Basilisk

******

Dreams of the Beast, when they came, always took Major Kira Nerys by surprise.

Captivesall of them except Furel. Each held separately — no comfort of companionship in the sanitized cells of Narik Dir, that Cardassian interrogation center from which few ever emerged to tell the tale of the horror, the torture, and the violence that awaited any prisoner unfortunate enough to be held there.

The guard . . . Gorem.

At first, when they thought she might crumple easily, when they thought that a measure of gentleness might get them the answers they craved, the Cardassian interrogators treated her with some minimal respect. This died in the instant that, under the pretense that she wanted to whisper her secrets, Kira spit into the face of Gul Kutor, the head interrogator. It would have been better if he had shown anger, if he had extracted his own vengeance. Instead, his expression was almost bored.

"Gorem!" Kutor called to the guard. That was how she knew his name, or at least what they called him — it was the Cardassian word for 'beast'. "Take care of this rebel whore. Teach her a little . . . humility." Then he and the other interrogators left the room, leaving her alone with —

Gorem.

Gorem, the Beast.

Later she decided that she had survived by counting the rivets on the floor. One — pressing into her left shoulder. One in the fleshy part of her right arm. One catching her painfully near the spine — that was the one that hurt most, although it didn't bruise. Two under her buttocks, diagonally placed, were the ones that left marks that didn't fade for weeks. One each that she found with her hands, digging her nails around the joins to give her something, anything to hold on to. One that she had to angle her head away from, to keep him from cracking her skull on it. And an odd little rivet that gouged her right heel as he shoved her knees forward towards her chest and wrenched them apart.

Nine rivets.

Through it all he was absolutely silent. Not a whisper, not a gasp, not a word passed the Cardassian's lips. He might have been standing at attention at his post for all the interest he portrayed. The only sound in the room was the screaming that sheer agony ripped from Kira's throat, try though she might to hold her tongue, to not give him the satisfaction of hearing her pain. The Beast never spoke.

But he smiled . . .

Kira sat bolt upright in bed, shaking. Nestled close to her side, the gelid form of her lover, Security Chief Odo, coalesced into humanoid guise.

"Shh . . . It's all right, Nerys, I'm here." Odo let his limbs and most of his body return to a semi- gelatinous state for a few moments, wrapping her in liquid warmth. It was his routine for calming her down when she awakened from one of her nightmares, a routine that was generally effective. Kira pressed against him, closing her eyes against the remembered horror.

"Which one was it?" Odo asked gently.

"The gorem," Nerys said briefly.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Odo always offered Kira the chance to talk, without ever insisting that she do so. It was one of the countless things that made Kira wonder how she had managed to do without him, in those days before she knew that he loved her, before she knew that she loved him. Tonight, she decided to take him up on his offer. She usually did not.

"Yes — I think that I do." Having admitted her need, Kira fell into a nervous silence.

"Would you like me to make you a cup of ginger tea?"

Still trembling, Kira just nodded.

Resolidified, Odo slipped from beneath the blankets and crossed the room to the replicator, while Kira watched him, bemused. The planes of his humanoid body were reminiscent of his face — smooth, pliant-looking, more like the silky contours of a not-quite-finished statue than humanoid flesh. Kira found this not-quite-fleshly appearance strangely comforting, after the all-too-fleshy dream of Gorem.

Odo requested a cup of hot water, carefully measuring out the tea from a small canister. He then returned to the bed, holding the cup out to her — the return approach was always a little startling, as Odo saw no point in forming genitalia until they were needed. For Kira, fresh from her nightmare, this absence was also comforting, a fact that troubled her. It hinted that a great deal of healing remained to be done.

She sat up and took the cup gratefully, sipping some of the hot liquid while Odo slipped back into the bed, arranging himself close behind her so she could lean back against his chest. Odo wrapped his arms around her, rubbing his cheek against Kira's hair.

"It just makes me so angry," Kira said finally, as though continuing a conversation already well under way, "knowing that, somewhere on Cardassia Prime or in one of their 'colonies', there's this bastard who did that to me. Not just to me, either — who knows how many Bajoran women he — violated like that?"

"Now he's probably just another Cardassian 'devoted husband and father'," Odo observed. Kira shuddered.

"I don't know what I'd do if I ever saw him again, Odo."

"I know what I'd do," Odo prophesied darkly. Kira smiled, reaching back with her free hand to touch his cheek as he rested his chin on the top of her head.

"I know what you'd do, too," she said with a chuckle. "And you'd be in a lot of trouble."

"You're assuming that I'd leave enough evidence for them to press charges."

"There's always the body."

"Like I said — you're assuming that I'd leave enough evidence for them to press charges."

Kira managed a faint smile. "Are you talking justice — or vengeance?"

"Both."

"It's probably just as well," Kira mused, "that I'll never see him again."

Kira sat lost in thought, absently sipping at her tea. Finally she sighed.

"I wonder if I can ever leave it all behind, Odo."

Odo was silent for a moment. Finally he said:

"I don't think we ever leave the past behind, Nerys. I don't think that we want to — it's taught us too much. The best thing we can do is to — learn to carry it more lightly. Some people say that talking about it helps . . . you talk about it so seldom. I wish you could tell me about it — about all those years."

"You're not the best person to be telling anyone they should talk about things more." Kira shrugged. "I guess — I guess I don't want to bore you."

"Bore me?" Odo looked skeptical. "I can imagine that your time during the Occupation was many things — but was it ever boring?"

Kira laughed. "Of course it could be boring. There's not much interesting about sitting around in a cave all winter, just trying to survive. There were times when Laur and I —" Kira cut herself short, her face bleak with sorrow.

"You hardly ever talk about her, either," Odo observed.

"It's so hard to think of her." Kira's voice was soft as she spoke of her Resistance-days friend and lover, long dead. "I keep seeing the way she died, it blots out all the good memories that should be there — that are there if I can get past the red."

"The red?"

"She was — killed when her phaser rifle caught a backlash from a Cardassian disruptor shot. The charge was low, or she would have just been — vaporized. As it was . . . when it blew up, I was standing a few yards away — I wasn't hurt, but her blood covered me from head to foot. I just screamed and held on to her — what was left of her — Edon had to knock me out before they could get me away."

"Nerys . . ." Kira felt Odo's shape shift slightly behind her, fitting himself even more closely to the lines of her body. "I'm so sorry."

"When I came to, Lupaza was trying to wash the blood off my face," Kira told Odo bleakly. "I didn't want her to — it was hours before I would let her finish. The sanitary facilities were pretty primitive — I kept finding Laureshe's blood on my body for days afterwards. I — I felt guilty whenever I washed some of it off."

"I still don't understand why." Odo took the cup from Kira's hand and turned her around in his arms to face him, stroking the hair back from her forehead. "You'd done nothing wrong."

"I wasn't in love with her. I just — used her."

"Used?" Odo tried the word and rejected it. "Surely you cared for her — it wasn't like you were cold, or unfeeling."

"Oh, I loved her. But I wasn't in love with her, not the way she was with me. And I knew that I never would be."

"The way you knew that you'd never be in love with me?"

Kira smiled, reaching out to trace the line of Odo's cheek with her fingertip. "We both know how wrong I was about that one, don't we? Still, the feelings were different — I just can't explain it — the passion wasn't there with Laur the way it is with you."

"Because she was a woman?"

"Possibly." Kira shrugged. "Probably. There's a lot involved that's just chemistry when humanoids fall in love — my chemistry is geared to being in love with a male, I suppose."

"You fell in love with me," Odo observed.

Kira cocked her head to one side, puzzled. "You're male."

"Marginally. But not with any of the biochemistry you're talking about."

"Odo, you're very masculine. In fact, you're practically stereotypical — strong, quiet, gruff on the outside —" Kira smiled, placing her fingertips against Odo's stern, pale lips "— tender and passionate on the inside."

"But that sounds like the woman you once described to me."

Kira shook her head in resignation. "All right, I can't explain it. I just know that I loved Laur as much as I could — and it wasn't enough."

Odo pondered Kira's words carefully for a moment. Finally he said:

"Nerys, I'm certainly not an authority on humanoid emotions. All I really know about love is — the feeling that I have for you, and the feeling you have for me. But when we first made love, before you fell in love with me —"

"Before I realized I was in love with you," Kira corrected firmly.

Odo smiled. "Before you realized you were in love with me, the — warmth, the affection that you did share with me — they were a gift. A gift that I cherished. I imagine your friend felt the same way."

"Odo —" Kira paused and looked into her lover's eyes, feeling like her heart would overflow her chest. "L'meytahl** . . ." Kira twined her arms around Odo's neck, kissing him gently. Odo smiled at her, touched by the rare endearment.

"It's the truth," Odo said simply. Kira smiled and nodded.

"The funny thing is — you do remind me of her sometimes."

"How's that — other than the ways you mentioned." Odo sounded a little anxious.

"Not in as many ways as you're different," Kira assured him. She peered closely into Odo's face. "Why does it bother you that you remind me of her?"

"I suppose because you weren't in love with her."

"Well, then, that's one big difference between the two of you right there." Kira kissed Odo deeply, searchingly, until he finally relaxed. She then cupped his face in her hands.

"The big way you remind me of her is something superficial, you don't have to worry about it — Laureshe wasn't what you'd call pretty, she had sharp, aggressive features — but she had these wonderful, deep-set, far-seeing blue eyes — a lot like yours." Kira landed a soft kiss on the line of Odo's jaw. "Having sexy blue eyes is nothing you should be nervous about — they're just frosting on the cake."

"You like my eyes?" Odo sounded astonished.

"I love your eyes." Kira chuckled. "Take those blue eyes of yours, and the expression in them sometimes when you look at me, and you're not the only one who could melt."

Odo fixed those blue eyes of his on Kira's. "What expression are you talking about?"

"The one you've got right now is pretty close."

"Hmm . . ." Odo drew Kira closer into his arms, kissing her on each eyelid before lowering her gently against the bed. He then proceeded to make love to her until she wept, the tears streaming freely down her face.

Sensing that Kira's response was something more than passion, Odo made no move to remove himself from her arms or even from the moist depths between her thighs. He just stayed joined to her, holding her against him until her crying finally ceased.

"It's all right, Nerys. It's all right."

"I — I never cried for her," Kira whispered, anguished. "I never shed a tear."

"It's all right. You have now."

"You're right. I have now." Too tired for further speech, Kira fell asleep in Odo's arms — arms that shifted, merging with the rest of Odo's substance to wrap the object of his affections in an all-encompassing blanket of love.

******

"Major — Constable —" Captain Benjamin Sisko nodded to his two officers as they reported to the wardroom, in response to his earlier request, observing them with interest. On duty the pair was strictly business, but there was still a new softness about their body language as they related to each other that Sisko noted and approved.

Thanks to the combined gossip capacity of Jadzia Dax, Quark, and Julian Bashir, there was little on the station that stayed secret long, and certainly nothing that missed the notice of Captain Sisko. Kira and Odo had been an "item" for several months now, with no end in sight. If anything, that "settled" aura between them was even more pronounced. Odo and Kira had always had something "married" about them - - Sisko speculated idly about whether or not they would ever decide to make it official.

However, it was not the marital status of his First Officer and his Chief of Station Security that concerned him now.

"Sit down, please — make yourselves comfortable." Sisko had seated himself in one of the less formal "conversation nooks" that bordered the wardroom, and he nodded at the sofa across from him. Odo and Kira both sat gingerly on its edge, and Sisko noted with amusement the similarity of their posture — their ramrod straight backs, the attentive tilt to their chins. They sat a little closer to each other than they might have several months before — come to think of it, Odo would probably have been standing at Kira's back, close to the wall, in that classic pose of ever-watchful lawman. Sisko had no doubt that Odo was still the ever-watchful lawman, which was just as well under the circumstances. Sisko commenced with his reason for calling the meeting.

"You're no doubt aware of the upcoming Bajoran-Cardassian trade negotiations."

Kira raised her eyebrows in acknowledgment. Odo nodded.

"Winn will pretty much lie down with anyone if it fosters her notions of Bajor as an economic power, and I guess she's gotten Shakaar to lie down with her — Prophets, even with Winn," Kira commented. She shook her head, obviously offended by the actions of the former resistance leader — and her own former lover — now First Minister of Bajor.

Sisko stifled a grin at the analogy — no one could carry a grudge like Kira. "The point is, it's been decided that the talks are to be held here."

"Here? On the station?" Kira looked indignant.

"Why here?" Odo wanted to know.

"This station represents the Federation presence in this sector, and consequently has a certain — neutral aspect. In addition, the Cardassians like the idea of having you in charge of security for the conference, Constable."

"Hmph," was Odo's noncommittal response. Kira studied Sisko through narrowed eyes.

"That explains why Odo is here — what about me? Don't tell me the Cardassians want a Bajoran ex- terrorist providing them security."

"Because as the official liaison of the Bajoran government, I expect you to also aid in a security capacity — particularly as it might concern other Bajorans."

"In other words, you want me to be ready to deal with people who might disagree with the government's policies."

"In short — yes."

Looks of resignation flickered across Odo's and Kira's faces as they exchanged brief glances. Odo looked at Sisko.

"Is there anything else we should be aware of?"

"The facts are contained in this report." Sisko handed Kira and Odo each a PADD. "However, just as a point of — interest — one of the Cardassian negotiators is Gul Tukor."

Odo and Kira both grimaced, remembering the unsavory one-time underling of Gul Dukat. "Oh, well," Kira sighed, "Better the devil you know, I suppose."

"Depends on the devil," Odo commented. Sisko laughed.

"You're right about that, Constable. It all depends on the devil . . ."

******

As it turned out, the devil that they knew — Gul Tukor — arrived at DS9 with an appallingly large complement of associate demons, as well as lesser imps and goblins. There were forty-five members in the Cardassian delegation, and fifty-two in the Bajoran. For once the space station was occupied to overflowing. Kira found herself concerned with routing the various Bajorans to their quarters while Odo dealt primarily with the Cardassians. Consequently, it was evening before they saw each other, and Sisko's reception to welcome the two delegations was already well under way.

Sisko had suggested that his Bajoran officers try to downplay the military aspect of the situation, and consequently both Odo and Kira were wearing civilian, albeit formal, dress. Owning nothing civilian that might also be considered formal, Kira finally resorted to the dress she had gotten for Dr. Bashir's ballroom dancing lessons. Strapless, floor length black satin with a split up one side to the hip, and a form- fitting quality that disallowed for any "foundation garments", it wasn't the most modest attire — but it was definitely formal.

She found no sign of Odo in her quarters, although there was evidence of his passing — a single shirt-stud, which Kira palmed and tucked into the small satin pouch that had to do her in lieu of pockets. She sincerely doubted it was a spare, and she knew that Odo would be troubled once he noticed its absence from his tuxedo, with his Changeling's passion for order.

Arriving at a party already well under way, Kira tried to slip in observed — a difficult task for a beautiful woman stunningly attired. She nonetheless managed to work her way to Odo in relatively short order, a task aided by the fact that he was obviously looking for her. There was a warning gleam in his eye as she approached — but warning her of what? Kira looked at him questioningly, before she noticed the Cardassian who stood next to him. Gul Tukor — Kira thought of him as Dukat without the sense of humor — studied her up and down with frank appreciation. It made Kira's skin crawl.

"Major Kira — how delightful it is to see you again! And might I say how fetching you look?"

"Tukor." Kira's chin automatically took on an obstinate tilt, while she eyed the Cardassian warily.

"I understand you're taking care of Gul Dukat's half-Bajoran daughter, Major." Tukor's eyes gleamed maliciously. "I was hoping I might see her here tonight — to ask her about her father."

"Ziyal is on Bajor, visiting Dahkur province," Kira said briefly. "And she's a very competent young woman — she hardly needs to be taken care of."

Of course, Major." Tukor gave an oily smile. He then reached out to tap the arm of another Cardassian standing a short distance away. "Might I present Secretary Hirith Gorlem, the head of our negotiating party?" Even though Kira had seen the name on the captain's reports, even though she knew that "Gorlem" as a surname was a Cardassian equivalent to the human name "Smith", even though she knew that 'gorem' was an entirely different word, she still had to force back a shudder as she heard the too similar name. Fortunately, its possessor was a decidedly older man, with features surprisingly gentle for a Cardassian's. "Secretary, this is Major Kira Nerys, the Bajoran liaison to this station."

"Secretary." Kira was grateful that this one at least didn't leer at her. "Are your quarters satisfactory?"

"More than satisfactory — even homelike, Major. It is kind of you to be concerned."

Kira, who hadn't been particularly concerned, forced a smile. Hirith Gorlem reached behind him, touching the arm of a taller Cardassian who stood with his back angled to them, his face lost in shadow. "Bayliss! Major, Mr. Odo, this is my son, Bayliss Gorlem."

The secretary's son turned and smiled, his features mercilessly clear as they entered the light. Kira felt like someone had driven a knife into her gut, involuntarily taking a step back.

Secretary Gorlem stared at her. "Major, are you all right?"

