After re-fighting the Battle of Britain for the hundredth time, shooting down Jerries and saving England once again, O'Brien and Bashir came down from the holosuite on the uppermost level of Quark's to have a couple of synthales at the bar.
While they sat with their drinks, Julian noticed Garak at a nearby table, having lunch with Ziyal. The tailor was expounding on the relative merits of the authors Preloc and Iloja Prim, and the girl was hanging on every word.
He watched them, recalling when _he_ had been a somewhat less enthusiastic student of Cardassian literature. "They've been seeing a lot of each other lately," he observed with a mild note of reproof.
Miles turned on his barstool to see who Julian was referring to. "So? Kira's been keeping a close eye on them. You can bet she'll come down hard if Garak tries anything with that girl."
"It's not Ziyal I'm worried about," answered Bashir. "It'sGarak. He's making himself ridiculous. She's far too young for him--Ziyal could almost be _my_ daughter."
O'Brien chuckled. "Jealous, Julian?"
"What do you mean?"
"You couldn't keep Garak to yourself forever. Frankly, I'm glad it's over with--I never liked the idea of you 'n' him."
Julian stared at his friend, not believing what he was hearing. "Miles,
Garak and I- we're aren't- We _never_-" he stammered,
and felt his face grow hot. "Whatever made you _think_-?"
"Well, you were awfully chummy with him for awhile--it seemed only natural to assume. Besides, Dax once told me you were."
"Dax," Julian repeated with a sinking feeling. "It must be all over the station."
"Come off it, Julian. It's been common knowledge for months now...isn't that right, Quark?" O'Brien raised his voice to address the Ferengi, who was just setting down fresh mugs of ale and obviously listening in.
Quark shrugged. "Old news."
The shock of this disturbing information never entirely wore off that day, and when Bashir saw Dax on the Promenade the next morning, he felt the same hot stab of humiliation as if he were hearing the "old news" all over again. But he stepped out of the Infirmary to draw her aside for a whispered conversation.
"Jadzia, I can't believe you've been telling people that I'm sleeping with Garak," he hissed. "How _could_ you?"
"I only told Chief O'Brien," she answered, "and Benjamin-"
"The captain..." Bashir murmured miserably. This was getting worse and worse.
"And Odo. I wasn't trying to spread rumors, Julian. There
was already gossip going around, and they were concerned--not just that
there might be a security breach, but for you, what you were getting yourself
into. The captain, O'Brien, they were genuinely worried when they
noticed how much time you spent with Garak, and when they asked me what
_I_ thought, I gave them my honest opinion. I said I didn't think
you were in any danger,
and the best thing to do was let the affair run its course rather than try to put a stop to it. You were obviously crazy about him-"
Bashir gave a little yelp of protest, and Dax hastened to explain: "Well, what else could I think? You used to follow him around so eagerly. And what about that time Garak was ill? I _saw_ how upset you were, the lengths you went to to save him. And you were so worried when he and Odo went looking for Enabran Tain and were captured by the Romulans. And," her tone became less defensive, more sympathetic, "I can see how depressed you've been since the two of you broke up."
"We didn't break up! We never dated--or anything else!"
"You met for lunch at least once a week regularly for more than two years," Dax replied. "It looked like dating to me. Julian, I'm sorry if had the wrong impression." She shrugged in apology. "But considering everything I saw going on between you and Garak, I just assumed..."
What filthy minds people had! Just because two men innocently had lunch together, everyone "just assumed" they must be lovers as well!
*What next?* Julian wondered glumly. *Now that they think I've broken off with Garak, I suppose they believe my holosuite games with Miles are a cover for a torrid love-affair!*
Although no one was actually looking at him, he felt self-conscious and embarrassed sitting alone at the Replimat. The scene of the crime, so to speak, where he and his presumed lover had had all those illicit lunches. No one stared--but why should they? As Quark had said, it was old news.
He couldn't blame Dax for the gossip; she wasn't the only one who had automatically jumped to the conclusion that he was sexually involved with his Cardassian friend. Far from it.
Had he inadvertently encouraged these speculations? Was it something they saw in him? His looks? His mannerisms? This wasn't the first time that someone had made this mistaken assumption about him: Back in his school days, before he'd found a girlfriend, there had been one or two other awkward incidents. Men who had-
With a fresh jolt, Julian recalled the way Garak had introduced himself all those years ago: "You are new to this station, I believe?" The suggestiveness in every reply to his innocent remarks. That parting touch upon his shoulders. Had Garak seen that same thing in him, and initiated this friendship in hopes of something more?
