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Old March 25 2013, 08:47 PM   #2
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Re: DS9 Fic: Paternity

Odo exuded an aura of calm order as he patrolled the Promenade with his hands clasped behind his back. Nothing escaped his watchful eyes. He stopped a provocatively-dressed human female, reminded her of the station curfew and sent her scurrying. Then he walked straight towards me. I was standing outside the Infirmary.

"Doctor Mora," Odo regarded me politely. He glanced at the two deputies stationed nearby. "How is your 'fever' tonight?"

"The headache is impossible," I replied, rubbing the side of my head. "I hope Doctor Bashir has something to ease it."

Odo gestured to the door. "I'll accompany you, then."

With alibis for our presence there laid out, we slipped into the Infirmary. Odo reclined on the biobed. His jaw tightened and he closed his eyes. This wasn't easy or comfortable for him, not after the experiments I used to perform.

I patted his shoulder and gave him a serious look. "Tell us if anything is too much, and I will have it stopped."

He nodded once. "Get on with it."

"We will. Here comes Doctor Bashir."

"Is he ready?" Doctor Bashir asked.

"Mmhmm." I settled the sensor arch over the biobed and let him calibrate it. "May I borrow your tricorder?"

"Of course. Here."

"Thank you."

I took the handheld sensor off the tricorder and scanned Odo while the biobed took more detailed readings of his density, body chemistry and even his temperature. Doctor Bashir ensured the sensors ignored the lack of heartbeat, respiratory gas exchange and blood pressure.

The pocket slowly appeared on the tricorder screen. A little blob in the bottom bubbled and shot fluid straight up like a mud geyser. Then it collapsed back into a liquid again, much to Doctor Bashir's amusement.

"Did..." He gestured to Odo and whispered, "...he ever do that?"

"Once, right after taking him out of the centrifuge." I answered. Then I faced Odo. "Odo?"

Odo opened his eyes to look up at me. "Yes, Doctor Mora?"

I turned the tricorder around. He squinted at it. "Is this a live scan?"

"It is."

Odo's surly expression softened. "It looks like it's...practicing." Suddenly, he smiled, and I knew he fell in love with his offspring. "Just like I did when I learned to form tentacles."

I still remember the first tentacle slapping my hand away from a control panel. After that experience, Odo utilized them often to snatch tools out of my hands and knock objects off countertops. He became so violent I had to keep him in a containment field for my own safety. Those were the hardest days in the lab-- listening to the unknown sample slamming again and again into the energy barrier...

I shook off the memories.

"You sure loved to do that." I remarked, leaning forward to watch the tricorder screen. "Have you thought of a name for it?"

"I have," Odo said, briefly looking up at me. "I'm going to call it Kejal."

A perfect name. A beautiful name. One I wouldn't have thought up myself.

I patted Odo on the arm. "A wonderful choice. My goodness, I do feel like I'm about to be a grandfather."

Doctor Bashir looked up from the biobed screen and inquired about the name's meaning. I told him, "Kejal is our word for freedom, Doctor Bashir."

Onscreen, the tiny infant fell against the side of its protective pocket and dissolved into liquid. The tap was enough to make the membrane ripple.

Odo startled with a gasp. "Oh...did you see that?"

Doctor Bashir's grin mirrored mine. Odo's curious excitement proved contagious. The young doctor directed my attention to his latest findings on the pocket itself. He'd discovered why the images were so clear.

"The pocket is actually full of air, not liquid like I first thought." He pointed to the screen. "And it hasn't changed its size at all, but the baby Changeling's volume has increased by ten percent since yesterday." When I nodded, he turned to Odo and went on, "I suspect only two conditions will lead to it being born. One-- it outgrows the pocket and bursts free. Or two-- it can hold a shape long enough to work itself out of your body. Where it will emerge from is anyone's guess. Doctor Mora, what do you think?"

His speculations were sound, and I told him so. It explained why Odo's upper body changed density so drastically to protect the pocket. Scans indicated it was as soft as the plastic air bubbles used to pack delicate materials for land transport. But the birth itself...educated guesses were all we had.

I leaned on the biobed and peered at Odo. "I think, regardless of what triggers its birth, it will choose the path of least resistance. Unlike a solid species, that could be anywhere on your body."

Odo snorted at that.

Doctor Bashir cleared his throat. "Doctor Mora, a word?"

"Of course." I set the tricorder down where Odo had a clear view and stepped away from the biobed.

Doctor Bashir glanced at Odo. "Aren't you even a little worried? What if this condition is dangerous to him?"

"I don't think it is." I said with confidence. "This may be how his people reproduce. An old or dying Changeling integrates into one already living and is essentially reborn. It's a shame we don't know exactly how many Changelings exist or how long they live. That information would tell us the frequency of their reproduction cycles."

Doctor Bashir inhaled through his nose. "Or...this may be a one-off incident brought on by unique circumstances. Which means it might be dangerous." He chewed his bottom lip and ducked his head. "What if this infant literally sucks the life out of Odo? What if it takes over his body instead of being born as a separate entity?"

The possibility existed, yet I didn't want to face it. Not unless the infant Changeling's behavior within Odo's body showed signs of hostility. But how could it? Like Odo, it didn't know anything-- it was cast out into the universe as a blank slate.

"I can't fathom that happening. It would be too chaotic, and Odo's species favors order." I leaned closer, dropping my voice to a whisper. "And I also believe Odo would inform us if something felt wrong. He knows his own body better than we do."

Doctor Bashir remained skeptical, and I didn't blame him.

He said, "I hope you're right."

"I-- "

"It knows it's alive," Odo spoke, interrupting my thoughts. "I can feel its awareness. It is...like I was...ah..." His eyes fluttered shut, "...I need to rest."

Alarmed, I moved to his side. "Odo?"

Odo's facial features glistened. He looked almost exactly like he had the very first time he took his full humanoid form. The biobed registered several changes in his morphogenic matrix and biochemistry. His chemical makeup tended to fluctuate throughout the day, but never this much.

Doctor Bashir touched my arm. "Doctor Mora, it's all right. This is what I've been telling you about. Watch his torso."

Odo's extremities turned mushy and liquefied. His head followed, leaving just his upper torso laying there like a smooth rock poking above a pond's surface. Onscreen, his primitive lungs remained intact, albeit dormant. They were transparent rose petals wrapping themselves around the air pocket.

Part of Odo nearly dribbled off the table. I turned on the containment field and ran another scan. During regeneration, the surface density of Odo's chest showed a fifty percent increase, and chemical readings indicated morphogenic enzymes flowing through the piece of his torso that didn't melt.

"Remarkable," I whispered. "Odo, you never cease to amaze me."

"Look at this. I don't know how, but the scanners are picking up theta waves," said Doctor Bashir. "He's sleeping."

"Or maybe it's the baby."

He raised both eyebrows. "Could be."

Silently, I added, Or it's both of them, and they're dreaming about each other.

