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That being such a very good surprise

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They’d caught a late lunch that day; Garak was delayed with a distraught Bolian in need of a new suit and Bashir with ‘trying to synthesis a cure for the Romeldian flu, it’s pioneering work really, the protein sequences alone’, only half of which Garak understood. Suits were no laughing matter. The delay had meant the replimant was not so crowded as normal, most having already eaten. The only people around them were a few Bajornas, two of Quark’s Ferengi waiters and a Denobulan family, the latter of whom no doubt had been forced to choose a later time for their meal so they would all actually find a seat. Garak was finding that he almost preferred it this way — quieter, less busy — and would not have minded to have late lunches more often.

“Well I’m sure we can schedule a few.” Bashir said, spoonful of pasta halfway to his lips.

Garak shook his head. “No, no, I don’t think we should. Our regular time is perfectly acceptable.”

“But you just said —”

“No, my dear Doctor, I believe the unpredictable nature of it is part of the appeal.”

“Ah,” he said, tone dour but face smiling. “So you’d rather let unforeseen delays dictate when we take our meal instead of anything else, is that it?”

“Or the lack of delay, yes. What is life without a little surprise now and then?”

“A great deal more manageable?”

“Now really, Doctor, you disappoint me. Where is your enthusiasm? Your self-reported thirst for adventure?”

“This hardly counts as an adventure —”

“Are you calling me boring —”

“And you know I hate surprises. And no, my dear Mr Garak, you are not boring. You are one of the least boring beings I have ever known.”

There’d been a flash of panic when Garak had accused him, and his attempt to clear things up was, as always, endearing. It was perhaps one of the more compelling reasons that Garak had for continuing to needle him. His delightful need to be all at once witty, kind, and a player in Garak’s verbal games often led Bashir to a place between sarcasm and searing truth that never failed to please.

“Flattery will get you everywhere, my dear. Although I must point out that if I am such good company then you can hardly object to a surprise involving a meal with me, that being such a very good surprise.”

A flicker of an expression passed over Bashir’s face, and red rose on his cheeks. That meant something in humans, he knew: anger or embarrassment or physical exertion, among other things. He could safely rule out the last one, given they are sitting down, and the soft lines around Bashir’s eyes led him to discard the first as well. Embarrassment, then. It was a good look on the Doctor.

Bashir mumbled something in return, Garak parried that, and without undue effort they were carrying on as they always seemed to; literature and politics and fashion, with side dishes of philosophy and morality and a quick dip into station gossip. Years after they’d met and Garak was still acutely aware of how unlikely the entire thing was — a Cardassian exile and a living Starfleet stereotype (‘I’m not a stereo—’ ‘Human, eager, naive…’ ‘Alright alright, I take your point—’) sharing food and conversation and, that now uncommon rarity in his life, friendship.

Such thoughts were morose and, perhaps, unbecoming of someone of his experience. But they were true. For a given value of true.

“I think you’re too harsh,” Bashir said, emphasising his speech with a jab of his spoon to the air between them. “We’re not necessarily as community minded as the Union, granted, but the more damaging aspects of the individualistic ethos of parts of Earth during preceding centuries has largely drifted away.”

Garak raised an eyebrow and eyed the specs of pasta sauce now dotting the table, but Bashir, infuriatingly, remained immune. “Really? Well, I’ll allow that such a thing might be true in your mind, Doctor. I can’t see it myself. There is an obliviousness about humanity that grates.”

“Name one.”

“One what?”

“One of these aspects of obliviousness. No, honestly,” he said, when Garak looked sceptical, “I want to hear your take on it. Aren’t you always saying that an outside perspective can help one refine one’s own?”

He did say that. And it was a rare day when he passed on an opportunity to refine his friend’s thinking.

“Very well, if you insist. Finding an example shall not be hard, given who I am sharing a table with.” At that Bashir’s eyes widened and his mouth twitched, but he remained quiet. “Look at the table,” Garak instructed, and Bashir did. “Notice anything...odd?”

