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legacy of corruption

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Elim woke up in the closet again. 

His head hurt; he must have been knocked out. He didn’t know what he’d done, so he didn’t know how to apologise. He hit his hands on the door and tried to shout for Enabran. 

He couldn’t breathe. 

“Enabran?” His voice came out choked, his throat hurt. “I don’t remember what I did wrong. Please…” 

Nothing. Sometimes, the only way to get Enabran to let him out was to make him so angry that he had to come over and drag him out to hit him. 

“Father?” Elim asked. He wasn’t supposed to know that, and he was never, ever supposed to say it. He didn’t think he ever had said it before this. “Father, let me out.” 

But there was nothing. No-one came. 

But-

Enabran was dead. He was dead. Garak watched the Romulan ship disintegrate around him. He saw it again in his mind now. 

No-one was coming to let him out. 

He would be stuck here forever. 

It was dark here, with only a few slivers of light shining through the slats in the closet door. The beams shook when he hit the door again, trying to break through.

No-one was coming. No-one ever came for him. He was trapped here like he was trapped on the station, and there was no way out. He couldn’t raise his voice above a hoarse whisper. He never could in these dreams. It was like being a child again, unable to shout when his throat hurt from crying. 

Enabran was dead, and Garak was too old to be shut in a closet. 

This was a dream. 

He just had to wake himself up. 

“Wake up,” he told himself, unhelpfully. 

What else? Pain. He hit his leg, but the dream made it too soft. He couldn’t clench his fist hard enough. He couldn’t make it hurt. 

He couldn’t breathe. 

“It’s not real. Just wake up.” 

Now he knew he wasn’t a child, the closet felt suffocating. Even smaller than it had been. It was going to crush him, he was going to die here in his head, and then what would happen to him?

The fear pounded and grew. 

He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t see anything except the walls encroaching. 

Trapped. 

Something jolted, and finally, finally, it was dark and warm and there was something pressing against his shoulder. Not the wall, not the cold, metal walls of the closet. 

“Hey, shh. Wake up. It’s me.” 

He couldn’t see, couldn’t open his eyes, just felt blindly. 

His hand hit a bare chest. 

“Julian?” 

“That’s right. It’s just me.” 

Garak found his shoulder and hid his face there while he tried to control his breathing. He wasn’t trapped. It was only Julian here. Julian saved him. 

For a moment, both realities weighed equally in his mind. In the dark, the difference between Julian’s arms and crushing walls was indistinguishable. And then, slowly, as his fingers carded through Garak’s hair, and the low humming sounds of the station returned to his awareness, the dream faded. 

“Are you alright?” 

Garak sighed and sat up. He didn’t like appearing so weak in front of Julian over nothing. Over a dream. 

He couldn’t sleep anymore without having a nightmare. He’d faced far worse things - he couldn’t count the number of times his life had been in danger, but that damned closet was the thing that haunted his sleep most often. And its presence only loomed larger since Tain’s death. 

Death has a habit of dredging up old feelings. 

They weren’t so bad when Julian was there to wake him up, but he couldn’t be there every night. It would be difficult to conceal their relationship from his friends and superiors if Garak was in Julian’s bed as often as he wanted to be. 

Odo knew, which took a lot of pressure off keeping the secret, but there was still a station full of people who didn’t know, and couldn’t be allowed to know. 

So many secrets.

And now he had one of Julian’s secrets to himself. But he felt unbalanced, somehow, knowing this about Julian, knowing his parents’ dirty secret. 

It was his nature to hoard other people’s secrets and never give any of his own. That was a habit he’d always had, even before Tain got his claws into him, but he was starting to hate the part of himself that needed to have blackmail material on everyone around him in order to feel safe, even the ones he loved. 

He had power over Julian now. 

He didn’t want it. 

Most of Tain’s secrets would go with Garak to his grave, despite what he might have thought when he ordered Garak’s assassination. But Tain’s worst secret, his ugliest mistake- that one was weighing on him now. 

He’d told Palandine, in the garden. He’d been stupid then. Careless, to be seen with her in public so often, to share his secrets with her in public. 

Whatever happened to her, it was his fault. 

Julian wasn’t Palandine, but he had just as immoveable a place in Garak’s head now. And there was something- a strange feeling he didn’t often have, and hadn’t felt since the warm sun and Palandine and the garden. A need to share the truth. 

After a while, Julian spoke again. “You dream about him a lot.” 

“Who?” 

It was instinct to deflect. Julian knew that, and continued patiently.

“When you mumble in Kardasi, I can still understand the names.” 

“This is why intelligence agents aren’t supposed to take lovers,” Garak ruefully said. “The greatest secrets of my people could slip out between sleeping lips.” 

“I wouldn’t know what to do with the secrets of Cardassian politics if you told them to me, you know. But I might understand other things. If you let me.” 

Garak didn’t like people knowing things about him. He didn’t like being understood. 

Weaknesses exposed and exploited. 

It’s only Julian. 

He just wants to understand. 

You owe him. 

Garak breathed deeply. 

“My mother was Tain’s housekeeper,” he slowly, reluctantly said. “I grew up in his home.” 

That was enough of an admission to put Garak out of commission for the rest of the night. He had been forbidden to call Mila his mother around members of the Order, in case the connection was made known, and could be exploited by those who meant to hurt him. 

Julian frowned slightly, taking in the information. 

Garak had to keep telling himself that the only reason Julian wanted to know any of this was to understand him.

“I didn’t know what he did for a living, of course. He could be rather strict about my behaviour.”

“Abusive, you mean.” Julian said it gently, sympathetically. Garak balked at the word.

“He was well within his rights as her employer to discipline me when I went wrong.” 

“That’s evil,” Julian said. Just like that. It was really so simple for Julian to put things in one box or another and move on. 

“He was trying to help me. It’s not his fault I’ve always been resistant to being helped.” 

“What he meant to do doesn’t matter more than what he did. My parents were trying to help me, too. Does that make what they did okay?” 

“Of course not, but it’s not the same.” 

The disconnect between what Garak felt and what he’d allowed Julian to know was too great. He could explain, but he didn’t know how to just say it. He could lie, of course, but there didn’t seem much point. The risk of Julian finding out he’d lied and leaving him was too high to bother constructing a careful lie that would protect Tain’s secret while also telling Julian the specifics Garak wanted him to know to understand him. 

