Garak and Jadzia walk through the hills, in search of Julian’s cabin. All the signs point to that idyllic place as the retreat he’s created for himself. Somehow, they expected his dream world to be inhabited with all the nightmares he’s seen and experienced in his life, and instead... the sky is blue, the hills are green and overflowing with blossoming flowers, children run in the nearby village, and his house is small but pretty, with smoke coming out of the chimney. So different to the life he’s used to having, so far from the technology and the cold space around the station.
They'd expected the Loretian Rose, the dreaded dream plant of Vega IV, either to create a nightmare world for him or to make him see himself as the greatest doctor, or full of achievements, and instead... he's happy, he's not ambitious, and he's not alone. Everybody in the town talked dearly of the modest man living with his sister and his fiancee just a mile ago, surrounded by nature.
They knock on the door and the sister greets them, and Julian’s mind scrambles to fill in who they are. He doesn’t want to wake up yet, so he’ll find any possible way to make their presence fit the fantasy.
“Jadzia, Garak! I didn’t know you were in town, come in, come in.”
Jadzia smiles at him warmly as she took his arm. "Julian! I think I'm at a disadvantage here, I don't know who this woman is."
She needs him to see the little things that are not real, not logical, or else he'll never wake up. And first of all, he needs him to realize this woman is not from his real life.
The girl pouts dramatically, though her eyes shine with mischief. She’s very petite, but aside from that, she’s incredibly similar to the doctor, with dark eyes and a slightly curled long hair. "Julian! I can't believe you didn't tell your friends about your own sister! What kind of twin are you?"
Julian smiles sheepishly, tilting his head to the right a bit. “Oh! Of course. Amina, this is Jadzia. We met at school, though she left a few years in to join Starfleet. I suppose that was because she was granted a Symbiont. And this is Garak.”
"He's the same scatter brain as ever, isn't he?" Amina smiles lovingly at her brother and grabs his arm playfully, pulling him closer to her -- and away from Garak and Jadzia. "So! do you have a symbiont? I read a lot about them when my brother and I took a short biology course in college."
“Did you? Were you interested in medicine?” Garak asks with a far too pleasant smile. He wonders how Julian will decide he knows him.
"Not really. I decided to follow my passion for tennis, thanks to your advice when I was doubting myself." He smiles at Garak and makes a gesture as if he was hitting a ball with a racket, chuckling almost sheepishly.
Garak wonders how he could have influenced Julian in his fantasy. And towards tennis , of everything he could have done. Garak knows about the doctor's passion for the sport and his fantasies about leaving everything and playing for a living, but he certainly finds it hard to imagine him pursuing it as a career instead of science.
“You’re a professional tennis player.” Garak says this flatly and without any inflection. Julian raises an eyebrow and lets out a small laugh.
“Garak, you know I am. You came to my last match.” Julian shakes his head a bit and takes his arm, not noticing the sudden sharpness in Amina’s eyes. “And I am supposed to be the airhead here?”
"Of course, dear. Yet I was under the impression you'd like to study something else as well, the last time we spoke."
Julian frowns and narrows his gaze for a moment, and then his face lights up. Garak can almost feel his brain rearranging the fantasy to fit this new information. “Oh yes, you mean literature. I am still working on that, I would love to teach about Shakespeare and classics after I retire. But I’m not that old yet, Garak.”
"You also wanted to help people. We talked about medicine last time, remember?"
"Well, yes, but you know my twin got the brains and I got the muscles." Julian laughs a little self-consciously, running a hand through his hair. “That’s part of why Palis and I get on so well, I think. We both think more with our feet, so to speak.”
Jadzia smiles stiffly. She knows very little of his story with the dancer, but if he's bringing her inside the fantasy, there must be a reason. Maybe past regrets, maybe his growing isolation. “Is Palis here? Where is she?”
"She'll arrive soon, she had practice today." He gets closer to Jadzia and uses a conspiratorial tone, grinning playfully. "Amina and I prepared her favorite cake to celebrate her becoming first ballerina. She has no idea!"
“How sweet! I’d love to see that cake, wouldn’t you, Garak?”
Garak nods with more enthusiasm than he feels and Julian walks them to the kitchen, smiling and talking about his everyday life. He stops every few steps to show them a family photo, or a small trophy, or to point out the window to a bird.
