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It's not the pebble, it's the Cardassian

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The young lady fixed Garak with bright yellow eyes from under her curtain of purple hair, and emitted a series of beeps and clicks that made Garak wonder about her vocal cords. Her manner, however, was unmistakably earnest.

He smiled reassuringly at her. "I'm sorry, my dear, the universal translator is still working on analyzing your language. I do hope it isn't another case of the Breen."

She shook her flossy mane in irritation. He was almost sure that she understood every word he said, which was galling. He disliked being at a disadvantage. Of course, being forced to stop for repairs while fleeing back to your own quadrant from a Dominion prison could be interpreted as already being at a disadvantage, but he preferred to look on the bright sight of things. At least the Klingons were being attended to medically, which meant the only person Julian had around to talk to was Garak, a state of affairs Garak felt slightly guilty about enjoying. If only they could get rid of the interested crowds as well, that would be ideal.

"All I can find on the Braxite is that they didn't like or trust Q, which suggests they are at least an intelligent species." Doctor Bashir glared at his datapad as if it had personally offended him. "Although I could tell that from the technological level of the planet. I don't even know if it's aligned or not, although they have been very kind to us."

Kind, indeed. They were reclining on cushions woven of some natural silky fabric in bright colors, under a canopy of the same rainbow fabric, watching some kind of celebration. The lady attending on them gave the impression she'd been assigned to them as a servant, although the gun swinging from her hip also gave the impression she might be a guard. She smiled often, but Garak didn't trust people who smiled too readily, starting with himself. The cushions and canopy were almost certainly woven of Braxite hair, which was slightly worrying. There were no signs as yet that they were to be sacrificed to any strange alien gods, though, and Garak and Bashir between them didn't have enough hair to make a reasonably sized handkerchief. Still, Garak had been on enough alien planets to have a healthy wariness about strangers who welcomed him into their midst and fed them up, as if trying to fatten them.

Fattening Doctor Bashir up would take some time and effort. Garak wasn't sure how much weight he had lost in Internment Camp 371 and how much was natural slenderness, but clad in a soft tunic of the same bright woven silk, Garak was acutely aware of just how thin the human was. Federation uniforms were corseted and padded to give the wearers currently fashionable shapes, but even covered in unfortunate Federation styling Bashir had been willowy. Now, after starving in a Dominion cell, his clavicles stood out sharply under the light human brown of his skin, and his arms and legs were long and deceptively fragile looking. Bashir had surprised him more than once with his strength and swiftness, and it was a good idea to recall that, however exquisite he looked, he could take a Cardassian out in an unarmed fight. Had taken Garak out, in fact, and it was probably not a good idea to think too much about that when he kept looking at the drape of a short pink tunic over a slender thigh.

And why did Garak's mind keep wandering to such trivialities? He should still be reeling from the Vorta Deyos's news about Cardassia. He should still be grieving Tain. Perhaps even worrying about that idiot Klingon Worf. Instead, the music, the scents, the food, the warmth of the white star sun, how Bashir looked in skimpy silk seemed more important. A golden sense of well-being kept flooding him, and he fought to stay alert and suspicious.

"It would be convenient to know if we were in the hands of friends or enemies," Garak said, half to Bashir and half to their company. He thought it wiser not to say the word Dominion aloud, although he would be interested to see their hostess's reaction.

She rolled her eyes in disgust and passed him a plate of cold, spiced meat and preserved berries, as if to reassure him of her friendly intent. Hopefully not the meat of a sapient being, but after even the short time he had spent in the prison camp, Garak would have considered eating anything with sufficient protein. In any case, his suspicion that the failure to understand was purely on their side seemed accurate, and the food was delicious.

"My young friend," he said slowly, "you can probably tell that our vessel needs repair. We are on a mission of some urgency. Is there anything we have that could be of payment in exchange for repairs? Technology not needed for our return? My stylish fashions?" She grinned at him in what seemed an unnecessarily mocking way. Certainly he had to admit the tunics they all wore were well cut. "One of our companions?" She actually laughed, and pointed at Bashir. "Oh. I'm afraid I'd rather keep that one."

"Perhaps she needs me to impregnate her race and save them from extinction," Bashir suggested brightly, and the Braxian lady dissolved into giggles, shaking her head violently. "Oh, pity. I've read some twentieth century novels like that."

"Perhaps I need to intervene more in your reading matter, doctor. You are clearly focusing on sensation rather than elucidation."

"It's not a crime to enjoy yourself." Bashir gave Garak a smile which... well. He was unlikely to mean anything by it. After all, he was clearly taken by the Braxite girl, who was as young and lithe as himself. Garak had endured several years of understanding that what looked and felt like flirting, the frequent changes between argument and smiles, bickering and chaste touches, was just how Bashir interacted with people he was friendly with. When he actually tried to seduce young women, he was far more direct. Garak needed to keep his head on straight, to worry that Bashir, too, seemed more inclined to relax than to force a solution to their immediate problems.

Bashir sampled the berries. "You should try having fun more," he said through a mouthful of fruit.

The Braxite beamed at them both and patted them on the heads, apparently charmed by the sentiment. She pointed at Bashir again, and then Garak, chattering in a cascade of clicks.

"Oh, no. As a doctor, I have to enlighten you that I wouldn't be very successful in impregnating him, at least not without technological intervention. No matter how hard I try." Bashir's sparkling eyes as their gazes met caused dull pain, a bump against an old wound he was ashamed of having in the first place. The idea of them together was, quite simply, a source of great amusement. Garak could laugh all day and night about it. He looked away. It was fine. It had always been exactly as expected. Whatever frission there was between them, no matter how much they became friends, there was no way they were even reasonable prospects as more than that. An interest in debating literature only went so far.

The Braxite repeated her gesture more insistently, then pointed at the crowds engaging in some kind of festivity.

"You want us to join you?" Bashir looked out at the crowds, the milling and half-dressed people. This planet was blissfully warm. Garak could feel it heating his blood, his brain working more freely. If only it was not for the warning bells in his mind telling him he was too happy, too relaxed.

