STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE

The Fire and the Rose

A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are infolded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

- T.S. ELIOT, Four Quartets. Little Gidding, II

SPACE

"Raktajino. Two kava. Extra hot."

Odo turned from the replicator in his office to find Captain Benjamin Sisko staring at him curiously. Sisko reached out slowly for the cup in Odo's hands.

"Thanks, Constable. I don't usually take kava, but I'm sure this will be fine."

Odo gave Sisko a blank stare before sinking tiredly into the chair behind his desk. If any good thing had come out of the tragic loss of first Lwaxana and then the son she had left in his care, it was that it had forced Odo to finally display some vulnerability to the people he worked with on a day-to-day basis. And having been forced to be vulnerable once, it was far easier to admit to being vulnerable now.

"I sorry, Captain," Odo said briefly. "It's habit, I'm afraid -- every morning for almost five months I asked for a raktajino like this for Ne -- for Major Kira. Plus I always have a hard time remembering how different humanoids are in their tastes."

"I can imagine." Sisko took a sip of the sweet beverage, and winced a little. Odo held out his hand.

"Let me get you another. Do you like it extra hot?"

"Not quite this hot, and definitely NO kava."

Odo recycled the first cup, and ordered a second to Sisko's specifications. As he handed the new beverage to Sisko, the captain asked quietly, "You really miss her, don't you?"

Once, Odo would have feigned ignorance to the point of asking, "Who?" Now he only sighed and nodded.

"I keep expecting her to walk in. Still, she's only been gone a few weeks -- by the time I'm used to it, she'll probably be back."

"I'm not sure you should count on that," Sisko said quietly, mindful of the purpose of his visit. "I just received a request from Major Kira to extend her leave of absence for another three months -- and the offer to help me find an interim Bajoran liaison officer."

"I see." Odo stared at his commander briefly, before turning his attention to one of the data PADDs on his desk. "Well, I'm sure she's only doing what she needs to do."

"What about you, Constable? Are you sure you don't need some more time for yourself?"

Odo snorted derisively. "The last thing I need is more time. I just want to do my job."

"Well, we're certainly glad to have you back in it," Sisko conceded, smiling. "Don't ever tell him I said so, but I don't think Mr. Worf was quite prepared for how complicated running Security on this station would be."

Odo's mouth twisted in a slight, gleeful smile. "I'm glad to hear it, Captain."

Sisko laughed, getting to his feet. "Glad to have you back. And don't worry, Constable -- I think you're right." To Odo's questioning look he added, "Nerys will come back."

"I hope so, Captain," Odo conceded. "I certainly hope so."

SPACE

Kira Nerys, holed up in Shakaar Edon's old cabin on Bajor, was more concerned with the mundane details of what was coming up from her stomach than with the finer esoteric points of when she might be coming back to Deep Space Nine.

The excessive thirst had been a factor for over a week, with the dizzy spells following close behind it. The vomiting and abdominal pain were both relatively new factors, each having been in effect for less than forty-eight hours. The Bajoran doctor she had seen had been puzzled, and not particularly helpful.

"I can't detect anything wrong with you," he finally admitted. "You mentioned that you'd been through a hard experience recently -- it's possible that it's just nerves."

Nerves, Kira thought tiredly after her fourth vomiting episode of the day. If my nerves could do this, I never would have survived the Occupation. Hell, I never would have survived my first finger-painting class.

She finally gave up and put the subspace message through to Dr. Bashir early that afternoon, after waking up on the floor of the bathroom and realizing that she'd passed out two hours before. Bashir was as good as his word, arriving promptly on the next transport and having himself beamed directly to the remote cabin.

Kira met him at the door, smiling wryly. "Thanks for coming, Julian. I know this isn't quite how you planned to spend half of your day."

"Well, normally I don't make house calls, but under the circumstances I thought it might be the thing to do ..." The young doctor smiled in return, already pulling out his medical tricorder and beginning to adjust the settings, nodding Kira into a seat as he did so. "So, where's the First Minister?"

"Shakaar pretty much stays in the capitol. I'm just borrowing the cabin for a while."

"Ah." Master of the noncommittal sound, Bashir turned back to the business at hand. "So, you say the Bajoran doctor couldn't find anything wrong with you?"

"'Stress' was the only suggestion he could come up with." Kira watched the blinking lights on the tricorder curiously.