Garak slams the door shut before Amina can follow them. “Julian, we need to talk.“
Julian rolls his eyes, leaning against the back of the table and crossing his feet at the ankles. “You don’t need to be so formal, I swear everyone calls me Jules but you two.”
Suddenly Julian's eyes grow wide, lips twisting into a tight frown. "Is it about father's illness? did it return?"
“Illness? No one is sick, Julian. Your father is in prison.” Garak says flatly.
Julian lets out a small laugh, and Garak and Jadzia look at each other. How will Julian process this? Certainly he can’t warp this fantasy that much, can he? "What did he do this time? Please! I swear, he'd do anything for attention!" Julian shakes his head, smiling as any tension goes out of his face.
“He betrayed you.” Garak says this as seriously as possible and Julian bursts into giggles.
"Come on, just tell what the old sap did this time. Shoplifting? Trying to break into the Vulcan embassy? Throwing pepper inside orange juice? I still remember having to keep a straight face that last time when the charges were read."
Amina opens the door and pops her head in, grinning with shining eyes, grinning brightly as she presses her body against the door frame. "Officer, I swear, we won't let him work in restaurants again. Mister Sisko has nothing to worry about."
Julian looks at her and they both start laughing uncontrollably, leaning on each other. “He was forbidden to enter that restaurant for three years!”
“I take it your father has switched careers a number of times here too.” Garak says dryly, voice cold and showing how much he dislikes Julian’s father.
"Oh, you know him! he gets bored, makes mistakes, ends up in a different path before or right after jail. He's such a ridiculous man, I don't know how mom has patience for him." Julian's voice is so affectionate it hurts. Garak almost feels bad having to burst Julian’s fantasy, but if they don’t, he’ll die. The cost of keeping him alive is breaking his fantasy of having a loving family, a happy and simple life. The fantasy of not being alone.
“Yes, yes. Your mother truly has the patience of a saint, my dear.” Garak agrees as he takes Julian’s elbow, expression affectionate.
"She does. She was all the time with Jules when he was 6 years old and got so sick. He had to be in bed for months after that!" Amina takes Julian's left arm and he nods at her words.
“Of course she was. What a loving mother. It would have been so tragic if you were in that hospital for months all by yourself instead of having such a nice company.” Garak says far too pleasantly. His gaze is sharp. “Dear, tell Amina how we met.”
"Oh, didn't I tell you? he taught literature at the University, and after I failed 3 times, we became friends. He never quite got me to see classic texts the way he did."
“No, no, I fear his take, while utterly charming in its own way, was tainted by Federation ideals. Still, he was my best student.”
Jadzia gives Garak a tight look. Now is not the time for jealousy, even if she understands why he feels that way.
"I'm sure Garak regretted it when you decided to pursue sports instead of literature." Amina smiles sweetly, but her eyes are twinkling with something dark. Julian doesn’t seem to notice, squeezing her arm and smiling softly.
“Yes, so very much. In fact, you could even say that it broke my heart.” Garak smiles in an even more honeyed way than before.
Julian shrugs, noticing how icy the atmosphere around him is becoming, but looking clueless about it. "You know, if I had to choose between uni and Palis, she'd always come first."
“Of course. I’m used to being second best for you.”
“Garak.” Jadzia’s voice is sharp this time.
"Jules, your teacher is jealous!" Amina's laughter is melodious and sweet, but nobody else laughs, all looking rather uncomfortable.
“Garak, I seem to remember you being the one who turned me down when I asked you out. Really, it was quite embarrassing for me.” Julian’s voice is stilted, as though he knows something in what he’s saying is off. His gaze is growing slightly confused.
"I remember the situation quite differently, my dear."
“Do you? I can’t imagine you’d say yes, given that you were his teacher.” Amina laughs playfully, as though this is all some strange joke and not noticing that nobody else is laughing with her.
"And I can imagine you'd prefer him with an airhead dancer rather than an older cardassian, wouldn't you? You'd certainly talk him out of that idea."
They hear a noise and Palis is there, in the door, pale and beautiful, lip slightly trembling. Probably has been for the last few minutes listening to everything. Julian does love a dramatic confrontation in his books, Garak supposes it wouldn’t be any different in his dreams.
