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  Things fall apart so slowly that Julian doesn’t notice at first. It’s not as though he and Garak had been spending as much time together even before his status as an augment was revealed, memories of bullet holes and blood chasing every shared cup of tea. But after the truth came out, Julian hid himself away in his lab and his research. After all, there’s no judgment there, no probing questions or wry smiles following him down the hallways. Julian knows that Garak will be the worst of all, all bright smirks and sharp challenges Julian’s not even sure his advanced brain will be able to answer.

  But eventually Julian can’t help noticing that Garak isn’t reaching out to him either. There haven’t been any more surprise visits to the infirmary for minor injuries or illnesses he’s confident don’t exist anymore. There are no more invitations to lunch and dinner, no sudden visits when he’s at Quark’s or in the holosuites. It’s as though Garak’s entirely disappeared from his life without so much as a warning.

  Julian can’t help but feel pulled toward Garak because of it, even though he knows the potential dangers of their … friendship. Julian could only let it be that, no matter what he wanted. What he is isn’t safe for men like Garak.

  But now his secret is out in the open and he misses Garak and their debates over literature and philosophy, the way Garak teases him with such abandon, the way he touches Julian like he might be something special. Julian supposes he took Garak’s affections for granted since the holodeck incident, and now Garak is sending him a message about just how he feels about Julian’s attempts at distance. Julian supposes the best way to win him back is to stop being so aloof, which is how he ends up in Garak’s shop after his shift. 

  Julian waits by the counter, one elbow pressed against the shining white marble. He wonders when Garak had the old one switched out. Julian taps his fingers restlessly as he watches Garak walk his last customer to the door, his smile pleasant and unaffected. Julian’s shocked to see it turned on him a second later. “Why, doctor, what a pleasant surprise. I fear my shop’s about to close, but if you needed help picking out a more flattering outfit -”

  “No, no, I’m not here to shop, I wanted to see if you were free for dinner.” Julian asks with a small smile, curling his lips playfully as he leans in toward Garak across the counter so their hands almost brush. Garak pulls his back and pretends to examine a few of the hair pins that sit near his padds. Julian grimaces a bit and scrunches his eyebrows together, not sure if he should be insulted because Garak pulled his hand away or because he thinks Julian is stupid enough not to notice that’s what he’s doing. 

  Garak merely continues to smile at him placidly, hands rearranging the clips into different patterns. “I’m afraid I already made plans with the constable, doctor. Maybe some other time?”

  “We could have lunch tomorrow!” Julian cries before he can stop, grinning so widely that his face hurts. He feels painfully like the boy he was when he first arrived on Deep Space 9, trying desperately to get even a little of Garak’s attention. Garak raises one eye ridge, eyes widening in what Julian suspects might be actual surprise. He supposes he deserves that. “It’s just … we haven’t spent much time together lately, and I never did get around to telling you my opinions about the cyclical elegiac poetry of Takarat.”

  “I’m sure you found it exceedingly boring and wrought, as you so often do.” Garak keeps smiling, but there’s no affection nor any spark in his voice. He sounds neutral at best, pleasant at worst, as though he doesn’t even want to debate with Julian about it. Garak must be more upset with him than Julian thought.

  “Oh. Well actually, I quite enjoyed several of the poems, if not the entire work as a whole.” Julian tells him with a small smirk, voice dropping a bit as he decides to be honest. As much as Garak enjoyed a good argument, Julian knew he liked some of their more amicable discussions about literature as well. He remembers the astonished and pleased smile Garak gave him when he got the point of Larkelan’s novels and enjoyed them to boot. “Really, Garak, I’m not quite as hopeless as you think.”

  “Oh, if only that were true, doctor.” Garak’s expression finally takes on an emotion beyond pleasant, though Julian can’t say it’s any of the ones he was hoping for. No, there’s something almost … wistful to his gaze. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I promised Ziyal I’d look at some of her artwork tomorrow, but maybe the day after?”

  “Of course, I’ll see you then.” Julian smiles tightly as he takes a step back from the counter. He tries to remind himself that he’s the one who’s been distant for the past month, only a few scattered visits when Garak was under arrest and lunches since. He’s had his reasons -- a willingness to commit genocide is high on list of reasons to pull back from a friendship -- but if Garak feels cautious around him right now, Julian can’t blame him. All he can do is hope that Garak learns to trust him again.

  Garak watches Julian move his hands through the air, gestures slightly erratic in his excitement. It seems he really had enjoyed several of Takaret’s poems. Strange, for all he teased him, usually the doctor missed the finer details of sentiment in Cardassian works. Maybe he’s been learning -- but no, Julian doesn’t have to learn, and isn’t that the problem? Garak knows it’s not fair to be mad at someone for not being what he thought they were, and really, if the circumstances had been slightly different, he would have been rather impressed.

  But Garak instead feels strangely betrayed, all of his dreams of a future with Julian suddenly dashed for entirely new reasons. Garak always thought that Julian was exceptional, fascinating and compelling in equal measures. Julian had seemed clever and seemingly far more diligent than most of the people on Deep Space 9, studying and mastering skills with an enthusiasm Garak’s not sure he ever had. Garak let himself be enchanted by Julian’s seeming passion and devotion to learning, at the adaptability Julian seemed so willing to discredit. All of it was downright Cardassian. Really, maybe it all being a lie only makes it more so. 

  But that doesn’t change the fact that the truth has ended whatever infatuation he had with Julian. He feels a sudden tap on his shoulder, one that would have sent a lovely wave of electricity through him just a few weeks ago. Julian looks at him, eyebrows scrunched together and lips pursed. “Garak, are you listening?”

  “I’m sorry, doctor. I fear I’ve been quite distracted the past few weeks. It’s wedding season, you know, and there are so many dresses to make and suits to fit that it’s hard to think about anything else.” Garak keeps his tone light and airy, patting Julian’s hand in a way he knows probably comes off as perfunctory at best. 

  “Somehow I don’t believe you.” Julian’s tone is warm, eyes sparkling with affection and amusement as he leans toward Garak across the table. It would be so easy to let himself fall into their old easy patterns, the back and forth that sustained him for so long. But it isn’t fair to either of them. Even he doesn’t think that friendship nor love should be built on so flimsy a foundation as fiction.

  “Doctor, why did you want to have lunch with me?” Garak asks as he takes another sip of his tea, voice a bit softer than before. Fictions aside, Julian has changed in other ways over the past few weeks. He seems more cautious than ever despite technically no longer having a reason to be, glancing over his shoulder at every turn. It’s a fate he hadn’t wanted for the Julian he thought he knew, and it’s still not one he wants for the man in front of him. He really must be growing soft.

  Julian’s smile grows a bit more strained, a flash of guilt flashing across his eyes. Interesting. “Because you’re my friend and we haven’t spent much time together lately. Look, I know you’re angry with me but -”

  “Not angry, disappointed.” Garak corrects himself before he can think better, just a hint of venom coming into his voice. Anyone else would have been put off, but Julian leans in, grin turning into something far more natural. Whatever else might be a lie, apparently Julian’s penchant for arguing isn’t. Garak meets his gaze, feeling a touch of apprehension run through him. He isn’t trying to flirt, but it’s hard not to when Julian sits in front of him, looking and acting the same even when Garak knows he’s misread him. 

 He’s rescued by a sudden beep on Julian’s comm badge. “You should eat, Garak, your soup must be getting cold.”

  Garak watches him beam out and wonders if maybe - but no, he cannot let himself hope. He learned that long ago.


 Julian smiles nervously as he holds a glass of kanar for Garak, the sickly pink drink feeling strangely heavy in his hand. It’s been so long since he and Garak last really talked, not since their aborted lunch a few weeks ago. Julian still isn’t sure what went wrong there, Garak aloof and distracted until the end, as though he barely knew Julian. There had been some sign of life toward the end, but the call from Medical ended that. Every invitation Julian’s offered since has been politely rejected. 

  Knowing that, he can’t help but be a little nervous as he approaches his … his friend. But he owes Garak his thanks, the unexpected kindness giving him more hope for their relationship than he’s had in months. Garak raises an eye ridge, holding out a welcoming hand. Julian smiles and sits down across from him, sliding the glass across the table. It stops smoothly in front of him, Julian smiling tentatively. “I wanted to thank you, Garak.”

  “Why, whatever for, my dear doctor?” Garak presses his lips into a thin line, a hint of a smirk at the corners of it. Julian shakes his head, letting out a small laugh in spite of himself. It doesn’t make any sense, but he’s even missed Garak looking at him like he is right now, as though he’s naive and far too clumsy to match wits with him. He really must be far gone.

  Julian takes a rather long sip of his own drink, a glass of spring wine, without meeting Garak’s amused gaze. This felt like a good idea a few hours ago, but now that he’s sitting in front of the man about to talk about a teddy bear, he’s not so sure. Still, one of them had to break the thaw that’s settled over their friendship, and a much deserved ‘thank you’ seems as good a means as any. “Nog told me that you were the one who fixed up Kukalaka’s old stitches when they rescued him from Leeta’s clutches.”

  “Yes, I was surprised with how sloppy they were, considering that your reflexes are supposed to be perfect.” Garak chides with a quick shake of his head, though there’s an undercurrent to his voice that Julian doesn’t quite understand. Julian likes it more than the neutral pleasantness he’s gotten lately, leaning in so he and Garak are a bit closer, their hands not quite brushing. This time Garak doesn’t pull away. 

