Title: Signs of Life
Author: Regann
Characters/Pairing: Bashir; pre-G/B
Rating: PG
Disclaimer: I don't own anything; I just play with them.
Notes: First DS9 fic. Nervous? No, not me...

Summary: Even if it wasn't real, Bashir finds it difficult to forget watching his friend die before his very eyes. 3,900 words. Set after events of episode 302, "The Search, part II."

Signs of Life

It was with a decided sense of déjà vu that Julian Bashir headed to his quarters upon the Defiant's return from the Gamma Quadrant and Founders' planet in the Omarion Nebula.

Although he'd had the entire trip back from Dominion territory to put his memories from the psychological simulation in the proper perspective, there was still that lingering feeling of unreality to everything, still that vague dreaminess to doing things he'd already done -- or, at least, thought he had done.

They finally arrived back at the station during its night hours and Sisko ordered them all to rest before debriefing began in earnest the next day. Bashir saw the wisdom of this advice and fell over his own feet trying to climb into bed as soon as he could. Though his quarters were far from luxurious, the bed was infinitely more comfortable than the Defiant's bunks and he was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow, with one last thought of how his fatigue would have him sleeping through his first alarm.

He was proven wrong just a few hours later, however, when he jerked awake, a gasp hung in his throat. It took him a moment to figure out what had startled him out of sleep, only to realize that it hadn't been anything tangible, just the same troublesome faux memories that had been plaguing him ever since Borath had put them there. The most terrible ones kept running through his mind -- the bright light that had blinded them as they destroyed the Bajoran wormhole; T'Rul's death-pale body laid out in his infirmary after she'd been killed; Garak, slumping to the ground, eyes closing, as Bashir had tried vainly to hold on...

It was that last one that had stuck so forcefully in his mind, that he could remember with such precise, minute detail that it might've been tattooed to his eyelids. Bashir supposed that it was the burden of an enhanced memory; it left everything sharp and vibrant even when he wished to forget. Even though he knew it had never happened, he couldn't help but be haunted by that moment when he'd seen his friend -- Garak -- killed before his eyes.

The clock told him he had several more hours to try for sleep but Bashir decided that it would be a frustrating and, ultimately useless, endeavor. Instead, he rose, showered and dressed, then walked the quiet, familiar corridors of the station. It was still early enough that few people were up and about but Bashir was content to be one of those few. His walk took him by an observational window where many Bajorans came to see the Celestial Temple and he paused to catch his own glimpse of it, watching it spring to life once -- wanting to assure himself it was still there -- before he let his restless feet carry him onward.

On his way through the promenade, he stopped by the infirmary to check to see if any matters demanded his immediate attention -- and to make sure that T'Rul's body, cold and still and stiff, was gone -- but there was nothing dire waiting in the PADDs stacked on his desk. The nurses on duty greeted him warmly and asked him politely about his mission. He answered in the same vague and polite way, then left them to their tasks.

Of all the places left on the station, Bashir ended up in Ops, which ran on a skeleton crew on the night shift, still an hour or so away from ending. With no real reason to be there and suddenly self-conscious of that fact, he nodded to the crewmen at their posts, about to turn and leave when he noticed that someone was in Sisko's office. When he realized it was Sisko himself, Bashir changed his mind and headed over.

"Doctor." Sisko looked up from his terminal when he noticed Bashir loitering at his office entrance. "It's rather early for you to be making rounds, don't you think?"

"One could say the same to you unless there is something that just couldn't wait until 0700." He nodded toward the terminal.

Sisko smiled and spread his hands in a gesture that meant he was guilty as charged. "Sit down, Doctor. It seems we both could use the company."

Bashir did as he was bid, obscenely glad that he didn't have to explain why he was wandering the station when he was still obviously exhausted, even if it was only because his commander was suffering from the same inescapable restlessness.

At first they sat in silence, with Sisko's attention occupied by his terminal, Bashir satisfied with his thoughts. But the longer that Bashir dwelled on their latest ordeal, the more questions rose in his mind about everything that had happened until they sat heavy on his tongue demanding to be asked. It was a physical thing to rein them in as they sprang up and it only took Sisko a few minutes to notice the spike in Bashir's nervous movement.

"Something on your mind, Doctor?" At Bashir's surprised expression, he explained. "Jake gets that same look when he wants to ask me something he thinks he shouldn't. I'd recognize that look anywhere."

Although he didn't consider it a favorable comparison, Bashir took the opportunity. "It's just...I've been thinking about those simulations that Borath put us through."

"Understandable," Sisko said. "I admit that they've been on my mind as well."

Bashir didn't doubt that fact, though he did doubt that he and Sisko were bothered by the same thing. "I can't help but wonder about the mechanics of how -- how they chose the people they showed us, how they surmised their personalities from our minds, even whose mind supplied which details." He paused. "You must admit that many of the -- well, supporting characters, let's call them -- were by turns both eerily correct and yet awfully twisted."

