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I cannot believe I'm wearing white.

For heaven's sake, it was asking for trouble. He was expected to make himself comfortable on a stone seat in an open-air auditorium without picking up a single smudge. I'm a doctor, not a miracle-worker.

Oh, well. He'd manage it somehow. Not for himself; he didn't really care, particularly, if his trousers got a bit dusty. It wasn't his own reaction he was concerned with, though. He glanced at the shorter man sitting next to him, who was currently facing away and chatting amiably with someone in the next seat. The man was immaculately dressed in a much more practical black suit. He's functional, I'm ornamental. Thank you, Garak.

As if picking up on his thoughts, Elim Garak turned back to him, smiling. "Not long now."

"Not at all." He smiled back, because how could he not? Elim's eyes were dancing. Happy as a clam. There wasn't anything happier than a Cardassian snuggled in amongst a multitude of other Cardassians, unless it was a Cardassian who also had a chance to do some social networking.

That last thought made him purse his lips: I could use the chance myself. "I don't think I know anyone here, do I?"

"Of course you do. Look down there."

He peered over the salt-and-pepper sea of heads, looking for something familiar. Oh—well, that particular hairstyle would be hard to mistake, wouldn't it. Dark and upswept, garnished with a hairpin which could, possibly, be used to do someone a mischief… "Is that Chancellor Hotet?"

"Yes, and her charming assistant."

"Hmm." Well, well, he was right. Julian raised his eyebrows. "Looks like you sussed that one out properly."

"Mmm…" Garak examined his nails. "Time will tell."

"Well, one doesn't bring one's office assistant to the re-opening of the Kardasi'or Auditorium, does one?"

"Who can say?" Now Garak made a bit of a moue. "Perhaps she's simply being practical. Keeping her resources close, as it were."

"What—you think she'll have an urgent bit of legislation to pass during the concert?"

"One never knows. Anything could happen. It's better to be prepared, I think." Garak patted his arm. "That's why I've brought my doctor, after all."

Julian snorted. "Your doctor indeed."

Garak blinked placidly. "Well, whose are you, then?"

"I am the Centre's doctor. I do not freelance. When you contract for my services, then I'll be your doctor." Couldn't let him think he could just jump the queue.

"Oh, dear." Garak frowned. "And what if I'm taken ill during the concert?"

"Then you'll owe me vesala, won't you."

"Dear me. What a shame that would be." Garak's smile was cool, but Julian could see the amusement underneath. He reached out and slipped his arm through the crook of Garak's, and felt the answering snugging-up as Garak tugged it close.

"It gives me a great deal of pleasure to have you here with me tonight, my dear." Garak's voice was light, pleased, and perhaps just a trifle smug.

"You're just happy to have an excuse to show off this outfit." He leaned closer. "I feel ridiculous." Honestly, white from head to toe? It didn't get much less practical than this.

"But you look lovely. And we're so very complementary. That's all the rage this season, you know." Garak nodded as if that settled everything. Which, Julian supposed, it probably did. God forbid Minister Garak be seen with someone who's not dressed to the nines.

It was all so complicated. He'd never been much for fashion in the first place, and Cardassians… well, their tastes seemed to vary from the extremely functional to the extremely decorative, with no apparent indicator for what was appropriate when. And as for style, well, God, never mind; after a few abortive tries at putting together something that wouldn't elicit giggles from the staff at the Children's Centre, Julian had just thrown up his hands and let Garak stick things on him. It made Garak happy, it made Julian's life easier. Win-win.

"How do you keep up with all of this? I've never been any good with fashion… and it's not as if you're doing much tailoring these days, anyway, beyond the things you like to hang on me." God knows you run all day and spend half the night on the comm.

"One should never let an old skill slip, my dear." Garak's tone was complacent. "Who knows? One day I might be called upon for a sartorial emergency. Imagine the shame should I fall short."

"You've got to be kidding."

Garak batted his lashes, and Julian laughed. Never mind.

He sat back and looked at the vast stone bowl, rising high around them. They'd gotten lucky with their seats… well, not lucky, really; Minister Garak was the three-hundred pound gorilla around here, wasn't he. It wasn't a surprise that they were so close to the Chancellor and her companion. All the bigwigs were squeezed into this section, and there were an awful lot of stern-faced types being very casual around its perimeter. Thank you, Cardassian paranoia; your security is unmatched.

