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Dr. Julian Bashir was exhausted. It had been the longest week he could remember for a fair few years, and he was very relieved that it was finally over. A whole week of mind-numbingly boring lectures and conferences was too much even when it was conducted by some of the greatest medical minds in the galaxy. As much of an honor it was to be invited to this gathering as such a young doctor, Julian felt he could very well have done without it.

As he took his seat in the transport shuttle behind two young Cardassian women, he felt his eyelids go heavy almost immediately. Well... he had a five hour trip ahead of him back to the space station, so he had plenty of time for a nap if he liked. But just as he felt himself teetering on the edge of sleep, he was jarred out of it by one of the Cardassian women in front, who was addressing her companion in a rather carrying voice, at least to his enhanced sense of hearing. He frowned and tried to ignore her, but it proved impossible. After about ten minutes of general gossip about Gul this and Legate that, he was just about to lean forwards to kindly ask the young ladies to keep their voices down when the conversation took a turn that made him completely forget about sleep.

“... and would you believe it, then he introduced himself?! I knew who he was of course, but we hadn't been formally introduced. I can't tell you how flattered I was. I mean even my father didn't introduce himself to my mother, despite all the tales she has told me about how desperately he pursued her!”

“Are you serious?! See, I told you that dress did all the right things for your figure! What did you do?”

The girl blushed a dark grey on the slice of neckridge that was visible to Bashir from the seat behind, and lowered her voice just a little.

“Well... have you seen him? I mean he's gorgeous! So how could I refuse him? We had lunch.”

The raptures of the friend went on for quite a while about the gestures of the apparently very eager Cardassian suiter her companion had been so fortunate to encounter. The doctor was very intrigued. Cardassians very rarely volunteered information about their social rituals to anyone outside their own circle, and considering how vague Garak was about practically any questions Julian asked, he was willing enough to endure quite a bit of girlish gossip to learn just a little more about Cardassian culture. In this case, courtship.

“...and then, would you belive it, he started complaining about how my dress was too bold and improper for a young woman, so of course I made him aware of the fact that it had indeed succeeded in capturing his attention. You should have seen him, he was ready to explode...”

Her voice dropped a fraction more, so Julian had to strain his ears a little to catch her next words.

“I swear, had we not been in a public place, I think he would have proposed right there!”

“Oh my! You're just so lucky! Why does that never happen to me?”

“Like I've told you before, you need to be more aggressive! Humiliate him good and proper. You're too soft, I've always told you so...”

Julian was fascinated. His mind was in overdrive comparing mental notes of mating rituals of other species. Similar to the Klingons, Cardassians apparently got their romantic vibe from hostility, albeit of a more verbal kind. The doctor concluded that a good argument was the way to go if you wanted to win your Cardassian sweetheart, and this seemed to apply to both genders.

“...oh and I haven't even told you the best part yet! When he left, he sort of slid behind my chair and put his hand on my shoulder!”

Her friend barely contained herself and gasped loudly enough to cover her own mouth and glance around the shuttle for anyone staring. Julian made sure to look out the window, while still listening intently.

“You're joking! In public?!”

“I swear, it's all true! And he said he would contact my father as soon as he was back on Cardassia! Oh Denya, he's wonderful! I really hope father likes him and allows me to see him again, even though he didn't wait for formal introductions.”

Julian pondered this for a while. He hadn't gotten the impression that Cardassians were so bound by rules in courting, but then again, it might have something to do with status. The girls were obviously rather well off, judging by their very expensive clothing and jewelry. Lunches with a tailor for years hadn't gone by without teaching the doctor a thing or two about fashion and luxury clothing. Maybe it was required in higher circles to conduct yourself with more care. He already knew from experience that scandals had brought down more than enough Cardassian politicians over time, so it made sense really.

The women spent most of the journey debating the virtues of the particular young man. Apparently he was in the military and a very promising candidate for promotion to Glinn very soon. And judging by the womens' reactions to his courting, Julian could only assume he was violently infatuated with the lucky lady. And contacting her parents? He must have more than simply carnal desires for her then.

Julian did consider for a moment asking Garak about the class differences of Cardassian society, but considering how many lies he had been subjected to in the past, the odds of getting a truthful answer seemed rather slim. But he might bring it up anyway at their next lunch. Garak was always particularly animated when the talk turned to Cardassian culture, and as frustrating as he could be, it hadn't escaped Julian that Garak was at his happiest when discussing his home world. So he supposed a few hours of annoying subterfuge was a small price to pay, to ensure some small pleasure for his friend. And the banter always reached the best peaks when the discussions got animated, thereby also providing Julian with plenty of entertainment.

