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Story Notes: This was written as an entry for the Trek BBS' October 2009 collaboration challenge.

Hebitian Ruins outside former Lakarian City

Garak sighed and stepped out of the ashen, sullen daylight downward into inky darkness, following in the footsteps of one of the last living experts on Hebitian culture, Doctor Sindra Remal. How had Alon Ghemor talked him into this again? Oh, yes, by reminding him of how badly they needed some good news, any good news, to help prop the newly founded democratic government. It wouldn't hurt if they found something valuable to help fund the recovery. So now I'm a treasure hunter? he thought with dry irony.

Once the entire team reached the base of the steep incline, Remal activated her palm light. “I can't tell you how pleased I am that Castellan Ghemor is interested in our research,” she said to Garak. “Thank you again for coming at such short notice.”

“It's my pleasure to be of service,” he said. How quickly you've fallen into the role of the loyal advisor, he thought. The weight of the cavern above his head tried to close in on him. Some fears were never far at bay.

“The structure is this way,” she said, gesturing with the light. The small group of six walked deeper into the ruins. Shadows flickered over bas relief sculptures of fecund life and half naked beings that looked much like modern Cardassians, except that they were happy. Garak had never felt more disconnected from the past than in that moment.

“It has taken us a long time to find the last piece,” she informed him. “We've waited to add it until someone from the government could see for themselves that this is truly ancient technology and not something we concocted ourselves for publicity.”

“Of course,” Garak said graciously. They emerged from the tunnel into a wide chamber. The meager light didn't reach the ceiling or any of the far walls, giving the odd impression of existence in a blue-white bubble. The structure in question rose above them in a graceful arch. The stonework looked too fine to support what must have been massive weight, and yet there it stood, miraculously intact even after nearby Lakarian City had been turned to nothing more than a glassy crater. “What do you suspect it does?”

“We think it could be some form of view screen,” she said. She signaled to one of her students who stepped forward with a wrapped bundle. Taking it carefully, she beckoned Garak closer and unwrapped it, revealing a translucent, dark blue crystal rod. “Or perhaps a recording device. This could be one of the earliest known data recordings on Cardassia Prime.” Excitement thrummed in her pleasant alto voice. “Would you care for the honors?

“I wouldn't dream of it,” Garak said. “This is your project. Consider me nothing more than Castellan Ghemor's representative witness.” He followed behind her as she approached the archway, his curiosity piqued. She smiled over her shoulder at him and carefully inserted the rod into a slot perfectly shaped to receive it. Nothing happened. The woman's look of disappointment bordered on crushed. Garak stepped forward, words of consolation on his lips, only to feel as though he were suddenly being turned inside out. He had no breath left to scream his agony, and his consciousness fled.

He awoke in utter darkness. The old panic rushed in to fill the void. “Hello!” he yelled. “Can you hear me? Where are you?”

He heard nothing but the faint sound of wind from somewhere behind him. He climbed to his feet and followed it, both hands extended in front of him. It seemed he walked much further than on his way inside, but it could've been his phobia playing tricks on him. In time, a dim glow grew to bright light, much brighter than the blighted sunlight of post-war Prime. It shone through a hole a little bigger than his head. Fortunately, the dry earth yielded easily to his bare hands. He dug himself out, only to find himself standing in an arid, wind-swept desert beneath a pitiless blue sky.

Bereft of easy choices, he began to walk, for to stay would likely mean a slow death in a black prison beneath the sand. If he had to die, he'd rather it be in sunlight. How far he walked, he couldn't say. By dusk, he had been engaged in a hallucinatory conversation with Enabran Tain for at least an hour, too dehydrated to realize how in trouble he was. If only Tain weren't so stubborn, they could've sat down to rest for a while. Finally, he stopped. “I don't care,” he said heatedly. “I'm tired, and it's getting dark. You go on if you want to.”

He squinted into the distance, thinking perhaps he saw light. Perhaps not. Everything wavered as the planet began to radiate all the heat it hoarded during the daylight. “That has always been your problem, Elim,” Tain sighed. “You fear the darkness.”