  Julian closes his eyes for a few seconds, letting the tension that’s already building at the space of his spine relax as much as he can. He still hates talking about it, about Jules , even though his enhancements aren’t a secret anymore. Jules and everything he stole from him still is. But Garak deserves to know this side of him too, if they’re ever going to become as close as they once were, or as Julian desperately hopes, even more. “It was from before, when I was … before I was enhanced.”

  “Back when you had to try.” Garak’s voice certainly neutral anymore, but the venom isn’t the kind Julian anticipated either. There is surprising harshness to it that makes Julian’s eyes snap open. Garak stares at him with something that borders on contempt, the ridges around his eyes painfully stiff. Julian swallows down the rest of his drink and tries to figure out where he went wrong. It seems the harder he tries to make Garak like him again, the more the distance between them grew. 

  Something has changed, Julian’s just not sure what. He thinks maybe he shouldn’t seek Garak out again until he is.  He gives Garak a brittle smile as he sets his glass down, glancing across Quark’s and feeling a surge of relief when he sees Miles by the darts board.  “Garak, I … thank you.”

  He does not invite Garak for lunch again after that.


  Garak sits on the cold bench of the sickbay, staring at the white ceiling panels to give him a little more time before he had to meet Julian’s hurt gaze. He truly doesn’t want to make the doctor suffer more than necessary. He’s hurt by his betrayal, but it hadn’t been intentional. Garak can’t hold it against him, even if he still feels wounded by the loss of his own hopes. He hears a low sigh and the sound of papers rustling across the table. Eventually Garak turns his gaze toward the other man, smiling in a way he hopes lacks any hint of charm. “Doctor, I apologize for taking up so much of your time.”

  “Really? You used to love taking up too much of my time.” Julian snaps in a heated voice, eyes flashing as he glances across Garak’s chart with a precision he can’t help but envy. These moments make him almost miss Julian -- but no, the man he misses never existed. That’s all there is to it.  

  “Things have changed.” Garak’s voice is clipped as he meets Julian’s gaze, thinking the other man deserved at least that much. Julian’s eyes were flashing with far too many emotions, lips trembling in a way that could mean a lecture or tears. It’s always been hard with Julian. Instead Julian lets out a sharp laugh, turning his back to him as he starts counting pills. Garak doesn’t know why he bothers, it’s not as though everyone here doesn’t know that Julian never needs to try, hasn’t needed to since he was a child. 

  “I’ve noticed. Tell me Garak, what exactly has changed.” Julian mutters in a more even voice as he finally turns his gaze back to him. Much of the anger has left his frame, shoulders slumped and eyes suddenly tired. Julian takes a few steps towards him, hands shaking and movements lacking his usual brand of clumsy grace. Instead he seemed almost robotic, stiff and slow like he’s shutting down. It’s just pathetic enough to make Garak think he owes him the truth. 

  “I used to think you were exceptional.” Garak keeps his voice clinical and even, trying to separate the facts from his own wounded feelings and the man in front of him. Still, he can’t help noticing the way Julian flinches at his words, a pained sound escaping the other man. “Learning and mastering so much at such a young age, not only in medicine but in linguistics and literature and philosophy as well. What an ambitious, hard-working man I thought. Then I found out that you’d been enhanced as a child.”

  Garak watches Julian pace the small space between his sick bed and the wall for a few moments, looking too wound up all of the sudden, as though someone were sending tiny electrical bolts through him. Then Julian comes to a dead stop, letting out a laugh that’s an octave too high and laced with bitterness, gaze flashing with an emotion Garak’s never seen in them before.  “And now you realize not only am I not hard-working and industrious, but compared to other augments I’m not especially brilliant?”

  “Something like that. Thank you, doctor.” Garak stands up before Julian can offer him a hypo for the last of his headache. He can handle it himself and he can’t imagine Julian wants to spend anymore time with him. There’s no future here now that Garak’s spoken, the foundation far too flimsy even for someone as impulsive as Julian. This is when they would come to an end.

  Julian doesn’t so much as look back at him until he’s at the door, voice sounding far away and emptier than Garak’s ever heard it. “Goodbye, Garak.”

  There’s a finality to his words that makes Garak’s heart twist in his chest, but he still goes without trying to soften the blow.

Chapter Text

  Garak can’t pretend that he doesn’t feel some trepidation about sharing quarters with the doctor after their last few conversations. Certainly it’s still the safest choice on the Defiant -- as hurt as Julian might be, Garak doubts he’ll try to murder him -- but that doesn’t mean things won’t be terribly awkward. After all, Garak imagines being told you’re average at best to your face, especially after a life of being told how special you are, has to hurt.

  So he has to admit he’s a little surprised when the doctor greets him with a wan smile, gaze distant and lacking any of the hurt feelings or wounded pride Garak anticipated. Indeed, the doctor barely acknowledges him as he unpacks his meager belongings. Garak watches carefully as he sets his own bag down by the beds, watching as the doctor neatly lines up his personal medical equipment and clothes in the top drawer. He can’t help but notice that Julian hasn’t brought a single padd. 

  “Doctor.” Garak finally calls out, giving the other man a thin smile. Julian turns on his heel, nodding abruptly as though he hadn’t noticed Garak was in the room before now. Garak swallows down the urge to scoff at that, instead keeping his tone pleasant and indifferent. Two could play at this game, and there were few games he didn’t have more experience in than Julian. “How unfortunate that we’d be assigned as roommates given our last conversation.”

  “Actually I was thinking just the opposite.” Julian’s smile actually grows a bit wider as he speaks. But there’s no sparkle in his eyes, no sign that he’s genuinely happy to see Garak there, or, barring that, annoyed by his presence. It’s as though Garak’s looking into the eyes of a complete stranger.

  But then Julian is, isn’t he? Everything Garak knew about the supposedly good doctor is just a well-crafted story. There isn’t a young man who shares his passion for literature and fine art, who would spend hours debating it and take as much delight in losing as he did in winning. The loyal, dedicated doctor constantly embattled between the greater good and his Federation values was a mere fabrication. From what Garak knows about augments and how they’re crafted in the Federation, Garak doubts Julian is truly capable of caring about either.

  Julian is no work in progress, he’s a product that was finished long before Garak ever had the chance to take part in shaping him. The fact that this creation has had some role in shaping Garak, in briefly making him consider the values of things like kindness or compassion, is an embarrassment he’ll have to move past. After all, it’s not fair to hold his crimes against this Julian, who has little in common with that man.

  So Garak raises an eyebrow, no emotion in his voice as he starts unpacking his bag. He still needs to understand whoever or whatever this Julian is. Garak can’t allow him to be a threat he doesn’t understand, when Cardassia hangs in such a precarious balance. “Were you?”

  “We’ve already cleared the air, so we don’t have any false expectations of each other. Unlike most people on the Defiant, I hold no ill will towards you, and you already admitted you no longer have any interest in me.” Julian lists off with a roll of his shoulders as he finishes neatly folding his undershirts. He doesn’t glance back at Garak while he talks, his entire focus seemingly taken up by the task in front of him. Garak swallows a little at that, missing the eager, too quick movements he’s grown accustomed to over the last few years. What a strange thing to have included as part of his act. Maybe he’ll ask the doctor about it once his own pride is less wounded. 

  “Yes, when you put it like that, it all seems perfectly rational.” Garak agrees with a quirk of the lips, wondering when Julian started being genuinely rational at all. But then maybe Julian has no use for that confounding mix of compassion and arrogant logic now that he’s not pretending to be like everyone else anymore. Maybe Julian … 

  Julian cuts off his thoughts with a tap on the shoulder, clinical and detached in a way that shocks Garak. He nods toward the bunk bed, gaze flickering away from Garak as though they were never anything to each other in the first place. He’s yet to meet his gaze once since they boarded the ship. “Good then. I assume you’d prefer the bottom bunk? It doesn’t make much of a difference to me.”

  “That would be much appreciated, thank you, doctor.” Garak can hear the stiffness in his own voice and curses himself for how obvious he’s being. No version of Julian Bashir should be able to make him this sloppy. 

  Still, he just wishes something would make a difference to the doctor. 

  As it turns out, that wish only grows more and more distant by the day. His every attempt to rile Julian into some kind of feeling is met with a smirk that doesn’t reach his eyes and complete indifference at worst. The doctor dismisses the mention of their old lunches with a wave of his hand, quotes poems to Miles he used to argue about with Garak for hours as though they mean nothing to him. As though the war means nothing to him, as though Julian’s never cared about anything outside of what’s happening in the space of his infirmary. 

  Where is the passion and emotion, the vicious arguments and refusal to accept the odds no matter how much they’re stacked against them? Quite the contrary, Julian told him about the odds with all the passion of brick. It’s infuriating with all that’s going on, for Julian to act so above it all and separate. Garak tries to play on that fear too, insulting his enhancements and the man he was built to be. It’s the closest Julian looks to feeling anything around him, and he’ll take it even if it is pain.

  All of these thoughts lead Garak back to the infirmary door, mouth set in a thin line and the lines along his forehead ridges tense. If Julian notices any of it, he doesn’t give any sign. Instead he gazes at him clinically, voice detached as he holds his tricorder out toward him. He wonders if Julian greets all of his patients like that. “Garak, what brings you here?” 

  “An injury, doctor.” Garak smiles stiffly as Julian runs the tricorder over him, savoring the hint of disbelief at the corner of his gaze. It’s gone as soon it came, Julian back to looking professional and even a touch bored. Garak can’t help the way his ridges tighten at that, something in his chest twisting the same way it did when he ended his … whatever he’d had with Julian. 