It was always a diverting challenge to find ways to get under the Cardassian's skin, even though Garak had the upper hand nine times out of ten. But then again, that made the victory so much sweeter when it did happen. He might still be a novice on Cardassian norms, but he did know Garak rather well by now, and was feeling more and more equal to the intricate jabs at his intellect he was subjected to at every single lunch.

Julian smiled as he thought back to their last lunch, right before he left for the week. He had gotten a particularly cutting remark across and Garak had been too infuriated through the rest of the lunch to even attempt a reply. But Julian knew him well enough to not be surprised, when he was bidden farewell at the airlock later by a perfectly friendly Garak. Their next lunch the following day would no doubt be challenging, as Garak must have been spending the week planning how to get the upper hand again. Oh well. It was all in good fun.

Julian did begin to wonder if some of Garak's ideas were rubbing off on him. He could easily remember how confused and somewhat hurt he had felt at the first many of Garak's insults, but as they had never parted with hostility, he had always kept coming back out of intense curiosity. By now it was second nature to him to expect a heated argument at least once a week... and even to look forward to it.

These thoughts kept his mind busy until he arrived at Deep Space Nine. It was late by station time, so it would fit perfectly if he turned in immediately. The Promenade was all but empty as he made his way to his quarters. Rubbing his eyes and yawning, he failed to notice that the lights were still on in Garak's closed shop and that the man himself was in the window, rearranging the displayed items.

When he spotted the doctor passing by, his face lit up and he immediately dropped what he was holding to bolt out of the door and catch him before he was many steps away.

“Doctor! How nice to see you back again. I trust you had a pleasant trip?”

Julian jumped a little at the voice right behind him, but smiled never the less when he recognized his friend.

“Hello Garak. Well... to be honest it was terribly boring.”

The very familiar expression of mock outrage appeared instantly on the tailor's face.

“Boring?! You've spent a full week in the company of brilliant minds in your very own field, and you found it boring? I thought you said it was an honor to even be there?”

Julian yawned again and adjusted the strap of the bag over his shoulder.

“An honor yes... but that didn't make it any less boring listening to dusty old professors with about as much charisma as one of your clothing racks.”

Garak rolled his eyes.

“Really, what is it with humans and disrespect for their elders? On Cardassia, young people listen when the older and more experienced talk. It's a sign of respect and let's face it, the greatest advantage of advanced age is the wisdom of experience, so there is an obvious reason to listen and learn, obvious even for a dimwitted human – no offence. Frankly I'm disappointed to find that you didn't take advantage of the unique opportunity to learn directly from so many of your elders.”

Julian yawned again, and decided that he would leave the rest of this otherwise entertaining debate until their next lunch.

“Garak... it's late and I'm very tired. I promise, you can spend the whole of our next lunch lecturing me about proper respect for my elders, but right now I really need some sleep. So... see you at the replimat tomorrow?”

Garak sighed in that overbearing way that clearly said he considered the doctor very inconsiderate, but he was still perfectly polite when he wished the doctor goodnight and gently squeezed his shoulder as a parting gesture.

Julian turned away smiling and proceeded towards his quarters. He was struck by the memory of the very first time he met Garak. How he had introduced himself and played all surprised when Julian stammered out the rumors he had already heard of the Cardassian spy. The mock offended face had been the same. He had been so nervous. He had been so sure that Garak had wanted to milk him of all the Starfleet secrets he didn't know anyway. He remembered with a grin how shocked he had been when Garak had put his large, warm hands on his shoulders as he left...

Suddenly his heart stopped. He froze in his tracks and promptly dropped everything he was carrying. He felt like his mind had suddenly decided to have a major meltdown, as the new information of the day coupled with memories and suddenly formed dizzying new patters.

No no no no no.... it couldn't be... he couldn't have...

As much as he felt the world suddenly turning inside out, his brain wouldn't let him ignore the facts that suddenly made all too much sense.

Informal introduction... aggressive debates... hands on shoulders... Julian felt his knees turn to jelly and reached out for the bulkhead for support. No... no he was being silly. He was jumping to conclusions here. He was sure Garak had introduced himself to people before...but a voice chirped in his brain: 'perhaps, but who else caught his eye across a room full of people?'.