“Whose fault is that?” Garak snapped. One or maybe two figures seemed to be approaching. If only he could see better. All of that sun must've done something to his eyes. He tried to call out, but Tain covered his mouth with a thick hand. He struggled, feeling all of his strength leaving him. Just as his eyes slid back into his head, he could've sworn he saw Skrain Dukat, but that was impossible. He had been missing for over a year.

6 Tegalăr, Twenty-Second Year of the 371st Ăstraya
Federation Year 2369

A bad sign, the resistance fighter assessed as he caught sight of the stranded traveler their stolen sensor grid had indicated just a moment ago. He’s definitely delirious. The other man’s path had grown more and more erratic as they’d tried to track him and now that they’d finally caught up to him, Dukat could just make out the sound of him murmuring under his breath to some being unseen. It wasn’t Oralius—at least, he didn’t think so, because there was something much too bitter, too adversarial about this one-ended conversation.

“He’s in a bad way,” he whispered to his daughter—for in the silence of the desert such sounds were audible to the Cardassian ear. He spoke quietly, for the last thing he wanted was to agitate the stricken man and drive him to expend whatever last energy remained to him. “However he got here, he wasn’t prepared for the desert at all…no water, no supplies, nothing.”

“And the way he’s dressed—just look at that suit,” Ziyal added. “That had to have made it worse.”

Dukat nodded his agreement; the man’s thickly-woven clothing clung far too closely to his skin…there was nowhere for a layer of cooler air to insulate him from the heat. Especially with his daughter, who could not withstand the heat as well as a full-blooded Cardassian, that was something they had to take great care with—for difficult as it might seem, it was indeed possible for a Cardassian to suffer heatstroke. Accordingly, they wore light, layered desert robes after the way of the nomadic Kurabda tribes.

This man was not at all prepared for the desert—he was dressed wrong, lacked supplies, and apparently had traveled in the worst of the heat. Perhaps he’d escaped the Bajorans. Or perhaps they’d dumped him into the sands, hoping he would die.

“Whose fault is that?” the traveler snarled in a sharp voice as they drew close. He drew in breath to cry out, anger and thinly disguised terror lighting his cold blue eyes, but Dukat clapped his hand over the other man’s mouth. Sound, after all, carried far across the desert sands. Maybe the Bajorans were already searching for him—and if they were anywhere around, their unnaturally sharp ears might well catch hold of his voice.

But the instant he made contact with the traveler’s skin, it was as though he’d hit some sort of hidden power switch. With a sigh, all volition fled his muscles and he would have fallen backwards into the sand if Dukat hadn’t caught him. “Let’s go!” he whispered urgently. “He doesn’t have much time left.” Thankfully they weren’t far from the base—only ten minutes’ walk or so under normal circumstances, a bit longer carrying this unconscious man. He just prayed it would be enough time.

Almost the instant they ducked through the rock-ringed entrance to Skrain Dukat’s underground home, the traveler emitted a weak groan. His eyes were squeezed painfully shut as Ziyal switched on the light. Ziyal quickly brought the sitting mats together to give her father a place to lay the traveler, a smaller pillow at the end to support his head; as her father knelt next to the cushions and carefully laid the traveler on his back, she darted off to get a glass of water.

As soon as she returned, the traveler tried to stir from his place, but he was too weak. Dukat, still kneeling at his side, gently slipped his left hand under the man’s head, bringing it forward to where he could drink comfortably from the glass he held with his other hand. “How did you…?” the traveler mumbled as his eyes opened and fixed upon Dukat’s face.

The resistance fighter didn’t let the traveler finish. “You’re safe now…it’s going to be all right,” he intoned in a low voice. He offered a calm, reassuring smile, though he did not give his name quite yet—his was a rather notorious one to their Bajoran occupiers and he’d need a better sense of the traveler’s story and intentions before he revealed it. “We can talk soon…but right now you need to save your strength, and drink. It’s only by the grace of Oralius that we found you in time—you were almost too far gone.”