It was exhausting. 

Tain never needed to be told. He understood Garak perfectly. Too well, in Garak’s opinion. He was never a fan of being understood. 

Julian could tell there was something, too. It lingered behind his eyes when he looked at Garak after these dreams. He didn’t want to push. He had accepted by now that he would have to allow Garak his secrets, unless Garak gave him enough hints to work them out. 

What was he doing, obsessing over all this? He shouldn’t be. Tain died, what - two months ago now? That was far too long to be ruminating over unpleasant memories. Julian’s warm presence grounded him, somewhat. But he still felt lost in the past, even into the next day. 

The shop was cold. 

It was always cold, to be fair. This wasn’t news. But some days he felt it more keenly than others. Some days his hands got stiff and clammy no matter how many mugs of hot tea he wrapped them around. Some days, like today, he had three layers under his coat and could still feel the chill from the air vents on the back of his neck. He needed latinum; he couldn’t retreat to the relative warmth of his quarters. He had to stay where he was, forcing himself not to shiver. That was a sign of weakness, and visible weakness could not be tolerated. Not here, not anywhere. 

The doors opened and brought in a new waft of cold, dry air with Odo. 

“Good morning, Constable.” 

It wasn’t good. 

Odo bowed his head. “Garak.” 

He paced around the shop, hands behind his back, forcing Garak to look up from his work. The lights glared in his eyes and he was cold and tired and really quite annoyed.  

“Was there something you wanted, Constable, or have you just come to gawk at me? I’m not in the mood for our usual witty repartee.” 

Odo raised his brows. “Just making sure all the businesses on the Promenade are aware that the climate controls are offline. Someone has been tampering with the computer. The temperature has stuck at 5 degrees Celsius.”

Garak’s heart sank. 

“How long is it going to take to repair?” He asked. 

“Chief O’Brien assures me the problem will be fixed in a few days. However, it would likely be resolved more quickly if the culprit could be identified. They would even receive some leniency in their sentence if they were able to assist the engineering crew in conducting repairs.” 

He wasn’t in the mood to be accused of a crime today. “Well, I certainly hope the individual in question comes forward. Is that all, Constable?” 

Odo gave him a suspicious look, as though he wasn’t aware that Garak was freezing cold, and was minutes away from offering to help Starfleet engineers fix the climate controls if it meant he didn’t have to be anymore. 

“For now,” he said, and left the shop. 

A harsh shiver overtook him the second Odo left. Knowing there was no reprieve in his quarters made it worse. He wanted to give up and lie down and drink far too much kanar. That would make it easier to cope with the insurgent memories of his childhood that wouldn’t leave him alone. That would make him warm. Julian would be disappointed. Not to mention how irritated Garak would be with himself if he couldn’t even handle being a bit chilly without turning to alcohol to cope.

He tried to go back to work, but his hands were numb and stiff and shaky and he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t concentrate. 

All he could think about was one afternoon when he was thirteen and he’d done something stupid at school and when he got home Tain called him to his office and lectured him about the value of upholding his family’s reputation and not slandering it with whatever stupid thing he’d done. 

And because he hadn’t yet managed to fully control his emotional expression, Tain picked up on it. 

“Do you know why we cry, Elim?” 

He shook his head, not trusting himself to speak. 

“Because when they’re scared, or in pain, infants learn that their mothers will come to protect them if they scream loud enough. It’s an evolutionary defence.” 

And then the old man grabbed his face and twisted his head, forcing him to look in a mirror. He remembered hating the sight of himself crying, eyes red, tears smeared across his cheeks. Shame, visceral and disgusting, welled up in his chest even now as he thought of it. 

“You’re nearly a man. No-one is coming to protect you from the consequences of your own actions. So grow up. Stop. Whining.” 

More memories flowed in and he couldn’t stop himself peering at them. 

He stayed out after curfew more times than he could count. Occasionally he’d steal little things he could get away with taking. Not maliciously, unless he or a friend had a particular vendetta against the owner of the item. Most things he did like that were just to prove that he could. He got a thrill out of it. In a similar vein, he and an equally enterprising friend had broken into the school after hours. Not particularly to do anything, just to prove they could do it without getting caught. 

They couldn’t.

His parents berated his misdemeanours, but said nothing of his punishments. They just met his eye in silent acknowledgement when he came down the stairs shaking and bruised and feeling like the walls were going to fall in on him, handed over his dinner and carried on their conversations about keeping out the dust storms and the changing seasons. 

Shame clouded those memories, the ones he forced down under a pile of others and refused to look at. He’d been so young then. Quiet. Angry, at times. He didn’t know why. 

This resurgence of memory was inconvenient and irritating. He hadn’t thought about any of this in years. Why was it all bothering him now? Why wouldn’t it leave him alone? 

***

Playing darts was more about competing with himself than with Miles. Julian had to appear to miss his target most of the time in order to not raise suspicions about his reflexes, so he’d play games with himself, adding his throws up to certain numbers. Sometimes he’d try to miss - he’d aim for the centre but let his hand stray when he threw. That never quite worked. 

It wasn’t much of a fair competition. Julian decided whether he won or lost, which meant that every outcome felt empty. He tried not to think about it. Orchestrating games like this had become second nature to him over the years. He couldn’t just enjoy himself like everyone else. He constantly had to think about how well he was doing in comparison to the others, and whether he could stand coming second or third yet again or whether he’d failed enough times recently to earn a hollow victory. 

Sometimes he forced himself to lose so many times that he got scared that he was no longer good enough to win, and then he would get anxious and persistent and do anything- anything he had to in order to win. To prove that he still could win. To prove to himself that losing was a choice he made, not an inevitable consequence of his incompetence. 

Everything was like this. 

For every class he allowed himself to excel in, there was another where he had no choice but to deliberately answer a question wrong in the exam. For every calculation he did in his head in private, he had to go through the motions of putting it into the computer in public. 

Little things, but they all added up to an exhausting weight that he carried on his shoulders day in, day out. Garak had described it as armour, this lie, the pretense that he was normal. And it was heavy. He found himself noticing the weight of it more now than he did before. Answers he had to bite back because he shouldn’t know how to work that out so quickly. 

