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“Please, Doctor. Spare me your insufferable Federation optimism. Of course it will survive, but not as the Cardassia I knew. We had a rich and ancient culture. Our literature, music, art were second to none. And now, so much of it is lost. So many of our best people, our most gifted minds.” Bitterness permeated his tone and he couldn’t be bothered to shove it down.

“I'm sorry, Garak. I didn't mean…” Dr. Bashir looked so apologetic, but of course he did. Julian was so kind that even the folly of the Cardassian Empire was enough to elicit sympathy.

“Oh, it's quite alright, Doctor. You've been such a good friend. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank you for your kindness over the last seven years.” Normally preparing for what he was about to say would make him feel nervous, but after the events of the past months he just felt a hollow sadness. Cardassia was in ruins, and there was no guarantee that he would see Julian Bashir ever again.

“You don’t have to thank me for that, Garak. I’m your friend. There’s been no undeserved kindness.”

Of course he would think that! Of course he would undervalue his own traits.

“But I’ve been so overt. You’ve never once thrown my feelings for you in my face. Someone less kind, less generous would have balked at a friendship with someone so clearly in love with them. But you were always so forgiving of my tendency towards that particular sentiment.” He sighed, not looking up. There was no point in seeing the pity that would no doubt paint Julian Bashir’s face.

“Wait, what?”

Garak finally looked up to see an almost comical level of shock playing about the doctor’s face. Elim had revealed something rather less obvious than he had thought. Cool panic settled in his gut. Well, there went the possibility of any future correspondence between the two.

“Nevermind, Doctor. Forget I said anything. Merely a parting joke.” Garak kept his voice cool and collected, but inside he felt churning despair. How could he have so profoundly misunderstood his friend for so long?

“No no no. Just one second, Garak. Not so fast.” Julian grabbed him by the shoulders and looked him straight in the eyes. “Say that again.”

“Say what?” Playing dumb was unlikely to do anything but extend this interaction, but Garak needed time to think. A few more seconds and he could surely weasel his way out of this one. Except Julian’s hands felt so warm and solid on his shoulders. If Julian were a Cardassian, it would have been a bold gesture, as overtly sexual as Cardassians ever were in public. But Julian wasn't Cardassian; he was human and it seemed more likely that the gesture was merely an arrogant willingness to take up space.

“That you love me. Say that again.”

“You clearly heard me perfectly well the first time!” Garak exclaimed. Why was this man extending his misery? What was he supposed to do with those soft brown eyes trained on him? It was an impossibly cruel position to be put in and entirely unlike the doctor. Finally, Garak looked away. He could not bear the serious look he was receiving any longer.

“I would like to hear you say it again, is all.”

Garak turned to see a smile playing about the doctor’s lips, and a happy amusement behind his eyes.

“Oh,” Elim paused, taking a moment to let himself chicken out, but it never came. Instead, for a brief moment he let himself be entirely honest. “I love you.”

“Good. I love you too.” And suddenly the doctor was kissing him. It was unlike anything Garak had felt before—warm, loving, and gentle, yet somehow also desperate. Human hands cradled his face, and Garak let himself wrap his arms around the doctor’s waist. He had no intention of letting go anytime soon.

“You should have said something sooner,” said Julian, breaking off the kiss to look into Garak’s eyes with an expression that was fierce and intense and nameable.

“I thought you already knew.” Garak’s voice was breathy, as if he had just finished a swift jog. He felt like he had.

“Apparently,” Julian chuckled, before leaning in again.