Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Faith, Part II: Forgiveness

By Gabrielle Lawson

Disclaimer: Paramount and Viacom own all things Trek, including DS9, the main characters thereof, the Defiant, etc. I only borrow their characters and settings. The stories are mine. Do not copy without including this disclaimer and my name. Do not post without permission.

Author's Note: This story does reference other stories of mine. It can stand alone but it might leave you with questions. However, if you haven't read Faith, Part I, it will leave you completely baffled. That story can be found on my own web site as well as here.

Also note: This story begins at Chapter 6. Chapters 1-5 belong to the previous story, Hope. Chapters 11 and on will belong to the next story, Peace.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to my beta readers. I've added a few more over the more than a year that it took to write this. It's been a quiet year in beta reader land, but the story got finished and help came when I needed it. Thanks to all the members of the Writer's Circle and Darrel Beach, too.

Chapter Six

At once it was familiar and unsettling. It wasn't so different from when he and Captain Sisko had returned from Adigeon Prime. The bay was full of people. Some were there to meet friends and family from the crew of the Enterprise, talking in little groups as they funneled toward the exit. But many were there for him, and, regardless of their reason for being there, everyone in the bay stopped to stare at him.

But that time after Adigeon Prime was different. He was happy then, happy to be recovered, to be home. Now happy was a foreign thing, something other people-blissfully unaware other people-felt. What he felt this time was that same energy pricking at the back of his neck.

This is what I wanted, he told himself, hoping he could rationalize the pricks away. His friends were there: O'Brien, Kira and Odo, Worf, Jake and Nog, Ezri. Jabara, Reyna, Doctor Girani, and several other medical personnel. They smiled, but they also hesitated. Some lifted their hands to clap but resisted when the senior staff didn't raise theirs.

Garak was there, too, hanging back by the exit where Quark was greeting new arrivals who'd lost interest in the homecoming. Garak wasn't smiling like the others. He nodded a greeting and then stepped through the door.

Kira stepped forward first and wrapped him in a hug. "Welcome home. It's good to see you again."

Bashir raised one arm to hold her, and he had to admit that he liked how he felt just then. Like he was home. "It's good to be seen."

Others came forward to welcome him, one by one, and Bashir almost forgot why he'd been away and how long. This was no different from the trip back from Adigeon. He was home and Riker's warning was unnecessary. He could have his life back. It would be as if the last six months hadn't happened, except that he wouldn't have to fear abduction by Section 31.

Shaking hands and accepting hugs, Bashir worked his way toward the exit. It was a bit overwhelming, seeing each of these people again, shaking hands, accepting an embrace. Memories flooded in with each one, and he didn't see who was next until he or she was standing in front of him.

Dax held him a long time. Worf simply shook his hand. Chief O'Brien stood by and smiled as his family did the hugging. Jake seemed even taller than before.

"It's good to see you again, Doctor."

Then the room seemed to spin, and all the sound rushed out the slowly closing airlock door. Sisko. He'd forgotten about Sisko. It was hard to breathe. "Thank you, sir," Bashir choked out, hoping he didn't sound as insincere as Sisko had. It was all upside down now. This was the Sisko the war had made. The life Bashir wanted didn't include him.

More people stepped up to greet him, and Bashir smiled back, shook a hand, accepted a hug. But he wasn't fooled by it anymore. The life he'd had was a fantasy. Time moved forward not back. Sisko could never be the captain he had been, and Bashir knew he could never have the faith he'd once had.

He finally reached the door. He wanted to get away from all of them now, but he wasn't sure how he'd manage it.

"Can I carry that for you, sir?" It was Nog who asked, and he was already reaching for Bashir's bag.

Bashir snapped the bag away, realizing too late that he'd been too harsh. "No," he said, trying to sound normal, unafraid. That bag held his life. "But you can tell me where my quarters are."

"Right where you left them, sir," Nog replied. "You should know, sir, that there is a party prepared, if you feel up to it."