"I'm certainly not going to rule that out, but I suspect he had his equipment set on a fairly narrow symptomatic band -- that's standard practice unless you practice interspecies medicine. I, on the other hand, keep mine set on as broad a band as possible and work my way down. So, you say you've been experiencing excessive thirst, nausea, dizziness, and abdominal spasms?"

"That's right." Kira nodded, then winced as another pain hit her. Bashir studied her pale face, concerned.

"Awfully concrete symptoms for stress ..." He activated his tricorder and ran it over her quickly. "Well, that explains it ..." He made a few adjustments and repeated the scan, his brow furrowing slightly. "Hmm... these readings look so familiar ... wait a minute ..." He tapped again at the controls. "There! No wonder they look familiar!" He turned off the med scanner and gazed contemplatively into Kira's face, obviously weighing the words he would say next.

"Nerys ... I'm not sure how to put this, but --"

"Just tell me, Julian." Kira's eyes widened a little. "Is it something serious?"

"Incredibly serious, but hardly fatal." Bashir pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Major, during the past month or so -- have you done anything that -- well, that might account for a silicon-based life form developing in your uterus?"

"What?" Kira stared at Bashir in stark disbelief.

"More importantly, a silicon-based life form almost identical in composition to Constable Odo."

"I -- we --" Kira's blush flared into brief and violent life, before receding to be replaced by absolute pallor.

"I thought so." Bashir smiled broadly. "Congratulations, Major. I can't begin to explain it -- but it looks like you're pregnant."

"I can't be," Kira said automatically.

Bashir raised his eyebrows. "Are you saying you and Odo haven't -- ?"

"No -- we did plenty of that. It's just that -- how could our species possibly interbreed? He's not even humanoid!"

"I didn't say that I could explain it -- but it looks like you're providing some sort of semi-passive host for a little baby Changeling."

"What do you mean, 'semi-passive'?"

"I mean that it's drawing the resources it needs from your body whether your body likes it or not. The genetic material seems to be primarily Odo's -- on the other hand, there seems to be a certain level of genetic imprinting that I can only assume comes from you. So I imagine a cell - ovum or otherwise -- of yours was somehow involved in the process."

"Fine. I'm pregnant. Now what?" Kira bit down on her thumbnail, thinking hard.

"Well, that is the question -- I'm not sure what will be involved in reinforcing your body to withstand the stress -- we may even need to transport the embryo to an artificial environment before it's over, but for now I think we can --"

"No."

"What?" Bashir, already well caught up in his chain of thought, pulled himself back. "You mean no artificial environment? Nerys, it may be necessary."

"No -- I mean no pregnancy."

"I'm sorry -- it's true."

"Julian, you're not understanding me." Kira gave Bashir her most dead-level stare. "I believe you when you say I'm pregnant. I'm just not planning to stay that way."

Bashir gazed back at her, dumbfounded. "You mean you --"

"I want an abortion, Julian. Now."

Bashir gave her a long, measuring look. Finally he stood and crossed the room to the small replicator tucked in one corner.

"Do you mind if I fix myself a cup of coffee?"

"No -- go right ahead -- Shakaar likes coffee, I'm sure it's programmed for it." Kira studied Bashir's back solemnly as he placed his order and removed the steaming mug. "You do believe that I mean what I say, don't you?"

"I believe that you believe it. I also believe that it's a decision I won't let you make quite that abruptly."

"What?" Kira's brow shadowed ominously. Bashir turned to glower right back at her.

"I don't question that the decision is ultimately yours, but I also want to be damned sure that it's one you don't regret. And I think in this particular instance, the other party involved in all of this needs to be informed." He withstood Kira's stubborn glare without flinching. "Major, you're not the only one to have life kick you in the teeth recently. Don't you think Odo at least deserves to know?"

"I think it will just make it harder for him when I stick with my decision - because I will stick with it, Julian. Don't make any mistake about that."

"What happened, Nerys?" Bashir shook his head, puzzled. "Why are you so much on the outs with Odo?"

"I'm not," Kira said automatically. To Bashir's questioning glance she added, "There's a part of me that's - welded to Odo for life, whether I like it or not. I - love him very deeply, in a way - I just don't want to have this baby."

