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sweetest thing to carry (labors of love)

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“And I love you, I love you, I love you – and perhaps this is how the whole enormous world, shining all over, can be created – out of five vowels and three consonants.” -Vladimir Nabokov, to his wife Véra

 

Invernia II - yr 2353

 

Jules’ beat-up, hand-me-down PONY sneakers make a music of their own. He zig-zags across the basketball court, shimmies past cracks in the asphalt, dives under rims with no netting and backboards graffitied seven times over. The ball thumps, his shoes squeak, his heart beats-stutters-stumbles from one movement to the next. The trajectory is a graceful arc, round shape thrown stark against the sky for the briefest of moments, and Jules imagines the whoosh of the ball against the netting, were there any to be found.

Chest heaving and skin covered in a fine layer of sweat, Jules lies down on the court. The ball bounces and rolls away. It’s a good day. Nice and hot. The concrete practically burns through the thin material of his cotton undershirt. He can feel himself browning by the minute, and the smell of his bibi’s cooking—curry powders, pepper, and ginger—float out onto the court with him. He presses a hand to his chest to feel his heartbeat from the inside and the outside. Surely, it’ll leap out of his chest. He can feel the flutter just there, below his sternum.

When he lolls his head to the side, rough court asphalt scraping against his cheek, he sees the hillside covered with rooftops. They’re at the highest point in the neighborhood where box-y houses are stacked practically on top of one another. Whenever the court was built, it was definitely the product of someone taking over an abandoned back-lot. It’s not the right size, by far. Not even the standard size of a half-court. Awkward, abandoned, weeds overgrown at the sides and through the crannies, it’s Jules’ little world. If he squints, there’s a fringe of ocean at the horizon. At night, when he sits at the edge of the court and lets his feet hang down against the steep incline of the hillock, the shantytown lights up the whole valley. Pinpricks of light everywhere, as if the stars had decided to switch places with the people. Already, the sky is turning murky, ready to fade into the warm sundown colors. No ionic storms, today, then.

“Julie!”

His bibi’s raised voice is muffled by the distance, but not by much. Jules props himself up on his elbows and grimaces. The concrete bites into his skin, and his body is heavy from how much he’s been running around. He pushes himself up, though, gets his ball, and slings his denim jacket over a shoulder. The many pockets of his baggy cargo pants sag with the day’s collection of rocks, plant clippings, glass shards, shells, newspaper clippings, discarded and yellowed postcards where the ink has blurred from moisture stains. His extra baggage makes it a bit harder to work out the logistics, but he tosses the ball and jacket over the chain-link fence separating his house from the court. He crouches and lifts up an edge of the fence before he crawls through and puts it back as it was, so that it looks almost like it’s been undisturbed. There’s a bit of a gap where he pried it loose when he was younger, but no one’s caught him yet. No one other than his bibi, anyway.

Laundry lines are strung up across the small yard—barely three feet across—and Jules has to be careful not to brush up against the white linen sheets. The communal laundromats can only be used on a weekly basis, so they hand wash anything they have the time to. Jules hates the idea of earning more chores.

“Bibi?” Jules pokes his head through the window into the kitchen, still standing outside of the house, enjoying the cool evening breeze that’s winding through the narrow walkways between the houses.

“Come help me in here before your father drives me crazy.”  Jules’ grandmother wipes the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand and resumes stirring the tall pot. She gives Jules a quick glance and her eyebrows raise. “You’re filthy! What is this? Get inside.”

Jules shuffles in, scuffing the kitchen tiles as he ducks his head. His bibi fusses over him, wiping the stubborn dirt smudges from his cheeks with her thumb and spit.

“Eugh, bibi,” Jules whines, squirming away from her, but his disgust soon dissolves into giggles and she joins him shortly after. “Gross!

“Gross, me? Look at the state of you.” She clicks her tongue and shakes her head before ruffling Jules’ hair. “Go put the ball away. We’ll shower later—I’m just as sweaty as you are.”

“Right,” Jules says, snickering on his way out of the kitchen. “Because poker is so physical.”

By the time Jules rejoins her, his bibi has rolled up her sleeves again. Her bronzed, brawny arms have little discolored spots here and there. She is pinpricked like a city at night. Jules has his own from the few times the oil in the pan has spit at them. Hurts like nothing else, but his bibi worked hand-to-mouth until she opened the restaurant that Jules’ father grew up in. She says she doesn’t even feel it anymore when the pan spits. You get used to it, she’d said, once.

“I’m here,” Jules says and slips into his apron. “Where do you need me?”

Bibi points at the cutting board and there are three eggplants lined up; garlic, and onion to be minced. She reaches over the sink for the sharpest knife and passes it to Jules with a conspiratorial look. Jules is not a baby anymore—he’s twelve—so it’s not nearly as exciting, but it’s still a little exciting because it’s bibi’s special knife. And Jules is the only other member of the household allowed to use it.

Jules doesn’t need much direction. He’s made curry with bibi before. She hums as they work, matching the music from speakers Jules himself had rewired in a fit of boredom. The sounds come out staticky and a little muted, but bibi has never minded. She calls him over when he’s done chopping and he wipes his cuts into the pot. The curry is, he notices, a little different. There are things already in the pot that bibi clearly cut herself. Today is not a normal day, after all. Today it’s his parents’ marriage anniversary.

His father has never once missed an anniversary. For Richard Bashir, there are few gray areas. Most is stark—is a commitment with no room for ambiguity, dithering, or hesitation. Jules knows he’s inherited that part of his father that’s dedicated to a fault. He’s come to understand that more and more since the two months he spent hospitalized, though Jules doesn’t know exactly what’s changed. He just knows he gets incredibly absorbed in whatever task is in front of him, and there’s something Jules sees in his father’s unerring devotion to his mother that resembles that.