  “Again? As far as I remember, you didn’t leave the ship today and you were nowhere near any of the fighting.” Julian shakes his head, running a hand through his hair until a few locks fall loosely across his forehead. Really, the neater and more professional his persona has become, the messier his appearance has grown. Gone are the neat lines of the Starfleet uniform, replaced with rolled up sleeves and perilously undone buttons revealing collarbones. His hair is in a near constant disarray. Garak swears he’s even caught a hint of stubble once or twice. Maybe he only has the energy to put effort into one half of his fiction at a time.

  “Indulge me then, for old times sake.” 

  “You know I can’t.” Julian’s voice comes out a touch softer this time, almost apologetic. He looks away before Garak can catch his eyes. Garak swallows a little and curses himself for his own sentimentality. He can’t expect Julian to pretend for him, nor does he want him to. But it’s easy to forget that the man he cared for never existed, when his visage stands right in front of him. Julian raises an eyebrow then, voice clipped and if Garak wants to fool himself, maybe even a little harsh. “Now tell me, why did you really want to talk, Garak.” 

  “32.7 percent.” Garak’s voice is plain, not bothering to hide the contempt that colors each of his words. He wants to know how it’s possible Julian can be so cavalier about the number, so detached when his precious Federation is just as at risk of falling as Cardassia, when the number of lives lost must be bordering on astronomical. Hell, even the loss of his own life should have some effect on the doctor. Garak is more than willing to die for Cardassia, but that doesn’t mean he’s thrilled about how that possibility seems closer with each passing day. 

  Julian doesn’t react to his words, instead turning to reorder his pills for what Garak swears is the third time since he entered the room. He still doesn’t meet his gaze. “Yes, that’s our likelihood of winning the war. Did you have any questions about it?”

  “How can you give us such terrible odds?” Garak snaps before he can stop himself, slamming one hand flat against the desk next to him. Julian stills at the sound, hands dropping to his sides and shoulders stiffening a hair. Good, that’s something. Garak sneers, letting the fullness of his disappointment show in each word. This is not the man who once made him belief hope might have some worth after all. “What happened to all of that childish Federation optimism?”

  “I grew up.” Julian’s voice comes out in the same clipped tone as before, gaze stuck on the rows of painkillers in front of him. Garak watches him for a few moments, imagining the despair that would have been in his Julian’s eyes, the hours he would have spent locked up in here trying to learn how to improve each and every medication, only coming out either to read or play one of his ridiculous holoprograms. It’s indulgent of him, but God knows Cardassians have never frowned on decadence.

  Garak smirks cruelly, sliding one hand to his shoulder. He feels the familiar body, the lean lines of muscle and bone that feel deceptively soft under his hands. His bones stick out more than ever, feeling almost too broad for Julian’s skin. The doctor must not be eating much these days. “Did you? How unfortunate for all of us.” 

  “It’s not my fault you don’t like the facts, Garak.” Julian’s voice is tight as he suddenly pushes Garak’s hand off of him like the touch had burned him. Interesting . Garak tries to catch his eye, to see what is brewing in that mind of his, what emotions make him hide from Garak so much when he used to let every emotion flit across his face without care. Julian doesn’t give him the opportunity, quickly moving across the room. Too quickly and suddenly Garak remembers that he has no idea how many of those emotions of Julian’s were faked. “Either come up with a lie that makes you feel better or accept the cards life dealt you.”

  Julian is finally filled with venom. That is fascinating. Is that what Julian has done? Built a lie of who he was for decades, only to accept his true nature once the lie fell apart? Or does he mean that he’s the lie his parents should have never told? Or maybe he means Garak, who has built a life off of deception. Still, no matter the reasoning behind his words, the sentiment was at best maudlin and at worst terribly stupid. “Accept the cards? What strange expressions you humans have. Why accept the cards when there’s a possibility you can shape them into something better?”

  “Sometimes there’s a certain honor in giving up, Garak.” Julian’s voice is painfully soft, tired and far away. For a moment Garak thinks Julian might finally look at him. Instead he shoos him out of the lab.

  “Of course it does, they think alike.” Garak calls out before he can stop himself, voice sharp and ringing across the room. Everyone’s gotten so used to his little barbs that no one gives him so much as a second glance. No one except the one person who matters, that is. Julian glances up at him, just long enough for Garak to see a flash of hurt in his eyes. Garak doesn’t savor it -- he meant it when he said he has no interest in this being painful for the doctor -- but he does feel a strange sense of relief that there is still a man in there somewhere after all. 

  That man seems gone by the time he gets back to their quarters, Julian actually there still awake, for once. Julian lies on his bunk, staring blankly at the ceiling and breathing so even it almost seems like he’s not doing it at all. Garak internally shivers at the thought, walking over to their beds and softly poking Julian in the shoulder. Julian doesn’t look down at him. “You don’t read books anymore.”

  Garak watches as Julian furrows his brow at the non-sequitur, face scrunching up in that unique way humans had. Then his features smooth out, though for a second Garak swears he almost sees a smile dancing at the corner of his lips. “What use does a computer have with fiction?” 

  “You’re not actually a computer, doctor, unless cybernetic tech has advanced far more than anyone’s been aware of in the past few years.” It’s as close to an apology as Garak will offer, and Julian would see the sincerity in his gaze if he would just look down from the blasted tiles above him. Garak’s rarely wrong, but he admits he might have been the past few weeks when he assumed the Julian he knew was entirely a fiction. There are just enough flickers to make him wonder if instead he wears a mask now, becoming what his narrow-minded Federation expected an augment to be. Or maybe just to keep prying old lizards away from him. 

  “There was no reason to keep doing it.” Julian’s voice lacks any emotion, not so much as turning to look at Garak as he speaks. It feels as though there’s a glass wall between them, transparent and yet still blocking anything real from coming through. Garak wonders what will happen if he shatters it, if Julian will come out the man he knew or something better, or if he’ll break entirely. But then, maybe Garak’s the one who will end up embedded with shards of glass.

  “What about the sheer pleasure of a good story? Isn’t that what you used to drone on to me about when I complained about the simplicities of some Federation novellas?” Garak asks teasingly, hand reaching up to clutch the edge of Julian’s bed frame. That he brushes his hand along Julian’s side is complete coincidence. 

  Julian stiffens at the touch, gaze narrowing up at the ceiling as though it’s done something to offend him. Garak watches as he takes a few deep breaths, the flashes of annoyance and hurt flickering across slowly fading back into nothingness. His voice is empty when he speaks, and who would have imagined oblivion would be so boring? “I was wrong.”

  “The Julian I know wouldn’t admit to that.” Garak keeps his voice light and teasing, touch feather light as he moves it down Julian’s and the bed’s side. But Garak watches him with sharp blue eyes, trying to see behind the mask he so embarrassingly missed before because of his own hurt feelings. Really, Julian is supposed to be the one who doesn’t understand his own or anyone else’s feelings, who misses the simplest of social cues. For Garak to make that mistake is just embarrassing. He only hopes it’s not too late to fix it.

  “The Julian you knew doesn’t exist, remember?” Julian’s voice is the same cold, clinical tone Garak’s heard everyday for the past few weeks. But now Garak can see the lie within that, the protective layer to keep Garak -- and everyone else -- at bay. After all, Julian can’t be hurt, can’t be rejected if no one could get close to him. But then why did Julian suddenly want to keep everyone at arm’s length? This is the same man who let Miles roll his eyes at him until the Chief decided he loved him and who let Garak deride him when under the effects of the wire without it ever affecting their friendship. 

  There were times when Julian had pulled away of course, after he shot Garak in that terrible holoprogram of his, or when Garak nearly killed them both to save the Alpha Quadrant. Once even from Miles once when the other man didn’t understand why he wanted to save the Jem'hadar and -- Oh. Garak thinks he might be starting to understand. 

  He lets go of the bed abruptly, and if Julian stiffens at the loss of contact, Garak doesn’t acknowledge it. “Good night, doctor.”

  When Julian wakes up, there is a book of Cardassian poetry tucked into the bar on the side of his bed. A part of him wants to throw it across the room or hide it under Garak’s pillow so he wakes up with neck pains. Instead he carefully opens the padd and starts to read.

Chapter Text

Julian paces the small space of his quarters, wondering when Garak will bother to make an appearance. Of course, it would be just like Garak to leave a book on his pillow and let Julian read and annotate every page, only for him to never show up and discuss it. Julian shakes his head and stills, refusing to consider the other possibilities. He’d know if Garak was injured or dead -- he always knows -- and he trusts that Miles or the Captain would let him know if his roommate had been captured by Jem H’adar. 

  The door slides open then, Garak haloed by the lights of the hallway, his eyes somehow even brighter than usual. Julian marches toward him, his entire body charged with a kind of nervous electricity he hasn’t felt in years. It’s been so long that Julian almost doesn’t recognize the playful warmth in his own voice. “Is there a reason you left a padd of not only repetitive but frankly reductive poetry on my bed?”

  “Ah, so you did decide to read it.” Garak smiles broadly as he saunters by him as though it hasn’t been months since the last time they talked like this. Garak glances back at him over his shoulder, smirking as he shakes his head in a way that borders on mocking. “I wish I could say I’m surprised by your limited understanding of Pelark, but given that he focuses on the same themes as Donur —“

  “Who focuses on the same themes as Lotia, who focuses on the same things as Gelar. Tell me, has any Cardassian poet had an original idea or is that a foreign concept where you are?” Julian turns on his heel, grinning in spite of himself as he lets himself fall back into old familiar patterns. He glides across the room, watching as Garak’s eyes flash with a challenge he’s never been able to resist. 