“Has the dartboard done something to offend you, doctor?” 

He jumped. 

Garak was behind him. He approached silently; he always did, despite Julian’s enhanced hearing. 

“It’s not his lucky night,” Miles said, looking pleased with himself, and only a little bit sympathetic towards Julian. Garak sipped his drink and cocked his head, looking at Julian thoughtfully. 

“Cardassians don’t believe in luck,” he said. "Shouldn't you be repairing the environmental controls?" 

His drink. 

“Can I speak to you for a moment?” Julian hurriedly said, and didn’t wait for an answer before tugging him into the corner and away from an argument with Miles. “I thought we talked about you cooling off the kanar for a while.” 

Garak fixed him with a piercing stare. 

“Firstly, it has been ‘a while’. We never agreed that it would be a permanent abstinence. And if secondly, you had been paying attention, you’d know that I am still ‘cooling off’ it. This is my one and only glass, I promise you.” 

He wanted to believe Garak, but he couldn’t trust him blindly, not about this. 

“If it’s getting difficult, you can talk to me.” 

Garak sighed. “I doubt you’ve ever allowed yourself to become dependent on something, so allow me to explain: the longer one goes without a single drop, the more likely it is that the next glass will be accompanied by a dozen more.” 

He finished his glass to prove the point and strode off towards the bar, and Julian quickly followed.

“Is this because of-?” 

“The cold.” Garak firmly cut in, not letting him catch up as he pushed through the crowd, much less finish his sentence. Julian wasn’t sure what he was going to say, anyway. Are you drinking again because of your abusive childhood?  

Julian sighed. “Alcohol makes you feel warm, but it doesn’t actually raise your body temperature.” 

“I can live with that, until the station returns to a more sensible heat.” 

“Did you say something about the cold?” Quark butted in, popping up from behind the bar. Garak set his glass down in front of him and threw him a withering look. 

“If I had said something I intended you to hear, you wouldn’t have to ask.” 

“Well, I’m so glad you asked,” Quark continued. “Because I happen to have located a very desirable holosuite program if you’re a Cardassian in need of a little warming up.” 

“The day I venture into one of your nauseating displays of degeneracy is the day I die. Good evening, Quark.” 

Either oblivious or staggeringly confident in the face of Garak’s icy demeanour, Quark ignored the dismissal and ran out from behind the bar to follow him towards the door. 

“It’s not that kind of program! I know you’re a gentleman of very sophisticated taste. So listen to this: The Sands of Cardassia. It’s a holiday program the soldiers used to use back in the day on Terok Nor. In one direction, the rolling desert. In the other, the distant capital city. And in front of you, the great mountains of Cardassia Prime-”

He put his hand on Garak’s arm. 

This was a mistake. 

Garak grabbed Quark by the collar and threw him against a pillar, looming over him. 

“If you touch me again, you will lose the ability to hold even a strip of latinum between your slimy little fingers. Understood?” He hissed. 

Quark swallowed and nodded. Garak let him go and wiped his hands on his front. 

“Good evening, doctor,” he said to Julian, with somewhat less venom, and stalked out. 

“One thing I’ve always admired about you, Quark,” Julian said. “Your boundless tact.” 

Following him would be useless. Garak was determined to be in a sour mood, and Julian wouldn’t be able to do much about that until he decided not to be anymore. 

“What was that all about?” Miles asked when he got back to the dartboard. 

Julian sighed, took the offered dart and tossed it into the centre of the board. 

“I don’t know.” 

He expected to spend the night alone, given Garak’s mood, but shortly after he went to bed he heard his door hiss open. He’d talk to him about invasions of privacy tomorrow. For now, he listened to the rustling of fabric as Garak undressed, and shifted along in bed so he could slide in beside him under a nest of blankets. 

“The temperature isn’t back to normal yet,” he said, by way of explanation. It wasn’t. Even Julian could feel the difference in the air. It felt thin, and made the hair on the back of his arms stand up. 

Garak’s skin was like ice. 

“Do you want some tea?” 

“My dear, if I drink any more tea today I fear I may start to transform into a tea leaf.” 

“We’ll just have to find some other way of warming you up, then, won’t we?” 

Julian shimmied out of his shirt and took up his customary role as a hot water bottle, draped half over Garak, skin to skin, and kissed him. He tasted of red leaf tea, and his cold hands slid against Julian’s ribs. 

“Hey, that tickles.”

Garak smiled wickedly and did it again, a more tingly, lighter touch. Julian pinched his waist to get him to stop. 

“I’m sorry about earlier,” Garak said, his face falling. “I shouldn’t have been so short with you.” 

“Forgiven. Could you just let me know next time you’re thinking about drinking? I’m not saying you can’t drink at all, I know that’s really hard when the main place to see people in the evening is a bar. But it might make it easier to control if someone was there with you.” 

Garak stroked Julian’s hair back from his face. 

“Alright,” he sighed. “That does seem reasonable.” 

They settled in together, Julian on top of Garak, blankets on top of Julian, making sure he was warm enough to get a proper rest. 

Julian always slept better when he had someone to hug, and Garak was easily the most comfortable person he’d slept with. 

Strange dreams. 

He kept throwing darts at the board but he couldn’t get his arm to move properly and they disappeared into the net. Darts isn’t played with a net, but he was on a tennis court for some reason, and Palis was there, serving beets to get back at him for cheating on her with Garak. He could see the whole affair in his head. 

His father was on the other side of the net, setting up a tennis ball machine that kept shooting balls at him faster and faster, and he wanted Jules to marry Palis and settle down in Paris and become the youngest Chief of Surgery in the history of that hospital. 

But Julian didn’t want to do that. He wanted to marry Garak and stay in Starfleet and explore the new frontier. 

A tennis ball hit him in the chest so hard he toppled over and collapsed out of bed onto the floor. It was dark and his stomach lurched at the sudden movement. It took him a moment to reorient himself. 

He was on the floor in his bedroom. Garak was shifting and moaning in bed, flailing around in a tangled mess of blankets. It was easy to see how he’d been knocked out of bed. 

“Get it off, get it off! Let me out!” 