When his father comes home, slips the black cap off of his head, and distractedly scratches through his thinning hair, he says nothing at first. His lips are moving, twitching slightly in that way they do when he’s thinking. Eventually, he looks over at Jules and at bibi, and he smiles slowly. He walks into the kitchen and rests his hand on Jules’ back.

“It smells delicious,” he says. “Thank you.”

Jules’ chest puffs out with pride and he grins. “What are you doing this year?”

“I haven’t planned it entirely yet.” His father leans in, throwing his arms across bibi’s shoulders on one side and Jules’ on the other. “It depends on how your mother’s feeling. Once I see her, I’ll know.”

“That’s too random!” Jules exclaims. “You need a plan! You’ve always had a plan.”

“No. I’ve always had options,” his father corrects with the same patience Jules imagines he might use in his meetings as an ambassador. “I always know which is the right one when I see your mother.”

His father bends down and kisses the top of his head, and Jules hides his smile by leaning over the pot to peer in it. Steam billows up, makes him tear up as the smell of spices and heat whoosh into his face.  

 

***

DS9 - yr 2383

 

Julian could choose flowers, he reasons. He could buy so many flowers they fill his shared quarters with Garak. That would be terribly romantic, if he paid heed to what any twenty-first-century film had to say about the matter. Julian doesn’t do too well with flowers, though. Somehow, he wasn’t made resilient enough to avoid allergies. Garak’s keen sense of smell might be affected, too. No, flowers won’t do. At least not in such outlandish quantities.

“—Dr.Bashir.”

Then again, he could go with a quaint dinner at the newly-opened Romulan restaurant. They have a scenic location on the Promenade and the music they play would be much more well-received by Garak than Klingon opera has proven to be.

“Dr. Bashir.”

Julian scrubs his hands through his hair with a sigh. Maybe something planetside is best? On one of the Cardassian outerworlds… A good sunset has always set a tender mood, hasn’t it? There are just so many options! But, for now, they seem very general. Too general. Not special enough.

“I’m stuck,” he mutters as he hunches up his shoulders and slides down in his seat. He keeps muttering this until one of his nurses bodily hauls him out. He’s sure that’s some kind of breach in protocol, and he points out as much but he only gets an eye-roll in response.

Part of the reason Julian procrastinated on leaving sickbay was certainly because he does his best bits of thinking in his office, but it was also because he’s somewhat embarrassed. Or shy might be more accurate. It feels like he should already know what he’ll be doing for their first anniversary. They’ve known each other for so long that it seems strange to celebrate a simple shift in their relationship. But Julian wants to, because they did so much dancing around one another that he figures they deserve it. And, moreover, he delights in surprising Garak.

Garak is no stranger to when Julian gets in his weird moods, and is quick to scrutinize him and ask him what’s on his mind. This just makes Julian even more unable to meet Garak’s gaze head-on. Over the course of a week, Garak keeps asking him, and Julian keeps being evasive and doing his best to get over his weirdness about the whole thing.

It’s actually, in the end, Garak himself that tosses Julian a lifeline.

It doesn’t come in the form of a demand. Garak’s simply musing, bottom lip pouted out as he frowns down into his mug and stirs it distractedly. He’s sitting there at their round, little dining table, in a cozy orange robe, drinking one of his “slow-brew” teas. He’s so ridiculous, Julian could laugh.

In that far-away voice of his, half-raspy and rumbling, Garak makes his quiet request of air. “It would be lovely to have some neyshtira.”

Julian doesn’t register it at first, used to Garak’s little mumblings to himself. When the realization dawns, the recognition of the desire in Garak’s voice, Julian plays it cool. He gets up from where he’s seated on the couch and stands behind Garak. He slowly drags his hands over Garak’s arms, noses behind one of his ears and places a small kiss at his nape.

“What’s neyshtira?” Julian murmurs, kneading the tension away from Garak’s stiff shoulders.

Garak leans back into Julian’s touch with a pleased hum and tilts his head so he can meet Julian’s gaze. He has a wistful expression on his face, mouth softened into a smile and eyes heavy-lidded.

“Small fruit. They’re about the size of a…an apple? Hard skin and pulp inside.” Garak mimes it, touching his two pointer fingers and thumbs together in a circle.

“Sounds like an orange,” Julian says, carding his fingers through the downy hair at the back of Garak’s head.

“It’s not an orange,” Garak says with indignation that turns into chastising laughter. “If you must know, it is incredibly rare and hard to grow. Quite temperamental. I’ve only had it twice, and when I was a small child.”

“Hmmm.” Julian drapes himself over Garak’s shoulders and wraps his arms around his middle, giving him a small squeeze. “I hope you get to have some again, someday. Last you heard, the terraforming projects are making progress, no?”

Garak makes an unconvinced noise and shakes his head. “Yes. But the radiation…”

There’s no way to be unrelentingly optimistic. Julian’s not capable of that anymore, anyway, and it wouldn’t be fair to Garak. Not after all he’s been through—not after what’s left of Cardassia.

“I’m not a child, Julian,” Garak says. Julian realizes that at some point he’s started swaying a little on his feet, rocking Garak side-to-side the slightest bit. He kisses Garak’s temple instead of giving him an immediate answer.

“What if we look through the replicator catalogs and see if there’s something similar?” Julian says. Garak hesitates for a moment and then nods.

“I would like that,” he admits quietly. Julian smiles and squeezes him again before letting go.

At the replicator, he syncs up his padd and downloads the full spread of fruit available in the alpha quadrant. He filters the options to display based on the type of fruit as he joins Garak back at the table. He leans forward in his seat, setting down the padd between them, the display divided into squares of colorful fruits from a myriad of planets. Their knees touch as they scroll, making comments now and then about possible candidates that Julian swiftly adds to their list of favorited foods in the database until Garak puts his forehead on Julian’s shoulder.