  Julian licks his lips a little in anticipation when Garak rolls his eyes, letting out a low huff. Then he smiles like a cat, eyes glowing in the low light of their quarters. He leans in at the same time that Julian does, only a few centimeters left between them. “Yes, because Terran poets are so much better. Tell me, did everyone just agree that love should be a selfish, tortuous thing after Petrarch or is that maudlin quality just natural to your people?” 

  “If you had finished the Divine Comedy, you would know that Petrarch’s views on love are more complex than you’re giving them credit for.” Julian reminds him as he shakes his head, trying to hide the smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. Julian remembers the hours they spent arguing over the first few sections, starting at the replimat and carrying over when they met for dinner the next night at Quark’s. It was early days, when Garak still found Julian bright and new, before Julian became humble enough to be afraid of him. He misses those days.  

  Garak sniffs, eyes lighting up brightly as he reaches a hand up so it ghosts across his shoulder. “When he wasn’t even arguing for good men and women in hell merely for their affections or because they did the right thing for their country, only to be condemned as traitors? I couldn’t believe you presented me such a mockery of justice.” 

  “At least it’s wasn’t boring and acknowledged the possibility that people could have sex.” Julian drawls the last word as slowly as possible, wiggling his eyebrows as he leans back against the frame of the bunk bed. Garak gives him a flat look, but he leans in and traps Julian against the metal all the same. 

  Garak’s breath is cool where it brushes across his lips, the only warmth in the Defiant coming from his gaze. But that’s enough for Julian, to watch those eyes glow with something like fondness, voice playful. Even if it’s just Garak pretending, that could be enough. “Is that the issue then? Cardassian books are too circumspect for someone like you, who needs everything spelled out for them?”

  “Not everything, Garak. Just the things that matter.” Julian whispers softly, closing his eyes until the cool air stops brushing against his mouth and is replaced with something else. They get a little further into the Inferno that night.

  Julian watches Sisko embrace Jake, their eyes shining with a warmth he’s confident his parents have never shown him. Jadzia embraces Worf, her eyes sparkling as she takes him by the hand, his own gaze soft and tender and— no one has ever looked at him like that either.  Palis tried, but Julian never let her close enough for that. He is 32 years old and no one has ever loved him. 

  Julian shakes his head and pushes the thought down. It’s fine. More importantly it’s right. He swallows down the bile in his throat and splits his time three ways between his work, Miles, and whatever comfort he can offer a grieving Garak. It’s after one such night with Miles that he finds himself sitting alone at Quark’s, nursing a drink and trying to pretend he doesn’t mind. 

  “So you’re back from your little make believe war with Chief O’Brien.” Garak’s voice slithers into his ear, steps so silent not even Julian’s advanced hearing picked up on it. Once he would’ve started at his words, but this time Julian simply tilts his head back to give him a tired smile. 

  “There’s no need to be jealous, Garak. You could have joined us if you wanted to.” 

  “Trust me, jealousy is far from what I’m feeling.” Garak promises him in a lilting voice, sliding onto the stool next time. Garak leans in so they’re close, his breath cool against his cheek. “I’m just confused about what an intelligent man like yourself gets out of pretending to lose a war when he’s doing it so splendidly in real life.”

  Julian’s lips twist playfully, sliding a hand out so that his palm brushes against the side of Garak’s thumb. “I don’t know, Garak. What are you doing wasting your time with a man foolish enough to do that?” 

  “Hoping I might be able to help edify that poor soul.” Garak presses his hand against his chest where the Cardassian heart would be — slightly closer to the center of the chest cavity than its human counterpart — and lets out a low sigh. 

  Julian licks his lips a little before he can stop himself, closing his eyes and letting hope spread through him. It’s a dangerous emotion. He’s known that for months now. But he can’t help it, some of that slowly dying optimism blooming in his chest. Garak makes him want to be the man he was when he first got here. “So you believe he can be saved? Why Garak, that almost sounded hopeful.” 

  “Not hopeful, Doctor, pragmatic. Silver linings must be crafted, not simply found.” Garak clicks his tongue at him, gaze sharp as he takes a sip of his kanar. 

  Julian grins at him, shaking his head and upping the laughter that reaches his eyes. Julian’s not sure how much he likes the idea of Garak of building a silver lining into him, of Garak trying to change him into something else or at least the illusion of it. 

  Julian isn’t naive. He knows when Garak looks at him he sees the same thing that his parents did. Someone who isn’t good enough as is, who needs to be polished and finished until he’s shiny and new and worth the time and energy they’ve put into him. Julian can’t help wondering why he’s never enough as he is, and tries to swallow the thought down with a drink.  

  All Julian wants to do after the augments leave is to hide in his room for several hours. But he promised Garak lunch, and he’s not willing to let things lapse so soon after they became real friends again. 

  Garak slides into the chair across from him, setting his tray down with a clink that somehow feels like the only sound in the entire replimat. Garak has yet to say a word to him, simply smirking slightly as his eyes flicker with amusement. None of this bodes well for Julian. He swallows tightly, raising an eyebrow as he gives Garak a pointed look. He’s willing to put up with a lot from Garak, but silence isn’t one of them. Not when language has shaped their entire relationship, every pleasure and every hurt in syntax.

  Garak leans in so their hands almost, but don’t, quite brush. His expression grows sharper by the second and Julian can feel the knots in his stomach starting to become inflamed in acid. “You didn’t introduce me to them.”

  “Introduce you to whom?” Julian keeps his voice light as he stirs his spoon around in a clockwise pattern, watching the motions warily. Julian can feel Garak staring at him, gaze knowing in a way that’s far too dangerous for a man like him. Julian meets his gaze with a small smile, tilting his head to the right and trying to look innocent in a way he never got the chance to be. Maybe if he plays coy, Garak will let it go with a smile and they can talk about something that doesn’t make Julian feel seconds from vomiting. 

  “Your new friends who are like you.” Garak smiles flintily, his curiosity apparently stronger than his mercy. Julian gives him a flat look, mouth pressed into a thin line. Garak holds up one hand, his palm facing Julian and his smile just the right amount of sheepish. “Apologies, my dear Doctor. Better than you.”

  Julian shakes his head, grinning even as he feels his stomach twist sharply. Of course. Julian wasn’t good enough for his parents as a human, and now he’s not good enough for the other augments. And of course Garak delights in seeing him taken down a peg, in seeing the uncertainty in his gaze. He’s always encouraging him to find grey linings wherever he can, and where better than in himself? Still, Julian smiles stiffly and tries to play the game. “In some ways yes, in other ways I’d argue I’m the luckier one.”

  “I didn’t mention anything about luck, my dear. Though I can see why you like the concept, given that your whole life has benefited from it.” Garak’s grinning now, sharp and challenging and reminding Julian quite strongly of a predator. Julian has no idea when he became so pathetic that he turned into the prey. Julian knows Cardassians appreciate through bickering and he’s learned to adjust, but at the end of the day he’ll always be … whatever he qualifies as. And sometimes Garak’s barbs wound more than he’s willing to admit.

  Julian rolls his eyes, letting some of his hurt show in his words. Better Garak think he’s offended by his lack of sensitivity than his own failings. “Yes, because I was so lucky to have been experimented on as a child.”

  “That’s not what I meant, my dear.” Garak assures him, voice airy and just a touch offended. But he presses his hand against Julian’s, their fingers almost but not quite entwining. The contrasting reactions leaves Julian unsure of his footing. “But as unfortunate as the decision your parents made might have been, it still shaped you into the person you are now. If you hadn’t been augmented, you never would have had the talent or the accomplishments to be where you are now.” 

  Julian shakes his head, letting out a bitter laugh that he quickly swallows with a bemused smile. Julian pulls his hand back and pretends it’s to take another bite of his soup, not quite meeting Garak’s eyes. He doesn’t want to see what he put there. “Actually I would, since the only reason I’m sitting here is because Miles and Captain Sisko stood up for me, and God knows how hard I worked to get both of them to like me.”

  “Yes, certainly your social graces weren’t touched by the doctors on Adigeon Prime.” Garak leans in as he speaks, until Julian’s forced to look up. Those eyes bore into him like they can see every secret, every insecurity and weakness in Julian. He’s being judged and found wanting again , not the silver lining Garak needed. And God, what is so wrong with him that he can never measure up, never be what anyone wants or needs? 

  “Thank you, Garak. I always like when you acknowledge all my hard work.” Julian mutters gingerly as he takes another bite of soup, trying to swallow it down with the bile building in the back of his throat. Just because he loves Garak doesn’t mean Garak’s obliged to love him back. If Garak wishes Julian were different, he can’t blame him. So does he.

  Julian avoids Garak for two weeks after their argument about his augmentation (or lack thereof), finding excuse after excuse to cancel their lunches and planned meetings until even he runs out of them. Julian used to be better at this, or maybe Garak just cared less about seeing him then. The idea makes Julian smile to himself, trying to hide it with his spoon so Garak can’t see the spark behind his eyes. He doesn’t want to risk it being put out just yet. Either way he finds himself in the replimat at their usual table, drumming his fingers against the smooth white table. 

  He swallows tightly and finally looks up at Garak, whose been watching him wordlessly since they sat down. Julian grins more openly this time, wagging one finger in the air as he glances at the padd between them. Things really were getting dire when even Garak became predictable. “Preloc again, Garak? Your choices are getting more and more predictable.”