Behind the two of them, curving up and away, were row upon row of seats: benches of cool stone, arcing around the amphitheatre, and those benches were filling up fast. The theatre was well-designed. The faintest sound from the stage would echo, resounding so that even the poor unworthies who were banished to the top row of seats would be able to hear just as well as those right up close to the stage. Seeing was another matter, but they weren't exactly here to see theatrics, were they?

He nudged Garak. "Let me see that program again."

With a mild look that said you have already seen this three times, Garak handed it over. Well, he couldn't really blame Julian for being a bit bored, could he? This was the people-watching, make-nice portion of the event. This was all Garak. There wasn't anyone else he knew close by, and Julian could hardly get a conversation started with people of Garak's social echelon without a proper introduction.

Even with an introduction, he certainly didn't seem to carry much weight. Here with Minister Garak? How nice, they said, while their posture said casual disregard or even mild amusement. Oh, well. If they thought he was nothing more than Minister Garak's off-world plaything, well, that was their sorry mistake, wasn't it? And I'm doing good work here. The kids know that, if nobody else does. Still, if he was being honest with himself, it did rankle a bit… shouldn't taking care of orphaned Cardassian kids rack him up a few points with the populace? God knows nobody else is doing it—

He caught himself frowning, and deliberately relaxed his mouth. Stop it. What was the point of sitting here being cranky about Cardassian social status on a gorgeous night like this? The stars were bright, the air was cool—pleasant even for a Human—and he was about to see the show of a lifetime, wasn't he, so he'd better buckle down and pay attention. He flipped open the program, expensively printed on God-only-knew-what endangered species of tree, and skimmed the text. Thank God I've been working on my written Kardasi.

Um… all right, so it was going to be a concert. Definitely. With… special guests? Kardasi'or's Chosen Vocalists, it said. Who'd chosen them wasn't mentioned. He was fairly certain it wasn't actually Kardasi'or herself. Apparently there was going to be a drum corps, too. And… poetry. Which didn't seem to fit, but then again, this was the first actual performance he'd seen on Cardassia… perhaps this was how things went?

He nudged Garak again. "Is there always poetry at concerts?"

Whoops, Garak was speaking to someone behind them. His arm tightened around Julian's, fingers signalling patience. Right. Work to be done. Well, God forbid Julian should interrupt Cardassia's future as Garak stitched it tight.

He studied the front page of the program. The title was a bit opaque. A Goodbye, it said, but there were branch-offs he didn't immediately understand. Mmm… sad, all right. But also joyous and also well-deserved and also dutiful and then there wasn't any summary, any explanation; just a little bio on the composer, Hutan Czu, and his family ties, which were both extensive and apparently of great interest. Great-aunt makes pottery. Huh.

Garak had finished up his chat, and turned back to him. "I do apologise, my dear. What were you asking?"

"Never mind." He hadn't really been all that curious, and things were starting to move now. People were scurrying back and forth across the stage, and the buzz of conversation from multiple thousands of souls in one large bowl was growing louder and louder. The sound almost felt solid, a physical, tangible thing. It buzzed inside him, and he smiled.

He looked to Garak, wanting to share the feeling, and found to his pleasure that Garak was already smiling back at him. His blue eyes flicked from side to side as he leaned forward, brow ridges raised: "Quite the sound, wouldn't you say?"

"I would indeed." It vibrated right up his spine. "You do tend to like things loud on Cardassia, don't you."

"Well, of course you'd think so." Garak's tone was slightly miffed, and Julian grinned.

"Poor me. Do you think I'll come away deaf from this concert?"

"Your sense of hearing isn't that much better than mine, my dear." Garak gestured dismissively: that for Human hearing.

"I hope the music translates. Despite the different auditory ranges, I mean." Cardassian hearing started about where Human hearing did, but seemed to taper off much sooner than theirs did as the pitch rose. They needed a lot more volume, too. The train signals near their house were, quite frankly, deafening.

"I think you'll find you'll understand the nuance." Now Garak sat back, inhaling, tasting the air and smiling, and Julian watched, wondering what he found there. "Dear me, what an excitement. I feel more than a little nostalgic, I must say."

"Have you been to many concerts here? Before the bombardments?"

"Yes, indeed." Garak's eyes fluttered shut for a moment in memory. "Many, and those I didn't attend I heard about. The heart of Torr was always the Auditorium."

