Title: Vicarious

Pairing: Garak/Bashir plus Bashir+O'Brien

Rating/Warnings: PG-13

Word Count: 1771

Summary: Bashir is granted a glimpse of three different futures.

Notes: A stand-alone story set just before "The Search".

WARNINGS: Character death, times three.

Standing between the biobeds, between two corpses, Julian Bashir wearily reflected that this had quite possibly been the worst day of his life.

As soon as he'd managed to pilot the damaged, limping runabout to within transporter range of the station he'd had himself, O'Brien and Garak beamed directly to the Infirmary. O'Brien had already been dead, two-thirds of his body seared by the plasma breach that had overtaken him as he'd tried to fix the spacecraft's damaged systems. Garak had been caught in the flash of an exploding panel, his central nervous system jolted with pulses of lethal energy; he'd died within two minutes of transport.

The Infirmary was quiet now, all efforts to coax life from the critically injured patients abandoned. And now Bashir was left to consider what he could have done better and what it was his duty to do next.

He turned his gaze to his right, to Miles, whose third-degree burns started at his jawline and disappeared under the blue sheet that covered his shoulders. The skin on his face was a little reddened but otherwise intact. Looking at him, Bashir had to choke back tears. Those keen blue eyes would never open. He would never hear the Chief's gruff brogue again, nevermore face a holosuite adventure in his company, never listen to future charming stories about Keiko and Molly and how much joy they'd brought to his life. Miles' life was over, and although Bashir knew that there was nothing more he could have done for him medically there was still a measure of guilt to be processed. It was Commander Sisko's duty to inform Keiko that her husband would never be coming home, but Bashir would also need to speak with her, to convey his condolences and his regrets, perhaps to hold her when she cried. There would be a memorial service to attend, a dress uniform to be worn, and afterwards muted solemn words shared with fellow officers, broken hearts not quite allowed to weep in the face of Starfleet propriety.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, and after one long last look he drew the sheet up over his friend's face, the gesture closing a door forever.

It was even harder to turn to his left. There might have been something that he could have done to save Garak, if only he'd known more about Cardassian physiology. The point was moot now. There would be no memorial service for the tailor who had once been a spy unless Bashir arranged one himself, and somehow he felt that Garak would not have appreciated it. What little he knew about Cardassian culture suggested that as a species they mourned their dead privately, to the point of having a taboo against those who were not family or close friends even seeing the corpse. So: no final gathering, no words remembering a life lived, no tributes, no ritual regrets. Who would have come anyway? Garak had no friends on the station except for the Human he'd sought out almost two years ago, and even Bashir had never been certain that his first name was truly Elim.

Whatever mysteries Garak had guarded so closely were beyond Bashir's reach now, forever. He stepped closer to the bed and reached down to carefully smooth the curve of sleek midnight hair that the medical team's efforts had disarrayed. Garak had always been so neatly groomed: he wouldn't have approved of being anything less than immaculate, even in death. Its cool texture was as silky as Bashir had sometimes imagined.

"I wish -" Now the tears did rise. He blinked them away. What did he wish? Nothing that mattered anymore. Garak had flirted with him from the beginning; perhaps he was wishing that he could have seen where it might have gone, if only he'd been a little braver.

He stroked the final black strand into place and took hold of the edge of the sheet and drew it up. Then, heartbroken and exhausted, he raised his head and opened his mouth to tell Nurse Jabara to have the corpses moved to the statis holding unit.

The conference room was crowded, the long table that was usually its focus gone, the space converted into the venue for a cocktail party. Quark bustled around the edges, attending to the serving of drinks, and it seemed that Deep Space Nine's entire contingent of Starfleet officers was present, plus the Bajoran senior staff. Odo stood talking with Major Kira, his habitually grim face even more solemn, and Jadzia was engaged in a quiet, earnest discussion with Commander Sisko.

Everyone was wearing dress uniforms. Bashir realized that this was the memorial service he'd been thinking of.

But when Miles stepped to the front of the room and called out, he also realized that it wasn't the one he'd assumed it was.

