It was overwhelming to be able to see the stars again.
After five years on the space station Deep Space Nine, the starscape slowly spinning past Julian Bashir’s viewport should have been so familiar as to be almost invisible—and it had been, before.
Julian took a deep breath and wrapped his arms around his thin torso, his pajamas suddenly seeming foolish and flimsy in the starlight as he leaned into the port’s sill. Everything seemed foolish and flimsy now, jagged and broken in the reality of his return. More than a month in internment camp 371 had knocked everything he thought he knew off balance.
He grinned to himself in the dark, a humorless sneer, at the idea that he’d been on-balance before. So on-balance, in fact, that no one had noticed he’d been replaced; so on-balance that a hostile alien had perfectly replicated him. Improved on the model, even; everyone said the Changeling had been more personable.
Because you’re not really a person, whispered the back corners of his mind, and he shrugged. He should go to sleep; he was a doctor, he knew the effects of insomnia. Knew why he spent most of his nights looking out the viewport, drinking in the sight of the stars from which no one was coming to drag him away, to close him in a room with no light, no one else, nothing but stone upon stone to drag under his skin—
Julian stood abruptly, absently rubbing a shoulder. The hyposprays to be able to sleep were becoming a pattern. His physician’s mind worried at the possibility of dependence, at the underlying causes that couldn’t be cured by treating the symptoms.
His survivor’s mind that still felt the stone against his bleeding fingertips didn’t care.
“I know, Julian, I know,” said Jadzia Dax as she gingerly eased onto the biobed in the infirmary. “Don’t overexert myself. You don’t have to say it.”
Julian raised an eyebrow as he ran his sensors over her. “Apparently I don’t, but whether I say it or not doesn’t seem to register with you. I appreciate your passion for exercise, but Klingon bat’leth training isn’t very accommodating for Trill joints. You need to learn your body’s limits.”
“You’d think I would be more aware of the shortcomings of bodies, having lived in eight of them.”
Julian reached for his osteogenic stimulator and hesitated for the briefest of seconds before gently tilting Jadzia’s head away from her cracked collarbone, his fingers just skimming her hair, the thought of touching her bare skin suddenly overwhelming, exhausting. He buried the anxiety, running the tool in steady motions, as she chattered on about the adventures of Emony Dax and her numerous fractures and bruises as a gymnast.
“Now,” he said after a while, interrupting a story about a particularly tricky dismount that had involved a rather impressive moment of field medicine, “just because this is healed doesn’t mean you can go right back into training again. Give it a week to rest and readjust, and next time, try not to block with your bones.”
Jadzia grinned and squeezed his hand in gratitude. “I’m sure I’ll see you again, Julian,” she said, her eyes dancing with mischief as she hopped off the bed and left.
Julian stood still for a moment, breathing deeply, the pressure of her hand burning through his skin like phaser fire.
It had been a week and one half. He knew this because the rotations in the infirmary had rolled over again, because he counted every night that he stayed awake and stared out the viewport at the uncaring stars, because he had catalogued the fact that Captain Sisko had stopped telling him to take time off, that Miles O’Brien had started asking more often about getting together for a drink. He knew because he had not had lunch with Garak and he understood that the distance that had grown between them before the imprisonment had not lessened.
He did not want to think about why he found it comforting that at least Garak had not preferred this other Bashir, had not reignited a friendship only to find that the Julian with whom he reconciled was dead. Julian was tired of replacing dead versions of himself.
He rolled his head around slowly, trying to ease the tension in his shoulders, knowing it was a fruitless endeavor. Focusing on the computer screen in front of him, Julian tried to remind himself that this report mattered, that this job was what he loved, that the Changeling hadn’t completely disrupted his records system, at least. He tapped in a few more notes before hearing the door to his office chime.
“Enter,” he said without turning.
“Doctor, Chief O’Brien is here and asking to see you.”
“Did he say why?”
“He’s insisting you treat him, sir.”
Julian turned finally, standing in the rotation and moving toward the door. “What happened?”
The nurse led him toward the biobed where Miles perched uncomfortably, cradling one hand in the other. Julian saw the angry redness of the flesh before Miles could say anything.
“Conduit sparked a mini-explosion,” said Miles, sounding almost apologetic. “Couldn’t pull my hand out fast enough.”
Julian ran the tricorder over the burns, making sure none of the nerves beneath were too damaged. “Second degree,” he said, his mind already skipping ahead through the steps of healing before he even reached for the dermal regenerator. “You’re lucky it didn’t burn any hotter.”
“It burned plenty hot enough,” Miles grimaced as Julian pushed a hypospray for the pain into his shoulder. “You’d think after five years I would have found all the booby traps on this station, but it seems there’s always a new layer.”
Julian continued to work, not responding.
“Julian?” Miles asked tentatively.
“Are—are you okay?”
“Chief, you’re the one sitting in my infirmary with second-degree burns on his dominant hand.”
“I know, I meant—you know, in general. It’s…it’s been almost two weeks.”
Julian clenched his jaw. He wouldn’t correct him, insist to the hour how long it had been. “Did you burn yourself so you could come in here and check up on me?” he asked, his tone unexpectedly hard, bruising.
“What? No!” Miles looked affronted at the thought. “Like I said, this’s a tricky station full of traps and bad connections and who knows what. But…but since I’m here, I thought I’d ask. Y’haven’t really ever answered me about goin’ for a pint. Or comin’ over—I mean, if nothing else, you should—well, I guess you should meet Kirayoshi.”
Julian’s grip tightened on the regenerator. “Haven’t been up to it yet, Chief,” he said. “There. Good as new. Keep an eye out for further traps, right?” He reached out as though to pat Miles on the shoulder and pulled his hand back, the distance between them a gulf, a wormhole, a solar system filled with Miles’ confusion and Julian’s anger.
“Julian,” said Miles, grabbing Julian by the elbow as he turned away, the chief’s newly-healed skin shining oddly against Julian’s uniform that still felt strange. Julian fought against the desire to punch him, to break out of the hold, to run before they dragged him away…He focused on Miles, Miles in the infirmary with the burned skin. “D’you—d’you remember when I got back from Argratha?” Miles asked.
Julian looked at him. “Vividly,” he said.
“You—you were good to me, then. When…when I didn’t feel like I fit here, or anywhere. You got me to see I needed help, and you were right, and I’m grateful for it.”
Julian waited, knowing where this was going, knowing Miles needed to say it anyway.
“I just—I want you to know that I get what it’s like to be…off-kilter. And it’s okay to need help gettin’ back on kilter. And I’m…I’m here. You know. If you need.”
Swallowing a thousand responses, Julian nodded. “I know,” he said.
Miles nodded. “Good, then.”
“Take care of that hand,” Julian said, and left before he could throw something, could scream that Miles had no idea what it was like to have had someone else be on-kilter for him, that he had liked the other Bashir fitting in just fine, that the years of their friendship apparently meant nothing when Julian could be so easily replaced. He blinked as he headed back to his office, trying to clear away the image still overlapping Miles’s hand of Martok’s mangled flesh, of Garak’s burned fingers, of the utterly pathetic attempts to heal anyone as the guards came again to haul another to the ring to be beaten unconscious and he couldn’t stop it, couldn’t save them, couldn’t stop wondering when he would bury another friend.