Bashir's question caused an enthusiastic response, so they climbed to their feet, and followed her as she traipsed through the crowds, not even bothering to cover them with her gun. Foolish. If he had not had Bashir to worry about, removing her gun and taking her as a hostage would be altogether too easy. Her fellow Braxites stepped aside for the small group in a far too accommodating matter. Maybe this was where they were to be eaten, or sacrificed, or publicly interrogated. Well, if he caused enough a diversion Bashir, even weakened from his months of imprisonment, was more than capable of taking himself back to a shuttle that could get to a new area, even if not to the Wormhole.

There was a large pool of water in the middle of the clearing, over a bed of smooth white rocks. The most delicious scent arose from it, detectable even over and food and flowers, cool and sweet, as if the quality of cleanliness itself could become a fragrance. Bashir threw his head back and inhaled it with unselfconscious pleasure.

"Oh, that's refreshing," he said, and Garak released slightly guiltily that there was no way the human was enjoying this heat the way he was. There were darkened patches visible where his slender arms rested over his tunic, where humans had their alien and oddly entrancing furring, and, Garak noticed as Bashir stepped ahead, sticking his tunic to the small of his back above his almost flat buttocks. Everything about him was so spare, but so lovely. "I wish I could swim in it."

Their -- guard? servant? hostess? guide? -- gave one of her ready smiles over her shoulder, and turned back to the pool just as a couple of Braxites stepped into the water, fully dressed, if their tunics could count as full dress. Most of the crowd paused in what they were doing to watch. The water only came up to their rib cages--they were taller than either human or Cardassian, which might have some bearing on their particular Braxite treating them somewhat like pets--but they ducked under, gold and midnight blue floating on the surface of the pool and obscuring the view.

When they came up, each gripped a stone in their hand like a precious token. They emerged slowly, expressions fixed and anxious, and went to kneel beside an otherwise unexceptional middle-aged man, the only one dressed in black, and the only one with long black hair.

There was a long silence as the pair raised their hands, faces anxious, and unfurled their hands. Garak was deeply interested by the ominous air of the proceeding. In front of him, Bashir shifted uneasily.

The man took the stones, compared them, and emitted some clicks and beeps, holding them up. The anxiety drained from the faces of the couple, and they disappeared in a celebrating huddle of well-wishers.

"Well, that was interesting," Garak said. "What would have happened if their stones had been wrong? Would they have been executed?" Their Braxite friend made a beep that sounded definitely disgusted. "No, then. But they had a desired outcome?" Her smile flowered back, and she led them back to her canopy, apparently well satisfied in them having seen the show.

The festival wore on, and Garak tried to coax his remainders of his anxiety into a flame. Dukat and Cardassia and the Founders... he couldn't think what that alliance might mean to him, to his home. Or to, as little as he wanted to care about his other prison, Deep Space Nine and Ziyal, Constable Odo and even that ridiculous Quark. He needed to get back. To be useful...

Bashir pulled his own knee up and hugged it, the hem of the tunic riding up. He had dark hair along a golden thigh, so unlike Garak's satin skin and ridges of scales that he was fascinated. Such pretty creatures, humans. He forgot all else, reaching for a glass of the cold black liquid they drank here, which tasted like midnight and mountain air.

Every now and then, pairs or small groups of revellers entered the pool together and brought out stones. In most cases the results were celebration, but once or twice the man in white shook his head, and there were great wailing beeps and clicks of horror. Yet the people affected were not dragged off, or apparently harmed in any way. He did see a young man, though, still dripping wet, who had entered with a much older woman, clinging to a man who was probably his father afterwards and sobbing, as his father vainly tried to comfort him. The woman was nowhere to be seen.

Garak wondered. He wondered far too much for comfort.

Every now and then he or Julian would try to engaged their companion in discussing the need for repairs, but she just shook her head and clicked at them, smiling and gesturing as if to say later, later. Perhaps this festival was one not to be interrupted. Perhaps she was waiting for their translators to kick in.

The stars were shining bright in the sky, reminding him belatedly that they should be among them, not under one particular sun. Bashir was half-lying on his lap, head draped over one thigh as he dozed. Just how much had they been drinking? He couldn't remember half the evening. He guiltily yanked back the hand that had been absent-mindedly ruffling brown hair which, if not as silky as that of the Braxites, was finer and fluffier by far than his own.

Bashir made an odd sound, as if protesting the loss, and pulled himself up. He looked dazedly at Garak's lap, then away. "Sorry. Suppose I was more tired than I thought."

"You've been in a prison camp for months." Garak gave him a measured, reassuring smile.

Their particular Braxite smiled at them both like a proud mother, and then her smile grew deeper. She pushed her hair away from her eyes, stood, and offered her hands to them.

"You want us to come with you again? All right."

Garak inwardly flinched a little at taking her hand. Too intimate, too close, on such short acquaintance. But it was not like he hadn't had to blend into other culture's customs before. She certainly seemed friendly.

This time she led them all the way to the pool before releasing them. The crowds parted, and merriment died down as their hosts turned to watch. The Braxite lady gestured towards the water, smiling, but there was more seriousness on her face now, her brows were drawn a little together. The gesture of her hand was firm. Looking around, Garak felt like he had just realized they were standing under a microscope.

Bashir rubbed a weary hand over his eyes. "Seems I'm to get my swim after all." He seemed relaxed and sleepy, but where his hand left his eyes and he met Garak's gaze, his expression was noticeably sharp. So he had not entirely succumbed to the honeyed feeling of this place, after all. "What happens if we get the wrong stones?"

The Braxite lady beeped and pouted. Then she pointed again.

"Suppose we're for it," Bashir said slowly. "Better not to offend our hosts."

Some of Garak's instincts screamed that this was dangerous, this was wrong, and he had his suspicions what all the was about. But Bashir had reached for his hand, their palms pressed together and their fingers interweaved, and they stepped together into the pool. He winced at the shock of icy water rising up over him, almost to his shoulders.

They stood hand in hand and looked at each other for a long moment, Bashir's eyes dark in the evening light. Garak wondered if he was right in his guess, and if so how much Bashir suspected. Underestimating Bashir's intelligence and insight rarely was a good idea. Then Bashir grinned and said, "Good luck", and pulled him under the surface.