Party. Of course there would be a party. But this one room had been enough. His skin itched from all the energy, the people. His ears rang with all the voices. He missed the quiet of his quarters on the Enterprise.

"I don't think I do," he told Nog. "I just want to go home."

"I understand." Nog tapped his leg once to show he could empathize. "But just remember, you are home now, and we're all pretty happy about it."

"That's nice to hear," Bashir admitted. "I need to go now," he whispered to the Ferengi. "Do you think you can run interference for me, give me some time to settle in before everyone comes to my door."

"You've got it, sir," Nog replied. "If you find the time you should go see Vic. He was pretty broken up when you were-when they said. . . ."

"I'll do that," Julian promised. "Soon." And he escaped out the door before anyone else could stop him.

The corridor was clear since the visitors had already made their way into the station and many of the greeters were still in the airlock. Bashir dashed for a turbolift before any others could make their way out after him.

He called out the deck and tried to feel at home again in the familiar movement of the turbolift. It wasn't as smooth as those aboard the Enterprise. It was darker, like the station. He found that comforting.

The turbolift jerked to a stop, and Bashir held his breath as the door opened. But no one was there. He stepped out into the corridor, his corridor. He remembered it, but it didn't feel like it did before. Riker's admonishment about changing puzzles and pieces that didn't fit came to mind, but he pushed it away. He'd make it fit. He'd make it fit. This wasn't so much like six months ago. It was more like the time he'd first arrived, his first week on the station. The corridor was familiar and foreign at the same time. In a week or two, it would only be familiar.

He found his quarters and braced himself for the same reaction of familiar and foreign. He opened the door, expecting to see little beyond the furniture. Instead he saw Kukalaka smiling at him from the table in the corner. His paintings hung on the walls. He went into the bedroom and found clothes in the closet, his clothes. Not all of them, but his nonetheless. He was home.

"Well, that was quick," Jake commented quietly.

Captain Sisko heard him though. "Probably too many people." He wasn't surprised. The Bashir he'd met on the Enterprise didn't seem the type for crowds.

He'd watched Bashir as he was welcomed back. He'd seemed hesitant coming out of the airlock, and, though he smiled, shook hands, and hugged those who greeted him, he'd seemed distant, maybe even sad. He seemed more to match Troi's and O'Brien's description than the memories of Sisko's own encounter with him.

Until it was Sisko's turn. Bashir had frozen for an instant, even stumbled a bit. He'd looked pale and off-balance. There was something in his expression and Sisko couldn't decide if it was fear or distrust. He'd made his way to the door rather quickly after that.

"It's probably quite a story," Jake decided, "if he'll ever tell it."

"Just don't push him, Jake," Sisko warned. There were some things in that story which Sisko hoped Jake would never learn.

"I wouldn't," Jake assured him.

Dax walked up to them. "It went better than I expected, actually," she said. "He seemed a bit bewildered but otherwise not overly traumatized. I can understand him wanting to get out of the crowd. We should probably leave him alone for awhile." She pulled the captain away from Jake, and he knew she was talking now in an official capacity. "I'll go see him tomorrow morning. I'll be seeing him every day in the beginning. We should discuss a duty schedule."

Sisko didn't feel right about having Bashir on any duty roster, but he knew he'd been on light duty with the Enterprise and had managed just fine according to Doctor Crusher. Still, he didn't want to commit right away. "Let's wait until after you meet with him to decide," he suggested. "Give him some time to settle in."

Bashir had thought maybe he'd be able to sleep now that he was back in his own bed, but sleep just wouldn't come. He felt uneasy, restless. He couldn't keep his eyes closed. Instead he kept glancing toward the foot of the bed, waiting to see Sloan the in the chair there. But it was empty.

He tried staring at the ceiling, hoping boredom would help him fall asleep. But after an hour he was still awake and the ceiling appeared to move just a bit.