"May I have your attention, please!" The group turned to face him, conversation falling silent, and Miles gazed round at their intent faces. "I've been asked to say a few words about Doctor Julian Bashir." He fell silent for a moment, seeming to think. "When I first met him, Julian was a wet-behind-the-ears officer fresh out of the Academy. Oh, he was brilliant all right Ñ downright scary, at times Ñ but he didn't have the experience to put things in perspective." A wistful smile curved his small, neat mouth. "Sometimes he reminded me of a puppy, eagerly chasing after anything that caught his fancy." Jadzia smiled silently to herself and exchanged a glance with Commander Sisko. "He attached himself to me, and at first I wasn't so sure that that was a good thing... but Julian was the sort of person who grew on you after a while. And he grew on me right quick, until the time came when I couldn't imagine my life without having him as a part of it.

"As the years passed he learned, and he learned fast. He never stopped trying to improve himself, to learn more, to be a better officer and a better person. He had a heart of gold under his brash exterior. He was a true healer and a true friend. And even if we couldn't bring him home from that God-forsaken planet where he met his end, I know he'll always be a part of us. We'll never forget him, and somewhere, I'm damned sure he knows it."

He raised his glass. "To Julian Bashir."

The crowd followed suit. "To Julian Bashir," they intoned, and drank.

But - the runabout's systems failed. There was no planet. Nobody was left -

The scene changed again. Night in a scrub forest, a rocky hillside, a runabout tilted almost on its side, the vegetation around it still smouldering from the impact. The spacecraft's door opened and the glare of burning instrument panels spilled through onto the rough ground. Bashir barely had time to come to terms with the new perspective when a figure appeared in the rectangle of light, stumbling down onto the planet's surface, carrying a body in his arms.

It was Garak, his brocade tunic torn down one arm, and the body he was carrying was Bashir's own. Beyond him Bashir could make out Miles in the blazing interior, slumped over a console, his body charred from a plasma burst. Already dead, most likely - if not, soon to be.

Garak completely ignored him. He was focussed on getting his friend out of the danger zone, even though the gaping wound that penetrated Bashir's chest and dripped blood directly onto the ground revealed that it was already too late for such efforts to make any practical difference.

Several meters away from the runabout he sank to his knees and lowered Bashir to the ground, still supporting his shoulders with one arm. He looked down at the limp angle of the Human's neck, at the head tipped back, at the bloodied hands open like fallen birds in the dust. He laid his fingers to the lip of the fatal wound. His eyes gleamed in the shadows of his face, taking in every detail with trained and inexorable precision.

For a span of seconds he simply gazed. Then his face slowly twisted, contorting into a rictus of agony. He hugged Bashir to him and a long, harsh, keening howl burst from between his tightly clenched teeth, a sound of unmistakable rage and grief. He bent over Bashir's corpse and cried, his whole body shaking with emotional reaction. He cupped the back of Bashir's head in his hand and raised it so that he could stroke his cheek along the line of Bashir's jaw, a gesture whose precise significance Bashir did not recognize but whose general sense was clear to him: tenderness, regret, love... emotions he understood all the better because he'd just experienced them himself.

Garak wept almost silently after that initial scream of anguish, but soon he mastered himself again. He laid Bashir's body down on the hard ground, supporting the nape of his neck as if he could still feel such things, and studied his pale face one final time. He touched the human's lips with red-stained fingers, his own expression nearly serene.

Then, in the light of the burning runabout, he found a sturdy tree branch of handy length and began to dig a single grave.

Bashir's eyes opened to light.

Steady, warm, familiar light. Shades of cream and grey around him, illuminated panels overhead. The interior of the runabout, intact and undamaged.

Beside him he heard a sharply indrawn breath. He turned his head to see Miles staring at him, his pale eyes wide. Unburned, clad in his regular Starfleet uniform, and very much alive.

"What the hell was that?" the Chief breathed.

Bashir frowned. Behind them both Garak said: "Indeed. Did either of you experience...?"

"Visions." Bashir turned in his seat to see Garak sitting there, neat and composed and unharmed. His eyes locked with the Cardassian's. Did he detect an unusual depth of emotion lurking there?

Miles' hands were flying across his instrument panel. "Whatever it was, I think we'd better get the hell out of here."

"For once I agree with the Chief completely," Garak said, his gaze still fixed on Bashir's face. "And perhaps it would be best if we never spoke of this again."

Miles snorted. "Unlike you, we have to make a report."

Garak smiled blandly. "How unfortunate. It's times like this that I'm glad to be a simple tailor."

Bashir turned his attention back to his own console, his mind eased by the habitual sparring. Everything was exactly as it had always been.

Or perhaps, a voice murmured deep within, if I'm brave enough, things will never be the same again.