had influence, it was true. He’d been one of the Reunionist founders, and, over the years, though Cardassian politics wobbled occasionally, the Reunionists had been the most consistent force in Cardassia’s new ideological trajectory.

All discomfort disappeared from Kelas’s face. He set a soft hand on Julian’s arm. “What you have done for Cardassia hasn’t been easy, either, I know. This is a portion of repayment.”

Seeing Elim reappear beside him, Kelas withdrew his touch.

Elim, of course, had no reaction whatsoever. He looked, if anything, distracted and ever so slightly annoyed, hand full of a number of noisemakers.

“Everything alright, Elim?”

“Yes…yes. But I’m beginning to think these ‘barri-barri’s might have been a miscalculation.” He closed his eyes for only a moment as another noisemaker screeched across the pavilion. “Forgive my rudeness. Good evening, Doctor Parmak.”

Kelas stiffened slightly. He always did when he saw Elim. Julian understood and tried to keep their encounters rare.

“Good evening, Mister Garak.” Kelas’s smile was almost easy. “And may I say you have done a marvelous job in arranging this.” He gestured around the pavilion. “It’s…it’s quite something.”

Elim, similarly, was rarely himself when speaking to Kelas. He tended to transform in a way more than a little familiar to Julian, full of fawning politeness and breezy charm. Plain and simple. It opposed Kelas’s cool stiffness entirely, but it was borne, no doubt, of the same emotion.

 “Thank you, Parmak, s’sava. Though, of course, none of it would have been possible without you.”

There was a beat of quiet as thick and as dense as the late spring air.

 “Well…” Kelas swallowed, and, obviously reaching, gestured to Julian’s tux. “Is this typical itask’haran garb on Earth?”

“Oh… it’s traditional formal wear on Earth, yes.”

“Quite dapper. Though, if you don’t mind my saying so, they seem a bit…complicated.”

“Oh, that they are,” Elim inserted silkily, parting his jacket to gesture to the waistcoat and shirt beneath. “And not ideal for temperature regulation. A lovely tailoring challenge, but I feel quite ridiculous wearing it.”

Julian couldn’t help but smirk. Elim was playing nice, and he knew it was for his benefit. Happy Birthday to me. He tugged Elim’s jacket shut with a smirk. “I think there was something about looking ridiculous and ravishing at the same time...?”

Elim huffed, but his eyes, in a rare moment, betrayed him. “Julian, my dear, we have guests.”

“Oh, please, allow me to remove myself,” Kelas chuckled, holding up his hands.

And he might have, too, had not, at that precise moment, four large Cardassians entered the pavilion at a tromp. Each was near two meters tall and dressed in severe slate gray from head to toeclaw. There was no mistaking it. These weren’t party guests: they were soldiers.

“Elim…”

His husband’s face had gone blank.

Blank was Elim’s most worried expression.

“Elim, who…?”

“They’re vhas’sak,” he said, voice matter-of-fact in a way his eyes were not.

Vhas’sak? Here? Who would they be—“

“I don’t know, Julian.”

Julian knew when he was being told, albeit politely, to shut his mouth.

Technically, the vhas’sak worked for the Cardassian Intelligence Bureau but were more soldiers than intelligence operatives. They were typically assigned to protect the most powerful politicians and diplomats in the Union. Early on, when elections had still be fraught, one had been assigned to shadow Kelas for a time.

“Parmak?” Elim’s voice had grown sharper. “What is this—“

The vhas’sak parted.

 “Doctor Bashir!”

The lamplight glinted off the gold threads of the Ferengi’s tunic as he stepped from between the vhas’sak to clap a very confused Julian on the back.

Julian opened his mouth, and closed it again, words never quite managing to form.

“Happy Birthday, Doctor! May your ledgers stay black and all your investments yield dividends!”

“Qu-Quark?” Julian hardly had enough surprise left over to note that the Ferengi hadn’t aged a day.

“The one and only,” he said, shifting his shoulders in an attempt to adjust the clearly uncomfortable Cardassian mijast he wore. “I don’t know how you people wear these things,” he said, turning to Garak. “The material’s so light I feel almost—“ He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Naked.”