Bashir sat up and threw his legs over the side of the bed. He stood up and called for lights. He knew the ceiling was more likely his imagination than a changeling, but it had unnerved him just the same. It was no use. He wouldn't sleep tonight.

No one had come to see him since he'd checked into his quarters, but he had a few messages. At first he had been thankful, but now he wanted the company. It was too late, though. Miles would be asleep. Dax, too. Kira was probably with Odo. Even Quark's was closed by now. There was no one to see.

Bashir sat down in the middle of the living area of his quarters and tried his old game. He started with the wall by the door. But he'd already done it. Thousands of times. His quarters was the first thing he'd taken apart in the cave. He'd branched out from there. It only took him a few minutes to dismantle the wall now.

Disgusted, he stood and went back to the bedroom just long enough to grab some clothes. He changed in the living room. Maybe no one was up and maybe everything was closed but he could still take a walk. It was something.

He glanced both ways down the corridor before stepping into it. He found it a little disturbing seeing the station so empty. It wasn't what he remembered. Except for a few times. Like that time the ion storm had caused an evacuation of all but the senior staff and Verad had hijacked Jadzia's symbiont. Or the time his academy roommate was running around killing people a few years ago. He'd nearly died that time.

He tried not to think about that as he got in the turbolift. He wasn't even sure where to go at first. He finally decided on the Promenade. He wanted to see it, even if it was closed.

The turbolift let him out on the upper level and he was glad for that. The Infirmary was not far away, and, though quiet, it was open. He didn't want to face anyone just yet. At least not anyone who would ask questions. He walked away from the Infirmary and descended the stairs.

The shops, for the most part, were as he remembered them, except that they were closed and dark. A few had changed names and probably owners, but not many. Garak's had different clothes in the windows, and he could see a light inside. But he didn't know if he was ready to face him yet knowing what he knew.

He spent an hour walking the eerily quiet Promenade. He still wasn't sleepy. He took the next turbolift before the Infirmary and decided to go down. He couldn't really go up. The night shift would be manning Ops. Maybe he could find some place he hadn't yet dismantled.

He chose one of the lower decks nearer Reactor Four. That reactor had never been repaired enough to be of any use to the station after the Cardassian Withdrawal. The decks down there were deserted almost all the way up to the Promenade. There were only a handful of fully utilized decks below the Promenade. At least that was the case six months ago. He hoped it was still so now.

He wasn't disappointed. The area he ended up in was so deserted that it didn't even have working lights. He didn't mind that too much though. He was still on familiar terms with darkness, and he doubted anyone looking for him would even consider searching for him in the lower decks. Still he listened carefully for footsteps or anything out of the ordinary as he walked.

He used his hands to feel the walls and any structures there. Mostly he found ordinary walls, just like the ones he'd dismantled so many times before. But he did find some new things farther down, closer to the core.

The power transfer conduits were different down there, bigger. The replicators seemed older, of a different model, perhaps, than those on the upper decks. What quarters and supply rooms there were were stripped bare. No beds or bunks or furniture of any kind. There were a few computer consoles, especially in the reactor room. Those had never been upgraded, never integrated with Starfleet systems.

It would take some research, but it was the kind of challenge he was hoping for. Tomorrow he'd do some reading, find some diagrams. But tonight, while he was down there, and since there was no power to activate even a light, he decided to employ a hands-on approach.

Bashir started with the power transfer conduit since it was the least complicated. He pulled off the cover and began to gently feel his way around the nodes and cables. By morning, he could have drawn a diagram of his own.

He knew it was morning because of the change in power drawn by the station. He could feel it vibrate in the walls and deckplates. Everything that slept at night was coming to life again. He lifted himself from the floor and stretched out his aching muscles. He'd fallen asleep.

It was still dark and for a moment he was disoriented. It was only a moment. Realizing that someone was sure to come by his quarters for a visit, most likely Dax, he headed back out the way he'd come. It was faster this time, since he'd memorized the layout on his way down.

