STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE

Catalysts and Crucibles


A final cautionary word:

This is not my usual fluffy, happy tale. A friend of mine, who usually gets first read on all my stuff, told me that I'm a "brilliant and dark soul" and that she was very depressed. I can't speak for the brilliant - but dark? It's in there! :)

Paramount owns all rights to STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE and the characters and universe depicted within. This is a work of fan fiction, designed solely for the enjoyment of fans of the Star Trek universe, and no infringement of Paramount's copyright or trademarks is intended. The following may be reproduced electronically or in single hard copy for your own enjoyment only, providing that all disclaimer material remains in place.

WARNING: This story is rated R for mature content. If you are under 17, or you don't care for material that is sexual or mature in nature, read no further!


STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE

"Catalysts & Crucibles"

by Carolyn R. Fulton

The small pool of translucent amber lay motionless on the carpet and tried hard not to brood. But sometimes the loneliness, the alone-ness, made not brooding very difficult.

Lwaxana had gone. Lwaxana - his wife.

On the surface it seemed ludicrous, considering how hard and how fast he had run from her when she first appeared on the station some four years past. Not that his avoidance had deterred her, not at all - and when she had found herself in need she had come to him for protection. To his amazement he had found that protection to be astonishingly pleasant to give.

So, he had married her - to safeguard her unborn son from the father who sought to take him away from her. Only, in order to do so he had to convince the child's father that he truly wanted to marry Lwaxana - and in the process of doing so, had managed to convince himself.

He did not deceive himself that he was in love with her - self-deception formed no real part in his nature. He only knew that she had somehow become important to him - that she mattered. Her desire for him the way he was had somehow opened him up to taking pleasure in his own nature - to believing that he was, perhaps, desirable. She had taught him not only how to play, something of which he had very little experience, but how to take joy in playing. He even began to wonder if, given time, she might teach him how to fall in love with her.

Lwaxana herself seemed to doubt it, and so she had gone - he had seen her off on the transport to Betazed a week before, after a sad farewell in his office, and one last meeting in his quarters. He had actually gone so far as to get a small sofa so they could sit together in comfort, and he had let her snuggle against him once again, let her hold his hand against her belly to feel the baby moving within. Contentment, coming at him in waves, was something the likes of which he had never known, never hoped to know - that, and Lwaxana's soft hand on his face were the touches he most remembered, the memories seared into his flesh. And now the vicious loneliness, the sense of having no one to care that he cared - Odo'ital contracted in on himself and, not for the first time, thought wistfully about dying.

Still, somewhere on the way to Betazed he had a wife, and perhaps by now a child, who was his in name and in his heart, even if he had taken no part in making it. Odo tried to cling to this knowledge for comfort, tried to let it negate his pain over the one person who still mattered more to him, try as hard as he might to forget her, to put her out of mind forever.

It didn't help that Kira Nerys hadn't cared when he married Lwaxana in the first place, hadn't troubled to talk to him beforehand, to ask him what he was thinking of to marry this woman whom Kira thought he at best tolerated. He had seen her cast down her eyes at the wedding, thought he had caught a faint glimmer of tears - but her congratulations afterwards had been seemingly sincere, warm if somewhat distant. Well, he had wanted distance, hadn't he?

"You have to tell her how you feel - or forget about her."

Funny - the solution had sounded so simple when Quark - of all people, Quark! - had proclaimed it to him some months past. Simple in theory - impossible in execution. Like it or not, she was burned on his heart like a brand.

The puddle shrank further in on itself, pondering woefully the long hours ahead.

"You're in a fine mood," Shakaar Edon observed testily.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Kira snapped in reply. "I'm just busy, that's all." Sitting at the comlink in her quarters, fumbling at the skirt Shakaar had teased her into wearing that morning, Major Kira Nerys stabbed viciously at the touchpad, keying in data with the same ferocity she had once devoted to killing Cardassians. Much the same ferocity that she was now directing at Shakaar ... Since his arrival on Deep Space Nine for one of his rare, almost impossible-to-schedule visits with Kira, the Bajoran first minister had been lectured on politics, criticized for his recent speech in the Vedek Assembly, and generally been given the impression that he had gone to a lot of trouble for nothing. Even making love, Kira had seemed - impatient, almost angry, as though he were distracting her from more important things.

Still, he knew how work could get to a person - Shakaar sighed and started over. Going to the replicator, he ordered, "Raktajino with kava." He took the resulting mug to put it down at Kira's elbow. "Nerys -?"

"Oh. Thank you." Kira picked up the mug and took a sip. Her lips curled in distaste.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing -- dammit, you know I like extra kava in my raktajino. And I like it extra hot!"

Shakaar, normally a patient man, had finally had enough. "I'm sorry. I guess I let your raktajino specifications slip right out of my mind, with the silly business about the Telvassian grain embargo to consider. Look, Nerys, why don't I just go home and address my opposition in the Council of Ministers? I think I'd get a warmer reception."

Kira winced, grimacing. "I'm sorry, Edon," she said shortly, unwillingly. "I've just got a lot on my mind."

"Do you want to tell me about it?"

Kira looked up at him hesitantly, and he was suddenly reminded of the days before they became lovers, when they were just good friends who never had trouble talking to each other. The easy days, a little voice whispered inside his head. Shakaar shoved it aside impatiently, listening instead for Kira's next words.

"I - Edon, I feel like I've lost my best friend and I don't know when, and I don't know why."

Shakaar frowned, puzzled. "Has Jadzia ... "

"Not Jadzia. Odo."

"Odo?" Shakaar looked surprised. "I knew that you trusted him, that you valued him as a colleague - I didn't realize that you thought of him as such a close friend."

"I - I can't explain it. Ever since I came to this damned hulk of a station, once the Occupation ended, Odo's been like - like a wall at my back, someone I could always count on to - to help me make the right choices. Only lately - Edon, I used to spend hours in Odo's office, talking about work, or talking about Bajor, or just talking. Now I'm lucky if I see him twice a week in passing outside of staff meetings."

Shakaar shrugged. "People get busy - priorities change. Besides, didn't he just get married?"

"That's another thing! He went off and got married and he didn't even talk to me about it! I almost wonder if he would have invited me to the wedding if it wouldn't have looked strange if he hadn't."

Kira glared at Shakaar, her chin quivering in indignation. Shakaar looked back at her, pondering her words.

"Did you ask him about it? His getting married, I mean."

"I thought about it, I just - couldn't." Kira shook her head. "It's like he's holding me at arm's length."

"Well, do you know when it started?"

Kira suddenly dropped her gaze, with a guilty blush. Shakaar studied her red cheeks with growing suspicion.

"It wasn't when you started - when you and I first got involved, was it?"

Kira confirmed his fears with the barest of nods.

"Well, at least that explains why you've been treating me like a Cardassian collaborator ever since I got here yesterday."

"I'm sorry." Kira managed the barest of smiles. "I was just hoping to - I don't know, corner Odo somewhere and make him tell me what's wrong. It seemed like it would be a good time, with Lwaxana gone and him maybe feeling lonely - and then you showed up to surprise me."

"Sorry." Shakaar made a rueful face. "I'll try to schedule my next 'surprise' at a more convenient time."

"I didn't mean it like that." Kira reached out to give her lover a half-hearted hug. "I just - I just want to get Odo to talk to me again! Damn it, I miss him!"

"Well, then - go!"

"What?"

"Go talk to him. I can wait here. I'll check for subspace messages - Prophets know I'll have some - and catch up on a little work. Take your time, I'll be here."

Kira's tense face softened in a grateful smile. "Thank you, Edon." She kissed him appreciatively on the cheek, before skimming out of her quarters without another word.

It was a clear indicator of how low his state of mind was when Odo did not automatically relegate the buzzing of his doorcom to the status of an annoyance, and ignore it with the excuse that he was regenerating. Instead, he resumed his humanoid form, calling, "Come!"

His infrared sensors could see her clearly as Kira paused in the doorway, her eyes blinking against the unexpected darkness of his quarters. Her eyes widened a bit as she finally took in his dim outline. "I'm sorry, Odo, were you slee - were you regenerating? I can come back later ..."

Odo privately cursed himself for being so wretchedly glad to see her. "Please, Major, come in. Lights!" Brightness returned, apparently making Kira a little more at ease. "I don't really need them to see, so sometimes I forget."

"Oh." Kira came a few steps closer, still looking uncomfortable.

"Would you like to have a seat?" Odo nodded at the new sofa, and, after some thought, sat there himself. Kira approached slowly, eyes widening in surprise.

"When did you get furniture?"

"It was more comfortable for Lwaxana than sitting on the floor, and it really doesn't take too much room, tucked against the wall like this. Please - join me."

Kira sat down gingerly on the edge of the couch. "This is like what the humans call a loveseat."

"Really?" Odo became uncomfortably aware of how close Kira was sitting to him - close enough to touch. Suddenly realizing how handy such a thing as a wife could be, Odo took refuge behind a reference to the woman he presumably loved from the one he actually did. "Lwaxana likes to lean against me, so the size seemed adequate. I'm afraid that I didn't think much beyond that."

"Oh." Kira stared at her hands for a few minutes, seeming to gather her thoughts, and Odo remembered with sudden anguish how comfortable their silences had once been. Finally she said, "I have to admit, I was - surprised when you got married."

"I imagine everyone was." Honesty forced him to add, "Still, now that you know the circumstances -"

"Yes, of course." Kira looked up, fixing his gaze with hers. "I also know what a rotten liar you are, Odo. What you said, during the ceremony - did you really think that?"

"Think what?" Odo started wishing he was religious, so that he could pray for a timely interruption from security.

"That we - no, scratch that. Not we. Did you think that I would recoil from you if I saw what you're really like?"

Kira was right - he was a rotten liar. Odo saw no recourse but to tell the truth.

"Yes, Major, I did. Bajorans tend to be - rather insular."

"Thanks a lot."

"No offense meant, Major."

"Offense taken, Constable!" Kira shot to her feet and stood glowering down at him. "How could you think that? I'm your friend!"

Odo looked away, feeling the pressure of her glare like a physical pain. "I'm sorry, Kira. It's just that - other people have claimed to be my friends, without being particularly comfortable with who and what I am."

"Well, I'm not 'other people'! You've accepted me the way I am - how could you think that I'd be so - unfeeling as to recoil from you if I saw you the way you really are?"

Odo looked at her, sudden sparks blazing in his ice-blue eyes. "I'm not sure - you've hardly ever gone to any great links to find out what that is."

Kira blinked rapidly, clearly taken aback. "What do you mean?"

Odo got carefully to his feet and moved to the middle of the room before turning around to face her. "Major, of all the times you've sat in my office or talked with me someplace else - discussed station business, shared your problems, told me about your lovers - how many times have you ever asked me about me?"

"I - I'm not sure." Kira was clearly bewildered and more than a little upset by the question.

"Would you like me to tell you?"

Kira nodded slowly.

"All right, let's see - you've asked me things like, 'Have you ever tried eating?' The typical curious-about-the-alien questions! However, I honestly can't remember you ever being concerned about my state of mind except when it was affecting my work!" Remembering even as he spoke the trip to the Gamma quadrant when he had finally discovered his people, Odo knew his statement to be unfair, but for once in his life he didn't want to be fair. Kira, however, saw through his dishonesty with a single, searing glance.

"I'm sorry you feel that way, Constable."

"And that's another thing!" Kira was taken aback as Odo, rather than backing down, launched another attack. "You keep saying what a good friend I am, how much our friendship means to you - why can't I even call you by your name? All of your other friends do - why am I different?"

The fuse on Kira's temper, the shortest thing about her, was fast burning away. "I don't know - you just haven't done it, that's all! Besides, I'm your superior officer!" Kira regretted that last petty observation as soon as it was out of her mouth.

She had never before thought to be afraid of her friend, but for a brief second she was, as she saw the uncontrolled rage on his face. The light fairly blazed from Odo's eyes as he exclaimed, "And after all, in the end I'm just the alien freak who used to work for the Cardassians, aren't I?"

"No! Dammit, Odo, what's gotten into you?" Kira lunged off the sofa and across the room, seizing Odo's shoulders in her hands and shaking him fiercely. "You're my best friend! That's why I tell you things - you don't ask, I volunteer the information! Maybe I think I shouldn't have to ask you to talk about yourself - maybe I keep thinking you'll decide you want to share yourself with me without waiting for me to pry it out of you!"

Odo shook off her grip and grabbed her arms in turn, pinning them to her sides. His eyes widened as he stared at her - for one ludicrous moment Kira thought that he was about to kiss her, even while she wondered where such a ridiculous notion could have come from. Odo suddenly shivered, visibly collecting himself and loosening the grip that Kira felt sure was going to leave bruises on her arms.

"Major, I - I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me."

"I don't know, either. Thanks a lot." Still enraged, Kira rubbed at her sore biceps.

Odo gave her a slow, incredulous stare, which he shifted to his outstretched hands. Shuddering in anguish, he turned away. Seeing the look on his face, Kira finally relented.

"Odo, it's all right. You're feeling lonely, that's all."

"Yes, Major, I am." Odo looked at her bleakly. "All my life."

The last vestiges of Kira's anger vanished at those bitter, softly spoken words. Kira reached out and took his hand in both of hers, holding it close to her heart. "You don't have to be, Odo. I'm your friend - I'm here for you. I've always been here."

Odo managed a painful smile. "I know, Major. You just caught me at - a bad time."

Kira gave his hand one last squeeze, before lowering it gently. She then returned to the sofa, seating herself and then patting the place beside her. "Come tell me about it."

"What do you want to know about?" Odo cautiously reclaimed his seat on the couch.

"Well - your wife, for example. How long are you planning to stay married?"

"I don't know - we really haven't made any plans."

"You are still planning to get an annulment, aren't you?" Kira wasn't sure why, but for some reason the answer to this question no longer seemed obvious, and felt very important.

Odo gave a rueful smile, opened his mouth to say something, and then apparently thought better of it. He amended, "I imagine that - that the marriage will be dissolved in a few months or so. I thought I would let Lwaxana initiate it from her end. She's much more likely to want to marry someone else than I am."

"That's a shame," Kira said quietly. When Odo looked at her, startled, she continued, "You look like you wouldn't mind having someone to take care of - someone to be with."