  “I keep thinking that maybe if I give you enough examples, you’ll realize what a truly extraordinary writer he was.” Garak unfolds his napkin as he speaks, voice smooth and easy and more than a bit chiding. Julian’s always wondered what it says about him that he loves when Garak takes that tone with him, dominant and protective and touch condescending. As though Julian needs to be taught, as though Julian’s ever had the luxury of needing to be taught. 

  “He was extraordinarily wordy, I’ll give him that much.” Julian murmurs as he takes another sip of his tea. He watches in satisfaction as Garak’s eyes light up, that spark that’s always made Julian feel warm in a way nothing else ever has. He does love a good debate.

  Garak shakes his head slowly, expression grim despite the way his gaze danced between them like fairy lights. His voice is just as lilting. “Whereas Hemingway was sparse in his language to the point of being inscrutable at times, and almost all of the narrators in his short stories were the same.”

  “You think so?” Julian doesn’t bother to hide his delight at that, grin just a touch too wide. He’d been sure that Garak would hate Hemingway even more than Julian did Preloc. Hemingway’s world is the type Garak hates the most, self-absorbed men incapable of loving the state or themselves. Julian wonders -- but then he decides not to let himself wonder.

  “Yes, ridiculously maudlin men who took out their own hurt feelings on the people who care for them.” Garak’s voice is cold when he speaks, gaze suddenly feeling with disdain as he looks past Julian and outward to worlds Julian can’t see and Garak won’t share with him. Still, Julian can’t help but wonder if a little of it is directed towards Tain or Mila or himself. The worst wounds are often the smallest, after all. “Though why any of them are wasting so much time on their petty problems when they should be rebuilding from the war is beyond me.” 

  “Pain can be consuming, I think you’d remember that from your incident with the wire.” Julian reminds himself before he can stop himself, voice clipped. Yes, the tiny wounds that still linger, words more cutting than any knife. Julian shakes his head, closing his eyes as he takes a shaky breath. He really is a child sometimes. Julian remembers Garak’s expression that night, the naked desperation and hurt as he found himself with nothing except a sanctimonious doctor who had everything without trying. Julian would have hated himself too. His gaze softens, one hand reaching out to squeeze Garak’s thoughtlessly. “Certainly you had more reason than Hemingway and his men.” 

  Garak glances down at their hands and raises an eye ridge. For a moment Julian swears he sees a touch of uncertainty there. But it’s gone as quickly as Garak’s hand, Julian’s palm left bereft on the table. “Don’t be kind, Doctor. It doesn’t suit you.” 

  Julian swallows at his words, at the way Garak won’t meet his eyes. Kindness used to be something he was capable of, but maybe life has stolen that from him as well. Another bit of silver turned to shrapnel. “Maybe not.”

  They turn back to Preloc and Hemingway after that, the past buried under playful barbs and smiles that feel stranger by the moment.

  Julian hears the ping of his door and doesn’t have to look up to guess who’s there. It’s only been a few days since he and Garak had lunch, but it feels like a lifetime ago in some ways. That was before Sloan interrogated Julian and made him doubt his own mind. It’s the only part of himself Julian’s ever been able to trust, each memory carefully constructed and compartmentalized for when he needs them. There has never been room for doubts. Now even that certainty has been taken away from him. Any illusions he had about the Federation or himself have been thoroughly shattered, and now he’s left to pick up the pieces of both to try and figure out what to make of them.

  He’s not surprised that Garak would want to watch him try. The real question is if he’s here to help or to gloat about it all. “Doctor, the Captain told me it had been several hours since you left your quarters.”

  “Yes, I’m doing research, if you must know.” Julian keeps his tone clipped and doesn’t bother to look up from his padd. Numbers are at least something he can trust. He feels the couch dip down under Garak’s weight and feels a rush of both annoyance and relief go through him. 

  Garak leans in until Julian finally looks up at him, swallowing tightly when he sees the look in the other man’s eyes. It’s not quite pity. Julian has no idea if pity would be better or worse, but it would certainly be easier to handle than what he sees now. No, this time it’s a mixture of grudging respect and something sympathetic, like Garak has been exactly where he is now before. The only difference is that Garak was a child, not an arrogant fool. “Into Section 31?” 

  “So you heard. What am I saying, of course you did.” Julian sighs as he leans back into the couch, sinking into the pillows so their shoulders brush against each other. For a moment Garak brushes a thumb against his shoulder blades, touch almost unbearably gentle. Then he pulls away with a hint of a smile, whatever softness was there vanishing in the mist. Garak watches him wordlessly, body still and expression blank. Julian shrugs, his laugh coming out more bitter than he intended. “I figure I should know a bit of their history considering I’ve joined their ranks.”

  The air in the room changes abruptly, Garak twisting around so they’re eye to eye. There is no warmth left in them. “Excuse me?” 

  “So you hadn’t heard everything then. Captain Sisko wants me to be our man on the inside.” Julian keeps his voice as light as possible, grinning as though this is all just a joke, another holoprogram for Julian to stumble through. Garak stares at him coolly as he shifts forward, mouth pressing into a thin line. There’s a sharpness to his frame, a change in the way he holds his body that suddenly makes him seem bulkier, stronger. A predator more than a lover, though Julian doubts he needs any of that strength to take someone apart piece by piece. 

  “And you agreed? What am I saying, of course you did. Playing spy has always been your fantasy. I thought the captain had more sense.” Garak spits out each word like it’s poison. He slides to his feet as he speaks, pacing the small space of Julian’s couch. Somehow Garak’s movements seem less nervous and more like an interrogation, and Julian’s had quite enough of those for one lifetime. 

  “I’m not playing at anything, Garak. Section 31 tried to convince me I was losing my mind as a test. God knows what they’re willing to do when they’re serious.” Julian snaps as he crosses his arms, scowling and hoping he doesn’t look like a petulant child. This isn’t a matter of pride or a game. Not anymore. Julian can’t allow Section 31 to carry on as they are, destroying lives and poisoning everything the Federation stands for. They need to be stopped, and if it falls to Julian to do it, then he’ll do what’s necessary.  

  “And you want to become the type of man who does those things?” Garak’s words cut through his thoughts like a knife. Julian glances up at him, trembling slightly as he feels anger and fear mix in his chest, burning through him and turning to ash in his mouth.  

  “Of course not, Garak. I want to dismantle them from the inside before they can do any more damage.” Julian can hear his voice shaking, sounding far away even to his own his ears. He has no idea if he sounds angry or terrified. He’s not sure it matters. He feels like everything is off suddenly, blurriness at the edge of the room and ringing in his ears and Garak staring at him like he’s never seen him before.

  “And you’re really naive enough to think you wouldn’t have to become the type of man who would do those things to defeat them? That you wouldn’t start to justify more and more for the greater good?” Garak chides coldly, and he looks as furious as he did when the wire was setting off sparks across his mind. Julian swallows tightly as he melts more into the cushions, once again seen and found wanting. Garak looks at him and sees Sloan, sees Khan, sees all the men Julian is terrified of becoming.  “Why Doctor, I’m disappointed in you.”

  Julian’s voice sounds cold this time, body working on autopilot as he stands up, spine straight and gaze empty. “Then maybe you should go.” 

  And Garak does.

  Julian feels on edge every time he sees Garak, the tension between them palatable. There are times the sparks between them feel beautiful and ephemeral, and other times Julian’s sure he can feel them burning his skin.

  Garak wont stop pushing him, about his augmentations, about Section 31, about the type of man he ought to be. As though Garak has any right to decide what type of man he should be. Because of course the man he is isn’t good enough, won’t ever be good enough. There’s always something that needs to be fixed, something about him too broken and wrong to be right for anyone. All Julian wants is for someone to like him as he is, to see him and not find something that needs to be corrected before he’s good enough to love. 

  That’s when Julian meets Ezri.

Chapter Text

Garak walks into the infirmary, for once not receiving any cold glares or curious stares from the nurses there. It’s a clear sign of just how bad things must be, that he’s allowed free reign of the place. He and Julian have been at … not quite at odds, but not quite the same page since his little adventure with Section 31, Julian resisting yet another challenge to his carefully constructed morality. 

 None of that matters so much now though. Not when there’s blood in the air and no one to answer for it. 

  No one stops Garak from pushing his way through into the surgical bay. The room feels even more sterile than usual, the room empty of any color save one thin line of red. “My dear doctor, I thought I might find you here.” 

 For a moment Julian doesn’t move, body still as though he doesn’t even realize Garak is there. Then he slowly undoes his cap, hair unruly and marring the pristine image of the lab. Julian turns to face him, eyes red-rimmed and hands shaking, in sharp contrast to the evenness of his voice. “I take it you heard about Jadzia.”

  “Should I assume that you’re finding ways to blame yourself for this?” Garak asks without preamble as he crosses the room until he’s standing by Julian’s side. He slides an arm across his shoulder, wrapping it around to slowly start undoing his surgical uniform. Julian doesn’t react, staring blankly at the wall in front of him while his hands continue to shake. 

 “It is my fault, so I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t.” Julian’s voice comes out clipped and harsh, eyes flashing for a second. Garak bites back a smile, relief spreading through him. Anger, even if was at himself, seemed better than numbness to Garak. Julian slowly rise from his chair, pacing back and forth with increasingly hurried steps. 

  Garak leans over and grabs Julian’s shoulders gently, waiting until the other man stills. He slowly starts undoing the buttons of his hacker, Julian watching him with dull eyes. Julian shrugs the top half of his surgical suit off, letting it hang loosely from his waist. Garak’s voice is even when he speaks. “I know you’ve already considered every possible option, every alternative choice you could have made.”