“Julian, look at the time.”

“Ah!” In his haste, the padd jolts from his hands and Julian has to fumble after it. “I’m going to be late. Again.”

He doesn’t move though, just fiddles with the pad. “I don’t want to leave. Can’t I stay here with you?”

“Doctor,” Garak says, sitting up straight and giving Julian a disapproving look that has no real heat behind it. “If you’re going to say such nonsense, just retire.”

“Now, there’s a thought,” Julian mumbles distractedly as he looks around the living room for his uniform top.

“Don’t give me false hopes,” Garak adds quietly, looking down at the padd and not at Julian. Julian bites his own lower lip by accident when his mouth snaps shut, and lets out a colorful swear.

“You’re being terribly unconvincing.” Julian touches his fingers to his lip and checks them—no blood but it sure stings. He runs his tongue over the spot and there’s definitely the faint taste of metal. He’ll run the regenerator over it when he gets to medical.

“Julian.”

“Yes?” Julian half-turns toward him and raises his brows with a grin that he’s sure is far too enthusiastic. He can’t help it, though. Whenever Garak says his name, no matter how many times he’s said it before, Julian feels flushed with warmth. He tries to bring his smile under control when he sees the quietly pleased expression on Garak’s face. It’s subdued, and not turned toward Julian at first.

“Thank you. Really.” Garak’s looking down at the padd, absently rubbing his thumb over the case, and then his gaze meets Julian’s and Julian forgets to breathe.

“Don’t”—Julian’s voice cracks—“Don’t miss me too much.”

Throughout the day, Julian can’t stop thinking about the expression on Garak’s face. Of the wistful yearning. Of the way Garak had softened. Somehow, scrolling through a padd was not enough, Julian thinks. Somehow, a replicator is not enough. Julian gets a restless itch in his hands and, during the lulls at the medbay, he begins searching for as much information as he can get his hands on about neyshtira.

 

***

For someone who’d never heard of neyshtira before, he suddenly finds himself seeing the word everywhere. There is a corridor in the habitat ring named after it, there are metallic vines crawling up bulkheads—hammered into shape by some inspired artist—that bloom out onto the overhead walkways of the promenade, and the jumja stick vendor has even recreated the flavor.

Julian’s talking to the woman, privately intrigued that a Bajoran delicacy would be made to replicate the taste of a Cardassian one. He’s been holding his ground against the lunch crush, people surging through the crowd, when Kira bumps into him. It’s no surprise since they’re in the middle of the promenade. She gives him a small glare when he puts his hands on her shoulders to stabilize her and he quickly snatches his touch away. It was perfunctory, but Kira has never been a fan of being touched. It’s been a problem a few times in the medbay.

The vendor hasn’t stopped talking and when Kira catches wind of what they’ve been chatting about, she perks up.

“Neyshtira?” She gives Julian a questioning look. Julian nods and bounces on his heels.

“I was wondering why Lysia would sell jumja sticks of that flavor. Isn’t neyshtira Cardassian?”

Kira nods slowly and a complicated look crosses her face. Julian doesn’t like that look—it means he’s overstepped in some way.

“There were a couple of groves on Bajor,” she says through gritted teeth. “Back during the occupation. During the insurrection it was, ironically, sometimes the only thing that kept us going.”

She works her jaw, looking down at the painted image of a neyshtira-flavored jumja stick on the side of the kiosk. “We’d hide in them, stealing fruit or have it smuggled to us in the skirts of the farmworkers. They’re still there, the groves, but nobody works in them anymore. Nobody Bajoran, anyway.”

It takes everything in Julian to prod.

“Where?” he asks quietly.

“Ushri country, close to the coast.” Her gaze snaps up to meet Julian’s. “Why?”

Julian squirms and hesitates for too long.

“Garak?” she asks. During the Dominion conflict, she and Garak got closer, somewhat, but Julian knows that doesn’t dissolve all of Kira’s feelings toward him. The divot between her brows is telling enough.

“It’ll be our anniversary soon. He said something. I thought… I don’t know. I just want things to be good for him.”

Kira chews on that for a few seconds of silence and her tense shoulders droop somewhat.

“Bajor might be the only place he’ll find it,” she says at last. “Neyshtira, I mean. Things being good, well, I can’t account for taste.” She looks him up and down in a way that Julian is sure isn’t complimentary at all. 

Julian purses his lips in a small frown and she rolls her eyes. “Thank you, Captain.”

“Thank me later when you’ve done your grand declarations. For now, you should hurry and get in line at the replimat. Aren’t you on half-break today?”

Kira doesn’t use an accusatory tone and there’s no shift in her body language, but she’s still an intimidating captain. He feels himself automatically stiffen to attention and meets her curt nod with his own.

 

***

Planning time away from medical is always a bit of a hassle. He figures, now that DS9 is properly up and running as a station serving hundreds of people, there should be more than one qualified doctor for everyone. Perhaps in a few years, when Bajor is more stable, they’ll even get a licensed Bajoran to join. For now, Julian has to make do asking his nurses to cover for him, something that makes him feel so guilt-ridden that he almost decides against taking time off. His staff is supportive, though. They confess he doesn’t take enough time off, and that’s something Julian honestly can’t argue with.

Garak, surprisingly enough (or unsurprisingly,) is the one harder to convince. Julian can’t exactly reveal why he has to go to Bajor. He cites some sort of medical emergency and Garak does the thing where he’s not pouting but he’s not pleased. It’s a bit of a petulant expression that makes Julian bite the inside of his cheek against a smile because it’s so endearing.

“Will you be gone for long?”

