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the gift we cannot destroy

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1. in fear.

"I'm at your disposal," Garak says, smiling, and he's about to add something else just as his hands settle onto Julian's shoulders.

Julian is already disoriented, nervous, certain that there are at least two or three levels on which he's misunderstood just about everything in this conversation. As if he hadn't been having enough trouble falling asleep in a new place, with all the station's unfamiliar sounds and unfamiliar shadows. Now he's going to spend the whole night unable to shake the half-hysterical thought of Garak breaking in, a pair of tailors' scissors at the ready to drive into Julian's back as he sleeps—

So it doesn't really surprise him, to feel the weight of Garak's hands—so close to what he's suddenly aware are medically critical areas of the neck and head—and have his heart thump abruptly, to be washed with a wave of goosebumps and a brief swell of dizziness, to find his mouth's gone dry.

What does surprise him, in a dim unsteady way, is that Garak stops talking.

Almost like Garak felt the same thing.

But that's ridiculous, Julian reminds himself, and clears his throat. "You're very kind, Mr. Garak," he manages.

He turns his head and looks up, trying to focus on Garak's face—there's no reason it should be as difficult as it is. And Garak is looking back at him, watching him with sudden intensity.

It's bizarre, it doesn't make any sense; he has no real reason to think Garak is a spy. He's jumping to conclusions, he knows he is. It's just—

It's just that Julian has never felt such total certainty of the need for perfect unwavering vigilance, such absolute awareness that a single wrong move could be the end of him. It's welling up through him, relentless, every other thought in his head swept aside by the slow cold fear that began to fill him the moment Garak's hands landed on his shoulders.

"I do try," Garak murmurs, without moving his hands.

He looks almost like he's waiting for something, Julian thinks distantly. But whatever it is, he doesn't get it: Julian's mind is blank, he can't come up with a single word in reply, and after a moment Garak's brow ridges crease ever so slightly.

"In fact," Garak adds slowly, "if you wished to drop by to talk, later today—"

Julian swallows, with some effort, and looks away. He should—he should talk to Sisko, or whoever's in charge of security, and tell them about Garak. Warn them, give them a chance to—to do something. Julian can't really imagine what, but then again that's not his job, after all; he's a doctor, not a counterintelligence agent. Because this has to be Garak trying to establish some kind of rapport, right? To turn Julian into an asset. Isn't that how this kind of thing works?

"No, no," he says, forcing a smile, trying to make it sound casual. "Thank you, but I—I really am terribly busy."

"Of course!" Garak's matching smile is wide; but his stare is still heavy, unwavering, on Julian's face. "I can only imagine. Still, if there's anything I can do for you, don't hesitate to ask," he adds, leaning down.

"Naturally," Julian says. "Like—uh—" and then can't come up with a single damn suggestion. What in the world is wrong with him?

"If your files on Cardassian biology are incomplete, perhaps," Garak supplies, eyes wide and earnest—and there's something speaking about the look that Julian feels he's supposed to be understanding. Is it a pick-up line? An insinuation that he intends to use Julian to assassinate a Cardassian someday?

Both?

"Yes, yes, of course," Julian hears himself babble—because it is a decent enough reason, after all. "Very thoughtful of you, Mr. Garak, thank you for the offer. But I really must be going."

"Certainly," Garak agrees, the smile never fading. "I'd hate to inconvenience you."

And there, again, a pause. As though Garak means to give Julian a chance to respond—but with what?

"No, no," Julian tries, "no inconvenience at all, of course," but that must be wrong somehow, because it only makes Garak's gaze sharpen, makes his hands tighten ever so briefly on Julian's shoulders. Have Garak's fingers always been so warm? "It was a pleasure to meet you?"

It shouldn't sound like a question. But Julian says it like one, and then hears himself and grimaces. He isn't usually this clumsy in conversation, or at least he doesn't think he is. It's just he feels so terribly on edge, so out of his depth. So strangely lost.

"Nonsense, Dr. Bashir," Garak says, "the pleasure was mine," and at the very least he doesn't seem offended. It almost comes across as conversational, even.

Or it would, if he weren't still looking at Julian with such a fixed, searching stare.