With the hand supporting the stranger’s head, he felt the barest hint of a nod. Slowly he tilted the glass towards the man’s pale lips. You must come from the northern latitudes, Dukat thought. Lakat, maybe. But how did you wind up here? That was something he could learn later, though. Right now, the most important thing was getting this man re-hydrated.

The stranger’s upper lip curled at first when he got a taste of the solution Ziyal had mixed into the water: salt and sugar, the essential ingredients of a homemade re-hydration therapy. “I know,” Dukat murmured sympathetically. “You’ve lost a lot of electrolytes...you need this.”

The stranger still appeared wary, suspicious, almost. Understandable, Dukat thought, figuring he knew the man’s other concern. If I found myself somewhere I didn’t know, where there was no running water, I’d be thinking the same thing. “Don’t worry,” he added. “It’s been boiled.”

This seemed to comfort the traveler—but only slightly. He sipped now at the water in the glass Dukat held for him…not exactly greedily, but steadily, at least.

How do you like your sugar water, sir? Garak thought, still close to delirium. Boiled, of course; it's the best way! Desultory laughter shook him in weak spasms. He sputtered and tried to lift a hand to apologize, but it was as though his body belonged to someone else. Nothing worked properly. Where was Enabran? No, that wasn't right. Tain had been dead for years. So this was delusion? Right, I've always secretly desired to be tenderly ministered to by Gul Dukat, he thought. The laughter came again, a bit stronger now, his efficient Cardassian system absorbing the water and electrolytes at speed. He stopped himself as soon as he could. It was almost like being drunk on kanar. He must have been very dehydrated indeed, he realized.

He took in his surroundings such as he could with the man's head and shoulders blocking much of his line of sight. There was a girl hovering in the background. He hadn't seen her clearly yet. He appeared to be in a small cavern. The air felt somehow processed, reminding him oddly of Deep Space Nine, and the light was artificial. There was an altar. Now that looked familiar. It wasn't so different from his own. By the grace of Oralius, Dukat had said. Dukat? he wondered, focusing intently on the man's face. The features were almost identical, younger though. The demeanor was all wrong, reminding him much more of Akellen Macet than his old enemy. “Do I...know you?” he rasped carefully.

Dukat paused. For one thing, the traveler’s reactions were still quite off-kilter, to judge from that laughter. There was no telling what answer might set him off if he still wasn’t entirely clearheaded yet—and he still knew nothing about this man and his circumstances. On the other hand…it didn’t sit with him well at all to lie to someone in a state like this. So he slowly shook his head and truthfully answered, “I don’t know. Your face is unfamiliar to me. You?”

It was the truth in his eyes that decided Garak. Whatever was happening, this was not Gul Dukat, a fact which also led him to believe it was not delirium. He had no reason, not even at the base of his subconscious, to try to turn Dukat into anything but the deluded madman he had been by the end. “No, I don't know you,” he murmured, closing his eyes and lying back to rest. “You'll have to forgive me. I was...seeing things.”

“That’s all right,” Dukat softly replied. “You had quite the ordeal out there.” The traveler was getting stronger now that he had finished his first glass, he could see, but right now he lay back, staring disconsolately at the ceiling. Ziyal had gone back to mix him another glass. “Do you remember what happened? Did the Bajorans do this to you? It’s all right if they did,” he added, the shadows of that deep and terrible old pain settling across his face. “I know what they do to those who resist. You have nothing to fear from me if you’re a rebel.”

His eyes darted to the man's face when he said, “Bajorans.” The pain afterward in the stranger's features was unmistakable, and he immediately felt the resonance of its echo after all the deaths on Prime. His eyes stung. Oralius, does our culpability run so deeply that in every world we are hunted and hated? Are there no free, happy Cardassias? He opened his mouth to speak only to have his throat close over the words. Why was he here? Why was he being shown such terrible things? “I'm sorry,” he apologized when his control reasserted itself, a hitch in his breath. “I've been through a great deal over the past year. Seen...too much death.” There was no need to feign a haunted look. It was as common to Cardassians of his world as their distinctive ridges and scales but he hoped not as permanent.