Gul Tukor also studied Kira curiously — watchfully. "Yes, Major, is there a problem?"

"I just — remembered something. Excuse me." Kira backed away, before she turned heel and made her escape. Odo murmured his own false explanation before following in hot pursuit. He let her get outside of the reception room before coming up beside her and taking her arm.

"Nerys . . . Nerys, what is it?"

"It was him," Kira rasped. "The gorem."

"What?!"

"Bayliss Gorlem — he's the guard — the one who raped me at Narik Dir."

Odo stared at her, stunned.

"Of all the people to show up." His fingers tightened consolingly around Kira's arm. "Nerys, at least now we can arrest him."

"On what grounds?" Kira's burst out angrily, her voice pitched high with terrified rage. She shook her head. "There were no witnesses — nothing but my word against his. Odo, please, just take me home. Not to my quarters, though — take me to yours."

Odo started to protest, before bowing his head as he realized she was right. "Of course."

As they tended to spend their nights together in Kira's quarters rather than Odo's, it had been weeks since Kira had entered what she privately referred to as the Sanctuary. It wasn't that she felt unwelcome there as much as she felt out of place — Odo's quarters were so individually his, with only a single chair and a computer console suggesting that the possessor of a humanoid form might occasionally occupy them. Still, she felt safe there, safer than she could in quarters that anyone could point out as being hers to anyone who asked.

"We can't stay here long," Kira said briefly, mounting a desperate struggle to collect herself. "We have to go back to the reception, we're on duty."

"I'll go back and explain to Sisko. I'm sure he'll understand once he knows the circumstances."

"No!" came Kira's involuntary outburst. "Don't tell him!"

Odo stared back at her, a puzzled expression working its way across his smooth face. Finally he asked, "Nerys — why are you ashamed? If he had beaten you, broken your bones, cut your face — would you be ashamed then?"

"Of course not," Kira said automatically.

"Then . . ."

"I don't know why — you're right, I shouldn't be." Kira admitted. "I just am. Just having him — look at me like that — I wanted to hide somewhere nobody could ever look at me again."

Odo stared at her, helpless. "I think I understand," he said finally. "Part of me wants to hide you, where there's no chance of anyone ever hurting you."

Kira crossed to the chair in front of the computer console, lowering herself into it slowly. "Maybe you had better explain — I don't think I can go back into that room tonight."

Odo crossed to stand behind her, bringing his hands to rest lightly against her shoulders. "It's a shame that Ziyal is on Bajor, or else she could come sit with you while I talk to Sisko . . . will you be all right by yourself?"

"I'll be fine. Besides, I'm not sure that I would want Ziyal to see me like this — sitting here hating Cardassia and all it stood for. Getting to know some Bajorans like Furel and Lupaza will do her a lot more good." Her hands came up involuntarily, catching Odo's in a grip that would have been painful had he been any species other than his own. "Just don't be gone too long."

"Don't worry — I'll be back as soon as I can." Odo gently extricated his fingers from Kira's. "Why don't you go into the bedroom and lie down? I'll make you some tea when I get back."

"Prophets, I hate hiding like this." Kira got to her feet and crossed the room to stand, surprised, in the door of what had been, the last time she was there, an almost entirely empty room. She turned to look at Odo curiously. "When did that happen?"

"I'm sorry — I forgot to tell you. It finally arrived today." His look was faintly chagrined. "I meant it to be a surprise."

Kira walked slowly to stand beside the bed that stood in the exact center of the room in solitary splendor. The smooth bien'zawood platform had not a single sharp edge or extraneous outcropping to distract from the wood's distinctive grain — Kira kicked off her shoes and flopped down across the pale peach comforter that covered the comfortably firm mattress, hiding her face in the downy folds. She ran her hands across the soft fabric, mumbling something indistinguishable, while Odo came to stand where he could reach down and wrap comforting fingertips around her ankle. He then seemed to come to a decision, releasing Kira's foot and striding rapidly from the room, barely waiting until the door <whooshed> shut behind him before tapping his combadge.

"Odo to Lieutenant Dax."

"Dax here."

"Lieutenant, are you currently at the Captain's reception for the negotiating teams?"

"No, I'm in Ops." Dax sounded curious, even through the combadge. "What is it, Odo?"

"This is a private communication. Can you please take it in the Captain's office?"

"Certainly." There was a brief silence, then Dax said, "I'm there now, Odo. What's going on?"

"I want you to come sit with Major Kira while I go back to the reception and advise him on the current situation."

"What current situation? Odo, where are you?"

"My quarters."

"What's the — never mind. I'm on my way."

Dax arrived with amazing alacrity, her eyes wide with concern, to find Odo waiting in the doorway. "Odo, what's wrong? Is something the matter with Kira?"

"Come in, please." Odo led Dax into a quiet corner of the room, opposite the bedroom door. "Kira's lying down. One of the Cardassians — a man named Bayliss Gorlem, the son of the chief negotiator, Hirith Gorlem — was a guard with the Cardassian occupation forces. He raped Nerys when she was being held in the Cardassian interrogation center at Narik Dir."

Dax bowed her head under the impact of Odo's words. "Gods . . . poor Nerys . . ."

"I have to go back and explain to Sisko why she left the way she did. Can you sit with her?"

"No — let me go talk to Benjamin. You stay here with Kira." Dax laid her hand briefly on Odo's arm. "She needs you right now."

Odo considered her offer, and finally nodded. "Thank you, Dax." Dax gave him an encouraging smile, before turning to the door. Odo watched until she was gone and the door safely closed behind her, before returning quietly to the bedroom. Kira still lay face down on the bed, her entire body shaking with suppressed sobs.

"Nerys . . ." Odo crawled onto the bed next to Kira, pulling her gently into his arms. Kira's arms shot around his neck and held him like he was the only thing keeping her from falling into the pit. Odo drew her closer, privately cursing the tuxedo that couldn't be dissolved away so he could revert to the warm and empathic comfort of his gelatinous state.

"I thought you were going back to the reception," Kira finally calmed herself enough to say.

"I got Dax to do it. We're here for the rest of the night."

Kira nodded gratefully, loosening her grip the tiniest bit . "I can't believe how I'm acting," she said bitterly. "Why I am I letting him — control me like this?"

Odo thought about her question carefully. At last he ventured, "Nerys, do you remember last month when we were on Bajor visiting Lupaza with Ziyal? You were climbing up on that boulder, showing off some of your 'Resistance survival skills', and you fell?"

Kira nodded, the tears drying on her cheeks as she gave it some thought. "I remember it knocked the wind out of me."

"Exactly. Tonight you had the wind knocked out of you. Tomorrow you'll be able to do what you need to cope."

Kira considered Odo's words carefully. Finally she said, "Prophets, I hope you're right." Kira sat up and began to struggle with the back of her dress until Odo reached up and insinuated his hands under hers.

"Let me do that."

Kira sighed and surrendered herself to Odo's long, graceful hands as he deftly unfastened her dress and peeled it from her body. Draping the black satin in precise folds, Odo found it a place in the closet, commenting as he did so, "It will probably be easier to keep your sense of equilibrium when you're wearing your uniform."

"What does my uniform have to do with it?"

"Well, it's what you're most comfortable in, at least as far as your — public persona is concerned." Odo quickly removed his tuxedo, hanging it in the near-empty closet next to Kira's dress. "Besides, you can wear underwear." He counted out his shirt studs, and frowned. "I'm missing one — how did that happen?"

A muffled sound caught his attention from the bed. He glanced up sharply, and saw Kira sitting on the edge of the bed, struggling to conceal her slightly hysterical laughter.

"Nerys . . ." Odo crossed to sit close at Kira's side, wrapping his arm around her bare shoulders. "Are you all right? I could call Dr. Bashir, ask him to give you a sedative. Or I could get you a glass of seev-ale . . ."

"No, I don't think so. It's just that you're right — it doesn't help to meet the man who raped you when you aren't wearing any underwear." Her laughter became quieter but more genuine as Kira shook her head at the ludicrousness of the situation.

"And to think I've been planning how to inaugurate this thing for weeks," she commented dryly, patting the mattress. "It took so long to get here I was starting to think that I should do like the humans from Earth do with a new starship, get a bottle of champagne and christen it. Of all the nights . . ."

"You have a nightshirt in the closet. Would you like me to get it?"

"No." Kira shook her head. "I need to feel you next to me tonight."

She got to her feet and pulled back the comforter and top sheet on the bed. Kira slipped under the covers with a grateful sigh, running her hand over the fabric of the cream-colored sheets. "This is wonderful -- it's so soft. What kind of cloth is it?"

Recognizing Kira's attempt to distance herself from the terrifying specter of the gorem, Odo supplied a calm and thoughtful reply. "It's an Earth fabric — it's called 'cotton'." Odo got into the bed at her side, drawing her gently into his arms. Kira snuggled into his side, resting her head on his shoulder.

"It's very sensuous," Kira commented. "I keep forgetting how sensitive to touch you are."

"It is comfortable, isn't it?" Odo agreed, a tiny note of contentment finding its way through his anxiety. He touched Kira's cheek tenderly. "Not as soft as this, though." He ran his fingertips lightly over the velvety skin.

"I love you, Odo L'meytahl," Kira said simply. She raised herself on her elbow to kiss him, her lips moving against his with fearful intensity. Odo, who had become surprisingly fond of kissing in recent months, had also become well-versed enough in its subtleties to recognize the layers of tension radiating from Kira's searching mouth.

"Nerys . . . are you sure this is what you want tonight?"

"No," Kira admitted, "but I think I need it." She took Odo's hand in hers and brought it to lie against the curve of her left breast. Odo cupped it gently in his palm.

"Your heart is pounding," he commented. Odo slid down in the bed so his mouth was level with Kira's breasts, molding his lips and running his tongue over each nipple in turn. His movements were slow . . . studied . . . orderly. Kira sometimes wished that Odo would be a little more spontaneous, a little more reckless in his lovemaking, but it suited her very well tonight. There was a certain deep satisfaction in knowing exactly what would come next, with no threat of pain or violence — Kira sighed and let her knees fall apart as Odo's mouth traveled softly across her stomach and down her abdomen. His movements, so hesitant, so questioning in the beginning when he was first learning to make love to her, were now expert, sure as he nuzzled his way into the moist depths between her thighs, unerringly finding and concentrating on her most sensitive parts. Kira relaxed into the familiar rhythm, letting her mind close down and allowing the feelings to overwhelm her until she came to a shuddering climax.

Odo let himself slip back into his gelatinous state, sliding up Kira's body and enveloping her in the delicious, tingling sensation that conveyed not only his own excitement, but her own feelings back at her like a mirror. Kira let her mind continue to wander as her body responded with mounting ecstasy — there was no shadow that could threaten her when she was wrapped in Odo's substance, letting his passion roll over her like waves on the beach. Kira realized dimly that she was crying, sobbing in a strange mixture of anguish and release as her body achieved its usual rapturous response to the gelid warmth that surrounded her and filled her. "L'meytahl, I love you," she gasped, closing her arms around him as he re-formed in his humanoid shape against her. Kira clung to Odo tightly, refusing to let him withdraw from her body. "Don't stop," she whispered, "drive him out."

An unknown interval later, the minutes marked only by fresh blossomings of passion, Kira finally relaxed her arms and her thighs and let Odo collapse against her. He lay inert with his head on Kira's chest, letting his hands run aimlessly over her shoulders and down the length of her arms but otherwise remaining strangely motionless. Kira looked down at the top of Odo's head, suddenly concerned.

"Odo, are you all right?"

"I'm fine. Just tired. Mutual congratulations are in order." Odo rolled off of Kira and moved up in the bed so his head was level with hers on the pillow.

"What do you mean?" Kira reached out and stroked Odo's cheek tenderly.

"You know how you've been encouraging me to try centralizing some of my tactile receptors in what I suppose we can call my 'penis', at least when we have intercourse?"

Kira nodded. "Right."

"It's very — effective."

Distracted from her fears, Kira broke into a grin. "That's wonderful!"

Odo looked thoughtful. "I may have to start making it a part of my regular humanoid form — it would certainly be useful to keep them out of the way most of the time."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I've tended to keep my receptors randomly dispersed throughout my shape — which has proven awkward at times. I'd already pretty much eliminated them from my hands, ever since that incident at the Replimat . . ."

"What incident at Replimat?" Kira stared at Odo, fascinated.

"When that merchant, Tiron — smuggler would be my guess — was making a pass at you."

"What about it?"

"I can't remember what it was, but for some reason an unusually high number of my receptors were in my hands right then. When you took my hand and held it like you did, it was — unnerving."

Kira looked thoughtful. "You mean it was like — sort of like if — if Dax were to walk up to Julian and grab him by the --"

"Not as much as that — I assume, anyway — maybe a little like rubbing Quark's ears. The sensations that day were more surprising than anything else. The real problem was, for weeks afterwards, whenever I would see you, all of my pleasure receptors would go rushing to my hands. And in the midst of it all came that reception for the Kel'vett delegation. The Kel'vetti are such — extensive handshakers."

Slow comprehension dawned on Kira's face. "And I was standing next to you when we met them."

"All thirty-three of them."

"Were there that many?"

"Yes, unless someone snuck back into line to have his hand shaken twice." Odo eyed her sardonically. "I kept trying to disperse my receptors, but then you'd whisper to me, or nudge me with your elbow — and of course, after all that, you just had to take my hand and do your impression of a Kel'vetti handshake."

"I remember you finally mumbling something about shapeshifters not liking to be touched." Kira smiled, running her finger down Odo's chest. "You lied."

"I know." Odo looked slightly abashed. "It was an emergency."

"I'm sorry, Odo, I had no idea!" Kira couldn't quite suppress her chuckle.

"I wasn't complaining," Odo admitted.

"So it is like Quark's ears," Kira made the tongue-in-cheek observation. "He wouldn't complain, either." Odo faked a scowl.

"Are you comparing me to a Ferengi?"

Kira shook her head. "Never. I hear they have no staying power."

"I won't even ask where you heard it." Odo pulled Kira into his arms and started to kiss her, his hands sliding down the length of her back to hips, gently insinuating himself between her thighs.

"Again?" Kira purred against his ear.

"I want to distance myself as far from any Ferengi comparisons as possible."

"I can appreciate that." Kira twined her arms around Odo's neck, with a brief stab of wonder at the power of his lovemaking to anesthetize her to any fear or pain.

The small, insistent <beep!> of the comlink was distinctly unwelcome. Odo sighed, untangling himself from Kira's limbs and sitting on the edge of the bed. "Computer, audio only — Odo here. Is there a problem?" His underlying tone added, It had better be a big one.

"Odo, this is L'Shya." Kira also sat up as she heard the note in the voice of Odo's chief Bajoran deputy. "You're needed on the Promenade — one of Chief O'Brien's men just found a young woman dead and stuffed into a Jeffrey's tube, near the Bajoran temple." There was a pause before L'Shya went on, her voice taut. "Also, it looks like she was raped."

******

"All right, what do we know so far?" Odo stood with his deputy surveying the victim, apparently one of Quark's dabo girls by what was left of her dress. She had been pretty once, although in her current state it was hard to tell, what with the dried blood running from her mouth, and that fixed, glassy stare — her large, unseeing eyes were brown. Odo had met her once, had seen her two or three times in Quark's, maybe twice that many times in the Replimat. Dr. Bashir had pointed her out to him initially, noting her younger, softer resemblance to Kira . . . Odo shook himself out of his reverie, distancing himself by counting the ridges on her nose. One, two, three, four -- one less than Kira's. He found that fact weirdly comforting. Nonetheless, he was relieved when Bashir, after completing his check on the body, gently closed the young woman's eyes. "How many people does the computer show having been in this section?"

"Dozens," L'Shya reported, sighing. "The entire complement of both delegations has passed by here at some point during the past several hours, not to mention waiters, the curious, our own officers, Star Fleet officers — at least two hundred people have been in this vicinity in the time frame during which the girl was put here."

"Put here?" Odo surveyed the area thoughtfully. "You think she was moved here after she was murdered."

"Well, she obviously wasn't alive when she was stuffed into the Jeffrey's tube — God, I hate doubling as coroner." Dr. Julian Bashir finally straightened from his crouch beside the corpse and stood at Odo's side. "Also, the lividity suggests that she was lying on her chest for at least forty-five minutes after she was killed — see the mottling on her breasts, and on her abdomen and thighs?"

Odo nodded. "DNA traces?"

"Minute. Nothing she couldn't have picked up in her normal line of work." There was a brief pause as they considered some of the activities that a dabo girl's "line of work" could conceivably entail.

Odo glanced sharply at L'Shya. "You said it looked like she'd been raped."

"Legally, yes, at least under Federation law," Bashir interjected, going back into a crouch with Odo following suit. Bashir gently pushed a covering fragment of tattered skirt aside from the body's pubic area. "As you can see, there's blood — my tricorder shows that she was penetrated, violently — there's a lot of tearing — but there's no semen, no outside DNA to indicate that it was actually intercourse, more like a foreign object was introduced." Bashir's youthful, sensitive face was bleak. "Whatever it was, it wasn't a pretty way to die."