"Do you mind telling me why?" Bashir seated himself in a chair close to Kira's, and pulled it even closer, before reaching out to take her hand in his. Kira looked at him, surprised, but didn't pull her hand away. Instead she sighed.

"I don't think I can stand it if - what if it dies?"

"Nerys! You can't assume that, just because Ry'mell ..."

"Ry'mell was the interspecies offspring of two humanoids, and it was the difference between their genetic makeups that killed him. What odds do you honestly think you can give a child whose parents have cell structure that isn't even based on the same element?"

"The odds I would have given for its even happening would have been a million to one - hell, from what we know it should be impossible. Now that it has, though, I don't know - it seems that Changelings can defy the 'laws' of genetics as well as the 'laws' of physics. Its chances aren't any worse than those of any other interspecies offspring."

"Those odds still don't sound good enough to me, Julian. I'll tell Odo if you like - I'll even wait a few days before having the procedure - but don't expect me to change my mind. I'm not going down that road again."

"All right, Nerys." Bashir bowed his head in acquiescence. "Would you like me to tell Odo?"

"No - that's my responsibility. Let me get him on subspace."

Bashir thought hard, and slowly nodded. "All right - but wait for a just a minute. There may be another option - one I'd like to discuss with you first ..."

Working late in his office, Constable Odo took the message as it came in. His heart - or that portion of his being that might be designated as such - turned over at the sight of Kira's lovely, tense face in the viewscreen.

"Major!" He immediately caught the nuances. "Is something wrong?"

"You could say that." Odo nearly winced at the tightening of her already pain-stretched face. "Dr. Bashir is here with me - I just needed to let you know that -"Kira paused and swallowed. Odo could see the muscles moving in her throat.

"What is it, Nerys?"

He watched her posture straighten as Kira steeled herself to continue. "I'm pregnant, Odo. Julian thought I should let you know before I do anything about it."

Odo thought back briefly to First Minister Shakaar's visit to the station just before Ry'mell died. "I'm sorry, Nerys, but I don't understand - shouldn't you be telling Shakaar?"

Kira's eyes narrowed, and against all odds the ghost of a smile came to haunt the corners of her mouth. "I would if he had anything to do with it. Odo - it's yours."

Odo had often heard the human expression "I had the wind knocked out of me". He suddenly had a fairly vivid sense of what those words meant. His eyes searched Kira's face for some glimmer of happiness, but found only frustration and fear.

"I see," he finally said quietly. "And what were you planning to "do" about it?"

"I want to have an abortion," Kira said bluntly. "Quite frankly, I can't imagine that it will be a viable offspring. But Bashir wanted you to know that there's a possible third alternative."

"What kind of alternative?" Odo sat tensely on the edge of his chair. He felt like his life depended on the next thing Kira might say.

"Julian says that - that it's possible you could carry the infant. But I need you to know that I don't want anything to do with it if you do." Kira's look was bleak and uncompromising. Odo nearly bowed before the weight of her gaze, but instead drew himself up to stare back at her, unblinking.

"I'm taking the next transport to Bajor. Don't do anything until I get there. Odo out."

SPACE

Arriving at Shakaar's cabin with the coming of dawn, Odo had a tired sense of being close to overdue for his next regenerative cycle, and generally vulnerable to whatever slings and arrows the universe might cast. Kira greeted him at the door to the cabin, and, surprisingly, drew him against her in a brief hug.

"Nerys ..." Odo lay his hand gently against Kira's pale cheek, and wanted to kiss her so badly he thought he'd die of it. Kira smiled ruefully, turning to press her lips into his palm before resolutely drawing away.

"Come on in. Julian should be ready to get started."

Dr. Bashir greeted Odo with solemn-faced compassion, nodding briefly. "I've made arrangements to use the facilities in a hospital in Ri'gel -- are you sure about this, Constable?"

"Of course I am." Odo looked at Kira briefly. "I understand how you feel, Nerys - but it's mine. My people - I have to give it every chance I can."

"I know, Odo," Kira said tautly. "I just can't deal with it right now - so it's better if I plan not to deal with it at all."

Odo looked like there were a hundred questions he wanted to ask, a hundred objections he wanted to make, but in the end he merely bowed his head. "Understood, Major."

"I wish I understood," Bashir commented, looking from one strained face to the other. As he gave the instructions that activated the transporter that would take them to Ri'gel he thought irritably, They're so much in love they can't see straight. Why don't they both realize it?