"Don't be ridicu -"Odo stopped in mid-protest. "You're right," he finally confessed. "I wouldn't mind it. Not at all."

"Did you - did you try to get her to stay?"

Odo nodded. "She wanted - more than I was prepared to give her." He stared blindly at his hands, clasped tightly in his lap.

Kira took a deep breath. "Odo - I don't know how to ask you this, but - if the problem is - you know - sex - couldn't you maybe - learn?"

Odo looked up at Kira incredulously, just as her combadge staged what was, to Kira at least, a most unwelcome interruption. She slapped at it angrily.

"Kira here."

"Major." Captain Benjamin Sisko's voice sounded strained, even through the tiny communications device. "Where are you right now?"

Kira's eyes narrowed, and Odo stared at her curiously. If he were only interested in Kira's physical location, Sisko could have gotten his data from the computer - and probably already had. "I'm in Odo's quarters - we were just having a talk. What is it, Captain?"

"I - I need to speak with you in private. Would you mind stepping outside for just a moment?"

"Sure." Kira apologized to Odo with a glance. "Can we finish this conversation later? Maybe you could come by - no, I guess not while Edon's here. Look, just stay here and I'll be back as soon I can."

Kira got to her feet and crossed the room, disappearing through the door. Odo shook his head uncomfortably. The last place in the world he wanted to be was sitting on a so-called "loveseat" with Kira Nerys, talking about sex, at least under the present circumstances. When the doorcom buzzed again, a surprisingly short time afterwards, he toyed with the idea of ignoring it. Finally he sighed.

"Enter!"

Kira stepped back inside, something about her taut expression making Odo want to avert his gaze from the eyes that flew to rivet themselves to his face. Kira's earlier, companionable ease was gone, replaced with a palpable air of tension, along with something that Odo finally identified as - compassion. More than compassion -

Pity.

Fear slammed into him from nowhere. Odo got slowly to his feet.

"Major, what is it? What's happened?"

Kira nodded at the abandoned sofa. "Let's sit back down." She herself did as she suggested, her eyes pleading with Odo to follow suit until he finally did so, hovering tensely on the seat's very edge.

"Major, I'll ask you again - what is it?"

Kira shook her head, obviously collecting herself with some difficulty. "The transport to Betazed - was attacked by the Klingons. Apparently it got off course, and strayed too close to the border. Fortunately, there was a Federation starship in the area - the Nautilus, I think it was - so they were able to escape, but they sustained heavy casualties."

Odo stared at her, not wanting to believe even though he knew which way the road was probably headed. "Lwaxana - the baby -?"

"The baby's fine." Kira's face brightened ever so slightly, as she recalled that bit of good news. "Apparently he was born just before the attack. He's on the Nautilus - they're on their way here."

Odo stared at his hands for a long moment before asking the question he didn't really need to ask.

"And Lwaxana -?"

Kira looked up at him, biting her lip to keep it in a firm line, even as tears welled to her eyes. "She's dead, Odo. I'm so sorry ..."

"I see." Odo stood abruptly, beginning to pace. Kira winced as she saw the slowly gathering moisture on his face, the faint blurring of his features. "You say the baby's on the way here? I'll have to see about getting bigger quarters - and find out what I need to do to take care of it. I don't know much about babies, but -"

"Odo ..." Kira got to her feet and followed him, coming up behind him to lay her hands on his shoulders, finding them oddly slick beneath her palms. Odo froze in his tracks. "I'm sorry about Lwaxana."

"Yes - thank you, Major." The barest quiver ran through Odo's form, before the first spasm shook him. A violent shudder racked his entire frame, before he collapsed slowly to his knees at Kira's feet.

"Odo ..." Kira didn't hesitate, but sank to her own knees beside him, drawing him into her arms. "Hold on to me," she whispered. "Hold on."

"I - can't - even - hold - my - shape," Odo rasped. Kira looked at his face, which was visibly melting, and was suddenly grateful that she had allowed Shakaar to goad her into wearing the damned skirt. Kira spread out its folds to make a lap, little knowing how closely she echoed the words and actions of the woman now dead as she murmured:

"Then here - lose it with me."

Odo stared at her through eyes that were beginning to liquefy, and raised his fast dissolving hand as though to touch her face. "Nerys ..." He finally melted into her waiting lap, and there remained, a motionless golden puddle. Kira just sat there, equally motionless, until Sisko came through the door a few moments later, after Kira failed to acknowledge his signal.

"How is he?" Sisko asked, even while he realized how ridiculous his question sounded. It was clear to see that the constable was in a bad way.

"I didn't know how much she meant to him," Kira murmured, tears streaming down her face. The gaze that met Sisko's was a study - hurt, confused, miserable, and bewildered. "I should have known ... why didn't I know?"

Laying gentle fingertips against the substance pooled in the folds of her skirt, Kira sobbed as though her heart would break.

It was a long time before Odo could force himself to return from the darkness, to resume the humanoid shape that felt more and more like a prison. But he was dimly aware of soft fabric and human warmth against him, and traces of mineral salts irritating the thin membrane that contained his natural substance. He resumed his familiar form with a groan, and found himself standing with Kira Nerys sitting on the floor at his feet.

"Major ... let me help you." Odo reached down automatically and drew Kira to her feet, where she swayed a little with tiredness. There were dark splotches under her eyes, and her face was streaked with the remnants of tears. Odo stared at her, concerned. "Major, how long have you been here?"

"I don't know - two or three hours ..." Kira shoved her hands through her hair tiredly. The dark eyes she fixed on Odo's face were full of pity. "I just wanted to help you somehow - but there's not much I can do, is there?"

"No ... not really," Odo conceded, turning away so she wouldn't see the pain in his face, the automatic suggestions that rose in his eyes and in turn filled his consciousness with such guilt. Instead he seized upon the immediate needs of the moment. "When is the Nautilus scheduled to arrive here?"

"Day after tomorrow." Kira walked over to the sofa and collapsed on it, stretching her legs out in front of her and leaning her head back tiredly.

Odo turned to stare at her, alarmed. "That doesn't give me much time."

"Yes ... that's true." Kira considered the approaching reality. "Odo, I don't know anything about babies, either, but I'll help you all I can." Kira wondered briefly what Shakaar would have to say about all this, but dismissed the thought. He was due to go back to Bajor tomorrow, anyway... She looked around the room. "You're right that you'll probably need more room than this - I think they need lots of equipment."

"What kind of equipment?"

Kira shrugged. "I'm not sure - Chief O'Brien and Keiko would know."

"Yes, I suppose they would ..." Odo pondered his options furiously. Then he stopped, his eyes closing as if at a sudden stab of pain.

"Odo?" Kira got to her feet and crossed to lay her hand on his arm. "What is it?"

"I just thought -'Lwaxana should know, she's had babies.' It's so hard to believe that's she's gone..." Odo gave a sudden, bitter laugh. "I suppose I should prepare myself - my people apparently live for hundreds of years, so I imagine I'll outlive all of my friends."

"I'm sorry," Kira said simply. Odo looked down at her with a wry grimace.

"You should be. I'm not looking forward to you dying someday."

Kira smiled. "I guess I'll have to try to stick around."

Odo gave the barest shake of his head, and for once left his expression unguarded as he looked into Kira's brown eyes. The intensity of his gaze startled her, bewildered her - Kira's eyes narrowed, puzzled, as she tried to see deeper, to figure out the identity of the emotions painted there in colors she had never seen. Odo looked startled at her scrutiny, and turned away abruptly.

"I should call the O'Briens now." Odo walked over to his comlink and seated himself before it with his usual precise movements. Kira, watching him, steeled herself against a sudden stab of pain as she studied his back, his body's perfect symmetry - people aren't supposed to be perfectly symmetrical, she thought. It somehow emphasized how isolated he was, how alien - how alone.

Kira contemplated Odo's loneliness sadly, and consoled herself with the thought of the baby. Maybe, just maybe, he won't have to be alone again ...

As things turned out, it was the ill-matched team of Kira and Bashir who met the shuttlecraft from the Nautilus when it docked at the station three days later - Bashir in his capacity as medical officer, and Kira because Odo was still racing around his new quarters with fanatic precision, trying to make them as perfectly equipped for a new baby as quarters could possibly be.

Kira had done a few preparations of her own, including a fortunately brief explanation to Shakaar before he left of why she had to cancel her visit to Bajor the following weekend. It was times like this that she blessed the fact that they had been friends first, so that he knew just how important the obligations of friendship could be. To her short, apologetic description of why Odo needed her, Shakaar had given her a wry smile and a hug.

"Don't worry about it. We'll see each other as soon as we can. Sometimes friends have to come first."

Grateful to have a lover who was also a friend, Kira threw herself into helping Odo, and so had ended up waiting with Bashir for the arrival of something about which she admittedly knew next to nothing.

The Nautilus' medical officer, a cheerful, middle-aged human named Tomlinson, came briskly through the airlock, exchanged hearty greetings with Bashir, and promptly deposited the bundle he carried into Kira's arms. Fortunately Bashir was there to make a rescue, as it became clear in seconds that Kira had absolutely no idea what to do with a baby.

After the transfer was made, Kira accompanied Bashir as he strolled toward the Infirmary, the baby held securely in his arms. "Aren't you the fine fellow?" Bashir cooed softly to the sleeping infant. "Yes, a fine fellow."

"He looks more like his mother than Jeyal," Kira observed with acerbic relief, referring to the Tavnian who actually fathered the child. "At least he's going to have hair."

"He's a beautiful baby," Bashir assured her, still murmuring softly. "Do you think the constable is ready to meet his new son?"

"As ready as he's likely to get." Kira sounded none too optimistic. She eyed the infant dubiously. "It's so hard to think of him as Odo's."

"The important thing is that Odo think of him as that."

"No worry about that. He's been practically beside himself getting ready."

"Well, Odo is the one person I can see actually managing that," Bashir said innocently. "Being beside himself," he added, grinning, to Kira's questioning stare.

"Oh, that's bad." Kira shook her head as they arrived at Odo's quarters. After exchanging a look with Bashir, Kira reached out to touch the doorcom. A split second later, the door flew open, and Odo stood there, looking a little frantic.

Bashir, the natural diplomat, kept the situation well in hand. "Constable," he said smoothly, "allow me to present your son."

For once Odo didn't hesitate to issue an invitation. "Come in, please." He stood back and beckoned for his fellow officers to enter. He made no attempt to relieve Bashir of the burden he carried, even though his eyes were riveted on the tiny bundle.

"Actually, I need to be getting back to the Infirmary." Bashir knew when stronger measures had to be taken. "Here you go, Constable - just be sure to support his head and spine with your arm - see?" Bashir maneuvered the baby into Odo's arms, giving him a sunny, reassuring smile. "You'll get the hang of it in no time." Bashir stepped back as soon as he felt sure that Odo wouldn't drop the baby in his terror. "I'll check in with you after an hour or so." Still smiling, the doctor turned and left.

Kira crept a little bit closer, sensing Odo's need for moral support. "Why don't you sit down with him? Maybe he wants a bottle or something ..." She was obviously as much at a loss as her friend was.

Odo perched on the edge of the sofa, holding the baby awkwardly. "Are there any instructions?" he asked plaintively. Kira couldn't help but grin.

"The doctor from the Nautilus handed me some data PADDs - let's see." Kira picked up the top one and activated it. "Here you go - notes on baby care." Bending dutifully to the task, she started to read.

Odo, in the meantime, finally dared to investigate more closely the contents of the bundle that he held, and the perfect peace in the tiny, sleeping face threatened the stoic changeling's undoing. Unthinking, Odo laid his finger against one of the small hands - as the digit was captured in a surprisingly strong grip, the conquest of Constable Odo was complete.

"He's beautiful," Odo whispered. Kira glanced up from her reading for a moment and smiled, before her eyes, returning to the dataPADD, fell upon an item that made her frown in concern.

"Odo, it says here that they haven't been able to give the baby a bottle."

Odo glanced up at her, alarmed. "You mean he hasn't eaten?"

"No, he's eaten - it's just that Betazoid babies won't take bottles. A crew member on the Nautilus with a new baby of her own has been nursing him - they suggest that you find him a wet-nurse right away."

"A wet-nurse? Where am I going to find a Betazoid wet-nurse?" Odo looked as near to panicking as Kira had ever seen him. She read further.

"It doesn't have to be a Betazoid - apparently he'll take any extra supplements that he needs just fine, to make up for any deficiencies in the milk. It's just the contact - because they're telepathic, they somehow need that intimate physical contact when they're tiny. According to this, once he's six months old, you should be able to switch him over to a bottle just fine."

"Six months? What am I supposed to do in the meantime? I don't know of any wet-nurses here, do you, Major?" Odo, on edge since he had learned of Lwaxana's death and the baby's imminent arrival, looked ready to go right over it.

"There must be someone who has a new baby. Let's ask Julian."

Their communication with Bashir, however, did not net them the desired response. The doctor's face shone worried in the viewscreen.

"Actually, Major, I can't think of anyone off the top of my head. I've been studying my copy of the data myself - I was hoping that the Tavnian side might evidence itself in this, but apparently he's quite the little Betazoid when it comes to how he'll eat. I suppose I could try an IV until we come up with something more suitable -"

Odo and Kira both winced at the thought. Kira asked helplessly, "Isn't someone expecting?"

"Only a Denusian, and her milk would poison him. It doesn't have to even be someone who's expecting - just a woman who's willing to lactate for a while whose milk would be reasonably compatible." Kira froze as Bashir's eyes fixed on hers through the comlink, his gaze suddenly thoughtful.

"I'll think of something, Doctor," Odo said tightly. "Thank you." He severed the communication, and looked down at the baby hopelessly. The baby still slept contentedly, snuggled against his 'father' in a sort of pouch that Odo had shaped from his own substance. "I can take a leave of absence and go live on Bajor for six months - it says that Bajoran milk is acceptable. I can afford to pay someone, plus I have enough saved to take off for a year if I have to."

Kira looked at the baby's sleeping face, and then at the anguish in her friend's eyes as he contemplated leaving behind the work he loved and the only home he had ever known for a planet that had, at best, offered him lukewarm hospitality in the past. With the additional burden of this tiny person looking to him with absolute trust, it was no wonder that Odo's expression was bleak - Kira took a deep breath, and made up her mind.

