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opposite of friction

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Meanwhile, the civilians swan the promenade, going in and out of the shrine for rites and services, stopping by the Bolian restaurant. 

Four sooty walls. A month; no season. Gulping in stale breaths. 

His hand skimming across the beveled edges of the panel. The mind apprehends the dark passage, Garak. The shivering, trembling form of him. The form of him that rattles and thumps the vent as if to rattle out of himself. 

The outside that is no outside. The lavender haze of nebula. Knowing death with no instrumental aid. What a place to die. 

 

( Everything’s gone dark. I can’t see you. Are you alone? )

 

( Yes. There’s no one else but you and me. )

 

***

 

The Jem’hadar soldier slams him in the head with the butt of his gun and Julian goes down. Zooping down, down into—mind. His mind, maybe. Unclear where it ends. Unclear where the light filters in. 

He grasps. The boot-tip, or the floor. Smoothed-over. Ultritium used to be dragged down the hallways of these barracks and now there is another resource that gets dragged, or mined. A month—Julian knows he’s been here a month because others told him so. He’s not entirely sure what it means. Mined: to lay explosives below the surface of a territory. No, the other one—

Mined: hollowed out, exploited for valuable material. 

Before the butt of the gun, the zooping. 

( The Cardassian—where is he? )

 

Garak, the Jem’hadar soldier means. The Cardassian in the wall, Garak. Little stings. New Year’s setting off the sparklers on the inclined gravel path to the house. Whole valley of houses—light. The burns on the webbing between Garak’s fingers. He’s rewiring. In the wall. 

 

( Outside, I suppose. ) 

 

Garak outside in a field, somewhere. Riding hounds, limping home, small hand in his father’s hand. The only day. Coarse pelt of a bucking creature that tossed Garak and Garak would not give up. Wild lavender. Sprigs of hitchhiker weeds. Yes. Julian supposes, Garak was outside. Five years old. 

No thumping from inside the wall. Thumping inside the brain. Knock to the skull—swelling and a bruise, for sure. Pulsing pain keeping him down. No, he was, is, has been unmoored before. In the early, early. 

 

***

 

Think beginning. Not man walking onto station. 

Later—man waking up in a jail. Something mined. The Jem’hadar learned to mine with their bodies. Big machines tunneling down into the earth, pulling out ultritium like viscera. A wound in the asteroid. Julian knows wounds. 

Hands steady on the floor—diagnosis. No visible asteroid wounds. 

Unlearning bodily habits strains against comfort. Jem’hadar strain against Vorta. Friction of two magnets—there is brute force, and there is sly cunning. You can taste the metal in the air, as if the dust has never settled. 

Vorta mine the mind. Jem’hadar hold down the body. Julian. Jem’hadar miner’s hands, and Vorta venom. In small doses, the venom is a feeler. It’s not a spasm, exactly. More of a living thing burning through the body. Fire in the veins. 

Julian’s tongue is fat in his mouth. He has no idea what he’s said; no idea what’s been extracted. He’s pushed into the jail cell with Tain and Martok and the Breen and the Romulans. Cold air, colder walls, and keen ears can hear the beating of flesh upon flesh. Blood spat onto the ground.

He thinks: Tain’s eyes could have been chicory blue. Apron blue. Slipper blue. Blue down—down his mind and body as Julian presses his bruised face to the bed. 

Sparrows. 

Garak said he liked the little blue sparrows as a child. 

 

***

 

A snap. Blocked ears cleared with a tremulous pop. Fevered child with a hot rag laid over their ear—the canal opens. This is—

Space time stretches thin. Inside him and out. A klein bottle reaches inside itself. Julian thinks: was it the Jem’hadar roughness or was it the poison? 

The barriers between places, moments? Vague and uncertain. Past rushes up against future. Friction between Vorta and Jem’hadar. Friction between timelines. That part in the center of it all where there is a strain.

Julian tries to exit the strain and then there’s Martok. Martok has big hands, too, and Julian curls away from them. Bodily memory. Martok holds Julian down to the cot until Julian stays. 

Summerwine and mother and kittens under the house. The rain that July had been sweet and the grass had been sour and Julian’s mouth had puckered around the world. When sensations were loud. 

Again, again, he is. Julian is. Julian compartmentalizes until sensations are less loud, less past and present. He’s not sure— 

“Is this Now?” he asks Tain. 

“Now or tomorrow, what does it matter?” Tain coughs out as he crawls from the vent. 

Except it matters because suddenly Julian and Garak are caught in the thick of it. Tugged inexorably from pole to pole. Or, at least, Julian is. 

Mind addled. 

 

***

 

( You have always been a weakness I can’t afford. )

 

( All I ask... is that for this moment, let me be your son. )

 

Yes. Julian has been let in. A door opens and in floods the light. Or shadow, whichever Garak prefers. Julian sees: Garak’s gaze go up as he laughs shakily and his eyes water. Blue eyes, yes. Creek and cornflower and button blue. 