"What was the actual cause of death?"

"Strangulation — but from the amount of blood involved, this happened first. Again, no DNA, so whoever it was didn't use their bare hands."

"All right." Odo got back to his feet. "I want a full tricorder analysis of the body and of everything in this entire area." He made an expansive sweep with his hands. "Also, an old-fashioned physical evidence check — L'Shya, I want you and Pelken to go over that girl with tweezers and an eyelash comb if you have to — her killer has to have left something. Exactly how much do we know about this young woman, other than she was young and pretty and worked as a dabo girl at Quark's?"

L'Shya promptly provided the required information. "Her name was Lorakeen Pola. She was eighteen years old — your typical Bajoran war orphan."

"No family?"

"None living." L'Shya shook her head sadly.

"Well, then, we start at her place of employment." Odo sighed, pressing his fingertips tiredly to his forehead, where they left a slight indentation. "I'm going to have to rely on you to handle the preliminaries, L'Shya — I'm afraid that I'm getting past due for my regenerative cycle. Unless you've come up with a stimulant for me, Doctor?"

It had become a standing joke between them, that Bashir needed to develop a stimulant that would enable Odo to continue for additional hours in a solid state. Bashir smiled wryly and shook his head. "Not yet, Constable."

"Here's a list of the people I thought I would start with," L'Shya offered, handing Odo a data PADD. Odo studied it and nodded, pleased.

"You're becoming very good at this," he commented. "Before long you can have my job." Odo looked down at the dead girl at his feet. "On nights like this, I wouldn't mind giving it to you."

Odo wrapped up a few final details and headed back to the Habitat Ring, weariness weighing him down like sand. He headed instinctively towards Kira's quarters, where he had spent every night for the past five months — he remembered only at the last minute that she was waiting for him in his own quarters instead. Starting to turn away from Kira's door, he paused as he noticed the card that had been tucked into the nameplate. He reached out for it curiously, turning it over in his hand and staring, transfixed, at the single letter that interrupted the smooth white plastic.

Back in his own quarters, Odo found Kira sitting in bed drinking ginger tea. She got up when he entered, crossing the room to dispose of the cup in the replicator's recycling slot, before coming to meet Odo with outstretched arms. Odo let his eyes run up and down the lovely, vibrant length of her body, and closed his eyes with a shudder. His fingers closed on Kira's blindly, before he drew her against him with a sigh.

"Who was it?" Kira asked hesitantly. She stood there holding him, her head resting on his shoulder. Odo ran his hand thankfully through her hair and down the warm curve of her bare back.

"Lorakeen Pola. You may remember her, she worked at Quark's."

"Isn't she the one Julian said looked like my baby sister? The little red-haired one?"

"Dyed," Odo said shortly. He stepped out of Kira's arms and went to sit on the edge of the bed, a tired, haunted look in his eyes. Kira followed Odo slowly, crawling into the bed on the opposite side and slipping up behind him to rest her chin on his shoulder. Odo brought his hand up to gently touch her cheek. "It's awful the things you learn about people when they're dead," Odo said finally. "All their innocent little secrets — exposed."

"I'm sorry." Kira raised her chin, touching her lips to Odo's shoulder.

"Why are you apologizing?" Odo wondered.

"I'm not. I'm just — sorry." Kira ran her hands soothingly over Odo's shoulders.

"Nerys, I want you to be very, very careful until we find whoever did this."

"Is this just a general precaution, or do you have a special reason for telling me this?" Kira asked. Odo could feel her body tensing against his back.

"For a moment I forgot we were staying here tonight — I found this stuck into the nameplate by your door."

Kira took the thin plastic card slowly, sucking in her breath when she saw the single letter. "It's the Cardassian letter 'G'." The card crumpled as Kira's fingers tightened into a sudden fist around it.

"I already checked it for prints and DNA — nothing. Whoever left it made sure they didn't actually touch it." Odo angled around on the bed so he could gather Kira's rigid, unresponsive body into his arms. "If it is him, Nerys, he's not going to touch you. I swear to you, he'll be dead before I let that happen. I'll be dead before I let that happen."

"Don't even say that," Kira said passionately, her fear sounding like anger. Her arms shot around Odo's waist to hold him tightly. "I'd rather he'd do anything to me than see you dead."

"It's irrelevant. He's not going to kill me — and he's not going to touch you."

"We won't let him hurt me. And if the bastard tries anything, we'll get him."

"You're right . . . I'm sorry, Nerys, I just have to . . ." Odo slid into the bed beside her, drawing her down beside him before letting his body revert to its natural state in a sudden rush. Kira sighed as he slid over and around her, blanketing her torso and limbs in a layer of gelatinous warmth, thrumming with the barely perceptible vibration that marked his state of rest.

Enveloped in her gentle lover, it was still a long time before Kira slept.

******

"Constable Odo? An unexpected pleasure — whatever can I do for you? A new suit, perhaps?" Elim Garak, Deep Space Nine's Cardassian clothier, greeted Odo at the entrance to his shop with his usual display of exaggerated courtesy. Odo didn't speak for a moment, surveying the contents of the shop with studied casualness.

"Nothing for me . . . I thought I might like to order a new dress for Major Kira."

"Well, certainly, Constable — what did you have in mind?" Garak moved effortlessly into the steps of the dance. He knew as well as Odo that Odo's stated purpose was very low on his list of real priorities.

"Something formal — while these trade talks are going on, she may need to attend a number of social functions, and her present dress is — not entirely suitable."

"I designed that dress myself, Constable — I thought it was quite flattering."

"Oh, it is — but too attention-getting." Odo paused. "The wrong kind of attention."

Garak shrugged. "Alas, Constable, Gul Tukor will continue to leer at the Major strictly on principle."

"Yes, but Kira herself would be more comfortable in something less — revealing. Besides, I wasn't thinking of Tukor." Odo strolled over to a bolt of cream-colored silk, running his hand lightly over the folds. "I think this might be good — something simple. I'm sure you would be better at figuring out the details than I would. By the way, Garak . . ."

"Yes, Constable?" Garak tensed slightly as they cut to the chase.

"Are you familiar with a Cardassian named Bayliss Gorlem? His father is the head Cardassian negotiator."

"Gorem . . ." Garak half-whispered. He added in a more normal tone, "I may have heard of him, at one time or another . . . why do you ask?"

Odo moved in to stand closely to the tailor. "Let's just say that he indulged in certain — activities during the Occupation that I fear he may have expanded on in civilian life." He paused. "What do you know about him, Garak?"

Garak shrugged. "Let's just say that his reputation for — unpleasantness — is not entirely unwarranted."

"And what kind of unpleasantness is that?"

Garak's cheerful, innocent expression faded. He took Odo suddenly by the arm, grabbing a suit off the rack with another.

"Constable, I really think you should step back into the dressing room and try on this suit. I'm sure it may take some alterations, but I can go ahead and take your measurements to get started on them." He practically pushed Odo into the largest dressing room, pulling the curtain shut behind them.

"I take it you have something to tell me," Odo hissed in the Cardassian's ear.

"Let's just say," Garak murmured, leaning over and pretending to measure Odo's chest, "that Bayliss Gorlem a far more dangerous man than you imagine."

"I already consider him extremely dangerous," Odo rumbled. "Why do you think that he is?"

"He's a former operative with the Obsidian Order," Garak said shortly. "They were about to expel him when the Central Command was replaced by the current government."

"Expel him . . .?" Odo stared at the Cardassian through narrowed eyes. "Why?"

"Let's just say that some of his . . . outside activities were less than desirable."

"What activities?" Odo fought for patience as Garak continued going through the motions of measuring him.

"Do you get any police reports from Cardassia Prime, Constable?"

"I have certain . . . sources," Odo admitted.

"Well, this article may not have been in them — five women dead. All raped . . . all tortured." Garak straightened to look Odo in the eyes. "All Bajoran."

"What --?"

"All Bajoran exiles to Cardassia due to their — 'fraternization' during the Occupation. There was a strong suspicion that Gore — Gorlem was implicated."

"Why wasn't he arrested?" Odo demanded.

"Because operatives in the Obsidian Order aren't arrested, Constable. They're quietly — disposed of. Only his father came into power and took measures to protect his beloved only son."

"What kind of measures?"

"Let's just say that — there was a sudden shortage of the necessary witnesses to pursue even a Cardassian prosecution."

Odo stared at the Cardassian tailor, his expression unfathomable. "All victims of unfortunate accidents, no doubt."

"No doubt." Garak paused, before going on. "I happened to meet this Gorlem, once, while he was still stationed on Bajor. Constable, suffice it to say that I am very glad that he doesn't remember meeting me then — he's simply too twisted for one to want to stand out in his memory. If he finds someone memorable . . ."

"What do you remember about him?" Odo asked harshly.

Garak paused, clearly uncomfortable with his thoughts. Finally he said, "The notches. I remember the notches."

"Notches?"

"Carved into the wall beside his bunk. One notch for every Bajoran woman he'd raped and then killed."

"How do you know that's what they were?" Odo stared at Garak through narrowed eyes, appalled.

"He told me. He was quite proud of them. More important here, I think, is the half-notch."

"What do you mean?"

"In the midst of all of these neat little notches shaped like this --" Garak used his finger to trace a shape against the palm of his hand, like the wings of a bird in flight "-- there was one notch shaped like this --" He traced a single curve in his palm. "When I asked him about it, he said, 'That's the one who escaped before I could finish with her'."

Odo wished he had a stomach so he could have the relief of throwing up. As it was, his insides churned uncontrollably. "One of how many?" he rasped.

"I counted twenty-seven, Constable. Of course, I was somewhat flustered at the time — I could have erred by one or two."

Odo struggled to detach himself, to revert to his usual role of objective observer. "How is it that you happened to see this, Garak? If you knew him well enough to be invited into his quarters, how is it that he doesn't remember you?"

Garak looked startled at the question, and suddenly, overwhelmingly uncomfortable. "I'd really rather not say, Constable."

"I'm amazed that you've been as forthcoming as you have been," Odo admitted. "But my concern is for Nerys. If any information, no matter how trivial, might be used to protect her --" Odo stopped suddenly, realizing that he was revealing more than he ever intended.

"I had heard about the Major's — response to meeting Gorlem last night," Garak ventured delicately. "If she is indeed the 'half-notch', I think that any level of concern you might have would be justified."

"So why did he show his bedroom wall?" Odo shot back to his line of inquiry.

Garak shrugged. "He wanted to — talk."

"To someone he'd just met?"

"Rather indiscreet of him, I agree." Garak had reverted to his usual suave self. There was obviously something he wasn't saying, but Odo decided to let it pass for the moment.

"Very well, Garak . . . but we may be talking about this again before long."

Garak smiled innocently. "Why, I'll be looking forward to it, Constable." He smiled. "And I'll get started on that new dress for the Major right away. Something flattering, but not too — attention-getting." His smile faded. "Sometimes fashion is best left — unobtrusive."

******

Kira strolled back towards her quarters tiredly — her back hurt, and her feet were killing her. Damned boots — whoever had come up with this newest uniform design had obviously never actually had to walk in such boots, much less wear them for as much as eighteen hours at a stretch.

Probably Garak, she thought. If a Cardassian can't stick it to you one way, he'll stick it to you another.

"Nerys!"

Kira turned at the sound of Odo's voice behind her, surprised. Odo rarely called her Nerys unless they were alone together, scrupulously conscious of her role as his superior officer. She met his anxious gaze curiously.

"Odo, what is it?"

"I have something for you. Come with me to my quarters."

"All right." Kira willingly fell into step beside him, fighting down the nervous quiver that rose in her stomach. The image of Bayliss Gorlem's smiling face rose in her mind, from the dark corner where she had successfully shoved it for most of the day. "Has something happened?"

"I talked to Garak." Odo touched in his lock code and gestured for Kira to precede him into his quarters, reactivating the code the second the door swished shut. He then positioned her with her back against the door. "Stay here," he ordered. Odo took out a tricorder and surveyed the room carefully, while Kira watched him through questioning eyes. He went and peered into the bedroom, checked his readings again, and finally turned back to Kira.

Kira forced herself to stay calm. "Odo, what have you found out?"

"Would you like some tea?"

"I'd like an answer."

Odo bowed his head in acquiescence. "Very well." He recounted his interview with Garak tersely. Kira's eyes narrowed during the narrative, until by the end of it they were squeezed shut. She clenched her fists, will herself not to shake.

"Sweet Prophets," she whispered. "I never thought it could be — personal."

"Nor did I," Odo admitted. "But forewarned is forearmed, as they say." He went over to his comlink and started punching data in furiously. "That should do it — I made you reservations to stay on Kel'vett for a few weeks."

"You what?" Kira stared at him, indignant. "I'm not going to just run away from him!"

"You ran away from him before. It's the reason you're still alive."

"Odo, that was different and you know it! Dammit, I'm through running from the Cardassians!"

Odo recognized the note of genuine rage in Kira's voice, and silence hung between them for a moment, sharp as a bat'telh. Reluctantly, he punched again at the keypad. "All right — the reservations are canceled." He sank down into the chair in front of the console, his shoulders slumped.

Kira relented a little as she saw his obvious distress. She crossed the room and laid her hand gently on the back of Odo's neck.

"Odo, I don't want to leave. You've got plenty of security measures in place — and normally I'm pretty good at taking care of myself — you know that."

"If something happens to you . . ."

"It won't. You won't let it." Kira meant it as a vote of confidence, but Odo gave a violent shudder.

"If something happens to you, I will never forgive myself for not making you leave."

There was such absolute conviction in Odo's tone that Kira paused, heartsick. She let her arms circle his neck from behind, dropping an absent-minded kiss on the top of his head.

"Odo, I'll be fine. But if for some reason I'm not — I'm just not. I know that you don't necessarily believe in fate, but sometimes it does intervene. If I can be protected, I will be. If I can't — then the Prophets are calling me beyond."

"Please, Nerys, not religion — I really can't handle that right now."

"You never can," Kira observed dryly.

Avoiding the always-dangerous topic, Odo brought his hands up to cover Kira's. He then detached himself, standing and reaching inside a pocket. "Here. I want you to carry this at all times." He handed her a small hand phaser.

"I thought you didn't allow weapons on the Promenade," Kira commented, even while she automatically checked the settings.

"I decided to make an exception."

"All right." Kira pocketed the weapon, her face tautly resolved. "I have to admit, I feel better having it," she confessed.

"There's something else I want to try — we need to catch this animal, before he can strike again. Come into the bedroom with me." Odo moved purposefully across the room, while Kira followed him curiously. Odo touched the panel that closed the bedroom door behind them. "Now, take off your clothes."

"What?" Kira stared at him. "Something tells me you're not making a pass at me."

"You're right," Odo agreed. He watched Kira intently as she sat on the edge of the bed and slowly pulled off her boots, wiggling her toes in a brief moment of gratitude before removing her uniform. She blushed a little under his clinical gaze.

"All of them?" she asked. Odo nodded. Sighing, Kira finished by removing her underwear, before standing to peer at Odo through narrowed eyes.

"Why exactly am I doing this?"

"Just think of yourself as — as one of the statues in the outer room." Odo stepped closer. "Nerys, I'm going to shift now, and I'm going to be all over you — try to hold still."

"That's a switch," Kira observed. Still, she did as he asked — not quite as difficult a task as she anticipated, as the sensations, although stimulating, were decidedly different than when Odo normally made love to her. He moved over her carefully — evaluating me, Kira thought in surprise, studying me -- before finally assuming his usual uniformed shape. Odo looked thoughtful.

"Thank you, Nerys. I think — I think I can do it."

"I think you'd better come over here next to me," Kira observed. Odo glanced up, surprised, to see Kira sitting on the edge of the bed, patting the spot next to her suggestively. He smiled, but shook his head.

"I have to try this while the images on my sensors are still very fresh." Odo's form shimmered into golden gel, before shaping itself into something slightly similar, but different — a little shorter, smaller, softer in its lines and curves. Kira's eyes widened as she watched the transformation. She stared across the room at — herself.

"Well," Odo said finally, his voice now a reasonable match to Kira's clear alto, "how do I look?"

Kira studied him, transfixed. "I didn't think you could — even the nose is right."

"Oh." It was startling to watch the embarrassment crossing the face of her double. "I haven't actually tried to make a Bajoran nose in years — it just didn't seem worth bothering with, now that everyone is used to me having this face — um, that face." Odo smiled, and Kira suddenly recognized a difference between his features and hers.

"Your eyes are still blue."

"Are they?" Odo sighed. "There's so much to concentrate on." He closed his eyes briefly — when he reopened them they were a mirror of Kira's velvet brown ones.

"Do you mind if I ask why you're doing this?"

There it was again — her own mobile features, moving independently of her thoughts or feelings. "If this man is going after you, I'm going to give him a target he can't injure."

"Odo!" Kira stared at her transformed lover, shocked. "You can be hurt, you know."