"It's been a long day. Odo will be fine until morning." Doctor Bashir covered a yawn.

Seeing him yawn made me do the same. "We should both retire, then. Good night, doctor."

He walked me to the door and handed me a hypospray in sight of the night deputies standing guard. "You shouldn't be contagious by tomorrow morning, but I suspect it'll take two weeks for your body to combat the virus. This will help you sleep. Come back tomorrow and we'll see how you're doing."

"Thank you, Doctor Bashir." I accepted the hypo, dipped my head politely and nodded to the deputy as I headed for the turbolift.

A Yridian raced towards the closing doors. I held them open long enough to allow him aboard. He peered at me, the scars on his face wrinkling.

"Level two." I said. The Yridian scoffed at that, so I responded, "Is there a problem?"

"No," he grumbled. "Going to be a long ride for me. I'm heading down, not up."

"Oh. I apologize if I'm making you late."

"If you say so." The Yridian turned his back. "Tch. Diplomats."

His impoliteness irritated me. Typical Yridian-- rude and ungrateful. I not-quite-accidentally pushed him aside once the turbolift arrived at level two. He called me something too offensive to repeat as the doors closed. Such a charming fellow. I put the whole incident out of my mind and entered my guest quarters.

Nothing on my console. Good. Starfleet wasn't on my trail yet.

I replicated a saucer of larish pie and nibbled on it while I prepared for bed.

Larish pie-- one of my favorite sweet treats. I still remember Odo trying to eat it the first time he took humanoid form. Three bites in, I realized he wasn't swallowing it. I managed to teach him how. He ate the whole slice and commented on its crunchy texture. Then he stood up after finishing and every single bite he took began to drop onto the floor. In the interest of science, I let him try my deka tea. He inhaled it, choked and expelled it all over me when he collapsed into his gelatinous state. I wiped the mess off my face and we both agreed: No eating or drinking.

The memory always makes me smile. My laboratory wall still has purple stains from that incident...I don't have the heart to clean them off.

I set my saucer on the replicator pad for disposal and dimmed the lights in preparation to sleep.

.o

"Odo to Doctor Mora. Respond."

I stirred awake at the familiar craggy voice on my combadge.

"Yes?"

"Ah, my apologies. Did I wake you?"

I asked for the time. Oh-nine-twenty. I groaned. "Yes, but I'm due to get up. Space stations always make me sleep more than I should."

"Yes, the lack of daylight does that to some." Odo made a noise like clearing his throat. "I'd like you to come to my office whenever you're available. I have something I wish to discuss with you."

"Oh?" I kept the combadge online while I dressed, combed my rumpled hair and shaved the stubble off my chin. "Gladly, Odo. I'll see you shortly."

Odo grunted in acknowledgement and the combadge beeped to indicate he ended communication. I didn't take it personally. Social graces were not something he fully grasped.

I made my way to the Infirmary. Doctor Bashir was busily running tricorder scans on a very familiar woman.

"Doctor Mora," Major Kira smiled. "Don't mind me. I'm on my way out."

"Major," I acknowledge her politely.

"I think it's safe to declare you fit for full duty again." Doctor Bashir handed her a hypospray. "This should help with the lingering water retention. Only take it once every twelve hours."

"Thanks." She sighed a little. "I better go. I need to tell Odo something before he goes hiding in his office."

She is a sweet one, I mused.

"Don't let us keep you." I said with a smile.

"Doctors," she dipped her head towards us and exited the Infirmary. I saw her catch up to Odo on the Promenade. Their walking speed became a slow stroll. Odo clasped his hands behind his back and leaned in her direction as she spoke. Even from that distance, I saw how he looked at her-- and the little smile he flashed at her back once they went their separate ways. He could hide it from her, but not me. I know love when I see it.

"So, when did he leave the Infirmary this morning?"

"Oh-eight-hundred." Doctor Bashir answered.

"That's longer than his normal regeneration period." I noted.

"Yeah. I guess even Odo isn't immune to the more common symptoms of pregnancy. The mood swings are the craziest. I swear..." The young doctor folded his arms, "...he seemed almost chipper when he headed out, which means Quark is in for an interesting day."

We both had a chuckle at that while I caught up on the overnight scans.

"It looks like the baby has regeneration periods of its own." I pointed to the timestamps on the screen. "Every three hours, it becomes completely inactive."

"Odo's periods of tiredness match exactly with the baby's regeneration cycles. Ah, here, I took these for you." Doctor Bashir showed me its measurements.

Overnight, it grew to take up nearly half the pocket. I marveled at the sight. It couldn't increase its mass like that unless it spent much of its active phase practicing its abilities.

"At this growth rate, it'll probably be born within the next two weeks." And what an exciting day that would be! I couldn't wait!

"I'd say one, but I'm a betting man." Doctor Bashir tossed a hypospray in the air and caught it again.

"How will you prepare this place for the birth?"

He gestured to the biobed. "This area will do. I'll have a full array of scanners trained on him, At the slightest problem, I can intervene. Worse comes to worse, I'll use the transporter or suction the baby out via syringe."

I barely suppressed a shudder; I'd forgotten that human doctors tend to treat birth like a medical emergency rather than a natural biological function. No wonder human women can't relax during the labor process. Who can with doctors, scanners and medicine hovering around every corner?

"Doctor Mora?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. Yes?"

"What will we do with the baby Changeling once it's born?"

A valid question. I shrugged in response. "That's up to Odo, and I'll respect any choice he makes. Speaking of-- he is expecting me in his office. I shouldn't keep him waiting. Do you need my assistance for anything right now?"

"No, go ahead. I have a three appointments and two surgeries today, so I'm going to be busy."

Reassured, I headed for the door. "Good luck, doctor."

Then I left him there and crossed the Promenade to reach Odo's office. I stood outside the door, watching him. He talked to his chest-- to the infant-- like he did before its apparent death in the lab. No doubt about it now...he felt connected to his offspring. And he looked so happy. I couldn't help smiling when he suddenly barked with laughter. I missed hearing that sound. There was a time when all it took was me laughing to make him join in.

And I chose that moment to walk in. "Odo, it's wonderful to see you so happy."

Odo quieted himself, his smile only returning upon seeing me. "How can I not be?" He gestured at his chest. "I've discovered something I thought I lost."

Chuckling, I crossed my arms and eyed him. "I'm sure you didn't ask me to meet you in your office to tell me that."

Odo's smile slowly faded into his usual serious expression. "No...but I've been thinking." He leaned back in his chair. "I...I'll just get to the point. Once this infant Changeling is born, I want you to take it back to Bajor and raise it."

I blinked. I almost asked him to repeat himself. He didn't know that Starfleet was still insistent about me helping them locate Changeling infiltrators. I decided to listen to his reasoning before considering my options.