Sisko thought for a moment. "It was a very convincing charade, up until they had to twist them to their own agenda, at which point it was as if everyone had gone insane."

Bashir nodded, remembering his own confusion and the Garak who had agreed with him. "Someone said that exact thing to me, in the simulation."

"I heard something similar myself," Sisko said dryly.

Thinking about that fake Garak, Bashir continued. "I wonder, though, why we saw who we saw, those who weren't part of the simulation, I mean. Was it completely random or were there things in our heads that said certain people would react in certain ways...?"

"I hope it was more random than that." Sisko set back in his chair, giving Bashir a meaningful look. "I'd hate to consider the possibility that I, somewhere deep inside, believe Admiral Nechayev possible of such pigheaded blindness, even a subconscious level." He smiled again, one of his familiar sardonic expressions. "I'd also hate for her to be of the impression that I have such a low opinion of her intelligence as to have contributed to that image."

Bashir returned the smile. He agreed with Sisko even if it didn't speak to his real concerns, most of which centered on -- Garak.

Sisko must have been able to see the questions still written across his face. "Why do I get the feeling that you're thinking about something else entirely?"

"Not entirely different," Bashir said. "Just...I was thinking of Garak."

"Garak." The way Sisko said it, it had the implication of "Why am I not surprised?"

Bashir tried not to let that tone embarrass him. "Yes, Garak. It's just...when we were in the simulation, I had spent great deal of time interacting with its version of him but given the way he later interacted with everyone else I just can't help but wonder how much of that version of him was based on the way I see him as opposed to say, you or Jadzia see do, or..." He also wondered how much of his death was born from Borath's probing of his own personal nightmares or how much was simply a consequence of the way the simulation gained its answers. "Just an idle question, really."

"Of course." Sisko's voice was heavy with doubt. He leaned back again and pinned Bashir with an searching look that made him want to squirm, despite his three years under his command. The earlier comparison to Jake came to his mind again. "I would say, given that the simulated Garak was sensible, helpful and almost forthcoming with his opinions, I have little doubt that he was entirely a figment of your opinion on the subject."

He wasn't sure if how he felt about Sisko's declaration; he decided that he was at least surprised to know that his subconscious gave Garak more credit than his waking mind tended to, considering the Cardassian's unproven loyalties. "Somehow I don't think you think that's a good thing."

"My opinion on your friendship with Garak is completely neutral...at this point. He hasn't done anything that to show himself to be anything other than what he claims to be."

"Yet," Bashir added.

"Yet," Sisko agreed.

Bashir nodded. "That should've been my clue, I suppose. Garak was making sense in the simulation."

At that, Sisko laughed.

Around the time alpha shift came on, Sisko convinced Bashir to have breakfast with him and Jake before his son went off to school for the day. Jake, who hadn't been aware that his father had returned, was overjoyed to find Sisko preparing their breakfast, even with Bashir in tow. He felt a little like a third wheel observing their reunion but was also touched that Sisko had been willing to include him. Sometimes, he wished he had someone who would be so pleased to see him return unharmed from a mission but he ignored that ache, also trying to ignore his memory of how fake-Garak had greeted him upon his return in the simulation.

Bashir had hoped for a chance to stop by the tailor's shop before debriefing began but never had the chance; both times he and Sisko passed by it on the Promenade, Bashir noted that it was closed, leaving him little choice but to put off seeing Garak. He knew it was ridiculous to need to check on him, to neec to make sure that he was alive and well since he knew the simulation had just been that, but he couldn't shake the compulsion any more than he had been able to stop himself from looking for T'Rul's body in the infirmary or the wormhole outside of the station.

The debriefings and the somber reality they revealed dragged on endlessly, making Bashir wish that he had gotten a few more hours of sleep. Sisko started to look worse for the wear as well, and Jadzia who he assumed had gotten close to a night's sleep, looked weary by the time they were all released; even the Subcommander's stern face showed the signs when she passed him en rote to her meeting with Sisko.

Bashir briefly contemplated a nap but decided instead to return to the infirmary, hoping that the minutia of his occupation might distract him for awhile. He still hadn't been able to locate Garak and since he lacked an actual reason to track him down or demand his presence, he fought the temptation to do just that.

His plan worked well long enough for him that he completely missed his usual lunch hour and he didn't even think to eat until his body loudly announced his desire. Knowing better than most that one's body couldn't be ignored, Bashir tore himself away from his research and headed to the Replimat for something quick but satisfying.

It was then, at the moment he least expected it, that he finally caught a glimpse of his enigmatic friend, Garak.