"Yes, but not by any means he'll be prepared to use. By the time he realizes the difference, I'll have enough evidence recorded to arrest him. After he's arrested, he'll be subject to further questioning and examination under verification."

"What exactly are you planning to arrest him for?" Kira asked.

"Whatever I have to," Odo said simply. With a long exhalation of breath, he morphed into his usual masculine shape. Kira stared at him, horrified at the realization slowly forming in her mind.

"You don't mean — "

"I mean that I'll do whatever is necessary to put this man away, Nerys. Hopefully it won't come to that."

"You'll let him rape you?" Kira exclaimed sharply.

"I'll let him try," Odo amended. He looked at Kira, a hint of despair shadowing his eyes. "Nerys, I can't let this — creature — kill any more innocent Bajorans. It isn't just you — I feel fairly confident that I can protect you since I know what I'm up against. But the others — the other women on this station — until I can arrest him I have no way of guaranteeing their safety. I have to catch this man!"

"I don't like it," Kira insisted, lowering her head as she collected herself. "I don't like it, it doesn't feel right." Finally she looked up at Odo, her expression of resignation tinged with sorrow. "You won't change your mind, will you?"

"No." Odo shook his head decidedly.

Kira sighed. "I guess if anyone can take care of himself, it's you." She patted the bed beside her. Odo crossed to sit beside her, his body slumped with exhaustion.

"I'm so tired," he murmured, closing his eyes and lying back against the bed. Kira snuggled in next to him, putting her head on his shoulder.

"You've been shorting your regeneration time ever since this conference was announced," Kira observed. "Why don't you take a nap?"

"A nap?" Odo opened one eye to look at her curiously.

"A short little regeneration period. Just to refresh yourself."

"I don't think I've ever taken a nap before," Odo commented, wrapping his arms around Kira and running his hands contentedly over her bare back. "Not what you're describing — although you called what we did last week 'taking a nap'. . . I remember spending a brief time in a gelatinous state, but I was not resting."

Kira smiled, tracing a fingertip along Odo's chest. "But it made you feel better, didn't it?" she teased.

"It did at that," Odo agreed. He adjusted Kira in his arms so that her mouth was in easy reach of his own, his lips embarking on a leisurely exploration of hers. Kira leaned wholeheartedly into his kiss — everything Nerys does, Odo thought, she does with her whole heart. He ran his hand tenderly along her smooth cheek. Kira turned her head to catch one of his fingers playfully in her teeth.

"Did I ever tell you that you taste good, Constable?" Kira nibbled delicately on the tip of Odo's finger.

"No, I don't think so — what do I taste like?" Odo asked curiously.

Kira pondered the question, trying to put her thoughts into words. "Clean — cool — a little metallic — like fresh water over white sand."

"I wish I could taste you." Odo sighed in regret. "I imagine you're delicious."

"Maybe when I'm just out of the shower," Kira responded with a laugh. "My brothers used to say that I sweat a lot for a girl."

Odo ran his hand sensuously along Kira's arm. He loved the feel of her bare skin, the subtleties of texture and temperature tingling through his fingertips. He then lifted his hand to her face, tracing the bridge of her nose with his thumb. Odo sighed.

"I'm sorry about the nose, Nerys. I really haven't tried in a long time."

"I was just surprised, that's all."

"As soon as this thing with — with the negotiating teams is over, I'll start — working on myself again."

"What do you mean?" Kira raised herself on one elbow, studying Odo sharply.

"Oh . . . a Bajoran nose . . . eyebrows . . . better lips . . . maybe a little bit younger-looking. . ."

Kira's eyes narrowed in indignation. "You'll do no such thing!"

Odo stared at her, startled. "I thought that you --"

"Well, you thought wrong," Kira interrupted. "I love your face — don't you change a line of it." She smiled. "Until I start looking older — I don't mind if you keep up with me." Kira paused. "Odo, may I ask you a question?"

"Of course. What is it, Nerys?"

"Is my — is my ass really that big?"

Odo opened his mouth to give a truthful answer, then thought better of it. "I probably miscalculated." He skipped quickly to safer territory. "Kira Nerys, have I mentioned that I love you?"

"Once or twice," Kira admitted, smiling. She sighed as Odo let his shape slip into his gelatinous form, moving over her body in gentle waves until she moaned in pleasure. He then lay upon her, quietly motionless. Kira chuckled as she realized that her lover was, in his own unique way, sound asleep.

Kira, loath to disturb him, was dozing herself when she heard the <beep> of the comlink. Groggy, Kira replied, "Kira here," remembering to add a split second later, "Audio only."

"A little early to be taking a nap, isn't it, Major?" Kira winced as she heard Bashir's cheerful tones and realized that the shift to audio had been made just a hair too late. The young doctor's tone quickly sobered. "There's some kind of commotion in front of the security office — I thought that Odo would want to be informed."

"What kind of commotion?" Kira struggled to sit up, Odo sliding off her onto the bed at her side. He coalesced into humanoid form with a moan, blinking tiredly.

"What is it?" he croaked, his voice more gravelly than usual.

"I don't know — something happening at your office. I saw it on my way here to the Infirmary."

"Thank you, Doctor. Odo out." Odo, back in uniform, tapped his combadge sharply. "Odo to Security. Report!"

"There's been another murder." Deputy Pelken, normally a level-headed young man, sounded dangerously close to tears.

"Well, do we have an identification yet? Where's the body?"

"She's in your office, Constable." Pelken's voice finally broke. "We don't have an identification yet, but we think it's L'Shya."

"L'Shya . . ." Odo's eyes clouded in anguish. Kira took his arm, leaning her head against his shoulder. Odo took a deep breath, turning off his emotions and adopting his most professional manner. "Pelken — what's the delay on the identification?"

"She — her --" Pelken gulped helplessly.

"Mr. Pelken, report!" Odo snapped. Kira looked at him, surprised, before nodding in slow comprehension, remembering the times when she had needed to use the same brutal technique herself. Sure enough, the brusque command seemed to help the deputy get a grip on himself.

"The head is missing from the body, sir."

Kira's eyes widened and she caught her lower lip between her teeth, turning her mouth into a thin, tough line. Odo twined his hand tightly with hers while saying, "Thank you, Deputy. I'll be right there. Odo out." The Changeling tapped his combadge, before gathering Kira tightly in his arms.

"Oh, Nerys . . ."

"Odo, I'm so sorry." Kira drew back slightly in his embrace, raising her hand to his face. "I can't imagine how you must feel." She could, actually — only too well — but she didn't really want to.

"I feel angry — and frustrated — and humiliated!" Detaching himself from Kira's arms, Odo got to his feet and began pacing restlessly. "He left her in my office! My office, Nerys! For all I know he murdered her there, too! I'll tell you something, Nerys, if it is Bayliss Gorlem, then he knows that we're lovers, and he's playing cat-and-mouse with us both! Now, will you please do as I ask and get the hell off this station?!!"

Kira stood slowly and began to dress. She remained silent until she finished fastening the final clasp on her uniform tunic. "I can't," she insisted. "I wish you could understand — if I run now, the — the nightmares will never end."

"And if you stay, my nightmares may be just beginning," Odo said tautly. "Very well — I suppose I can't tell you what to do, Major."

Kira winced at Odo's use of her title as though he had slapped her. "Odo . . ."

"Will you stay here until tomorrow? Not leave my quarters?"

"I'm supposed to be on duty, but . . ." Kira stopped as she saw Odo's face, remembering that in every war there comes a time when one has to give up some ground. "I'll call Sisko. I imagine I can get away with it this once."

"Thank you, Nerys." Odo turned away from her, striding purposefully towards the doorway. He added as he left, "Don't wait up for me."

******

Odo went meticulously through the motions of investigating the crime scene, revealing to no one the screams that echoed through his mind as he examined the body of his former coworker — a friend, he thought, one of the few. Odo was not a being who formed relationships easily, nor did he have a personality that was necessarily endearing. But L'Shya had liked him, respected him, feelings that had been mutual. Now she was dead — and worse.

"Same m.o. as last time? Other than --" Odo waved vaguely in the direction of the corpse's headless torso as he looked at Bashir, wondering absently at the sensitive young doctor's ability to become so clinical when the test was put to him.

"Not quite." Bashir straightened, studying his med-scanner. "Apparently our killer couldn't resist becoming more — personal this time. We've got semen, and so we've got DNA. Now we just need a match for it."

"What kind of DNA?" Odo queried.

"Cardassian. Definitely Cardassian . . . now the question is which one of the forty-some possible suspects is responsible."

"I think I have a good idea," Odo rasped through tightened lips. Bashir looked at him curiously.

"From the evidence, or from a hunch?"

"From — a prior record, Doctor." Odo began snapping instructions to his deputies, his stern, no-nonsense manner enabling them to approach the crime scene with a reasonable degree of their usual professionalism. He himself spent several minutes at his comlink, checking a variety of readings, a look of thoughtful surprise working its way across his face. He called to Bashir as the doctor was preparing to leave, "Could you leave your reports here when they're completed, Doctor? I'll ask Major Kira to pick them up for me on her back from Quark's."

"Oh?" Bashir looked faintly puzzled.

"Apparently Dax is taking her on another 'improve your imagination' outing in one of the holosuites. She should be by here at about twenty-three hundred hours — can you have your reports ready by then?"

"Of course," Bashir said automatically.

"Thank you, Doctor. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go see Quark myself." To Bashir's continued bewilderment he added, "I always start my questioning at Quark's."

Bashir stared after Odo as he headed from the Security Office, striding purposefully. He then looked aside at one of the deputies, who looked like he would welcome any distraction from the grim task at hand. "That's odd . . ."

"What is, Dr. Bashir?"

"Dax. I could have sworn she was having dinner with Captain Sisko tonight . . ."

******

Back in Kira's quarters, Odo made his final preparations.

The nose looked fine, he decided, studying Kira's counterfeit image as it stared back at him from the mirror. The ears were perhaps a little vague around the edges, but nothing that would be noticeable in passing — or in the dim light of the holosuite program he would activate at Quark's. At first the Ferengi had been unwilling to bump his scheduled client from his holosuite reservation, but Odo was never short of the necessary blackmail material required to "persuade" Quark.

He was almost ready.

Odo evaluated his appearance after donning the Bajoran casual wear that Kira favored for her time off-duty. He would pass. The clothes fit perfectly — so much for Kira's concern about the size of her hips. Odo looked at his — her — hips thoughtfully. He thought they looked just fine — and he loved the way they felt on their proper owner.

Dressed and ready, Odo headed for Quark's, adjusting to moving in the different shape, and thankful that he didn't have to wear one of Kira's uniforms, with those lethal heels. It was odd seeing the world through Kira's eyes — or rather, seeing the world's response to the form he now wore. Used to a certain initial hush falling over the place whenever he walked into Quark's, he was at first unsurprised to encounter the same reaction as he entered the crowded establishment — only the quality of the silence was different, as he quickly recognized. This small, infinitesimal break in the bedlam was appreciative.

Odo paused, and if he had but known, the look that crossed his borrowed face enhanced appreciation levels on all sides. Kira's physical beauty had almost nothing to do with what had caused Odo to fall in love with her, but he enjoyed it and recognized it for the outstanding feature that it was. It still amazed him that someone like Kira Nerys had fallen in love with him — the smile that this reflection caused to cross his rendering of her face was enough to take a person's breath away, shining like a genuine gem in the false glitter that surrounded it. More than one pair of eyes lingered on that briefly radiant face, turning for an instant from drinks and dabo, before the throng of patrons rejoined their more typical pursuits. Only one pair of eyes remained fixed on "Kira" as "she" continued into the bar, gauging and studying every move from a dark, hidden corner under the circular stairs.

Odo strolled up to the bar, sliding onto one of the stools. Quark came over, eyeing the shapeshifter with a reassuring leer. All in all, the disguise seemed to be working.

"What can I get for you, Major?"

"Nothing, thanks. I don't drink."

Quark looked puzzled. "What do you mean, you don't --" The Ferengi's eyes widened in astonishment as he remembered his first meeting with Odo so many years before. Leaning closer he hissed, "Odo?"

"Shh . . ." Odo smiled, rather enjoying the use of such a expressive, flexible mouth. "I believe I have a reservation for Holosuite B."

"That's right." Quark continued to stare, open-mouthed. "I must say, Cons — I must say, it's becoming!"

Odo twisted his mouth — Kira's mouth — in a grimace. "I'll — Kira will be in Holosuite B, if anyone asks after her." Odo turned and worked his way through the crowd to head up the spiral stairs, managing a decent approximation of Kira's economical but graceful walk. Quark shook his head and turned away — and so missed the second figure that ducked from beneath the stairs to follow close on Odo-as-Kira's heels.

Odo reached the door to the holosuite before the person following him closed the distance between them. A large, heavy body slammed into his back, and he felt the sharpness of a thin blade held to his throat. He was pushed on into the room, where a holosuite program was already in progress - a grim, gray room, containing nothing more than a simple table and a chair. His attacker threw Odo against the wall, before flicking the switch on the device that sat on the table — a device that Odo instantly recognized. The rest of his face now covered with a concealing hood, the Cardassian's mouth curved in a wide, brutal, smile.

"Good evening, Constable. I've been waiting for you."

******

The hum of the quantum stasis field buzzing in his ears, Odo stared across the room at his masked assailant and wondered if he could manage to stay alive. The mask provided some small shred of reassurance — the man couldn't possibly have come through Quark's like that without drawing attention. Which meant he had put it on afterwards, that he specifically didn't want Odo to see him — not a seeming issue if he was planning to leave Odo dead. Odo took a deep breath and asked, "What do you want?"

"Why, Constable, what a curious question! Why do you assume that I want anything? It isn't what I want — it's what I need."

"All right, then — what do you need?" While the voice was Kira's, the words were definitely Odo's, short to the point of terseness and hammer-like in their directness. The Cardassian smiled.

"I need to kill your lover."

Odo stared at his captor, appalled at the light, cheerful way in which the masked Cardassian calmly announced his plans for Kira. The once and would-be murderer went on blithely:

"Fortunately, you've made that fairly easy for me now. While I have you incapacitated here — and trust me, Constable, you will be incapacitated, in more ways than one — it should be a fairly easy matter to break into your quarters. After all, I was able to break into your office to install that monitoring device without any real trouble. Of course, I realized that you found it — why else would you go to such trouble to announce in front of a group of people exactly where Major Kira would be and when? Did you really expect me to believe that you would expose her like this?" The Cardassian nodded at Odo, running a casual eye down Odo's assumed form.

Odo remained silent. His mind was racing, cursing his limitations, compounded by being locked in a form to which he was largely unaccustomed. Still, he needed to stall for time. Finally he commented, "I imagine your experience as a former operative in the Obsidian order has proved useful to you in all this."

The eyes behind the mask narrowed. "Now, how did you know that?"

Odo instantly realized that he could very well hold Garak's life in his hands. "I have my own sources of information on Cardassia Prime," he prevaricated. "They're quite thorough." He ventured to ask, "Why do you need to kill Major Kira?"

"So formal, Constable! Especially considering that the two of you are so — close." The Cardassian gave a lascivious smile. "She is particularly luscious, Odo — I compliment you on your good taste."

"You didn't answer my question."

"That's because it's none of your business. My — problem with the Major is personal. My concern with you, on the other hand, is merely — ancillary, at best." He crossed the room toward Odo, his mouth curving once again into that serene, deadly smile.

"I can't rape you, of course — that would mean that I'd have to kill you, and I'm not sure how that can be done, at least not quietly. On the other hand . . ." The masked Cardassian glanced down at the knife he still held in his hand, his fingertip caressing the blade. "There are so many — interesting possibilities with someone you can hurt so extensively without ever actually killing them, wouldn't you say?"

"I've never given the subject any thought." Odo glared into the threatening eyes of his assailant.

"I suppose not — you do seem rather limited in that respect." The Cardassian reached out suddenly, tearing the shirt from Odo-as-Kira's body with one sharp motion.

Her favorite, Odo thought irrelevantly, I'll have to see if Garak can make her a new one. Then he refocused sharply on matters at hand as his attacker ran the point of the knife from his chin down to his navel, leaving a faint crease in the smooth ivory skin. Kira's skin.

"Hmm . . . I don't suppose you even bleed," the Cardassian mused. "Still, there are so many options — for example, as I do things to you, you can imagine me doing the very same things to the real owner of this body — and she will bleed, I promise you that."

For the second time in his life, Odo wished he had the capacity to vomit, and he failed to restrain a shudder. He then gasped as the Cardassian suddenly drove the knife into his shoulder. The Beast had been right. It didn't bleed, but it hurt. A million receptors caused that message to go screaming through every shape-locked cell. It hurt.

Then the cutting began.