“Nope,” Bashir said, getting far too much enjoyment out of this.

“Nothing at all?”

“Not a thing, Garak.”

“Not even, say, these drops of sauce?”

Immediately Bashir took on a befuddled expression, looking from sauce drop to sauce drop as if he couldn’t comprehend why they would be involved. “That’s some of my pasta sauce. Hardly odd.”

“I’m sorry, is haphazardly splattered pasta sauce part of the decor where you’re from?”

Bashir smiled, cocked his head, and Garak knew that whatever came out of his mouth next would be a joke. “Of course! No restaurant, cafe, or kitchen table would dare go without it: it would be disgraceful, sacrilege, I dare say!”

Garak rolled his eyes as Bashir’s smile widened to a satisfactory level. “What is a disgrace is your flippant tongue, my dear —”

“Oh come now, I’m teasing, as you well know. Of course we don’t sprinkle sauce on the table. Salt and errant bits of candle wax, now that —”

“You are incorrigible,” Garak told him, but he could hardly keep his lips from turning up at the corners. How was it that this ridiculous man kept him smiling so easily?

“Oh, hardly.”

“Oh, but indeed you are, my dear Doctor. In more ways than one.”

Bashir, predictably, looked affronted, but Garak was not going to be stopped. No matter how many little distractions Bashir sprinkled before him.

“Back to how you are a prototypical example of human obliviousness —” Bashir made to protest, but Garak had been working in misdirection before Bashir had even been born, and so ignored it — “these sauce droplets are only the tip of the iceberg, as you might say. Of course, while the rest of the iceberg may be hidden to you — or perhaps even hidden in its entirety — it is perfectly plain to me.”

“You make a man wonder if he has any secrets at all, Garak.”

Ah, a lure. Bashir did seem to enjoy it a little more than was normal for a human when Garak laid out, in fanciful detail, how he had pierced yet another part of Bashir’s ‘mystique’. The man was rather enamoured with his own allure, which was, of course, part of why Garak found him so charming. It may also have been why others found him so grating, but Garak was hardly fit to comment on that. Being so terribly biased in the matter as he was.

But now was not the moment for that lesson. There was a purpose to this, and Garak intended to stick to it.

“Items which lack of observation has made a man unaware of are hardly secrets, my dear Doctor.”

Bashir winced. “Ouch. That’s me told.”

“Not quite yet. You will be, ah, told when I am finished.”

“Well you’d better hurry it up then.” Hurry up! As if Bashir himself was not taking every opportunity to interrupt; a delightful flirtation in a Cardassian, but smacking merely of cheek in a human.

“Humans, besides having a dreadful impatience about them, are messy creatures.” Hand moving from sauce drop to sauce drop, he tried to draw Bashir’s gleaming eyes down. “Prone to disorder, destruction, and chaos. What we have here is but a minor example.”

“Anyone can spill some sauce, Garak —”

“Not everyone has a tendency to throw pads around their workstation so that organisation becomes a far off dream, or has his species’ disregard for native flora and fauna. Wasn’t it you last month who dropped an entire crate of Bajoran lilies off of the first floor of the Promenade, despite Professor O’Brien’s repeated cautions?” It was. Garak knew it was, for he’d been watching Bashir from the entrance to his shop when it had happened. The silk shawl in his hands had gained a few claw holes as the lilies had been pushed from their precarious perch.

“Is this Garak the gardener speaking?”

“It is.”

“Would he care to comment on the Cardassian disregard for native flora and fauna?”

A fair response, but a predictable one. Disappointing.

“Don’t try to change the subject, Doctor. I have commented on that numerous other times, as you well know. Right now we are talking about your indiscretions. Such as, for example, how every lunch we share together ends with you abandoning your dirty plate and utensils and leaving them for someone else to clear up.” Encompassing the table with his hands, raising his scaled eye ridge and giving a pointed stare, he tried to send a clear signal to his lunch companion: I’m Right And You Know I’m Right, Just Try To Deny It (We Both Know You Will).