No. No Julian was sure he couldn't be the only one exposed to the playful arguing... he strained his mind to the extreme trying to find an instance where he had seen Garak arguing with anyone like he did with him. Playfully, continually, purposely insulting... Come on... there had to be at least one other person...

And then there was the touching. Try as he might, he couldn't think of a single person Garak had ever touched outside of his profession... except maybe that Cardassian kid... but he had also nearly bitten his hand off, so maybe had he sensed on a deeper plane that it was an intimate gesture. Also... hadn't Julian himself jumped at the contact? Hadn't it sent his heart racing with sudden uncertainty? Hadn't he wondered that very same day exactly what the tailor wanted?

His heart was about to pop out of his chest and he suddenly couldn't just stand there anymore. Letting luggage be luggage, he ran full speed back to Garak's shop. But the lights were now out, and the tailor had obviously left for the night. Julian considered simply going to the Cardassian's quarters, but stopped dead in his tracks again. What would he say? 'Hello Garak, just dropped by to ask if you've been flirting wildly with me for last few years?'. Not only did it sound stupid, but what on earth would happen if he found out it was true? Would Garak try to seduce him? Was that what he was already doing?

Julian got dizzy again, and decided he'd better get back to his quarters. He suddenly felt dead tired. The emotional turmoil was exhausting and he dragged himself back to his quarters, his brain buzzing with new, strange thoughts all the way. And for that exact reason, the sleep he so badly craved eluded him for hours and hours. So many questions... and the worst part was, there were absolutely nobody he could ask. At least nobody who would know... except of course the man himself. Oh this was insanely frustrating!

It was just so... so... Garak! To make him feel this way and toy with his feelings for his own savage amusement... but then again, he must have noticed along the way, that Julian didn't understand the Cardassian flirtation as he never responded... oh dear god... what if that's what he had been doing for years? Returning the flirtatious acts without knowing it? Had he not struggled to give back what Garak did to him? To return the favour and win his little victories. What if Garak had seen it as favorable responses to his advances?

And worse still... he had after only a very short while accepted the - in his eyes - casual caresses of the Cardassian, and even returned them occasionally. Oh God he had been so stupid! He had from his treatment of a few Cardassians in the infirmary learned early on that the neckridges and shoulders were very sensitive indeed. And here he had been fondling Garak's presumably erogenous zones frequently for years! In Public!

Even though he was quite alone in his quarters, he was so embarrassed that he hid his face in his hands and felt his whole body burn from the awkwardness of the whole thing. And how had poor Garak interpreted his responses? Had he unknowingly given his friend hope, where there was none?

After mulling over it for a while his logic took over. If he had been responding favorably, why hadn't Garak made a serious move yet? Some of his signals must have been directly negative, even considering he was a human. If Garak still was encouraged by his actions after years and years of flirting, he would have to be either very much in love to keep waiting for Julian, or he was simply keeping up his advances for amusement while hoping that maybe some day Julian would give in, without really wanting anything but... sex. Either scenario was frightening to say the least.

Ok... there was nothing left to do but prepare for each possible scenario. He could keep things as they were. Garak didn't know about his newfound understanding after all, but given that he still didn't know exactly what Garak deduced from his behaviour, he found it at best a temporary solution.

He could also choose to assume that it was all a huge misunderstanding and simply stop doing things he now knew would be encouraging to his friend. He could tell him what he had learned in a way that wouldn't unsettle Garak too much, and he'd learned enough from his excellent conversational skills to simply wrap up his words in a way that would probably not be too bad. He could try to make it look innocent and pretend he had never noticed the advances from his side. Julian could immediately see a huge hole in that plan. Garak would not be fooled. And he would hide it well, but he would with absolute certainty be either embarrassed or hurt. And neither was acceptable to Julian. It would most likely put an end to their relationship. No. He would not choose that solution unless he saw no other way.

So... that left one last option... so far the most unsettling. He could... simply let Garak... have him. Putting his unease about the idea aside for a minute, he considered it thoroughly. If it was just sex, then their friendship might survive through it. It just might. But if Garak was in love with him... then there was a real problem. Because Julian was most certainly not in love.