“Not long,” Julian says distractedly as he packs his medscanner and double-checks his bags. Garak’s sat down next to him on the settee and Julian can feel Garak’s hot gaze following his every movement. When Julian’s secured everything, he turns to Garak and raises a shoulder coquettishly as he flutters his lashes. “Will you miss me?”

“Of course.” Garak’s wry mouth is complicated. “As always.”

He runs his pointer and middle fingers across Julian’s jaw over and over again. His gaze lingers vaguely around Julian’s chin, a bit far away as if he’s looking and not looking at Julian. And then, his gaze snaps up to meet Julian’s. His whole expression gives Julian pause. His wide blue eyes hold their intensity and when Garak’s secondary eyelid flutters, Julian pushes his way further into Garak’s space.

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh, I’m being silly. I just did, suddenly, feel already very alone. As if you weren’t here in the room.”

Julian makes a little wounded, sympathetic noise and Garak glares at him. He ignores it in favor of pulling Garak into his arms and rubbing his hands up and down Garak’s back. He leans his cheek against Garak’s head and nuzzles into him.

“I always come back, don’t I? It won’t be any longer than one of my shifts. You’ll probably work right through it.”

“I know. I know.” Garak sighs.But it’s different. Knowing is different.”

“Should I have gone without telling you?”

“Yes. Maybe.” Garak presses his snout against Julian’s shoulder and snuffles. “I don’t know!”

Julian can’t help it. He laughs softly, fond amusement dimpling his smile.

“I wish-“ Julian begins.

“Yes?” Garak asks after Julian’s silence drags.

“I wish we had met sooner,” Julian admits quietly. “I wish I’d known you for longer.”

“You’ve known me for a decade, now.”

“It’s not enough.” Julian presses their foreheads together and closes his eyes. “I’m greedy. It’s not enough.”

“It’s of little use to regret what-ifs,” Garak murmurs and now they’re both speaking so quietly it’s barely audible over the sounds of the station. But Garak’s voice has a cadence Julian would recognize anywhere. Translator or no translator.

“Terrible of me to be the optimist,” Garak continues and Julian lets out a tiny airless laugh. “But I hardly have any plans to come to an untimely end anytime soon. Do you?”

Garak’s question is coy, soaked in the self-amused tone he reserves for when he’s teasing Julian.

“No,” Julian says. “No, I’d like to live long and indulgently with you. I intend to.”

“Then we’re agreed.”

“It just would’ve been nice, is all. I wouldn’t have been searching for so long.”

“Searching for what? Companionship?”

“For someone I liked so much. I haven’t liked anyone else even a fraction of how much I like you.”

“I’m very fond of you, too. Completely.” Garak pulls back to look directly at Julian and Julian feels his heartbeat speed up under Garak’s scrutiny. “I’m glad we didn’t meet sooner. I was different. Less kind. Less worthy, maybe.”

Julian cups Garak’s face, rubs his thumb over his jaw ridges and scales. “I love you, Garak. I don’t say it enough, but I do.”

“You say it every day to an embarrassing degree.”

“If you could read my mind, you’d be disgusted. I like the thought of you waiting for me. Anticipating me, maybe.” He kisses Garak’s forehead with all the sweetness he can muster and pulls back with a grin. “It’s just the blink of an eye and I’ll be back.”

Garak blinks slow and purposefully and then raises his brow ridges. “There, Doctor. You’ve been and back, haven’t you?”

“Exactly.” Julian frots his nose against Garak’s and takes the opportunity to slip onto Garak’s lap, straddling him. “How does anticipating dinner sound?”

“It sounds overdue.”

“Ooh, testy! Alright, show me what you’ve chosen for our culinary exploits tonight.”

Julian inches back so that he’s sitting more on Garak’s knees and Garak picks the padd up from the arm of the settee. Garak swipes a few notifications off of the display and turns the padd to face Julian. What Julian sees makes him snort and shoot Garak a skeptical look.

“It’s your night to choose dinner, so I won’t complain, but this, respectfully, looks unappealing.”

“It’s a delicacy on at least a dozen planets,” Garak says defensively, turning the padd around again to look at what he’s chosen. “That’s billions of souls that think the dish is worthy of praise.”

“I didn’t say no.” Julian slips off of Garak entirely and stands up, stretching out his arms before offering Garak a hand up. “It just looks bland.”

“Bland is good, once in a while. If it’s bad, I’ll allow you to choose our dessert.”

With that, Julian is satisfied. And when he does, in fact, end up choosing dessert, he is also incredibly smug.

 

***

The morning Julian leaves, he accidentally stumbles into his nightstand and wakes Garak up. Garak sits up in the bed, sheets pooling around his waist as he rubs his eyes sleepily and squints at Julian. He mumbles something Julian doesn’t catch until he asks Garak to repeat it.

“C’n I have one of your sweaters?”

Julian pulls down his roomiest sweater and watches as Garak puts it on right there and then. It’s too big for him—sleeves too long—and Garak’s hair is raised like a cat’s in embarrassment. Garak’s blushing as he picks at the lint on the sweater and fusses with the weave in a way that makes Julian snicker.

“Cute,” Julian says. “I’ll think about this allllll day.”

“Hmph.” Garak squints at Julian again and then lies back down, huddling under the covers.

There’s not much time to linger but Julian’s suddenly grateful for his photographic memory as he makes his way down to the docking ring. He’s rented out a shuttle from a merchant since commercial shuttles don’t go anywhere near Ushri. It’s been a while since Julian’s been at the helm alone. The ship’s nav system is a bit different than what he’s used to, but most merchant ships in this part of the quadrant have similar layouts and Julian soon gets the hang of it just before he feels the clamps release the ship with a jolt and a shudder.