The answer, sadly, was not forthcoming.

SPACE

Leaning against the railing of the upper level of Deep Space Nine's Promenade, Jadzia Dax and the woman standing close to her side chattered happily in the fashion unique to close friends meeting after a long time - and discovering that the distance of time and space could be bridged with a single hug. Jadzia, tall and elegant, made an odd contrast to the slight person next to her - at five-foot-four, Darena Pell barely came up to Dax's shoulders.

Darena Pell, also a joined Trill, surveyed the busy Promenade with a visible air of pleasure. Shoving her heavy auburn hair back from her face with a casual hand, she hummed a little to herself as she surveyed the passers-by. Dax, who had known Pell since the beginning of their Initiate days, eyed the other woman thoughtfully.

"You're planning your next conquest, aren't you?" It was not really a question.

"Mm-hmm..." Pell's crystal-gray eyes surveyed the entrance to Quark's, and the bar beyond, clearly visible from her high vantage port. Quark, catching sight of her, gave what Dax felt sure was his most debonair wave.

"Well, then, what about Quark?" Dax teased. "He looks willing enough."

"'Willingness' has never been high on my list of criteria," Pell said dryly. "Besides, I've always preferred partners who need a little more seduction than my just walking up and saying 'Wanna fuck?'."

Dax giggled. Faintly conservative in her own Trill-like way, she didn't let it get in the way of her heartfelt admiration for Pell's brash manner. Jadzia sometimes wondered what would have happened if Darena had gotten the Dax symbiont instead of her -- and decided that the universe wasn't ready for a combination featuring both Curzon and Darena, rife as the rumor mill had been about them back during Pell's initiate days.

Uncomfortable entertaining the notion, no matter how lightly, of life without Dax, Jadzia turned her attention back the Promenade's endless parade. "What about Captain Sisko?" she asked as that individual strode into view.

Pell's brow furrowed in thought, and she sighed. She had met Benjamin Sisko before, on a prior visit to the station. "He's certainly handsome enough -- it's just he's so upright. So noble." Pell sighed again. "So dull."

"Darena!"

"Oh, not as a friend, I'm sure!" Pell hastened to amend her words. "He just seems to have -- ideals about women."

"Well, then, there's Worf ..." Dax spoke with a reasonable certainty that her words would be dismissed, although she did wonder briefly what she would do if they weren't. Pell made a face.

"You and your Klingons! I'll tell you something -- they're either absolute boors in bed, or they spend the entire time worrying that they'll break you. I leave the Klingons to you, Dax. Wait ... who's this?"

Pell nodded down the Promenade, where Dr. Bashir and Odo were just coming into view. Dax smiled, pleased.

"That's Julian Bashir -- I thought I introduced you the last time you were here."

"Oh, not Dr. Puppy-Dog! Honestly, Jadzia, I have my standards! He's all soulful brown eyes and falling over himself to please ... he's too easy! No, the other one."

"Odo?" Dax shot a second glance at the Changeling, startled. He and Bashir were involved in a fairly intense conversation, one that involved a great deal of talking on Bashir's part, and solemn listening on Odo's. Occasionally Odo would interject a comment, with some illustrative, precise movement of his long, elegant hands. Dax turned back to look at her friend, whose eyes were fixed on Odo dreamily.

"Such minimal lines ..." she murmured. "Tell me about him, Jadzia -- he's the shapeshifter, isn't he?"

"Odo is a Changeling from the Gamma quadrant - a non-humanoid." Dax felt a sudden urge to protect Odo, also a friend, from the woman who was watching him with such a predatory gleam in her eyes. "He's just gone through a very bad experience -- his son died two months ago."

"He's married?"

"No ... he was, but she was killed less than eight months ago."

"Poor man." Pell was genuinely sympathetic. "Well, I guess that settles it."

"Bashir?" Dax said hopefully.

"I think I would like to get to know Constable Odo -- and offer him my sympathy. Besides, didn't you tell me that he provided the host for Curzon during your zhian'tara? I'd like to talk to him about that, too. Come on."

Odo had parted from Bashir at the entrance to Quark's, stepping into the bar. Pell skimmed across into Quark's upper entrance, Dax following closely on her heels. They scurried down the stairs together, all heads in the place coming up at the sight of the two extremely different but equally beautiful women.