The cold was almost unbearable. Garak kept tight hold of the hand in his and groped with the other until his fingers closed around a smooth pebble. Luck. He hated being subject to luck. He wanted information, he wanted to plan. But there was no way to know which pebble was which, and what Bashir had grasped, or if it was all a charlatan trick of the Braxite in black anyway. Oralian favour me rose to his head, words he never imagined himself thinking. They broke the surface together.

"Well, then." Bashir looked like he was trying to be light in manner, and failing. Their grips slid apart.

"Well, then," Garak echoed, and they emerged and followed the path laid out for them by the crowd, dripping water from their tunics. They didn't hold hands. Garak clutched the pebble so hard the muscles of his hands ached.

They knelt, and presented the stones, as if submitting to doom, while Garak calculated escape routes, probabilities.

Their judge turned the stones over, around and around in his hands, then held them high.

Bashir was tackled from behind by their host, who was laughing delightedly, and to his vague horror Garak found himself embraced and passed around by a lot of enthusiastic and very happy aliens. he caught Bashir grinning at him through a cloud of rainbow hair. "I think we passed the test."

"It seems so," Garak agreed, as his mind explored the possibilities.

It was late when they were taken to check in on Worf and Martok, who were already asleep. Their purple-haired companion seemed very keen on reassuring them that all was well, and also very keen on not letting them be alone with their companions for a minute. Garak was beginning to wonder if she was being careful not to let them talk alone. When she finally conveyed them to a comfortable apartment, smiling all the time (was Garak as annoying when he smiled? He hoped so) and let them in, he assumed the room was fitted with listening devices when she finally allowed them to be alone.

The lights were pleasantly dim, and it was deliciously warm, and he was inebriated and exhausted. Perhaps the door was locked, or perhaps not. Either way, they were without tricorders.

Bashir on the other hand poked happily around the room, investigating like a riding hound puppy. The windows were closed with no sign of opening them, but the air was as sweet here as everywhere else they had yet been on Brax, the view showing rooftops and stars. Vases of flowers, with thick white fragrant petals, sent a twinge to what passed for Garak's heart. The bedroom opened onto a bath room with a huge deep bath. What looked like a sweet-smelling waterfall cascaded from the ceiling onto a marble platform, and then drained into the bath. When they arrived they had been cleaned with sonic showers, but this seemed something else. He pushed his hand into the water. "Warm. Is this a real water shower?" he asked longingly. "It's deep enough to wallow in. And no pebbles."

There was, Garak noted, no door separating the rooms. But why should that be a problem? They had been prisoners together, and Federation senses of modesty were unreliable. They were both only wearing a few scraps of silk, possibly hair, in any case. He turned to the bed, singular. Again, there was no need to feel uncomfortable, not between two adults. There was plenty of room. He had spent years sending interested signals in both Cardassian and human ways to Julian, and being placed in the same bedroom was not about to create romance where there was none.

Their pebbles were lying on the sheets, stark white against the black. Apart from the man at the festival, Garak had noticed no black in the Braxite clothes or furnishings. Odd. The meaning teased at his brain, but he didn't acknowledge it. Even if it was true, well, it was not like he would say anything. At best it should remain a private thought, a private comfort and fantasy to be cherished when Bashir had no time for him.

Bashir noticed the direction of his attention and came forward, picking one up. "Are these our special rocks? I don't see the trick. They look identical---oh, wait. Look at these." He rubbed a thumb over the pebbles, and Garak almost thought he could detect something, even without Bashir's abilities. "They match. How strange. And left on our bed. It's almost as if..." His words faded. Bashir seemed to suddenly be considering the backs of his hands very carefully, and the even brown-gold hue of his skin was tinged slightly with rose. "Well. We have been up a long time, I'm slightly drunk, and there doesn't seem much we can do until morning. And this is a real bed. You have no idea how I have much I have wanted to sleep in a real bed. I vote we try it out." It sounded like a closure.

He put the pebbles gently on a shelf and pulled back the bed-covers in an efficient way. Garak gave himself a moment, just a moment, to imagine the sheets pulled back in a different kind of way, stumbling and eager, or left there to rumple, and then closed down that part of his mind. Nothing good came of fantasising about someone you were about to spend a perfectly chaste night with.

"is sleeping a complicated democratic matter in the Federation?"

"You know it is. We vote on the exact shades of our uniforms and when to have breakfast." That smile. The slightly narrowed eyes, the deep laughter lines, the glow of amusement. All the more devastating for not being employed as a weapon or a shield. "But I'm afraid that even if there is a hung vote, I can't keep my eyes open much longer."

"I never believed much in the effectiveness of votes anyway. It's a charming delusion that they change anything."

"Charming," Bashir echoed, but there was amusement behind it.

"Speaking of fashion, my tunic at least is still uncomfortably damp, and they haven't provided us with any sleeping clothes," Garak said. Bashir's sunset pink clothes had in fact been clinging somewhat distractingly to his narrow chest, not to mention other parts of his anatomy. The perspiration had been helping, and the unaccountably delicious musky scent of clean, sweaty human skin.

"I don't think they expected us to wear anything," Bashir said. He seemed oddly interested in a small jar on the bedside shelf, unscrewing it and dipping a finger inside.

"How could you possibly know their sleeping habits?" Garak asked, as if he didn't know quite well where this was going.

"Erhm." Bashir replaced the lid. "I know Cardassians aren't much for luxury hotels, especially officially."

Garak's lip twisted in a sneer. "I am sure Dukat and his friends unofficially over-indulge disgracefully."

"That's true. But not my point." Bashir sat on the edge of the bed, his back to Garak. "Human hotels often have something called a honeymoon suite."

He had been an idiot not to think Bashir had been silently putting together two and two and coming to the same conclusion. "And this is the equivalent."

"I think so, yes."

The silence stretched on far too long. Silence was an effective interrogation technique, but he didn't feel like it in this case. "Well," he said brightly, keeping his smile on his face, even though Bashir couldn't see it, thinking of the jar Bashir had dipped his finger into. "This is awkward."