He started at the unexpected sound of Garak's voice and, as he looked up at the tailor standing over him, blushed as guiltily as if they had been caught in some forbidden tryst.
"Are you all right?" the tailor asked with a note of genuine concern. "You seem preoccupied."
"I'm fine," he answered. "It's just that I've heard some- er-" He decided to confide in Garak; after all, his friend had a right to know what was being said about them. "Garak, I just learned that there's gossip going around the station--about you and me."
Garak's look of concern faded. "Oh, that."
Bashir gaped at him. "You _knew_?"
"Yes, of course."
"And you never told me-" His voice rose as he left his chair.
"Really, Doctor," Garak tried to take him by the arm and guide him out of the Replimat, but Julian, still aware of the people around them, pulled back. The tailor's eyes sparkled with amusement at his reluctance. "Doctor, please, come with me. Surely you don't wish to discuss this in public?"
The last thing Bashir wanted was more public exposure. Ducking his head, he followed Garak to his shop.
"Now, what seems to be the problem?" Garak asked once they were alone.
"You know what the problem is, Garak!" Bashir snapped back in irritation, and with a new suspicion. "_You_ didn't start these wild rumors, did you?"
"No," but he smiled as he answered.
"But you never tried to put a stop to them? You just stood by and let people think we-" he faltered at saying the words out loud, "that we're lovers?"
"What else was I to do? If I had told the truth, do you think anyone would have believed me? On the contrary--it would only have furthered their suspicions. People will talk, Doctor, with or without provocation. There have been stories about us for years. I must say, I'm surprised to learn that they're still being circulated. You would think they might've grown bored with scrutinizing our relationship by now and moved on to something more interesting."
"Doesn't it upset you?"
"Not at all." He was still smiling. "I found the assumption rather flattering. But I'm curious as to why _you_ are so distressed. Is the thought that you and I might be lovers really so unpleasant?"
"Not 'unpleasant'," Julian conceded, when he had a epiphany. That was exactly what it was--not unpleasant. He felt so guilt-stricken because he _had_ thought of Garak before, but never dared to acknowledge it, even to himself.
Other people must have seen it, and understood better than he did. And what about Garak? He'd just said that he was flattered by the assumption...of what? That they could be lovers? That Garak had been able to get _him_?
Julian thought again of the first time Garak had approached him. If the Cardassian had intended to seduce him, then his efforts had failed. He'd settled for the friendship, but now even _that_ was waning. How bitterly disappointed Garak must be--and what a fool _he_ had been. Had he thrown it all away?
"The latest gossip has it that we've broken up," he said tentatively.
"I hadn't heard that," Garak answered. "But I suppose it's the only reasonable conclusion. We don't enjoy each other's company as much as we used to."
"What happened to us, Elim?"
Garak began to regard him with a glimmer of curiosity. "Oh...we've drifted apart, I suppose. It's the little things that make the biggest differences in the end. A gunshot wound here, the attempted destruction of a planet there, and the friendship just isn't the same."
Julian laughed, relieved that the tailor could allude to these once-painful events without rancor. It encouraged him to go on. "You've been seeing a lot of Ziyal." Miles had been right; he was jealous. But could he blame Garak for turning to a more promising subject for his interest--someone younger and more attentive?
"She's a child. A delightful lunch companion--naive, eager to learn. She reminds me of you, Doctor, as you were when we first met."
"So there's nothing-?"
"No," said Garak. "Two people can have lunch together now and again without there being anything between them. They might simply be...good friends." But there was a depth of meaning behind his words that made Bashir stare at him searchingly.
"As a matter of fact," Garak continued in the same meaningful tone, "I believe you were about to have your lunch when I interrupted. Perhaps I might join you? We could share a meal, just as we used to."
When Julian froze at this invitation, the tailor lowered his eyes and said, "I see."
"It's not that I don't-"
"It's all right, Doctor," Garak cut him off swiftly. "I do understand. You don't wish to revive all those wild rumors, after they've been so distressing to you. You needn't worry--I won't embarrass you again." And he turned and walked out.
"Elim-" Bashir murmured with immediate regret. He didn't know how far he was prepared to go, but he couldn't just let a man he cared about--had thought about; he was ready to admit that now--walk away hurt because he was afraid of what people might think. Who bloody cared? If he and Garak couldn't have lunch once in awhile like friends, how could they ever be anything more?
"Elim!" he shouted, and ran to catch Garak before it was too late.