"Don't go anywhere yet. I think I have a solution for you - I'll be right back." Mustering up a reassuring smile, Kira left Odo's quarters and marched straight for the Infirmary. Bashir greeted her with a smile, hypospray already in hand. Without preamble, Kira sighed and held out her arm.

"Just do it," she ordered.

"All right," Bashir agreed, pressing the hypo against her arm and activating it so that it made a soft hissing sound. Kira winced. "The good news is that this takes effect very quickly, considering what it does - you should start lactating within twelve hours. The better news is that you should only have to take the shots for two or three days - once your body gets the process under way, the nursing itself should be enough to keep it going. Most Bajoran women are quite efficient in the way that their bodies can produce milk ..." Bashir grabbed his med scanner and ran it over Kira quickly. "Yes, you'll do just fine... go ahead and start as soon as the baby wakes up ... you won't really be producing anything yet, but we can give him supplements so that he won't notice, and it will help stimulate lactation." Bashir smiled. "I hope Odo appreciates what you're doing for him, Nerys."

"I'm sure he will once he knows that I'm doing it."

"And don't worry - most women find nursing a very pleasurable experience, once their nipples toughen up a bit. Hmm, I can give you something if you have problems in the meantime ... and here's some reference material on nursing you might want to read." Bashir handed Kira a dataPADD that he just 'happened' to have ready, withstanding her glare with one of his charming smiles. "Now, let me give you just a few starting points ..."

Loaded down with supplements and instructions, Kira returned slowly to the Habitat Ring, wondering what her impulsive and generous nature had gotten her into. She stood outside Odo's quarters for a long moment, before finally steeling herself to go and face her new and unanticipated responsibility. That 'responsibility' greeted her with a fretful wail as soon as she walked through the door. Odo looked up at her, frantic.

"Did you see Dr. Bashir? What did he say?"

Kira took a deep breath. "Here, first we need to give him this." Kira took the baby's arm and administered a small hypospray. The wailing increased noticeably, with a decided tinge of outrage.

"What is it?" Odo asked anxiously.

"A combination nutrient supplement and appetite suppressant. Since he won't really be getting anything in his stomach for twelve hours, the supplement will take care of his nutritional needs and the appetite suppressant will trick him into thinking he's really been fed."

"Yes, but what about -"

"Don't worry, I've got it covered." Kira unfastened her uniform tunic and yanked it off while Odo watched her with widening eyes. He then looked away as she pulled her undertunic over her head. Kira's lips curved in a rueful smile. "Odo, I think we'd better decide right now that you're going to be seeing a whole lot of me, and that includes my breasts. Now, give him here."

"Major, I - I appreciate what you're trying to do, but you can't -"

Kira forced herself to drop her arms from where she had instinctively folded them over her chest. Instead she put her hands on her hips.

"Odo, I am not going to stand here with my tits hanging out and debate this with you! Now, give me the damned baby!"

"All right." Odo slowly surrendered the infant in his arms, and watched, amazed, while Kira guided the baby's mouth to her breast. The little one turned aside from the offered nipple, obviously displeased.

"Oh - I forgot. Give me that vial, will you?" Kira nodded in the direction of the small bundle of various medical paraphernalia she had carried in with her and deposited on the computer console. Odo extracted a small vial and held it out to her tentatively.

"Open it - I don't have a free hand." Once the vial was open, Kira ordered Odo to put a little of the liquid it contained onto her fingertips, which she in turn used to matter-of-factly anoint her breasts. "It's a Betazoid pheromone extract - it's supposed to make him think I have something to offer him before I actually do." Sure enough, the baby nuzzled at her breast with sudden interest, seizing her nipple and sucking at it eagerly.

Kira's eyes widened in astonishment, while her face went a little pale. Laying his hands gingerly against Kira's shoulders, Odo guided her to the sofa, still the only real seating available. Kira sank down as though her knees had turned to jelly.

"Are you all right, Major?"

"I'm fine," Kira whispered. She was staring down at the child in her arms, an unfathomable expression on her face.

"Are you sure? You look like it hurts."

Kira glanced up at him, startled. "No - no, it's - nice. It's just very - intense, that's all. I didn't expect it." Kira raised her free hand to touch the soft down that covered the baby's head. "What are you going to call him?"

"Lwaxana was planning to call him Ry'mell. I thought I should stick with that."

"Do you suppose she knew what it meant? In Bajoran, I mean." Kira put her finger against the baby's hand, and was rewarded when it curled, starfish-like, to take her in a hearty grip.

"I'm not sure. Quite possibly, she was very - diverse in her experience." Odo gave a fond, sad smile.

"'Shooting star'." Kira looked up at Odo, her eyes softer than he could ever remember seeing them. "He's a lovely baby, Odo. It must be because he's part Betazoid - he just radiates pleasure, contentment. Trust."

"I can't imagine what I'd - thank you, Major."

"You're welcome." Kira smiled a gentle smile. "If it makes you feel any better, it's very, very - nice."

"Well, that's something, I suppose." Odo settled awkwardly onto the sofa at Kira's side, carefully maintaining his usual erect posture despite all of the odds against it. He watched as Kira unconsciously adjusted the infant in her arms, raising him to kiss the top of his head absently before shifting him to her other breast. Realizing that Odo was watching her, Kira blushed and smiled.

"It must be instinct," she said simply. "I never thought I had it in me."

"Ah." Odo managed the tiny quirk of his mouth that passed for a smile, and settled back cautiously in his seat. Finally curiosity overwhelmed him. "What does it feel like?"

"What? This?" Kira glanced down at the baby, now drifting off to sleep. "I don't know - it feels good. Kind of sexy, I guess - my nipples are erogenous zones, after all." Kira blushed. "I can already see what Julian means about them needing to toughen up, though. What's really remarkable is that I can actually feel Ry'mell's emotions. Bashir was saying something about it when I was in sickbay. Apparently it's a characteristic of Betazoid babies. Right now he's just - this little blob of pure pleasure."

"I remember when Lwaxana was carrying him - if I put my hand on her abdomen, I could feel his thoughts then. Such contentment ..."

"It's really contagious." Kira reached out impulsively with her free hand and captured Odo's before he could make a protest. "Here, put your hand on the back of his head."

"Oh - oh, my." Oblivious to the fact that his fingertips were only a few inches from Kira's bare breast, Odo closed his eyes in blissful concentration. "You're right - I've never felt such - pure happiness."

"Me neither," Kira confessed. Her eyes met Odo's, and all past estrangements were forgotten. "Odo ..."

"Yes, Nerys?" The name came naturally, spontaneously, and Odo offered no apology for it.

"Thank you."

"For what?" Odo stared at her, surprised.

"For sharing him with me. I mean it - I didn't know it beforehand, but now I wouldn't have missed this for anything."

I'd share anything with you, don't you know that? Odo let his hand fall from its place on the back of Ry'mell's head. "He's asleep now, isn't he?"

"Uh-huh." Kira gently extracted her nipple from the baby's mouth. She then handed the sleeping bundle into Odo's arms. "Here, take him while I put my shirt back on."

While Kira pulled on her lattice-trimmed undershirt, Odo held little Ry'mell cradled against his chest, trying to absorb the baby's contentment and grateful that his own restless thoughts were unreadable. Kira then returned to the sofa, sitting back down beside him and looking quizzical.

"We need to figure out how we're going to work this for the next few months."

"What do you mean?" Odo looked at her curiously.

"Well, he's not going to sleep through the night, at least not for a while. So me and mine -"Kira nodded down at her chest with a rueful grimace"- are going to have to be on call."

"Oh, I see." Odo nodded slowly. "Of course, you'll need to keep him with you - I have all sorts of things for him here, but we can get Chief O'Brien to transport them to your -"

"Odo, I don't want to take him away from you. You've got that entire big bedroom now, all set up as a nursery - isn't there room in a corner where you can put a bed for me?"

"What - well, of course, Major, I just assumed-"

"Ry'mell's your baby. Lwaxana entrusted him to you. I'm just helping you out a little."

"I want you to be comfortable, that's all."

"Odo, I slept on the ground for years. My comfort requirements are pretty minimal." Kira paused, and suddenly looked troubled. "Of course, I know how much you value your privacy - I'll try to stay out of your way."

"That's not a concern right now. Besides, like I once told you - you're always welcome here, Major."

"That's another thing," Kira said sternly. "You seem to want this officially, so here it is - enough of this 'Major' crap. I really prefer it when men who've seen me half-naked call me by my given name. Besides," she made the soft addition, "it sounds good to hear you say it."

"Yes ... yes, of course."

Kira looked at him compassionately. "I hope that - well, that seeing me like that doesn't make you too uncomfortable."

Odo gave an odd little smile. "No, not at all. It's quite - what's that expression I heard the Chief use once? - quite easy on the eyes."

Kira's eyes widened in amazement, even while her grin covered her entire face. "Constable!"

Odo's face fell. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to -"

"Odo! I'm teasing you!"

"Oh. Of course." Odo's smile returned, but it was half-hearted, and Kira privately wanted to kick herself. She reached out impulsively and put her arm around Odo's shoulders, ignoring his sudden, startled glance.

"Just think of it all as - playing house."

"'House'? I don't think I ever played that." Before Lwaxana, I don't think I ever played at all, he added in silence.

"I'm not sure that I did, either," Kira confessed. "Dax was telling me about it, though. Anyway, to put it briefly - I'm the mother, you're the father - only this isn't a doll." Kira curled against Odo's side and put her hand gently on the baby in his arms. "Prophets," she whispered, "even asleep, he's so happy."

"Yes." Odo passed the baby into Kira's arms, his face suddenly bleak. Kira looked at him, startled.

"Odo -"

"He doesn't miss her. He doesn't even know that she's gone."

"Lwaxana?" Kira questioned softly.

Odo nodded. He let his chin drop to his chest, his next words coming out as an almost indistinguishable murmur. "I miss her."

Kira's eyes filled in sympathy. Predictably, Ry'mell began to stir against her chest and started to whimper.

"Shh ... it's all right." Kira cuddled the baby against her cheek, and kissed the scrunched-up face. "I'm afraid he can pick up on my thoughts as well as I can pick up on his. You'd better take him - I don't think he can read you."

"No - his mother couldn't, either, except in an intuitive way." Odo resumed custody of the baby, absent-mindedly forming a pocket to hold him. Kira smiled.

"You may feel out of your element now, but you're going to be good at this."

"Do you think so?" Odo grimaced wryly. Kira sat watching him in silence for a moment, before finally working up nerve to say:

"I'm sorry, Odo. I - I never knew how much she meant to you. I didn't realize that -"

"That what?" Odo asked when Kira failed to finish her comment.

"That you really were in love with her."

Odo gave her an unfathomable look. "I wasn't," he said shortly. "If I had been, she wouldn't have been on that damned transport in the first place." Odo got to his feet, careful not to disturb the sleeping infant. "I'm going to put him in his bed - see if he likes it. Then I can arrange to get one for you."

Odo disappeared into the adjoining bedroom that had been designated as nursery. He returned shortly, and after a moment's hesitation, dropped tiredly back into his place on the couch. "I wasn't in love with her," he repeated. "I should have been, but I wasn't."

"You can't help how you feel - or how you don't feel."

"So I keep telling myself." Odo looked broodingly into space. "She was in love with me, though - can you imagine it? No one - no one has ever loved me before. You'd think I would have fallen in love with her for that alone, wouldn't you?"

"I guess it just doesn't work that way." Kira pulled her knees up against her chest and wrapped her arms around them, studying Odo thoughtfully. "Odo, I know you've never - you know - but have you ever been in love?"

"I've never - what?" Odo seized upon Kira's statement, neatly avoiding her question.

"You know."

"Not remotely."

Kira blushed furiously, with a strong sense of having shoved her foot in her mouth. "All right. You've never had sex - have you?" It occurred to her suddenly that her source for this information, Quark, might not be the most reliable.

Odo rolled his eyes. "Of course I've had sex. Only Quark could think that never having formed a - a romantic relationship means that I'd never had sex." To Kira's questioning stare he added reluctantly, "I was a - curiosity, back when the Cardassians were still in charge. Do you honestly think that they would all let such a potential - novelty - pass them by?"

Kira could feel the blood draining from her face as nausea started churning in her stomach. "Odo - I'm so sorry."

"Dr. Mora did his best to protect me, I'll give him that - started rumors that I would cause everything from allergic reactions to acid burns to electric shocks. But there was an adventurous soul or two at almost every party ... who wanted me to be more than a razor cat."

Kira shuddered, trying not to gag as she thought of the indignity. Odo gave an odd little grimace.

"Do you want to know the worst of it?"

Kira managed to nod.

"There was a time when I didn't actually mind it - back in the very beginning." To Kira's sudden shocked stare he added, "I know - appalling, isn't it? But some of the touching was pleasurable enough - I do perceive the world through my skin, after all."

He played absent-mindedly with the collar of his uniform, and Kira stared at him as the realization slowly sank in. "I never thought - that is your skin, isn't it?"

Odo chuckled a little. "Yes - Quark once asked me if I didn't own any other clothes. You should have seen his face when I told him that I didn't own any clothes."

Kira laughed at the thought. "I guess that explains why you don't like to be touched."

"Wherever did you get that idea?" Odo was honestly surprised.

"I don't know - you're so stiff about it."

"I'll make a few more confessions if you promise that they never leave this room."

"All right." Kira stared at him curiously.

"The truth is that I enjoy being touched. It's just that the feelings are so intense that, if I'm not prepared for it, I tend to be rather stiff. I'm not a tribble, after all - I can hardly start purring whenever anyone handles me.

"For a little while there, when I first started 'entertaining' at the Science Ministry's parties - back before I realized I was nothing more than some glorified party game to them and I thought they might actually like me - when I was taken aside for encounters that were a little more 'personal' I showed every sign that I could become - addicted." Odo sighed, leaning back against the sofa and closing his eyes. "Prophets, how I loved to fuck."

"A little," Kira admitted. "A -- okay, a lot." What was shocking her even more was the response her own body was making to his frank statement. "So," she said finally, "why don't you do it anymore?"

"Oh - as my reputation began to precede me, the other parties involved started becoming more - exotic in their tastes. There are some things that aren't pleasant, I suppose, no matter who does them - or has them done to him. Besides, it soon became clear that they were more interested in what I could do than who I was - and eventually any intimate act only serves to underline the lack of intimacy if no intimacy exists."