"I should've been more careful," said Bashir. That stung. No, Garak was being unfair. Wanting a friend to be happy about having accidentally hitched themselves to you to was unreasonable. "Oh, well, it's not too bad. It's not as if this isn't something that happens all the time. We had a seminar on it first year of Academy. You've accidentally married someone in an alien ceremony, what next? Our lecturer assumed we've married an inhabitant of the other planet and had difficult to break bonds, but this should be easier. It's not like we intend to stay here." Bashir flopped back on the bed, damp tunic and all, and looked up at him. "I feel less worried about getting back in time than I should. I don't know if I'm just too tired, or it's something about this place. Oh, well. Let's discuss it in the morning." He pulled his long bare legs up and shuffled around into a more comfortable position, facing away from Garak. "Go to sleep."

Of course the bonds between them were easy to break. What else could be expected?

He climbed onto the bed beside Bashir--ah, there was a thought to dream of--and determinedly and awkwardly settled to sleep. The bed was firm and comfortable, and the temperature was right, and Bashir's breath was oddly soothing. This was not so terrible. Sharing a bed with a friend who, despite all odds and evidence, trusted him. Rightly. He had gone too soft even before Tain's death, before Ziyal had undone him with her trust, had proven that with Constable Odo. Even if he fully repaired the cold steel that used to shelter him from compassion and decency, there were some people he was incapable of hurting, and the most important one lay curled beside him. Trustingly.

"Good night, my dear doctor."

"We might be married. The least you can do is call me Julian. Goodnight, plain and simple Garak."

Despite everything, Garak drifted off to sleep content.


Garak never slept through movement, but he was also trained to get as much sleep as he could out of every opportunity. So part of his brain registered that Doctor Bashir--Julian--was thrashing restlessly, but he didn't awaken entirely until the sheets beside him were bare and splashing came from the adjacent room.

He raised his lashes just a little. Julian was framed by the stars in the window, Garak's light-sensitive eyes picking out his form as he bathed under the waterfall, the tunic discarded on the floor, facing him as he soaped himself. The sweet heavy air, the warmth, his sleepiness, all seemed to make it possible and forgivable to watch, to imprint the image on his brain of lanky, sinewy legs, a narrow graceful chest, suds washing over them. A treasure to be hoarded. Stolen...

He would not steal from Julian.

He sat up. Julian inclined his head slightly, acknowledging he was awake.. And why shouldn't he? Time to remind himself again that Julian was Starfleet and an officer, that he was exposed to many cultures, that nudity was probably not a big deal to him. Julian continued to wash and rinse. The water and tiny bubbles gleamed on his golden skin, as he lifted a foot to the side of the bath and soaped his inner thighs, exposing himself heavy and half-hard between them and in the nest of dark hair.

Garak gulped in air.

Julian finished his washing, and stepped out, drying himself in a large towel "It seems a shame to dry off," he said casually. "It's unbearably hot."

"Perhaps we should find a way to ask our hosts to lower the temperature."

Julian shook his head, droplets flying. "No. You endure the cold on Deep Space Nine and Federation craft enough. As your doctor, my prescription is that it's your turn to be comfortable for once." So kind, this young man. So beautiful. And his half-aroused state just there, unremarked, and he must know Garak could see it and it seemed they might be, technically, married... "I've lowered my core body temperature, anyway and might as well come back to bed." There was a lilt to his voice that might be flirtation. It might. Only Julian was hardly smooth and seductive outside his holonovels. He stammered and blushed and was flustered when attracted, when flirted with, and it was adorable. "At least I'm not sharing a bed with a human. They would heat it up unbearably. You're nice and cool."

"Wonderful." A human. Not another human. The difference nagged at the edge of Garak's consciousness.

Julian came back to bed without bothering to replace the pink tunic, his skin still damp. It would be soft, despite the hair fuzzing his thin body. Scant, by human terms, but still beguilingly alien. Perhaps he wasn't misreading it, perhaps this was an invitation. An adventure. Humans didn't take sex as seriously as Cardassians properly devoted to their culture and not under Dukat's disgraceful decadence did, it could be a pleasant encounter between friends. All he had to do was reach out and stroke that half-erection, and see if his touch was accepted or not. Stupid not to admit himself that he wanted it, even if what he wanted was much, more more. He wanted it so much. Perhaps he was cowardly to not at least take the chance, to risk rejection. Julian had forgiven him far worse than an attempt at seduction. And if he broke his own heart by having Julian for one night and never again, wouldn't the memories be worth it when they returned to the Station?

If they returned to the station.

Sharing the bed with another human.

There was at least one Doctor Julian Bashir changeling. Garak had been certain it was the one back on Deep Space Nine, had indeed comforted himself with the thought that the slight and growing distance between them had not been entirely been due to a marked preference for Chief O'Brien's company, or the strains of the Klingon-Cardassian war, or his own regrettable actions with Constable Odo. The changeling simply hadn't realised how close they had become.

The presence of one changeling did not rule out the existence of another.

Of course, Julian had been clever and courageous and supportive in their escape. Exactly what Garak was when playing both sides. And if he was placing a changeling impostor, he would also place a changeling impostor who could come in and take over if the first impostor was unveiled. Elementary strategy. And he couldn't help noticing that they might be escaping to the Alpha Quadrant, but they seemed quite stationary now, in a planet that might or might not be under the sway of the Dominion.

He wanted the man in the bed beside him to be Julian. He wanted the man who had stood by him as he faced his dying father to be Julian. He wanted Julian to flirt and be so secure in his company that he lay naked by his side. He wanted Julian to have wondered if the ritual was a pair bonding, just as he had, and choose to pull the rock anyway. He didn't want the longing and fear he was feeling now to be focused on a strange Founder, and more than anything he didn't want to think what had happened to the real Julian Bashir if this was not him.

Thinking of someone else before himself. How unlike him. Sentiment was a weakness, as he had told Julian only a few days before, and Julian had rejected the idea. Or the changeling had. It meant something very different depending on what motives it had been said with.

"Good night, Garak," said Julian, and his voice was warm with deep fondness, and Garak wanted nothing more than to take him in his arms and kiss away his doubts.

"Sleep well, Doctor," he said, and this time Julian didn't correct him. Instead, he put an arm around Garak's waist from behind and kissed his shoulder.