Right... so far the most favorable option in all respects, was to assume there was no love involved and let himself be seduced. But that lead to another important question. Could he consider Garak an object of sexual interest? The part that he was male was not half as intimidating as the other obvious differences, like race and age. Julian had thought of men before as objects of desire, but had never met one he felt comfortable enough with to go through with anything. He had no doubts at all that Garak would be an excellent lover. He knew him well enough to know that as much sting he had in conversation, just as gentle could his touch be and he would never do anything to genuinely hurt him in any way.

That thought was comforting and Julian finally laid himself back on his bed, letting his eyes go out of focus, while playing out a possible scenario in his mind. He imagined Garak as he always was. Polite, hinting at intimate scenarios. In his mind's eye, Julian let the hand Garak always placed on his shoulder move as if on it's own accord. To his neck, gently cradling the back of his head. Fingers running through his hair, stroking his cheek. So far, no real unease. So what if Garak kissed him?

He pictured Garak's face in front if him, moving in, slowly, sensually, before finally capturing his lips in a gentle kiss. Carefully exploring and enjoying. The doctor in him caught the signs before his concious self connected the dots. He heard himself breathe heavily and felt heat spread dangerously fast on his face and neck. He was just about to get up and check his temperature, when the image of a naked, sweating, panting and moaning Garak sprang into his mind and something easily recognizable sprang to attention quite suddenly. He bolted upright in his bed, shocked at his own reaction.

Well... that was... unexpected to say the least. Maybe it was just the frustrations of the journey manifesting themselves in this way, since Garak was so much present in his mind right then. As an experiment he tried to imagine the naked form of the last woman he had slept with. She had been very hot. No doubt about it. But she had not been relationship material. Thankfully, she had felt the same way. So he had no scruples picturing her flushed face and pliable body under his, like it had been last time. To his surprise however, his lower body was thoroughly unimpressed.

Hmm. He couldn't remember a time when the image of one of his previous lovers hadn't brought at least a blush to his cheeks. All there was room for in his mind at present seemed to be a certain Cardassian. Oh boy. This was going to be tricky. He resigned himself to facing the thoughts surfacing no matter what he did, so he laid back down and let his mind wander. Predictably, his mind jumped right back to the image of a very aroused Cardassian claiming his body with firm stroking and thrusting.

Before half an hour had passed, Julian had finally admitted defeat and hurriedly stroked himself to completion with his mind as a very willing visual aid. Breathing heavily and feeling horribly sleep deprived, he decided he would sleep on it, and decide what to do in the morning. After all, he was still technically on leave, so he could use his free morning to consider the matter and then talk to Garak at lunch, no matter what he decided. That seemed a fair compromise and he finally dozed off in the early hours of the morning.

Predictably, nothing went as planned. He slept very late, and only barely had time to freshen up before he was to meet Garak at the replimat. So as he made his way to the promenade he was acutely aware that he was utterly unable to conceal his unease. He arrived first and sat at the table fidgeting until his lunch companion showed up. He twitched as soon as he spotted Garak entering the replimat and blushed uncontrollably when the Cardassian smiled at him as usual. The reaction of course didn't go unnoticed and Julian felt himself be perused intently as Garak sat down.

Barely through the initial greetings, Julian had to admit defeat. He couldn't possibly attempt to hide this from Garak. The older man had exceptional observational skills and would probably have picked up that something was amiss, even if Julian had been able to keep a straight face. Which he most certainly wasn't, due to his overactive imagination currently supplying him with images from his earlier fantasy, with the added terrifying bonus of hearing, seeing and smelling the real Garak. But Garak seemed merciful enough to let the subject rest initially and they ate in an atmosphere pretty much like their usual one. Garak had of course taken Julian up on his word and spent a good deal of time lecturing him about the proper respect that should be shown to one's elders.

Sadly, Julian couldn't hide his relief either, as the subject was far from his thoughts, so he was hardly offended. He should have known that his lack of reaction would prompt his companion to try new paths to make him uneasy. And with his usual sharpness, Garak managed to suddenly turn the subject slightly around, to push exactly the buttons that were tender to Julian. He was just chewing the last of his food, when Garak casually remarked that another good reason to respect those older than you, was the obvious fact that older people were more sexually desirable.

Julian choked on his food and through his watering eyes, he just caught a quickly concealed triumphant grin on Garak's face. Oh god. He was doomed.

“My dear doctor, are you alright? I've told you before that it's no good bolting down your food like that.”