It’s not quite as speedy as a runabout, but it’s not as slow as Bajoran transport either. It takes him around four hours to finally make a landing in the Eastern hemisphere, and he feels it instantly when he powers down the engines. Bajor has thinner air than Earth. No matter how many hypos Julian takes or how many times he’s visited, he still gets a little lightheaded for the first few minutes after landing.

He leans against the side of the shuttle, head tilted back as he fills his lungs up as much as possible and releases slowly. Late morning has the sky fading from blue to a clear lilac, and there are clouds off at the horizon where it looks like there’s a sheet of rain pouring down. The breeze is light and Julian thinks those clouds won’t be coming closer to him anytime soon. When he sees the dusky plains of Ushri fading into the lavender haze of mist coming down from the mountain range, he thinks of Garak in his borrowed sweater and smiles.

The coordinates he got have left him a ways off from the grove. Lined up on the side of a hill, the trees grow at an angle as if they never quite learned how to respect gravity. From the distance it looks like the grove is a shivering creature mid-climb. Once he’s ready, Julian slings his cloth bag over a shoulder, secures the shuttle, and heads out.  

The plainsgrass is long and golden, up to Julian’s thighs, and the ground is damp, sometimes sucking in his boots. Crickets hush their sawing when Julian stalks past them. Something in the mist catches Julian’s eye as he approaches the grove. There’s a complex of long structures—wooden buildings, squat and leaning under their own unstable weight. For a moment, curiosity piqued, Julian bypasses the grove.

The ground is littered with fruit in various stages of rot—the air is overripe, sickly sweet like alcohol and there are clouds of butterflies clustered around the fallen fruit. The narrow passages between each row of trees make the wind howl and raise the hairs at Julian’s nape. He glances at the grove and quickly looks away from his shadow stretched long amongst the trees. He’s never been very good with abandoned places.

Closer to the buildings, Julian sees the black mold crawling across the wooden planks haphazardly nailed together. Insects have burrowed holes in the wood, sometimes so badly that Julian fancies new windows could easily be installed. Those are the only windows, though, he finds. When he pushes open one of the doors, it squeals on its hinges and somethings skitters in the dark. The room is full of cots low to the ground. The dirt and dust have piled up, throwing a brown film over everything. They’re barracks, he realizes, but they were never for soldiers. The rooms were planned to be small, cramped, and lightless. They still hold the stale smell of sweat. Fear, maybe. Too many bodies. He doesn’t step inside, and when he spots the sad opening to a mining shaft, he gives it wide berth.

The little shack a ways off from the barrack compound is hardly bigger than two outhouses put side-by-side. It looks even more rain-worn than the other buildings had been, swaying on its foundations with every small breeze. Any guess would say it was some sort of outpost—probably where a Cardassian was stationed for security. Around the grounds there are still traces of animal-proofing fences that were put up to keep whatever creatures out, and whatever people in.

Julian startles when he sees a figure bent over in the grass in front of the shack. It’s an old man, back shifting and bobbing as he weeds the dirt pathway. Julian approaches cautiously and the man lifts his head to regard him. He doesn’t seem surprised in the least. His aged face is lined with deep-set wrinkles, darkened with a tan that’s deep and rich. A litany of scars are carved over his face and exposed arms. The Bajoran sniffs, wipes the sweat from his brow with his forearm, and sits down on the dirt.

“And you are?” His voice is as gritty as the land, arid and uneven.

“Hello,” Julian says haltingly. “My name is Julian.”

“Jin.” His words are clipped, but he doesn’t look unfriendly.

Julian hesitates for a moment before he fumbles for his water canteen and offers it to Jin. Jin takes it, giving Julian a small bow of the head and Julian looks at him closer. Despite Julian’s first impression of the man, the way Jin sits is controlled. Not rigid. Not statuesque. Just aware. He reminds Julian of a vedek.

“If you don’t mind me asking… What are you doing here?” Julian asks.

“Someone has to stay. Take care of things. Remember.” Jin screws the cap of the canteen on and gives it back to Julian. Jin’s hands are worn, large calluses roughening his fingers, and age spots freckled up his arms.

“But…” Julian looks around them, unsure what he’s looking for before he looks back at Jin. “But there’s nothing.”

“Not nothing,” Jin replies and Julian hears a flash of irritation in his voice. “You’re…” Jin waves his hands in the air vaguely. “Federation?”

“Yeah. I mean, yes. Yes, I’m a doctor. In the Federation.”

“What are you doing here?” Jin says, eyeing Julian keenly. Julian shifts his weight under his scrutiny and feels itchy with sweat.

“Neyshtira.”

“Ah, yes.” Jin turns his head to look at the groves and squints. “Of that, there is plenty. Do you like it?”

“I’ve never had it,” Julian admits. “I’ve only just heard of it, to be honest.”

“It’s very good. When we were hungry we would cook the hard skins in a pot of water over the fire. The water would make them swell up, and we felt more full. Prophets bless, they were the sweetest thing we knew back then.”

“Did you… Did you work here?” Feeling awkward, Julian folds himself down and joins the man on the ground.

Jin nods. “This was my home, really. I didn’t know anything else. Land and faith. Land and faith will take care of us, always”

Julian doesn’t really know what to say about that, but he notices the dirt under Jin’s fingernails. His bibi always tried to keep gardens wherever they went, and Julian remembers, within the foggy haze that remains of his childhood on one of many planets, that he used to walk barefoot through rice paddy fields on his way home. That’s the closest he can get to understanding.

“Is there anything I can offer you?” Julian asks and he immediately regrets the words. He remembers his first day on DS9—frontier medicine—and Kira’s scathing look.

The look Jin gives him is scathing in a different way. It’s so pitying that Julian already knows he will carry it for weeks after.

“What I want, you could not give me,” Jin says with a small shake of the head. “However, you go get your neyshtira and stay for a dinner.”