******

Left to her own devices, Kira wandered aimlessly through Odo's quarters, again reminded of how — minimalist her lover's approach to life was. She finally initiated an audio program of Earth jazz — hers and Odo's favorite, and one that reminded her of him — changing into the nightshirt she kept hanging in the closet, and curling up in the bed with a cup of tea. Kira then began to read the latest detective mystery that had been loaned to the shapeshifter by Chief O'Brien. As it dealt with an old Earth murderer with the colorful name of Jack the Ripper, one who had never been apprehended, she did not find it precisely soothing.

Considering how early it was, Kira was surprised when, only a few hours later, she heard the outer door opening.

"Odo? I thought you were going to be late."

There was no answer. An instinct instilled in Kira by the Resistance, one without which she wouldn't have survived until the end of the Occupation, caused chill fingers to play a staccato run down her spine. It wasn't Odo. She didn't know who it was, but it wasn't Odo.

Kira slipped out of the bed, creeping towards the closet, where the phaser Odo had given her still resided in the pocket of her uniform. She had the door open and her hands were closing on the uniform's fabric when a hand grabbed her and yanked her back into the center of the room.

Bayliss Gorlem stood there smiling at her — the same smile that had haunted her in so many, many dreams of terror.

"Kira Nerys," he said softly, his voice a light, satin-y tenor, as serene as his smile. "Who ever would have thought that we would meet again?" Holding her fast against him with one powerful arm, the Cardassian used his free hand to caress Kira's cheek like a lover. "Then, who would have thought that I'd need to meet you again — you left Narik Dir before we were finished, you know."

Kira brought her knee up sharply into Gorlem's groin, ramming her elbow into his stomach. The Cardassian's grip loosened for a moment, and Kira lunged away, only to have him catch her once again by the hand, jerking her back like he was cracking a whip.

"Ah, well." The Cardassian took Kira's elbow in his other hand, and snapped the bones of her forearm as casually as a stick of kindling. Kira gasped involuntarily at the pain, wondering dizzily for a moment if she was going to pass out. Her nemesis looked into her eyes and sighed.

"You should have stayed around and let me kill you the first time. When I was stationed at Narik Dir, I was somewhat limited in my — creativity. However, this time I have all sorts of wonderful things planned — I even got to rehearse them. What an interesting mate you've found for yourself, Major — so versatile."

"Odo . . ." Kira stared at the Cardassian, fear for her lover driving her pain to the back of her consciousness. "What do you mean?"

"A lover able to take on your own shape — such interesting possibilities."

"Where is he?" Kira rasped. "What have you done to him?"

"Major, he's just spending a quiet evening in a holosuite. Much quieter than he anticipated, I imagine, at least now."

Oblivious to the pain in her broken arm, Kira used her good one to land a solid punch to Gorlem's jaw. Gorlem struck her sharply across the side of the head, driving her to her knees. His fingers twisted in her hair, Gorlem reached into a pocket of his jacket and pulled out his knife. He fondled the blade gently, commenting, "Shapeshifters don't bleed — they ooze a bit, but they don't bleed. Don't you find that interesting, Major? Of course, being locked in that shape of yours certainly limited your lover's options — but I hardly wanted his options to be limitless, now did I?"

Kira glared at her tormentor wordlessly. Gorlem jerked her head back by the hair. "Did I, Major?"

"I wouldn't know," Kira said shortly.

"So, do you know what happens now, Major?" The question sounded almost tender.

"You kill me, I suppose." Kira saw no point in avoiding the obvious.

"Well, yes, eventually, but not now. The one advantage to this unique situation is that, while I can't kill you twice, I can rape you twice." Gorlem gave a delighted smile as Kira grimaced, nauseated. "Or three times, or even four if you can survive it — Cardassians don't tire as easily as these humans you have here do." Gorlem drew his knife through Kira's nightshirt, leaving fine red scratches on her body as he sliced the fabric to ribbons. "Of course, your shapeshifter has quite a bit of staying power, doesn't he? Perhaps some of it has rubbed off on you — pardon the expression — in more ways than one."

Kira stared at Gorlem in silent loathing. His smile never faded. "You had better hope so, Major — the number of times you can take me may determine the number of minutes you stay alive. Then again, blood is such an aphrodisiac - maybe it won't."

Gorlem shoved Kira onto her back and knelt between her knees, pinning her with his elbow and the weight of his body while he fumbled at the front of his trousers with one hand, the other holding the knife to Kira's throat. Struggling like an insect on a pin, Kira fought with every ounce of strength she possessed even while she closed her eyes and prayed to the Prophets — either for the strength to prevail, or for the good luck to die quickly.

The soft <whoosh> of the outer door distracted them both — Kira saw her opportunity, and catching the Cardassian off-balance, shoved him away with all of her strength, even while the pain sang through her injured arm. Lighter on her feet than her hulking attacker, Kira threw herself at the closet door, shouting for help as she clawed desperately at her uniform, finding the bulge in the pocket — the dim whine she heard in the room behind her didn't register, and she screamed in sheer frustration as a pale scaled hand closed on her shoulder. This one, however, didn't grab or pull.

"Major Kira — it's all right." The voice was different, it was definitely not Gorlem. Disoriented, Kira turned to face --

"Garak?"

The Cardassian clothier stood there with a slightly apologetic look, a phaser of his own still clenched tightly in his hand. He kept his eyes fixed resolutely on some point above Kira's chin, and she realized belatedly that her nightshirt was no more than some rags hanging off her shoulders. Kira pulled her uniform out of the closet, scrambling into it as best she could considering the condition of her arm. Garak, the tailor, helped her deftly to cover her good arm, tucking the other sleeve around the broken one to form something of a makeshift sling.

"Did you kill him?" Kira asked tightly, looking at the inert figure lying on the floor a few feet away from them.

Garak shook his head regretfully. "Merely stunned, alas — I wanted to avoid any possible unpleasantness with the authorities."

"The authorities . . ." Kira gasped, lunging toward the doorway. "Odo!"

Garak caught her gently by her good arm. "He's going to be fine, Major — he's in the infirmary. Where I think you should be, too . . ." Garak reached out and delicately tapped the combadge on Kira's shoulder. "This is Garak — could a Security team please report to Constable Odo's quarters? Also, please beam Major Kira directly to the infirmary."

Before she could protest, Kira was spirited away by the transporter, to be met by a white-faced Bashir. The doctor sagged in relief as he saw her upright and conscious, even while he automatically ran his med-scanner over her injured arm.

"Thank God you're all right, Major — after finding Odo like that --"

"Where is he?" Kira asked harshly.

"Right there." Bashir nodded in the direction of one of the bio-beds, where a large-ish specimen container resided dead center. "I need to get your arm set, Major, so I can take a bone-knitter to it."

Kira ignored him, moving toward the bio-bed. "What happened? Is he going to be all right?"

"He should be fine once he regenerates." Bashir spokes with a finality that suggested he would be happy never broaching this subject again. Kira fixed him with a steely gaze.

"What happened to him, Doctor?" The 'I-am-your-superior-officer' wasn't stated, but it was clearly implied.

Bashir sighed. "I happened to be sitting with Garak at Quark's when this — Bayliss Gorlem came down from the holosuite level. Garak immediately suspected something and made Quark let us into the holosuite where — where Odo was."

"And--?" Kira pursued, relentlessly.

"Someone — Garak says it was this Gorlem, and I have no reason to disbelieve him — had activated some sort of quantum stasis field. Apparently it causes shapeshifters to lock into whatever form they happen to be at the time."

Kira nodded. "Go on."

"Well, as near as I could tell, Odo was locked in your form. When Garak deactivated the device, he reverted to his gelatinous state — although he did manage to become solid long enough to tell us where you were."

"Oh." A small, nagging fear suddenly mushroomed to gigantic proportions in Kira's mind. "What do you mean, as near as you could tell?"

Bashir sighed, clearly wondering how much he should tell her. Knowing Kira, he finally decided on blunt honesty. "He was cut up, Major. There were — a lot of pieces." Moving quickly, Bashir was able to get Kira to a sluice drain before she vomited.

He was beginning to wonder if he should give her an anti-emetic when she finally straightened, gasping. "Oh, Prophets," she gasped. "Odo . . ."

"The important thing is, he'll be fine," Bashir soothed, "and I assume that this Gorlem fellow is behind bars. Now, let me take care of your arm."

Kira subsided into reasonable docility until her broken bones were set and had received an initial treatment with a bone-knitting laser. She then crossed to stand at Odo's side, trailing her fingers gently through the golden gel that pulsed quietly in the confines of the bucket. There was an immediate response to that tender touch, as Odo's substance crept up and encased Kira's hand, reassuring him that she was there. Kira let her hand stay nestled in her lover, until finally the material in the bucket began to shimmer, and she stood back to allow Odo the room he needed to reshape himself into humanoid form.

"Nerys." Kira's name emerged from Odo's mouth as a dry rasp. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine — nothing Julian hasn't already fixed." Kira stepped closer to Odo, eyes widening, reaching out to lay her hand on his arm. Odo winced, shaking his head.

"I'm sorry, Nerys — I'm a little disoriented." Odo gently removed Kira's hand, giving it a light squeeze as he did so. His every movement seemed painful. "I need to — regenerate a little longer — a lot of my sensors are irritated."

"I understand." Kira put her hands behind her back, staring at her lover's face. Odo's features were somehow more blurred than usual, as though he couldn't quite manage his usual form — Kira glanced down at the hand she had just released, and realized with a start that the nails were missing. Odo's hands were a tiny point of pride with him, perhaps because of her extravagant praise — Kira loved his long, graceful, elegant hands, as she had observed on more than one occasion. He can't even get his hands right, Kira thought, appalled, and wondered if she was going to be sick again. She bit her lip, dismayed at its sudden trembling. She glanced over at Bashir, who gave her a sympathetic smile, before returning his concerned gaze to the shapeshifter at her side.

"Odo, I don't know if you need to spend the night here," Bashir interjected, "although you certainly may — it's really up to you. The main thing you need right now is rest." He studied Odo's lean frame carefully, noting the faint shivering that his Changeling patient couldn't quite suppress. "A lot of rest. Constable, you're relieved of duty for at least a week."

"I don't think that will be necessary," Odo objected. "I just want to go home," he added softly.

"Come on, then, sweetheart." The rare endearment, spoken in front of Bashir, showed just how rattled Kira was. She nodded towards the door. It felt so strange, after all these months, not to feel free to reach out and touch him — to feel like Odo didn't want her to touch him. She preceded him out into the Promenade — it was surprisingly busy, and Kira remembered with some shock that it really wasn't all that late. Quark's was certainly going at full blast — Kira saw Odo stare in the direction of the bar, a look she had never seen there before flitting briefly across his face. Kira asked gently, "Where would you like to stay tonight? Your quarters or mine?"

"Mine, please," Odo said automatically, before adding after some thought, "unless that will bother you."

Kira felt nothing but a surge of relief that he still wanted her with him. "Your quarters are fine," she assured him. "Let's go."

******

Someone had mercifully tidied away any evidence of Gorlem's earlier intrusion into Odo's quarters, Kira was relieved to note. Even more surprisingly, a new nightshirt lay neatly across the foot of the bed. On the attached slip ran the fine script — We can haggle over the cost later. Elim Garak. It was a simple, silky thing, in her favorite shade of pale peach — Kira resolved to drop by the tailor's shop in the morning and pay him whatever he wanted, no questions asked. It astounded and somewhat dismayed her to realize that she owed a Cardassian her life.

It was after she removed her uniform and was pulling the nightshirt over her head — her arm still aching a little, but quite functional after Bashir's treatment — that she noticed the expression on Odo's face. He was staring at her miserably, wearing a look that in anyone else she would have considered to be close to tears. Dismayed, Kira went to his side, starting to lay her hand on his arm, but drawing back when she saw him wince.

"Odo — please talk to me." Kira kept her voice soft and level, at distinct odds with the terrified anguish rising in her heart. She sat down on the edge of the bed so that she wouldn't be near enough to yield to the urge to touch him.

"I just — don't think I can sleep here, in the bed, tonight," Odo said simply. "It's too — enclosing." He fixed his eyes briefly on Kira's face, before looking away uncomfortably. "I just need to regenerate somewhere that's smooth and cool . . . I didn't want to upset you."

"Compared to what's happened to you tonight, I think I can stand being upset," Kira observed. "Julian told me a little about it — if you want to know the truth, I threw up before he could finish."

"Yes, but he didn't know the worst of it." Odo stood stock-still — doing nothing, Kira realized, that would cause his receptors any more stimulation than absolutely necessary. He spoke slowly, torturously. "When Gorlem was — cutting me — he was very careful to tell me exactly what the same thing would do to you. He started with things that wouldn't kill you --then he finally — he finally did something that would, and after that, with every cut he would say, 'now, Nerys will be dead by the time I do this' — or something in that vein." Odo looked up at Kira, a sad, almost puzzled look in his eyes. "Nerys, did you know that humanoids can still hear after their outer ears are cut off? I never knew that. No wonder the unrefined shape of mine doesn't seem to matter."

Kira never heard the last of his comment, as she was already racing for the bathroom, where for the second time that evening she vomited up pure bile. She heard Odo dimly from the doorway behind her, "Nerys, I'm sorry — would you like me to call Dr. Bashir and ask him to come give you something for that? Maybe a sedative to help you sleep?"

Kira sat down cross-legged on the floor right where she was, her elbows on her knees, her hands covering her face as her iron-willed control finally abandoned her. "Odo — I am so sorry. I don't know how you can ever forgive me — I am so sorry."

"Sorry? Nerys, why?" Odo settled very carefully on the floor next to her and, after some consideration, gingerly placed the fingertips of one hand on her knee. Kira wiggled away from him.

"Don't — you'll hurt. I don't want to hurt you anymore!" Odo realized with horror that Kira was crying — shaking with long, terrible sobs. "I should have left when you told me to — I let this happen to you — "

"Nerys, I came up with an incredibly stupid plan that nearly got you killed. Why are you apologizing to me?" Odo's voice was tight with the anguish of his perceived failure.

Kira slammed the heel of her hand against the floor in impotent rage. "I just can't believe that — he — he cut you into pieces . . ."

Odo shuddered, then gasped at the pain it caused him, almost seeming to cave in on himself. "I — I'm all right. He meant it to be you."

"Well, maybe it should have been me!"

"No, it shouldn't — because you wouldn't be all right."

Kira looked up at him, biting down hard on her lower lip and digging her fingers into her knees as she steadied herself. After a long moment's silence she admitted, "I wish I could hold you. I didn't know how much I — counted on being able to hold you."

Odo considered her words. Finally he said, "I wouldn't mind that myself, for just a second or two. I can hardly believe we're both sitting here — I keep waiting for the holoprogram to end."

Tentatively, cautiously, Kira inched her way into Odo's outstretched arms, closing her own gingerly around his slim frame. He suddenly felt so fragile against her, so frail — she released him as she felt a tiny shudder rattle his form. Odo sighed, a hint of relief skimming the surface of his eyes.

"Give me a day or two. I should be fine by then."

Kira nodded, resolutely dashing the tears from her eyes. "I'm sorry — I didn't mean to lose control like that. I thought that I'd let you talk to me about your problems for a change, and I end up crying in the bathroom."

"I may just sleep right here tonight," Odo commented. "This floor feels — very soothing."

"I suppose it does." Kira ran her hand thoughtfully along the cool tile. Her next question came in a low tone, "Odo, Bashir didn't say — I'm not sure that he would know, but — did Gorlem --?" Kira paused, catching her lower lip between her teeth.

"Did he rape me?" Odo asked gently.

Kira nodded, not meeting his eyes.

"No. Not in the way you mean."

Kira looked up, startled, and then slowly began to nod. "I guess it felt the same."

"I guess it did, too." Odo stared off into space, his eyes clouded. "In some ways, that might have been easier." He snorted a little. "I don't think it would have hurt as much."

"Not physically --" Kira conceded. Odo glanced at her and sighed.

"I'm sorry, Nerys — I don't mean to belittle what happened to you. I just suspect that the feelings of — of powerlessness were very much the same."

Odo looked fixedly at the floor, seemingly attempting to memorize the pattern. Kira realized with a jolt that he seemed willing to look anywhere but at her — in an attempt to lighten the mood, she commented:

"It's too bad we don't have a bathtub, with real water — you could sleep in that."

"That would be wonderful," Odo confessed. During a recent trip to Bajor, Odo had discovered an affinity for baths — hot baths, cold baths, in-between baths — put him in a porcelain basin full of water and he would revert to a gelatinous state and recline happily for hours. Now he said softly, "I so enjoy being immersed in liquid — somehow it reminds me of home."

Kira stared at Odo as the weight of his words sank home. "Home . . . you mean your home planet? In the Gamma Quadrant"

Odo grimaced slightly, realizing that he had said too much. Finally he confessed, "I miss it from time to time — miss being part of the Great Link, miss being with my people. I don't agree with them on so many things — but on a very deep level, they're still a part of me."

"I'm sorry," Kira whispered.

"Don't be." Odo managed to smile into her troubled brown eyes. "I've made my choices, and I wouldn't change them. And ultimately they've brought me great joy — in you, Nerys."

