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Garak heard the door of his small house open and close gently, just as he woke up. Despite the fact the he had hardly any enemies to worry about, his training still forced him into the habit of full alertness at any unexpected noise. Listening to the light footfall he relaxed again after merely a few seconds. Her hesitant step was very unique. Merla; his young protegé. Oh so shy and quiet, but with an excellent mind. He'd even gone so far as teach her code breaking. She was brilliant at it, although there was probably going to be very little use for it on this new Cardassia that felt so foreign to him.

With a barely suppressed groan he sat up in bed and clearly heard how all his joints scraped and popped all the way. Old age was a time of dignity, but he had to confess that some mornings his body didn't seem to agree. His joints were particularly bothersome this morning. He would have to ask Merla for some of that tea his doctor gave him. Or the 'Head Interrogator' as he liked to call him. Always asking questions. How do you feel, what do you eat, do you get enough sleep. Bah.

A quiet knock on the door announced Merla and she waited patiently until he replied. She was very respectful. As it should be. Most other young people he saw these days were certainly not. Like that horrid woman the 'Head Interrogator' sent to see him once. Waltzing in without permission, fussing like some sort of wet nurse over her baby. It was intolerable.

“Enter.”

Merla smiled and bid him good morning, with the added bonus of a cup of tea in her hand. He could smell it from the door. The special tea. Ah, she was indeed a gem. She must have guessed he would need it on this chilly morning. He remained in bed under his cover, sipping the tea and waiting for it to take effect, while she quietly went about their morning routine and laid out some clothes for him. Thankfully she had an excellent eye for color coordinating too. The thought made him smile. What would his young friend think of him if he told her he had been a tailor once for several years? And had been damn good at it. She probably wouldn't believe him.

“Is the Head Interrogator coming by this morning, Merla?”

She nodded and as always blushed a little at the alternative name for an otherwise very esteemed Cardassian doctor.

“Yes, Sir. He should be here in an hour. Would you like breakfast before he arrives?”

“No thank you, my dear, that won't be necessary.”

She nodded respectfully and left him to dress. No. No breakfast. What was the point? He already knew what the doctor would tell him. His body had been very clear about it for the last week. It was shutting down. No use forcing the issue. His time had come. The sweet young lady would no doubt protest to the news and claim he was much too young to die of old age. That was one of her greatest flaws, but also her most endearing trait. The unwillingness to face loss. She would not have been very useful in the Empire of his childhood, but in this new one, she might actually get far. There was much call for compassion on this still struggling world.

It took him the better part of the hour to get dressed and only because he trusted and cared for his young protegé, did he allow her to gently comb his steel grey hair. He did always prefer to be presentable, even in the face of torture. As soon as the pale, old doctor arrived, she quietly excused herself. The doctor sat down on a stool next to the comfortable armchair, where Garak spent most of his time of late. Handing him the padd with his latest test results, he looked sad and apologetic.

“Well, Garak. I suppose the latest results won't tell you anything you didn't know already?”

Garak smiled and handed the padd back after a quick glance.

“Indeed not. But thank you for stopping by anyway for a last visit.”

The doctor looked down and folded his hands.

“Is there anything I can do for you? Ease your pain perhaps? Call someone?”

Garak leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes.

“No thank you. Who would you call? I have no family. And the pain? Well. The tea is still enough. And I doubt it will last much longer.”

Opening his eyes again, he smiled at the worried, ridged face, almost as old as his own.

“Oh now, don't look so grim. When it's time, it's time. And Merla is a very sweet girl. She will understand the honor of the Shri-tal.”

With a heavy sigh, the doctor rose to leave again. No point in hanging around after all. There were no more questions to ask.

“Farewell, Garak. I hope we meet again, though I won't expect it.”

“I know. And thank you, sir. Good day to you.”

As the door closed behind the doctor, Merla was back by his side, fussing with setting up the little table he had his meals on. He reached out for her hand and stopped her movement.

“What can I do for you, Sir?”

He smiled warmly at her.

“Sit.”

Without argument, she sat down on the stool just vacated by the doctor and watched his face with worry almost radiating off her.

“Are you all right, Sir?”

“Oh yes. Everything is as it's supposed to be. It's my time, Merla.”

Her shocked face was nothing more than he expected.

“Oh surely not, Sir! You're still fit and healthy...”

He silenced her with a stern look.

“No, my dear. It has been many years since I was fit and months at least since I was last healthy. No. My time is here. And I need you now.”

Her eyes widened with surprise as she understood.

“Why me? Why not your family?”

He smiled overbearingly at her.

“What family would that be? No. You are the closest thing I have to family. And I wouldn't have it any other way.”

She blinked rapidly, trying to stop the tears, when he squeezed her hand. A quiet sob escaped her before she collected herself again.

“Very well, Sir. I am ready.”

Garak sighed and let his head fall back again.

“Actually, my dear, I have no secrets left that are not better left unsaid. But I would like to show you something, that might change your view of me.”

“Never, Sir.”

A small chuckle escaped him, and he opened his eyes again to meet the pale green ones of his friend.

“In the bottom drawer of my desk, there is a data rod. Everything I would like you to know is on it, but I would ask you to destroy it after I'm gone.”

She nodded and immediately went to the desk and found the rod.

“Would you like for me to read it now?”

He nodded and sighed as he relaxed in his chair.

“Yes please. It might take you a while, but look it all over please. Oh, and it's coded of course. But you are very skilled. Consider it practise. Let me know if you haven't figured it out in an hour.”

With that he settled down and allowed Merla to tug a warm blanket around him, before she took the rod to the viewer.

Surprised at it's complexity, it did take her almost a full hour to break the codes. She wondered very much what could be on it, to require such protection.