“Oh! I couldn’t possibly impose-“

“I am inviting you. You accept. That is all.” Jin stands up and dusts the seat of his pants. He leans across the three steps that lead up to the shack and pulls a handwoven basket from inside.

Julian hesitates before taking it and bowing his head gratefully.

“Heh.” The corner of Jin’s mouth curls up and he shuffles inside, leaving his shoes at the door waving Julian off without looking at him.

There is not nothing in the plains of Ushri where the grasses and the trees murmur, where the sheets of rain bracket it as if it must remain untouched. That anything should grow, that there should be mulch and mud seeping between the seams of Julian’s boots: a miracle. Julian closes his eyes against a strong gust of wind tasting of storm clouds, and through slitted eyes he sees the leaves kicked up around the compound. Suddenly, he wishes the clouds would come closer and burst overhead.

Instead, the air becomes heavy and sweet, fruit bruised and fermenting on the ground. Julian crouches at the foot of a tree and sticks his finger in one of the fruits that has caved in. When he lifts the limp flap of skin to expose the fleshy insides, something flies out into his face, startling him enough that he falls back and begins to laugh when he sees what it is. A pair of butterflies tangle with each other drunkenly. He blows air in their direction and their flying gets more confused.

Julian pops the finger in his mouth. Tart, dry, acidic sparks his tongue. Acquired taste. Kira, Garak, Jin—they’d all said neyshtira was sweet. This one’s gone sour.

He gets up, stalks through the long grass, and sees his shadow hounding the trees’ shadows. He checks low branches, finds some overloaded, the fruit torn open from whatever bird or insect got to it. Other trees have been utterly consumed by what looks like some sort of parasitic moss. It covers the fruit, leaves, and bark in a thick white fuzz.

The heat stifles Julian in his uniform. He takes the jacket off and, left in his undershirt, sweat gluing it to his torso, he begins to fill his basket. He doesn’t know what makes a good neyshtira. He grabs them hard and small, large and half-rotting, plump and lively. He weighs them in his hands. He fishes seeds from the ones on the ground and pockets them.

Of all things, he thinks of his father. He remembers things he’d utterly forgotten. Julian had watched as his father, with his overlarge hands, hand-beaded a quilt for Julian’s mother in preparation for one anniversary. It had always been at night, and his father would squint in the low light with his poor eyesight and poke through the fabric, often breaking skin. The most intricate patterns would come alive after painstaking, dull, tedious hours and hours. The more meticulous the gift, the more little details and segments, the more delighted Julian’s mother would be.

Thinking of his father makes Julian’s hands sting as he collects the fruit. He scrutinizes them more, is more selective. Is more judgmental and quick to toss out the ones that don’t pass muster. That aren’t good enough. He thinks of how easy it would be to go back to DS9 and be satisfied with some substitute from the replicator. He thinks of how Garak probably wouldn’t even complain about it at all. He thinks about how ungenerous that thought is. He gathers more neyshtira until his arms begin to shake under the weight of the basket.

 

***

The old man has a small fire going with a pot over it when Julian returns to the shack.

“Federation,” Jin says. “You see?”

“Julian,” Julian corrects. He tilts the basket in Jin’s direction to show him the haul. Jin purses his lips and frowns. He says nothing for a few long moments, chin in his hand, and then he looks up at Julian and nods.

“Does that look like nothing?” Jin asks. Abashed, Julian shakes his head. “Soil. Sky. The Prophets. The past. Everything. Nothing. Same thing. All of it is full of meaning. Come. I will show you how we filled our bellies on nothing.”

Julian’s cheeks burn, but it is well-deserved, and Jin isn’t being cruel. His words aren’t laced with malice. They are stated as fact, as certain as anything Julian’s ever heard.

Julian shuffles forward and picks out three different neyshtira. Jin raises them to his nose and inhales deeply over each one. He passes them back to Julian and waits with an expectant look on his face until Julian follows suit.

“You pick the one that smells empty.”

“Empty?” Julian inhales over each again. One is rich and pungent, the other sharp and sweet. The last has no smell at all, despite the dirt smudges over it. He hands it over.

Jin pulls a knife from the pocket of his work pants and cuts the fruit open into sections. He tosses each section but one into the pot of boiling water. The section he’s saved, he hands to Julian. Julian bites into the pulpy side, red juice running down his fingers and a flavor so sweet bursting on his tongue that Julian begins to cough. His throat burns and his eyes water from the taste.

“Yes,” Julian wheezes out. “That is definitely a Cardassian sense of taste.”

“Cardassian?” Jin says, eyes hard and flinty and Julian sobers up immediately. “Why Cardassian?”

“Neyshtira is a Cardassian tree. A-A Cardassian fruit.”

Jin stares at Julian and then he looks down at the pot with an inscrutable expression on his face.

“Is that so?” he murmurs finally, and the hollowness in his voice is humbling, leveling. “They’ve been here longer than I have. Always. Longer than my father. Whatever they were, they are Bajoran now. These were not raised by Cardassian hands.”

Julian swallows dryly and fidgets his hands in his lap, giving Jin quick glances from the corner of his eye until Jin catches Julian’s gaze and holds it for so long that Julian ducks his head. Julian isn’t a diplomat, like his father. He took the command track courses required of him, but he knows he’s not who people look toward when they need a speaker. Sisko is a speaker. Kira is a speaker. Julian is a stammerer, and a blurter. And sometimes, even then, he has no words to say.

Jin doesn’t force conversation, though. He doesn’t seem like the type that would, anyway. He prefers to sit in silence, stir the pot from time to time. After a time, the neyshtira floats to the top, skin peel bloated and separated from the pulp. Jin picks up the peels with a set of prongs and he sets them to cool.