"I'm surprised it was rebuilt so quickly." There was still so much of the city that was barely patched together, and yet here was the Auditorium, all smooth, unmarked stone.

"Priorities, my dear."

"Really?" When there were still cracks in side streets, when families were still crammed together in temporary-living dwellings and commandeered mansions—this was a priority?

Apparently yes, because Garak was nodding emphatically. "Indeed. Look." He lifted a hand, gestured across the crowd before and behind them. "All of Kardasi'or wants to be here tonight. Even those who can't fit inside will hear the song." His hand dropped to his lap, and he looked at Julian, seeming to want him to understand. "This is a part of Kardasi'or's soul, my dear doctor, restored to us again. This is a reason to hope."

Garak the optimist. Well, that was new. Julian suppressed a blink of disbelief. It wouldn't be polite to argue… not here, anyway, not surrounded by so many excited, hopeful faces. I don't want to be the rude Human who spoiled the party. Instead he smiled at Garak, tightened his hand around his arm. "I'm glad."

"I am delighted that you'll be able to see this. Here, on the very first night…" Garak sighed. "This will be spoken of for a generation, my dear. And you'll be able to say you were here."

"I… well, that's excellent." Because it was. Although he couldn't really picture himself bragging to Amrille or Pakut or the kids. Look where my tuvUr took me this time! Too bad you couldn't go!

Damn, that was the social status thing again. Stop it, Julian. It shouldn't be this hard to just relax and enjoy a little bit of privilege, should it? Minister Garak was certainly entitled to it, and so by Cardassian rules, Julian was too. Which was fine. And didn't feel at all unearned, damn it.

Never mind. Refocus. Cool evening, stars shining, happy buzz of sound around him, and the air smelled like dust and people and the city, shifting her focus to night, and right next to him was Garak. Which was still more delightful than he could ever let on. Hmm, and if he closed his eyes he could just catch a whiff of the man's hair… God, that's nice. A bit of spice, a waft of wet forest—

"Julian. Pay attention."

Oh, damn. He popped his eyes open and saw that someone was stepping out on to the stage. The noise of the crowd peaked abruptly as everyone nudged everyone else, look look at the stage look, and then hushed almost completely as the person on the stage walked to the little podium at its middle, bowed with hand to heart, then spread his arms wide.

"Kardasi'or, I greet you!"

His amplified voice was strong and warm, resonating through Julian's body, filling the auditorium with sound. Applause swept across the crowd, wave after wave of grey hands beating together, carrying with it the occasional acclamatory shout. Next to him, Garak was applauding just as hard as anyone else, his smile wide. Julian took his cue from Garak and clapped too. He leaned over, mouth near Garak's ear.

"Is that Czu?"

"Yes." Garak was clapping hard enough that it looked as it it might hurt. "A genius, my dear."

He didn't look like a genius. He looked like a short man in a nondescript brown suit. Still, he certainly had the crowd in the palm of his hand, as he lifted his hands higher, pulling the applause up, up, then dropping his hands sharply to silence the auditorium.

"Tonight is for the living!"

Approval rippled through the crowd, whispers of yes, yes. Garak pursed his lips.

"Tonight is for the dead!"

Now a nod from Garak, and more approval from the crowd.

"Tonight," and Czu raised his hands and opened them to the sky, "is for Cardassia!"

Julian clapped, listening to the crowd roar.

Czu dropped his hands, nodded once. "We begin!"

An air of hushed expectancy settled over the auditorium. Garak leaned forward slightly, gaze sharp, mouth open.

Czu turned, lifted his hands, dropped them in one swift movement, and out marched a veritable battalion of Cardassian males. They were dressed in gauzy outfits, brilliant red, and as they moved the sleeves and trousers billowed around them. They looked like walking flowers. It would've seemed a bit ridiculous, except that it clearly wasn't: pleased murmurs rose from all around him, not least from the sartorial expert to his immediate right, whose "Oh, well done" was a delighted hiss.

The men arranged themselves in three lines, and were then joined by still more people, this time dressed in shades of grey and brown. Men and women this time, carrying drums under their arms; they made a wide circle around the singers and seated themselves in unison, placing the drums in their laps and raising their hands in readiness.

Last—but apparently not least—a man and a woman walked in from opposite sides of the stage. He was dressed in white, she in black (and Julian noted, with amusement, that Garak had once again managed to be sartorially psychic). They met in the middle, clasped hands in brief yut'pUr, then turned to the audience and bowed their heads, dark hair hanging down.