His chest started to hurt as he stood up. 

“Wake up.” 

“Father! Enabran, please! Let me out!” 

“Elim, please wake up.” 

He touched Garak’s back, trying to shake him awake. 

Big mistake. 

Garak lashed out blindly, and his fist would have collided with Julian’s head if he hadn’t been fast enough to duck out of the way. 

At least he was awake now, shooting upright, fumbling to get out of the mess of blankets he’d tangled himself in. Julian had learnt his lesson from the flailing fist and stayed back to give him space. 

“Lights,” Garak gasped out, and stared at Julian when the lights came up he realised he was standing there. His eyes were wild, dazed. “Julian?” 

“Are you alright?”

He looked like he was seconds away from a panic attack. He’d had one before, a month ago, after Tain. But this time, Garak took a deep, deliberate breath and calmed himself down within seconds. Or at least, made it look as though he had. 

“I apologise for disturbing you.”

“You were twisting around, shouting. It was horrible.” 

Garak leaned back almost imperceptibly. “Perhaps I should refrain from staying the night.” 

“No, that’s not what I meant.” Julian climbed back onto the bed beside him. He rested his hand on Garak’s arm, felt his pulse at the wrist with two fingers. It was erratic, thumping desperately against his skin. Cold sweat transferred onto his palm. 

“It isn’t fair to interrupt your sleep,” Garak said, hurried, almost robotic, and slid out of bed. “I’ll return to my quarters, I think.”

“The temperature controls aren’t fixed yet. You’ll be freezing in there.”

“I’ll be fine.” 

Garak reached for his clothes. Julian stopped his hand.

“At least stay for a shower first. You’re all sticky.” 

He sighed. 

“As you wish.” 

Julian worried while he listened to the hot water run. 

He had suspected for a long time that Garak had been hurt badly once. More than once, probably. The protective shell he built around himself didn’t spring up out of nowhere. Anxiety like that doesn’t come out of nowhere. 

But Garak described his treatment as discipline, or Tain trying to help him (which was far worse). He didn’t see it as abuse, even though he was having such awful nightmares about what happened to him as a child that he yelled in his sleep.

Julian wasn’t a counsellor, and if he was he doubted Garak would speak to him. Maybe talking about it wouldn’t even help someone so entrenched in secrecy. But this just kept getting worse, and he knew Garak didn’t have anyone else to talk to. Nobody who would ask, and nobody who he would trust enough to answer honestly. 

“Elim?” 

The water had been off for a while, but the bathroom was silent. Julian hovered by the door, not knowing whether it was safe to leave him alone in there if he was having some kind of attack. 

A faint hum came from inside. 

“Can I come in?” 

“If you must.” 

The lights were still low. He was leaning over the bathroom counter, a towel around his waist, combing his dripping hair back in the mirror with his fingers. 

“Are you alright?” Julian asked. He met Garak’s eyes in the mirror. 

“Yes, yes, fine.”

In the dim light, water shone on the smooth scales on his back, and when he moved, pale scars between them stretched; faint white lines and patches of scales that grew in a disjointed pattern, some replaced entirely by scar tissue. Julian was used to seeing these imperfections, but hadn’t properly contextualised them until now. He’d met the man that put them there. 

He ran his hand down Garak’s back and felt the textures shift beneath his fingers. 

“These nightmares are getting worse,” he ventured. 

“So it would seem.” 

“Do you have any idea why?”

“Some,” Garak admitted. Julian hadn’t expected that. “Did you feel better about your secret, once you became comfortable with the idea that I knew it?” 

“I suppose,” Julian said. Was he about to learn one of Garak’s closely guarded secrets? “It was frightening at first. The only people who ever knew were my parents. It wasn’t just my secret to keep.” 

“You thought I’d expose them, as well as you.” 

“I didn’t know what to think. I thought you’d be upset that I wasn’t what you thought I was.” 

“Perhaps it’s my age, or simply a side-effect of the kind of people I’ve had to work with, but I’ve learned not to assume that people are always what they appear to be,” Garak said, smiling slightly as he turned to him. “Even charming Starfleet doctors seeking adventure on the frontier.” 

Julian nudged him. “You’ll catch a cold if you keep standing there like that without any clothes on. Not that I object aesthetically,” he added, stroking the pretty pattern of scales that lined his collarbone. “But you do get crotchety when you’re cold.”

He picked up another towel from the rail and slung it around Garak’s neck, and started to dry his hair for him. 

“I do not.” 

“Yes, you do. You got all crotchety earlier.” 

“That’s circumstantial evidence. I’m always cold. But you will note that I am not always irritable.” 

“Nearly always,” Julian pointed out. He massaged Garak’s scalp through the towel, and he rolled his eyes. 

“One wonders why you put up with me.” 

“Unfortunately, I’m in love with you.” 

“That is unfortunate.” 

Sharp blue eyes, hardened by the dim overhead lights, focused on Julian’s lips. Julian fisted his hands in the towel and used it to pull Garak closer to him, forehead to forehead. It was like kissing cool, damp clay. He smelled of Julian’s shampoo. 

A different, more sombre thought seemed to come over Garak as he left another kiss on Julian’s cheek and turned away. 

“My father died recently,” he said, in a deliberately casual voice, not looking at him. 

Of all the things he’d been expecting Garak to say, that was not it. Julian frantically cycled through his knowledge of him. The only thing he’d ever said about his father was being exactly what my father wanted did not make him despise me any less. 

And sometimes, in his sleep, Garak shouted for him. 

“I’m sorry,” he finally settled on saying, not sure if that was what he was even supposed to say. 

“Oh, don’t be. I’m not mourning. Merely...ruminating. Frankly, I ought to be celebrating.” 

“You didn’t get on, then.” 

He glanced at Julian, eyes narrowed, as though he’d forgotten what he just said. Then he laughed. Well, Garak rarely laughed. He chuckled, on occasion. He did it now, a deep, bitter amusement in the back of his throat. 

“Be quiet, Elim,” he said, putting on a low, mocking voice Julian had never heard before. “Do your chores, Elim. That’s very disappointing, Elim.” He made a disgusted, dismissive noise that was something like a snort. “Oh, we had our moments, later on. And I suppose he did do almost everything expected of a father by Cardassian custom, in his own way.”