"I'm so glad to have made such an interesting new friend today," he adds, bright, and then finally lets go of Julian and steps away.

 

 

2. in concealment.

Julian's shift is almost over when he hears footsteps by the door to the infirmary—but if it's a minor complaint, there's still enough time for him to handle it. And if it isn't, the least he can do is get the patient on a biobed and comfortable before handoff. "Just a moment, please," he calls, and doesn't look away from Ensign Setlaara's ear.

One more pass with the protoplaser and Julian is satisfied. The tissue is still a little greener than he'd like, but that should sort itself out with time.

He tells Setlaara as much, and to come back if any new complaints arise. And then he turns to return the protoplaser to its place, listening idly to the sounds of someone rising off the biobed, moving toward the doorway, and saying—

"Hello, Mr. Garak!"

Julian startles and turns at Setlaara's passing greeting, and sure enough, that's who's waiting by the infirmary entrance. Garak is standing with his hands neatly folded; the moment Julian's looked at him, he bows a little, inclining his head without actually taking his eyes off Julian.

Julian stares at him, and feels his stupid heart start to pound. He's reasonably sure, by now, that Garak isn't a security threat—or at least not an imminent one. So why is he still so weirdly prone to paranoia, every time they're face-to-face?

"Mr. Garak," he says belatedly, and makes himself turn away again, even though it feels oddly dangerous to have Garak at his back, unobserved. "Not here out of necessity, I hope?"

"Mm?"

Julian glances over his shoulder. "You aren't injured, I mean, or—"

"Oh, goodness, no," Garak agrees, in that warm ingenuous tone he has. The one Julian can never quite convince himself to believe. "I only thought perhaps you might be a little less busy at the end of your shift—which I believe is approaching shortly—and wouldn't mind being interrupted. You never did tell me whether you were going to need that Cardassian biology refresher, you know."

"Ah, of course," Julian says, resisting the urge to rub his forehead ruefully.

"We are a somewhat unusual species," Garak observes, "and I hope you'll forgive me for saying so, but I confess I rather doubt the Federation's files are as—comprehensive as they could be."

Probably true. After all, Julian thinks wryly, Cardassians do have a tendency to hide things.

But there's one fact about them that Julian has been fascinated by for as long as he can remember. "Yes, that's right," Julian says, without looking up. "You're one of the few species without any externally visible soulmark."

The beat of silence that follows is more than enough time for Julian to regret bringing it up.

Too late now, though.

"Aren't you?" he adds weakly, as if he's not sure he's right. As if he hasn't treasured the knowledge for years, pulling it out now and then to clutch it to himself for comfort, an abstracted mental Kukalaka.

"Indeed we are," Garak says, light, and Julian risks a glance—Garak's tone might be breezy, but he's staring at Julian again with that same strange intensity, that searching wariness. "Which is, of course, for the best," he adds. "Can you imagine what Cardassians would do to each other, given visible and unmistakable evidence of each other's most profound connections? It simply doesn't bear thinking about."

And Julian can't help but huff out a laugh at that, shaking his head. How like Garak, to say such a terrible thing in the same vaguely scandalized way he might talk about a clashing choice of color in a piece of clothing. "But the bond itself functions similarly."

"Oh, yes," Garak agrees. "The empathic resonance, the emotional reinforcement, the potential for bond stress—the moment of formation itself."

The pause he leaves is leading somehow; Julian looks up and automatically reels off the list. "Hyperarousal, elevated heartbeat and breathing, disorientation, horripilation—"

"In Cardassians," Garak adds blandly, "there is a sharp elevation in body temperature. Much more dramatic than in humans."

Interesting—though not interesting enough, Julian thinks, to justify the way Garak is watching him, as if waiting for a reaction. "Oh?"

"Unmistakable," Garak says.

Can he tell how bewildered Julian is? Probably he can. "Hm," Julian manages, clearing his throat.

"Fortunately, nothing that can't be concealed," Garak adds, "when circumstances require it."

And Julian can't help but frown at him. "Concealed? What circumstances could possibly require that?"

"Oh, my dear doctor," Garak murmurs. "What a charming failure of imagination. Bonds do cross species, you know, as much as the higher echelons of our government would prefer to pretend otherwise. Our occupation of Bajor was marked by quite a number of—potentially awkward situations."