Czu looked across the performers, catching each of their eyes in turn, then reached out, hands grasping air and twisting, pulling—

—and as he pulled, sound tumbled from the chorus, a low wail, a mournful almost-drone that seemed to come from the ground itself. It hummed through the air, it thrummed in the stone, and Julian felt his body shake with it, with its dark vibration in his gut. Next to him, he heard Garak's faint gasping sip of air, heard it echoed by the sips of the people around them.

Now Czu moved again, hands working, and the drummers rippled out an almost liquid sound, a sound of falling rain that pattered through the auditorium, a sound of waterfalls and leaves in wind. Behind it, the chorus cried out joyfully, split into parts, drifting through harmonies and discordances, and Julian listened with Human ears, trying hard to hear in Cardassian.

"It is always here," cried the man in white.

"It never left," sang the woman in black.

Again the droning roar, again the rush of leaves in wind.

"It is dead," sobbed the man.

"We have destroyed it," wept the woman.

Now the drone shimmered into a strange, cycling disharmony, fluttering back and forth between two notes, never quite resolving, and the drumming took on a quicker, almost military cadence. Julian felt his own heart speeding to match as the drums beat around him, through him, again, again, again.

"Which we?" asked the woman.

"The we that does not include us," answered the man.

"Which we?" asked the woman again.

"The we that always includes us," said the man.

"Which we?" Now her voice was almost shrill.

"The only we that ever was," said the man, "the we that is us, the we that is them, the we that is we, the we that is here, the we that is now—"

Suddenly their voices were drowned out as Czu jerked his hands up, pulling the chorus into a layered wall of sound that trembled, that was dissonant and beautiful, that seemed on the verge of tumbling down over itself then rebuilt itself at the last moment. Over and over again he led the chorus into a towering, powerful chord; over and over again he dropped his hands and tugged out its foundation, and their voices crashed down into discord. Around it all the drums echoed, shaping the growth, punctuating the destruction, until finally there was nothing but howling sound and the thrum, the thrum of the drums, the repeated slamming sound of thunder—

Next to him Garak gasped, eyes wide and unseeing. Julian stared at him, then around him. Every face he saw was blank, every set of eyes wide.

What are they seeing? What have I missed?

Suddenly silence, almost complete, broken only by the soft, keening whine of the woman.

"We are dead," she wailed, "and who will mourn?"

"We will," said the man.

"We are dead, and who will tell our story?"

"We will."

"We are dead, and who will carry on?"

"We will."

"Cardassia!" she shouted, and the chorus echoed it, the drums sounded.

Again the shout, "Cardassia!" and this time she reached out to the audience, as did the chorus while the drums snapped out their sound.

The answering roar was deafening. "Cardassia!"

Again and again the call, again and again the answer, and Julian almost winced at the sound, managed not to; God, this was intense beyond belief—the pounding of the drums, the harshness of the voices, the discordance, and Garak next to him shouting along with everyone else, lost in the moment. "Cardassia!" he cried, and Julian had no idea what to do. Do I shout too? But that seemed wrong, seemed false, because Garak was shouting as if he had no other choice. Everyone in the audience was shouting as if not to shout was not to breathe, and Julian sat there, listening, surrounded by sound that found its way inside him, that rattled his lungs in his chest, that forced his heart to beat to its rhythm, triplet, triplet, God, he couldn't breathe, if it didn't stop he was going to—

"Cardassia," cried Garak, cried every set of lungs in the auditorium, and as Julian gasped for breath before the next onslaught, he was abruptly enfolded in silence. His lungs filled easily; his body was weak, as if the wave had passed over and through him, and he was washed up on the shore.

My God. No wonder Garak didn't care about hearing ranges. This was far beyond hearing.

On stage, Czu had folded himself up, had dropped to his knees and rested his forehead on the ground. The drummers had laid their heads down on their drums. The chorus had let themselves collapse where they stood, looking like nothing so much as a scattering of red-petalled flowers strewn across the stage. Only the man and woman were left standing, hands joined.

"What has changed?" she asked plaintively.

"Nothing has changed. Can't you see?" His voice was calm, reassuring, as if he spoke only to her, and Julian found himself hushing his breathing, as if the sound of it might disturb them.