When she finally managed to open the first file, she was surprised to find a Human birth certificate.

Julian Subatoi Bashir.

She opened more files and found yet more official documents regarding this Julian Bashir. Copies of school evaluations, report cards, physical examinations, graduation papers, military record, transfer papers. The list went on and on. The latest mention was of the now retired Doctor Bashir, apparently living on Risa alone. There was even a record of test results done not five months ago, concerning an unfounded worry of cancer. The doctor still seemed to be in good health.

The next files were almost entirely images. Holos and photos of the doctor from his infancy to one seemingly a few years old, from his retirement party. And it was not only the doctor himself. There were pictures of everything he had ever been affiliated with. Schools he attended, houses he lived in, people he knew, friends and family.

He was a tall man, heavily bearded, with only streaks of dark hair left in his full, grey mane. Slightly hunched over, but still lean for his age and his face was all smile-induced wrinkles. The beard did nothing to conceal that this man smiled always. Even the oldest, gritty holos could easily convey the twinkling eyes and easy manner of this Human.

Further search revealed audio and video recordings of the man. Sub space communications - several of them stamped classified, but somehow obtained anyway by Garak. Private messages to his parents and friends, a few recordings of lectures he had done and even a news interview from earth about a thesis he had published.

In a moment of curiosity, Merla went to the bookcase behind the desk. There were several classic works from multiple worlds in their old leather or paper bound form, but the lower shelf seemed dedicated to Terran literature. And sure enough, there were three large medical works by the very same Doctor Bashir. The volumes were worn, but well cared for. Obviously read and reread over a period of many years.

Bringing one of the volumes with her back to the viewer, she read on, after glancing at Garak's slumbering form in his chair. She opened the heavy book and read the dedication. To his friends and fellow researchers. None named. A loopy signature in green ink was on the first page. She traced her fingers over it. Not copied. This was manually signed.

Opening yet more files on the viewer, the information on Julian Bashir turned more personal. This particular segment seemed devoted to any message ever passed to Garak himself. A handful of subspace transmissions, about a dozen audio messages and at least fifty or so written letters. Skimming through some of them, the first thing that struck her was that Doctor Bashir apparently never received any reply to his letters. He was always saying how he hoped for a reply someday soon, but that he would keep writing, even though the letters didn't reach their destination.

The day crept away at the viewer, and before opening the last large chunk of files, she checked on the still sleeping Garak. Apparently in no distress, she let him sleep and read the last there was. Her heart twisted in grief at the immense collection here. Letters. Poems. Songs. Hundreds and hundreds. All for Julian Bashir. None of them ever sent. The intense love for this Human was jumping off the files and and Merla cried as she read.

Again and again there were lengthy apologies for never returning and making up for lost time. Explanations upon explanations about why he could never have made him happy as he deserved and how it was simply against his nature to choose love over his duty. How he hoped the lies between them protected him as he had planned. How he missed him. How he regretted his decision to leave their relationship behind, and how he bitterly acknowledged that it could never be undone.

How he berated himself this weakness of love, making him second guess himself time and time again. How angry he was that he could not control this. And yet, how thankful he was for being blessed with such feelings. How happy he had always been in Bashir's company. How their short years of knowing each other was more worth to him than he could possible describe.

Wiping her eyes, she finally left the viewer and went back to the stool next to her mentor. After a few minutes he stirred. His training obviously still made him aware of her presence. His bleary eyes opened only half way, but he smiled at her and patted her hand, when she laid it on his arm.

“So... now you see. I am weak.”

His croaking voice made her cry again, and she wiped the tears away angrily.

“How can you say that, Sir? You did what you had to. What you believed in. If you had stayed with him, you would have betrayed yourself.”

Sniffling she squeezed his arm with urgency.

“But why...Why did you never tell him?”

Garak's face was a bitter mask.

“What good would it have done? This way, at least only I feel the regrets. He still has a chance of happiness.”

“How do you know his happiness wasn't supposed to come from you?”

The eyes closed again, and a shuddering breath was raspingly drawn in with great effort.

“Believe me, my dear, I have spent the last fifty years asking myself that question. But I made my choice.”

His breathing was suddenly laboured and she hurriedly checked his erratic pulse. His time was running out.

“Sir... are you sure you want me to destroy it all? Do you not want me to give it to him?”

Garak shook his head weakly.

“No. No, my decision is final. What you do with the knowledge is your choice, but the files must disappear. They can be damaging to him, even now.”

Merla nodded and held on to the large hand, slowly growing chilly as the sunlight drowned in the lake behind the small house. The setting sun reflected in the tired blue eyes, opening to look at her.

“Know, my dear, that I'm very thankful for the time you've been with me. You've shown me respect I never honestly hoped to receive. I am very proud of you and I know you'll get far. I don't own much, but what I have is yours.”

Giving up any kind of self control, Merla broke down sobbing. Garak simply smiled and patted her hand weakly.

“Now, my dear. Give me a smile to send me on my way. No good leaving to the sound of tears.”

After several shuddering breaths she finally regained control and sent him a weak smile.

“That's a good girl.”

Feeling his breath shallowing, he knew his time was up. Turning his eyes to the beautiful Cardassian sunset that always made his heart soar he saw for the first time not the stunning beauty of the scenery. Instead, in the blinding light, he saw again, as if for the first time, the smiling face of that young, beautiful Human being. The gentle touch of the slender hands. The graceful movements of the lean figure. Laughing eyes dancing for his pleasure only, in the steam of a teacup. The thrill of that quiet laugh. The one just for him.

The bitter regret seeped out of him. In the quiet second after his last rasping breath he heard again in his mind:

“I forgive you.”

And his heart soared as it stopped.


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