When they’ve cooled down, he passes a peel to Julian quietly. Julian takes it and cups his free hand under the peel as he takes a bite. It’s been rendered soft, puffed up by the water and the juice of the fruit seeping into the peel. It’s sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. The texture is bready, almost. Thick in the mouth and stomach. Julian closes his eyes as he savors it.

“This is good. Better,” Julian says and takes another bite.

Jin raises a peel of neyshtira in the gesture of a toast. “My first neyshtira since before the withdrawal.” He chews slowly, carefully like someone who knows to treasure his food.

“What about the others that lived here?”

“Scattered. All across the continent—they want land and proper houses.”

“And you don’t? No family?”

“I am old enough to have had and lost three families. I have no need for anything like that. I come. I work. I pray. I sleep at night. I write to those that write to me, sometimes. I don’t need the extra noise.” Jin gestures up to the sky, to the shape of the station. “It is busy there, right? All the time—something happening. I just want quiet. Peace.”

“And you find it—you find it here?” Julian looks around again.

“I find it here. If I am lonely, I stay in town and talk to all the other lonely people with three gone families. I prefer not to be lonely. That is only sad. Here, there is work to be done.”

Julian looks down at his hands, how unmarred they are next to Jin’s. They are fine hands. Capable hands. Sleek and nicely tapered. “It’s been strange. I realized, at some point, that we were so close yet so far from Bajor on that station.”

“Yes.”

“I feel like I know so much, yet I know so little.”

“Yes.”

Julian allows the silence to wash over them. And, then, “Why do you work so hard?” He doesn’t know exactly where the question comes from, but it’s suddenly all he can focus on.

“Because I love this place more than any other.”

"I see," Julian says when Jin doesn't elaborate. "It's that simple." To dedicate yourself to something you love. To find fulfillment in that. To work where there is work to be done.

“Yes, of course." Jin’s lips quirk into a grin. "What else can I do? Stop moving?"

 

***

Julian can’t shake Jin from his mind. The specter of the grove, the barracks, the shack, Jin’s scrawny form hunched over in the lavender light, the mist crawling over the plains. They’ve shaken him, somehow. In some way. The sharp sweetness of the neyshtira before boiling still makes his throat burn with warmth.

He keeps thinking of Jin’s hands. Of his scars. Of his age spots and level speech. When Julian had offered Jin a shuttle ride, Jin had shaken his head. He said he prefers to walk, even if it’s far. With Jin there is no easy or simple way. He does things the way he always has. The way he learned to long ago, before. There’s a sort of dogged tenacity that compels Julian in ways he’s not sure he can articulate. To go the complicated way, even when the easy one is right in front of you—Julian wonders where that kind of focus ends. If Jin rests, truly, in any moment. It's a terrifyingly large commitment that Jin carries with grace.

Docking at the station is a bit of a haze, though Julian is sure he must’ve been very involved. He palms the neyshtira he’s brought with him, still in the woven basket, and he contemplates them for a moment. He raises one to his nose and smells. Closes his eyes. It smells of the heat of the planet. The heat of the barracks. The close press of it. His father’s hands.

Julian’s eyes snap open. Stymied, he gathers his things and leaves the shuttle and the docking ring without waiting for the owner of his transport. He walks briskly, glad for the blood flow. He walks through the post-lunch lull on the Promenade. He walks past restaurants, and shops, and large portholes that let out to the universe. And then he stops. Stares out into the blackness of space, the pinpricks of light peering through.

He realizes he’s taking large lungfuls of breath and his heart is beating so hard it hurts, viscerally. He doesn’t know how long he stands there, aware of his breath and of his heart and of the basket in his arms. It must be a while before he continues on to his quarters. His body becomes stiff at first, and then heavy. And then he is so devastatingly tired.

The thin atmosphere, Julian thinks vaguely, but there’s something else, too. The presence of the place. The weight of it. Not enough oxygen in the brain.

The door chimes as he lets himself into his quarter. The smell of Garak’s scale oils soaks the rooms and overlays the sickly-sweet smell of the grove still stuck in Julian’s nose. It’s no help with the rolling nausea, the pounding in his head, and the disorientation he has to keep shaking away. Julian stumbles into the bedroom and tucks the basket in a spot at the back of the closet before he collapses on the bed.

Facedown, having a hard time keeping his eyes open and not really wanting to, he spots one of Garak’s feathers on his pillow. With a heavy hand, he reaches out and strokes it along the vein with two careful fingers. He knows it would be easier to let himself collapse, not so slow and not so exhausting, if he had Garak here. Julian’s never thought the station was cold, but after Bajoran sun he suddenly feels just a fraction of what Garak must every day.

 

***

Julian wakes to fingers carding through his hair. It’s a moment before Julian flutters his eyes open and peers at Garak sitting up in bed at his side. Garak has a pair of glasses low on his snout as he reads from a padd he has in his other hand and his mouth moves minutely at times, mimicking the words he reads. Julian’s content to watch in silence, making his lazy wakefulness unknown until he stretches out the mild aches at his joints and turns into Garak’s touch. He reaches up and takes Garak by the wrist, presses Garak’s hand down against him harder, cupping Julian’s cheek. With a slow blink, Julian presses a kiss to the fleshy part of Garak’s palm and Garak looks down at him, putting his padd aside.

“Julian.” Garak looks at him earnestly.

“Hullo,” Julian murmurs, mouth spreading into a grin. He marvels that he’s the person Garak’s chosen to hold close. He runs his fingers over the hand Garak’s touching him with. So well-worn—age spots, wrinkles, rough—calluses, small indentations on the fingers perfect nooks for a pen or pencil.

Garak bends down to kiss him in greeting. It’s barely anything, just a brush of lips and Julian relishes in the way Garak’s body brackets his. He’s still wearing Julian’s sweater, Julian registers as he releases Garak’s hand and curls his fingers in the loose weave of it, tugging Garak closer. Julian’s lips part and Garak takes the opportunity to deepen the kiss.