Odo's hand settled on his chest. "We're about to go to war with the Dominion. I don't want the Founders getting their hands on this Changeling." He nodded once, almost to himself. "Once it is born, I will link with it. I will tell it what it needs to know to shape shift, and then I want you to take it. I...I trust that you can keep it safe until the war with the Dominion is over. I, uh..." Then he looked up at me, and in his clear blue eyes I could see the trust I thought I lost forever. "It's my way of saying thank you for your help."

By the Prophets, I had to sit down and take in his words. I wanted to laugh and cry. Taking the infant posed a considerable hazard for me, but Odo trusted me again. If I turned him down, I undermined the shaky bridge still being built between us.

Somehow, I knew I'd find a way to keep Odo's offspring safe. I'm sure he already weighed the risks of giving it to me. He had no one else to turn to. Especially now, when anyone and everyone might be an enemy in disguise.

Before word of Odo's pregnancy reached me, I'd been working on a biofilter that would quietly detect morphogenic enzymes. I could test the scanner on the baby without doing it any harm and verify whether or not it worked before putting the device in Starfleet's hands. At least, that became my hope. Better than mandatory blood tests and phaser sweeps.

The Founders were compromising us in secret. Turnabout seemed like fair play.

This is your chance to right what you did wrong with Odo, I told myself. You owe him this.

I reached across the desk and laid my hand on his shoulder. "Are you sure?"

"Yes," he said without hesitation. His answer clinched it.

"Then I would be honored, Odo." I heard my voice quiver with joy.

Odo let his hand rest on top of mine. His flesh felt almost indistinguishable from an ordinary humanoid's. The only difference was a lack of body hair.

"I am not off duty until zero-hundred, but if you want to have dinner sometime today...I don't mind sitting and watching you eat."

I chuckled at him, and I reminisced about the larish pie. Odo rolled his eyes at me.

"It was still an interesting experiment," I remarked.

Odo grumbled something under his breath. He didn't remember the incident as fondly as I did.

"Do you ever miss having a sense of smell and taste?"

"Not really." He shrugged, leaning back in his chair. "There were times where I found them almost overpowering. But I didn't mind them."

I wanted to tell him I was sorry for not being there. Then I decided against it. No sense digging up past skeletons and beating them into dust.

Odo sat up straighter. "It feels like champagne bubbles."

That got my attention. "You're feeling it move already?"

"Yes. It's the same sensation you feel when you take a drink and let it sizzle in your mouth. Champagne...heh...it's the only drink I miss." His eyelids fluttered. "Oh, it's moving. Here."

He led me around the table and pressed my hand against the center of his chest.

"There, did you feel that?"

Disappointed, I shook my head. Maybe it was still too little, or too far within his body to feel from the outside. Odo exhaled all the air in his 'lungs' and pressed my hand harder against him. I started to say I couldn't feel anything when the tiniest vibration tickled my palm. Two times in rapid succession.

"Ah! I felt that!"

Odo's eyes practically glowed. I saw all the hopes and fears he had for his offspring when he began, "Doctor Mora?"

I gently lifted my hand off his chest.

He cleared his throat and dropped his gaze towards his lap. "All I ask is you don't experiment on this Changeling. Teach it what I can't, but-- "

His worst fear, and his reason for choosing me. I put him at ease right away.

"Say no more. I understand...and I give you my word."

No zapping, no centrifuges, no protein decompilers and no cytoplasmic separators.

Odo nodded resolutely to himself. He adjusted his position in his office chair and picked up one of his PADDS. Then he set it down again. A fidgety Odo is an uncomfortable Odo. I took a polite step back to give him space. He groped rather obviously for something to fill in the awkward silence.

"So, about dinner..."

"Ah! How does eighteen-hundred at Quark's sound?"

He glanced at the digital chart on his security console and nodded once. I watched him type it in. "It's in the system now."

Was there anything he didn't organize? I laughed inwardly until my empty stomach protested its neglect.

"Hm, it's almost thirteen-hundred. I should eat lunch."

Odo's eyes widened. "Thirteen-hundred? Doctor Mora, you'll have to excuse me. I'm supposed to meet with Major Kira at thirteen-hundred."

I nearly asked him if this was a date, but I refrained. We were finally getting along without arguing-- why spoil it with silly jokes about having a lover? I resolved my humor to an amused look.

"Of course. I'll see you later, Odo."

Odo offered me a nod. He practically ran out of his office. I waited until he was fully inside Quark's bar before I let myself chuckle out loud. Love makes people do the funniest things.

I returned to the Infirmary under the guise of needing another checkup. Doctor Bashir was between appointments. He pursed his lips when he saw me, something I noticed he does when he's about to say something unpleasant.

"I think I know how to take a sample of the infant without harming the bubble. I can use a narrow transporter beam to take out just a milliliter, study it and return it afterward."

Well, that wasn't a statement I expected to stumble into. And after the promise I made to Odo, no less!

"He doesn't want any experiments done on the infant," I told him.

"How can we be sure if it's healthy?"

I squared my shoulders and challenged him. "How can we be sure that removing even a small amount won't injure it? Doctor Bashir, I appreciate what you want to do in the name of science, but I just told Odo I wasn't going to experiment on this Changeling the way I experimented on him. Subjecting him or the infant to invasive tests now will open up a lot of old wounds."

The young doctor didn't look pleased. I understood his frustration, but I also understood Odo's fears. And right now Odo's desires took precedence over everything else.

Doctor Bashir closed his tricorder. "What if something is wrong with it?"

"If there is, it may become apparent on scans soon enough. Its morphogenic matrix looks stable and it's active every couple hours like clockwork. Odo put my hand to his chest, and I felt the infant move just a few minutes ago."

"Already?"

I nodded. Then I became serious again. "Then we're in agreement on no invasive procedures?"

With a long-suffering sigh, he nodded. "All right. I still think we're letting something fantastic go."

I could only smile at his youthful impertinence. "No, 'fantastic' will be the birth. Odo may not show it, but he's excited ab-- "

My combadge beeped. The station computer said, "You have a priority one message from Starfleet."

"Acknowledged." I glanced at Doctor Bashir. "Excuse me. I'll take this in my guest quarters."

"Of course, doctor. I'm due for surgery in twenty minutes. Talk later?"

"Yes."

I left him there to tend his patients.

Unpleasant butterflies flitted about in my stomach. Did Starfleet somehow learn about Odo? No, they couldn't have. They figured out I was on Deep Space Nine. Nothing more.

I found myself sharing the turbolift with the same scarred Yridian from the other night.

"Going up again?"

"Let's go to your level first and spare you the wait." I countered.

Suddenly, he was standing in my personal space, nose to nose, the sneer on his face wrinkling his scars. His yellow eyes bore into mine. I've stared down Gul Dukat-- this fool didn't frighten me.

The Yridian growled, "I don't like mouthy Bajorans."

I fixed him in an unblinking glare of my own. I wasn't in the mood for a cranky alien when I had Starfleet hanging over my head. "Don't fuss with me, Yridian."

His knuckles cracked and his pupils dilated. All the body language of someone ready for a fight.