He struggled to sit. He had to pull himself together. He couldn't figure out what to do next if he allowed himself to be one raw nerve. Then he saw the girl coming out of the kitchen with another glass of water and he barked a sharp sound, equal shock and dismay. He lay back again, turning on his side away from the man and quickly covering his face with both hands so neither of them would see what the sight of her did to him. “I sat up too quickly,” he said, his voice thick and choked.

This isn't possible, he thought. He couldn't lie to himself for long. Was she any more incongruous than this compassionate Dukat at his side? The universe doesn't hate Cardassians, Elim, he thought dryly. Just you. He took three deep, calming breaths and sat up a second time. The iron control that used to come to him so easily had been eroded by his year post-war, but it was still there, and it was finally answering to his call. “Thank you. Both of you,” he said in his normal voice. “I believe I've recovered enough now to be myself again. I don't...know...how I got out there,” he said honestly. “My last memory is of being in a cave.” That part wasn't true, but he said it no less sincerely.

Dukat’s breath caught. For a fleeting second, heat flashed all the way up his jaw ridges and into his ears—and as close as this traveler was, he feared the reaction might have been so intense that even in his weakened state the man might sense the surge in his bioelectric field. He’d seen it, the instant the stranger’s eyes took in Ziyal, the awful intensity of his reaction. And then…he wasn’t quite sure what. Suddenly the man’s voice was almost—stronger than it should have been, more genial. He shouldn’t have suddenly been so…calm in these circumstances. It was a wall, a mask. Nothing the man said seemed implausible, nor had his tone wavered—but that was exactly the thing that bothered Dukat: there was no longer any way to tell.

And that first instant for Dukat, when his mind settled upon the likely cause, was fury. How dare he judge, and in front of her, no less! But reason quickly reasserted itself. Of course…if this man was indeed in some sort of trouble with the Bajorans, seeing Ziyal might well lead him to the wrong conclusion. And he might well fear for his safety.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse me for a moment,” Dukat said, rising to his feet.

Ziyal, for her part, had seen it too. There had been something so strange, so compelling about this man as he’d begun to speak—the intelligence, the depths of pain he’d witnessed…and then that change. The guardedness. She’d seen it enough times…she knew why it was. The Bajorans who caught sight of her during their operations—it never changed. With Cardassians…they often came around, learned to see her as a person—but that didn’t stop it from smarting. He couldn’t see her for who she was…and for some reason it bothered her more this time. Yet it shouldn’t have, because that sudden defensiveness, that sudden shield between the man and everything around him…what was a relationship without trust?

Her father put a hand on her shoulder and indicated with a gentle pressure that she should step aside with him. “I’m very sorry, my dear,” he whispered. “I don’t think he even knows of me, or at least, if he does, he doesn’t know my face. This is my fault, Ziyal…I should have explained things to him better than I did. I wish I didn’t have to ask this, but—”

“You want me to go to the other room,” she said, her posture and tone ever dignified, but resigned.

“Only for a moment,” Dukat confirmed with a regretful sigh. Then his tone grew stronger—still soft in volume, but rather more defiant now. “I want him to meet you properly. And that will be very soon. But right now…I need to set things right.”

Ziyal gave a wordless Cardassian bow and made a move to leave. But before she could retreat, Dukat pulled her into his embrace and kissed her on the top of her head. “I love you,” he whispered.

Dukat crossed the room with a few long strides and knelt back at the stranger’s side. “I didn’t even think,” he admitted in a quiet voice. “To me, she is no different than if she had been born fully Cardassian. But for you to just wake up here after whatever you’ve been through…I—I suppose I understand why you may believe me to be a collaborator.”

For just a second he closed his eyes and offered a silent prayer to Oralius, a plea for strength to say what he had to say. When he opened his eyes...he knew. He had to take the chance. “My name is Skrain Dukat. It’s quite possible you’ve heard of me, maybe even heard what happened—I don’t know. It is true that I have been a Bajoran prisoner. But never a collaborator.” His voice shook with emotion…this never got any easier to say, no matter how much time passed. He had simply grown better at saying it despite the pain. “Never did I…act willingly. Her mother may have sinned…but I could not—could not—let them make her into sin. I couldn’t abandon her. Maybe she would have been more ‘comfortable’ there, but she has the right to know her creator. She is my daughter, a gift from Oralius. And I love her.”