It was still early when he emerged on the Promenade. Shops were just beginning to open. Only a few customers bothered to beat the morning crowds by being out at this hour. No one even noticed him. Bashir skirted around the Infirmary, but noted the light still shining softly in Garak's shop. As he entered the turbolift, Bashir rubbed his face and was thankful he'd have the time to shave before Dax came by.

Starfleet, however, got an early start on the day, and the quarters on his deck were beginning to spill out their inhabitants. A few people waved hello as they passed, but for the most part, Bashir got home without too much of a fuss.

After he'd showered and shaved, he went to the closet to find a change of clothes. Then he realized he didn't know what to wear. He'd been given a duty shift on the Enterprise so a uniform was appropriate there. But he had to start again here. If they didn't allow him back to duty right away, he should stick to civilian attire.

He decided on the uniform. His time on the Enterprise would probably be taken into consideration. He'd be given light duty at the start. He was concerned, though, that his post of Chief Medical Officer would now belong to someone else. He'd try asking Dax about that when she came.

The door chimed just as he finished his breakfast. "Come in, Dax," he called.

The door opened and Ezri walked in with a inquisitive smile. "How did you know it was me?"

Bashir put his plate in the replicator and gave her a light grin. "Forgive me if I sound Vulcan, but it was a logical assumption. You need to evaluate me before I can go back to duty."

Her smile faded just a bit. "And I just want to make sure you're okay."

"Of course," Bashir agreed. "Would you rather we meet in your office?"

"Not if you're more comfortable here," she answered.

"To be honest," Bashir replied, deciding openness in some areas might keep her from prodding too deeply into others, "I don't feel all that comfortable here. It's like I don't belong anymore."

"You belong, Julian," she reassured him quickly. "It will just take some getting used to."

Bashir shook his head, but offered her a seat on the couch. "I don't mean on the station," he clarified. "I mean here, in my quarters."

She relaxed a bit at that. "Do you know why that is?"

Bashir pulled one of the chairs from the table over to the coffee table. "Yes. I think it's because I was twice abducted from here," he said, not raising his voice, "because on at least three occasions I awoke to find Sloan sitting in the chair at the foot of my bed, and because for a month, a changeling lived here while impersonating me. And because for six months, I lived in a cave."

Ezri nodded. "Those are valid reasons. Would you like your quarters changed?"

Bashir thought about that. Would it help? He was sure Sloan could find him whereever he went. The Dominion, too, if they were so inclined. "No," he said finally, "I think it will get better in time and feel more like home again. Another place wouldn't make much of a difference. This is what I remember."

"If you change your mind," she offered, "just let me know." She consulted a PADD she had brought with her. "Doctor Crusher had quite a few nice things to say about you. Did you enjoy your time on the Enterprise?"

Bashir gave that some thought. "Some of it," he decided. "Not the brig, not the battle, and not the away mission."

"I read your report about Carello Neru," she said. "And Riker's. I'm sorry you had to see something like that."

Bashir shrugged. "Someone had to. We might not have found the transmitter any other way. We wouldn't have known what happened to the colonists."

"You wouldn't have found the changeling," Ezri added.

Bashir shook his head. "I'm sure the changeling would have found us. He probably wanted to be rescued, so that when we figured out the solution to the dilithium, he could take it from us."

"Well, it's good to see you can still find the bright side of such situations." Ezri smiled, but Bashir thought it seemed forced. He didn't take any offense in it, however. She was in her counselor role.

And, though there were places he didn't want to go, he didn't intend on making her job harder. She was only trying to help, and he realized that even as he thought it impossible. "It's more being realistic," he told her, "or seeing the practical in a given situation. There's really nothing bright in falling down a turbolift shaft into a roomful of rotting corpses."

She surprised him then. Her smile was genuine. "That's better."

Bashir was honestly puzzled. "Better how?"

She reached a hand out to touch his knee. "I'd be more worried if you thought everything was okay with that, if everything was just rosy."