I moved the Yridian back by extending my hands and casually stepped past him. "Take the turbolift. I'll wait for it to come back."

A heavy hand grabbed my shoulder. My reaction happened without conscious thought-- I drove my elbow into his belly, spun around and rammed my palm into his face. He tumbled back into the turbolift. The doors closed, separating us.

I shook my wrist and crossed the Promenade. Three Yridians clustered together outside the Replimat. They saw my confrontation with their friend-- I assume-- but one scowl from me had them keeping their distance. I took the turbolift next to the Cardassian's clothing shop.

Ten minutes later, I sat down in my guest quarters and picked up the communication on my console. A human visage with graying hair appeared onscreen.

"Admiral Strickler, please accept my apologies for the delay. I was in the Infirmary getting a refill."

Admiral Strickler didn't look pleased at having to wait.

"I hope your recovery is quick," he said with no sympathy whatsoever. "How is your Changeling filter coming along?"

"I'm still working on simulations, sir." I took out my notes and blueprints. Oh, I was so relieved that this communication didn't involve anything else. "It won't work until I can attune the sensors to detect morphogenic enzymes, and so far it's failing that in the simulations. No matter how good a Changeling is at taking on a form, its morphogenic enzymes are detectable with the right sensor calibration. I can't have it built until I'm absolutely sure it works. Remember, sir, we want it to trip a silent alarm, not cause them to lose their shape."

"Isn't there a Changeling on Deep Space Nine? What's name? Dodo?"

"Odo," I corrected him, annoyed. "And he may not be available to test the device when it's ready. If he IS available, I'll see what I can do."

The admiral onscreen folded his hands on his desk. He gave me a serious, deadly look. "We already have a plan in place if your sensor doesn't work. The president wants results soon."

You insufferable... "Of course, Admiral."

"Then I should-- oh, wait one moment, Doctor Mora. What of the baby Changeling you said was found?"

My heart almost stopped. "You didn't get the report? It died due to radiation poisoning."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Admiral Strickler said, once more without a trace of real sympathy. "We could have learned a lot from it."

It was hard to keep my tone cordial when I replied, "Yes. How unfortunate for you."

"Indeed." Finally, he leaned back and sighed. "I'll let you go. Get some rest, doctor. I hope you recover soon from your Rugalan fever."

"Thank you, Admiral Strickler."

The screen went dark. I shut the console down, stripped and took a long sonic shower. Talking to Starfleet always left me feeling somehow filthy. I didn't like them keeping how much they truly knew about Changelings from me, and I couldn't stop the nagging suspicion that they wanted to harm Odo along with the Founders. They didn't care as long as the shape shifters went away.

Odo placed his trust in me. He didn't make the decision lightly, and he had so many reasons not to choose me, yet I'm the one he sought out. Even when he discovered his pregnancy, he wanted me contacted. Letting him down wasn't an option.

I owned farm property in the countryside. Far from prying eyes and suspicious ears. If all else failed, I could take Odo's offspring there and raise it peacefully without Starfleet trumpeting at my back.

Starfleet is a wonderful operation. It's just...sometimes I find their tactics for dealing with aliens a little underhanded.

Now I really can't blame Odo for his misanthropic outlook on the universe, I mused to myself.

I finished my shower, dressed again and asked the computer to alert me at sixteen-hundred. It told me it was sixteen-hundred-and-ten. Grrr, how annoying. That time-wasting communication made me late for my dinner appointment!

.o

Odo chose a semi-secluded table on the second level of Quark's. I spotted him waving to me when I stepped off the turbolift and hurried to join him. He didn't comment on my tardiness.

I dropped myself into the seat across from him. He held a facsimile of springwine in his left hand. So he still used that trick-- I flashed a brief smile at the elaborate wineglass he produced. Much more detailed than the simple mugs he used to imitate.

"I want to try something from Earth, but I have no idea where to start." I looked at the menu, which had Earth foods I didn't recognize. "Did you taste any Earth cuisine before you regained your shape shifting abilities?"

Odo gave his 'wine' a swirl. "I recommend a dish called shrimp alfredo. Humans make fantastic pasta."

I made my order. Shrimp alfredo and ale for a drink. Across from me, Odo sat rigid as ever. Even here, in a nice restaurant, he would not relax. He had a lot of reasons to be tense. Especially when I informed him about Doctor Bashir wanting a sample of the baby.

"He what?" Odo nearly jumped off his seat.

I put my hands up. "Don't worry. I talked him out of it. I made you a promise and I intend to keep it."

Odo settled again, his back stiffer than a pole. That posture never wavered until he spent time trapped as a humanoid. I'm sure he didn't miss having a spinal column. Sometimes, I hated mine!

My order arrived in the hands of a Ferengi. A broad, steaming bowl of delicious smells and a tall glass of Bajoran ale. I tipped him graciously and eyed my food. Long, flat white noodles with little red-white spirals of shrimp and small round pieces of another fish. The 'alfredo' was the yellowish sauce covering everything.

The aromas made my mouth water. I took the first bite, and by the Prophets-- Odo had taste...when he could taste!

"Mm, this is absolutely delicious! Thank you."

Odo started to respond, but the bar's owner, Quark, shouted a pregnancy announcement. I paid it no mind. Odo looked ready to spit photon torpedoes. He didn't stop glaring at Quark until the expectant mother waved to the other bar patrons. The heightened emotions made him lose control of the 'wine' he held. It dissolved into goo and rejoined his uniform sleeve. He folded his hands. His eyes darted around.

"Odo, you're fidgeting."

"That was too close." He grumbled. "Quark is an idiot. Taking bets on a pregnancy...hmph!"

I tore into my food. It was a symphony for my taste buds. I hardly registered Odo speaking to me until he leaned forward.

"Mm-mm, this food is fantastic...ah...sorry." I set my fork down. "Odo, I think your situation is too unbelievable to be true."

"Kira believed me when I told her," he said, his voice practically caressing her name.

For perhaps the thousand and first time since Odo left my lab, I felt like a fool for thinking his emotions were only mimicry. True love isn't something a person simply copies by watching others. Either they feel it or they don't.

"Oh?" I sipped my ale. "You seem quite taken with her."

Odo huffed and peered around at everything but me. "It's nothing."

I smiled, "I saw how you were looking at her earlier."

"Enough!" Odo snapped, smacking the tabletop with his palms. He settled again, staring down at his own clasped fingers. "I...am too different to be anything more than her friend. I've been her friend for a long time, and I won't jeopardize that. Besides, she is quite happy with Shakaar."

"I can put in a good word for y--"

"No!" He practically choked on the word. Quieter, he went on, "No. that won't be necessary."

I knew I'd pushed too hard when I saw him grimace. Time to drop the matter and change the subject.

"All right, all right," I waved my napkin like a flag of surrender until his features smoothed back out. "I think I'll save the rest of this for later. Good choice, Odo. Thank you. What is this dish called again?"