“That doesn’t mean he was a good person.” 

“Ah, but he was a good Cardassian. Sometimes we have to sacrifice one for the other.” 

“Maybe you shouldn’t have to,” Julian pointed out, folding his arms. 

“What a world that would be.” 

Garak stood in the living room for a while, completely still in the way he was when he got lost in thought, and then suddenly shivered. 

“Come back to bed,” Julian said. 

“Alright, but I think I’ll just read for a while.” 

He produced a padd from the pile of his clothes on the sofa. Julian was just glad he’d let go of the idea of going off to sulk by himself in the cold. He made sure Garak was properly wrapped in blankets before curling up against his side and laying his head in his lap. 

“What are you reading?” 

“Legacy of Corruption.”

“Cardassian?” 

“Of course.” 

“Tell me about it.”

“It’s about powerful men,” Garak hesitantly said. “Men who would murder their mistresses to prevent bastard children being born. The book was banned, of course. Years ago. The public couldn’t be allowed to even imagine that their leaders were capable of such barbaric things.” 

Julian squinted up at him. “And you just so happen to have a copy.” 

Garak put on an innocent look. “There is nothing guaranteed to ensure the spread of information faster than an ineffectual ban.” 

“Is it common, on Cardassia? Killing your own children over- what? Family pride?”

The innocent look faltered, and Garak looked away. 

“Common, perhaps not. But the only thing worse than being a bastard is having one. And the more powerful a man is, the more his family has to lose, the more likely it is that they will risk doing such a thing. These men - from the old families, typically - prey on service class women because it’s easier to control them, silence them and dispose of them. If a legate’s housekeeper goes missing, he simply hires another.” 

Julian couldn’t think of anything else to ask that wouldn’t depress him, and left Garak to his reading. His eyes wanted quite ardently to be closed, and he allowed himself to drift towards sleep. The last coherent thought he remembered having was that Garak’s mother was a housekeeper. 

***

“This cold is getting ridiculous,” Julian complained over lunch. “And at your age it won’t do you any good.” 

“Flattery has always been one of your greatest skills,” Garak deadpanned, though he thoroughly agreed. The chill was becoming intolerable. 

Julian leaned forward over the table and whispered in a charming attempt at discretion. “Look, don’t spread this around, but I learned something from Miles. The holosuites don’t use the same environmental controls as the rest of the station. They’re set up individually. We could go this evening.” 

“Hm.” He didn’t like the holosuites. They tended to smell of sex, and as much as he enjoyed entertaining lies, he wasn’t one for manufactured fantasies. But the idea of any kind of heat was, admittedly, appealing. 

“And further to that, I’ve got something for you.” Julian held out a datarod. “That program Quark mentioned.” 

Cardassia. 

He remembered throwing Quark against a column last night with only a small amount of regret at letting Julian see him lose his temper. 

“I see,” Garak slowly said. 

“You don’t have to use it. Rubbing salt in the wound, I know. But if you did want it, I know you wouldn’t have admitted that to Quark in a million years.” 

Reluctantly, Garak took the program from Julian’s offering hand and secreted it away in his coat. He wasn’t sure he liked Julian knowing him that well. 

But that’s what he wanted, wasn’t it? That’s why he kept dropping hints about Tain, wasn’t it? 

“Let’s make a deal. If the temperature isn’t fixed by this evening, let’s go and use one of the holosuites to warm up. Whether we use that program or not, I don’t mind.” 

“Alright.”

Garak thought about taking Julian to Cardassia, sometimes. He would suit the sunlight, but perhaps not the harsh, towering structures and the military patrols. He’d have too much to say about everything. His voice would carry. Dissident voices always do. 

“You never told me what you thought of Frankenstein,” Julian said. He looked oddly nervous for Garak’s opinions on it. Perhaps it was a favourite of his. The copy he’d given Garak was a genuine paper book, well-thumbed with faint pencil scribbles in the margins.  

“I thought the protagonist was rather weak. He couldn’t face up to the consequences of his actions, and fell terribly ill after every moment of emotional tension,” Garak said. “And I have to admit, I thought the narrative’s bias towards him was fascinating. The monster seemed to me to be the far more sympathetic character.” 

“That’s the point, though!” Julian burst out. “The point of the book is that Frankenstein isn’t wholly the ‘good guy’. He created something that was supposed to be perfect, but the second his creation came to life, he changed tack and abandoned him. Anything that was ‘wrong’ with the creature at that point was his own fault, and he didn’t take responsibility for that. 

That stirred something in the back of Garak’s head, the sore spot that kept getting more raw with every insistent nightmare he lived through. 

“He condemned his monster for being exactly what he made him to be,” he said, and let the thought hang between them for a moment. “It also seemed like a commentary on science progressing too quickly to sustain itself. Which fascinated me- you are a scientist. You often speak of your passion for development well beyond this.” 

“No, no, the science itself is besides the point. It’s about the ethics of it, things we’re still dealing with today. It’s about the ethics of creating sentient life without taking proper precautions or responsibility for it. It’s about prejudice against things we don’t understand. Hell, it’s about bad parenting!” Julian exclaimed. “The one person who is supposed to love and understand the creature for what it was didn’t even give him a chance.” 

Garak hummed thoughtfully. “Who better to understand a monster than the monster who created him?” 

In some ways, Tain understood Garak better than anyone else. He’d taught him. He’d forced him into the shape he needed to be. He built a monument of useful ugliness out of him. And he understood his failings, too. His sentiment. 

And yet - the datarod. The last thing he’d given Garak was a misjudgement. 

Julian’s secret. 

He expected Garak to turn against him, as a proper son of Tain would, when his trust had been broken. But what he failed to realise that Garak’s trust had been broken before, and he’d carried on caring about the one who broke it anyway. 

That was the sole reason Tain lived as long as he did. 

“So you would identify yourself with the creature, not the scientist,” he said, directly to Julian now. He was a little bit of both, wasn’t he?

Julian swallowed. “Yes, I suppose. But it’s supposed to be difficult to choose a side. They both do terrible things.” 

Julian, too, had been created. Engineered. And threatened with a life of miserable exile. But Julian, too, was a scientist. He knew how to take people apart and put them back together. 