The moment Garak does, he makes a little confused noise and pulls back. “Julian, you—” He looks at Julian strangely. “You taste different.”

“Oh!” Julian covers his mouth with his hands and Garak narrows his eyes in suspicion. Julian waggles his eyebrows at Garak and Garak’s shoulders relax a fraction before Julian rolls out from under him. “I’ll go, er, take a shower.”

“You know I don’t mind.” Garak watches Julian from the bed, lying on his side and propping up his head. “Gone all day and you intend to deprive me more.”

“I know,” Julian says softly. “I’ll be right back, promise.”  

He lets out a breath once the door is closed between them. That was close. It’s not terrible if the surprise gets ruined, but he kind of wants the delight of presenting Garak with the gift all to himself.

A few minutes later, hair shower-damp and cozy in Garak’s bathrobe—ridiculous thing, offendingly orange—he steps out of the refresher and begins to tie the robe shut.

“No need for that,” Garak says without looking up from his padd. Julian’s fingers hesitate, and then he undoes the knot. Garak raises his head and gives Julian a slow look from bottom to top.

There’s not quite the same shock—the acrid taste of pure neyshtira—but Julian feels a frisson, a curling warmth. He resists going to Garak immediately, heading to the closet instead. He’s a day early, but he has no patience, and Cardassians don’t celebrate one-year anniversaries anyway. Garak won’t mind, probably.

He crouches down and rummages through the closet until he pulls out the basket. He picks out two of the fruit, sets them aside—Kira, as thanks—and takes the basket into his hands.

Garak’s eyes are on him when he turns, alight with mild curiosity, the kind that makes Garak look a little sly when he’s trying so hard not to let it be known. “What have you got there, Doctor?”

 “I got you something,” Julian says. “I got you a gift. That I picked myself.”

“For me?” Garak’s brows raise.

Julian pushes the basket over the sheets and watches as Garak peers into the basket, dawning disbelief coloring his features. “Where did you even get these?”

He reaches into the basket, hand shaking and hovering over the neyshtira as if he’s waiting for permission to touch them.

“Go on,” Julian says, nudging the basket.

Garak uses his thumbnails to split the skin, cracking it open with a ripping sound as the fibers strain and split. “So that’s what you tasted of. Is this what you were doing today?”

“Yes. There are groves on Bajor. Abandoned, mostly, but still thriving in their own way.”

“Oh, dear beloved,” Garak says so softly, so under his breath that Julian’s heart shivers. Garak closes his eyes when he bites into the fruit.

Julian crawls up on the bed and cups Garak’s neck, tilting his head so that Julian can kiss him just off-center, getting juice on his lips. He swipes his tongue over his lower lip to taste it and in a much smaller amount it isn’t quite as electric as it had been on the planet.

I must say something, Julian has thought often when the conversations between them dissipate. I must find something to talk about. But, when he’s searched, all he could think of is how fortunate he is to be able to look across the short distance and find someone looking back, listening silently and richly. And he’d forget about finding something to say, because to sit together as the universe rolls over is what he’d like with Garak the most. Because it is Garak, and not someone else.

He’s never not needed to fill the silence. They could be talking about something that is out of Julian’s depth—art, painting and the merits of it—and Garak could be, in his roundabout way, giving the exhibition they went to a scathing review.

Julian would have no profound contribution to make to the conversation and wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a piece by Firio or Layori. He thinks that Layori probably never made any art of a person because they could never find the right one. He wonders what use any of the innovation was when all those Nu-Nu-Nu-NU Wave artists failed to find someone that would stand next to them in the kitchen and wipe the sleep from their eyes. There are enough galleries in Garak’s meandering gaze to last Julian a lifetime, and he’s not sure he’ll ever know how to wholly explore them.

The leaps forward innovators have made never cross Julian’s mind while in their small quarters—cramped for two grown people and yet snug, yet close and perfect. There are Garak’s hands, Julian thinks. There are his clothes, hung with chromatic precision in the closet. There are his bedroom slippers, which are different from his kitchen slippers, which are different from his bathroom slippers. This is the reedy sound Garak makes when he’s deep in sleep. Here is the Romulan coffee Garak likes, and the Klingon coffee he does not. Here is the heat, and the rough skin, and the breaking edge. And Garak. And Garak. And home, he supposes. Bone deep and weary.

What’s a sculpture, a new medscanner, a speedy engine repair to the way Julian can let his gaze linger on the shape Garak has left embedded in the pillow?

Julian marvels that they’ve been in and out of one another’s lives—drawn in a series of linked circles—and, yet, Julian will never tire of missing Garak quite tangibly. Garak’s absence occupies the hollow of Julian’s throat. That tender place starts to ache when he thinks of turning over in the rumpled sheets without seeing the dust of white freckles over Garak’s round nose—pinpricks in the night. If only there were some favorite thing Julian could point out, hold onto, secret into his heart for the rest of the day. For the rest of his life. But there are only endless possibilities, when it comes to Garak. Everything about him is the sweetest thing to carry.

Here, now, with Garak’s lightly shaking shoulders and ducked head, the way he seems to curl into himself, into Julian’s cautious touches here and there as Julian babbles a stream of soothing nonsense under his breath, Julian is riveted by the sight of his hands cupping Garak’s own so that the fruit juice doesn’t spill onto the sheet. He’s riveted by their points of contact, and the way Garak keeps chewing even though it surely must be an explosion of taste each time. There’s work to be done everywhere. Bajor. Cardassia. Here, in the confines of this room. Julian tightens his grip on Garak’s hands, not caring that he’s getting sticky, and he meets Garak’s clear damp eyes unflinchingly.

 

 

FIN