Garak felt the other's surge of anger. His body responded by tightening, preparing him for anything. He watched cautiously as the man rose and blinked in surprise at the length of his hair, which grew long enough to be drawn back into a queue that came a third of the way down his back. Every detail hammered home to him two things; this was real, and he was in some sort of parallel universe. It had to be. His mind would never be so fanciful in so many ways. The two spoke in low voices. He watched their hands, fearing the worst, but the man returned empty handed and began to explain, in a way. Skrain Dukat, and this time the unwilling half of the couple. They thought he reacted to her mixed race. They thought it was revulsion and fear. He found he didn't have it in him to hurt this Ziyal any more than he could her dead counterpart.

“You misunderstood,” he said softly. “I lost someone. The...the resemblance is uncanny. I'm glad she's loved. No child should be without.” He glanced toward the doorway where she had retreated. Now that he knew what to expect, would seeing her be any easier? He had to find a way back from this place before they stripped him of all control and sanity, most importantly, before he started to care for these people and their plight. His own needed him far too much. Oralius, of all people to find me, why these two?

As for Dukat…the stranger’s revelation heartened him somehow. Maybe it was just something in Ziyal’s manner, perhaps something about her voice or her figure—but maybe when he spoke of resemblance, it was something more. Perhaps he had loved someone like her. And while the thought of her leaving him to marry saddened and worried him on some levels, as a father, this also made his hope a little more real: that she would find someone worthy, someone who loved her…not just part of her…as she deserved.

A faint, wistful smile traced over Dukat’s lips. “I’m glad you feel as I do. And I hope you’ll accept my apology for assuming. Such things happen from time to time…but to be honest, I could see where you might have believed you were in danger, given the circumstances.”

Still, the stranger—growing a bit stronger, now—shifted a bit uncomfortably on the cushion, even with the reassurance that Dukat had not believed it to be malice. He met the man’s eyes and allowed that bittersweet smile to grow a little wider. Part of him wanted to rest a hand on the traveler’s shoulder, but now that he was stronger, he wasn’t sure how it would be taken. “Don’t be ashamed—‘tears, with prayer, are a salve to the soul.’ Even after all these years, I haven’t stopped feeling it when I see children the age of the ones I lost, or a woman who looks like my wife. So in my own way, I understand.”

The sad thing was that Garak believed that he did understand, probably more than most ever would. “She was with me so briefly,” he said, “like an ember.” He held his hand palm up and lifted it quickly. “Brightly rising and then gone.” He closed the hand to a loose fist, dropping it back to his lap. “I don't think I have any tears left, not after this year. I'm sorry for your losses.” He could say that these days with honesty. These days, he understood loss better than he ever had and wished it on no one else.

Dukat regarded his daughter’s visage with quiet pleasure. Now that he’d explained the real reason for the traveler’s reaction, the light in her eyes and the spring in her step had returned—though a bit subdued, at the thought of the man’s losses. He almost seems like a man whose entire cell was killed, Dukat thought to himself. No wonder he doesn’t want to talk about it.

Then, by instinct born of long experience, he turned his attention back to the bubbling pot over the propane stove. He gave the pot a final stir, then stuck in a couple of clean spoons. He offered the first to Ziyal, took the second for himself. “Taste this?” he invited, lifting an eye ridge as he awaited her judgment.

Ziyal smiled. “Pretty good,” she replied.

“Just ‘pretty good’?” he laughed, putting a hand to his heart. “Is that it? Why, I’m wounded!”

“Don’t worry, Daddy…I think he’s going to like it.” Ziyal stole a quick glance at the traveler—but just as quickly he turned away, and Ziyal did the same out of respect for whatever painful memories the man carried in his soul.