So did Garak. 

“Do you think the monster is to blame for the terrible things he does? Or is he merely a product of his creator’s actions and the actions of those who vilify him?” Garak asked, cocking his head to look curiously at Julian.

“I think it’s a bit of both. He’s very intelligent, and he has a complex understanding of morals and ethics, and he still goes on to kill innocent people just to get back at Frankenstein. But at the same time, I don’t know that it’s fair to expect someone who has never been shown basic kindness and respect to know how to show it to others.”

“Ah. So there are no easy answers,” Garak concluded. 

“No. That’s why people still talk about the book, even five hundred years after it was written. If it asks more questions than it answers.” 

“Baffling. Cardassian literature is far less lazy. It does not leave philosophical questions unanswered.” 

“Of course not. Then the state wouldn’t be able to use it as propaganda,” Julian said, a sharper dig than he usually went for, but softened with his unaggressive expression. “Anyway, that’s not even true. What about By The Greying Dust?” 

“What about it?” 

“Well, it’s not an open and shut case, is it? We never find out what happens to Legate Kar after Martilla’s execution.” 

“Ah, but open-ended plots are not the same as open-ended philosophies. And besides, the book was banned. It’s hardly a representation of Cardassian culture.” 

“I don’t know,” Julian said. “I think the things a society deems inappropriate or monstrous say as much about its people as the things they approve of.” 

“Quite right, doctor,” Garak said, dipping his head in concession. “Quite right.” 

The holosuite program weighed heavily in his pocket. His instinct was not to use it. Rubbing salt in the wound, as Julian said. Exile hurt more when he thought about it. 

So did the cold, and the program would be warm. 

He missed sinking his feet into the dunes and watching the wind whip up streams of sand so they swam through the air like schools of fish. Hell, he missed the wind. Hot, dry air that blew across the capital city in gentle, but insistent walls of heat. Nothing like the forceful, sharp gusts that shot out of the vents on the station. 

With Tain gone, his chances of returning home were next to nothing. He was the only one with the power to forgive him. He was the only one who even knew what Garak had done in the first place. It could well be that the only way he would ever see Cardassia again was in a holosuite above a bar that stank of sex and alcohol. 

Was it worth it?

He regretted even entering Quark’s a few seconds after doing so. It was crowded, sweaty and unpleasant. 

“It’s awfully busy in here. We won’t be able to get a reservation.” 

Julian offered him a winning smile. “Actually, I’ve got Holosuite Four booked for 1900 hours.”

“When did you arrange that? Last night? You didn’t know if I’d agree,” Garak said, as they pushed through the crowd and ascended the stairs. 

“I knew you’d be cold. Though you do have a point. Quark’s getting a lot of business out of this climate malfunction, wouldn’t you say?” 

Quark did look particularly smug about the volume of customers pressed into his bar, which was the hottest place on the station because it had most of the population stuffed into its walls. That, and his loud promises of slightly cheaper alcohol and hot drinks, had brought even more people in.

“I doubt it will last the night,” Garak remarked, observing Odo snaking through the crowd on the lower level. “Shall we?” 

Nervous energy compelled him towards the holosuite.

“Have you chosen a program?” Julian asked. “Or would you like me to?” 

“No,” Garak took a steadying breath. “This one will do nicely.” 

He slotted it into the console in the wall and waited for it to load.

It was stupid to think of their destination tonight as Cardassia at all. All that lay behind those doors was replicated matter. Artificial air, artificial heat, artificial sunlight. It could disintegrate as quickly as it could be created. The real Cardassia was immoveable, resolute, indestructible. 

The real Cardassia smelled exactly like the scent that the opening doors wafted towards him. He’d forgotten it even had a smell, but it did. The desert. The mountains. The sand winding through heavy air streams. 

“You alright?” Julian asked. He always asked that, as though there was ever an easy answer to the question. 

“Of course. Do come in, doctor.” 

***

They stood in a town of homogenous sand-coloured buildings set in and around the side of a dry, craggy mountain. Cardassians flitted between them or sat beneath tall, verdant trees planted in dark soil that looked unnatural in the arid landscape. The sky was a deep, burnt orange-brown, the sun setting over a vast, sparkling city a few miles in the distance. The sand beneath his feet was fairly compact and easy to walk on, but not too far away were loose, shifting dunes among lonely rock formations. 

Julian looked at Garak. His gaze lingered on the city, with the same wistful expression he used when he looked out at the stars. Julian let him have the silence. He couldn’t imagine wanting something as much as Garak wanted to go home. 

“The Mekar Desert,” Garak eventually said, nodding to the dunes. “Inhospitable, unforgiving, but beautiful, as well.” 

That sounded familiar.

“And Cardassians go on holiday here?” 

“Only the wealthy ones. And only after this small area was made suitable for habitation.”

He heard running water - a pool in the centre of the town, half-covered with a shade, with a fountain in the centre. Cardassians sat around the edge of the pool, reclining in chairs or sitting with their legs in the shining water. 

He could see why. The chill of the station was long gone. Dry heat pressed into him from all angles, and he was glad he’d foregone his uniform for this outing. 

“Computer, remove characters,” Garak commanded, and the other Cardassians disappeared. Silence fell, broken only by running water and insects buzzing around flowering bushes. And in a window-box fixed to the wall of a small building-

“Das’shras!” Julian exclaimed, pointing out the little red blossoms. “Right?”

“Very good, doctor. We’ll make an honest gardener of you yet.” 

Garak stooped to pick up a couple of towels from the poolside, and strode off purposefully towards the edge of town. Julian hurried to follow. 

“Where are we going?” 

“Somewhere a little more private.” 

“You’ve already got rid of all the people!” 

Garak just smiled wickedly and led him out of the town and onto the looser sand, towards the rock formations scattered around the base of the mountain. He slipped out of sight and Julian jogged the last few feet to catch up with him. He laid the towels on the ground and spread his hands, indicating for Julian to sit. 

“Like a day at the beach,” Julian said, as he took off his shoes and socks and settled on the towel. Shadow fell across him. Their location was perfectly designed to block out the town, but maintain a view of the sunset over the distant city, the dunes and the faraway rock formations. Even in the protection of the rock, the heat was almost stifling. 