He wasn't sure what to do with that. He stood and walked to the table, keeping his back to her. "Nothing's rosy," he said quietly. He hadn't meant to say it out loud.

"Oh, I don't know," she replied, walking up behind him. "Some things are. I thought I'd lost someone I cared about, but he came back last night."

Mixed bag, he thought, just like he'd told Data. Good and bad mixed up together. "That's one way to look at it."

"What's the other way?" she asked, turning him around to face her.

"That I've been gone too long," he replied, voicing his fear, the one he'd had after his talk with Riker. "That everything has changed around me and maybe I won't fit anymore."

She nodded. "That's understandable. Things have changed. People have grown older, some have died, new people have come. The circumstances of the war. But you can still fit."

He wanted to believe her. "How can you be sure?"

Her smiled brightened. "Because we left you a spot."

He didn't understand. They'd thought he was dead.

"Go report to Kira," she told him. "Let her tell you."

She walked back to the couch and picked up her PADD. "I'm going to clear you for light duty, like on the Enterprise. Just let Kira know when you're ready to start. It doesn't have to be right away."

"Thank you," was all he could think to say.

She smiled that slightly off-kilter smile she had. "You're welcome. I'll see you tomorrow. After lunch?"

He nodded. "That's fine."

"My office then," she said as she headed for the door. "Have a good day, Julian."

Bashir didn't think he'd ever heard that salutation spoken as sincerely as that.

Kira was glad when she got the communique from Ezri. Julian could go back to work. He would be up soon. Kira briefed one of the other Ops officers and cleared her work station. She wanted to talk to him in private.

Everyone looked up when the turbolift brought him to Ops. They offered greetings, welcoming him back, but no one left their workstations. Kira offered him a smile as he approached her. He looked well, though perhaps tired and a little wary. She understood that. She probably looked like that during the Occupation.

"Ezri said I should see you," he said. "To report for duty."

Kira didn't drop her smile. "Let's take a walk and discuss it."

He didn't share her smile. "Shouldn't I be talking to the Chief Medical Officer?"

Kira brightened. "That's what we need to discuss." She took his arm and steered him back to the turbolift. She decided on the Ward Room. Captain Sisko would need it later for a meeting with Admiral Ross, but that wasn't until this afternoon.

"Have a seat," she said, pulling out a chair. She sat in the one next to it. "It is so good to see you," she said again. She couldn't help it. He was the first of all those she had lost who had come back.

His brow was furrowed and he got straight to the point. "Ezri said there was a place for me, a place left for me. She also said I should talk to you."

Kira's smile brightened. "You can't talk to the Chief Medical Officer because there isn't one."

His eyes widened and that one vein in the middle of his forehead became more pronounced. "What? How can you not have a Chief Medical Officer? Someone has to be responsible for the health and wellbeing-"

Kira raised a hand. "We've had six." That stopped him. "Bajoran doctors, rotating schedules."

He was still indignant, though his tone had calmed. "Rotating?"

Kira nodded. "Monthly."

His eyes widened again. "Colonel, you can't just swap out doctors once a month. A Chief Medical Officer needs to know his post, his staff, his environment. He has to have the trust of his patients. It takes months to bring all that together and become an effective administrator and physician. You can't just start over once a month."

"I realize that," she replied, letting him rant. She had known he'd react that way. She'd missed that passion. "That's why Doctor Girani offered to be Assistant Chief Medical Officer the whole time, to provide stability."

"Then why not appoint her to the post?" he asked. "She's a fine doctor, and a Bajoran one at that."

"It has nothing to do with her being Bajoran," Kira told him. "And she was content where she was. No one in your staff wanted the post. They felt they couldn't fill your shoes."

He was still confused. She could tell by the brows, the vein, the way he gestured when he spoke. "If it wasn't about being Bajoran, why not have Starfleet send a replacement?"