“I wouldn’t call myself an airhead.”
Garak smiles nastily and she recoils slightly. "No, but certainly you have all the things Ameera here would prefer for her brother. I would make it so much harder for her to dominate him after all, wouldn't I?"
“Garak!” This time it's Julian’s voice, sharp and annoyed as he takes a step between them, glaring heatedly at him. There’s a hint of fear in the corner of his eyes, of panic. “What exactly are you implying?”
"Oh, I think you know, doctor."
“That my sister is trying to control me? And why exactly would she do that?”
"You didn't deny what I just said. Wonder why?" Julian blinks a bit owlishly, and Garak can practically see him - and whatever this Amina really is - trying to think of an answer, to rearrange the dream world just to keep him there a bit longer. “Second in your class at Starfleet, even. Which class was that, Julian? What did you learn? Tell me why you got second. Tell me."
“I wasn’t... I’m not... I didn’t study...”
"Jules, you don't need to answer!" Amina shouts, grabbing Julian's arm and pulling him closer to her.
"And what illness did you have? Was your sister there, Julian, was she really? Tell me a memory of that time!"
Palis tries to drag Garak outside the house, screaming as she pulls his clothes.
Garak tugs back. Julian closes his eyes and shakes his head, hands clenching and unclenching. “I was... I was different from the other kids. I needed... help.”
Amina tries to block his vision, crying softly as she tries to keep him there. "That's not true! you had a fever! your sister was with you, playing kal-toh all the time, Jules! I even read bedtime stories for you! Remember? I learned to read before you, so I brought you books all the time!"
The image switches and Garak finds himself giving a lecture, with a younger Julian and Jadzia among the students. Julian raises his hand, smiling brightly and leaning forward eagerly.
"Sir, I think you're judging Hamlet too harshly. He was a troubled man."
“Was he? I imagine you relate to him then.” Garak says dryly, still trying to reassess his current situation. This is either a good or a bad sign, and he needs desperately to know which one.
"No! but I am sympathetic, that for sure. You don't need to relate to people to be empathetic."
“Of course not. I’m sure that’s what they teach in all of your medical classes.”
Julian blinks owlishly, confused, and looks at Jadzia at his side. "My what?"
“The classes you take for your bright future as a doctor. I’m sure your friend Jadzia could tell you about it.”
He suddenly smiles, recognition in his features. It seems he found a way to rearrange this again. "Oh, you're mistaking me for my sister! Amina is the one in science, I just hope to be a writer or a tennis player. Haven't decided yet."
“I didn’t realize you had a sister, Julian. Your age?”
"She's my twin! she was with me when..." he frowns, trailing off as he bites his lip.
"When what, Julian?" Jadzia stands and sits on his desk, looking at him from above. None of the students moves or makes a sound even though she’s being so rude. Apparently the fantasy doesn’t have much use for background.
“When I... when I was sick.”
"Oh? a childhood illness?"
“Yes, yes. I was bedridden for about six months when I was a child. I had to stay in the hospital for so long.”
Garak approaches them and stands closer to his desk, resting his hand on the edge of the desk, mere inches away from Julian’s own. "Which illness was it?"
Julian starts to stutter, blinking owlishly as he turns his gaze between them.
“I - I It was, I - the, the Thgrrian flu. Yes.”
"What are its symptoms?" Garak continues to push, getting closer and standing on the opposite side of Jadzia. He lets their hands touch this time, the scales along his wrist brushing against Julian’s softer skin.
“Well, I - a high fever and prickling skin, and, and headaches. So many headaches.”
“Due to improving vision?”
"Vision? No, I... it was..."
"He contracted the illness on a family vacation." Amina enters the classroom and sits at his side, taking his hand pulling it away from Garak. Her expression is defiant, eyes blazing in a way that’s early reminiscent of Julian.
"Yes, that. That! in...?"
"In Regel IV, brother."
“Amina, why are you in my classroom? I don’t think you can just barge in.” Whatever that creature is, Garak is starting to feel murderous. He wonders what would happen if he did something to her. Would Julian wake up, or die? He can’t risk it.
"Because it's past the class hour, and my brother promised to take me see ballet."
“With his lovely friend Palis?” Garak asks in a far too pleasant of a voice, leaning in so his hand brushes up against Julian’s again. He won’t lose him to this fantasy.