Julian is no one, everyone, the only one. 

Garak spoke of it before. He keeps quiet after. After death. No amount of resentment seems to be left. 

After death, Garak crawls into the dark passage behind the panel. Julian presses his ear to the panel, to hear him work. Small space: hollowed out. 

Julian zoops in and out, the vertigo or the conversation. Comes back to Garak muttering. Small boy still seeking his father, wishing his father were there to do things instead. 

 

***

 

Julian is a small boy, too. Sitting across from his mother. The table snug against the windowsill. Light spills, trickles, fans everywhere. Ultritium kind of metal in the mouth. Grey hairs light up at the temples, threaded through her long braid. 

A look ashy with understated kindness, and he can’t look away. She is too beautiful, too bright. One of her hands curls over his where it rests on the tabletop. 

“Jules,” she says. “Why did you hit that other boy?” 

Hard words. A ball of string at his sternum—tangled knot of jumbled syllables. He knows why he hit the boy. He knows to exactitude. His knuckles are bruised (no, there is no trace of the boy; no, there is no blood on his hands). 

Mama, he thinks. Mama, I hit a boy. 

Incredulous. Same mother-borne disbelief inside himself. Almost. He was angry, and the boy (nameless, faceless, formless but for the smarmy grin on his mouth) was mean. Sharp angles, mean walk, mean mouth. 

Jules didn’t like the way it spoke, that mean mouth. 

It felt much better to whip around, over the school desk, and slam his fist into him so hard he toppled back in his chair. It felt better to wrench himself from his seat and keep grinding his knuckles against burning rage. 

 

( Jules has an emotional problem. )

 

“Why did you hit him so hard, Jules?” Mama asks. 

“Bad,” Jules mutters, pushing the palm of his free hand against his eyes and squeezing shut tight until he sees bright spots.

“What’s bad?”

 

( In the house, the record used to play bluegrass. Now, it plays classical. There’s a black suitcase by the door. A month. Julian was kept in a place for a month, once. A sterile place, with over-friendly smiles. )

 

“What’s bad, Jules?” 

 

***

        ( Julian. )

( Julian, wake up. )

 

I wasn’t sleeping. I was walking through time.  

Sometimes I saw my mother, dark and silent, falling towards me.

No, Julian thinks. Not falling, rather— 

The opposite of friction. Two magnetic poles repelled. 

 

***

 

Julian pries the panel away from the wall, crawls in. Hot and close like the womb. He pulls Garak out and they breathe. 

“You said—Tain, if you’re listening right now,” Julian murmurs, Garak’s head in his lap. He cards his fingers through Garak’s hair, feeling his heart swell at the way Garak's mullet curls up under his ears. “Is there something after? On Cardassia, do you believe in an after?” 

Garak adjusts the blanket over him. In the vent he’d been sweating and now he shivers. 

Oblivion. Tain dead. There is never the right time, right age, for a conversation like this. 

“An expression, doctor,” Garak says and his voice is as wan as his father’s had been. Julian pinches the webbing between Garak’s fingers, close to where he’s been burned, until Garak’s brows come together and his blue eyes look up at Julian. 

 

“Promise me one thing,” Julian says.                                                                                                        “Promise me one thing,” Tain says. 

 

“I’m listening,” Garak says.                                                                                                                                  “I’m listening,” Garak says.

 

Julian releases the pinch. Garak presses his hand, palm-to-palm, against Julian’s. Hard. Harder.  

 

Don’t die here. Escape. Live.  

 

***

 

Garak inside the wall. Garak surrounded by walls. 

Julian outside, with the Jem’hadar. The pounding in his head and the floor swept from under him and someone shoots. Julian sees nothing, feels the air shift and he lunges for a knife. No need to know when he is. Knife kills all the same. Oath. Do no harm or be not harmed. 

Plummeting vertigo. Why can’t you tell? Hell. Laugh, look at Garak sitting across the table at the replimat. Roll his shoulders.

Ache of a smile. The weight of it swinging—pendulum. Outsmart Garak into caring for himself? Small achievement. 

“Is this Now?” 

Julian is no one. Everyone. The only one. 

Don’t you know? Can’t you tell? he thinks at Garak. Controlled variable, uncontrolled variable. 

“No, that’s not it at all, Garak,” he says, but not about a book. About him. About them. See me, he thinks. He dreads. 

Garak, the Now Garak—not replimat, or Defiant, or shop Garak—reaches for Julian’s face. He cups it, the frisson of materialization still coursing through them. The runabout—Federation recycled air. Lungs fill and Garak sees. He sees. 