While Bashir had been accused of being gauche and mannerless more than once in his life, he rarely meant to act counter to societal norms -- which was why he couldn't quite believe himself as he threw his arm up and called out, rather loudly, across the Promenade to gain Garak's attention before he slipped away through the crowds. "Garak!"

As Garak stopped mid-step and turned toward him, several passersby paused to look at either Bashir or the Cardassian. It took Bashir about two seconds to realize the spectacle he'd made, an abashed flush crawling up his neck to warm his face. Garak, however, finally catching sight of him outside of the infirmary, merely smiled and strolled his direction.

Bashir didn't move; he waited for Garak to reach him, glad to see him moving, breathing, smiling.

"Garak," he said again, this time more softly, warmly.

Garak was still smiling when he reached him, now the correct proximity for a conversation. "Welcome back, Doctor. I have to say the Replimat has been a consistently disappointing spot in your absence. I..."

His words were much too close to what his counterpart had said in the simulation and something twisted in Bashir's gut as he shook off that uneasy feeling of déjà vu.

Garak noticed. "Is something the matter?"

"No, no," Bashir assured him, smiling back. He was very happy to be standing there with a very-alive Garak even if the conversation was at its most banal. "Just tired, really. We weren't back on the station until almost 0300."

Garak nodded understandably, then looked around. "Were you heading somewhere in particular, Doctor, or did you just step out to shout at me from across the Promenade ? If it's the former, I don't want to keep you and if it's latter, well, you may consider it a job well done. I don't think there's anyone on the station who didn't hear you."

Bashir felt his face redden again. "No, I just..." He cleared his throat. "I, um, was actually on my way to the Replimat to eat lunch."

"An unfortunate coincidence -- I've just left." Garak bowed a little, a clear dismissal. "It looks as if I won't be able to have lunch with you today." Once again, Garak's words were much too similar to Bashir's unpleasant-but-fake memories, this time a dreadful echo of the last words he'd thought he'd ever hear him say.

"No!" Before he'd thought about how much he would regret two tactless actions in the same day, Bashir had done it again, this time crossing an unacknowledged boundary by clutching at Garak's arm, fingers wrapped tightly just below his elbow.

At Garak's blatantly surprised expression, Bashir relaxed his grip, although he didn't let go completely. He eased back a little, smiling to misdirect the questions in Garak's eyes. "I just mean that I hope you'll reconsider...I was really looking forward to the company." He looked at his friend and hoped the curiosity he saw there might be persuasive if his sincerity failed to move him.

Obviously something intrigued him because Garak nodded. "But of course, my dear doctor. Given that you feel so strongly on the matter, I'm sure hemlines can be remain unaltered for another hour or so."

Bashir couldn't decide if he were more mortified or elated; since Garak was walking with him back to the Replimat, he chose to focus on the elation, knowing from experience that the mortification would fade soon enough. And since Garak was acting as if nothing out of the ordinary had transpired between them, Bashir felt like he'd been granted a reprieve -- at least for the moment.

As he entered the Replimat, he noticed that Jadzia and Major Kira were there eating as well. When Jadzia looked up and noticed him, she smiled and beckoned him over.

"I see I'm not the only one eating late," he observed.

Jadzia rolled her eyes. "Meetings."

"And they're not over yet." Kira scowled at her plate.

Bashir sighed. "I thought the debriefing would never end. When I finally started to work through some of the things I've missed, I..."

Just then, Garak moved toward the table from the polite distance he'd been standing, most likely to remind Bashir that he already had lunch company, company that he'd solicited most forcefully to join him.

Kira noticed the Cardassian and eyed him cautiously. "Didn't I just see you leave, Garak?"

"You did indeed, Major," he said. "However, the good doctor here was most emphatic about needing a lunch companion and who was I to refuse?"

Bashir cleared his throat nervously at the speculative looks his friends were shooting him -- particularly Jadzia. "Yes, well, I think it's time I got something myself. If you'll excuse us..."

They quickly ordered -- Bashir grabbed a meal while Garak chose a beverage -- and took seats in one of the less crowded corners of the dining area. He was sincerely hungry and eating occupied him for several minutes; since Garak seemed content to sit quietly, there was little conversation.

Finally Garak set his mug aside. "There seems to be something bothering you, Doctor, and it's unlike you not to start spilling about it as soon as we sit down."

Bashir glared at his companion but didn't argue with his assessment. "Not bothering, per se, just...I have some things on my mind."

"About your mission?"

"About things that happened during the mission." Bashir wasn't sure how much about the simulation he should share with Garak. Part of him wanted to spill about all of it. "It didn't go at all as planned."

"So I've heard."

That caught Bashir's attention. "What have you heard?"

Garak dismissed his question with a wave of his hand. "Just rumors, really..."

"Rumors? Really?"