Kira was quick to answer. "Because I wanted them to think it was about being Bajoran. I told Captain Sisko that this was a Bajoran station and that Bajorans should have more representation in the senior staff. Then I said the rotation was a way to give the Bajoran doctors an opportunity to treat many different species where'd they'd mostly treated only Bajorans before. And it would give us a chance to evaluate who was the best candidate."

He was watching her closely now. He'd caught what she'd said. He just didn't jump on it right away. "And he thought this was a good idea?"

"He was willing to give it a try," she replied.

"That's because he didn't have a Chief Medical Officer to tell him what a bad idea it was."

She'd expected that, too. "In all fairness, you were just 'missing' then. You're our Chief Medical Officer."

He didn't speak right away. When he did, he was no longer facing her. "You wanted Starfleet to think it was about Bajoran nationalism," he said, putting the pieces together. "You didn't want them to send another Starfleet doctor, but you weren't satisfied with the Bajoran candidates. Or you weren't prepared to be. You planned a rotation from the start. You didn't want anyone to plant roots." He turned to face her, his anger replaced by wonder. "You were saving the post for me."

"Well, you were just missing at first," she confirmed for him. "No one wanted to replace you."

Bashir seemed to accept that but then slowly hook his head. "But after the body was found? Why not then?"

Kira stood and walked to one of the windows. She wasn't sure how to answer that. "Faith, I suppose," she said finally. "I can't really explain it. I just couldn't replace you then either. I didn't exactly know that you weren't dead, but I just couldn't accept that you were."

She could see in the window's reflection that Bashir was still at the table, though he looked up at her. "But you had no evidence to say I wasn't."

It was, in essence, the same argument Ezri had made. "None," she replied, turning towards him. "I guess I just couldn't let go of the hope that it wasn't true, that you were out there alone somewhere and would come back to us."

He was silent for a bit, just watching her. She let him. It was, she supposed, a lot to take in. Finally, he sat back in his chair and sighed. "I'm not the first person you've lost," he said. "You accepted Bareil's death, Ghemor's, your friends from the resistance-"

"And too many others," Kira interrupted, agreeing.

"Why me?"

Kira nodded and sat down across from him. "For one thing, you've been gone before. You've even been reported dead before. Section 31 is enough reason to be suspicious-"

This time he cut her off. "But there was a body," he said, leaning foward. "It was positively identified as me."

Kira leaned in, too. "I'm not saying I didn't miss you. I cried at the memorial service just like everyone else. I grieved. It wasn't some conscious thing I did. I just didn't change the rotations. I didn't let Starfleet fill your post. My head knew you were dead but my heart wouldn't hear of it." She touched his hand across the table. "And my heart was right, in the end."

He didn't speak at all after that. He didn't pull his hand away either, not until he leaned back again in the chair.

"It's your post, Julian," she told him. "We just have to work out the details."

He nodded and he let his eyes wander to the tabletop where her hand still rested. He spoke quietly. "They are going to kill me someday," he said.

She started to interrupt him, but he held a hand up to stop her. "Them or someone else. Promise me you will not risk this station again. You'll have to replace me."

Kira didn't like his pessimism, his acceptance of the idea that he would be killed. But it wasn't completely unexpected. Ezri would deal with that, she hoped, letting it go for now. "If something were to happen to you," she replied, stressing the conditional nature of the promise she was about to make, "I will find someone to fill your post. No one can replace you."

"How did it go, Old man?" Sisko asked, looking up from the file he had open on his desk console. Another dilithium shipment had been hit. There were still bigger things going on than Bashir's return.

"Briefly," she replied, dropping herself into a seat. "He's different, but I can sense our Julian still in there somewhere. He's just been beat down a bit. I've cleared him for light duty. He and Kira are working out the schedule." She seemed chipper enough.

More than a bit, Sisko thought. "What about what Troi said about him being emotionless?"

"She didn't exactly say emotionless," Dax corrected. "She said emotionally flat. It's more like he never hits a high note. Or a low note for that matter. I can't say I had an opportunity to see anything different from him. But it was only our first meeting. You can't expect him to be cured in a day."