"Shrimp alfredo." He sighed.

I patted my stomach and let Odo know I'd remember this delicious meal's name. Something like this should never be fed back into a replicator!

I glanced at our surroundings and decided to broach the question on my mind. "Have you been experiencing any unusual symptoms?"

Odo shrugged one shoulder. "Well...aside from being a little tired, no. Why do you ask?"

I finally got his eyes to meet mine again. "I'm just making sure your work isn't affected by your condition. You may need to request temporary leave if you're unable to perform your duties."

"Bah. I'm already affected. You saw what happened when I regenerated. It's the same way with shape shifting. I can change everything but my torso."

Odo morphed his arm into a huge claw, snatched a menu off an empty table and showed it to me. He returned the menu to its home and shifted his arm back to normal.

"I must be a sight when I regenerate."

"It's a fascinating sight, yes."

His gaze hardened. Hurt. "So glad I amuse you," he spat.

I reached across the table, saw his tense expression and decided against touching him. "I didn't mean it that way, Odo. It's interesting, seeing how your body is changing for the little one."

"Oh." Now he was downright embarrassed. He stared at the table. A frown wrinkled his normally smooth brow. His left hand closed into a fist. Gripping at something-- most likely a memory he wished to forget.

Odo made that same face when I showed him off in front of the Cardassians. A look of utter torment. I failed to take that into account back then. But not this time.

I laid my hand over his fist. It felt like stone under my palm. "Odo?"

He hung his head, refusing to look at my face. "I'm...fine. I was just remembering...things. Things that are long gone. I don't want the infant to go through what I did. I endured things I never told you about. I was too ashamed."

Something cold opened behind my heart. I barely got my voice out. "Such as?"

"The Klingon children...I told you they chased me." He shrugged. "I didn't tell you how they stomped on me when they found me in my liquid state. You thought I learned to shape shift into dirt after showing it to me in the lab, but I really learned how when I did it to hide from those Klingons."

I remembered that day-- the morning after I held Odo to my chest until he slipped into his regeneration cycle. He came inside in a surly mood, took one look at the dirt in the dish and dropped to the floor. When he fell, he became soil and splattered halfway across the lab. And he stayed that way for six hours. I finally had to sweep him into a corner to keep others from stepping on him.

Odo's gaze met mine at last. His mask-like features lost all expression. Blank, like a Vulcan.

"The night you took me to meet Gul Dukat for the first time, several young Cardassians ganged up on me. They spent fifteen minutes assaulting me. They asked me if I felt pain. I lied and said I did not. One of them pulled out a stolen d'k tahg and jammed it into my chest. The others laughed until I didn't drop dead. So he stabbed me again. And again...and again. I stood there and took it until I was in such pain that I couldn't hold my shape anymore. I didn't dare fight back because of the risk it placed on you." Odo's fist squeezed itself tighter, but due to a lack of muscles it didn't quiver. "That was the night I lost all faith in gods. I prayed and no one answered. However, I saw the power of justice when Gul Dukat reprimanded those Cardassians for their behavior. After all, he didn't want them damaging your experimental goo."

The coldness in my chest grew. It stung like the blade Odo endured. Some of the tests I ran involved injecting probes into his body once he took humanoid form. He complied and never complained, yet...a few of these experiments happened after the first audience with Gul Dukat. I took part in hurting him-- and I don't mean just the physical sense.

"Another incident involved a Cardassian science student cornering me the day you were ill. She asked me if I was a 'real man' or just looked like one. I asked her what she meant. She put her hands on me and felt around...it's funny how I feel more ashamed of it today than I did back then." Odo glanced at me and quickly added, "Don't worry, she didn't..." he gesticulated at himself, "...find what she was looking for, and I escaped her by reverting to my gelatinous state. But I still get uncomfortable when women approach me in that manner."

I took a large gulp from my glass of ale to prevent myself from erupting in anguish on the spot.

"Tell me everything, Odo...I want to know."

Nodding, Odo went on to tell me more. Stories I can't even repeat. I listened to them all without interruption or judgment. He went through so much in silence, yet his ability to endure took incredible strength.

But he suffered just the same. My ignorance let it continue. I should have known. I should have known!

Odo's knuckles remained hard as rocks under my palm. I gripped his hand tightly. Pain choked my voice when I said, "I failed you in those days, Odo, and for that I am deeply sorry."

He covered the hand I placed on his fist. The agony left his eyes like storm clouds moving off the sun. "I never blamed you for what other people's children did to me."

"Still, I am sorry. I should have known you were being mistreated." I finished my drink and resolutely set the glass down with a clank. My solemn promise came out as a declaration. "I give you my word that your little one won't go through that. I'll be more vigilant, and I'll teach it how to interact with its peers. Something I should have done with you in the beginning."

If Odo had eyebrows, they would have gone up into something less than his usual stern frown. "Really?"

I nodded.

Time took a breath. Odo blinked slowly, looked straight at me and offered me the most genuine grin I'd ever seen from him.

That smile healed us both.

"Dabo!" Someone shouted below. The world returned to normal. I moved my hand off Odo's and requested a reheat container for my uneaten food.

Something on the bulkhead behind me held Odo's attention. Wait, no, his mind was light years away. He still had that smile on his face, albeit more subdued.

"Odo?"

He startled. "Yes?"

"Thinking about her again?" I hedged.

Odo's shields went up faster than a blink. It amazed me how quickly his smile became a scowl. He growled in warning. I'd pushed too far and it was time to back off.

"You made your point." I scooted myself away from the table.

Odo was already focused on the lower level like a hawk. I glimpsed an Andorian walking out of the Cardassian's clothing shop. A Yridian passed it-- and I remembered the incident in the turbolift. I started to tell Odo about the scuffle, but Odo's serious expression suggested a security matter that needed attending. The Yridian issue could wait.

I said, "Thank you for dinner. I'll let you get back to work."

"Yes, and I have work to do right now." Odo pointed with his thumb, "Shoplifter on my right. Excuse me, Doctor Mora."

Nodding, I made a dismissive gesture. Odo left the table in the time it took the food I scooped off my plate to land in the reheat container. I watched him stride right into the Andorian boy's path, plant his feet and exchange words. Eventually, Odo lead the boy back to the clothing shop. Then he took the child into his office.

"Slek!" Someone shouted below.

"Damn that brat," a voice muttered behind me. Chairs scraped and I noticed the Yridian I had trouble with joining three others near one of the free-standing station directories. They dispersed moments later. The scarred fellow, Slek, if I heard right, sat himself down at the bar. Quark brought him a glass of Yridian ale.

I'd seen enough. I gathered up my reheat box and headed to my guest quarters.

No more than an two hours later, as I was preparing to sleep, Odo contacted me.

"Doctor Mora, security footage shows you had an altercation near one of the turbolifts. Can you meet me in my office right now?"

So much for retiring early. "Of course. I'm on my way."