“Hello, Quark.” Garak was clearly not amused.

“Quark…what are you doing with vhas’sak?”

“Doctor. Living on Cardassia has ruined your manners. What kind of greeting is that?”

He rolled his eyes. “Quark. It’s great to see you.”

“I’m touched,” he deadpanned before turning to the vhas’sak to give a nod. “But believe me, it’s my pleasure.”

Julian was vaguely aware that, during his early years on the station, Cardassia’s newly-elected castellan had briefly sought refuge on Deep Space Nine. Their paths hadn’t crossed, but Garak had mentioned a few details of it over lunch, including the alarming tidbit that the woman had, apparently, been a lover of Quark’s. It was the sort of gossip Julian had wished his augmented mind could forget. He didn’t really care to keep the words “lover” and “Quark” in the same sentence.

But the memory of it came roaring back now at the unmistakable buzz of amazement whispering through the pavilion.

The newly-elected Castellan Lang took Quark’s arm with a warm smile.

When Julian turned to look at Elim, he found only blank surprise on the man’s face.

Kelas looked much the same.

Everyone, did, in fact, frozen and staring.

Julian cleared his throat and offered the castellan the traditional formal bow. “You honor me, Castellan Lang.”

Her laugh was gentle and, with its lightness, swept away the stodgy formality on the air. “Doctor Bashir, I presume. The honor is mine. Ghenar vo’it. And…Happy Birs’sday.” 

Elim, who seemed to have regained his sense of place and slid forward, offered a sketched bow before extending the basket of kur’yurut to her. “Castellan, s’savi.” There was a hint of fussiness about his movements that Julian might almost have called nerves. A rarity from Elim.

“Mister Garak.” When Elim raised his eyes, Julian didn’t miss the slight linger of recognition that passed between. What such a look meant, Julian wouldn’t have even tried to guess, but it was clear there was more to their story than Elim had passed on over lunch. “A pleasure to see you again.”

“We’re honored to have you among us. If I’d known to expect you, I certainly would have prepared a more appropriate placement at the table.” Julian didn’t know the details, but he did know that someone of the Castellan’s stature should have been given special provisions, the highest seat at the table, a separate menu, and any other number of small concessions that Julian couldn’t name but which he felt sure would be very important to Elim. 

And, though he was sure no one else would read it, Julian saw the distress in his husband’s eyes.

“Forgive me for dropping in like this.” Lang lifted her palm up and to the side in the traditional gesture of apology. “When I saw Quark’s name on the list, I’m afraid I simply wanted to be a non-descript plus-one for the night. As much as that’s possible.” She gave the Ferengi on her arm a little wink: Quark’s returned smile was as soft a look as Julian had ever seen the man give anyone. “Please don’t go to any trouble for me.”

Elim bowed again deeply as the Castellan moved on to greet Parmak and several of the other Cardassian doctors.

Elim stood and watched, saying nothing.

Twelve years of marriage—and far more of being together—had taught Julian how to read such silence.

“Elim…are you alright?”

As if his voice had broken some sort of trance, Elim moved again and gave him a tight nod. “Of course, my dear. I only wish I’d known the Castellan was attending.”

“Doesn’t sound like she wants a fuss.”

“Yes, but I certainly would have worn something a little less outrageous, I think.”

Julian laughed. All these years and everything he'd been through, and a fashion faux pas was still one of the only things that could shake Elim Garak. “I wouldn’t hear of it. It’s my birthday, isn’t it?” Julian, tutted, putting a long, gentle kiss on Elim’s lips. “I like you outrageous.”

Whatever clouds still clung dissipated entirely, replaced with a wry smile. “Well, at least you took off the hat.”

They threaded arms, and Julian joined his husband in watching the Castellan introduce Quark as her "dearest friend from Terok Nor." The Cardassian guests seemed skeptical, but Julian wasn't. It was hard to miss the way Quark looked at her.

“What a strange match…Quark and the Castellan of Cardassia,” Julian sighed, letting his head rest on Elim’s lazily. “I can’t say I understand it.”

“That’s the thing about love,” Elim said, drawing Julian a little closer. “No one really understands it, do they?”