"That's true," Kira agreed gently. Their current conversation was feeling intimate enough to smother her, but she wouldn't have abandoned it for the world.

"At best," Odo added, "the anesthetic value, the numbing, was - short-lived."

"Numbing?"

"I hadn't yet learned to - to enjoy being alone. Sex - touching - could make me forget, for a little while, how alone I was - how isolated."

"I always thought that you liked being alone," Kira said softly.

"I do, in a way - being physically alone doesn't emphasize loneliness the way that - that being with other people does when they're people I know don't care about me. When I looked around and realized that the people I was with, back at the Ministry parties, really didn't care about me, except as an amusing oddity, sex became abhorrent to me for a very long time - even worse than the Cardassian 'neck trick'." Odo shuddered as he remembered, closing his eyes.

"I can see where it would have." Kira fell silent, staring at her hands clasped stiffly in front of her. Finally she asked, "Do you mind if I - ask you a very personal question?"

"This is a very personal conversation, Nerys. Go ahead."

"You and Lwaxana - did you ever -?"

"That is personal."

"I warned you."

"Still, it's a fair question, all things considered." Odo angled his head to look directly into Kira's eyes. "Yes, we did - less than an hour before her transport left for Betazed."

Kira waited quietly as Odo groped for words.

"She - she had already come to my office to tell me good-bye, presumably that was the end of it. Something made me go looking for her, though, an hour before the transport was due to leave - she was still in my old quarters, standing by the structure I keep for shape-shifting. You remember it - it's in the other bedroom now. I suppose I'll have to get some actual furniture for in here, especially since you're going to be here so much of the time - let me know what you'd like."

"Structure you keep for shape-shifting - you mean your big sculpture?"

Odo smiled. "Lwaxana was the only one to recognize it for what it was."

"So, you found her there. What happened? Other than the obvious."

"Absolutely nothing - other than the obvious. And nothing you would recognize as that - she was so pregnant. Fortunately, as a changeling, I was able to - work around it."

The topic was one Kira barely dared to pursue. "And -?"

"And - it was - blissfully numbing."

Kira thought about times in the Resistance when she herself had rutted with some unlikely partners, just to negate the fear of death or the pain of loss. She nodded slowly.

"I know what you mean."

"I thought that you might," Odo conceded, "or I doubt if I would have told you any of this. All I ask is that you keep it to yourself."

"I wouldn't dream of sharing it."

"Not even with Dax?"

"Not even with Dax."

"What about Shakaar?"

Kira paused. "No. He'd understand - only too well! - but not even with him."

"What makes you so sure he'd understand?" Odo asked curiously.

"You're not the only one to use sex as an anesthetic. Only you more or less gave it up. Edon never gave it up."

"I see." Odo studied her through thoughtful, unblinking eyes. "It must be hard for him, you living here while he's on Bajor."

"I doubt if he's faithful to me," Kira said matter-of-factly, "at least not with his body. I'm not sure that he could be, even if I was on Bajor. In a way it's easier being here on the station - it would probably hurt me if I caught him carrying on under my nose, but while I'm here I can justify it, somehow."

"I'm sorry."

Kira shrugged. "Don't be. It really should bother me more than it does, but it doesn't - I think that deep down I see it as a potential bolt-hole should I want out. Maybe I - maybe I'm not as much in love with him as I thought." She smiled. "Maybe I'm just used to making allowances for my friends."

"Oh." Odo fixed his gaze on the far wall, seeming to see through it to some hidden vista beyond. Kira reached out to lay a tentative finger on his arm - and for the first time understood the startled shiver that ran through his form. She slowly withdrew her hand.

"You never answered my question," she observed quietly.

"What question was that?" Odo turned slowly to look at her.

"Have you ever been in love?"

Odo stared at her for a long, long moment. Finally he shrugged.

"How would I know? I'm not sure I even know what that is." He got abruptly to his feet. "I'm going to go check on the baby - and to order you a bed."

"Odo!"

He looked back at her. "Yes, Maj - Nerys?"

"Thanks for sharing - what you told me. I feel like - like maybe I'll really get to know you one day."

Odo smiled ruefully. "Is that what you want?"

"I'd like that very much."

The look he gave her sent an oddly frightening, near-erotic chill down her spine. "All I can say is - be careful what you wish for. I've never experienced it myself, but I understand that sometimes wishes come true."

Like a splash of pure light on a dark and murky canvas, little Ry'mell shone in Kira Nerys' life like the shooting star his name depicted. An unwanted responsibility had fast become an unexpected joy. Kira, prepared to endure, had come to love.

She wasn't sure if she would have felt the same way if Ry'mell had been anything other than what he was - a sunny-natured little Betazoid, who happily reflected his pure and untroubled emotions back onto his substitute mother whenever she took him into her arms. Even his rare baby tantrums were simple, and simply resolved, with something as simple as a clean diaper or just being cuddled. As a consequence, Kira found herself holding him almost constantly whenever she had the chance, enjoying the warmth of his small body and his enormous contentment as he nuzzled sleepily against her breasts when she would rise to feed him in the middle of the night. Most mornings, Odo would find them curled up together in Kira's bed, Ry'mell sound asleep but with his mouth fixed on Kira possessively. Odo occasionally just sat on the edge of the bed and watched them while they slept, feeling almost overwhelmed by the combination of longing and joy.

Most mornings, however, he did as he was supposed to, and gently nudged Kira awake before waving a raktajino under her nose. Her smile alone was enough to make his heart turn over, as she stretched a little and shifted the baby in her arms, kissing the top of his head and guiding him to her other nipple before he could start to protest. She then sat up and reached out to take the raktajino her free hand, blushing a little if their fingers chanced to touch. Odo found that blush so riveting that he made sure their fingers touched on a regular basis.

On the morning Ry'mell turned three months old, the vista that met Odo when he came in to make his "wake-up call" was somewhat different. Ry'mell lay a little distance from Kira, contentedly involved in examining his own small toes, while Kira slept sprawled against the bed, one arm shielding her eyes with the covers thrown off. Completely nude, her body had the smoothly curving lines of an ivory statue, the dark auburn of her pubic triangle an exclamation against her fair skin. Odo nearly dropped the cup of raktajino.

Steeling himself, he walked to the side of the bed and stood for a moment looking down at her - the soft rise and fall of her breathing was Kira's only movement. He honestly meant to cover her with the sheet before she awoke, but he lingered a moment too long, drinking in her body with his eyes, his finely tuned sensors close enough to feel the heat rising from her skin. Kira blinked and yawned, smiling a little before realizing her condition. A deep blush suffused her flesh, causing Odo to close his eyes with a long shudder of pleasure.

"I'm sorry," Kira apologized easily. "I always end up throwing off my nightshirt sometime in the middle of the night, thanks to this little fellow." She reached out and touched Ry'mell with one hand while reaching for the blankets with the other. She was startled when Odo caught her wrist in his hand, his fingers somehow soft and sensuous against her skin.

"There's no need to apologize. The truth is, I was - admiring you. So if anyone needs to apologize it's me."

"No harm in looking." Kira managed a reasonable facsimile of her normal smile. "I need to get up and get dressed, though - I have to take Ry'mell for his three-month check-up before I go on duty this morning."

"I thought he had his check-up last week." Odo looked over at the baby curiously. Ry'mell, alerted to the fact that Kira was awake, had rolled over onto his stomach (his newest wonderful accomplishment) and was beginning to squawk. Kira laughed, sitting up on the edge of the bed and gathering him into her arms to nurse. She looked up at Odo with a little smile, reaching out for her raktajino with her free hand and taking a sip. She nodded at the space beside her.

"Have a seat, Constable." She smothered her grin as Odo seated himself primly on the very edge of the bed - no wonder people mistook him for a virgin. No one would recognize this restrained individual as the same person who had sprawled against the living room loveseat and confessed how much he had once loved to fuck ... the term itself was ludicrous, coming from Odo, but it was an image Kira had a very hard time putting out of her mind. She shook her head and continued, "He did have a check-up last week. But there's a pediatrician here this week who specializes in inter-species offspring, and Julian wanted her to have a look at Ry'mell."

"Why?" Odo's eyes narrowed anxiously. "Is there something wrong?"

"I - I don't think so. Nothing serious, anyway." Kira glanced down at the baby in her arms, who was working at her breast with his usual single-minded concentration. "Julian said something about him looking a little jaundiced... I think it's just because this person is here, and Julian wanted to compare notes." Kira smiled. "You know how Julian is - any excuse to show someone how bright he is. Tell you what - why don't you come with us? I'm getting tired of being the only one there for the vaccinations and blood tests."

"Blood tests? They give babies blood tests?"

"I guess - Julian gave Ry'mell some last week." Kira stared at Odo, suddenly concerned. "I never thought much about it ... maybe you had better come with me ..."

An hour later in the Infirmary, Dr. T'Pelrah, a slight, dark-featured Vulcan of indeterminate age, struck up a surprising rapport with little Ry'mell, who was immediately enchanted with the doctor's ears. She withstood the small grasping hands with no sign of distress, and in fact evidenced the slight relaxation of features that was the closest any Vulcan came to a smile. She took in Odo and Kira with her level, appraising glance.

"He's a very calm baby - his emotions are profound, but very well-balanced and contained. You are to be commended." The doctor studied the readings from the med-scanner overhead, and her almost-expression became grave.

"Unfortunately, he is also dying."

"He's just a baby." Kira's voice was almost level, thanks to the sedative Bashir had given her after Odo had prevented her from doing Dr. T'Pelrah any bodily harm. Now she sat tensely in one of the two seats in front of Bashir's desk, her eyes fixed angrily on the young doctor's face. "How can he be dying?"

Odo sat in the chair beside Kira, the sleeping Ry'mell cuddled against his chest. The Changeling's face was an unreadable blank. Bashir took in the oddly well-matched trio with a pitying, searching gaze. He had packed Dr. T'Pelrah off to her quarters, barely managing not to swear at her for her "damnable Vulcan bedside manner". Now he spoke carefully, slowly, weighing every word on a scale that balanced between compassion and honesty.

"Occasionally, with inter-species infants, there's a kind of - chain reaction that sets up when their cells start manufacturing certain enzymes. It's something of a miracle that so many different species of humanoid are able to interbreed and produce viable offspring - and sometimes something goes wrong.

"Ry'mell has something called T'Pelrah's Syndrome - Dr. T'Pelrah is the one who first isolated it and studied it fifty years ago," Bashir affirmed in answer to the sudden question that sprang into Odo's and Kira's eyes. "When I heard she was in the vicinity, en route to deliver a paper at the Inter-Species Medicine Conference on Bajor, I asked her to come here to - confirm my diagnosis." Bashir was not someone who usually felt a need to have his diagnoses confirmed. "I so wanted to be wrong."

"This syndrome - what is it?" Odo asked quietly. These were the first words he had spoken, other than to shush Kira as he held her pinioned against him while they waited for Dr. Bashir's sedative to take effect. He fixed Bashir in an unblinking stare. "Is it - painful?"

"That - all depends." Bashir looked decidedly uncomfortable with his honest response. "Without going into a lot of long-winded medical explanations, certain enzymes that are a product of Ry'mell's Tavnian heritage are causing the Betazoid elements in his body to break down - as a result the balance of his system will eventually become too fragile to sustain life. It's like there are parts of his biochemistry - bent on consuming some of the others. It's like an immune agent would attack a disease, only the things that are being attacked are ones that Ry'mell needs to survive. Eventually, his major organs will start to give out."

"Can't they be replaced?" Kira's voice was pleading.

Bashir sighed. "If it were almost anything else, it might be possible. But this is a total systemic problem - you can't replace everything. You know that, Nerys." The group fell silent as all of them thought about Vedek Bareil. Bashir steeled himself to withstand Kira's stricken glare. "We've made hundreds of years of medical advances, Nerys, but the truth still comes down to this - sometimes babies just die. And there's not a damned thing we can do about it."

Kira just stared at him, tears brimming in her dark brown eyes. Odo reached out absently with his free hand, resting it gently against Kira's arm.

"You said it might or might not be painful. How is that determined?" Odo, retreating behind his professional investigator's manner, sounded more clinical than Bashir.

Bashir sighed. "It depends on what system breaks down first. If we're lucky, he'll just - start to sleep more, and one day he won't wake up."

"And if we're not lucky?"

"Let's not borrow trouble, Constable." Bashir cracked under Odo's relentless, unblinking stare. "A lot of it simply depends on how long it takes."

"How long could it take?" Odo asked quietly.

"A month ... maybe two." Bashir met Odo's eyes with compassion. "Pray it doesn't go any longer than three."

"No ..." Kira whispered. She reached out and put a protective hand on the sleeping baby, only to feel Ry'mell begin to stir fretfully, obviously disturbed by her rush of emotions. Kira drew her hand away. Bashir's face grew stern.

"Physical pain is something we're equipped to deal with. His emotional health - that's up to you. The only thing you can do for him now is to love him. He's Betazoid, he's going to feel what you feel, Nerys - so do what you need to do so that the primary emotion this baby feels from you is love. Because otherwise I would have to recommend that you find a caregiver who's more objective. Dr. T'Pelrah's already offered a nurse from her staff, but I thought that you and Odo would rather have this time yourselves. It's up to you."

"Of course we want it," Kira hissed. Her posture slowly crumpled, her head coming to rest in her hands. "We just want more of it ..."

"Then take him home." Bashir shoved his fingers through his hair, emotionally exhausted. He got up from behind his desk and came around it to stand directly in front of Odo, leaning down to where he could look into the baby's face. "I'll come by every day or so to check on him - no sense dragging him in here. Is that all right with you, Ry'mell?"

Bashir held out his finger. Ry'mell, who had awakened but remained silent in his place against Odo's chest, took the offering solemnly in both hands - then gave a toothless grin as he tried to shove the entire digit in his mouth. Bashir extracted it gently, a sudden glaze of moisture covering his eyes.

"All right, then," Bashir said briefly, turning to rummage uselessly at the various data PADDs on his desk. "Please don't hesitate to call me, no matter what time it is, if you have any questions, or if you just want to talk." He looked up, his gaze suddenly searching and intense. "Grab every minute that you can with him, because you'll be so damned sorry if you don't."

"Thank you, Doctor." Odo got to his feet, and looked down to where Kira was still sitting, staring blankly into space. "Nerys? Are you coming?"