This time, I took more caution walking from my quarters to the turbolift. No Yridians, good. Reaching Odo's office occurred without incident. He gestured to the chair across from his desk.

"I'm sorry to bother you," Odo said.

"It isn't a problem."

He got right to the point and showed me a file on the scarred Yridian. Slek Ygroness.

"Is this the Yridian who tried to assault you?"

I nodded. "He didn't like me taking the turbolift up. He seemed quite impatient to head down."

Odo stood, clasped his hands behind his back and paced around his desk. It hit me then that I was participating in one of his cases. The realization intrigued and delighted me, but I maintained an expression of polite decorum.

He asked, "Did he indicate where he wanted to go? Level numbers, guest quarters numbers, anything at all?"

I recalled the two encounters. "No, I'm afraid not. The second time, I offered to step out so he wouldn't have to wait. He grabbed my shoulder as I moved by, and I felt threatened...so I knocked him down."

"Mmhmm." Odo leaned over his desk. Shadows crossed his face and nearly hid his eyes. I got a sense of just how intimidating he could be to someone who didn't know him. "Did he mention any locations or names?"

"No, but I heard Slek say 'damn that brat' after you walked away with the little Andorian boy." I shook my head and folded my hands in my lap. "I'm sorry I can't be more helpful."

His mouth quirked. "Don't be. I'm just covering all my bases. I'm pretty sure Slek is guilty, and you just made it clear he has associations with the boy."

"What is his crime, if I may ask?"

"I have reason to believe he's part of a fabric counterfeiting ring. Bajor had issues with it last month."

"Ah! I heard about that. The criminal keeps giving everyone the slip."

"Well, he won't give me the slip." He smirked. "No criminal walks away from Deep Space Nine unless they're in custody."

"Ah." I smiled. "You're good at this, Odo."

"I pride myself on my ability to get the job done." Odo said as he eased into his chair. He let his head rest against its backing. His skin had a faint sheen that looked like beads of sweat.

I frowned. You're definitely more than a little tired, Odo.

Abruptly, he gasped and muttered, "Oh, are you chiming in, little one?" He chuckled, patting his chest, "Don't worry, we'll solve this. Slek won't get away with this on my watch. No, he won't." Then he remembered my presence and decided he could continue talking to his unborn infant. "Yes, Yridians are a pain, aren't they?" He beckoned me over and placed my hand just off center of his chest. "Heh, heh, it's very active right now."

I felt something akin to an irregular heartbeat. Stronger than earlier.

"Oh, my! Perhaps it's all the excitement. What do you think it's doing in there?"

"Tap dancing...or Klingon ballet." Odo deadpanned. "It started right after I brought Slek in here and hasn't stopped since."

I laughed. "Does it react to outside stimuli often?"

"Sometimes. It seems to know my voice now." Odo got to his feet again. "I need to regenerate soon, but...would you like to-- erm-- see my quarters?"

I got the distinct impression that Odo didn't make this offer to just anyone. I also got the distinct impression that he wanted to show me how well he's been doing on his own. How could I turn him down?

Despite being a little worn out myself, I agreed. "I would like that."

We ended up taking the same turbolift where I knocked Slek down. Odo named the level he wanted and looked around.

"I got stuck in this turbolift with Lwaxana Troi, once." He mused. "She is...quite a woman."

"The Betazoid ambassador?" Oh, yes, I knew her. A very charming lady.

"Yes, her. She's in love with me, and makes no secrets about it."

I chortled, clapping him on the shoulder. "I'm not surprised. She went on and on about you when I bumped into her on Earth!"

"Ugh...she did?"

"You must have made quite an impression on her."

"Hmph. Here we are." Odo broke away from me to exit the turbolift.

His quarters were nothing like I expected. I marveled at the array of arches, spirals and sculptures. It bore more resemblance to an art museum than a living space.

I reached out to the coiled silver wrapped like a festoon around an arch. "May I touch?"

"Go ahead." Odo said. "I use these to explore my shape shifting abilities in private. I've been everything in this room. I would demonstrate for you, but..."

"I understand." I said, hoping to dispel his discomfort. The cold metal sculpture was smooth under my fingers. I ran my hand along its curving surface and asked, "What does shape shifting feel like, Odo?"

It's a question I never asked him in all the years we worked together-- back then, it never seemed important. Now, when I stood on the verge of starting over, I wanted to know how to encourage the baby Changeling to try new forms once Odo released it into my care.

Odo came closer to me. He took my hand and slid it across the sculpture. "If I slip into this shape, it feels similar to sliding your hand over the metal like this. Then I'm just...aware of my form the way humanoids are aware of the clothing on their bodies. Once you're used to a garment, you cease to notice it and pay more attention to your surroundings. You just...are."

He let go of my wrist.

I folded my hands in front of me. "I'm trying to comprehend that, but I can't."

That won a chuckle from him. "Then that places us in an amusing position. I couldn't comprehend eating, drinking or why emotions make people collapse inward until the Link cast me out. Unless..." He tilted his head, "Give me your hand."

Intrigued, I offered it to him. His palm liquefied. A tingle raced up my arm, crossed over my shoulder, shot into my spine and spread throughout my body. I felt a multitude of sensations all at once.

Feeling my form melt.

Feeling my form take shape again.

Flying...

...falling...

...compacting...

...stillness...

...existence...

...expanding...

...and back again to myself.

Odo's hand regained solid form. He let go. "Did it work?"

I had to catch my breath. "Oh...oh my..." The experience was so overwhelming that I started to laugh and cry at the same time. "Odo, you are an amazing life form!"

He cocked his head. "Doctor Mora?"

"I'm all right." I wiped my face. How painful was it for Odo to grow up without the Great Link? To find it and be cast out? If the Link felt anything like...like that, then I can't imagine the isolation he must feel now. And soon, the baby Changeling would face that same loneliness.

If I could just ease it...

"Odo, may I try a little experiment?"

Odo shifted warily, "Such as?"

"I'd like your hand again. I want to try something."

He hesitated, sighed and reached for me. I placed my hand on his, unbothered by feeling it become gelatinous on my palm.

"I'm thinking of a nebula I saw...can you sense it at all?"

Odo realized what I sought. He closed his eyes, concentrating. Finally, he shook his head, and his hand reformed as he pulled it away. "It only seems to work one way."

"I suppose so. Worth trying, though, don't you think?"

Odo nodded, still looking a little put out. His eyes widened and he touched his chest. He waved me off before I became alarmed.

"The infant just discovered a new shape. I think it's...a sphere." He leaned forward. Then he tilted himself back, as though stretching. A look of wonder came over his face. "Yes, I can feel it roll. It's a sphere. It remembers!" That smile again, rare and wonderful.