"He's had two weeks," Sisko reminded her. He hadn't meant to sound so gruff, but the dichotomy of Bashir's behavior was frustrating. No one else saw him the way Sisko had seen him.

"Not of vacation," Dax snapped back. "Benjamin, he was marooned, alone, for six months. Some people wouldn't even be able to put together a coherent sentence after that. And his two weeks on the Enterprise included being accused of genocide, a skirmish in which he and his patients hid under corpses, and an away mission in which he was trapped in another cave and fell into a room full of executed colonists. That's not very therapeutic."

Sisko held up a hand in surrender. "Sorry, Old Man," he offered. "I didn't mean to sound impatient."

"What's bothering you, Benjamin?" Dax asked. She'd seen right through him. Jadzia had been able to do the same thing.

"Nothing," he told her with a sigh. "Everything. This war. We're losing and I can't even figure out what the Dominion is up to."

"We're not losing," Ezri corrected. The sternness in her voice seemed out of place in her little-girl's face. "We may not be winning just yet, but we're not losing."

Sisko nodded, accepting her admonition. Belief could affect reality. He knew that, and that's why he rarely gave in to such pessimistic thoughts. It's why he had done what he did to get the Romulans into the war. He looked for ways not to be losing the war. But that way, the one that Bashir had confronted him with, was the reason he had given in to such thoughts now.

"So what's really bothering you?" Dax probed again. Ezri, it seemed, could see through him better than Jadzia had.

He wasn't going to let her do it though. He straightened up in his chair. "Old Man," he began, looking her right in the eye, "if I feel I need a counseling session, I'll let you know."

She frowned but accepted the dressing down without protest. She stood. "I'll leave you to your work then."

Bashir had wanted to start work that afternoon but Kira had insisted he wait until morning. She wanted to give him time to get settled again. He didn't want to tell her that he had too much time already. He didn't know what to do with himself. Outside of work, everything seemed pointless. His mind swam in endless circles of circuits and conduits. He recognized them. He'd visualized them over and over in the cave. They were replicators and transmitters and waste reclimators and the lights in his ceiling. They were the walls of his quarters, the panels in the corridors, the consoles in the Jefferies tubes, the instruments in the Infirmary, and even the engineering station in Ops.

I'm a doctor, he thought, not an engineer. He didn't know why he wasn't letting his hyperactive brain work on the prion project he'd started so long ago. Or his work on the Blight. Or any of the other medical mysteries he'd used to occupy slow days before.

He was back in his quarters. He'd thought about going to Quark's or the Replimat but he just couldn't bring himself to face the crowds yet. Maybe that's what Kira meant by getting settled.

He'd gotten another message from his parents. It was getting easier to answer their questions. He still hadn't spoken to them in real time though. He just recorded a reply and sent it back to them. They were doing well. His mother had packed up his belongings. She wanted to bring them out to the station, so she could see him, but with the war on, it was hard for civilians to travel this far. And his father was still in prison. It wouldn't be long, though, before his sentence was over. Maybe Julian could come home for a visit.

He didn't want to. Not just yet. It wasn't just them. He didn't want to leave here. He didn't want to leave the protection, such as it was, of Starfleet. He couldn't protect himself from someone like Sloan back at home.

Sloan. He'd nearly forgotten. He'd been back at the station for more than twelve hours and he still hadn't worked out the calculation for the security code he'd need to enter this evening. That would at least give him a break from the conduits and boredom.

He knew they'd break the code eventually. Section 31 had more resources than he was even aware of yet. He'd been half-bluffing with Sloan. He got data, that much was true. Even a direct feed so that some of the information he'd gotten, such as the location of Sloan's ship that night, was up-to-date. But it was limited. He hadn't been given enough access to get more. Sloan would come for him again, but for now, at least, he had a reprieve. If he kept up the code.

It took two hours to work it out in his head. He didn't want to leave any records by using a computer or PADD. When he was finished he noted it was midday. He'd managed to pass half a day. Half a day. Of the rest of his life. At least he'd be able to work soon. That would help.