"Bad news travels fast, especially on a station this size."

"We haven't even been back a day!"

"This isn't going to start you on that spy business again, is it?"

Bashir shook his head. "For once, no."

Garak smiled in that way that always managed to infuriate Bashir and took a sip from his mug.

"If you must know," he said, even though it wasn't that Garak needed to know as much as it was that he needed to tell him. "We experienced this kind of psychological simulation -- we thought we'd made it back here, only to discover everything was going to hell in a handbasket."

"Well that does sound uncomfortable, Doctor."

"Oh, it was more than that, Garak. It was..." Bashir thought about how wrong everything had felt, how desperate and determined he and the others had become over the course of the simulation. "...dreadful, frankly."

"Dreadful?" Garak's tone was inquiring.

Bashir recalled his and O'Brien's encounter in Quark's bar. "The Jem'Hadar had free reign -- they were terrorizing everyone on the station."

"I'm sure Constable Odo was scandalized."

"The Federation was handing itself over to the Dominion, one bad decision at a time." Bashir shuddered to remember receiving his own reassignment papers just as Dax had, then going to Sisko only to be told that the Federation was abandoning Bajor and Deep Space Nine.

"There are those who don't share your opinion that the Federation always makes good choices as it is," Garak reminded him, the hint of old conversations in the words.

"They deliberately provoked the Romulans into hostilities," Bashir continued.

"Well, it doesn't really take much to provoke them, you have to admit."

Bashir paused, leveling his serious eyes on Garak, no humor in his countenance. "You died, Garak."

Garak's surprise was evident in the raised brow ridge. "Now, that is dreadful."

"I'm glad you finally agree with me," Bashir said dryly.

"But of course I do." Garak paused, then looked up from his mug. "How did I die, if I may ask?"

"Trying to help us destroy the wormhole so that the Dominion couldn't invade the Alpha Quadrant." Even though the immediate realness of the memories was starting to fade with every moment he spent on the station -- with Garak -- they were still strong enough that Bashir had to force them away, trying not to relive the sight of Garak going down under Jem'Hadar fire.

"That sounds uncharacteristically selfless of me." Garak looked concerned, presumably that he'd do such a thing. "Whatever gave anyone the idea that I'd do that?"

Bashir thought for a moment before answering. "Commander Sisko seems to think that the simulation's particular version of your personality could be attributed to me."

"Really? Doctor, I'm shocked. I thought you knew me better than that." Garak was shaking his head ever so slightly, as if to express his disapproval over any such noble qualities Bashir might attach to him.

Bashir rolled his eyes, then studied his friend. "I don't think that version of you is as skewed as you might want me to think, Garak," he said at last.

"Think whatever makes you happy, my dear Doctor," Garak said. "You're a much more entertaining companion that way."

"Except when I disagree with you about Cardassian literature, I assume?"

"Not at all." He could see the answering humor in Garak's blue eyes. "You're still entertaining, just more obviously lacking in good taste."

They grinned at each other, sharing the private joke that, like so many, had come to exist between them in their years of lunches and conversations.

It was Garak who broke off the lingering moment. "Well, Doctor, as enlightening as this has been, I really do need to get back to my shop."

Bashir nodded, pushing his plate away from him. "I'm finished eating, anyway."

Garak favored him with a long, measured look, warm and affectionate. It was a rare enough expression, one that he'd only seen once or twice before, most notably when Garak had been suffering the effects of his malfunctioning implant. "If I didn't say it before, I am glad you made it back from the Gamma Quadrant relatively unscathed."

"Thank you, Garak." Bashir answered that warmth with a smile. "It's good to be back, really back this time."

"And if later you need to further reassure yourself that I am still among the living, I am at your disposal."

Garak was still giving him that warm look, accompanied with a smile, when he laid his hand over Bashir's that rested on the table. It wasn't much of a touch -- a feather-light brush of fingers over his knuckles, then a more substantial glide of a thumb over the same path -- but it warmed Bashir, even more than the smile had.

Garak withdrew his hand and stood, still smiling. "Good day, Doctor."

Bashir watched Garak walk away, his hand still tingling from the touch. It had been subtle, unexpected, open to a dozens different interpretations -- just like everything Garak said and did, just like the man himself.

He still wasn't sure of much when it came to his plain and simple friend but with the touch still lingering on his skin and the maybe-invitation in Garak's parting words ringing in his ears, Bashir doubted he would much longer be troubled by those fake memories of Garak's demise. For once, he decided he was much happier with the unresolved and unknown than he was with any certain finality.

In fact, Bashir couldn't think of anything he looked forward to more than the continued chance to puzzle over the mysteries that Garak was so fond of laying in his path, particularly the mystery of the man himself.


Author's Notes: That's such a lie -- I am so nervous!