 

***

 

Julian wouldn’t say he’s back to normal after a visit to the medbay. Not even back to his abnormal normal. His senses are muddled—a bit of a synaesthetic effect to everything. The replicated cups are made of tin, ice-cold burning his fingertips. Fingertips press into the webbing between fingers and there is no burn. No scar of firing synapses in the enviro controls. 

Garak. Garak, too, is addled. Worf was broken bones, bleeding, blistering pride. One session in a restorative sleep and it’s as if he’d never been made to fight Jem’hadar in a pit, like a pair of snarling dogs. Garak is quiet, subsurface wounds. Yes. 

Mines underneath, waiting to be triggered. 

Nobody understands the human brain yet. All around it is technicolor vivid. No telling how, if this will cease: the in and out of Nowness and everything else—childhood, academy days.

Julian gets the bleeding healed with a handheld regenerator. Garak’s hands tilting his head, fingers careful around the tender spots. Tenderheaded as a child, softskull or something fragile. Kids can be punishing, but no more so than their parents. 

If Garak were his father—no blue eyes, no quirk of a smile—he’d encourage Julian to get better in defiance of his enemies. No fathers, no words. 

Beyond. Leave the fathers behind. Julian, inside the cupid’s bow of time, reaches. Some kind of warm thing. Mammalian impulse for the readjustment of touch. Less clinical, less careful. 

Julian wants Garak’s hands in full-fledged cruelty. Not meanness. Something made of brief relief, the too-muchness fades when Julian tilts his body into Garak’s hands. 

Garak doesn’t repel. Not a magnet. Magnets at the beach, pooling iron ore into tiny architectures. 

Come, shadow. 

 

( I should’ve let that monster die alone and forgotten. )

 

The spoken unspoken thing. Tain’s heart stammering, even at the end, to have the last word. 

“Closer,” Julian mumbles and Garak pulls him into the kind of embrace Julian knows Garak’s seldom been afforded. 

“How are you feeling, Doctor?” 

“No, no, no, not—“ 

“How are you feeling, Julian?”

 

( I remember limping home. You held my hand. )

 

Julian splays his hand against Garak’s side, and drags it down until wrist, until hem of shirt. He holds Garak’s hand. Limping, Garak must be limping inside. Where is your home, Garak? 

“Find joy,” Julian says and it’s for Garak but it’s also for something else. Not prayer—invocation. "Find joy, Garak.” 

Garak pulls back. Julian wants to open a window, peering into some cool vacancy. He is overheated. 

“Should he be alone?” Garak asks someone blue. “He seems a bit… out of it.” 

“We can keep him overnight on observation or send him to his quarters if he has company.” 

“You are not a monster,” Julian blurts out, gripping the sides of the biobed. “You won’t die alone, or forgotten.” 

“I'll keep him,” Garak tells the blue person. 

Yes. Julian thinks: keep me. 

 

***

 

The room is evergreen and fire ants and strawberries. 

He knows where he is, in the Now. His quarters, a fifth of illumination. Bluegrass spins through the room. Julian tastes wet at the back of his mouth. He reaches out. 

Cool glass pressed into his hand and cool hand pressed to his head and the bed indents under a weight. Garak’s eyes threaded with red and silver. He says—something about hours. Cotton head. Nothing goes in the ears. 

Julian drinks from the glass. Garak caresses down the edge of Julian. His face, jaw, wiping away the water that dribbles. His hand goes lower, pressed against the sternum. Julian tilts like a mast, lets himself be pushed back. Lets Garak close his eyes, as if closing the eyes of the dead. 

“Rest,” Garak says. It’s the only thing that comes through. 

Julian tugs at him until he feels the weight press the bed down, zooping down into a depression. Print it, Julian thinks. Make it stay. 

Body curls on its side and—

“Are we still in the compound?” Julian whispers, in case they’re overheard. 

“No.” Garak is on his side, too. Close. Eyes younger than Julian’s known them. “We’re in your room, Julian.”

“You promised Ziyal, you said. You promised Tain. You promised me.” 

“That is a terrible amount of promising.” 

“Yes, Elim. It is.” Julian chases the shadows on Garak’s face. Slips his hand under the hem of Garak’s shirt, over the beveled edges of Garak’s scales. Garak’s stomach rises and falls with his breaths. Grounding. “Stop living for promises.” 

“I am nothing if not loyal.” 

“Thank you. For coming.” Garak trembles under Julian’s hand. “It might not have been for me. You might not have come if Tain hadn’t been there. But thank you. You made a way out. You did well.” 

“You didn’t doom us,” Julian continues. “Tain may not have been grateful but there are others. That month…I wouldn’t have survived another. There is good in you, beyond the promises.” 

It isn’t the movement of the promenade, not a jostling, not the cadence of hundreds of feet. Garak shifts minutely and Julian’s hand rests over Garak’s heart. In the color sensations, Garak settles, or calms. 

Julian and Garak breathe in and out of time. 

 

 

****