“That’s ridiculous!” Bashir said, and Garak felt a ripple of vindication.

“You mean ‘undeniably, completely, most fully correct’.”

“ I mean ridiculous —”

“‘You’re right Garak, oh course you’re right, in fact, I have never known you to be wrong.’”

“That’s pushing the boat out a bit.”

“You must concede I am correct in this, at least?”

“Well,” Bashir said, blowing out a great gust of air, and Garak knew he had him. “I suppose.”

“You suppose?”

“Well, no, I suppose I don’t suppose, I suppose you are, you know, right. About this!” Bashir hastened to clarify. “I’m not conceding on any of that other stuff.”

“Then, my dear Doctor, now that you have identified the problem will you promise to work towards rectifying it?”

“Well…”

“All I’m asking is that you place your empty items back into the replicator once you’re finished. Not so much.”

Bashir shrugged, his restless energy abated somewhat. “You’re right, of course. It isn’t so much. Alright Garak,” a grin, as bright as any sun, and he leant across the table until Garak would have had to move his hand only an inch to touch him, “you’ve convinced me.”

While he was not entirely certain of that, Bashir’s smile persuaded Garak to let it go. It even persuaded him into a conversation about the merits of Hamlet, a topic worn smooth by repeated visits, so often revived that Garak could probably write the entire thing down from memory; laugh at Polonious here, admonish Hamlet there, express distress at Gertrude’s political ineptitude now. Not a step out of place, barely a new thought to add. Familiarity may breed contempt for the most part, but in this instance at least it bred comfort and contentment. It was so often the way with Bashir.

Garak decided to ‘lose’ this argument: sometimes it suited him to let Bashir feel victory. More and more he was winning in earnest, presenting evidence and trains of logic as foolproof as Garak’s own, enlightened and a pleasure to concede to. Garak couldn’t even take all of the credit for that. Bashir, it seemed, was educating himself beyond what his lunch companion saw fit to give him. How often now had Garak come to Bashir’s office to find a treatise on Cardassian anatomy sat upon the Doctor’s chair, scrounged from who knew where? Or sat down to a meal with him only to hear literature and poetry fall from Bashir’s lips which Garak had never thought to give him? Once he’d even brought Garak some thick Cardassian wool, abandoned in a military storage facility on Bajor, found again only by ‘accident’, Bashir said; he’d been down in Joradell by request of the local medical personnel, and had happened upon it during a lunch break. Garak had been forced to shoo Bashir out of his shop with some haste once he’d received his gift, lest his friend notice the prickling in his eyes. Garak knew every military and civilian storage facility on Bajor: there were none near Joradell. How unlike Bashir not to boast, he’d thought, and fought to feel pride more than affection.

Still, there were more discussions where Garak was the victor than those where he wasn’t. And occasionally it paid to gift those discussions to Bashir. Occasionally Bashir even noticed what Garak was doing, and became torn between indignation and a soft thanks that was entirely inappropriate. Garak ‘lost’ because it benefited him to do so, not out of any kind of sentimentality. Honestly.

Losing this particular argument — Hamlet was so banal it pained him, but today “I can see how some elements of it might be tragic” was the opinion he was presenting — meant that Bashir was distracted enough by his triumph that Garak could give him his true gift with a minimum of fuss. Fuss without purpose being, of course, an abomination to a man as refined as Garak.

“I’m glad you're finally seeing sense on Hamlet,” Bashir was saying, which was the perfect opening.

The datarod slipped easily from his pocket. It caught the light briefly, and Bashir’s eyes flashed to it — such sharp eyes, for a human — as Garak extended his arm over the table between them.

A small smile was permitted to sit on his face. “Then perhaps I can encourage the same of you regarding some Drisellic.”