Kira nodded slowly. "Of course." She managed to meet Bashir's eyes briefly. "Thank you, Julian."

Out on the main Promenade, Kira proceeded only as far as Ops, where she stopped and placed a shaky hand on Odo's arm. "I need to talk to Captain Sisko about - about a leave of absence."

"So do I," Odo said quietly. They exchanged looks and walked into Ops together. Dax, upon seeing the baby in Odo's arms, descended upon them at once - Ry'mell's popularity among the senior staff was well established. Dax gathered the baby from Odo's arms and began to croon at him happily - Ry'mell responded in kind, first grabbing Dax's nose, then trying to grab one of the spots on her neck, and finally fastening a determined hand on the fabric that covered her chest. Dax laughed and handed him to Kira.

"Sorry, young man, but that's not my department."

Kira swallowed hard, fresh tears springing to her eyes. Ry'mell looked wonderingly up into her face, and started to wail.

"Shh... it's all right." Kira forcibly steadied herself, before showering the top of the baby's head with fierce, protective kisses. Ry'mell at length grew quiet, although his eyes remained wide, his expression oddly adult as he fixed his surrogate mother in a solemn stare.

Dax looked from Odo to Kira, and then back to Odo again. "What is it?" she whispered. "What's wrong?"

"I - ask Dr. Bashir. You can tell him I said it was all right." Odo looked across the expanse of Ops to the doors of Sisko's office. Just then, Benjamin Sisko emerged and stood motionless on the encircling catwalk. It was clear from the expression on his face that Bashir had abandoned doctor-patient confidentiality and contacted their commander - an offense for which Odo felt profoundly grateful.

"Nerys ..." Ry'mell snugly 'pouched' against his chest, Odo held Kira's elbow as he assisted her up the short flight of stairs, leading her to the captain's side. Dark eyes solemn, Sisko murmured a greeting and nodded them into his office.

"Julian told you," Kira observed faintly. Sisko nodded gravely.

"I can't - begin to tell you how sorry I am." Sisko fixed his gaze on the baby in Odo's arms - a father himself, he loved babies in general and had come to love Ry'mell in particular. "I just can't imagine - I don't know what I would do if Jake were to - I'm just so, so sorry." Sisko held out his hands tentatively. "May I -?"

Odo gently passed the baby into his commander's grasp. Ry'mell stared up at Sisko, wide-eyed, and his tiny brow furrowed. Taking a deep breath, the baby started to yell at the top of his lungs.

"Ut-oh." Kira managed a weak smile. "That can be only one of two things."

Sisko, remembering the options, checked the first. "Nope - dry as a bone."

"Then he's hungry. Do you mind -?"

"Go right ahead."

Kira took the baby in her arms, silencing further protests by uncovering her breast and proceeding to fill the hungry mouth. Slowly her expression lightened, as the baby's happy contentment at having his needs met washed through her.

"Odo, are you sure you're not going to come in any minute with a cup of raktajino and wake me up?"

Odo reached out automatically, resting a gentle hand on her arm. "I wish I was."

Sisko observed the pair solemnly, before clearing his throat. "I imagine you're both going to want a leave of absence. I'm already processing the paperwork - it won't be official for a few days, but as far as I'm concerned it's already started. Take all of the time you need." Sisko shook his head. "I just can't believe it. He looks so healthy."

"I keep telling myself that it must be some kind of mistake." Kira stroked the baby's head softly with her free hand. "That's he'll prove them wrong."

"I don't think they'd care one bit if he did." Sisko smiled gave a rueful smile, before turning his attention to Odo. "How are you holding up, Constable?"

Odo's responding look was faintly surprised - the surprise underlined with bitterness. "The same way I always have, Captain. My people aren't given to emotional excesses."

Kira stared at him, startled and a little hurt. "I'll try to keep it under control."

"No - I didn't mean -"For a brief second the facade dropped, revealing the raw agony underneath. "I'm sorry, Nerys. We just each have to cope in our own way."

"Cope." Kira's tone was flat. "How the hell are you supposed to cope with something like this?" She looked from Odo to Sisko, not really expecting an answer. A look of hesitant longing flickered through her eyes as she fell on her commanding officer. Sisko for once stepped willingly into his role as the Bajoran Prophets' 'Emissary'.

He spoke softly, in Bajoran. His accent, Kira noted vaguely, was still atrocious.

"Prophets' blessings on this child, and all who love him. May healing come into all their lives, and may they know peace."

Kira found herself unable to speak for the lump in her throat. Odo, the self-avowed agnostic, managed a little better.

"Thank you, Captain. Now, if you'll excuse us, I need to take care of a few things in my office, and delegate what I can to the appropriate deputies. And I think Nerys would like to rest."

"Nerys would like to scream and throw things," Kira said, "but the baby needs to rest."

Ry'mell, by now sleeping peacefully against Kira's breast, showed no particular need for a change of location, and murmured a drowsy protest as Kira shifted him her arms, readjusting her tunic to cover herself. Odo slipped his hand in the crook of her arm and led her from Sisko's office back into the main area of Ops, where the silence assaulted them like a wave. Dax had obviously wasted no time in contacting Dr. Bashir, and had spread the word in turn. Kira lowered her eyes, unable to withstand the looks of sorrow and compassion without flinching.

Chief O'Brien came to meet them, anguished sympathy written plainly across his forthright face. "Constable - Major - if there's anything I can do, anything at all -"

"Thank you, Chief," Odo said gently. Dax approached from the other side to hover anxiously near Kira.

"Nerys - Odo -"

"Can you go with Nerys back to my quarters, Commander?" Odo asked quietly. "I think she could use the company right now, and I have to straighten out a few things in my office."

"Plus I need to go over some things with you," Kira added, forcing her voice and her mind to calm. "Can you manage to come with me for say, forty-five minutes?"

"Sure." Dax looked entirely willing to give up the entire day, the entire year should it be requested of her. "I'm ready right now, if you want."

"Come on, then."

And so began the unraveling of their lives.

Odo finally came back to his quarters twelve hours later to find Kira sitting on the sofa - the real sofa, the one he'd gotten to augment the loveseat when it was determined that Kira was, for all intents and purposes, moving in - holding the sleeping Ry'mell in her arms. Odo crossed the room slowly to sit down beside her, his eyes fixed on her face.

"I'm sorry I was so long - but I think I have everything taken care of so I won't have to go back before - before I want to. Has Dax gone?" he asked quietly.

"I threw her out half an hour ago," Kira said wryly. "I think if I hadn't she would have spent the night."

"I had the feeling that a number of people were ready to move in at a moment's notice if they thought it would help." Odo reached out and touched the baby's cheek. "How long has he been asleep?"

"I don't know - since I last fed him, about twenty minutes ago." Kira dropped an absent-minded kiss on top of the small head. "It's awful - all day, whenever he would go to sleep - I kept wanting to wake him up ..." Tears began slipping soundlessly down her cheeks.

Ry'mell whimpered a little in his sleep. Odo reached out his hands.

"May I -?"

"Of course," Kira managed in a choked voice. She passed the baby carefully into Odo's arms, where he settled back into a peaceful sleep.

Odo shifted, so that Ry'mell was snugly "pouched" while leaving Odo's arms free. Odo reached out to take Kira's hand in his. She looked up at him, startled, before smiling a little and letting her fingers curl trustingly around his.

"I'm glad you're here," she said simply.

"Funny - I was thinking the same thing about you."

They sat together in their companionable silence as the minutes slipped by, the loudest sound in the room the baby's contented breathing. Odo finally released Kira's hand after giving it a last squeeze. "I'm going to put him in his bed," he whispered. "It looks like you could use the same."

"I'm fine," Kira said automatically. Her eyes were fixed on Odo's back as he disappeared into the nursery. She was startled when he emerged several minutes later with her bed, guiding it along on its anti-grav casters.

"What are you doing?"

"You won't get any sleep if you stay in there - you'll be waking up every time you hear his breathing change. I'm putting you in my room. I'll stay out here."

Kira got to her feet. "But what about ... ?"

"We'll leave a comlink open between all three rooms - that will be enough for either one of us to hear it if he wakes up." Odo smiled a little. "You know you'll have him in bed with you by morning anyway. At least this way you may get a few hours sleep."

"He's gotten to where he usually sleeps through most of the night now." Kira smiled. "Soon he'll be -"

She stopped. Her eyes traveled slowly to meet Odo's while her hands reached out towards him blindly.

"Prophets - I was about to say that soon he'll be sleeping through all of it." Kira gave an anguished moan. "Like that was a good thing."

"Under normal circumstances it would be," Odo observed quietly. "It's - it's going to be hard to remember, at first."

"And yet it's the only thing I've been thinking about..." Kira raised her hands to her face, bursting into tears.

"Nerys ..." Abandoning his task, Odo crossed the room and hesitantly held out his hands to her. Kira took them tightly in hers, before stepping closer so that her body was pressed against his, burying her face against his chest. Odo closed his eyes, dropping his head to whisper into her hair.

"I'm so sorry ... I dragged you into this."

Kira's head shot up and she stared at him. "Don't you dare apologize!"

"I didn't mean -"

"I love him, dammit! You don't wish that people you love were never part of your life, just because you know you're going to lose them! You just love them as hard and as long as you can!"

The look that Odo gave her in return was unfathomable. "You're right," he whispered, raising his hand to her face. Their eyes locked. Kira stared at him for a long moment, before letting her hands fall limply to her sides and turning away.

"Here, let me help you with that." She nodded at the waiting bed.

Together they angled the bed through the door to the second bedroom and found it a suitably obscure spot along the wall. Kira then looked at Odo's shapeshifting structure, shaking her head.

"Now, of course, the question is how will I be able to sleep with that looming over me?"

Odo glanced at his 'sculpture', startled. "I'm sorry - I can dismantle it if you like -"

"I'm sure it will be fine." Kira managed a wry smile. "I've slept with worse things hanging over my head." Her smile faded as she realized that in one sense she hadn't. She sighed, dropping her chin against her chest. "If you don't mind, I think I will try to get some sleep. Good night, Odo."

"Good night, Nerys." Odo slipped from the room without another word, the door whispering closed behind him.

Kira, realizing that her nightshirt was still in the other room, shrugged and began to shuck off her clothes. I don't care if Odo sees me - I don't care who sees me. When your heart's been stripped bare, it doesn't seem like the rest matters that much...

Kira fell into bed, where she proceeded to toss and turn for what felt like hours. The comlink to the nursery seemed too quiet - she had to force herself half a dozen times not to go to check on the sleeping infant. The comlink to the other room featured occasional soft noises, as Odo went about doing whatever it was he did when he was in a liquid state. The darkness, normally comforting, a friend that had hidden her from danger so many times in her terrorist past, weighed down on Kira like lead.

When she finally gave up and got out of bed, Kira fully meant to do nothing more than to go to the bathroom to run some warm water on her wrists, and perhaps take just one peep at the baby. But when she walked through the door into the dark of the main room she continued instead in the direction of the room's viewport, where she could see Odo lying pooled on the floor in front of it, his translucent amber substance glimmering in the starlight. He took shape as she approached, his initially familiar humanoid outline solidifying in a form she had never seen from him before, but the one that he somehow knew she wanted to see from him now.

Odo was naked, too.

He's always naked, a little voice taunted from the back of Kira's mind as she stepped unhesitatingly against him, her fingers coming to rest on his impossibly smooth, warm skin. Her hands slid down Odo's back to close on the surprisingly well-formed contours of his buttocks, as Kira rubbed without shame against the equally well-formed erection that lay pressed between their bellies. Nice that he knows how to be naked that way, too.

It was the same voice. Kira silenced it and any others that might be clamoring to be heard with a single switch in her head, as her mouth met Odo's in a slow, sensual searching, his flesh touching hers like a balm anointing her blistered psyche. Kira sank down to lie on the floor, drawing Odo with her, opening herself to him and his unexpectedly perfect humanoid body as he slowly began to thrust himself within her, completely - if temporarily - driving her pain away.

Afterwards, he lifted her soundlessly and carried her to her bed, tucking her in with gentle efficiency, before leaving without a word. In the morning, Ry'mell lay in her arms, nuzzling sleepily at her breasts, and Odo sat nudging her gently awake, cup of raktajino in hand, his usual calm, contained, 'fully-clothed' self.

About the night just past they said nothing, because there seemed to be nothing more to say.

"You did what?" Dax, looking up from where she was cuddling Ry'mell in her lap, stared at Kira in astonishment. The Trill had dropped by during her break, which was already showing signs of running an unusually long time.

"You heard me." At first Kira had thought it nothing but a blissful relief to unburden herself to someone, but now she wasn't so sure.

"You - and Odo - I didn't think he - you know -"

"Surprise." Kira, seated sideways on the sofa, pulled her knees up against her chest, hugging them tightly against herself. "I don't know why - it just happened." She laughed dryly. "What am I saying? Of course I know why."

Dax gave her a completely understanding smile, one born out of the experience of eight lifetimes. "It stopped the hurting for a while?"

Kira nodded. "It even stopped my thinking about it."

"So, what did he say?"

"Odo?"

"No, the Grand Nagus." Dax rolled her eyes. "Of course Odo."

Kira shrugged. "Nothing."

"Nothing?" Dax stared at Kira doubtfully. "What do you mean, nothing?"

"I mean he didn't say anything!" Kira threw up her hands. "Neither one of us said a word. We just fucked."

Dax's eyebrows shot up at Kira's unusually frank turn of phrase. "Is that what it felt like?"

"I'm not sure what it felt like, except that I nearly passed out before it was over."

"Well, that sounds promising."

Kira made a face. "There was nothing 'promising' about it - I doubt if it will ever happen again."

Dax thought about pursuing the topic, but wisely decided to let it drop. Instead she lifted the baby in her arms so that his small face hung close to hers, and began making unintelligible sounds. Ry'mell crowed happily, both hands making a beeline to grab the Trill's nose.

Sighing, Dax lowered the baby back into her lap. "I just can't believe it. It's like there's nothing wrong."

"I know." Kira reached out and reclaimed Ry'mell, who was mesmerized with delight as her earring swung tantalizingly within reach. "I keep expecting Julian to call me and tell me that they recalibrated the med scanner, and it was all some big screw-up."

"So ..." Dax looked around the room curiously. "Where is Odo this morning?"