I recalled the many days we spent with the baby Changeling before its apparent death in the Deep Space Nine laboratory. Odo wanted to encourage it without invasive procedures. He refused my help at first because he didn't understand that I had no idea he was a life form until I uncovered irrefutable proof. I could not convince him that I wasn't going to throw the baby Changeling into a cytoplasmic separator or spin it around in a centrifuge. Knowing we were dealing with another sentient life form the second time around meant a different approach. Odo wouldn't have it, and his ungratefulness angered me. We fought over the issue until we learned Starfleet wanted to intervene. Then I think he gained a better understanding of the situation I faced during the Occupation. Our combined efforts got a better response than either one of us working alone. The baby Changeling even formed a face with eyes to look at us; it chose to mimic Odo and tilted its 'head' as if it wanted to know more about him.
I realized his methods did carry some weight. The infant merely needed the encouragement to discover and use its abilities.

And the conversation we had after the infant reached out to Odo...we admitted our faults to each other. He said he appreciated me, and I told him he might not have such an irascible disposition if I hadn't ignorantly put him through so many painful procedures.

Our healing began there. I still struggled with another wound. One that never healed, and Odo accidentally jabbed it.

"How long since Leruu passed away?" Odo asked.

Hearing her name sent pain across my heart. I turned away from the emptiness trying to open inside me.

"Day after tomorrow will be seventeen years." I answered softly.

"Ah...I'm sorry. I was thinking about visiting her grave on your behalf."

"My parents and I did before I heard about the sick baby Changeling. But thank you all the same." I deflected the conversation by changing the subject. "Anyhow...tomorrow's scans should prove interesting."

The reminder snapped Odo's walls back up. He straightened and rubbed a hand down his face. "Yes, which reminds me...it's getting late. I need to regenerate. I apologize for keeping you up like this."

"Don't...it's all right. I was on my way out anyhow." I walked with him towards the door. "Aren't you going to the Infirmary? I thought Doctor Bashir wanted to monitor you overnight."

"No. I told Doctor Bashir that I'm tired of that biobed. I'll contact him if anything feels out of sorts."

"I see. Take care of yourself, then." I felt a little disappointed. Doctor Bashir and I got our best chemical readings when Odo rested. I stepped out into the corridor and glanced back at him.

Odo was rubbing his chest again. "Good night, Doctor Mora..." He smirked just a little, "from both of us."

I chuckled. "Good night, Odo."

I waited until the door hissed shut and returned to my guest quarters.

.o

Doctor Bashir's scans confirmed Odo's suspicions. All three of us were presented with a sphere no bigger than a marble. Odo imitated a cough, which disturbed his chest cavity, and the infant immediately lost its shape. Odo looked proud when it reformed a sphere not two minutes later.

"So, you're more aware of its movements now?" asked Doctor Bashir.

"Constantly," Odo said. "Sometimes it's rather distracting."

"And how about the fatigue?"

Odo grunted. "It's manageable."

"Then I declare you fit for duty." The young doctor made a sweeping gesture with his tricorder.

"Good." Odo slid off the biobed and rolled his shoulders. "I'll be in my office."

Kira met Odo outside the door. They exchanged words. He whispered something in her ear. She smiled, patting his chest before she walked off. Odo touched that very spot as though her hand blessed him.

"Oh yeah, he has it bad," said Doctor Bashir.

I glanced at him. When I looked back at the doors, Odo was already gone.

"Yup. Definitely has it bad. Poor guy." Doctor Bashir focused on his console.

"He doesn't want to spoil his friendship with her. It's a noble thing to sacrifice your own heart to hold someone else's." I replied.

"Loving someone you can't have is akin to torture." He glanced up. "Are you married, Doctor Mora?"

"Widowed," I answered. "It's a very painful issue, so if you don't mind..."

"Oh...I'm so sorry."

I dismissed it. "My heart had its time in the sun. I have more pity for people who live loveless lives."

Doctor Bashir awkwardly scratched his cheek. All this talk about romance seemed to bother him. He cleared his throat and changed the subject. "So what did Starfleet want with you?"

"Oh, them." I looked at the screen where Odo's latest scans were displayed. "They're hounding me about my Changeling biofilter."

The young doctor sat down at his console to check his schedule. "Really?"

I folded my hands and regarded him. "Yes. Since I'm the most knowledgeable about shape shifters, they wanted me to come up with a means to alert them of a Changeling in their midst. I prefer something noninvasive and silent-- alerting us to its presence without letting it know we know. A biofilter that can pick out Changeling morphogenic enzymes could, in theory, work. No matter how skilled a Changeling is, they have those enzymes and they can be detected. The scan is completely harmless. It's just a matter of building sensors with the right capabilities."

"And they're getting impatient?"

My expression said it all.

Doctor Bashir made a face. "I'm not surprised. I heard they were all over Odo when he visited Earth. He still doesn't like to talk about it."

I felt a stab of anger in my abdomen. Deciding to ignore it, I calmed myself and said, "Odo asked me to take the baby once he gives birth. It's a wonderful twist of fate because I can test my filter on it since it won't harm it. The infant won't even know it was scanned."

"Oh?"

"And that will be the only test I do unless it falls ill or willingly lets me experiment."

I could tell Doctor Bashir was disappointed by the news. Can anyone blame him? He opened a small beaker of acid and added it to a container full of purple jelly-like fluid. The thicker liquid bubbled. Doctor Bashir shook the jar until the mixture turned pale pink. He poured the mix into a hypospray capsule and slapped a label on the bottom.

I looked away to prevent him from seeing the guilt on my face. The experiments I ran on Odo before I knew...

The worst one: I tested acid on a few drops of 'the unknown sample' to see what it broke down into. That's how I discovered the DNA and realized the slime was a life form. When I returned the portion I'd tested, Odo made horrible, horrible sounds. I mistook is screams of pain for a chemical reaction and put him in the centrifuge to separate the acid from his cytoplasm. The Cardassians read my report within the hour. They demanded I find out more about this liquid life form. Weeks were spent nursing the damage caused by the acid. Odo healed, and his morphogenic properties were discovered soon after.

I still have nightmares about that scream. Odo forgave me for it, but I don't know if I'll ever forgive myself. Sometimes, I even suspect Odo's shape shifting abilities are limited because of the acid and not a lack of skill. Hopefully, time will prove me wrong.

"Doctor Mora?"

"I'm sorry-- yes?"

"You looked troubled for a moment. Is something wrong?"

I shook my head. "Just a lot on my mind." I indicated young doctor's schedule. "I see the Infirmary is going to be busy in the next hour."

He eyed his PADD. "Ah, yes. Ensign Williams will be in for a checkup and Morn is...well he's Morn and insists I check on his foot."

"Then I'll leave you to it unless something comes up." I headed for the door. "Contact me if you need me."

No answer-- the young doctor already buried himself in a PADD. I left him to his devices and slipped into Quark's bar. Quark didn't notice my entrance. He was in a heated discussion with a familiar scarred Yridian.

Odo, to my surprise, was perched on a chair at a nearby table. I joined him.

"Investigating?" I asked.

"Biding my time." Odo replied.