Dax reluctantly did her duty. Approaching Odo where he stood at the bar surveying the interior, she cleared her throat and said, "Constable -- I'd like to introduce a friend of mine from Trill -- Darena Pell. Darena, this is our Chief of Security, Odo."

"Odo." Pell held out her hand and smiled her charming, forthright smile. "I'm so pleased to finally get the chance to meet you. Dax tells me you recently suffered two great losses -- please allow me to offer my sympathies."

"I -- thank you." Somewhat taken aback, Odo took the hand offered him as though he wasn't quite sure what to do with it. It was obvious that a number of the males looking on would have loved to provide him with suggestions -- or demonstrations.

"I also have a great favor to ask of you, if it wouldn't be too much trouble," Pell continued in the same soft, direct tone. Jadzia, disliking spiders though she did, enjoyed watching this particular web being spun in spite of herself.

"Of course." Odo inclined his head gravely. "What can I do for you, Ms. Pell?"

The Trill chuckled softly. "Please ... symbionts aren't given to gender. Darena or Pell - whichever you like - but no 'Ms.'."

Odo bowed his head again, without trying either option. "What is it that you'd like me to do?"

"I understand from Jadzia that you were host to Curzon during her zhian'tara. Curzon was also my Supervisor during my Initiate - I would so like to sit down with you sometime and discuss your experience with you."

Obviously flustered, and a bit alarmed at the suggestion, Odo managed, "Certainly. Sometime before you leave we must -"

"Tonight?" Pell pressed sweetly. "Dinner?"

Odo grabbed at his perennial out. "I'm sorry - I don't eat."

"Really? How interesting." Another charming smile. "Would it bother you to sit with me while I do? Since I'd like you to do most of the talking, it might be to both our advantages if you don't have your mouth full."

"Well - certainly. What time?" Odo finally decided that assent was the easiest way out.

Twenty hundred hours? I'll meet you here." Pell smiled, finally releasing Odo's hand. She glanced around at the bar to where Quark was eavesdropping so hard it was a wonder his ears weren't swiveling. "Do you suppose we need a reservation?"

Odo gave one of his dry chuckles. "You might need a reservation if you wanted to use one of Quark's holosuites - but no one needs a reservation for the food. I'll see you tonight, then." Catching a glimpse of Quark's indignant expression, Odo continued laughing softly as he left the bar.

Dax sidled up next to her friend and steered her to a table out of earshot from the bar. "I hope you realize you may have finally hit on someone who's out of your league."

"Never!" Pell shook her head adamantly. "What a wonderful, scratchy voice he has ... makes me feel quite itchy just thinking about it." Pell gave a truly wicked grin.

"Darena!"

"Don't you at least like his voice?"

"I never thought about it, one way or another!"

"What a pity."

"Odo's just -- well, he's very vulnerable right now. I don't like the idea of someone taking advantage of it."

"Jadzia!" Pell stared at her friend, exasperated. "Do you honestly think that a man like that would have agreed to have dinner with me if he didn't want to? It sounds to me like you're all trying to shield him from the big hard world when the man himself is desperate to be diverted! Did it occur to you that he might be sick to death of being miserable -- that he might want to be entertained -- sought after -- for a change? No wonder the man seems so lonely -- everyone assumes that they know what he wants to the point that he's never offered any alternatives! Maybe he just wants to play!"

Dax thought suddenly of her zhian'tara, when Odo had startled everyone by willingly allowing himself to be co-opted by Curzon -- and her talk with him afterwards, when he had confessed to how much he had enjoyed the experience of sharing in Curzon's raucous lifestyle those brief hours. And getting away from problems of his own. Curzon's memories spoke softly from the back of Jadzia's consciousness. Odo had been in love with Kira even then.

As if catching Dax's thoughts, Pell asked cheerfully, "By the way, where is that feisty Bajoran woman you introduced me to last time I was here? She always struck me as another worthy challenge."

"Major Kira's been on Bajor these past few months. She's on an extended leave of absence."

"Hmm ... she didn't strike me as someone who would do something like that for pleasure. Was she somehow mixed up in Odo's recent tragedy?"

"Damn it -- how do you do that?"

"Do what?".

"You know what -- figure things out with absolutely nothing to go on!"