He peeled off his shirt and glanced at Garak, who was watching him in amusement. 

“A little warm for you?” He asked, smug, though he was removing his jacket and shoes too. “I should have known a human wouldn’t be able to withstand a Cardassian environment.” 

“I’d like to see how you do in the Arctic Circle,” Julian grumbled. “Computer, a glass of water with ice.” 

One appeared in the sand beside him. A hot wind blew across them as he drank, ruffling his hair. 

Garak looked different in the sunset. His scales had a warm iridescence to them that didn’t show up under ordinary lights, and he looked...comfortable. That’s what it was. He always pretended to be comfortable, but once you saw him truly at ease, as Julian liked to think he had, the difference was noticeable. Half the work of being intimate with him was getting him to relax.

He raised his hand to Garak’s face and found his skin was hot and dry, like touching a smooth rock. He was usually so cold that it came as a surprise. 

“You’re warm.” 

“Well-spotted. With your sharp mind on their side, it’s a wonder the Federation haven’t yet discovered the cure to every disease in the Quadrant.”

Julian bit his lip when he kissed him. “I was wrong. Being rude is baked into your personality. The cold has nothing to do with it.” 

“No, no, just give me a moment to let the heat sink in, and I’ll start being courteous.”

“Liar. You haven’t been courteous since the first time we met.”

“You wouldn’t like it if I was. Politeness is a very bad sign in a courtship,” Garak said. He leaned over to kiss Julian’s shoulder and neck. “It means there’s no attraction, no passion.” 

Julian tilted his head to kiss him properly. “Maybe, but it still doesn’t hurt to be nice, occasionally.” 

“Stay very still,” Garak suddenly said. “Look over there.” 

Julian shifted his gaze without turning his head, following Garak’s line of sight. The sand seemed to be moving, pulsing, and small arms and legs emerged from it, scampering across the surface. Tiny lizards, he realised, skating across the sand. 

“Regnars,” Garak murmured. “They’re masters of camouflage. They can disguise themselves anywhere. Impossible to see unless they move. Watch.” 

He moved his foot deliberately on the towel, making a barely audible noise. The regnars froze, and Julian could barely make them out on the sand anymore. The sudden stillness reminded him of the eerie stillness Garak sometimes took on when he was thinking. 

They sat still for a while, watching. Julian barely felt able to breathe. 

And then the regnars slipped into view again, scurrying over the sand. 

“Remarkable creatures,” Garak said, his voice low. “Evolved to hide from predators in the sand. In reality, it’s almost impossible to see them in the wild unless you sit very still for hours and hours. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” 

Julian glanced sideways at Garak. His face was gorgeous in the setting sun, made more so by the kind of fondness he only had for flowers and fabrics. And Julian, if it was dark or he was drunk, and he allowed his affection to peek out. Every time he allowed Julian to see that he wasn’t all cynicism and bitterness, that he truly enjoyed or cared about something, it felt like a gift. 

“Wonderful,” he said. He reached for Garak’s face, and the regnars froze in the sand as they kissed. 

“Now look what you’ve done. You weren’t even looking at them,” Garak tutted. 

“That’s too bad, but I don’t need to sit very still for hours and hours to see something beautiful,” Julian said. 

“Julian.” 

“No, you’re not allowed to roll your eyes.” Garak, predictably, rolled his eyes. “Stop it! I don’t like you thinking so badly of yourself.”

“Really, doctor, that isn’t-”

“No! I won’t stand for it anymore. Every time I say you’re attractive, or talented, or anything positive at all, you just roll your eyes or get this deer-in-the-headlights look and I don’t like it,” Julian firmly said. 

Garak shifted uncomfortably. “That’s because Cardassians don’t show affection for each other in such- such a blatant manner. What would you rather I do? Sit here and look smug?” 

“Frankly, yes! Because at least then I’d know you believe me.”  

“I believe that you believe it,” Garak said. He pulled Julian close to him and hid his face in the curve between his neck and his shoulder. It was odd to feel hot skin there where he was used to Garak being so cold. That’s what he was supposed to be. Not miserable and cold but hot. 

“Off,” Julian nudged him and tugged at his shirt. 

“No, no. Sand does not make for a pleasant bedfellow.”

“I just want to feel you. Come on. It’ll be good for you to get the sun on your skin.” 

“It isn’t real sun, you know,” Garak said, but removed his underlayers nonetheless, and it was so obvious that he was made to be here, in the desert, in the shade of a rock, with the fading sunset glinting in bright blue eyes and iridescent scales. “And if Quark’s program fails, I shan’t be the one thinking of a good excuse when we’re caught so indecently exposed.”

He emphasised his words by whispering them in Julian’s ear and then settled behind him. Julian leaned back into his chest, hot and dry and firm, and Garak wrapped his arms around Julian’s waist and rested his head on his shoulder. 

“I mean it, you know,” Julian said.

Garak sighed. “Your opinion of me is distorted by your affection.” 

“And yours isn’t?” 

“Perhaps. But you would like to believe that I am a good person. Perhaps because you cannot justify loving me if you allow yourself to accept that I am not.” 

“You do talk some utter bollocks,” Julian said. “I’m not with you because I believe everything you believe, or I agree with all the things you’ve done. That’s not how it works.” 

“Then why? Apart from my devastating good looks, that is.”  

“Because...you’re interesting. You look at things in ways I would never think of. You’re not like anyone I’ve ever met. I mean, even the way you talk. I can’t imagine what it must be like to just lie like that all the time. Just tell stories that aren’t true. Make things into metaphors when it would be far easier to just tell the straightforward truth.” 

“There’s no such thing as the truth,” Garak said, predictably addressing the one thing he could address in an emotionless, mysterious manner. 

“So you say. But don’t you ever get tired of it? The lies?” Julian pressed. 

“Do you?” Garak asked. “You cannot be one hundred percent honest with your friends.” 

“Of course I’m tired of it! I wish I didn’t have to hide what I am, or who I love. Don’t you?” 

Garak sighed and nudged his nose against Julian’s neck, breathing in his scent. 