"I'm not sure - he said something about going shopping." Kira's Bajoran nose wrinkled a little further. "I think this little fellow needs a change."

Dax followed Kira into the nursery, standing ready with assorted implements as required. "You've gotten good at this," she observed, chuckling. "I still remember the day he got you in the eye."

"Yeah, well, that's a learning experience you don't soon forget." Kira laughed in turn, deftly fastening the baby's clean diaper. "This is one job I happily leave for Odo - sometimes I really envy him, having no sense of smell."

"I can't believe he went shopping." Dax shook her head in wonder.

"I think he just needs to be doing something right now. Let's face it - there's only so much taking care of a three-month-old baby needs." Kira lifted Ry'mell in her arms, automatically unfastening her blouse as he tugged at it with insistent hands. She blushed a little as she remembered the red marks scattered on her neck and chest, but decided to brazen it out. "It hurts almost as much to see Odo as it does Ry'mell - he's never really loved anyone before, and now this happens." Kira guided the baby's mouth to her breast.

Dax looked ready to differ, but instead she offered, "I think Odo cares a lot more about some things - and some people - than he ever lets on."

"Yeah ... you're probably right." Kira looked at Dax and gave a rueful smile. "Speaking of caring about things, I thought you cared about your job."

Dax shrugged. "Benjamin said I could hang around a while if it looked like you could use the company."

"Did it look like it?"

"Kind of."

"I'm fine." Kira nuzzled the top of the baby's head. "I have plenty of company right here."

"Then I guess I'll be heading back." Dax leaned over and kissed Kira on the cheek. "Just call me if you need me."

"Thanks, Jadzia."

Kira had just put Ry'mell down for his first nap of the day and was wondering if she had been too hasty to abdicate all work for the duration when Odo came through the door, his arms laden with oddly-shaped packages. He greeted Kira absent-mindedly, before beginning to unpack his assortment of bundles. Kira ventured curiously to his side, to discover an extensive variety of large, vivid crystals, in a variety of shapes and colors. Each one had a tiny control panel, which Odo deftly adjusted.

"What on earth -?"

"They float - see?" Odo released one of the crystals, which soared to a predetermined height and hovered a few feet from the ceiling. "You just set them for the desired height and then let them go anywhere you want. Also -"Odo picked up a small control."- you can use this to control them, they respond to the different tones. So you can make them soar and arc - fly around the room if you want. I thought Ry'mell would like them."

"I'm sure he will." Kira silently cursed the sudden lump in her throat, the fresh wave of anguish that slammed into her gut. "Damn!" she hissed briefly, turning away.

"Nerys?" Odo followed her as she stumbled to the couch. "Are you all right?"

"Apparently not." Kira sank down tiredly, sprawling full-length on her stomach. "I'm beginning to think I should just plan to nap whenever Ry'mell does."

"That might not be a bad idea." Odo sat down on the edge of the sofa beside her, laying his hands on her shoulders and beginning to massage them gently. "You're tied up in knots."

"And you're not?" Kira's tone was acerbic, even while she arched her back gratefully.

"It just hits me differently, that's all. I'm fine as long as I have something to do."

Her face hidden against a cushion, Kira's next words were muffled. Odo leaned closer.

"I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that."

Kira rolled over onto her back, looking up at him with solemn brown eyes. "Last night," she said quietly, "was that just 'something to do'?"

"What do you think?" Odo looked away, unable to meet her gaze. "It felt better than hurting, didn't it?"

"Yes," Kira said simply. She sat up and startled Odo by taking his face in her hands, forcing him to look into her eyes. She leaned over and pressed her lips gently to his. "Thank you."

Odo managed one of his painful smiles. "Any time."

Kira's gaze grew intent. "How about now?" she whispered.

Odo allowed himself to be led to Kira's narrow bed, and even managed to help her when Kira's trembling fingers were utterly defeated by her belt. His own semblance of clothing disappeared in a single, sinuous morphing - Kira reached out and touched him tentatively, her hands warming to their task as she caressed the smooth planes of his naked form. Odo in turn covered her mouth with his, silencing her before she could begin to speak. He then proceeded to pleasure his partner until she cried out, a sharp, harsh sound torn from the depths of her gut. It was answered by a noisy protest from the adjoining room.

"Prophets, we woke up the baby." Kira staggered from Odo's arms, throwing her nightshirt on over her head and racing to the nursery. When she emerged with Ry'mell in her arms, Odo awaited them in the main living area, his usual restrained, neatly uniformed self. Kira stared at him, wondering for a an odd moment if she had dreamed the whole thing. The musky scent rising from her body, the moisture seeping from between her thighs seemed to make that unlikely, but there was something unnerving in Odo's calm, unreadable expression. She realized with a jolt that Odo had seemed curiously detached throughout both of their encounters, as though any pleasure he might be feeling was being held sternly in check - more troubled than she wanted to admit, Kira went to put the baby down on a blanket in the center of the floor, where he lay kicking happily, making yet another grab for her earring. Kira suddenly felt sick.

"I can't believe it - how could we -"

Catching her darkening mood, Ry'mell's small brow furrowed, and he suddenly started to scream. The vigor of his tantrum should have heartened her, but Kira plunged deeper and deeper into the morass of her own guilt as she tried vainly to comfort the flailing infant. Odo finally intervened.

"Let me hold him," he ordered quietly. Removed from immediate contact with Kira, Ry'mell slowly calmed down, settling in comfortably against Odo's chest. Odo smiled a little and reached for the device that controlled the floating crystals overhead. "Look, Ry'mell." He activated a button.

A bright blue crystal came to hover about six inches from Ry'mell's nose, bobbing up and down enticingly. Ry'mell made an excited grab for it, entirely distracted from the woman slowly collecting herself a few feet away from him.

"I believe I warned you about thinking," Odo said dryly. Kira came slowly to stand by his side.

"So you did." She smiled faintly at the baby's excitement. "It just seems so - obscene."

Odo looked at her, a glint of cold outrage shining in his eyes. "There's nothing obscene about anything we've done, Nerys. What's obscene is what's going to happen to this child." Odo gathered Ry'mell closer in his arms, and for a brief second Kira could see all of Odo's raw emotion written plainly on his face. She closed her eyes at the unfathomable pain of it. Finally she shook herself.

"I thought I'd get cleaned up and go to my quarters for a little while, once he's fed and down for another nap." Kira nodded at the wide-awake baby. "I - I want to pray for a while."

Odo looked at her oddly. "What were you planning to pray for?"

Kira stared at him, puzzled. "I don't know - that the doctors are wrong, I suppose. That the equipment's defective."

"Oh." Odo smiled a little. "That's good - I thought you might be planning to ask the Prophets just to keep him alive as long as possible."

"Would that be wrong?" Kira's eyes flicked from Odo's to Ry'mell's face, curious.

"I'm afraid that it might be. I don't know, I just hope that -"Odo stopped abruptly.

"You just hope what?"

Odo sighed. "I just hope that, before it's all over, we aren't praying for him to die quickly."

However, as the weeks went by, it began to look like the worst of Odo's fears might be realized.

At first the signs were subtle - Ry'mell became a little quieter, prone to take longer and longer naps in his antigravity cradle. Kira could no longer hold him while he slept, simply because he was unable to remain asleep in her arms due to the strength of her emotions. She was the one with the most intimate connection to how the baby was feeling, through the medium of her breasts - the first to sense his lagging interest in the nourishment she offered him, even while he clung to her warmth for comfort. Kira lost weight as well, the shadows beneath her eyes becoming a seemingly permanent fixture in her pale face.

Guilty as it might make her feel, the only consolation that had any meaning for her was the time she spent in Odo's embrace, letting him turn her body into an erotic landscape where no errant thought could intrude. She had started simply turning to him at night and taking his hand, drawing him with her to her bed, where they would lie silently entwined for hours, exploring how many ways there might be to fondle and stimulate each other's bodies. Where Odo was concerned, Kira felt curiously frustrated - he seemed only mildly interested in her caresses, instead focusing all of his energies on pleasing her. It also troubled her that he never touched her with his natural form, preferring to remain solid for the full extent of all their encounters.

Which was not to say that, even solid, Odo didn't offer her a perspective on lovemaking that was uniquely his own. Still, she tried to raise the subject of more fluid possibilities - with absolutely no success.

"Don't talk," he whispered before she could get more than two words out of her mouth. "If you talk, you think." He sat up in bed and slid across it until his back was braced against the wall, drawing Kira after him so that her back pressed into his chest. He then let his mouth drift to her sensitive right ear, causing her to moan and squirm against him as he sucked delicately on the lobe, flicking aside her earring with a deft push of his tongue. His hands slid leisurely down her torso, lingering on her breasts before finally settling in her lap. Kira whimpered as he slowly insinuated them between her thighs.

"You're cheating, Odo," she whispered.

"How so?" Apparently this line of talk was acceptable, possibly because it was so blatantly obvious that Kira couldn't think beyond the sensations bombarding her body.

"No humanoid has fingers that long."

"No humanoid has three hands, either." Two of Odo's slid back up Kira's body to once again caress her breasts.

"Not true. The Carresi have three hands."

"I stand corrected."

Kira's gentle movements against him gradually increased until she was writhing wildly, letting out a final, sharp cry in her release. They automatically paused, listening for any sign that the baby might be awake in the other room, before Odo gently angled Kira back across his lap, leaning over to run his tongue enticingly along the ridges of her nose. Kira sighed, in bliss.

"I thought you had only done it with Cardassians." And Lwaxana, she added silently, not wanting to break the mood.

"No." The gentle pressure against Kira's nose increased, was replaced with light sucking. Kira gasped, arching her back. "There was Dr. Narin."

"Narin Pelanna?" Kira somehow managed to maintain the conversation. "Isn't she the head of some research center now?"

"She's heading up a task force investigating possibilities for preventing changeling infiltration."

Thoughts, unwelcome but unavoidable, crept back into Kira's mind. "Was she at the Science Ministry - when you were -"

"When I was a young and vulnerable changeling? Don't think about it." Odo drew Kira up into his arms, silencing any further questions she might have with the effective placement of his mouth over hers. His fingertips once again found her clitoris, exciting it gently until she was gasping for breath. He then angled her body so that she slid effortlessly onto his perfect simulation of an engorged penis, which in turn expanded to fill her to her utmost depths.

This time Kira's scream had more resonance, and she was grateful that the comlink from the nursery was only one-way. Afterwards she lay limp in Odo's arms, running her hands aimlessly against his chest - there was a certain extra softness there, a slight give she had never noticed before. Kira blew softly against Odo's ear, once again attempting to verbalize her wishes. "Odo," she whispered, "shift for me."

"What do you mean?" She could feel the tension ricochet through his body as any real or imagined softness vanished. "What do you want me to be?"

"Just you," she murmured. "I want to feel you the way you really are."

"I don't - I don't think that's wise." Odo withdrew slowly from Kira's arms, the unreadable mask on his face cracking to reveal raw fear underneath.

"Why not?" Kira leaned on one elbow, reaching out to gently run her hand against his chest. "You've seen me the way I am."

"I just - don't think you'll like it."

"Why wouldn't I?" Kira snuggled against him. "I might like it very much." Kira's eyes darkened with concern as she saw the look of near rigor on Odo's face. "What happened to make you think that way?"

Odo rolled over so that his back was to her, and Kira could feel the tension singing through his body. "Dr. Narin - Pelanna - was the only Bajoran I've been with. She'd seen me in my liquid state so many times in the lab, it never occurred to me that it would bother her ..."

"And?" Kira prodded gently when Odo failed to respond. "What happened? Did you - show yourself to her? Let her - feel you the way you really are?"

Odo nodded. "She wasn't - prepared for it."

"What did she do?"

Odo gave a liquid shudder. A moist sheen filmed his shoulders as Kira stared at his back, concerned. Finally he whispered, "She screamed. She panicked. And she never let me touch her again."

Without so much as a backwards glance, Odo slipped from the bed and left the room. Kira stared after him, a slow rage at the unfeeling woman who had hurt him scorching her heart, until exhaustion finally overtook her and she fell into a leaden sleep.

The morning that followed found Odo unable to meet Kira's eyes, and Kira at a loss as to how to bridge the gap that had suddenly yawned between them. Although he finally joined her in her bed on the night that followed, wordlessly sliding into her waiting arms, his lovemaking was carefully, painstakingly solid, with no lightening of the tension that somehow infused his entire frame. As soon as Kira reached her own reluctant climax, he kissed her gently and left her there, staring into the dark until sleep finally crept up from behind and took her exhausted body unawares.

As a result she was only dimly aware when Ry'mell started crying in the background, and of the gentle release of pressure as the milk was drawn from her breasts. As Odo often brought the baby to her to nurse when she couldn't quite struggle to consciousness, Kira thought nothing of it - until she came fully awake shortly thereafter and realized that neither Odo nor the baby was present, but that her breasts had obviously been relieved of their burden of milk. Not bothering to find her nightshirt, Kira wandered into the living area, puzzled - and stood riveted at the sight that met her eyes.

Odo stood in near the viewpoint, cuddling Ry'mell in his arms and singing to him softly, still affecting the naked form he had started assuming as a matter of course when he joined Kira in the bedroom. Only there was a difference - the unmistakable presence of feminine breasts, at one of which Ry'mell nursed contentedly. Kira crossed the room slowly, hesitantly - Odo glanced up at her, his mouth barely curving in a rueful smile.

"I'm sorry - I didn't want to wake you. I know your breasts have been sore lately."

"Julian says I don't get the baby to take them right." Kira's eyes were fixed on the spectacle before her. "Where did you - is that my -"

"I absorbed the milk from you, yes." Odo suddenly looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry - I didn't mean to disturb you."

"I'm not disturbed - I'm just surprised." Kira smiled a little. "I just didn't realize you could - do that.'

"I didn't know before tonight if I could either. It never occurred to me at first - I suppose I show my humanoid "upbringing" more than I like to admit - plus I wasn't sure if he'd accept it. But tonight it was just something I wanted to try - and it seems to be working." Odo's voice became tight, a little uncomfortable. "I suppose that this - is the sort of thing that underlines how alien I am to you."

"Odo -"Kira put her hands on her hips, frustrated. "I know you're alien. We're all aliens somewhere - to your people I'm a 'solid'. That doesn't mean that your alienness is going to bother me - or make me scream. You're still Odo."