Drisellic was a Cardassian playwright who enjoyed much the same renown within Cardassian culture as Shakespeare did in human. Bashir had been torn on her, utterly adoring some plays while regretting ever setting eyes on others. A predictable uncertainty of opinion for the good Doctor, who held a solid regard for only a few things in life while everything else contended with existence upon a pensive carousel. Garak despaired of this; a deliberate inconsistency was one thing, carefully cultivated and deployed at key moments, but one apparently beyond one’s own control? Another item he was considering refining in his friend.

And yet Bashir without it would not be quite Bashir, would he? A tragedy by any measure. Certainly something he would mourn, when he thought about it. Which was...curious.

But Drisellic, Drisellic. Upon this matter there could be no see-sawing, not swaying to-and-fro from one temporary mode of feeling to another. No! Of Drisellic he was determined to convince his friend to feel only love. Why not? Drisellic was a master of her craft — exiled, ostracised, true, but weren’t so many great craftsfolk of the Union now? Of course, of course — beyond compare among her peers, turning out such great works even into her twilight years that it was said she could ‘pen glory onto a page’.

“Which one?” Said Bashir, with an unnecessary tone of caution.

“Her greatest, of course. I thought I remembered you mentioning something about it? Well I’d lost my copy, but found it yesterday in a box of fabric cutoffs! You never know —”

“My God,” Bashir said, quite ruining Garak’s little spiel, “you mean Watchers on the Coastline? I’ve been looking for that forever!”

“Yes, I recall. Which is why I am giving it to you: I’ve read it so many times, I will hardly miss it for a little while longer.”

“But I barely mentioned it, and that was weeks ago. I was just — I only said that I’d read a few lines and was excited about it.”

Garak took on a demeanor of mild surprise. “Really? I would have sworn you’d said more.”

“No.” Now Bashir had that look about him of wheels turning in his head, calculating and weighing coincidence with cunning, which Garak had so wanted to avoid. “No, I only mentioned it once, because we’d been talking about Drisellic, and then you went off on one of your impassioned speeches on the merits of Cold Morn, which you know I wasn’t that fond of —”

“I would hardly say impassioned, Doctor. A good opinion of it is only reasonable, given its quality —”

“Positively ecstatic speeches, I know them by rote you know, I could create sound bites out of them and sell them as adverts for Drisellic’s works, which isn’t the point; the point is that I’ve spent near a month trying to find this, hoping to read it. Hoping to surprise you, tell you all about it. Instead you latched onto one throw away line and have surprised me!” Breath spent, Bashir appeared divided between dismay and joy. “Garak!”

“Yes?” Garak was trying to maintain a dignified quiet — Bashir’s words had already gained the attention of half the Promenade, no doubt — but he decided that a little glimmer of mischief in his eyes would not go amiss. Bashir was so fond of drama of this sort, and, despite Garak’s best efforts at discretion, a drama it truly was. So he might as well play along now and make Bashir’s day.

“You fiend,” Bashir said, which had been entirely expected. What was not expected was, “I could kiss you!”

Garak’s thought process short-circuited briefly. “I...beg your pardon?”

“I really could Garak,” Bashir said, utterly oblivious to the confusion he’d unleashed, “you never fail to keep me on my toes, do you? Next thing I know you’ll have — Garak?” Finally he paused and took in Garak’s expression. “Are you alright?”

“Ah, momentarily stunned, Doctor. Should I expect you to try to kiss me now or later?”

“What?”

“I merely want to be prepared.”

“Prepared?” Typically, Bashir had barely paid attention to that which had come out of his own mouth.

“‘I could kiss you’, you said. This is a common human reaction to gifts, I take it? Although, I must confess I have not seen you kiss any of your other friends when they give you presents — perhaps it is only for literature?” A worthy rally, if he did say so himself. Now, he must only wait for the explanation. Bashir surely didn’t mean to actually kiss him. Ridiculous.