  Julian lets out a mirthless laugh, tilting his head back until they’re no longer looking each other in the eye. “Of course. There were 257.56 different choices I could have made.” 

  “And how many of those allow Dax and Jadzia both to live?” Garak keeps his voice steady, staring until Julian finally meets his gaze again. Julian swallows a few times, a slight hitch in his breath as though he might start crying. He doesn’t though, taking a few deep breaths and closing his eyes.

  “3.48, give or take a small margin of error.” Julian gives the answer almost too quickly, voice taking on a note of harshness. His eyes flash again, angling himself towards Garak so there are only a few inches between them. He can’t tell if Julian is going to try to kiss him or punch him. Garak supposes whichever makes him feel better. 

  “And the likelihood that those would have worked?” Garak’s voice is sharp this time, the grip on Julian’s shoulders growing more firm. Garak doesn’t know what Julian needs, but he knows what he can offer. 

  Julian rises to the challenge, shoulders straightening as his voice takes on a different note. The grief practically radiating off of him is no less strong, but the emptiness has been replaced by something else, something capable of fighting. “8.27% typically.” 

  “Then you know that, given the odds, you made the best choice available for both Jadzia and Dax. You have to live with it.” Garak’s voice is softer this time as he pulls Julian closer to him again. For a second Julian merely stares at him, eyes wet and mouth shaking. Then there’s a thin body pressing against his, Julian’s face pressed into the crook of his shoulder. 

  Garak cradles him in his arms. They do not leave the infirmary for a very long time. 

  Julian doesn’t have the energy or the heart to keep avoiding Garak. Maybe he’s not good enough for him, maybe Garak will always want to change him or maybe he’ll never be good for him but — Julian thinks maybe they can be good for each other for right now, and maybe that’s enough. 

  Maybe taking care of each other while they’re both here matters more than a future Julian can’t quite see. 

 So when Garak doesn’t show up for their new weekly dinner date, Julian can’t help but feel concerned. Julian knows he shouldn’t keep tabs on his friends, but it’s so easy for him to just check on his tricorder. And Garak thinks he wouldn’t be a good section 31 agent. 

  Julian finds Garak in his quarters. Stranger and stranger, but given that there was no other sign of life there, Garak was at least safe from attempted assault or murder or god knows what else. Julian still makes Miles transport him there directly, not able to push down the sense of dread building in the pit of his stomach. Garak is far too considerate to be this late unless something is wrong. 

  Julian pings the door and is allowed in without any response, the room so dark he almost misses Garak’s huddled form in the corner. Julian slowly approaches him, carefully moderating his breathing. He’s been here with Garak before. Julian kneels down when he gets close enough, so they’re eye to eye. Garak’s blue ones are harsh and panicked, his breath coming out too fast. “Garak, are you all right?”

  “Remember when the light went out?” Garak asks softly, expression tight and gaze searching. He somehow seems both older and younger than he ever has before. Julian takes his hand between his own, putting pressure on the scales along his wrists. He breaths in and out slowly, waiting until Garak starts to mimic him before he thinks about trying to talk again.  

  “Yes, yes I do.” Julian murmurs softly as he brushes one hand through Garak’s hair, the other still squeezing his right in the same pattern as his breathing. He doesn’t stop until they’re on the same rhythm, some of the tension in the room from earlier dissipating. He smiles softly at Garak, not letting go of his hand as they rose together from the floor. “Here, we can go to my quarters. The living room is larger than yours.”

  “Yes, your lack of aesthetics finally comes in handy.” Garak gives him a shaky smile as he nods his approval, squeezing Julian’s own back. Julian transports them there without waiting, expression carefully gentle as he leads him toward the couch. He sits him down and leans over at the same time he kneels down, trying to give Garak enough space. 

  “Here. Keep breathing.” Julian’s voice is almost a whisper as he leans over Garak, squeezing his shoulder softly. His thumb presses against a scale  at the edge of his neck, sharp on the edges and soft on the inside. Garak gives him a wan smile and Julian returns it warmly. “Would you like some tea?”

  “Yes, yes, thank you.” Garak nods quickly, not meeting his gaze as his breathing finally evens out fully and his color returns to normal. Julian slowly lets go of his shoulder, feeling a sense of loss that’s utterly ridiculous. He walks over to the replicator and makes two cups of tea, three sugars for him and a touch of Ragnar milk for Garak. 

  Julian turns and hurries back to Garak, this time sitting down close to Garak. Their legs brush together as Julian presses the cup into Garak’s waiting hand. It all feels right, sweet and domestic and so many other things Julian’s not allowed to want for himself. But he wants them for Garak. “Here.” 

  Garak gives him a pained smile before he takes a few sips of tea, savoring the steam rising off of the mug and spreading across his face. Julian can’t help grinning a bit smugly. It’s taken him years to get the temperature right.   “I’m all right now, doctor. I’m sorry —“

  “Would you like to stay the night? I have an old holo movie I’ve been meaning to watch.” Julian cut him off before he can stop himself, gaze hopeful and reassuring at the same time. Garak doesn’t need to apologize for his fears nor for his emotions. Not with Julian. He can only hope Garak feels the same. 

  “Yes, that sounds delightful, my dear doctor.” Garak leans back, shoulders relaxing a fraction as his arm snakes its way around Julian’s shoulders. Julian leans into the touch, sipping at his tea and trying to think of the longest film he owns.  

  Garak swallows down a curse when he sees Julian standing in the doorway of his shop, his thin frame somehow taking up far too much space. Garak feels as though he’s let the doctor down, taken the comfort and support he offered and turned it into something sour. He’s no better than he was a few weeks ago, his attacks coming more and more frequently with each day the war continues. 

  Garak should be stronger than that. He needs to be stronger, for Cardassia and for himself. And Julian and his warm smiles and gentle understanding are a weakness Garak can’t afford right now. Not until things are right. 

  So he swallows down both his longing and the bile in his throat when Julian comes to stand by his side, grinning far too brightly to be entirely natural. He wonders if the doctor’s ever tried to practice the subtlety he claims makes Terran novels so superior to Cardasissn epics. “Doctor, what are you doing here? Today isn’t our usual lunch date.”

  “I heard about what happened the other day, Garak.” Julian’s voice is almost painfully kind as he lays his palms flat against the counter. He’s the image of discretion, and somehow Garak finds that as annoying as he finds everything else lately. He has no interest in being Julian’s patient when he’s meant to be his friend. 

  “You mean when I humiliated myself in front of the entire promenade? How wonderful to have yet another person bring that up.” Garak snaps before he can stop himself, voice harsh enough to make most people flinch. 

  To his credit, Julian simply raises an eyebrow, gaze sharp as he gives Garak a quick once over. Garak’s sure he’s taken in the coloring of each scale and the tightness of each muscle and already determined his exact mental and physical state. Still, Julian gives him a warm smile as if he hadn’t, gaze turning professional and concerned in a way that grates on him. 

  “Has it been getting worse?” Julian furrows his brow as though he doesn’t know full well that it has. He presses his lips together, brow furrowing and having the audacity to look hurt. “I thought —“

  Garak sneers at Julian, taking a step back to give him a look that’s as cold as he feels. The doctor really could be almost unbearable at times. “What, that your offer of tea and sentimental federation entertainment was enough to fix a lifelong trauma reaction?” 

  “No, no, I didn’t think that. But I thought you would come to me — I could — let me help you.” Julian’s look is sweet and pleading in ways he doesn’t deserve or think Julian will be capable of in a few years time. He’ll miss the doctor’s compassion, but it will be better for both of them and for the doctor’s many pet causes. 

 So, while Garak appreciates the doctor’s kindness, he can’t help but press his lips together in disapproval.  It is foolish, selfish even, for Julian to worry about Garak when the Federation is in such a state. Julian’s priorities can be so skewed at times and Garak has no idea how to fix them or protect Julian from them. 

  He’s as much a weakness for Julian as Julian is for him, and Garak won’t let the doctor destroy himself for him. Garak will push him and challenge him and do whatever he can to make Julian grow, but Garak won’t break him. And if that means pushing Julian away until they’re both in a better place?

 That Garak can do with an easy smile and a hand guiding Julian toward the door. “I truly am sorry, my dear doctor, but you need to keep your focus on medicine. The war needs you more in the infirmary than it needs you wasting time on an old spy.” 


  Julian sits down across from him at their usual table in the replimat, brow furrowed and gaze heavy with guilt. Garak expects another story of the doctor’s supposed failures caused by his brilliance. Maybe a romantic one this time; it has been a few weeks since Julian bored him with one of his attempted conquests. 

  But no, the look of guilt is from another source entirely. “I heard that you talked to Ezri. Did it help?”

  “Yes, I have to say the new Dax is quite good at her job. You might go see her. Maybe she could help you as well.” Garak gives him a more genuine smile than the ones he’s been offering the doctor the past few days, gaze apologetic and sympathetic at the same time. They’ve both been struggling since the war started, coming together and apart, shattering and rebuilding time and time again. 

  If Ezri could help him with the dissonance between what’s best for Cardassia’s future and what he’s doing to Cardassia now, maybe she can help Julian with whatever’s left him so off the past year, so alienated from himself, so … not. 

  “Maybe.” Julian sounds dismissive at best, expression suddenly and carefully neutral. There’s a hint of disappointment to his gaze that Garak doesn’t understand, nor does he get the chance to as Julian quickly changes the subject to Kardassi elegy. 