Dukat acknowledged Ziyal with a nod as he lifted the pot off the stove and carried it to the table, setting it down on the potholder Ziyal had already laid out for the purpose. Then he made his way over to the stranger, offering his hand…this was the first time the man would be standing on his own since his collapse. The man hesitated at first, unsure of—what, Dukat couldn’t quite tell. Ultimately pragmatism won out and he accepted. Dukat patiently allowed the recuperating stranger to set the pace, giving no sign on his face that this was anything other than normal.

Once the traveler was securely seated, he and Ziyal followed suit. “There’s not really a formal recipe for this,” he apologized. “I just had to put together what I could get enough of for three.” Then he smiled. “I call it Catch-All Stew—all that I can catch goes in the pot!”

Garak chuckled appreciatively. “Well, it looks and smells delicious. You must've had good hunting recently.” He could smell that the meat had been smoked, not surprising given the conditions he could see. The plant matter in the stew was the same as what he could find on Prime in the wilderness, at least before the Jem'Hadar bombardment. “You have my gratitude, both of you. You've saved my life. I only wish there were something I could give you in return,” he said.

He looked at each of them as he spoke, forcing himself to hold the girl's gaze as long as he did her father's. She was so beautiful and vibrant. She had the same kindness in her eyes as his Ziyal. In a small way, he found it comforting to know that this girl existed, that at least one universe had not lost such a bright light. “Do you have anything that needs repairing, or clothing that needs mending? I'm deft with a needle and thread.” Let me give you something, he thought fervently, before I have to leave.

That caught Dukat by surprise. He understood the tradition of giving a gift to one’s host to show appreciation of hospitality—but this was entirely different. This was no pleasure visit, where he as host could simply not have extended an invitation…in Dukat’s mind there was no obligation. And yet—there was something in the stranger’s eyes, which didn’t seem as cold or as guarded as they had at times before. “My own clothing is simple enough that I can care for it,” he replied slowly, giving himself time to think. “For Ziyal…I have a friend who helps me with what I can’t manage for myself.” And to ask that of him…I would feel horrible for being so selfish, he silently added.

Finally, he settled on something he hoped wouldn’t physically or spiritually tax the man. After wiping his hands with the utmost care on a spare napkin, he strode over to the altar, reaching for an embroidered cloth wrapped with great diligence around a metallic band. When he returned, he set it on the other end of the table, where no one had eaten, and gently unwrapped the cloth until it lay in a perfectly flat square with a silver bracelet set with one tiny diamond-shaped shard of jevonite. The bracelet was too small for Dukat’s wrist…he’d tried that before and dared not again lest he push the tiny links beyond their endurance. Instead, he wrapped it around the fingers of his left hand, curling his fingertips gently to his palm lest it fall to the table.

“My wife’s matrimonial bracelet,” he offered. “My own was taken from me, but a dear friend of mine…he risked far more than I could ever have asked to save this and to bring it back to me after I escaped. But this is what I was hoping you might be able to help me with,” he explained, gesturing with his right hand to the cloth. “My wife embroidered this for us after our third child was born. These are their names.

Eral. Kadresh. Breka.”

The traveler, of course, could have read the names for himself—but to speak their names aloud kept their memory alive, for him. For Ziyal, these were the ascended brother and sisters who had prayed for her from the very moment her father had named her and claimed her as his own.

“There have been times we’ve had to make a hasty escape,” Dukat said. “Sometimes there hasn’t been enough time to be as gentle as I’d like to be. For the most part it’s done fine, but a few of the threads have come loose, and frayed. I wish I could fix this myself…but I’m afraid I don’t trust myself not to make things worse. I don’t know how you feel about embroidery—but might you feel comfortable with this? It’s all right if you’d rather not,” he quickly added.