"What has changed?" Now she was frightened.

"Everything has changed. Can't you see?" And he was, too.

"What has changed?" And finally, expectant, almost hopeful, and yet so sad.

"We have changed. Can't you see?" His tone matched hers, and they melted into each other, leaning together so that they were nothing more than a melding of black and white, a yin and yang on a Cardassian stage, and suddenly Julian was alone, uncomprehending, and a long, long way from home.

He stared, eyes blurring as the moment stretched. Only Garak's hiss of pleasure brought him back to himself in time to leap to his feet along with everyone else as the auditorium burst into applause.

"Well done," Garak was shouting, "well done!" Around him everyone was crying out their own accolades, clapping, hissing, and all he could do was bang his palms together. It felt like camouflage. Did I understand? Everyone else had seen… something, and he'd just sat there… it didn't seem like nearly enough.

When the applause was over, Garak sat with a sigh of contentment, pulling Julian down next to him. For a moment he interlaced their fingers in unexpected intimacy, before letting his hand slide back to rest gently against Julian's, palm to palm. His smile was calm and full of pride. "Well, my dear? What did you think?"

God, how did he answer?

The truth? My insides hurt, and I feel awful. It didn't really seem to be the right thing to say, somehow…

Some kind of appreciative platitude? But the idea of saying "It was really good!" was, quite simply, revolting, because it had been so much more than that…

He settled on a sigh, tilting his head, hoping Garak wouldn't push, would understand.

Luckily, it seemed that Garak did. His nod was slow and measured, contemplative.

"Quite an experience, wouldn't you say?"

"I would." Because that was completely, unequivocally true.

Garak nodded again, gazing now into the middle distance. "A layered performance. I look forward to discussing it with Czu tonight."

"Will he be at the party?" Perhaps he could ask him about it… or not, because it's very unlikely the toast of Cardassia's artistic scene will have much to say to me.

"After this?" A slow blink. "Oh, yes, I think so. Madame Chancellor would have to be rather politically tone-deaf not to invite the composer of Valediction to her soireé."

Oh—was that how it translated. "What was he saying goodbye to?"

Garak looked at him. "What do you think?"

Julian thought, closing his eyes, remembering.

A few months prior, they'd attended a funeral. It had been more of a political nicety than anything else, and Garak had been expected to attend. Because where Garak went, Julian went, Julian had found himself in the extremely unusual position of being an offworlder at a Cardassian funeral. Garak had impressed upon him before they left how very important it was that he say nothing, nothing at all, because it was one thing to be there but it was quite another to draw attention to it, and so he'd found himself in the position of observer.

He'd watched the scattering of the perek flowers, their red petals mimicking the red blood that welled from the cuts on the family's hands. He'd listened to the nine-times-nine chant of the name of the dead woman, how it had whispered from the lips of everyone there, drifting like smoke into the sky. He'd done his very best to fade into the background, but he'd watched, and he'd remembered.

Now he thought of red petals scattered on the ground, and the repetition of a planet's name…

Not nine-times-nine. Nine-times-eight.

He opened his eyes, confused, and found Garak smiling at him.

"Cardassia."

"Yes."

"But not quite."

"No, not quite."

And not only Cardassia. Not for me…

He let out a slow, thoughtful breath, and Garak nodded.

"Thank you for coming with me, my dear." Garak's palm was cool against his own, its pressure unwavering. "I cannot express how much it meant to me to have you here."

To say goodbye to the past? To step, uncertainly, into the future? Or just for moral support? Or, possibly, just to look pretty on his arm?

Well, all of them were no doubt to some measure true. Didn't really matter which ones, or how much; he was glad he'd come. Even if Earth has never seemed so far away…

"I'm glad I was here with you."

It was simple and it was true, and for a moment, Garak's smile was as well.

"Come, my dear. The social whirl awaits us." Garak tilted his head, and his smile with it. "Surely you wouldn't want to disappoint the drove of people hoping for their scandalous peek at a real live Human?"

Oh, God. He'd almost managed to forget. Another night of small-talk and weird canapés and slightly dismissive second tongue…

But there was pleasure in Garak's eyes, appreciation/love in the set of his shoulders and hands, and so Julian Bashir smiled back and wrapped his fingers around Garak's palm.

"By all means. Let's go cause trouble."

Functional black next to ornamental white, they climbed the amphitheatre stairs together.