“I don’t think about it like that. Deceit comes as naturally to me as breathing. Perhaps that is a Cardassian trait, or simply a consequence of the environment in which I was raised. But to me it’s simply a way of being. It’s always so much safer to guard the truth, to protect it with a lie than to spread the details of your life across the quadrant for anyone to piece together.”

Julian thought for a while.

“You don’t need to protect anything from me,” he said. “I would never repeat anything you say to me in confidence, even if we...if things don’t work out.” 

Even as he said it, he wondered what it would look like if things did work out. He might end up promoted to a different posting, one where Garak couldn’t follow. And would he want to? It might kill him to be pulled further away from Cardassia just to follow after Julian.

And then he was struck by a visceral memory. 

He wanted to marry Garak and stay in Starfleet and explore the new frontier. 

He dreamed that. 

It was madness, obviously. A silly thought he had in a dream didn’t mean he really wanted that. But it got him thinking about commitment and the future and wondering whether it was really so necessary to keep lying to people about what he did in the evenings, and whether it mattered whether people knew he was with Garak or not, now the Order was gone. 

Oblivious to Julian’s internal crisis, Garak pointed towards the dunes, away from the setting sun. 

“There is an estate a few miles in that direction. Not in the program, I expect, but on the real Cardassia. And on the estate, in the country, there is a house.” 

He was quiet for a while after that. Julian waited, and didn’t crane his neck to look at his face. There was no pulling answers out of Garak. Either he gave them or he didn’t. 

“My father...used to take me there when I was a boy,” Garak eventually continued. “He would teach me, and test me. I see now that he was training me for the life he had planned out. Back then, I didn’t know who he was, or what he was making me into. I didn’t know anything. I just wanted to please him. I would have done anything for him. It was only when he died that I was free enough to look at him for what he was.” 

There were echoes there of things Garak had said before. Julian’s perfect memory provided them to him immediately. 

I would have laid down my life for him, had he asked. And I did. Time after time after time. Without question, without hesitation. For Cardassia. 

He broke me... And every time I had to remake myself he’d take a piece of me and replace it with one of his own… I didn’t even know he was doing it.

“I was supposed to be grateful to him, as though he’d done something for me instead of doing something to me. And maybe he did. Maybe I would have been the most powerful man on Cardassia, one day. But at what cost?” 

Powerful men. Men who would murder their mistresses to prevent bastard children being born.

If a legate’s housekeeper goes missing, he simply hires another.

My mother was Tain’s housekeeper.

The only thing he had was power. 

“Everything I did was because of him, and everything I am, he made me. So if he was a monster, what does that make me?” 

“You’re not him,” Julian said, his voice slightly shaky as the realisation crashed over him, the thing Garak had been trying to tell him in his roundabout way, compelled to guard the truth with obfuscation even when he was trying to share it. “You’re more than what your parents make you. And if he couldn’t see that, if he abandoned you because you started thinking for yourself, then he didn’t deserve you in the first place.” 

Garak didn’t say anything to that. He was very still, as still as the regnars that lingered in the sand in front of them. Julian stayed still too, thinking. 

“Elim?” 

“Hmm.” 

“Tain was your father, wasn’t he?” 

A long, quiet sigh, and he felt Garak relax slightly against his back. 

Silence. 

Just the wind shifting the dunes, flicking sand against the dead leaves of the trees. 

His mind shot back to his own meeting with Tain, over a year ago now, replaying it. 

How sick is Garak?

He’s dying. 

Well, we can’t have that, can we?

The nonchalance of it had struck Julian even then. The cruelty. He’d hated telling Garak the things he’d said. 

I want him to grow old on that station, surrounded by people who hate him, knowing he’ll never come home again.  

The way Garak had rushed off after him, even after that, claiming it was only in self-preservation. His fury, once Tain was dead, as he realised how much he had been manipulated. 

The nightmares. 

Julian had questions. Of course he did. And Garak was quiet, simply resting against him as though he was waiting to be asked. 

”I’m sorry.”

“What for?” 

“I don’t think he was a good one.”

A soft laugh in his ear. 

“You remember that first night?”

“Difficult to forget.”

“I asked you about Tain, and you said you didn’t like him very much.” 

“I did say that. I’m sorry.” 

Garak hummed in amusement, and kissed his neck to soothe his anxiety. 

“No, I enjoyed it. No-one has ever been brave enough to say that before. It was part of the reason I fell irrevocably in love with you.” 

“Oh. Good to know.” 

They’d been sitting there long enough that the sun had sunk beneath the city now, and lights were starting to blink on in the face of a hot, heavy night. And in front of them, the regnars started to run again, moving through the sand like fish through water, fluid and silent. 

“Your mother-?”

“Oh, she’s fine. Better off with the house to herself, I would imagine.” Julian relaxed slightly at that, though he still struggled to imagine what Garak’s mother could possibly be like. “He told me he regretted not killing her before I was born. I could never tell whether he meant it.” 

“It doesn’t matter whether he meant it,” Julian said, horrified. He slid out of Garak’s arms so he could turn around to face him. “Just like it doesn’t matter whether he was trying to ‘help’ you. The intention doesn’t matter more than the outcome.” 

“Which was?” 

“You got hurt.” 

Garak looked out at the burnt orange sky. “I don’t know, Julian. It was a long time ago.”

“That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to be affected by it. There’s no expiration date on trauma,” Julian said. It worried him how blase Garak could be about things that happened to him. 

Garak snorted at that. “So medical. I suppose you don’t even think it’s pathetic that I still have nightmares about things that happened when I was a child.” 

“No, as a matter of fact, I don’t.”

Shadows began to settle beneath Garak’s ridges as the sun drifted further beneath the city, and the temperature reduced slightly. The wind, though, remained hot, and Julian still felt gritty sand blow against his skin every now and then. 

He knew what he knew now because Garak wanted him to. He said the things he said deliberately and carefully so that Julian would work them out. Garak trusted him. 

“May I stay with you tonight?” Garak eventually asked. 

“Of course.” 

“Thank you. It...it helps.” 

“Being warm?” Julian said. 

Garak smiled faintly, and looked at him out of the corner of his eye. 

“Something like that.” 

The last of the sunlight trickled out over the city, and Julian lay his head on Garak’s shoulder to watch the night move in.