Garak, too, wiped his hands very carefully and stood, much stronger on his feet now with food and fluids in him. By morning, he'd be ready for travel. He closed the short distance and stood opposite Dukat at the other side of the table. “May I?” he asked, gesturing at the small cloth. As soon as Dukat nodded, he lifted it as gently as he might a delicate feather he didn't want to ruffle. He could feel the man's eyes on him, the girl's, too, not just protective of their treasure but assessing him. Yes, if this wasn't mended soon, it would be beyond even skilled repair. He was well aware of what he held in his hands and what it meant. “It's not beyond my skill,” he said truthfully. He would never even attempt it if he believed for one moment it was. “I'd be honored to do this for you.”

He paused, wrestling with an idea and completely unsure if it would be appropriate or not. “I could...I could even add your daughter's name, Ziyal,” he offered tentatively, “or...or do that on something else, if you like?” He was stammering as badly as Rom, he reflected, but it was no wonder. He was on unfamiliar ground in more ways than one. He didn't want to cause offense or worse, hurt, and he couldn't be sure their customs were the same as his. “I'll do whatever you like,” he said. “Just let me know.” He glanced quickly at the girl and just as quickly back to the man. Looking at Dukat was safer by far.

The tall resistance fighter found himself completely without words at first. He had never imagined—thought it far too much to ever ask…but it felt right. He nodded, taking Ziyal’s hand in his. For just a moment, something flickered across his daughter’s face. “That was Mother’s…” she whispered. “I don’t know—I’m not…”

He squeezed Ziyal’s hand. Yes, Ziyal referred to his wife as ‘Mother,’ just as he had taught her…but that didn’t mean, especially in recent years, that she wasn’t aware of the circumstances of her birth. That her father—and, had she been alive, her mother—could have chosen not to acknowledge this girl born of anguish. “You are family,” he intoned in a voice that sounded almost like a Guide offering a blessing. “I will not have you kept separate.”

He looked back into the tailor’s eyes. “It is Ziyal and I who are deeply honored by your generosity. If you are willing…I would love to see her name added.”

Although it was difficult to tell time for certain in the artificial air and light of the cavern, Garak believed he had slept a few solid hours after completing the task. He had done it with this Ziyal in mind, not his own, for although the mended sections were mementos of the dead, the final daughter was living and lovely. He hoped she would stay that way for a long time to come.

He opened his eyes to the sight of Dukat bent over the table where he had left his treasure laid out carefully for him. The man's back was to him, and he reflected that it was probably for the best. He wasn't sure he wanted to see his naked reaction. He cleared his throat to let him know he was awake. "I need to leave soon," he said quietly. "I don't want to put you and yours in danger."

“Already?” Dukat questioned, deeply concerned. “You went through a lot yesterday—and there never was and never will be any obligation, for staying as long as you need to…” Something in the stranger’s eyes made him trail off, though. And it made sense. The Bajorans had to have stranded him in the desert for a reason…and Dukat had even more to worry for than Ziyal and himself. Akellen, Aamin, and Corat lived in the cavernous complex as well as other members of this cell, some who lived here full-time and others who used it as a refuge from time to time. There were other children here, too.

“If there is no way you could possibly stay another night…” The man’s phaser-like gaze drilled into him—a clear ‘no.’ Reluctantly, Dukat nodded, resigned to the inevitable. “Then at least let me give you proper clothing and supplies for your journey this time. You’ll need food and water, proper robes, and a compass…and a knife, too. Please accept them as my gift to you…you have been far, far more generous than anyone ever could, or should ask.

“But I would just warn you of one thing,” he added, and the traveler paused. “It is not safe for you to travel in the heat of the day, especially if you aren’t acclimated to this place as we are. That’s how you sickened yourself the last time—you nearly died. I implore you, at least wait until sundown, and travel in the cooler hours. There is an oasis not far from here where Kurabda nomads often camp. I can give you the general location, and if you tell them I sent you, they may be able to help you reach a city, if you have far to go.”

“I would never have braved the sun were there not a need for it,” Garak assured him. “I hate to have to take advantage of your generosity given how difficult such supplies must be to come by, but I accept and thank you for it.” He inclined his head and held the pose for a moment longer than he usually would out of genuine gratitude.