"Doctor," Garak said again.

"Don't sound so sad." Had he seemed sad? He wasn't aware of it. He had just been questioning, surely. "We're married. A kiss goodnight is expected." There was amusement under his voice, and also something else, something fragile and cracked that made Garak think it really was Julian. It had to be. The changeling would not sound so uncertain. "Even if it's only while we're here, I missed you. More than I expected. I missed Miles and Keiko and Kira and I wasn't there to deliver their baby, I missed Dax and Leeta and even Quark, but I kept thinking... thinking that my replacement was with you, taking my time with you. Maybe making you hate me. Maybe that you would die by his hands, and die thinking your friend had betrayed you."

"I would have admired you for pulling off such a betrayal." There was an arm around his waist. His shoulder burned where the kiss had been dropped. When had he last been held tenderly like this? Almost possessively. "It would be my punishment for underestimating you." And then, because even now, even with his heart contracting and expanding almost too fast to almost bear, his instinct was to lash out to protect himself, he said, "I told the other you that I should stop underestimating you."

"He wasn't me," Julian snapped. And that was real, surely, that anger and jealousy, only why would someone like Julian feel jealousy over someone like him? Julian who was open-hearted and generous and used to being cared for, who moved lightly from one infatuation to the next. Jealousy was for him, seeing Julian's beauty and intelligence and sweetness spent on people who could never value it as he did, never need it. "And that's worse, Garak, in a way that is worse, the thought that it didn't make any difference, that you cared as much for the friendship of a stranger as me."

"There's only you." It fell heavily on the air. He could lie convincingly, but telling the truth convincingly was an art Garak never had held.

"Then I came out of solitary, and you were there. My companion in misery. And I felt guilty for wishing you there, and for being glad you were there, because even if you came for Tain and not me, you are my friend."

"I'm glad too, Julian," he said softly. He moved his hand up to cover Julian's own, and felt the hand turn in his, grasp it. Wondering, as he had on another occasion, if Julian knew just what hand holding meant.

"Thank you for saying my name." Julian sighed, shuffled closer, and Garak, remembering that half tumescence, the kiss, dared at last to lift the hand to his lips.

"Garak." His name came thicker now. "Garak, if only for tonight... Trust me."

"You've suffered in the internment camp. If it will comfort you." He hated himself. Phrasing it as himself giving a favour. Unable to say, I want you, let me love you. "And for now, it seems we are married."

"For now," Julian echoed. He pulled away, and Garak resigned himself bitterly, but then there was the subtle sounds of the jar by the bed, and when Julian settled behind him again the hand that reached under his tunic and stroked down his torso was slippery with gel. "But I am the one who wants to comfort you. I don't think anyone comforts you enough." He hesitated, fingers lingering just too high. "If it's all right?"

"Please," he said, his voice breaking, already hardening, and fingers that were gentle and firm and precise, surgeon's fingers, wrapped around him to squeeze and stroke and take him the rest of the way to erection, then playing tantalisingly, learning the ridges and scales. Had he thought about this, about the differences between them, had he imagined touching them? The thought was even more arousing than the touch, that Julian might have gone back after one of their lunches thinking about his scales, about how they would feel under his fingers, against his tongue, inside... Garak groaned, tried not to thrust uselessly against air, and Julian, damn him, chuckled.

"Wait, sweetheart." Sweetheart. Julian was not one for endearments, all the dears came from Garak, half ironic and wholly meant. Sweetheart, no one had ever called him sweetheart, and it was saccharine and disgusting and if Julian had not been pulling away and letting go, he would have come then and there.

When Julian settled back, his hand firm now, not teasing, a thin hip was nudging his thighs apart, and there was a glide of heat between them, along the thin stretch of skin at the top, nudging against where he was drawn high and tight. He did buck then, into the fist wrapped around him, tightening his thighs, his hand clutching at the forearm reaching around him. This wasn't what he had imagined, he had fantasised if they came together he would be taking Julian apart with exquisite care, not curled around himself and thrusting helplessly. But the warmth of his lover was everywhere, pressing against his back, wrapped around him. He couldn't hold Julian, couldn't clasp him in his arms and bite mine, mine into his soft human neck, he could only surrender to the hand working him and the heat thrusting between his thighs, evidence that Julian was with him, wanted him.

"What do you need?" Julian growled, and then chuckled. "Of course."

Sharp broad human teeth clamped on his neck ridge, and orgasm ripped through him. "Doctor," he cried out, not the most suave or romantic of things, but what he had keened all too often on his own.

"Garak," Julian answered, through what sounded like gritted teeth, and he thrust again and again, his hand still tight on Garak's oversensitive and softening body, and then, without warning, shuddered and spilled. His hand relaxed, and groped to find Garak's, to hold it. "Love."

That word. He would have come again if he could. He could only lie, breath rasping, wishing he was twenty years younger, that his back and lungs didn't hurt, or that he could die in this moment, end in it while he could pretend a mere endearment actually meant love in the way he wanted.

But eventually his heartbeat slowed, and he had never been good at being quiet. He and Julian were twins souls in some ways. "I'm afraid we are most impolite guests." He was amazed at how normal his voice sounded, calm and wry. "We've made a mess of these sheets, and black does show everything."

Julian smothered mirth against his shoulder. "I think they were expecting it." He slid out of bed, and Garak watched him, slender and lovely and... his? perhaps... as he picked up the towel, dampened it in the bath, and carried it back.

Garak watched his tender care, the way he wiped his lover clean before attending to himself and the best he could with the bed. Surely not the changeling. The changeling might learn Julian's mannerisms and his brashness and, but he couldn't know his gentleness, his consideration and care that was as much a part of him as the temper that rarely flared up in public.

"You're very good at giving care," he said.

"A compliment? From you? I'm a doctor, after all. You could give me a compliment on my prowess."

"Hmm. I think it should be tested further before giving a review," Garak said lightly, and his heart turned over with relief when Julian grinned instead of demurring.

"Garak?"

And then, already, his senses were primed for another blow. "What is it?"

"Would you... would you mind. I mean." The familiar stammer. What was it he wanted? "Kissing me? I mean we've just, just. And I know I started it. But it's customary among humans, and I would appreciate it if you kissed me."