“Oh! No!”

“Merely plays then?”

“No, Garak, it’s — ah — it’s just a saying.”

“A saying? Ah.”

“It’s — yes —” Bashir was flustered beyond what Garak would normally expect, oh dear — “it is just a way of expressing gratitude, really. That’s all. Um. Just — you know, some people would kiss friends, I suppose, to say thank-you. But for a lot of people the saying is almost as good.”

“Almost as good? Well, your species does have an unusual preoccupation with ‘kissing’.”

“Doesn’t everyone?” Now they were back on more familiar territory, and the Doctor was regaining his composure.

“Hardly. Not all species display affection through a touching of lips.”

“That’s right! Cardassians press palms, don’t they?”

Unaware that the Doctor had known that, Garak quirked a brow. Bashir took that as a cue to continue.

“You press them flat for the equivalent of a chaste kiss on the cheek, something among friends or family, and then interlock your fingers for something more, well,” how odd, he appeared ruffled again, “intimate.”

“Your knowledge grows and grows, Doctor.” Garak said. Which was not strictly a confirmation.

All the same, Bashir grinned in triumph and began to natter away about all the other alien displays of affection he was familiar with, which was a list Garak could have happily lived without hearing.

Eventually managing to steer the conversation back to most pleasant topics — the heretical nature of early Hebitian poetry and who Quark had scammed this week, unrelated but both delightfully illegal — Garak found the last ten minutes of their lunch break passed without any further dramatics. Perhaps Bashir had a conflicted look about him, twisting hand over hand and biting his lips, but it was entirely likely that he was thinking about Romeldian flu again. His dear Doctor was so easily distracted when things weren’t life and death. But Garak forgave him: he was carrying his side of the conversation well enough.

The Denobulan family had left, Quark’s waiters had hurried off as soon as they’d heard enough of the gossip about their employer, and Garak was most unwilling to leave the replimat himself. How droll that Bashir’s allotted lunch should only be an hour. He could easily talk with the man for longer. But there he was, standing up and saying his goodbyes, wide mouth apologetic in its smile but frame bouncing with energy; there was nothing Bashir liked so much as a medical challenge, and he had plenty of those today. So it was with a tinge more force than he might have otherwise used that he reprimanded his friend.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?”

He meant, obviously, Bashir’s empty plate and cup, his used cutlery, and, at a push, the splotches of sauce on the table. Bashir looked far too ready to run off and leave them, ignoring Garak’s earlier admonishments.

Bashir frowned; he frowned so delightfully, his brow scrunching downward and his mouth falling open into a lopsided gape. Garak rolled his eyes.

“Er, yes,” Bashir said, and then reached a decision, “yes yes, of course.”

Thank goodness, Garak thought, just as Bashir came around the table and leant down to place a halting, soft kiss to Garak’s temple.

Bashir had chosen the portion of skin above and to the left of Garak’s left eye, unremarkable and plain and so very, very sensitive now. Lips that were dry and chapped sent a lightning bolt through Garak’s skull, grazing a scaly eye ridge and lingering an age — it was only a second, surely, only a second, it could not truly be that long — as they pressed in that most foreign of human customs. Had Garak stopped breathing? Had all the Promenade stopped to stare, to comment and whisper? Bashir was mad, surely. But goodness, Garak had an unfathomable wish that this madness should continue. Then, suddenly, Bashir pulled away.

What? What was that infuriating man doing? Was this a prank, a joke, a spat of foolish misinterpretation or a deliberate choice? Before Garak could stop his mind spinning long enough to ask, Bashir was trotting off with enough speed to almost be a run. Finally cognisant, Garak could only call out at his retreating back.

No, clear away your mess. Goodness, who raised you?”

To no avail. Bashir was gone.

And Garak was left, with a filthy, cluttered table, having failed in his teachings, mind gone and heart pounding —

Well. Well.

He had no idea what to do.