The Changeling gave her startled, considering look, as he automatically shifted the now-sleeping baby up to his shoulder and patted the small back. "He's gone back to sleep," Odo murmured unnecessarily. "Let me put him in his bed."

Kira waited patiently until Odo returned. She noticed that he had done nothing to alter his shape to the perfect male likeness to which she had grown accustomed. Kira met his gaze with solemn, unsmiling calm, walking steadily across the room to meet him.

Without the ridiculous heels that some bright soul had thought to add to her uniform, it was a fairly easy dip of the head and slight bending of the knees to bring her mouth level to Odo's still prominent breasts. Kira sighed as she closed her lips around one of his nipples, and tasted the sweetness of her own milk against her tongue. Her hand closed on the other breast and kneaded it gently, the unexpected sensuality of it making her knees go weak.

Odo lifted her as effortlessly as if she were Ry'mell, holding her so that her long legs practically dangled over his shoulder, but her questing mouth remained undisturbed. Instead of carrying her back to bed, Odo lowered her gently to the floor in front of the viewport, where the starlight could play across her body. Standing over her, Odo let his form revert into a golden column - one that sank to pool between Kira's thighs, before flowing over and then into her enticingly. Kira cried out at the sudden, blissful heat, the totality of the sensation - she seized handfuls of Odo's substance, rubbing them against her breasts, her lips - her embarrassingly inartistic fingers finally found their medium as they sculpted Odo's living flesh. When she did scream there was no way that it could be taken for anything other than what it was - an inarticulate response to a searing flash of utter ecstasy.

She continued on blindly with her caresses until Odo suddenly re-formed in her arms, in his more familiar masculine shape, pinioning her wrists over her head and gasping for her to stop. He then collapsed against her, exhausted, while Kira ran her hands wonderingly down his outstretched arms and the length of his back.

"You enjoyed it," she whispered. "I mean, you really enjoyed it."

"It was - extraordinary." Odo found his voice with difficulty. "What about - did you -"

"Like you said," Kira said softly. To Odo's questioning silence she added, "It was extraordinary." She chuckled against his ear. "You could have been making some lucky woman happy a long time before now."

Odo disentangled himself from Kira's embrace, propping himself up on one elbow to look down into her face. For once even his hair was in disarray.

"Unfortunately, the woman I wanted to make happy wasn't interested before now."

Kira stared at him gravely, thinking how surprised she would have been as recently as an hour before at such a revelation. Now it somehow seemed to fit in the overall weirdness of the emotional landscape.

"Me?" she asked softly.

Odo hesitated, then nodded reluctantly. Kira sighed and drew him back into her arms.

"Unfortunately the woman you wanted to make happy is as blind as a Xerxonian mole-rat. What a hell of a way to bring two people together."

"Are we?" Odo whispered.

"Are we what?" Kira asked. "Are we together?"

Odo nodded soundlessly against her neck. Kira sighed and ran her hands down his back, her fingers lingering sensuously as they passed over his smooth skin.

"We are right now," she said simply.

She could feel Odo's body relaxing slowly against hers. It was an answer he could at least understand.

Somehow Kira, intent on surviving the battleground her life had become, completely forgot to take account of Shakaar in her defensive planning. Upon later reflection, she would realize that this omission was telling.

The reminder came one afternoon when Ry'mell had fallen into a fitful sleep - his naps had become far more frequent, but far less restful - and Kira had dragged Odo onto the sofa with her, tears streaming down her face even while she shrugged off the robe that seemed to be all that she wanted to wear and pulled him between her thighs. Attempting to drown her anguish in the mindlessness of passion, Kira didn't even try to be diplomatic when they were interrupted by the buzzing of the doorcom.

"Who is it?" she snarled. The reply came slightly muffled, but discernible.

"It's Edon. May I - may I come in?"

"Just a minute." Kira's eyes flew, startled, to Odo's face, even as he resumed his normal uniformed appearance, seating himself on the far end of the sofa and staring at her warily. Kira pulled her robe back on over her shoulders, fastening the belt with haphazard efficiency.

"He must be on his way to some kind of meeting or conference - I had no idea he was coming ..."

"Would you like me to leave?" Odo asked quietly.

"Maybe I should talk to him by myself for a few minutes," Kira acceded. Odo slipped into the darkened nursery, leaving Kira alone to meet her lover. "I'm sorry, Edon - come in!"

Shakaar Edon came through the door, looking around him curiously - Kira managed a mangled smile as she crossed the room to meet him.

"Nerys!" Shakaar gathered her into his arms.

Living with someone who possessed no sense of smell, Kira had almost forgotten that there were other sensitive Bajoran noses similar to her own. Shakaar drew away from her slowly, a startled, questioning look on his face. Kira stared at him, puzzled.

"Edon? Is something wrong?"

"Who have you been with?" he asked tightly.

"Oh." Realizing what he meant, Kira let her gaze drop shamefaced to the floor. "Let me get dressed," she said finally. "We'll go out somewhere and talk."

"Doesn't someone need to stay with the baby?" Shakaar, who had visited the station again shortly after Ry'mell's arrival, looked toward the nursery, concerned.

"Someone's in with him now," Kira said shortly. Shakaar's eyes flew back to drill into the top of her head, as realization abruptly sank home. Still not looking at him, Kira crossed the room and disappeared into the bedroom, returning in her uniform in double-quick time.

The silence between them stretched out until they reached the upper walk of the Promenade, where they slowed and stood together to watch all the traffic passing beneath, the Security contingent that accompanied the First Minister whenever he came to the station posted a discreet distance away. Kira finally asked, "Do you want a raktajino? We could go to the Replimat ..." She stared into space, able to look at anything but Shakaar's face.

She was surprised to feel his arm encircle her shoulders. "Nerys, before you say anything, I think I should tell you one thing."

"Yes?" Kira's hands tightened on the railing in front of her.

"I know what's going on in your life right now - and I understand why you might be - doing something you otherwise wouldn't do."

Kira was finally able to look up at him, with a tiny smile. "I should have known you would. I can't explain it - it's like it's the only thing I can do to keep from screaming."

"Well, Prophets know we've both been there." Shakaar squeezed her shoulders consolingly. He was silent for a long moment before adding, "May I ask you one question?"

"Sure." Kira put her arms around his waist, hugging him briefly.

"Are you in love with him?"

"No - I don't know." Kira stared ahead, her eyes fixed on some horrific vista only she could see. "I'm in hell with him." She reached out and caught Shakaar's hand blindly in hers. "Don't you care who it is?"

"It's Odo, isn't it?"

Her eyes flew to meet his. "How did you know?"

"He's the one you're in hell with right now." Shakaar smiled ruefully. "Besides, most men leave behind a scent of their own. He's the only one I imagine would be different."

"Right." Kira gave a dry chuckle. "The only things Odo ever smells like are baby spit-up or me."

"Come on. Let's get ourselves that raktajino."

Seated in the Replimat, mug in hand, Kira forgot that Shakaar was supposedly her lover, and relaxed in the company of her friend. The exhausted woman sighed as the steam from her beverage filtered into her nose.

"I probably shouldn't be drinking this."

"Doesn't agree with the baby?"

"Not anymore." Kira shook her head, setting the mug on the table in front of her. "Nothing does."

"Poor little bub."

"He's so good, Edon." Kira was dismayed at the sudden catch that came to her throat. "He still smiles at me when I pick him up, but most of the time he just lies there ... his little face is so sad. He makes me think of the children we liberated from Gallitep, so tiny and thin but with such old eyes..."

"I remember." Shakaar spoke with difficulty, his own eyes shadowed.

"You should see Odo shapeshifting for him." Kira didn't know it, but an immeasurable softness came to her face as she spoke. "Dogs, razor cats, birds - balloons! He turned into a vermokk once and just lay there letting Ry'mell pull his fur - Odo will go at it for hours, just to distract him. It's the only thing that really seems to work. I've never known anyone able to devote himself to something as single-mindedly as Odo does to taking care of Ry'mell." Her voice dropped to the barest whisper, speaking truths she barely recognized. "And me."

"This constable of yours," Shakaar said finally, "is a very fine man."

Kira looked up, startled out of her reverie. "No, Edon, I didn't mean ..."

"I'm not saying you did, I'm just stating facts." Shakaar shushed her gently. "I've rarely met someone with so much - integrity - and I'll understand if when this is all over you decide you want to be with him."

"I don't know what I'll want when this is over." Kira shook her head. "I'm sorry, I can't see past today."

"Sounds like when we were with the Resistance," Shakaar observed. "So many days - so many battles that we couldn't see beyond, because we didn't know if we'd still be alive at the end of them."

Kira nodded in slow acquiescence. "That's it - it's just like that. Only I can't wish for the Occupation to end ..." Kira thrust her hands into her lap, digging her nails into her knees to keep from crying.

"You can - I suspect you do. You just feel as guilty as hell about it afterwards."

"Yes." It was a bleak confession.

Kira and Shakaar stood simultaneously as though by prior agreement. Shakaar managed a smile.

"Well, I'm en route to a conference on Risa - I suppose I'd better be on my way."

"They have conferences there, too?" Kira smiled wryly in return.

"I guess they figure folks there are so happy that there's not a lot of danger from terrorists."

"I suspect you're the only terrorist they'll have to worry about." Kira lay her hands gently on his shoulders. "Edon - don't go without."

"Have I ever?" Shakaar put his arms around Kira and kissed her - a kiss that tasted of good-bye. "Take care of yourself, Nerys."

"I will. You too."

Kira walked Shakaar to the docking bay, and watched as he disappeared through the airlock on his way to his ship. She then headed back to the Habitat Ring, a sudden, odd sense of urgency hastening her steps.

Odo sat in the main living area on the sofa, little Ry'mell cradled in his arms. Odo was the only one Ry'mell could bear to let hold him for any length of time, simply because Odo's emotions never penetrated the baby's consciousness. Sitting on the smaller couch facing Odo, surprisingly, was Quark. Next to him was a stuffed bear easily the size of Quark's nephew, Nog.

"Hello, Quark." Kira sat down slowly next to Odo, studying the Ferengi curiously.

Odo reached out, briefly touching her hand. "Quark came by to bring Ry'mell a present."

Obviously embarrassed at being caught in a non-profitable act, Quark poked the bear at his side. "Bashir and O'Brien were saying how Earth babies liked these things - somehow this was mixed in with my last shipment from there, and since there aren't any other babies here on the station, I thought Ry'mell might as well have it."

Ry'mell's tired, sad eyes were fixed instead on Kira's face. He obviously couldn't have cared less about the toy, but Kira accepted the gift in the spirit it was truly meant. "Thank you, Quark. I'm sure he'll love it - he's a little tired right now, that's all."

"Well, I'd better be going - I have a bar to tend." Quark got awkwardly to his feet. "See you around, Major - take care of yourself. You too, Odo." Quark moved hastily towards the door as Odo and Kira murmured their good-byes behind him. Kira shook her head once the door had closely safely behind their surprise visitor.

"I can't believe it - Quark being neighborly."

"He's been here quite a few times." Surprise fell on top of surprise. Odo adjusted the baby in his arms. "You've always been out - I think he watches until he sees you on the Promenade, so there won't be any witnesses to his actually being nice."

Kira smiled, reaching out to touch the baby. Ry'mell sighed tiredly, closing his eyes. "Let me try to feed him," Kira offered, shrugging off her jacket and pulling off the shirt underneath. Cuddled in her arms, Ry'mell closed his mouth gratefully on the offered nipple, but didn't try to suck at it. Kira fought back the tears that struggled towards the surface, instead fixing Odo with a single, bleak stare.

"I know," Odo said softly. He reached out to touch her cheek.

"He's just so tired." Kira lost the battle as a large tear splashed on the baby's head. "And he doesn't understand why. His thoughts are like a - gigantic question mark."

"Dr. Bashir was here while you were gone, too. He'll be coming back by a bit later."

Bashir had before made a point of limiting his visits to no more than one a day, aware that his very presence served as a reminder of worse things to come. Kira stared at Odo, knowing that more than the obvious lay beneath this quiet statement.

"Why?"

"He thinks that it's time we start - considering our options."

"I didn't know we had any," Kira said bitterly. She glanced down at the baby in her arms, who had already gone to sleep, exhausted. "Let me put him in his bed - I'll be right back."

Kira lingered over Ry'mell's small cradle after covering him with his fluffy comforter and tucking his toy tribble in beside him, both presents from his Aunt Dax. The baby's lashes fluttered against his pale cheeks as Kira reached out to touch him, and Kira fled the room in despair.

Odo stood waiting for her in the other room, and Kira collapsed into his arms. "Hold me," she begged. "Just hold me."

"Shh ..." Odo lifted her easily in his arms and sat down on the sofa, holding her in his lap. "I have you, just hold on."

Kira hid her face in the side of Odo's neck until her trembling finally ceased. She sighed, her entire body drooping against him in exhaustion.

"How was the First Minister?" Odo put the question with some difficulty, when the silence began to weigh too heavily.

"All right - he's on his way to a conference on Risa."

"I'd heard they were starting to host some conferences there. I imagine Shakaar will enjoy himself." Odo started a little as he realized the possible tactlessness of what he had said.

"I imagine he will, too." Kira rubbed her face tiredly against the simulated fabric of Odo's 'uniform'. "He knows about us."

"Did you tell him?" Kira could feel the tension vibrate through Odo's form, even while he willed himself to calm.

"He figured it out for himself. He could smell what I'd been up to - and he couldn't smell who I'd been up to it with."

"Was he angry?"

"No - it's like I once told you. He understood." Kira sat up and put her hands on Odo's shoulders, looking searchingly into his face. "Now, tell me - what options are we supposed to consider?"

"Actually, I contacted the doctor while you were in the other room. He should be here any minute, if you don't mind waiting for him - I'm not sure what the options are, myself. I thought we should hear them together."

"Sure - no problem." Kira crawled off of Odo's lap and settled in a few inches from his side. A split second later, the doorcom sounded.

"Come in!" Odo called. Bashir came through the door, with few vestiges of his usual boyish charm lingering on his face. Instead he looked haggard.

"Major - Constable." He nodded to them gravely, before seating himself on the loveseat opposite.

"Julian." Kira reached out blindly for Odo's hand.