Garak pulled him close and kissed him, over and over, sure that it was his Julian as their mouths met, only his Julian could feel like that.

Later, drunk with kisses, he allowed Julian into his arms. He had never though of himself as much of a hugger, but Julian spread himself against his chest and snuggled close. "Regrets, Garak?"

"None."

"Good. After all, it won't be so bad, will it? A day or so of being my husband. I've missed someone to hug at night. You'll do as a soft toy until I'm back with Kukalaka."

"With what?" Garak forced the words out through the pain lancing through him. A day or so. And nights.

Julian gave a genteel little snore. Garak was entirely unconvinced it was real, but it was clear he wasn't going to get any other answer. What he did get was the chance to fall asleep in Julian's arms, which was not to be wasted.


When morning came, they lay almost as if spooned in an embrace, but not touching. Garak had dreamed, oh he had dreamed, confused nightmares of his father and changelings and closed spaces and cataclysmic war, but also of Julian, light and pristine and real in the darkness, as if the touch of his hand could simultaneously wash Garak's soul clean and set it alight.

Julian must have heard his breath change, because he rolled over toward him. There was still the dark wine on his breath but Garak wouldn't change it for all the sweet pure air of this planet, not when it played on his skin and lips like a kiss. And there would be a kiss if Julian didn't move away, he knew it. How any man could lie in a bed with him like this, breaths mingling, bare skin so close, and not lose all wisdom, seize him close, changeling or human...

There was a warning chime, and the door slid open.

Their Braxite friend gasped in mock shock, and then made an amused trill of sound. She emitted a chatter of clicks and beeps and--

"Did you say breakfast?" Julian demanded.

She repeated her speech. Among the sounds were some clear words, breakfast and eat and friends. She didn't seem to be implying they would eat their friends, either, which Garak supposed was a relief.

"The translators are adapting, then. My dear, it is very important our vessel is fixed. Can it be arranged?"

She smiled at them, and said one word. "Yes."

"How soon?"

More clicks and beeps, but among them wait and breakfast and come and, encouragingly, repairs.

"Breakfast," Julian agreed happily. "Ah, is it your custom to attend breakfast fully clothed?"

The Braxite expelled a puff of air that sent her purple fringe dancing, and touched a marking on a wall. An invisible door slid aside, showing a tailor's shop worth of brightly coloured tunics,considerably less plain that those worn at the festival. Gems and embroidery shone and sparkled on them, and leather accessories. And clean sheets.

"You are clearly a people of fashion," Garak said. "I can learn from you." The Braxite made a mocking gesture that was anything but unfriendly. "What shall we call you, dear lady? No, I don't have the vocal chords for that."

"Shall we call you Benefactress?" Julian asked, and she expressed delight. "I am Julian Bashir, and this is Garak, although I think that will cause you similar difficulties. What would you like to call us?"

She indicated Garak, and the translation supplied, "Honored Guest." He beamed. Her hand moved to Julian, and she named him, "Guest's Husband."

Garak's beam intensified. "Well. She's clearly decided who is in charge in this relationship."

"Shows how much she knows," Julian snorted.

They dressed in front of the limpid, unembarrassed gaze of Benefactress, and Garak had a moment of uncertainly, unveiling his older, softer body in front of Julian. A sharp awareness of a paunch to his stomach, his barrel chest and broad thighs compared to the younger people in the room. But Julian had certainly seemed to enjoy his thighs, and his expression was lit up when Garak turned to see him, in something like hunger that sent an answering pooling heat in his stomach.

Not in front of that poor young lady. She had been most accommodating, and she didn't deserve that. And Julian was turning away, adding his communicator badge to the bright yellow tunic he had chosen.

Julian slid his hand into Garak's as he walked and the sense of longing almost overwhelmed him. Just for a few days. Maybe... possibilities of more, later, of friends with benefits as humans called it. Julian had said sweetheart and love in the grip of passion, but friends otherwise, and friends was something. Friends was a lot, especially if sometimes he had the chance to hold him. He had kept possessiveness and wanting tampered strongly down for years, he could do it longer now. He tightened his grip.

Breakfast turned out to be in a hall with the other couples and small groups who had drawn the right pebbles from the pool, seated on more cushions, a buffet spread out before them. They were greeted joyfully by the newly married Braxites, with what seemed a certain amount of good humoured teasing, and Benefactress left them to it, saying promisingly something about repairs.

"We are not to be sacrificed after this celebration?" Garak asked politely, and the other newly weds roared with laughter. "Well, that's promising."

The universal translator picked out good luck and marriage in the babble of strange sounds, and a clear sentence, Eat your breakfast, friends. The translator was improving, and all the chatter around them had to be helping, so perhaps the most useful thing to do was relax, listen and observe, as he had in so many times and places.

And, apparently, to have Julian's lean bare thighs draped over his own, just like some of the Braxite groups around them. Garak froze. Julian's legs were slightly dewed with sweat, and his skin was soft even though his muscles were hard.

"I've never seen you wear so few clothes." Julian scooped up some kind of coulis on an edible petal. "You're usually rugged up like you're wearing armour."

"Cardassians have a sense of modesty," he said snippily, and then, honestly, "Deep Space Nine is cold."

"It's a shame." Julian smiled at him under his lashes, slow and seductive. "You really are very well built, and the Promenade would be all the more attractive for your legs." And then, right when Garak had decided this was the changeling after all and not doing a very good job of being in character, Julian laughed. "I have to admit it's fun turning the tables on you. You're usually the one invading my space and flirting to intimidate me while I'm the scared rabbit."

"I'm not sure what a rabbit is, but I am not scared."

"Really?" Julian's expression was unreadable. "Then I must believe you. You always tell me the truth."

"I suppose I do. In my way." There was silence, and Garak could feel the unspoken things between them, but his normally talkative self couldn't form them into words. He allowed the petal of coulis to be pressed into his mouth, and chewed and swallowed. It was sweet, very sweet, and normally he didn't particularly appreciate sweet things, but there were always exceptions. "What makes you think I flirt with you?"

Julian rolled his eyes. "Heaven knows. I can't say a thing about a single book or play or ethical conundrum without you objecting and arguing with me."