Julian winces.

"Pain does transfer along a bond, too, depending on the intensity of the sensation. Easier to tell, of course, with the Bajorans; their marks appear just along the shell of the ear, and only after the bond has formed. But I assure you, the Bajoran resistance and the Cardassian military were equally aware of the possibilities offered by such bonds."

Julian winces again. "I'm sure they were," he admits, but shakes his head. "Still, I can't imagine using a bond that way. To—to do something like that. It's supposed to be—"

He cuts himself off, meets Garak's eyes and then can't look away. Why does Garak keep watching him like that? The endless steady weight of his attention makes Julian's skin prickle, makes heat crawl into Julian's cheeks; it's almost too much to bear.

"What?" Garak prompts quietly.

Julian clears his throat and drags his gaze away, back to the console he's been pretending to work at. "It's supposed to be—beautiful."

"Such a touching sentiment," Garak murmurs, in a flat way that somehow keeps it from actually sounding like a compliment. And then—of course, of course, Julian should have been prepared for this—he says, "Humans do have marks, don't they?"

Julian doesn't freeze, doesn't stutter. In a sense, he is prepared for this; he's always prepared for this. He has a routine, easy and practiced: a vague warm expression he can arrange his face into, the motion of brushing a hand over his heart—as if absently, as if without realizing he's doing it. Something someone who had a mark might do.

"Yes," he says, and watches himself execute the steps, sees his own reflected face in the console turn soft and thoughtful. "On the chest, typically. It's actually quite interesting—size and orientation vary much more than location, but still far less than in certain other species." He flashes Garak a brief apologetic smile, a self-aware acknowledgment that he's begun to ramble. "Comparative studies were all the rage when I was in medical school."

"Fascinating," Garak says slowly, and then pauses. "I think your shift is over, my dear doctor, but perhaps you'd be willing to continue our discussion? Over lunch."

Julian swallows. There's no reason to think Garak is suspicious—why should he be? He has absolutely no way of knowing Julian's chest is blank, and he'll never find out. If Julian wants to say yes, there's nothing to stop him.

"Yes," Julian hears himself say. "I'd love to."

 

 

3. in wallowing.

Julian swirls his straw around in his drink, and carefully doesn't look at the O'Briens.

It doesn't bother him, usually. Completed bonds aren't uncommon, and of course there are plenty on the station. He's used to it.

He stares into his glass and can't help but rub just a little at his chest.

He did the math, back when he was fifteen. Back when he'd first realized that, statistically speaking, the chances of his mark ever appearing were functionally indistinguishable from zero. Not everyone is born with a mark; sometimes they come later, fade in gradually or appear overnight. But no human in recorded medical history has failed to receive one by age twelve. Not one.

Or no one whose medical records are complete, anyway. Julian supposes he can't know for certain whether any fellow patients at the enhancement facility have shared his fate—whether there are others, illegally altered, carefully covered up, who walk around with bare unblemished skin over their sternums, ribs, collarbones.

Because that's where it should be. Statistically speaking. Julian read everything he could get his hands on, when he was fifteen; every study, every analysis, every thinkpiece. Marks always came, never disappeared. There was a 78.2% chance that if Julian had had a mark, it would have been in the middle of his sternum; an 11.7% chance it would have been higher, a 7.9% chance it would have been lower—no one knew why there was a difference—and only a 2.2% chance it would have been somewhere else on the body.

When given the option, Julian is always careful to be normal. When he rubs at his chest, he presses his fingers in at the middle of his sternum. 78.2%.

The O'Briens are arguing. But there's no real edge in their voices. No fear, no bitterness. They know they'll get through this—that no matter what it is that's frustrating them about each other right now, they won't lose each other. They can't.

Must be nice, Julian thinks, and takes a sip.

He shakes his head at himself a moment later. He only dwells like this when he's tired; when he's had a long day, a long week. He sighs and sits back in his chair, rolls his shoulders and then his head. He's been nursing what feels like a tension headache on and off for the last few days—never bad enough that he really needs a hypo, but it's been hell on his mood.