His door chimed, and this time, he couldn't guess who it would be. He sat up straighter on the couch and called for the door to open.

"My dear doctor," Garak said upon entering, "I do hope you weren't planning on eating lunch alone."

"I, I-" Bashir stammered, "I hadn't given it much, much thought, y-yet."

Garak's eyes widened ever so slightly. "Well," he said, "we should be going then. The Replimat is filling up quite fast these days."

Bashir shook his head in little movements. He didn't mean to say no, exactly. He couldn't decide how to respond.

"You're life isn't in here," Garak told him, surprising him. "It's out there."

He hadn't left the doorway and he didn't appear to be leaving without Bashir, so Bashir stood and followed him. He didn't really want to, but he couldn't offer an adequate protest. In his life before the cave, he'd almost always eaten out.

Garak didn't speak much on the way. He told the turbolift to take them to the Promenade, and he spoke a few words to get a table for him and Bashir. The whole thing caused quite a stir though, and Bashir could feel the eyes on him, the energy that made him uneasy.

"What would you like?" Garak asked after they'd sat.

"I-I'm not sure," Bashir answered. He was trying not to stammer, but Garak set him off-balance.

"Shall I order for you then?" Garak offered. He didn't wait for Bashir to answer, but ordered something Bashir had often eaten in the past. Bashir hardly noticed the food, though. He couldn't focus that well.

"I hadn't realized you were unable to speak," Garak went on. "My claustrophobia has produced that effect from time to time."

"Garak," Bashir tried, but he didn't know what words to follow up with.

"You look as if you've seen a ghost," Garak observed. "And you haven't touched your food."

Bashir glanced at his plate, but was unable to pick up the fork. "How did you know?" he finally managed.

"Know what?" Garak asked in reply.

"About my life," Bashir clarified. "What you said."

Garak set his own silverware down and met Bashir's gaze across the table. "I've been there, myself," he said.

Bashir didn't know why he was asking. "Where?"

"Tzenketh," Garak replied. "I wasn't claustrophobic before Tzenketh."

Bashir hoped he'd elaborate on that. He wanted to know what happened on Tzenketh and how Garak had gotten on with only claustrophobia to show for it.

But Garak didn't elaborate. "So what was your exile like?"

Bashir was disappointed but also relieved. He could handle such simple questions with objective answers. "A cave," he answered, trying to keep himself from stammering. It was a nervous response and he didn't want to be nervous. "It was a cave."

Garak's eyes widened noticeably now. "For six months? All alone? However did you keep sane?"

Bashir didn't know what he was asking. Was it a rhetorical question? "What?"

"However did you keep sane?" Garak repeated. "You must have had some technique to keep your mind under control. Converting a replicator to a transmitter was quite a feat. You had to have your wits about you. I would also imagine the cave was quite dark."

"Absolute dark," Bashir practically blurted. "I couldn't see at all."

"So how did you do it?" Garak pressed.

"I thought about it," Bashir told him. "I thought about it for months. Imagined it until I could see what I was going to do."

Garak smiled that enigmatic smile he had, the one that made it seem like he already knew the answer and was just testing Bashir to see if he'd get it right. "Amazing," he exclaimed. "I wasn't aware you could get a distress call from a Starfleet replicator."

Bashir shook his head. "You can't." He knew Garak knew that.

"The android," Garak surmised.

"Data," Bashir corrected.

Garak nodded. "And for Data to get the signal, the Enterprise would have to be within a certain range. How did you know?"

"I didn't know," Bashir replied.

"So why do it at all?" Garak demanded. "The odds were astronomical. Why risk starvation to make a signal that only one being in the entire quadrant could have heard? You must have hoped he would be in range."

"I wouldn't call it hope," Bashir said, "not exactly. More like having nothing to lose."

"How fortunate then," Garak concluded, "that your odds paid off. Now you have a great deal to lose."