  For once he doesn’t push. 

  Despite what some people might think about him, Julian is capable of swallowing his pride sometimes. And certainly he’s more than able when it comes to his friends’ well-being. Ezri saved Garak, not him, and he’s utterly grateful to her for that and a million other things. 

  He’d been terrified about meeting the new Dax, at having to face Jadzia’s replacement and be reminded every moment of the woman he failed to save. But Julian can’t help but like Ezri, with her warmth and tenderness. It’s been a long time since someone looked at him like that, without any expectations. 

  So Julian finds himself meeting her for breakfast everyday, typically feeling a sense of relief each time he sees her bright smile across the room. His wave is a bit more stilted today though, mind stuck on a familiar subject. 

  “Ezri, I wanted to thank you.” Julian tells her as he sits down, smiling warmly as he hands her a cup of tea. It’s hardly thanks enough, but it’s what he can offer. “For helping Garak.”

  Ezri shakes her head, gaze softening as she reaches a hand out to brush against his own. He glances down at them, the way her small one fits over his wrist, the gentleness of her touch. Julian wonders— and then he tells himself not to wonder. Julian’s here to thank her, not to try and get her to save him too. “You don’t need to thank me for that Julian. I’m a counselor, remember?”

  “Yes, but you helped him when I failed to … hell, I didn’t even realize how bad things had gotten.” Julian closes his eyes at the admission, letting out a harsh breath. Some doctor he was, some friend, so caught up in his own insecurities and problems that he hadn’t even noticed how much Garak was suffering. God, Julian even thought he’d helped him. 

  Ezri pulls her hand back slowly, expression shifting as her gaze softens. Julian knows this look; he’s given it to enough patients before. He wonders if they hate it as much as he does. “Julian, you can't blame yourself. You’re not —“

  “Sensitive? Thoughtful? Aware of anyone’s feelings but my own?” Julian snaps before he can stop himself, words coming out in a blistering staccato. He’s tried to change those things, mimicked Jadzia and the Captain and even Garak, trying to build some level of emotional intelligence. But it hasn’t worked. He’s no more thoughtful, no better— which he’s certainly proving right now. Julian gives Ezri a brittle smile. “I’m sorry.” 

  “Julian, none of that is what I was going to say.” Ezri’s voice is even, pleasant, as though Julian isn’t being a terrible friend. Ezri gazes at him with knowing eyes, frowning a bit in a way that reminds him painfully of Jadzia. Julian wonders if that’s Dax or just his own mind tricking him. “This isn’t like you.” 

  Julian lets out a bitter laugh that he knows is a touch too loud, the sound bouncing off the walls. He can’t help it though, shocked at how little Dax understood him, how little of the real him she saw underneath his mask. He’s a much better actor than he ever thought. “Oh, it’s exactly like me, Ezri. Brilliant at everything, but still not good enough for it to matter. Still not good enough that I don’t need to be fixed.” 

  “Julian, if Garak makes you feel that way, I’m not sure this … relationship is good for you.” Ezri keeps her voice even and careful, though her eyes are wide and concerned as she reaches a hand out toward him. She’s a good friend, a good person, and Julian finds himself leaning on her even as jealousy spikes in his chest. 

  Julian knows it isn’t fair, anymore than what he’s saying now isn’t. Julian gives her a stiff smile as his body uncoils, the fight going out of him. Julian isn’t so stupid as to not know the truth. The issue isn’t Ezri or Garak. The issue has always been the same. “Garak doesn’t make me feel that way, Ezri.”

  “Okay.” Ezri whispers as she meets his gaze, her own steady in a way that makes Julian think this won’t be the last time they talk about this. Julian only hopes Ezri understands him better than he does.  

  Garak smiles, half fond and half frustrated, as he catches Julian giving him another quick once over. As though the state of his health has changed in the last five minutes. Julian’s concern about his health after his unfortunate bouts of claustrophobia had been sweet at first. Then adorable, if a bit unnecessary. But now, nearly two weeks after the fact, they’re becoming tiresome. Garak misses Julian looking at him as a friend rather than a patient. 

  So Garak lies a hand over Julian’s wrist, squeezing it softly as he gives him a careful smile. “Doctor, not that I don’t appreciate your concern, but people might start talking if you don’t stop treating me like a helpless child.”

  “I’d hardly argue about 5th century Risian philosophy with a child, Elim.” Julian teases him, a hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his lips. Garak can’t help returning the expression, raising an eye ridge curiously. It’s been a long time since he’s seen a genuine smile from Julian, maybe since his augmentation was first revealed and their friendship entered this strange new pattern. Garak’s still not sure if it’s better or worse for them. 

  “Please, Doctor, you’re practically cutting my food for me.” Garak chides warmly, wagging a finger toward Julian and speaking with just a touch more flourish than before. Julian grins fully this time, the skin around his eyes crinkling and a touch of delight entering his gaze. Garak has missed this Julian, who took delight in their conversations, so enthusiastic and excitable and alive. 

  Julian leans over so their hands almost but don’t quite brush, a hint of mischief coming into his gaze. His voice takes on an amused righteousness, the kind meant to needle lovingly rather than harshly. “Well forgive me for being worried about one of my dearest friends.” 

  “Oh, you’re well forgiven, Doctor.” Garak grins sharply, laying his hand over Julian’s so the scales along his wrist brush against the softer skin of his friend’s palm. Julian’s eyes widen almost comically for a moment and Garak thinks he’s made a tactical error. But Julian doesn’t pull his hand away, face lighting up instead. 

  Julian smirks a bit, raising one eyebrow as he leans forward so he has to press his elbows press against the table to keep his balance. Julian’s gaze is utterly thrilled, two fingers drumming against the table in a rhythm Garak finds strangely pleasant despite its inherent dissonance.  “Am I? You’re not usually so merciful.”

  “Are you trying to insult me?” Garak feigns hurt, pressing his free hand against his chest. Garak shakes his head in dismay as he squeezes Julian’s hand, glancing up at him coyly. He can see Julian biting back laughter. “Consider yourself an exception, then.”

 “And why am I an exception, Garak?” Julian drops his voice half an octave, eyes flashing as he squeezes Garak’s hand back. It’s as much a challenge as it as an invitation, and oh, but he does like the dear doctor sometimes. 

  “Because you’re a work in progress.” Garak intones each word with a sense of meaning, expecting Julian to delight in trying to solve the puzzle he’s offered him. Instead Julian’s hand goes limp in his, any desire or joy in his gaze suddenly cold and ashen. 

  Julian pulls his hand back just a touch too quickly, grabbing his tea in a way far too casual to be natural. Julian’s expression is neutral, voice clipped and far away. “Really, Garak? I consider myself quite complete.” 

  “Oh, I hope not my dear.” Garak tries to assure him with a shaky smile. Julian simply goes even more still, the rest of lunch passed in a near unnatural silence. He still doesn’t think Julian is finished, no, but he’s starting to worry his ability to bridge the gap between them might be. 

  Julian knows he reacted childishly, cruelly even, to Garak’s teasing about his not being ‘finished’. Julian apologizes in new invitations to lunch and dinner and boxes of Delvian chocolates, ignoring Garak’s bemused looks. 

  Still, Julian can’t get the words out of his mind. He supposes that’s not a surprise; he hasn’t been able to escape them since he was six years old. They just sound worse coming from Garak somehow, more cutting. Julian needs to know if it was a joke, or if Garak really looked at him and found him just as wanting as everyone else did. 

  So he invites him to lunch, smiling at him over tarkalean tea. “What did you mean, Garak?” 

  “Mean about what, my dear doctor? You’ll have to be more specific.” Garak blinks a few times, as though he has no idea what Julian’s talking about, gaze far too innocent to be real. Garak takes a sip of his tea, eyes sparkling over his cup, something almost like faith in his gaze. Julian just hopes he doesn’t disappoint. 

  “My being a work in progress.” Julian keeps his voice crisp and light as he takes a sip of his own tea. Maybe this will go better if he treats it more like a game than an indictment. 

  Garak raises an eye ridge, tilting his head to the right as he takes on an air of bemusement.  Julian has known him long enough now to know the twist of his lips means he’s hiding a smile and wants Julian to see it. Garak’s voice takes on a chiding quality that Julian normally likes, but now finds almost terrifying. “I thought that was self-explanatory. You’re not finished yet. You still have parts of yourself you need to develop, growing to do.” 

  “I’m not a child, Garak.” Julian can hear a touch of defensiveness in his voice, irritation starting to rise in his chest. Better than the alternatives, he supposes. 

  “No, you’re most certainly not.” Garak smiles at him and gives him a quick once over, a touch of amused lust in his gaze. It’s quickly replaced with something more thoughtful, Garak’s expression careful and measuring. He nods as though satisfied, but Julian can tell by the press of his lips that he’s anything but. “That doesn’t mean you have to be finished either though, and certainly you’re not anywhere near it.” 

  Julian can feel the irritation replaced with something else he doesn’t understand, a burning deep in the pit of his stomach that slowly spreads into his veins. Julian can feel his voice start to shake and tries to get in under control. He hopes Garak doesn’t see the ways his eyes flash. “I’m afraid you’re wrong about that, my dear tailor.”

  “Am I? Or are you afraid that I’m right?” There’s a harshness to Garak’s voice, a curiosity with far too much emotion behind it for Julian. Julian’s terrified that Garak is right, that he’s unfinished, not good enough, that he’ll never be good enough no matter how many alterations he makes to himself. Or worse, that he’ll simply become worse and worse until he’s the Section 31 agent Garak said he could become, cruel and even more inhuman.  