"I asked Odo if I could come back by today because I think you need to make some decisions. First, though, I need to explain what's happening."

Bashir took a deep breath, obviously hating every word he had to say. "I suppose you've realized by now that things aren't going as - easily - as we might have hoped." His compassionate dark eyes acknowledged Odo and Kira's silent assent. "The point is, in addition to the muscle deterioration that's required so much pain medication, Ry'mell's digestive system has pretty well broken down. He can eat, although he's not very hungry - but his system can't absorb nutrition anymore."

"He's starving to death," Kira whispered. It was not a question.

"No - not yet. The intravenous solutions we've been giving him bypass his digestive tract, so we can stave off starvation for quite a while longer. I guess my question is - is that what you really want to do?"

The air in the room seemed as heavy as lead. "What do you mean?" Kira's eyes widened. Odo grew suddenly tense at her side.

"I mean that - right now we have the medical means to keep him entirely comfortable. We can use appetite-blockers so he won't be hungry - he can still nurse for comfort, since he can still suck and he can still swallow - and we can still mask the pain from the muscular deterioration." Bashir took a deep breath and went on. "But I'd like your permission to stop the nutritional supplements."

"But - won't he starve?" Kira stared at Bashir, uncomprehending. Odo gave a slow nod, closing his eyes in anguish.

"Technically, yes." Bashir steeled himself to meet her anguished gaze. "But he'll do so without hunger, and without pain. If we let this go much further, I can't promise either of those things, especially the last."

"You're asking to kill him?" The question came out as a hiss.

"I'm asking you to let him go." There were untold depths of pity in Bashir's eyes. "You're not doing him any favors by making him stay here, Nerys."

Kira let her head drop slowly into her hands, her shoulders shaking. Odo's voice sounded surprisingly strong in her ears.

"He's right, Nerys. It's time."

"No!" Kira wailed. "No, I can't, I can't ..."

Regardless of Bashir's presence, Odo gathered Kira into his arms, holding her tightly against his chest. "Nerys, we have to. It's the least that he deserves, to die without it hurting any more."

Kira sobbed wildly for a long time, neither Odo nor Bashir saying anything to disturb the flow of her tears. Finally she choked out, "How long?"

Bashir bowed his head. "He's very weak now. If we withhold nutrients and up the palliatives instead... it could be just hours. A day or two at most." Bashir silently promised himself that he wouldn't let it go beyond that, no matter what.

"What do we need to do?" Odo asked quietly. Kira steeled herself to withdraw from his arms, and to instead sit quietly at his side.

"I can take care of the medical aspects, if you can stand seeing me a dozen times a day. All you two need to do is what you've been doing. Just keep loving him as hard as you can."

"That's pretty much guaranteed," Kira said softly. Odo bowed his head in agreement.

"All right, then." Bashir got resolutely to his feet. "I'm going into the nursery and give him some medication - Nerys, I'm also going to leave you some sedatives. You can take them if you think you need the help in staying calm for him - once I give him the new pain medication, it should be comfortable for him to be held again, and I'm sure he'll want you to hold him. They're very powerful, so you'll need to decide how much you want to be able to feel - you take the full dose and the destruction of Bajor wouldn't upset you, but you wouldn't remember it happening, either."

"Thank you, Julian." Kira waited until Bashir re-emerged from the nursery before asking quietly, "Julian - would you mind - letting people know? Sisko and Dax and the O'Briens... Rom ... Leeta ... Morn ... Quark ..."

"I'll take care of it, Nerys. And I'll stop by for a moment to see Vedek Tonsa as well - ask him to come by. Odo, is that all right with you?"

"Of course," Odo said automatically. "Thank you, Doctor." He waited until the door closed behind Bashir before getting to his feet.

"Where are you going?" Kira asked.

Odo looked at her, surprised. "To get the baby. I'll be right back."

Kira stared after him, before grabbing one of Bashir's sedatives. She set the hypospray for a modest amount, somewhere between barely dulled agony and unconsciousness.

Odo carried Ry'mell back into the room, cooing to him softly. "Are you awake? Are you a good boy?"

Odo, normally the most restrained and pragmatic of individuals, had amazed Kira from the beginning by his total abandon when communicating with Ry'mell. He cooed at him, he called him silly names, he sang to him, he kissed his fingers and his soft baby face. Ry'mell responded with a ghost of his old sunny smile, and managed a half-hearted grab for Odo's nose. Odo stared at him, stricken, closing his eyes against the agony that made his very form ripple.

"Take him, Nerys." Kira moved quickly moved to comply, watching Odo as he struggled to regain control of his shape. Finally the Changeling sighed and settled on the couch at her side.

"It's going to be a long night," he predicted quietly.

The hours that passed were marked mainly by visitors, as everyone from Sisko to Leeta, the sweet-faced Dabo girl at Quark's, came by to pay their respects and "just say hello to the little fellow," as Chief O'Brien clumsily put it. Both Kira and Odo knew that what they were really saying was good-bye.

Sisko and Dax stayed the longest, except for Bashir, who settled in for the duration sometime around midnight. Odo somehow managed to maintain his shape, with perhaps a half hour break during which he disappeared into the bedroom, and Kira assumed into his liquid state. Kira, half-dazed from medication, finally collapsed against Odo a few hours before dawn.

The station was leaving night cycle and the lights glowing with the beginning of another simulated day when Kira stirred into wakefulness. Bashir lay draped on the loveseat opposite, snoring faintly. Odo sat quietly holding Ry'mell, his face an unreadable blank. Kira started automatically unfastening her blouse, but Odo put out his hand to stop her.

"There's no need," he said simply. "He's gone."

It was a long, long moment before Kira could even take in the words. She then doubled over with a low, keening cry. Bashir came to abrupt attention and moved quickly to kneel before the baby in Odo's arms, activating his med scanner and running it quickly over the small form.

"Why didn't you call me?" Kira whispered, finally raising her head to stare into Odo's eyes. "I wanted to know - to be there -"

"It had happened before I knew it myself." Odo looked down sadly into the quiet face of the infant in his arms. "He was breathing one minute - and then he wasn't."

"Oh," Kira said in a small voice. She looked into Ry'mell's face as well, observing the peace there with no sense of comfort. She bit down hard on her lower lip, ruthlessly shoving back her tears.

Bashir stood and crossed the room to Odo's side. "Do you want me to take him now?" he asked softly. "Or shall I leave you alone for a while?"

Odo and Kira had agreed weeks before that Ry'mell's small body would go to Dr. T'Pelrah when he died, in hopes that it might be of some use should another Betazoid-Tavnian hybrid be born with the same condition. Now Odo hesitated, but Kira nodded resolutely.

"Please take him now," she said quietly. She leaned over and kissed the little face one last time, noting that his cheek was quite cool against her lips. Odo surrendered the small bundle slowly, reluctantly. For a brief second both Bashir and Kira wondered if he was going to let go - and what they could possibly do about it should he refuse.

"Good-bye, my son." Odo gave a long, liquid shudder, before finally passing the dead infant into Bashir's arms. Bashir left quickly, leaving Odo to reach out for Kira blindly.

"Nerys ..."

"I know." Kira gathered Odo against her, just before he dissolved into a helpless golden puddle that flowed into her lap, and from there to the sofa beside her. Kira collapsed slowly onto her side, and Odo pooled around her, the liquid of his form absorbing and sharing the tears that finally began to flow from her eyes.

"'They do not grow old, as we grow old ...'"

The memorial service, an odd but compelling compromise between Kira's deeply religious nature and Odo's devout agnosticism, slowly wound to a close. Various friends had said gentle, loving things about the dead child, and Vedek Tonsa had uttered soft Bajoran prayers. Benjamin Sisko brought it all to a conclusion with a starkly compelling poem by an Earth poet named T.S. Eliot, whose words were strangely soothing to the pair of surrogate parents who sat together quietly in the front row of the station's Bajoran temple and realized that the reason for their partnership had ceased to exist.

Nonetheless, gently refusing other offers, Kira and Odo returned together to Odo's quarters - the quarters that he was already disassembling, preparing to return to the smaller space he had inhabited over Quark's only five months before. Kira had been helping him without comment, even though little help was needed - the baby's things had been sent to an orphanage on Bajor, and Odo's own possessions were quite few in number. During the service the workmen had come, removing the furnishings, so that only empty rooms remained - empty except for the bright and shining crystals that floated overhead.

"I imagine you'll be glad to sleep in your own bed again." Odo crossed the room to the computer console, where the remote control for the crystals still rested. He carefully lowered them one by one. "I suppose I should have sent these to Bajor, too - perhaps I'll give them to Molly O'Brien instead."

"May I have one?" Kira asked.

"Of course." Odo looked surprised that she had bothered to ask. "You may have all of them, if you like."

"No - I just want one. The blue one." Kira nodded at the bright blue crystal, which Odo handed to her without a word. "It was his favorite ..."

"Yes." Odo turned back to boxing the others. Finally he stood back and sighed. "I'll take these over to the O'Briens now - I suppose I'm finished here."

"Are your old quarters ready?"

Odo shrugged. "They will be in a day or so. It's not like I need my pillow fluffed. I can stay in my office for a few days if I have to."

Kira reached out, taking his hand in hers. "Would you mind staying with me tonight? I'm not quite ready to be by myself."

Odo, so upright and restrained to that point, visibly sagged in his relief. He gave Kira a wry smile. "Nerys, I would love to stay with you tonight. I - I'm not ready to be by myself yet, either."

"Then come on." Kira tugged gently on the hand she still held. Odo drew it away from her, only to put his arm around her waist and draw her close.

"Thank you." He buried his face in her hair.

They stopped long enough to drop off the box of crystals with little Molly O'Brien, who received them and their control with great delight, and soon had them whizzing around her room to the probable detriment of all who passed that way. Kira then took Odo back to her quarters, where they wordlessly divested themselves of clothing and fabrications, their bodies blending together in a whirlwind of flesh and fluid, trying to drown the pain that seeped from the core their very beings. In the end, when fluid and flesh had been seared and sated, they realized that they had failed. This pain wouldn't go away.

Lying in the starlit darkness, Odo resumed his usual solid form and held Kira in his arms while she cried.

"I never believed it," she mourned. "Right until the end, I never believed he would die."

"I don't think either of us did."

"No, you knew - you've always been a realist. You're born, you die, that's that. End of story. It must be nice having no faith to shake."

"Not always." Odo kept his tone level, his hands soothing as he ran them gently over her back. "I wish I could believe that - that someday I might see him again."

"I kept trying to envision him on the Light Ship, sailing away through the Celestial Temple - and I kept remembering that the Celestial Temple is just a wormhole with a bunch of entities who view us with - detached interest at best. We've even been on the other side, and the only ones there are a bunch of beings who hate us and want to overpower us. And in the end I could only see him lying dead in your arms."

"I keep seeing him the way he was before he got sick - sitting on your lap and getting that wonderful expression when you would uncover your breasts - like he was thanking the Prophets for inviting him to bliss."

"Oh, Odo." Kira laughed in spite of herself. "He was such a lovely baby." She hid her face against Odo's chest, and her tears returned. "He didn't deserve to die."

"Who does? His mother didn't deserve to die either - yet today, for the first time, it made sense."

"What do you mean?"

"It would have hurt Lwaxana unbearably to lose him. I'm glad she didn't live to see it."

"Why couldn't they tell this was going to happen beforehand?" Kira's voice was suddenly angry. "Why couldn't they have figured it out before he was born, so no one needed to go through this? So he didn't need to go through this!"

Odo looked at Kira, shocked. "You sound like you'd rather he'd never been born."

"Wouldn't it have been better? All he did was suffer!"

"Not at first."

"Well, then, it was like Quark says - the profits sure didn't justify the outlay!"

Odo shook his head like he couldn't believe her words. "What happened to the woman who said that you don't wish that people you love were never part of your life, just because you know you're going to lose them?"

"I don't know. She's gone. I think she died with Ry'mell."

Odo stared at Kira, tempering his words at the sight of her tear-stained, irrational face. Finally he said:

"If I had known beforehand everything I do today, I still wouldn't give up one minute I got to spend with Ry'mell - or with Lwaxana - or with you."

Kira turned away, the pain of looking into Odo's eyes suddenly more than she could bear. "Then that's where we differ." She hugged her pillow tightly to her chest, not moving as she felt Odo shift slowly into his natural substance, and slide from the bed to find some corner where he could avoid offending her by some unexpected touch.

In the morning, Odo found Kira sitting in the living room of her quarters, the dark circles under her eyes clearly proclaiming the fact that she hadn't slept in days. The canvas rucksack, sitting packed at her feet, was a mute statement of her intentions.

Odo chose to sit in a chair carefully distant from her. "Where are you going?" he asked quietly. "Bajor?"

Kira nodded. "I just need to get away for a while. I - I can't breathe here." She looked at her friend, and a rueful smile twisted the corners of her mouth. "I'm sorry, Odo."

"Why? Are you not coming back?" Odo's look was gentle, compassionate.

"I'll be back, sooner or later. I just -"

"- you just don't think you'll be coming back to me. And you're sorry because you know I'm in love with you."

Kira forced her eyes to meet Odo's as she nodded. They stared at each other for a long time. Kira sighed, running her hand through her hair. Her face was set in tight, bitter lines.

"It's like the ground where we've been standing together - lying together - has been sown with salt. I can't see anything living growing from it again."

"Not even our friendship?"

"I don't know," Kira said with blunt honesty, averting her eyes from Odo's sudden wince of anguish. "Right now, I can't even see that. Maybe with time ..."

"The next transport leaves in fifteen minutes," Odo noted quietly. "Were you planning on taking that one?"

Kira nodded. "At least I was if you stopped regenerating in time. I wouldn't leave without saying good-bye."

"I appreciate that, Major."

Kira made no effort to correct Odo's retreat into formality. Instead she shouldered her bag and headed determinedly for the door. Odo tried to fight back the dismay he knew was shining in his eyes.

"May I walk you to the docking port?"

"No need - I know the way." A look of sudden agony flooding her face, Kira crossed the room to take Odo's chin in her hand, kissing him gently one last time. "Good-bye, Odo."

Odo accompanied her out the door, and stood watching her back until she disappeared into the nearest turbolift leading from the Habitat Ring.

"Good-bye, my love."

THE END

To be continued in "The Fire and the Rose"...


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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