"Possibly I'm just contrary." He accepted another mouthful, and something about it, about allowing himself to be passively hand-fed, made something dark and yearning unfold inside him.

"Oh, you're contrary all right."

"Now, look how obedient I'm being. What makes you think I'm trying to intimidate you?"

Julian was smiling, lips closed, mobile human face in adorable lines. "Oh, I don't know. But it doesn't work any more. I know you too well."

"What makes you think you know me at all?" He couldn't help it, couldn't help challenging, even when Julian had called him on it.

"Oh, I don't know everything you've done, or what all your secrets are. It's a very slow process to unravel them. You don't know mine, either. But I know you, and I trust you, whether you want to be trusted or not." He leaned in, and for a moment Garak thought he was going to be kissed, here and now. In public. A strategic move, given how pleased their hosts seemed by their marriage, but also an intimate one, with Julian in his lap. "And I can tell you're nervous. You never smile quite so blandly unless you are. You are really intimidated by sitting closely after last night? Last night after we... you kissed me." Julian said that with wonder, as if that was the unbelievable thing about what had happened. "Many times."

I would kiss you a thousand times every day forever, my dear doctor. Perhaps he even could say it, now, with Julian on his lap, and so many other unspoken things said. Say he wanted to be married for real, no matter how stupid and unrealistic it was, no matter what disaster their marriage might mean to them both given the news that Cardassia had joined the Dominion. Say he wanted and, yes, loved, impossible to mitigate that with the memory of Julian's kisses and caresses and the sweet noise he had made coming between his thighs, loved and loved with everything he thought his cold, lonely heart couldn't manage.

The Braxite in black took a seat on the cushion opposite them, and clicked at them. Most of the words made sense.

"Yes, we are very much enjoying the breakfast and the celebration," Julian said. "We're very grateful."

Only too grateful. Garak found Julian's hand, and felt him squeeze back.

"Grateful to you, Guest's Husband," said their new friend, and continued to speak. They concentrated, and made out what they could, as the translator picked up more and more words. The marriage ceremony was incredibly important in this city; the number of couples chosen by the pool was believed by many to affect the planet's fate for the coming year. The Braxite in black, who was some kind of priest, seemed somewhat cynically doubtful of the truth of this. No one, Garak reflected, tended to be more cynical about rituals than those who worked with them. Still, this had been a lucky year, with many fated couples, and hope was good for the people. "Guests most lucky. Guests honor us by honouring our traditions." There was clearly more to it, but the translator struggled, and Garak found himself regretting that the bitterly that the apparent fluidity and subtlety of their hosts' language was being lost, reduced to simple words and concepts. These seemed a species prone to eloquence and chatter, natural friends to Cardassians. "We are grateful. We will repair. Until then, enjoy friendship and new marriage."

The priest rose, and they ate and drank and tried to make conversation without mentioning internment camps or escapes or the Dominion or prisoners, and all along Garak was aware of a bare arm and shoulder brushing his, bare legs entangled with his.

Afterwards, Benefactress came to collect them, and they were taken to the hospital suite and left there, assured them they were free to move around at will. The doctors had not been able to restore Martok's eye, but the Klingons were brimming with strength and impatience.

Martok glared suspiciously at them. "A visitor told us that our shuttle is being repaired in order to thank you for participating in some kind of challenge to show friendship."

"That's right." Julian seemed anxious. He had dropped Garak's hand before entering the suite, and the absence of his palm against Garak's felt like a significant loss.

"Did the challenge test your courage?" asked Worf, in his annoyingly grave manner.

"More than you'd think," Garak said wryly.

"You must relate the details," Martok said. "Our translators were not fully up to the job, but we they involved rocks. You seem uninjured." He seemed mildly disappointed, but that was not necessarily a sign of hostility.

"Well, I was very gentle," said Julian, and Garak's mouth twitched into a genuine smile at the unexpected comment. "Garak can be fragile at times." That was less funny.

"What is the joke?" Worf demanded. "Did they make you battle each other with rocks?"

"We participated in a mass wedding," Julian said, apparently deciding to be frank.

"So you are married to members of this planet?" Martok frowned. "That may cause complications when we leave."

"Our training covers this," said Worf. "The correct procedure is to--"

"We married each other," Garak said, trying to forestall a lecture. "It was quite successful in showing the sincerity of our offer of friendship."

"Sincere? You?" growled Worf.

Martok seemed to consider it, then roared with laughter, slapping Garak rather painfully on the bare thighs. "Your sacrifice is appreciated, friends. Married! A Starfleet doctor and a Cardassian tailor!" His deep laughter rolled out again. Worf looked confused and disapproving, and Garak decided he had enough.

"We must return to our honeymoon quarters," he said smoothly. "I am glad to see you both so restored." He took Julian's arm and lead him out.

Julian was silent, which was unlike him. Garak was silent too, now he considered it, which was equally unlike him. They were a talkative... couple. If they were a couple. It wasn't until they had returned to their room that Julian said, aggrieved, "They were only teasing. They--"

Garak pushed him against the door and kissed him, long and deep. Julian made a noise that was startled but not at all upset, parting his mouth to let Garak's tongue slide against his, responding deliciously. There was a wild kind of triumph in how different this was to the suave kisses he had seen Julian give to hologram ladies in holodeck programs, less pretty but wetter, deeper, with what must seem to be deeply uncool little grumps and whimpers. Nothing staged about it, and nothing staged about the heat pressing into his hip as he crowded Julian against the wall, kissing him over and over.

Mine, he kissed into an open mouth, onto a jaw just stubbled with morning beard, onto the convex of an adam's apple. My husband, as he raked his teeth down Julian's sternum, not enough to damage thin human skin, but enough to leave a reddened trail and draw a strangled gasp. He fell to his knees without ceremony, face close against where the hem pushed out and spotted revealing wetness, lifted it and pulled Julian free. A familiar bitter-salt taste as he reached out with his tongue, yet not quite familiar, because this was human, this was Julian. Then he swallowed deep and determinedly down until his face was intimately where there was hair and sweat and intimacy, stretching his mouth wide, feeling unscaled skin against his tongue and palate at the back of his throat, the delicious ache in his jaw. Mine, mine, and the tears in his eyes were from the physical strain of what he was doing, not from knowing this was a fantasy and a joke and would end as soon as they left. The sacrifice was appreciated.