He just needs some proper sleep. Which he could go get right now, except he's already had to beg off from three lunches with Garak in a row, and he—

He'd like to see Garak. He's still pretty sure he's missing at least half the meaning of everything Garak says to him, but Julian is so used to being the smartest person in every room, to having to work to miss things, that it's almost relaxing to have Garak confuse him without even trying. The worst of that weird sharp paranoia he'd felt around Garak has faded, slowly, and in its place is—

"All apologies, my dear doctor! I do hate to think I've kept you waiting."

Julian turns in his chair and smiles. "No, no," he says, "it's hardly been five minutes."

Garak's gaze, as always, has already settled on him; is flicking over his face, his shoulders, his arms, a quick assessing pattern that if confronted Garak would probably say is simply a tailor's bad habit. "Forgive me for saying so," he tells Julian after a moment, "but you look tired. Is everything all right?"

"Of course," Julian says, trying a wider smile on for size.

Garak eyes him, something skeptical in the angle of one brow ridge.

Julian sighs and rubs a hand across his face. Lying to Garak is so rarely effective, it's a wonder he's still trying it. "It's been a long day," he allows, and then can't help but glance across at the O'Briens.

And, of course, Garak doesn't miss it. His gaze follows Julian's and then snaps back to Julian's face, and after a moment, he sits. "A charming couple," he says.

"They've been arguing the whole time I've been here," Julian tells him, and that, of all things, makes Garak smile just a little.

"How delightful!"

Julian blinks.

"There's nothing Cardassians treasure more than a nice long argument," Garak elaborates, bland, and then settles his elbows on the table, hands folded beneath his chin, and looks at Julian attentively. "Speaking of which, I believe you concluded our last lunch by promising to continue being entertainingly wrong about your interpretation of that Preloc novel I lent you."

"I wasn't wrong," Julian says instantly, "it's a matter of subjective taste!"

He leans in across the table himself—and his headache, which had been starting to fade, chooses that moment to reassert itself with a vague throb. He squeezes his eyes shut against it. "Doctor," he hears Garak say, from what seems like oddly far away; and then he feels warm fingertips settle just at the bend of his elbow.

The headache recedes. Not entirely, but enough for Julian to open his eyes again, to blink twice and breathe in and tell himself to relax his shoulders. It's the tension, that's all. "Sorry," he says. "I'm fine. Just a headache."

"Mm." Garak's gaze is steady, unblinking. "You have been holding your shoulders a bit stiffly, my dear."

"Yes," Julian agrees. "That's all it is."

Garak says nothing, just watches him for a long moment, like he's expecting something else. But then Quark arrives to take their lunch orders, and Julian lets it go.

If the thought of Garak's hands crosses his mind—of how Julian's shoulders had tensed under them, once, and whether now they might be equally good at taking that tension away—it hardly matters.

By the time they've finished their lunch, Julian's headache is gone anyway.

 

 

4. in yearning.

Julian is careful. Julian is always careful.

He doesn't let himself get drawn in too far. He turns down at least one out of every three invitations from Garak—though of course he makes sure the distribution of refusals is random enough to approximate chance. He doesn't touch Garak too often, doesn't lean into Garak's hands. And he doesn't let himself get caught up in pointless hypotheticals.

Julian doesn't have a soulmark, because Julian doesn't have a soulmate. Garak does, and there's no way it can be Julian. That's all there is to it.

Every time Julian catches himself starting to—to think about it too much, he makes himself put a lid on it; he deliberately starts imagining what Garak's soulmate might be like, how pleased Garak will be to meet them at last.

Because he hasn't yet—he can't have. Garak did say Cardassians experience bond stress, and the distance between Garak and his homeworld would generate bond stress to a degree Julian can barely conceive of. If Garak had already met his soulmate, they'd be with him on DS9. And if it were anyone on the station, well. Julian spends more time with Garak than anyone else does. He'd know.

So it must be someone Garak hasn't met yet. And—well, "pleased" is probably an overstatement. It's Garak, Julian reminds himself, and can't keep from grinning. Garak would be terribly suspicious of the whole thing. A stranger with an unbreakable connection to him, feeling even the vaguest echoes of his strongest feelings, constantly aware of him, always able to find him wherever he went ... "Pleased" is definitely an overstatement.