  “Well luckily for me you’re not right this time, Garak. Just because you’re not happy with who I turned out to be doesn’t mean I’m a work in project or whatever other demeaning term you want to use about me.” Julian can feel his voice rising with each word. There’s a band of heat pressing tighter and tighter around his forehead until his ears burned and he could feel the pricking of tears behind his eyes. 

  It doesn’t matter. None of it matters, because Julian doesn’t matter, not yet, not until he’s perfect. 

  And he never is, he’s never good enough for anyone. Always an unfinished project for someone new to try and complete until they get bored and give up on him. His parents, Palis, Sloan,  Dax and Miles in their own way — just once Julian wants someone to love him as he is, without trying to change him or requiring him to play a role. But no one ever does. It’s not fair to expect Garak to be the exception. 

  Garak reaches a hand out toward him, gaze tight and worried and that makes Julian’s stomach curl. He’s supposed to be the doctor, to take care of people, and all he can do is worry and terrify them. Some healer he is. “Doctor I don’t mean —“

  “What, that I’m not good enough again? That I’m failing to live up to the most basic of expectations? That I could really be worth something, if I just was a little more like how you wanted me to be instead of who I am?” Julian cuts Garak off, aware that he’s on the verge of crying and not able to find it in himself to care. He can feel the tears hot against his cheek, the trembling in his shoulders, the way his breath is coming out too quickly for him to control.  

  And Garak, Garak stares at him blankly, hands laid flat on the table as though Julian’s not having a tantrum in the middle of the replimat. Of course. It’s still not enough. If Julian isn’t a creature worth loving, he’s not one worth hating either. Not enough for either, unfinished and unwanted. He can’t even be the monster everyone fears him becoming. 

  Julian leaves the replimat with a quick goodbye and an excuse about a surgery that sounds painfully hollow. Garak is kind enough to pretend he believes it and that might sting most of all. 

  Garak can admit when he’s out of his depth and certainly he finds himself far from it here. Understanding Julian and his moods used to be easy for Garak, every emotion the Doctor had flitting across his face. That hasn’t changed, but now Garak finds it difficult to find the source of those feelings, hidden beneath layers neither of them have uncovered yet. 

  So he goes to the one person he knows with any expertise on psychology, hoping counselor Dax can help him understand Julian as much as she helped him understand himself. 

  Ezri gives him an welcoming smile when he walks through her door, quickly changing the security settings to turn the logs off even from the most prying of eyes. She turns to him, frowning a bit as she glances down at her chart. “Garak, what brings you here? I didn’t think we had an appointment today.” 

  “No, I fear today I’ve come to talk to you about our mutual friend.” Garak smiles sharply as he crosses the room, taking a seat on the chaise across from her desk. He knows she and Julian have formed a friendship of sorts, sharing breakfasts and the occasional book. 

  Garak can’t pretend he hasn’t felt jealous or threatened by that. Ezri is easier to love than him, soft and inviting, fitting more easily into the morals and world Julian was raised in than Garak ever will. But she doesn’t challenge him, doesn’t push Julian or make him laugh the way Garak has. He holds onto to that and the hope that Dax, no matter how new she is, is smart enough to realize what a disaster she and Julian would be. 

  “Our mutual friend?” Ezri raises an eyebrow, tilting her head a little as she takes a sip of her tea. She nods for him to continue, gaze carefully neutral. Garak’s always amazed at how different she is at work from the awkward young woman he sees on the promenade. 

  “The good doctor.” Garak tells her in a cool voice, confident that she knows exactly who he meant. It’s not as though Garak has many friends here. He swallows a bit, not quite sure how to word his fears and needing to bide his time just a bit more. “Are the two of you involved?”

  Ezri makes a sound halfway between a sigh and a scoff, eyes wide. Apparently that isn’t what she expected him to say. Garak watches as a coy smile comes across her face, Ezri’s eyes lighting up with a sort of relieved amusement that makes him think she’d considered it and decided against it. Garak wonders if she might have gone for it, if things had been a bit different, if he and Julian had been a little less close. “No, Julian and I are just friends, which you already know. Now why are you here, Garak?” 

  “I’m concerned about Julian. Lately it seems everything I say offends him somehow.” Garak admits with a hint of a groan. Garak supposes it’s kinder to say that than to say that Julian started tearing up in the middle of the replimat. 

  Ezri bites her lip, learning in and sliding her hands under her chin as she raises an eyebrow. “It would help if I knew what you said.” 

  “I referred to him as a work in progress.” Garak shrugs his shoulders, trying to keep his voice airy as though this were all some kind of joke, a passing fancy to amuse themselves. Life had been simpler, when that’s all Julian was to him. Before he saw the potential in that pretty package, the layers and layers that Garak doesn’t even think Julian knows are there, not really. And Julian … Julian saw the things Garak wanted and twisted them into something ugly. Yes, a joke would be easier to swallow. “I meant it as a compliment. I wouldn’t bother with him otherwise.”

  “I know you did, but I don’t think that means the same thing for Julian that it does for you.” Ezri nods along as she speaks, gaze filling with an understanding Garak is frustrated to find he doesn’t have. She smiles at him, softly, kindly, and he wishes he could still hate her. “You want someone who challenges you, right?”

  “Every relationship is about growing and learning from one another. When that stops or when one becomes unwilling, the relationship ends.” Garak can’t quite help the defeated quality in his voice. He doesn’t think he’s stopped learning from Julian, stopped seeing ways to grow with him. Garak doesn’t think he ever will. 

  But there’s not much he can do if Julian feels finished, if he’s seen the possibilities of who and what he could be with Garak and decided he doesn’t want any of them. He can’t challenge Julian if he doesn’t want it. 

  “Julian doesn’t want that. He wants you to like him.” The look Ezri gives Garak is sad and unsure, though Garak thinks it’s more of him than of herself. He can’t quite find it in himself to be offended about that. “He’s spent his whole life being told how he needs to change, how he needs to rearrange himself. He wants … he wants acceptance. If you can’t give him that, you need to walk away.” 

  “Thank you, Ezri.” Garak tells her, genuine for once as he closes his eyes. Garak thinks he’s starting to understand how and why he and Julian have been missing each other lately. And that’s all he needs to start putting the pieces together to figure out this latest puzzle. 

  But more than anything, he needs to talk to Julian. 

  Julian doesn’t expect to find Garak at his door at midnight, though in retrospect he’s not really sure why.  It’s hardly the first time.

  “Garak, it’s late and I’m not particularly interested in having another debate with you right now. So if you’ll —“ Julian sighs as Garak pushes past him, sauntering into his living room like he belongs there, one hand ghosting over his replicator. How dare Garak show up so casually, as though the last time they saw each other hadn’t ended with Julian sobbing like a child. he shakes his head, voice dry as he tries to match Garak’s posture. “Just barge right in.”

  “Julian, we need to talk. I fear there’s been a misunderstanding between us.” Garak tells him airily as he replicates two glasses and a bottle of Trillian spring wine. He saunters over to the couch, carefully pouring them each a glass of wine without ever meeting Julian’s increasingly confused gaze. 

  Garak finally meets his gaze as he takes a seat next to Julian on the couch, the blue of his eyes somehow even brighter in the low light of his bedroom. His gaze is searching, open in a way that makes Julian feel both more and less vulnerable than he had in the replimat yesterday. Somehow it’s not as frightening this time. 

  Julian smiles shakily, trying and he’s confident failing to match Garak’s breezy tone. He picks up the glass, stirring his spring wine far too long for it to be casual. “I take it that’s your way of apologizing?”

  “Quite the contrary, if anything I think you should be apologizing to me.” Garak corrects him, his familiar chiding somewhat softened by the fondness in his gaze. Julian scoffs as he rubs his eyes a few times. He supposes Garak has a point— Julian is the one who teared up in the middle of the replimat and then fled. His social etiquette has certainly been worse than Garak’s. Garak gently takes his wrists, pulling his hands away from his face. “I’m here to clarify things.”

  “I’m not sure anything needs clarification, Garak.” Julian keeps his tone even, words short and clipped to keep his desperation from showing in his voice. Julian’s sure an awful lot needs to be clarified, but right now he just wants to stay like this, Garak’s hands wrapped around his and his breath cool against his skin. 

  Garak meets his gaze squarely, steady and confident where Julian feels wavering and confused. “You think I don’t want you.”

  Julian doesn’t mean to laugh at that, too loud and bright and quite literally in Garak’s face. Garak raises an eye ridge in bemusement, but he doesn’t pull back or let go of Julian’s hands, doesn’t pull away at all. Julian finally contains himself, looking up at Garak with a strange  mixture of amusement and sadness. “No, I know you want me, Elim. I have eyes.”

  “Arrogant thing, aren’t you?” Garak snorts as he runs the pad of his thumb against the inside of Julian’s wrist, his skin rough in sharp contrast to his own. Julian swallows a few times when he sees the way Garak is looking at him, thoughtful and careful like Julian is precious, is something worth considering. “Let me rephrase that. You think I don’t love you.”

  “Love? Garak, where is this coming from?” Julian’s voice comes out choked, feeling like he’s getting far too much air and not nearly enough at the same time. Julian really should stop holding Garak’s hands, but he grips them more tightly instead. Julian doesn’t — Garak doesn’t — he can’t — but what if he does?

  Garak squeezes his hands, gaze softening a little. “From deciding we’ve been circling this conversation for long enough, my dear. Now tell me, do you love me?”