He was aching himself, but he didn't care, this was about the sounds Julian made, the way he sagged helpless against the door and cried out, fingers lodged in Garak's hair and pulling almost too hard in order to keep his balance under the onslaught. Garak's own excitement a far distant consideration.

Julian came quickly, spilling warmth, and Garak swallowed him down. Julian was making breathless little murmurs, and.... surely he had not heard yours. He certainly hadn't spoken aloud himself. It was wishful thinking. He wrapped his arms around Julian's thighs and hugged them tight, his possessiveness fading. Suppliant at the knees of his young husband, oh if only it was true.

"We need to talk," Julian said. He ran a hand over Garak's hair, smoothing it.

Garak gritted his teeth. He knew they should. He knew Julian would be kind, reasonable, asking him not to make too much of this. They were friends. This was play-acting for a shuttle, and the atmosphere of this planet was strange, too sweet and intoxicating. Best not get over serious about it.

Julian's comm badge pinged. "Oh for heaven--Bashir here."

"Ready to depart in an hour," Worf said, relief and joy apparent despite his ever-present formality.

"I suppose," Garak said, climbing to his feet and smiling thinly, "we should thank our benefactors."

"Don't think I'm letting you off this conversation," said Julian. Garak was already heading out the door.


"You. Did. What." Sisko spaced his words slowly and carefully, his beautiful voice very clear. It wasn't a question. He reached out and touched his baseball, as if asking it for understanding and patience.

"Got married. Sir."

"By accident."

"Mostly," said Julian. Both Garak and Sisko shot him sharp looks. "It seemed best to go along with the flow."

"You're not a cadet, Doctor. I know for certain you understand the dangers of this. It's always an extremely embarrassing thing to have to put in reports, but when it's one of my senior officers..."

"Sorry, sir."

"Well. You know the routine. File the paperwork for an annulment. Garak, I am surprised at you. You seem too experienced to fall into easy traps like this."

"Unless he wanted to marry me, sir," Julian said quickly.

Garak wasn't sure if he or Sisko was more stunned. Julian, on the other hand, looked cool and collected, if you didn't look too hard at his hands.

"You're telling me it wasn't so accidental after all." One of the things Garak usually appreciated about Sisko was that sometimes it was difficult to tell if his expression was disapproving or humorous. Still, it would be nice to be sure, sometimes. "The two of you just saw a good excuse to get married without going through all the paperwork required to marry an enemy citizen when you are, I would like to remind you, a Starfleet officer."

"Well, not quite like that. It did seem diplomatic. But..."

"Would you like to apply for an annulment, or for family quarters, Julian?" Sisko still seemed stern, but he had moved to Julian's given name.

"That depends on Garak." His pose was neat and confident, but his hands were shaking worse than Garak's own.

"Mr Garak?" Sisko raised an eyebrow, twirling the baseball in its stand.

"The Braxites were very clear that their marriage ritual brings them luck. I would hate to bring them ill fortune when they were so very kind to us," he said, with his best attempt at smoothness. "In any case, I'm sure you know my people take family and marriage very seriously."

"Right. Well, you are due some leave after your unfortunate experiences in detention, Julian. If you choose to spend that time filling forms explaining why you married a non-Federation citizen without proper procedure and on a honeymoon instead of applying for an annulment, that's entirely your choice. I can't allow you to leave the station right now though, I'm sure you'll understand." The wooden expression was split by a warm grin, like light breaking out from behind a cloud. Humans. "Ask Major Kira to fast track family quarters. You'll have to fight out temperature settings between yourselves. Thank you both for the information you have brought back, and I will expect a more thorough debriefing tomorrow, Doctor. As you know, we've had our hands quite full here."

"Will that be all?"

"For present. Oh, I forgot two things." The grin increased until it was blinding. "Welcome back to the Alpha Quadrant. Particularly glad to have the real you, Julian. And--congratulations. Now off you go before I remember how much paperwork you two have caused me."

They made it out somehow. No one paid particular attention to them. Somehow they mutually decided on Julian's quarters. The room was cold, but Julian in his arms was warm, and his mouth was hot.

"I distinctly remember you saying Starfleet officers shouldn't marry as it wasn't fair on their spouses to perpetually be in danger."

"As if you ever manage to stay safe six months at a time. And Miles and Keiko manage it. Besides, you will come for me if I need it."

"Oh, I will..."

"That's far below your usual standards."

"I'm feeling a little emotional."

"Just a little?" There was no space between kisses for words for a while. "And in that camp I thought, what is the use of not being in love? To die there unloved, not even missed, and if you kissed that damn changeling..."

"Never." Garak caressed the side of his face, lingering over that dear jaw. "You have never been unloved, even without me. You would have been mourned deeply. While now, even Tain is gone, and there is no one who cares for me but you."

"Ziyal and Odo are quite fond of you. I can't imagine why."

"Neither can I," he said, with too much truth. "Oh. I must tell Ziyal."

"And Miles," Julian echoed, eyes wide with horror. "He's never going to shut up about it."

"And we're going to have to apply to Major Kira for family quarters," Garak said, reflecting on what a marvellous bastard Sisko was. "I look forward to seeing her face."

"I thought I could do it at a distance..."

"Oh, no. Let your new husband have his treats." He savoured the word husband. "I'll tell her."

"As long as I can be there to watch. Garak... What you said. About not being unloved."

"I love you." He could tell the truth sometimes. "You have no idea how much I love you. You are the warmth in my universe."

"I suppose I have some idea. And the rest of my life to show you that you will never be unloved," Julian said fiercely. "However long that will be."

"I don't suppose you could wear tunics more often," Garak began, and allowed the rest of his words to be kissed from his mouth.

The world was still a mess. He had no idea what the future would bring, for Cardassia or the quadrant or any of them. But with Julian in his arms, he had an odd, entirely unlike him sense of optimism that everything would work out.

After all, if he was married to Julian, absolutely anything was possible.