"Oh! I... I'm planning on asking her out tonight." Julian smiles embarrassed.
They hear a small child crying, and turn as the scene changes again as the classroom melts away. Jules is in a hospital, with his mother and sister on the other side of the room, talking softly to each other.
Garak smiles more gently this time, sitting at the edge of the bed. He raises an eye ridge as he stares down at the little boy, who looks utterly terrified. “Jules, where are we?”
"At the hospital! I have ... a fever. My sis is here!"
“Yes, yes we are in a hospital on Adigeon prime.” Garak smiles and pushes his way forward. This may hurt Jules, but it will save Julian and that’s what matters, all he can allow to matter. “But you don’t have a sister, Jules. You’re an only child.”
"No! we are in G-Gegel IV!"
Jadzia touches his hair softly, her smile almost watery. “We are not. You’ve never been to Regel IV.”
"We are there right now, dummy!" A small version of Amina without her front teeth walks by and sits in the chair near the bed, herms wrapped tight around Kukalaka. Garak can’t help smiling a bit at the sight. Julian won’t let go of Kukalaka in a fantasy world. "I bought you Kukalaka!"
Garak takes the bear from her hands and shakes his head. “She’s not real, Julian. Kukalaka is, but she’s not. You know that. You know this life, as pleasant as it seems, isn’t the one you have or really want anymore.”
"But I love my brother!" Amina pushes past them to climb onto the bed and hugs Julian. For a moment he hugs her back, gaze suddenly filled with a regret a child so young shouldn’t know. Then he lets go, the room fading away more slowly this time.
Julian, adult, with bags under his eyes and a pained expression, walks across the shifting landscape and stands in front of his friends. "I'm not alone in this life. What is here not to want?"
“You’re not alone in your real life either, my dear.” Garak’s voice is still gentle as he reaches for his hand. Julian doesn’t take it, instead taking a few steps back.
"I pushed you two away. Amina was right, we were never together, were we, Garak?"
The small girl tugs at Julian’s pants, crying, and he softly calms her, one hand smoothing out her hair.
“No, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t be, my dear. Few things would make me happier.”
"You're saying that only because you don't want me to die here. I know what's happening to me. I know I touched a Loretian rose by mistake." Julian smiles at Garak sadly, eyes more tired than Garak’s ever seen them before. "Remember Shakespeare? We fought so much over it. To die, to sleep – to sleep, perchance to dream. You never understood, did you."
“You believe that this dream is better than being alive? No, my dear, I don’t understand that.”
"It'd be the most peaceful way of going away. Just drift surrounded by happy images until I stop being."
“You’re not going to die. I won’t allow it. Do you suppose I’d risk my own life if I didn’t love you, Julian? If you die, so do we.”
Julian still doesn’t dare moving closer to them, but he stops stroking the girl’s hair. "You could disconnect yourselves and no harm would come to you."
"But we won't." Jadzia takes his hand and holds it, her gaze firm as Julian finally, truly meets her eyes. He swallows tightly, shaking his head a few times.
“Why not? You shouldn’t be willing to risk your lives for me - I’m not - I pushed all of you away. Even Miles.”
Jadzia smiles at him softly, taking a step toward him. “Yes, and the only reason he’s not here is that the captain wouldn’t let him risk his life because of his children. He was quite mad about that too.”
"But he helped us prepare the device to get inside your head. You see, we all want you back, Julian." Garak takes his other hand and squeezes it softly. Finally, the little girl vanishes into the darkness that now surrounds them.
Julian presses his hands more fully into theirs as he glances between them, smile looking hopeful even as his gaze remains tired. “I don’t want to be alone anymore. I want... I want to go back. I want to wake up too, I think. This world was nice but... it’s not real.”
"And what I said still stands, doctor. You don't have to be alone, if you'd take me." Garak looks at him in the eyes.
“I would take you.” Julian smiles softly, leaning in so their foreheads press together, more intimate for a Cardassian than any kiss ever could be.
"Back to the real world, then?"
“Yes, let's wake up.” Julian closes his eyes. When he opens them again, he’s in the medbay staring up at an exhausted looking Garak and Jadzia and a flustered Miles. This is real and he’s not alone.