He abode with them until nightfall, keeping to himself and resting. The journey would not be an easy one, even at night. When it came close to time for him to depart, he took Dukat aside and murmured softly, “The woman I loved had your daughter's heritage and her generosity of spirit. Take care of her, and yourself. I'll pray for you, Skrain Dukat, and your daughter Ziyal. Oralius willing, we'll meet in a happier place when all of this is over for us.”

“We will,” Dukat replied with a quiet fervor, remembering a deep and beautiful vision, incomprehensible and yet understood in the most important sense. He knew. “And I would like to pray for you as well—just…Oralius knows my mind, and would know who I pray for, but I’m just Cardassian, and a name would help me.”

“Elim,” he said simply. “My name is Elim.” Never had he felt more free of his past than in that moment. He squeezed the other's shoulder and turned to face the velvet black of the night sky blanketed with stars, lifting his nose like a hound on the scent. One day his own home would have clean air again, perhaps not in his lifetime, but he could always hope.

Dukat bowed his head, closing his eyes, setting his hand upon Elim’s shoulder as the other man stared at the desert stars. With his other hand, he held Ziyal close to his side; she leaned against him for warmth as the first hints of the evening chill blew in. “I give thanks for the love of family,” he prayed, “and for the life of a stranger. I thank you for the abundance you have granted us, that there could be enough to share with another of your children when it was needed. And I pray that now, you guard and guide Elim however far he may travel—let him know always that he is never far from you. And I pray for this above all, even above a moment’s happiness, and the mortal life itself, that no matter where our journeys lead us, that we be true to the spirit you have placed in us, that our last step may be into the joy and peace of your embrace. May Fate be by Spirit so guided.”

Opening his calm grey eyes, he met the cool blue ones of Elim. “Be careful, Elim. And may you find she has made peace to grow like a seed to flower in your heart, tabun edikouv.” My friend.

“Always careful,” Garak said, gifting both of them with a smile that someone dear to him long ago, well before Ziyal, told him would make anyone who saw it tell him anything he wanted to know just for the asking, and as then, he felt it through his entire body, all the way to his toes.

His training served him well. He was able to retrace his steps by the light of the stars, this time eradicating any sign of his passage as he went. He would not lead these people's oppressors to them by his presence in this world, nor would he have potential oppressors from his Cardassia coming in to fill a power void. Two hours before dawn, he found the hole in the ground. He lowered himself into it and waited for sunrise.

“Something is happening,” one of Remal's students said, looking at the archway.

The air beneath it shimmered and swirled with energy. Castellan Ghemor's representative emerged, dressed in strange clothing and carrying a knife. He attacked the console with a speed and ferocity that took the entire team by surprise. Sparks flew, and suddenly the air beneath the arch went as dead and black as before.

“What have you done?” Remal demanded, appalled and angry.

“I'm sorry,” Garak said, “but this artifact is of no use to us. I'm going to recommend that the cave be sealed and never opened again.”

“You can't do this!” the archaeologist pleaded.

“I can, and I am,” Garak said, turning the full force of an inquisitor's gaze upon the scientist. She instinctively shrank away. “Find something else to help Cardassia. Your artifact is a dead end.”

Alon Ghemor lifted his gaze from the PADD in hand to Garak, who stood calmly before his desk with both hands laced behind his back. “This sounds incredibly far-fetched,” he said with a sigh, “even coming from you, Garak.”

“All the more reason for you to believe it,” Garak responded. “If I were lying, it would sound much more plausible.”

The Castellan frowned and set the PADD on the desk. “I had really hoped this would be something positive for us. We've taken such a beating lately in the polls.”

“Alon, you and I both know some victories aren't worth the cost,” he said, meeting the man's gaze and holding it.

Ghemor nodded and turned away. “Don't we all.” Garak was about to leave when he stopped him with his questions, “If all of this is true, why did you come back? Why didn't you just stay with them? With her?”

Garak gave it some thought before answering. “Because, Alon, this is my home. I waited too long and fought too hard to get back to it. If there's any justice to be had for any Cardassian in any universe, I will see them again, and my Ziyal, too. I'm nothing if not a patient man.” He gave him a small, odd smile and left it at that.

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