Would drive him mad, Julian thinks idly, at least until he got used to the idea. He'd need someone even-tempered, maybe, even-tempered but stubborn—enough to stick around through all the traps Garak would set for them, and without taking offense. Even-tempered, stubborn, smart; somebody who knew enough to appreciate Garak's Cardassian literature, instead of telling him it was boring all the time—

And now he's making himself miserable. He sighs and scrubs a hand through his hair, leaning back in his chair instead of pretending he's still paying attention to the infirmary console. It'll be another half an hour before the computer finishes its analysis anyway. He can fit plenty of moping into half an hour.

He rolls his shoulders, tips his head to one side and then lets it fall back before bringing it around to tip to the other side. It wouldn't be so hard to get past this if he weren't—if he weren't feeling it so much, somehow. It wouldn't be so hard to avoid Garak if everything else were better. But when he's like this, when he hasn't slept well in two days and his head's pounding and he's tired, it's such a tremendous effort of willpower every time he has to turn Garak down, or tell himself to step out of Garak's space, or nudge his chair back so their knees aren't bumping.

And to add injury to insult, there's something about this headache that even hypos won't help. Julian finally gave in and tried one, just to help him sleep, and it didn't make a dent.

Frustrating. And of course all that only makes it more difficult for him to tell himself that a nice argumentative lunch with Garak isn't exactly what he needs to make him feel better.

He snorts at himself, closes his eyes and reaches up to squeeze firmly at the back of his neck—and then someone tuts gently behind him, and someone's fingertips settle gently against his wrist.

"Headache, my dear doctor?"

Julian breathes out slow, eyes still shut, and, oh, he'll hate himself for this later; but Garak's touch is careful, coaxing, against his wrist, and he's so tired.

He lets Garak guide his arm out of the way, drops his head forward and lets Garak's hands cover his upper trapezius muscles just where the tension feels the worst—and how does Garak even know?

Does it matter, when the way he's digging his thumbs in feels like that?

"Thank you," Julian says belatedly, a good five minutes later, Garak's fingers against the back of his neck and a contented sigh catching in his throat.

"Of course," Garak murmurs. "You have only to ask, my dear," and then, lightly, "Feeling better, then, I hope."

"Yes," Julian admits. "I think I must be sleeping wrong somehow. I haven't been getting very much rest, some nights, and I may have tweaked something in my neck."

"I assume you diagnose your patients a little more precisely than you diagnose yourself," Garak says after a moment, and Julian grins down at the console.

"It's nothing serious," he says aloud, and Garak hums the way he does when he thinks Julian is wrong but is deliberately choosing not to contradict him directly, and wants him to know it.

"Nothing serious enough to keep you from working through lunch," Garak muses, and Julian twitches a little, guilty; that was, he recalls, the excuse he'd given Garak yesterday, when Garak had asked after lunch today. "But surely you won't be drawing that self-punishment out all the way into the evening."

"Garak," Julian says helplessly, looking up—not around, Garak is directly behind him; but up, far enough to find Garak's reflection in the console, to meet his eyes.

"Have dinner with me, Doctor," Garak says to the console, easing his hands to a stop on Julian's neck without lifting them away.

Julian should say no. It's not a good idea. His head already feels better, but he's—he's still too tired to be careful. If he goes to dinner with Garak, he'll enjoy it. He'll enjoy it and he'll be glad Garak came here and found him, he'll think about it all night and he'll wish—

"I'd be delighted," Julian hears himself say, and he can't even convince himself to feel bad about it.

 

 

5. in trust (in the face of uncertainty).

"An implant?" Julian repeats, blinking.

"Perhaps you should give yourself a hearing evaluation, Doctor," Garak suggests sweetly.

"I'm sorry, I just—that wasn't what I was expecting you to say." Julian peers down at the little device Garak has given him. "And this controls it?"

"Indeed it does."

"All right," Julian says slowly. "And, if I may ask—what exactly does this implant do? Why did you get it?"

Garak waves a hand, expansive. "Oh, that hardly matters!"

"Garak—"

"And I say that with such confidence," Garak adds, "because, to my dismay, recent events have rendered it ..." He trails off and pauses, glancing down at the thing in Julian's hands; and for a moment a look crosses his face that Julian might almost call wryly amused. "Unnecessary," Garak offers eventually. "Unnecessary, and ineffective besides."