Seizing the opportunity of another subject (Garak's favorite insult seemed to be Julians eating habits) he flared up and immediately offered the offended face Garak wanted to achieve. But alas, he should have known he wouldn't get off so easily.

“There's nothing wrong with the way I eat! I simply eat faster than you. Nothing wrong with that.”

Garak rolled his eyes.

“Nothing wrong indeed. Coming from the man currently coughing his lungs out all over the table. You know, you should just generally slow down. How are you ever going to enjoy anything if you hurry through it? Do you see what I mean about the advantages of age? As you age, you learn to slow down, and consequently derive more pleasure from all the joys life has to offer.”

Julian felt himself blush again, but made a valiant effort.

“So you're saying that you get more pleasure from this food than I do? Is that it?”

Garak smiled wryly and all Julian's alarms went off in his head at the twinkle in Garak's eye. He got the distinct feeling that he had just walked into a trap.

“Alas, this particular meal has little to offer I fear. I'm sampling the pleasures of human culture you see, and this... this... stew is simply not to my taste. But I'm convinced that if I keep looking I'll surely find other elements of the human race to satisfy my... tastes.”

The meaningful look at Julian had exactly the calculated effect, and the doctor squirmed in his seat, knowing he was busted. He hadn't been this flustered by Garak's innuendoes since their very first lunch. Well... he supposed he might as well get it over with. It would be wormed out of him soon anyway. He folded his hands on the table and tried to avoid Garak's eyes as he began:

“Look, Garak... we need to talk...”

To his intense surprise however, he was cut off.

“I'm very sorry doctor, but it seems time has eluded us, and I must return to my shop.”

Julian glanced at the chronometer on the wall, and found it was true. Their lunch hour was actually over. With surprise he watched Garak leave with his usual hints that he would be 'very' welcome in his shop if he wished to talk more.

He couldn't belive how Garak had let him off the hook like that. He could be in no doubt what was on Julian's mind, so why had he let him go? Maybe... maybe Garak didn't want things to change between them? Julian sighed heavily. He couldn't stop the change. It had started the second his brain connected the dots, and now there was no way back. So how to deal with it? Honestly, he had no clue. Mostly because he very much doubted he would ever find out what Garak wanted. If he asked he would probably be served a lie, and even if he didn't, how would he know? The boy who cried wolf and all... And there was no denying it, Garak was a superb liar.

He slowly made his way back to his quarters, planning of reviewing some medical files before his leave was over tomorrow. But when he sat down with the files, he knew it was a lost cause. He was simply to preoccupied. And all of a sudden, something else occurred to him. He had completely forgotten to take his own feelings into consideration. Sure, he 'could' be Garak's lover, but would he want to? Considering his thoughts of the night before, he had to admit that he felt an attraction.

What did he want? He wanted to keep having lunch with his most intellectually stimulating friend, that's what. He didn't want to lose Garak. And frankly he didn't feel like changing his way of interacting with him, even if it bordered on sexual advances. From his very human perspective, the touching was wonderful. For him it felt very natural and Garak's touch had been one of the few things in their relationship he had ever found to be a perfectly clear message. That Garak was indeed fond of him.

So what if he had misunderstood the deeper meaning? Julian suddenly got an intense urge to go the the tailor's shop. Not to talk, but to touch. He wanted to feel the touch again, to be confirmed in the warmth of the gesture, and return it with his newfound knowledge. And if their relationship advanced into something more... he still felt very unsure, but he wanted it. He wanted something more, now that he suddenly had the chance to reach out and take it. Was he in love after all? Or was it simply because he was swept off his feet by the apparently very deep affection his friend had shown him for years without his knowledge? Nobody had ever wanted Julian badly enough too keep up advances for so long. Years... years of gestures and teasing suggestions.

And all of a sudden, he knew how he could find out if Garak wanted to advance their relationship. How could he not have seen it before? It was so simple! Garak had told him about it himself (and in this particular case he had a sneaking suspicion it was the truth or very close to). Body language and actions spoke so much clearer than words and it was a very valid interrogation method. On Cardassia you could even be judged for a crime with no other evidence than your bodily reaction to the right questions. He knew Garak wouldn't betray much, but he had the advantage of knowing him very well, and had great hopes of catching him with his guard down if he just went about it right.

The plan formed rapidly in his mind. And best of all... it was going to be damn fun! With a grin like a giddy schoolboy, he went back to his medical files, while looking forward to their next lunch.

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