"Ah. You're a little shiny right now, Odo. How are you feeling?"

He sighed, closing his eyes. "Like I've been holding this shape for far too long."

"You're probably due any day now." I moved closer. "You should rest."

Odo waved me off. "Later."

"Very well."

"Oh, and Doctor Mora?"

Turning, I regarded Odo.

"I know tomorrow will be difficult for you." He fixed me in his steady gaze. "If there is anything I can do..."

I avoided looking him in the eyes. "I just have to push through it, Odo."

Then I left him at the table and took the end stool by the bar, keeping myself out of conversational distance from the Yridian. Slek shot me dirty looks anyway. I ignored them.

Quark came my way, his smile as sharp as a backstabber's knife. "Ah, Doctor Mora, always a pleasure. What can I get you?"

I needed something with a bite. "Alderbaran whiskey."

"Can you afford that?"

"I wouldn't order it if I didn't come prepared to pay."

The Ferengi smirked. "One moment."

"Hey!" Slek grabbed Quark's arm, "So, when?"

"I'll contact you. I can't say more because..." Quark jerked his head slightly towards me. "...he'll talk."

"Make it soon." Slek said. Then he loomed behind my back, stared at me in a failed attempt at intimidation and continued towards the exit.

Odo received the same stare. He tightened his mouth, rose to his full height and frowned down his nose at the Yridian. Slek snorted at that. I watched him push past Odo and slip onto the Promenade. Odo all but smirked as he exchanged glances with Quark. He left not long afterward.

"Sheesh, he's finally leaving. I swear he's crankier now than he's ever been." Quark poured the bright green whiskey into a square shot glass. He set it upon the bar in front of me. "So, you raised Odo?"

"In a way," I replied.

"Was he always like that?"

I shook my head. "You can blame me for most of his disposition."

Quark sniffed, leaning against the bar. "Well, thanks a lot. He makes my job almost impossible."

"Mm, that's too bad." I slammed the drink back in one gulp. It practically burned my chest hairs, and I felt it pucker every muscle on my face. "Ohhh. Whew! Another, please."

He filled me up without question. "But it's always fun watching when someone else gets caught."

"Like those Yridians." I snorted. "Odo once mentioned you keep a betting pool."

"Looking to join?"

I shook my head. "Just curious about the odds."

Quark laughed. "Ninety percent say three days. I'm going to say one, and I can't tell you why right now."

"You Ferengi...heh, heh." I downed the second shot and felt the back of my throat go numb. My hands became comfortably warm. The sounds in the bar seemed to echo in my ears. I waved off another refill and paid for my drinks.

"Heading out already?"

"Not quite. I think I'll try a few games."

Quark's left ear twitched. He wiped down the bar. "Just don't scuffle with any more Yridians. They're good business."

"Oh, I'm sure."

"Yup. Oh. Here comes Morn, and that's 'his' spot. You might want to move."

Amused, I pushed myself up and moved aside. The large, silent Lurian occupied the stool I just vacated.

"I hope your foot is doing better," I said to him.

Morn glanced at me with a quick nod. I left him alone and looked around the active bar. Dread filled me at the thought of what tomorrow represented, and I was making every attempt to avoid facing it.

I sat down at a tongo table and completely cleaned everyone out. Then I lost all over half those winnings playing dabo. I spent the gold pressed latinum I still had on Alderbaran whiskey.

What a mistake...

I stepped out of Quark's bar feeling far too relaxed. The blood vibrated in my veins. Sounds stayed comfortably far away. Keeping my eyes focused proved to be too much work, and why bother when my brain didn't seem too keen on filtering visual details? Everything existed outside the invisible bubble surrounding me. It took concentration just to walk in a straight line. So much in fact that I sideswiped someone crossing my path.

"Oh, Doctor Mora!"

I squinted at the red uniform. "Ahh, Major Kira. Please excuse me, I...oh...I've had a little too much to drink tonight. How careless of me, eh?"

"It happens to all of us." Kira slipped her arm around me when I stumbled. "Here, mind if I help you to your quarters? You're a little lost. You just passed two turbolifts."

Sure enough, I did. How embarrassing! Yet her kindness touched me. "Thank you. I'm so sorry for the trouble. I hope I'm not slurring my speech."

"It's not too bad." Kira answered.

"I don't drink like this all the time. Just...once a year..." I let her guide me into the turbolift and told her the level number. "My wife's death anniversary is coming up tomorrow, and I suppose I'm trying to avoid it. She was pregnant and the child died with her."

"Oh..." Kira tightened her arm around me. "Doctor Mora, I'm so sorry."

"I'm no scientist right now. Call me Pol."

"Pol," she said gently. "It doesn't get easier, does it?"

I shook my head. The filter between my brain and mouth broke down somewhere between the bar and the turbolift. "You remind me of my Leruu...a strong woman who knows what she wants."

Her kind smile warmed my heart. Now that I could see her up close, I realized she was quite attractive. Odo had great taste in women!

"Why thank you," she said. "I'm honored."

"She had the best laugh," I went on, "Like the birds on a spring morning. Her eyes crinkled up and sparkled like deka leaves after rain. She loved to laugh, too. You always knew she was in a room when you heard that laughter. And on our wedding day...ahhh...I felt like the luckiest man on Bajor."

"She must have been someone special."

"Very special, yes." I sighed. The turbolift made my head swim. "Life without her...I still can't fathom it."

Kira edged closer to me and rubbed my shoulder. "I know. The empty chair, the silence...and little reminders that they existed. You think of something you want to show them and it hurts when you realize you can't. Kind of makes you want to pull yourself apart and scream, doesn't it?"

I glanced at her. She looked back at me. I knew, instantly, that she suffered many losses in her life. Her warm brown eyes hid years of pain. She bore it bravely. Only the strongest people carry a heavy heart continue fighting for freedom.

There was a kinship between us. An understanding. A bridge.

The turbolift stopped on my level. My intoxication peaked when the doors opened. Fortunately, I didn't drink enough to blank my memory. Unfortunately, my equilibrium completely ceased functioning.

Kira helped me off the floor as if nothing happened. "Which room number?"

Once I told her, she let me lean on her until we reached my guest quarters.

"Do me a favor...please don't tell Odo about this. I don't want him to worry about me."

"Okay. He won't hear about it from me." Kira sat me down on the bunk and helped me slip off my shoes. She brought me a glass of water from the replicator. "Will you be all right by yourself?"

I sipped the water and nodded my head. Not a wise idea-- I swore my brain sloshed behind my eyeballs. "I'm so sorry to take up your time."

"No, don't be." Kira leaned down and patted my hand. "I know what you're going through. You cope one day at a time." Straightening, she said, "You should try to sleep. Doctor Bashir will give you something for the hangover tomorrow."

"You're too kind." I replied.

Kira squeezed my shoulder and dimmed the lights before she left. I laid back on the bunk without undressing. My sleep that night was restless.

.o
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