"I see," Julian lies. Because he doesn't. He supposes that, in the abstract, if the implant truly has stopped working, then the question of what it did when it was working is in fact academic. But that doesn't make him feel any more comfortable about Garak having just handed him a device that is apparently capable of affecting the function of Garak's brain. Especially in ways Garak won't explain to him. And if the implant's no longer active, then— "And you're giving me a control device for the nonfunctional implant in your brain because ... ?"

"Because hope springs eternal," Garak murmurs nonsensically, still gazing down at the device. And then he looks up at Julian and smiles, small and slanted. "In the briefest possible terms, my dear doctor, the implant—offered relief. By means that unfortunately are no longer of any use to me, but—"

Julian swallows, and looks down at his hands: at the device, its smooth hand-soldered metal casing, the deceptively simple controls. One switch, that's all. Off and on. "But they were, and you—can't help trying to use it, even though it doesn't work anymore."

"My, but you do catch on so quickly sometimes," Garak says. "A rare but breathtaking phenomenon."

Julian shoots him a flat look, and then glances back at the device. "So you want me to hang on to it for you," he says.

"Yes," Garak says, and then pauses, and touches two careful fingertips to the back of Julian's hand. "I will endeavor, for a moment, to be honest with you to the best of my ability: it was never meant for continuous use. If that device is left in my hands, I—cannot be certain I will not activate it, despite being well aware of the pointlessness of such an action."

"Hope springs eternal," Julian echoes softly, and Garak smiles at him, eyes serious.

"Just so."

Julian closes his hand around the thing, and lets out a slow breath. "All right," he says. "I'll—I'll keep it safe for you."

"And, my dear doctor, if you please," Garak adds, very low, "nowhere I can easily find it."

"Of course," Julian says, already turning over a few possibilities. "And if this turns out to be the detonator for a bomb, I'm going to be very cross with you," he adds, more lightly, just to give Garak an excuse to smile again.

Garak does. "Ah, the sting of distrust! Such an invigorating sensation."

Julian shakes his head with a laugh. "And if you don't mind my asking—or, well, if you do I suppose you just won't answer—what changed?"

He says it idly, turning away, already prepared to set up an isolation field; probably the best way to make sure no one touches the device until Julian has a chance to evaluate his other options at the end of his shift. And then it occurs to him, with a suddenness that drops the bottom out of his stomach, that there are only so many things capable of altering brain chemistry to a degree that might explain Garak's situation.

And one of them, of course, is a bond.

He swallows, hard, and braces himself against the edge of the console. "I don't suppose I owe you congratulations?"

The moment before Garak answers him feels terribly, painfully long; but at last, at last, Garak says, "Not exactly."

Julian's face feels strange, stiff, when he glances over his shoulder and raises an eyebrow.

"It's complicated," Garak adds, deliberate and precise, without looking away from Julian.

Complicated. There aren't that many ways for bonds to be complicated, Julian thinks. Maybe it's something else; or maybe Garak just doesn't want to tell him.

Then again, maybe Garak's told him enough for today. "Everything's complicated with Cardassians," Julian murmurs, and Garak smiles at him.

"Truer words, Doctor."

 

 

and 1.

"Welcome back, Doctor," Sisko says.

Julian stares up at him from the biobed, blinking. "You will never believe where I've been."

"Oh, I might," says someone else; and with a titanic effort, Julian tilts his pounding head sideways, and meets Garak's eyes.

"You."

"Me," Garak agrees placidly.

Julian stares at him. And then Nurse Jabara chases Sisko and Jadzia away with a stern shooing motion, jabs something into Julian's neck, and shuts off the lights, and everything goes away.

Garak is, of course, gone by the time Julian wakes up. Julian doesn't waste any time, just checks himself out and heads directly toward Quark's; and it's only once he's gotten there, spotted Garak at a table and begun to slow, that it occurs to him to wonder how exactly he'd known where Garak was.

But Garak doesn't seem surprised. "Doctor," he says with a smile, looking up. "You're awake! And none the worse for wear, I hope."