Kira smiled, a slow, tender smile that made Odo's insides shift — and consequently, hurt. He gasped a little from the pain.

"Odo — "

"I think I'd better start regenerating, Nerys. Would you mind just — sitting with me for a while?"

"Of course I don't mind. Trade places with me so you can have the whole floor if you want."

"I think I'll just use the floor of the shower," Odo commented, edging around her and easing his way into it. "That way there's no chance of you slipping on me if you have to come in here in the middle of the night." He smiled, adding in a small, wry attempt at a joke, "Since it's a sonic shower, at least you don't have to worry about me oozing down the drain."

Kira chuckled. "I'll try to remember you're there in the morning," she said softly. She watched as her lover shifted into a pillar of gold, that sank to form a puddle on the shower stall floor. Kira lifted her hand, bringing her fingertips to rest a bare inch away from Odo's resting substance. "L'meytahl . . ."

She watched her lover as he 'slept' — it was easy to see that his sleep was far from peaceful as his substance shifted and churned. Kira bit her thumbnail, thinking hard — then she got carefully to her feet and stepped out into the bedroom beyond.

"Computer," she called, "location of Chief O'Brien."

The computer responded promptly. "Chief O'Brien is located in the main casino area of Quark's."

Thank the Prophets, Kira thought, he's still awake and he's not off in some holosuite with Julian fighting Earth War II, or whatever they called it. She tapped her combadge. "Kira to O'Brien."

"O'Brien here. Major, are you all right? I heard what happened."

"I bet," Kira said dryly. "I'm fine, Chief, but I could use a favor."

"Certainly, Major — name it."

"Could you replicate me a tub?"

"A tub? What kind of tub? What size?"

"A — big tub. A bath tub. I need a tub filled with warm water, and I need it beamed to Odo's quarters." She thought for a moment. "One than can maintain the water at a constant temperature."

"How is Odo, Major? Of all the ghastly --"

"He's in a lot of pain." Kira shivered at her own words, words she never expected to have to use in reference to Odo. "I think the water might help. Oh — and I need an anti-grav tray with no sharp edges."

"You've got it, Major. My best to the constable."

Less than half an hour later, the items requested materialized, and Kira picked up the tray, going back into the bathroom. Putting the tray on the floor next to the shower stall, Kira gritted her teeth and scooped the writhing Odo onto it before activating the anti-grav unit. Guiding the tray carefully, she angled it into the bedroom, where she let Odo slide with a slight splash into the waiting tub. He settled almost immediately on the bottom, the anguished ripples on his skin's surface finally smoothing out into a comfortable stillness.

Kira sighed and flopped down across the foot of the bed, one arm outstretched so that she could reach the tub and let her fingers trail in the water. She then fell promptly into an amazingly dreamless sleep.

In fact, she slept so deeply that she was only dimly aware, at first, of the dull buzzing of the door-com — Odo, who normally had no trouble hearing even the tiniest sounds, kept it set extremely low. By the time it penetrated Kira's fogged brain, the party requesting admittance gave up on waiting for response, and punched in the security override code that would gain him access to any corner of the station.

Kira raised her head blearily just as Captain Sisko strode into the room, a concerned look creasing his face. He smiled slightly as he saw her, before fixing an intent, worried gaze on the tub where her hand still trailed in the water.

"Good morning, Major. I'm sorry to barge in like this, but after last night I was afraid --" Sisko couldn't stand it anymore. "Nerys, is that Odo?"

Kira nodded, still getting her bearings. Oblivious to the fact that she was soaking the sleeve of her nightshirt, Kira thrust her arm into the tub until she could gently trail her fingers against Odo's substance. There was a stirring in the depths of the water, and a golden column slowly arced onto the floor at the tub's side, where it coalesced into the station's Chief of Security. Odo stared at Sisko blankly, before his puzzled gaze traveled to the tub at his side, and finally to Kira, who was managing to sit up on the edge of the bed. Kira pulled down her nightshirt so that it covered as much of her as possible, giving Sisko an apologetic smile.

"Sorry, Captain — I imagine I'm late coming on duty."

Sisko smiled. "By about two hours — but I expect you realize that isn't why I'm here."

"That means I'm late going on duty as well," Odo observed. "Did you need to see us both, Captain? Because otherwise I should probably go look in on our prisoner." Odo said the words in an admirably level tone, only the barest shudder running through his lean form.

"Odo," Kira said softly, "Dr. Bashir relieved you of duty, remember?"

Odo shrugged as though Bashir's actions were entirely inconsequential. "I'm not trusting this bastard into anyone else's care until he's on his way to prison where he belongs."

Sisko's face clouded. "That's just it. Yesterday morning, the negotiating teams signed their first set of agreements."

"So?" Kira looked at Sisko sharply. "What does that have to do with — with Gorlem?"

"One of the first things they agreed to in establishing diplomatic relations was something called — are you familiar with the concept of 'diplomatic immunity'?"

Kira shook her head slowly, but Odo's shot up intently. "I know that it's a senseless contrivance that allows some lawbreakers to get away with their crimes with absolute impunity."

Sisko nodded. "Well, Cardassia and Bajor reached an agreement yesterday morning that included guarantees of diplomatic immunity. Which means, since Bayliss Gorlem is his father's son, still living under his auspices, we may not be able to hold him."

"You mean he'll be extradited?" Kira asked, refusing to believe the worst.

Sisko sighed. "No, Major. I mean he'll go free."

"You're joking." Kira stared, disbelieving, into Sisko's face.

"I would hardly joke about something like this." Sisko shook his head tiredly. "I've been up half the night, arguing with all of them--Gorlem's father, Winn, Admiral Nedeyev, Shakaar. . ."

"Shakaar?" Kira looked at Sisko sharply. "Shakaar is going along with this?"

"This treaty apparently means a lot to your people, Major."

"I guess that's important when you're running for reelection," Kira said savagely. Odo reached out and placed a calming hand on her arm, wincing only slightly as he did so.

"What options do we have, Captain?" he asked quietly.

"Right now Gorlem is still in a security cell — for his own 'protection'. As I explained to his father, feelings are running high over — over what happened to you and Kira. We'd hate for someone to take justice into their own hands."

"I'd like to take it into my own hands!" Kira fumed. "The bastard, the filthy Cardassian son of a — "

"Nerys." Odo slipped his hand through Kira's hair to rest on the back of her neck, only the most fleeting expression showing that he felt every individual strand like a razor against his traumatized flesh. "The captain's doing what he can right now to keep the man in custody. It's better if he can seem to be following the rules while he does it." Odo looked at Sisko solemnly. "How long do you think you can make it stand up?"

"I'm not sure. I imagine that by some time later today I'll at least have to modify it to some form of house arrest — assign a "protection team" to his quarters and have him held there. That I might be able to make stick until we can get him on his way back to Cardassia Prime."

"Then he just gets to go?" Kira asked. "Until he can come back and try it again?"

"I'm hoping we'll be able to find a — better alternative."

"He cut Odo into pieces, Captain! Not just a few pieces, either — Bashir could barely recognize what form Odo had taken, there were so many!"

"Twenty-seven," Odo murmured automatically. Kira winced painfully, closing her eyes. Sisko merely looked sick. Odo shook his head under their regard, before giving Kira a reassuring smile. She shivered violently, reaching out without thinking to clutch his hand tightly in hers. What happened next would stay burned in her memory for a long time.

Odo's substance shifted in her hand, retracting abruptly, sliding from her grasp like water. An agonized expression crossing his face, Odo exclaimed sharply, "I'm sorry, Nerys, I know you don't mean to hurt me — but please don't touch me!" Odo started across the room in long, unsteady strides. "I need to go brief my security teams, advise them what to expect next — and I should warn Garak. Excuse me, Captain."

The door whisked open and then closed softly behind the shapeshifter. For a moment, the only sound to be heard in the room was the rasp of Kira's breathing. Finally she said:

"I'll be along to Ops in just a few minutes, Captain."

Sisko nodded slowly. "All right, Nerys." His dark eyes looked compassionately into hers. "He's been injured, you know that. Just give him a few days, it'll be all right."

"I hope so, Captain," Kira commented, her expression none too sanguine. "Because otherwise I may end up wishing that Gorlem had killed me."

"You really are in love with Odo, aren't you?" Sisko asked softly.

"You could say that," Kira said softly. "It's scary, Ben — I've never felt so — joined with someone before. Every other relationship I've been in, I've always felt like I could walk away intact. Losing Odo would be like losing a limb." Suddenly connecting her words with the events of the preceding evening, Kira shuddered, shoving her hands distractedly through her hair. "I'm not used to feeling helpless," Kira finally confessed. "I don't like it."

Sisko mused for a moment on her words. "Then imagine how the constable must feel. I can only guess, of course, but any being who's normally as invulnerable as he is, at least physically, must be feeling like — well, I can only think of a humanoid analogy here. It's like --" Sisko paused delicately.

"-- like someone cut his balls off and fed them to him, I know," Kira, unhampered by delicacy, finished the statement. "That's not an easy thing for a man to get over — I know some who never have."

"Yes, but I doubt if any of them are as — determined as the constable."

"You're right about that." Kira grimaced at her commander. "Well, if you get out of here, I can get dressed and come on duty."

"See you in Ops." Sisko smiled and left.

******

Kira Nerys would later look back on the seven days following Gorlem's attacks on her and Odo as being the longest week of her life.

As predicted, Bayliss Gorlem was handed over into the care of his father, although it was made sure that "for his own protection" he wasn't allowed out of Hirith Gorlem's quarters. Kira found it hard to walk down that section of the Habitat Ring, even knowing that, in addition to the guards posted outside the door, Gorlem was being monitored on a twenty-six-hour-a-day basis by Odo or one of his deputies. She found it almost as difficult to go to Odo's quarters at the end of the day, knowing that he would soon retreat to the tub at the foot of the bed, leaving her to lie awake wondering if he would ever want to touch her again. It would have frightened her even more to know that Odo was wondering the same thing.

He had blamed it on the bed, with a little inner wince at the dishonesty. He considered the most unappealing aspect of love to be the way it called forth dishonesty in individuals for whom dishonesty was otherwise anathema. He could honestly say that he had never lied before he fell in love with Kira — since that momentous event, it was a claim he could no longer make. But how could he tell the person he loved that it was her body that frightened him, that it repelled him? Yet that was it, that was at the heart of it — ever since it had been turned from a source of aesthetic and physical joy to a prison where he had been held and tortured.

So he pretended he was still in pain — another lie — and tried to decide what he was going to do. The appalling thing was that he knew he could tell Kira the truth and have her understand. The end of the bridge was visible. Only did it lead to a brighter vista beyond, or would their relationship smash against some cliff face yet unseen?

In the end it was yet another lie that led to the truth, a lie of action rather than words. On the seventh night, Odo stood watching Kira as she hung a few things in the closet — she was so careful about intruding on his space, only bringing in those things that she absolutely needed, and taking them away when she was done with them. He longed to tell her that it was all right, that he enjoyed the little signs of her presence in his life — but the fear that handicapped his substance gripped his tongue as well.

The light that shone down on the contents of the closet gleamed on the rich auburn of Kira's hair — Odo felt a sudden, welcome whisper of pleasure as he looked at the short, shining waves. Her hair had been the first thing he had noticed about her, those many years ago — halfway down her back and pulled haphazardly into a loose tail at the nape of her neck, it had shone like a beacon in the murky darkness of the then Cardassian-run station. Much later, he had learned a song from Chief O'Brien — the chief had claimed it was an Irish ballad, but Odo, with his fondness for accuracy, had checked, and found that it dated to the latter half of the twentieth century, and wasn't Irish at all. A few of the lines always reminded him of that fateful day when Deep Space Nine was still Terek Nor — the day when his real life began.

"You looked like a princess the night we met,

with your hair piled up high, I will never forget . . .

But I love you, I loved you the first time I saw you,

and I always will love you, Nerys . . ."

The name in the song hadn't been Nerys, of course, but close enough that Odo, listening for the first time, had been startled at the sound. He remembered his feelings all too well — the lovely young woman, like a princess held captive in the evil dungeon of a fairy tale, and the sudden lunge of his heart onto a road never traveled before. He still told himself that it hadn't been love at first sight — what a ridiculous, hopelessly romanticized contrivance — but something in him had recognized something in her, even in those first moments, even in that unlikely situation when she was pointed out to him as the prime suspect in a murder.

The present-day Odo watched the light glinting off Kira's hair, and decided on a lie. He crossed the room and sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, finally lying down and closing his eyes with a sigh. I can act the part, he told himself. I still love her, and there's no reason she need ever know.

At last he felt the soft movement as Kira sat down on the bed's other side. Odo braced himself for whatever assault was to come — it came as a gentle fingertip resting lightly against his chest. "L'meytahl?" Kira said softly.

"Nerys." Odo steeled himself, taking her hand gently in his. It was a strong, capable hand, yet softer than anything he could manage to duplicate — somehow different from the hand he had formed which had proved helpless to defend either Kira or himself. "I'm so sorry."

"Sorry? For what?" Odo heard the strain under her assumed lightness of tone.

Opening his mouth to begin the lie, Odo found a portion of the truth emerging instead. "I just — can't. Everything — everything's retreated to my center, I can't force it out."

"You mean your receptors?"

"The tactile one, yes." Odo nodded. "If I can feel with it, it's gone at least six centimeters in."

Kira's tone echoed back with painstaking casualness. "Well, at least I can't hurt you that way," she observed. "I guess that's an improvement." She leaned over and kissed his shoulder, and Odo started at the light touch. Apparently some of those sensory organelles were making their way to the surface after all — he watched warily as Kira got to her feet, pulling off her clothes in quick, economical motions.

"Nerys . . ." Can I do this? Will she believe it? I think I can . . . Prophets, I hope I can . . ."

"Shh . . ." Kira slid back across the bed toward him. "Tell me if something hurts you, otherwise, don't talk. Just close your eyes and lie back."

"I — all right." Oh, no, something new. I might be able to duplicate something old — how can I duplicate something new? Nonetheless, Odo did as required, trying to keep the doubt from creeping into his face.

Kira's voice was soft, husky and soothing. "Oh . . . and dissolve the uniform. I know it feels the same to you, but naked works better for me."

Odo ticked off details in his mind as he closed his eyes and accommodated his shape to her request — moderate muscle tone, skin color's fine, don't forget the nipples — oh, and a penis with an erection, she'll like that. He could feel the heat off her body as she hovered over him for a moment, looking at him. He tried to relax as he felt her move closer — he was suddenly struck by her gentleness as Kira lowered her lips to his shoulder, nibbling lightly at the smooth skin. So gentle . . . He could feel his tension easing, ever so slightly, as she let her tongue run inwards to the side of his neck, drawing his flesh into her mouth and sucking playfully. Her hands roved over his chest and abdomen, the barest of touches at first, that rapidly became more intense.

"Am I hurting you?" she whispered.

"No." Never, he thought. It was my body that hurt me, not hers. Nerys would never hurt me. Not with her words, not with her actions . . . not with her body. It was a final, irrevocable realization. She can never hurt me as long as she loves me — and I think she plans to love me for a long time. He could feel the receptors shifting inside him, slowly emerging from their retreat, tingling with renewed energy after their long rest.

"Good." Kira continued caressing him with her lips, and his receptors that were attuned to tactile stimuli blissfully followed the path that she set for them as her tongue pressed hard into his flesh, her teeth nibbling his skin at random. She made her unerring way to the male member that he had initially created just for show - he almost gasped as her mouth closed over it, warm and wet, and what felt like every sensor in his body rushed to meet her there.

"Nerys . . ." Odo couldn't keep the trace of a moan from his voice, and instantly recognized Kira's terrified hesitation. She thinks she's hurting me — oh, Prophets, don't let her stop. He slid one hand into her hair, resting the other on her neck, kneading gently. Nevertheless, after a moment Kira drew away from him — Odo stared up into her flushed face, her softly parted lips, and suddenly her beauty assaulted him afresh, losing any resemblance it might have had to the form he had so briefly and disastrously inhabited for his encounter with Bayliss Gorlem. She was Kira Nerys, and he wanted her. He loved her.

He reached to catch her hips as Kira moved to straddle his thighs, guiding her as she lowered herself onto him carefully. His aroused substance practically hummed as he let it swell and expand within her — she was like music, an incredible symphony of heat and liquid and linking . . . "I love you, 'meytahl," Kira whispered. Pianissimo, crescendo . . . Odo began to move strongly, purposefully beneath her, joy rising in him like flood as his hands moved over Kira's body, running up her abdomen and stomach to stroke her breasts, his fingertips intent on her swollen nipples. Forte. Fortissimo . . .

"Oh, sweet Prophets . . ." A whisper, it barely escaped from his throat. The sensory deluge burst over Odo in a torrent, and he realized, astonished, that it was his, only his, not a reflection of what was just beginning to build in his partner. Forte. Fortissimo. Climax. His.

"Nerys," he managed, "I love you, too."