"You," Julian says. "You were there. It was—that was actually you."

The smile doesn't go away, doesn't change; it's something else about Garak's face, the lines of small scales around his eyes or the way he's holding his head, that makes him look suddenly alert, wary. "Why, whatever do you mean," he murmurs, not quite a question.

"In my head!" Julian snaps, yanking out the chair across from Garak. "How is that possible? Altovar couldn't have gotten to you—"

"Lethean telepathic attacks are usually fatal," Garak says crisply, looking away to take a sip of his drink. "You're very lucky, my dear doctor, that he was expecting only one mind instead of two."

"Two—?"

Garak's gaze flicks back to Julian, sharp and steady, always so steady; and he tilts his head and doesn't say a word.

Julian's heart starts to pound. It's—it's not possible. Garak is taunting him, teasing him, making fun of him; it's—it's not—

"That's not possible," he says, as steadily as he can.

"Oh?"

Julian swallows, and belatedly glances around. But it's early, much too early for Quark's usual lunch crowd, and Garak chose a table about as far away as possible from where Rom is wiping down the bar. "I—I don't have a soulmate," he says, very low. "So whatever it is you think you know, it's—it isn't possible."

"Really," Garak murmurs, swirling his kanar around in its glass. "How interesting. Because I seem to recall a moment I would certainly categorize as formation—"

to feel the weight of Garak's hands and have his heart thump abruptly, to be washed with a wave of goosebumps and a brief swell of dizziness, to find his mouth's gone dry

"Hyperarousal, elevated heartbeat and breathing, disorientation, horripilation—"

"—and—if you'll forgive my imprecision, my dear, as I am but a simple tailor, not a doctor—what might also be categorized as a variety of symptoms of low-grade bond stress. Successfully alleviated, I might add, by physical closeness—"

his headache, which had been starting to fade, chooses that moment to reassert itself with a vague throb

warm fingertips settle just at the bend of his elbow, and the headache recedes

Garak's fingers against the back of his neck and a contented sigh catching in his throat

"—when nothing else would do," and Garak has the nerve to sound faintly aggrieved. "I'll have you know, Doctor, that the implant in my brain was hideously expensive to develop. And it worked absolute wonders on a myriad of aches and pains, until you came along."

"It isn't possible," Julian insists, hoarse, and then has to flatten his hands against the tabletop to make them stop shaking.

"Oh, my dear," Garak says, very low, "I can assure you that it is." And then, without hesitation, expression perfectly calm, he hooks two fingers in the long flat neckline of his shirt and drags it down.

Three inches: that's all it takes to expose half of the flat, broad Cardassian sternum. And right in the middle of it, a cool dark gray, is, unmistakably—

"Kukalaka," Julian says dazedly. "My—my teddy bear. I don't—"

"Is that what it is," Garak says, peering down at it, before he lets go and smooths his shirt carefully back into place. "Allow me to assure you, my peers on Homeworld found it deeply intriguing, but none of them were able to solve that particular mystery."

"But—but Cardassians don't have marks—"

"I do," Garak says.

"I don't," Julian blurts, and Garak's eyes widen just a little. "I—" and then he catches himself, swallowing, and drags his gaze away from Garak. "Something happened to me," he hedges, "when I was younger, and I—I never got one. I don't have one."

"Keeping secrets, my dear?" Garak murmurs. "There's hope for you yet."

Julian risks a glance, heart hammering; but Garak doesn't look angry. He's smiling. And not like he usually does, not the way he smiles when he wants you to know he's smiling. But just a little, at one corner of his mouth, like maybe he can't quite help it.

And then his eyes narrow again. "You honestly didn't know, then."

"No," Julian says. "I—I'd always assumed that I would never—that there was no one, I mean. That there would never be anyone."

"Well," Garak says, eyes suddenly dark. "What a delight it has always been to prove you wrong; and this is no exception."

Julian's reflexes were enhanced along with all the rest of him. He has plenty of time to move away.

But he doesn't do it. Garak leans across the table and wraps one hand carefully around the back of Julian's neck, pulls him in and drags their mouths together; and Julian closes his eyes, reaches helplessly for Garak's shoulders and kisses back, and realizes the slow dawning delight in his chest must belong to both of them.