"I know," Kira whispered. She could sense the change in him, the new levels of passion, feel them as a rumble of incredulous hope churning in her stomach. It's going to be all right now, she marveled, it is all right now, or will be soon, I'm nearly there . . . Odo's eyes opened, and suddenly he began to shift beneath her, writhing within her, writhing around her — his amoeboid substance climbing around her like a waterspout, a whirlpool — only there were hands in the midst of it, or something very like hands, and mouths as well, plus things she couldn't guess at even if she had possessed the wits. His substance seemed to single out and stimulate every pore, every spot on her body that might be capable of an erogenous response.

"Nerys . . . i'lanna qui lanna . . ."

Kira gasped, she cried, she screamed as orgasm after orgasm shook her down to her bones, and then Odo took solid form again, pushing her back against the pillows and continuing to make love to her without so much as a break, first with his mouth and then with that remarkably well-formed member that fit itself so perfectly into her hidden folds and recesses. Kira was screaming, sobbing, her fingers digging deep into his flesh as Odo finally relaxed against her, his hands running anxiously, soothingly down her arms and thighs. Kira continued to cry, only soundlessly, tears streaming down her cheeks.

"Nerys . . . Nerys, are you all right? Prophets, Nerys, I'm sorry." Odo's voice was half-choked with apprehension, his blue eyes frightened as he searched Kira's face. Kira just looked at him for a moment, her expression uncomprehending, before she wrapped her arms around him and clasped him to her tightly. Her mouth found his, kissing him with a desperate fervor.

"I thought you'd never want to make love to me again," she whispered. "I thought — I thought — oh, Prophets, I didn't know what to think."

"It was like — I couldn't find you." Odo hesitantly tried to explain. "You were hidden inside — inside something that had been used to hurt me, and I was so afraid . . ."

Kira stared at him, the tears still running down her face. "You mean my looks? My body?"

Odo nodded. "Yes, but it wasn't yours after all. It was mine. My body, shaped like yours. Nerys, I can't explain what just happened — I just — " Odo stretched out his arm in a soaring motion, his movement fluid, like a burst of light.

"I know," Kira said softly. "We keep setting each other free." Her mind slipped back over the years. "Not just because we're lovers — it started before that, from that first day when you told Dukat to let me go." She paused, her face shadowed. "When I lied to you."

"It doesn't matter now," Odo insisted, and realized that his statement finally was true. "Because I don't think we could lie to each other now, even if we wanted to."

"No," Kira agreed. "I can't imagine ever lying to you again." She inhaled and then exhaled slowly, a long, sobbing breath. Odo buried his face in her hair. Kira whispered, "Odo — what did you say to me?" She paused, realizing that he hadn't even been solid when she had 'heard' it. His thoughts? she wondered. Am I even catching his thoughts now?

"When?" Odo drew back to look at her curiously.

"Just now — it wasn't Bajoran, and my universal translator didn't pick it up. You said — I think you said — 'i'lanna qui lanna' -- something like that."

"I'm not sure." Odo thought about it for a moment. Finally he said slowly, his eyes narrowing in surprise, "The language is Vorta — my people don't have a spoken language, but it's something from — something from the Great Link. It's as close as you can come to a — a verbalization of something I experienced in what little time I — experienced the Link."

"What does it mean?" Kira asked curiously.

"It means," Odo said slowly, "link within the link."

"Oh, Odo . . ." Kira caught his face in her hands and kissed him, touched beyond any possibility of speech.

"Did you know," Odo asked softly, kissing each of the ridges on her nose in turn, "that you look like an orchid?"

"What?" Kira's eyes narrowed, puzzled. "Aren't those the flowers that Keiko O'Brien used to grow?"

"Um-hmm." Taking Kira's hand in his, Odo transferred his mouth's attention to her fingertips.

Kira considered her memory of the somewhat asymmetrical flowers. "I have a face like an orchid?" she wondered.

"No."

"Then what — " Kira blushed a vivid rose, grinning a little as she realized what he meant.

"Whenever I think it can't possibly be better — it gets better," Odo mused in amazed contentment. Then a solemn note crept into his voice. "I didn't mean to be so rough, though." Odo leaned back so he could keep looking at Kira's face, raising his hand to lovingly stroke her cheek. "Did I hurt you?"

Kira gave him a slow, sensual smile. "I may not be able to walk," she admitted finally, "but it was a good hurt." Her hands ran gently, intimately, over his chest and sides, sliding down to clasp him by the hips and pull him to rest more closely between her thighs. "You have the most — unique ability, to leave me — satisfied and aroused, all at the same time — I could make love with you for hours and not get tired of it. Hell, I have made love with you for hours — and I never get tired of it."

"I feel like a dam that's ready to break," Odo observed wonderingly. "Like this is barely the beginning."

"Do you think we'll ever finish?" Kira asked, although her eyes held no question. Her mouth sought his, kissing him hungrily.

"No." Odo smiled as their lips finally parted. "Never."

Odo let his form slip into his natural substance, a blanket of gelatinous warmth rippling gently over Kira's sprawled limbs. The ripples increased gradually in intensity as he slid down between her thighs, slipping delicately over her labia and filling her vagina with a slow rush of hot, pulsing matter, while a tiny appendage formed to gently caress her clitoris. Kira, who had resolutely made every effort to muffle her expressions of ecstasy so far, finally let herself go, venting her passion in one full-throated scream. Just then, the door buzzer sounded.

Odo reshaped himself as a humanoid, still tightly entwined by Kira's thighs. They both froze as they heard a frantic voice just outside the door.

"Emergency medical override! Authorization Bashir!"

There was much to be said for lightning-fast Changeling reflexes. Odo managed to have the quilt pulled over them before Julian came barreling through the door. Kira retreated beneath it entirely, despite her breathless state, trying not to giggle as she heard Bashir's fearful, "Odo! Are you all right? I heard Kira scream and . . ." The light, anxious voice died away, and there was a moment of absolute silence. Then Bashir said faintly, "Oh."

Kira burrowed deeper under the blankets, settling her head comfortably against Odo's midsection. Feeling suddenly mischievous, she ran her fingertips lightly up and down the inside of his leg as she listened to his deep voice rumble calmly:

"Thank you for your concern, Doctor — I can certainly understand your reaction, considering everything that has happened — but Nerys is quite well." Odo quickly brought his hand down and caught Kira's wrist through the quilt, postponing the journey of her inquisitive fingers. "Never better." Convinced that all of Odo's sensory organelles were right back where they should be, Kira contented herself with blowing softly against his skin.

"Well, then, I'll bid you good night." Kira heard Bashir give a light cough before he added, "Good night, Major."

Kira finally decided to poke her head above the covers, to be met by the visage of an extremely red-faced Dr. Bashir. "Good night, Julian." She smothered her laughter against Odo's shoulder as the young doctor beat a hasty retreat.

"I always enjoy seeing Bashir's manners warring with his scientific curiosity," Odo commented dryly. Kira looked up at him, puzzled.

"What do you mean?"

"Just this look he gets — he'd so much like to ask what it is precisely that you and I do together, and he knows that it's none of his business."

"I'm surprised that Jadzia hasn't told him by now," Kira observed.

"How would Dax know what we do in bed together — " Odo stared at Kira questioningly.

"Because I told her about most of it," Kira said simply.

"What?"

"Well, not all of it — some of it is pretty indescribable." Kira walked her hand up Odo's chest to his chin, then traced the line of his mouth with her fingertips. "But delicious," she added softly, silencing any possible indignant reproach by planting her lips squarely over Odo's.

When she finally let him up for air, Odo sighed and commented, "Well, that explains it."

"Explains what?" Kira let her hands move in lazy, aimless trails over Odo's body.

"One evening, after you and Dax had been off on one of your 'holosuite adventures', you came in a little intoxicated and extremely amorous, and the next day, when I ran into Dax on my way to my office, she gave me a look like — "

Odo paused, at a loss for words, and Kira nudged him insistently. "Go ahead. What did she look like?"

"I didn't understand it at the time — she just looked me up and down — twice — quirked her eyebrows, and walked away into Ops with this odd little smile. It was quite disconcerting at the time."

Kira laughed, a wicked chuckle. "You think that was disconcerting, you should have heard what she said to me."

"What?"

"She said — and I quote — 'if the two of you ever get bored by yourselves, be sure to give me a call'."

Odo looked appalled. "She was joking, surely."

"I think so." Kira grinned. "But you never can tell with Dax."

"What did you say to her?" Odo's curiosity got the better of him.

"I told her it wasn't likely to come up, but that I'd keep her in mind."

Odo let his head flop back against the pillow. "Wonderful — Bashir will go running to Dax to tell her what happened, Dax will finally break down and tell him everything you told her, Quark will overhear the whole thing, because of course Quark's is where they'll talk about it, and I'll be treated to all sorts of off-color companionable remarks from Quark tomorrow, complete with winks, elbow nudges, and suggestive ear-stroking."

"Quark strokes your ears?" Kira teased.

"No!" Odo burst out before he realized she was joking. He grimaced at her, chagrined. Kira tried to look apologetic, but failed.

"Now, how do you know that's what will happen?" she asked.

"Because that's what happened when Quark got hold of the basic information that we were sleeping together — I can only imagine what he'll do once he gets some details."

Kira rubbed her forehead against Odo's cheek tenderly. "It'll just be because he's jealous."

"Well, even I know that," Odo said testily. He nonetheless allowed himself to be soothed by Kira's hands running gently, suggestively over his body. Smiling, Odo observed, "You really don't want to be able to walk tomorrow, do you?"

Kira shook her head, smiling. "Nope — I'm off duty. I figure I can spend the whole day in bed and let you wait on me hand and foot."

"What if I decide to just stay in bed with you?" Odo breathed the words against the side of Kira's neck. "You won't be able to walk for a week."

"Yes, but I can work off those extra inches around my ass." Kira twined her arms around Odo's neck, urging him closer. Her parted thighs breathed an unmistakable invitation, with the r.s.v.p. quickly forthcoming. Kira was whimpering softly in gratification, Odo's hardened substance sliding deep within her, when once again, the door-com buzzed insistently.

"Now what?!" Odo exclaimed irritably. Kira sighed in exasperation as Odo pulled away from her.

"Did you put out a welcome mat or something?"

"Me? Never." Odo rolled his eyes. Morphing into his uniformed appearance, he paused briefly to tuck the blankets around Kira, kissing her on the forehead. "Save my place," he murmured, chuckling at Kira's indignant glare. Kira snuggled into her pillow as the bedroom door closed behind her lover, letting her mind float lazily through the mist of contentment that had seeped into her very bones. She pondered briefly the sobering thought, I can never have another lover after Odo. No other lover could satisfy me now — I'm spoiled forever. She resigned herself to the idea without too much trouble, with the knowledge that Odo would, bar accident, live much longer than she.

I expect to be with him for life. Kira's eyes went wide at that far more sobering realization. But where I come from, that means --

Odo came back into the bedroom, looking solemn.

"That was Captain Sisko. He wanted to let us know that the preliminary negotiations are over, and that Secretary Gorlem will be taking his son back to Cardassia tomorrow — where I can only assume he'll go free."

******

Kira, tougher than she looked, had no trouble walking the next day as she headed resolutely down the Promenade early in the morning, her goal the Replimat and an early cup of coffee. She had left Odo working doggedly at the computer console in his quarters — on normal mornings her lover was up at least an hour earlier than even she could manage, and Kira was thankful to note that things were finally back to normal, at least as far as her relationship to Odo was concerned. At least, that's what the warm glow in the pit of her stomach suggested, and she had come to trust that glow where affairs of the heart were concerned.

The Replimat was largely empty, considering the early hour, but Kira was surprised to see Garak, sipping at a large mug of v'ringja tea. Taking her own mug of coffee from the replicator, she walked over to the Cardassian's table, and gestured at an empty chair.

"Do you mind if I join you?"

"Major Kira! Of course not." Garak nodded graciously. "You seem very bright-eyed this morning."

"I'm usually up for hours by now," Kira commented, "but I think this is the earliest I've ever seen you. Are you all right?"

"A slight touch of insomnia." Garak shrugged. "I suspect I will sleep much better after this day is over."

"Right." Kira considered Bayliss Gorlem's impending departure, and wished that she could feel the same. "Garak, I never got the chance to thank you for what you did."

"Think nothing of it, Major." Garak smiled charmingly. "Just be sure to return the favor should ever the need arrive."

"I will," Kira said simply, also smiling. She sipped slowly at her coffee. Just then, there was a slight disturbance out on the Promenade, as a loud voice proclaimed, "Father, I would like a glass of tinar juice before we leave. I don't see any harm in that, since I have these fine gentlemen to — 'protect' me."

Kira and Garak both froze as Bayliss Gorlem strolled into the Replimat, flanked by his father and four watchful security guards. His gaze flew immediately to the pair sitting in the corner, and he smiled.

"Major!" The satin smooth voice made Kira's skin crawl. It dipped to an even sweeter tone. "Elim! How very nice to see you again — and looking so fit. I thought I might have a glass of juice before I leave — do you mind if I join you?" The younger Gorlem strolled to a replicator, and calmly ordered his juice. Then, glass in hand, he moved toward the corner table, causing the guards to tense and inch closer.

Kira hated the feeling that crept over her, making her feel frozen in her chair. Garak managed a little better. "Gorlem," he said quietly.

"Oh, Elim, why so formal? Did you think I'd forgotten our earlier meeting?" Bayliss Gorlem leaned a little closer to the table, pitching his voice so that only Garak and Kira could hear. "Major, you and Elim have more in common than you might think — did he tell you that I had him, too? Of course, he consented." Smiling, Gorlem straightened and said, "Good-bye, both of you. I do hope that I'll get to meet you again sometime." He walked out the Replimat without a backward glance, the guards shadowing him doggedly. His father, Hirith Gorlem, looked over to where Kira and Garak sat frozen in their seats, his face an expressionless mask through which his eyes peered with impossible anguish, and the shock of recognition.

"I'm sorry for all that has happened," he said with difficulty. "He won't be allowed to trouble you again." The older Cardassian turned on his heel and strode away.

Kira took a deep breath, feeling her blood slowly begin to circulate again, even while she had a sick sense of having witnessed yet another rape. Garak remained frozen at her side, his features bleached of all color. Kira felt a stab of sympathy, and finally managed to speak in a level tone.

"That's how you saw the notches," she said quietly.

Garak gave the barest of nods. "If you'll excuse my choice of words — I was in — no position to express any disapproval at the time." His mouth twisted in a self-deprecating smile.

"Did you disapprove?" Kira asked automatically, and was immediately sorry that she said it.

"Really, Major, I'm surprised at you. I hoped that you would have figured out by now that not all Cardassians live to torture Bajorans. Some of us have lives."

"I'm sorry," Kira said shortly. She added quietly, "I won't — tell anyone what he said."

"You may tell the Constable if you like," Garak offered. "If he decides he wants to know, he'll find out anyway, and he seems to excel at keeping secrets." Garak's mouth twisted in wry amusement. "It seems even better than I do." His expression darkened. "I would prefer, however, that Dr. Bashir hear nothing of this."

Kira felt like she had been entrusted with another secret. She nodded. "He won't hear it from me."

"Thank you, Major. Now, if you'll excuse me . . ."

The Cardassian tailor fled from the Replimat, and Kira stared at her coffee, grown cold in its cup. She was still staring at it when Odo appeared in search of her almost forty-five minutes later.

"I heard." Odo said quietly. To Kira's startled look he added, "About Gorlem. Their ship left half an hour ago."

"Oh." Kira stirred her cold coffee, thinking about how unappetizing it smelled. Odo looked at it understandingly.

"Would you like me to get you a raktajino, Nerys?"

"What? Oh — yes, that'd be good."

Odo got up and picked up the cold coffee, bearing it away and quickly returning with a fresh mug. Kira inhaled the fragrance of the raktajino gratefully as Odo sat down in the chair beside her. Then she sighed.

"I can't drink this without remembering our old Tuesday morning meetings."

"I like our new ones better."

"Yes, except last time we spilled raktajino all over the sheets." Kira laughed, before grimacing ruefully, nodding at her cup. "This just always reminds me of what an idiot I almost was."

Odo looked at her, startled. A slow smile touched the corners of his mouth.

"Ah. The Shakaar Incident."

"The shortest lived affair in my life," Kira commented. She looked across at Odo and smiled, even while she reached across the table to take his hand in hers. "I have to say that things worked out well in the end."

"At least with me you don't have to worry about a — lack of exclusivity."

Kira laughed. "What a nice term for an ability to keep your pants on!"

"Are you ever sorry?" Odo asked quietly, fixing his gaze on the table top. Kira shook her head in amused exasperation.

"What do you think?"

There was a long pause while Odo considered her question. "I think," he replied finally, "that the First Minister is much more handsome — but that I'm better in bed." His blue eyes twinkled.

"You got that right — the second part, anyway. Like the humans say — 'handsome is as handsome does'."

"It still rankles, doesn't it?" Odo observed.

"I suppose — I mean, the man expressed his undying love for me — gave me all his access codes so I could drop in and surprise him without having to deal with his security system — then when I take advantage of that less than two months later, I find him tucked cozily in bed with some — dabo girl he met at Quark's! And to top it all off, he acts like it's my fault because I wasn't there when he 'needed' me!"

"Humanoid males," Odo commented, "can have an unfortunate tendency to think with their genitals."

Kira sipped at her raktajino, suddenly thinking of Bayliss Gorlem. "Odo," she ventured quietly, "is that what happened with Gorlem? Was he just thinking with his genitals until it got — twisted?"

"That implies that what he did has something to do with sex." To Kira's surprised look Odo added, "Sex was the means. The 'twisting', as you put it, must have been there first — that and the violence."

"Do you think he'll try to come back? To — finish with me?"

"Well, if he does, it will be as a private citizen — the Cardassian government has already been informed that he will not be welcome as part of any official delegation, father or no. And if he comes here as a private citizen, he'll be under arrest before he can get out of the docking ring."

"So," Kira wondered, "does that mean it's over? Because it doesn't feel over . . ."

"I've already put in a few calls to — some of my contacts on Cardassia Prime." Odo stared moodily into space. "I may have to call in every favor that I'm owed, and owe a few in return — but I'll be damned if he ever gets the chance to hurt you again, Nerys."

Kira looked at him. "Odo," she whispered sharply. "Are they going to try to — kill him?"

"If necessary." Odo met Kira's astonished gaze with a level stare of his own. "It isn't a question of law, Nerys. It's a matter of justice."

Kira bowed her head, acknowledging the basic truth of his words. "I just don't understand how anyone could be so — vicious. I thought that I had seen everything under the Occupation — but this monster — he's still beyond my comprehension. It isn't that he's a Cardassian — some Cardassians have turned out to be decent and honorable men." She grimaced as she made that concession. "Even the ones who aren't always that honorable can do surprisingly honorable things."

"Garak?" Odo asked quietly.

Kira nodded, smiling. "Of course, it could have just been a sales ploy — he knows now that he has a loyal customer for life."

"You do seem to have made some — extensive additions to your lingerie collection," Odo commented dryly.

"I wasn't sure you noticed, with the way this past week has been."

"I — appreciated the effort, even if I wasn't equal to it." Odo smiled at Kira in gentle chagrin. She reached out across the table, impulsively claiming his hand with hers.

Kira chuckled. "When I went in to 'haggle' over that nightshirt Garak left for me — like I wouldn't have paid him ten bars of latinum for it at that point — he showed me 'the rest of the line', and I felt like I had to buy some things just to show him how grateful I was. Too bad you like his products more."

"They're very — pretty." Odo shrugged. "I just don't see the point. To me, you look best when you're naked."

"Well, that sounds promising," came a chipper voice from behind him. Kira and Odo looked up to see Dr. Bashir. "Do you mind if I join you, or this too personal a conversation?"

"Please, Doctor — have a seat." Odo nodded at the chair across from him. Bashir settled in with his coffee, toast, and kippers, smiling broadly at Kira, who blushed.

"Nice to see you again, Constable — Major," Bashir commented cheerfully. "I trust you had an enjoyable evening?"

"Yes, we did — in spite of all the interruptions," Kira retorted evenly, a trace of laughter in her voice. "And you?"

"Not as much fun as yours, apparently." Bashir jumped as Kira gave him a playful kick under the table.

"Probably not, unless your social life has undergone some remarkable improvements," Odo agreed blandly. Bashir and Kira both stared at him, before they burst out laughing. Odo watched the pair in mild astonishment as they both laughed until they cried, Kira reaching out and grasping his arm as she tried to catch her breath.

"I'm sorry," she finally gasped.

"I think we've been under — too much stress lately," Bashir managed, taking a few deep breaths. "I think I should prescribe a holoprogram for all of us."

"Like what?" Kira wanted to know.

"Well — we could attend a Ferengi wedding. I understand they're quite touching — especially the final haggling over the bride's price. Oh, and the betting on how long it will take to consummate the marriage."

Mild as it was, it was enough to set Bashir and Kira off again. Kira was the first to sober, staring into her raktajino.

"It feels like I haven't laughed in ages," she commented. Kira sat silently for a long moment, her eyes haunted. "I can't believe that — that the Beast is gone." She added to Bashir's questioning look, "The Cardassians he used to — work for — they called him Gorem — 'Beast'."

"Doesn't seem entirely appropriate," came Bashir's surprising response. "He seems more like — a basilisk."

"Basilisk?" Odo looked at the doctor questioningly.

"A legendary reptilian creature, whose breath — whose very look — meant death." Bashir stared wordlessly into his coffee cup for a moment. "I've only been on the edge of this business. I can't imagine being caught in the heart of — such evil."

Silence fell heavily on the seated group, and Kira reached instinctively for Odo's hand. Bashir cleared his throat, and attempted to lighten the mood.

"Have either of you seen Garak this morning?" he asked brightly. "He was supposed to meet me here for breakfast, but so far I've seen no sign of him."

"He was here earlier," Kira said quietly, remembering. "He said that something unexpected had come up," she lied, "that he needed to take care of at his shop. I'm sorry, I forgot to tell you."

"That's all right — I'll see him at lunch," Bashir said complacently. "Well, if you'll excuse me . . ." He stuffed down the last of his breakfast and hurried off with his usual youthful energy. Odo looked at Kira questioningly.

"What happened, Nerys?"

"I can't keep a secret from you, can I?" Kira smiled faintly.

"Not anymore."

Kira bowed her head in acknowledgment of Odo's words. "Gorlem — came by here — on his way to their ship." As Odo stiffened, she hastened to add, "Oh, he was well-guarded, your people were right on top of things, and his father was with him as well — it's just that Garak was sitting with me, and — and Gorlem mentioned something that I'm sure Garak didn't want any of us to know."

Odo studied his hands thoughtfully. "Did it by any chance have something to do with what Garak was doing on Gorlem's bunk after so brief an acquaintance?"

Kira nodded reluctantly. "How did you know?"

"I've seen Cardassian guards' quarters, back when this was still Terek Nor. The only way Garak could have seen something on the wall beside Gorlem's bunk — at least well enough to count a set of marks — would be if he was actually on the bunk. Considering the fact that there were generally several chairs available if someone simply wanted to sit — I can only assume that he — wasn't sitting."

"Cardassians aren't very open-minded about things like that, are they?" Kira asked quietly.

"No — quite the opposite. Cardassians have a very restrictive, family-oriented culture. Their children are everything to them — and the father has the last word in most situations. Anything that they view as being outside the ordinary is — unacceptable."

"Family is important on Bajor, too, but we don't condemn people for who they sleep with because of it."

"A fact for which I am deeply grateful," Odo said gently, reaching out to take Kira's hand in his.

"What do you mean?"

"Well — it's not like you and I can have children."

"No," Kira admitted. She thought for a moment before asking, "If we could — would you want to?"

"I don't know," Odo said honestly. "I've thought about it . . ."

"You have?" Kira looked at him, surprised.

"Of course. I've thought a lot about the things I think might make you happy that I can't provide. Children are the most outstanding of those things."

"And?"

"And . . . it's hard enough realizing that I'll probably outlive you, without thinking about outliving any hypothetical children and grandchildren as well."

"I'm glad that's not my worry," Kira admitted. "I never thought of it that way."

"Still, it also means always having something of what I've shared with you, no matter what the generation — so if we could find a way to have children, and if you wanted them, I suppose I would want them, too."

Kira squeezed Odo's hand. "We're coming at this backwards, you know."

"What do you mean?" Odo stared at her, puzzled.

"I mean you're supposed to marry me first."

Odo was mute with astonishment. Kira shook her head. "Sorry, but we're old fashioned on Bajor." Her eyes crinkled and her lips curved in a tiny smile. Impulsively she burst out, "Constable — will you marry me?"

Odo just stared at her — before shooting abruptly to his feet and hurrying from the Replimat. Kira stared after him, her heart dropping down to her toes — before pushing away from the table and dashing after him. Since he was no longer visible by the time she reached the main Promenade, Kira knew where to look for him.

She walked into Odo's office quietly, where he sat rooted behind the desk, his eyes fixed on some unseen vista. Kira dropped into the chair across from him.

"I'm sorry," she said dejectedly. "I thought that — I didn't think that it would upset you like this. Forget I mentioned it."

Odo's crystal blue eyes floated to Kira's face. "I — I just — " He paused, helpless. Finally he whispered, "Have you ever been so happy that it hurt?"

Kira nodded, a slow smile curving her lips. "Of course," she said simply. "Since we became lovers, I feel that way a lot."

"Does it ever frighten you?"

"Sometimes."

Odo got slowly to his feet, walking around the desk to where he could stand behind Kira and rest his hands gently against her shoulders. Kira turned her head to one side and then the other, leaving kisses on his outstretched fingertips.

"Nerys . . ." Odo leaned over her, bringing his mouth down to meet hers as she looked up at him. They were locked in a rapidly intensifying embrace when they heard someone's throat clearing softly behind them.

Captain Sisko stood there, smiling faintly. Kira smiled warmly in return, while Odo let his hands linger lovingly on her shoulders.

"Pardon the display, Captain," Odo said simply, "but Major Kira just made me an offer I can't refuse."

******

Three weeks later, Kira received a subspace message from Bayliss Gorlem. The countenance that had come to embody all terror for her smiled briefly from the viewscreen, looking a little crazed. The Beast shrugged his shoulders, saying:

"Congratulations, bitch. You win." There was a pause before he added, "Gorem out."

Kira was still sitting there in her quarters, staring at the darkened viewscreen, when Odo arrived twenty minutes later. She replayed the message for him without a word, before looking up and demanding, "Did you get one, too? What do you think it means?"

Odo shook his head slowly. "No - my message was from Hirith Gorlem. He's due to arrive here within the hour."

"Why?" Kira shot out of her seat and turned to face him. "What does he want?"

"I'm not sure - except that he expressly asked to see you and me."

"What have you heard about them - since they left here?" Fear made Kira's voice unusually harsh.

"Nothing except that Bayliss Gorlem hasn't been seen since his return to Cardassia. Neither has Hirith, until now."

"You don't suppose that his son is with him, do you?"

"I wouldn't think so, considering the fact that his son is specifically persona non grata, and no longer has diplomatic immunity."

"Then what does he want?" Kira bit hard on her lower lip to stop it from trembling.

Forty-five minutes later, they found out.

Hirith Gorlem arrived in his personal runabout, which, when searched from bow to stern, revealed no other passengers other than the Cardassian Secretary and his pilot. Captain Sisko provided his wardroom for the proposed meeting - and remained there, a silent, protective figure, as Hirith Gorlem was ushered in to confront Constable Odo and Major Kira.

The older Cardassian's attitude, however, seemed hardly confrontational. He greeted Sisko courteously, expressing no surprise or displeasure at his presence, and then turned to Kira and Odo with the same civil smile.

"I understand that congratulations are in order," he said quietly. "If I might, may I wish you only happiness in your upcoming marriage."

Kira opened her mouth to reply, but found herself incapable of speech. Odo responded in a direct, level tone, "Secretary, I assume your visit here is for reasons other than to congratulate Major Kira and me on our engagement."

Gorlem bowed his head in acknowledgment. "You're right, of course, Constable." He straightened, looking from one questioning face to the other. "I came to tell you - that my son poses no further threat to you - or to anyone."

Odo, Kira, and Sisko all exchanged glances. Sisko ventured finally, "Sir, I'm not sure what you mean. Is your son in custody?"

"No, Captain," Gorlem said quietly. "My son is dead."

There was a sharp, hissing intake of breath from Odo. Kira whispered, "How?"

Hirith Gorlem turned away, walking slowly to stand before one of the viewports. "My son," he said slowly, "was always different. Invaluable in war, or so I was told - willing to do anything he was asked for the glory of Cardassia. My own father took such pride in the boy, taught him battle techniques - told him that there was no greater glory than to bathe in the blood of his enemies." Hirith glanced briefly over his shoulder at his audience. "He also told him that he should be anything but like me."

Hirith paused as though to count the stars that hung outside the eye-shaped window. Finally he continued, "I was never one for combat. Blood - has always made me ill. I've always craved - peace, and order. I never craved authority, so I remained in my father's house after I married, and let him have a free hand in governing my son. My wife used to beg me to leave, to find us a home of our own, but I was so busy - I was an administrator in the Office of Domestic Affairs. It was a demanding position, but it was the one area where I could make something of myself without having to involve myself with the war. I kept living in my father's house until - until my wife died."

He turned and looked bleakly at the people who sat frozen behind him, listening wide-eyed to his soft, cultured voice. "She was murdered." Gorlem bowed his head, as though still crushed by his terrible grief.

Kira felt a murmur of compassion stirring in her chest. "Did they - did they find the one who did it?" she asked softly.

"Find him? No had to find him." Hirith Gorlem stared at her, unblinking. "It was my father. My son watched."

Kira caught her lower lip in her teeth. Odo standing behind her chair, tightened his hand on her shoulder.

"He said that she had been unfaithful to me - and that he was acting as head of the household. On Cardassia, the authority of the head of the household is absolute as it pertains to his own family. It's never practiced, of course — we forget that it's part of our law — wives divorce their husbands, even take the children and leave, and no one objects — but the law is still there. No one could touch him."

Gorlem turned back to the viewport. "I moved into my own establishment the next day and took my son with me. Needless to say, it was too late. I tried to tell myself that it wasn't — but it was. My son was --" Gorlem paused, searching carefully for a word "-- tainted."

The older Cardassian sighed. "Or perhaps he was tainted from the beginning. That he could stand there and watch his mother's murder, without flinching — or perhaps he did flinch. How would I know? I was never there. His grandfather, on the other hand --" Gorlem shrugged. "He was there. He was always there. Until he killed my wife."

"Secretary," Odo asked quietly, the interjection of his voice causing the other two listeners to jump, "was you wife really unfaithful to you?"

Gorlem shook his head. "No — I don't think so. Later on — I think my father killed her because she knew what he had done to Bayliss."

"What do you mean?" Odo remained the investigator.

"He — he abused him, sexually, and tortured him — and told him that it was all because he cared about him, wanted to make him a stronger, better warrior for Cardassia. I never knew that until — until after we left here three weeks ago." Gorlem paused, and for the first time his voice broke. "He told me about it — all of it. He — he thought that it was love."

Gorlem looked out the viewport and continued to count the stars. The silence in the room grew, thickened, choking and dark, until Odo finally said, "Secretary — you said that your son was dead. What happened to him?"

Gorlem straightened, turning back to look at the Changeling strangely, and then shifted his gaze to Sisko, who stood with his head bowed as though under some terrible weight. At last he inquired, "Are any of you familiar with the ancient Terran - Roman, I believe it was - institution of the paterfamilias?"

Kira and Odo both shook their heads, but Sisko stiffened abruptly, his dark eyes widening. Hirith Gorlem took in all their reactions with a glance, and fixed his gaze on Sisko. "I take it you've heard of it, Captain."

Sisko nodded slowly. "I studied it once in a history course."

"On Cardassia, the role of a father is very similar - as is the responsibility. I was late in taking responsibility for my son — but I took it in the end." Gorlem looked at Kira and Odo, both watching him, wide-eyed. "I wanted you to know. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to my ship."

Hirith Gorlem bowed his head and walked quickly from the room. Kira looked at Sisko.

"He killed him, didn't he?"

Sisko nodded. "Yes, Major. He killed him."

"How? How could he do that to his own son? I know he's a Cardassian, but --" Kira choked back her words as she heard her own prejudice come clearly to the fore. Odo bowed his head, before saying softly:

"His father — Bayliss' grandfather — wouldn't have started with Bayliss, would he?"

Sisko shook his head. "It seems — unlikely."

"Nothing but victims," Odo said softly. "In the end, there were only victims."

Sisko and Kira exchanged looks. Tears were brimming in Sisko's eyes. Kira's face was like stone.

The captain sighed. "I'd better check into Ops — make sure that the Secretary is cleared for a speedy departure." Sisko turned and left the wardroom. Odo moved to where he was facing Kira, who stood and put her arms around his waist.

"It's over," Odo said simply. "Just like that — it's over." He bent to rest his forehead against hers.

Kira whispered, "I'm still — so glad that he's dead. What does that make me?"

Odo managed a faint smile, touching his fingers to her cheek.

"A survivor."

The End

** l'meytahl. Bajoran (specifically an archaic dialect specific to Dahkur province) for "heart's blood". Part of an old Bajoran poem . . . you mean you never read "Dreams Into Waking"?

******


Copyright 1996 by Carolyn R. Fulton*

STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE and all of the characters, places, etc therefrom are the property of Paramount Pictures, Inc. This story however, is mine. It was written purely for personal enjoyment and does not intend to infringe on Paramount's copyright in any way. It may not be changed or altered in any way. Do not duplicate. You may print one copy for your personal use.

Like all fan-fic authors, your comments are my only reward. Please drop me a line at ds9kirys@me.com and let me know what you think!


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