"You said something about Major Kira helping Odo take care of his son during a subspace message you sent me a few months ago. Hardly a big leap there." Sighing at Dax's continuing worried look, Pell reached across the table and took her friend's hand. "Jadzia, you know that all I'll do is let him know the option's available. It's not like I'm going to tie him up and drag him back to my lair kicking and screaming." Pell smiled, letting her fingertips play lightly against the hand she held. "You ought to remember that I merely suggest -- never insist."

Dax let out a short bark of laughter. "Do I ever! 'Jadzia, I'm tired of being a good little Initiate. Let's go do something naughty.'"

"I remember -- throughout the whole thing you were shivering in terror."

"Throughout the whole thing I was shivering. I forgot to be terrified pretty early in the process."

The two women looked at each other and suddenly burst into laughter. Quark was drawn towards them as inexorably as an ant to a picnic.

"Ladies, can I get you anything?"

Pell shook her head, standing up reluctantly. "I'm afraid I have to be going -- I think I need to take a nap." A mischievous sparkle dancing in her eyes, she leaned over to whisper in Quark's ear, "You will see to it, won't you, that Constable Odo and I have a nice, secluded table?" She completed Quark's torture with the lightest stroking of her index finger against his earlobe, before humming softly as she exited the bar.

Dax managed to get safely to her own quarters before laughing so hard that she thought she'd make herself sick. Potential for disaster aside, life was so much fun when Pell was around.

SPACE

Jadzia Dax joined Julian Bashir, Miles O'Brien, and the Cardassian tailor, Garak, at their table in Quark's shortly before twenty-hundred hours. Seeing Commander Worf standing at the bar, she waved him over as well.

"Is she here yet?" Dax asked excitedly, craning her neck to see into the depths of the room.

"Who?" Bashir stared at her curiously. The other men at the table followed suit.

"Are you expecting someone, Dax?" O'Brien asked politely.

"I guess that means she's not ... oh, good! Here she comes now ..." Dax's eyes widened, and she broke into a delighted grin. "Gods, she's outdone herself this time."

The men sitting around her didn't hear a word she said. All eyes were riveted on the auburn-haired woman who paused in the entranceway, making damn sure she made an impact before turning to make her way to the bar.

Pell's dress itself was simple -- a plain sheath, held up by slender straps, falling smoothly over her breasts and hips to end up a good fifteen centimeters above her knees. It was the fabric that made it extraordinary -- a pale, pale blue silk, it was so sheer that her spots could be seen beneath it, muted but visible against her fair skin. And spots were the only thing she was wearing under her dress -- the spots of her markings, and a few others, more pronounced.

Balancing with elegant grace on impossibly high heels, Pell crossed to the bar and greeted Quark, who eyed her like a starving man confronted unexpectedly with a twelve-course meal. She smiled at him sweetly.

"Do you have a table for me yet, Quark? Because otherwise I can just wait for Odo here at the bar ..."

"A table ... ? Sure ..." Dazed, Quark led his walking vision towards the back of the room. She passed so close to Dax's table that she brushed against Worf, who nearly swallowed his entire prune juice, glass and all.

O'Brien was the first one able to get a word out. "She's having dinner with Odo? She'll be lucky if he doesn't arrest her!"

"Only Odo would think first of arresting someone who looks like that," Bashir observed cheerfully.

"Dress is a matter of cultural training and personal taste." Worf made his solemn pronouncement. "It is not grounds for arrest unless it poses a threat to the general public."

"Well, it might, you know -- she could cause a riot on the Promenade looking like that," O'Brien teased.

"That dress is Aelian silk -- tricky to work with it, although the results are usually more than worth the effort."

The others stared at Garak as the Cardassian made this calm, work-related remark. Then they burst into laughter. Suddenly Dax stopped.

"Here comes Odo." The group froze as Odo paused to question Quark, and moved off in the general direction of the Ferengi's nod.

With a little neck-craning, the table at the back of the room could be clearly seen by the group near the front. They watched as Pell stood to meet her dinner companion -- and noted how Odo came to a complete halt, before advancing towards his objective more slowly.

Pell held out her hand to greet Odo as he approached, putting him slightly off his guard -- but only slightly -- with her matter-of-fact smile. "Odo -- I'm so glad you could join me. Please, sit down."

Odo sat down slowly, noticing in spite of himself the way Pell angled herself in her chair so she could cross her long legs, with a flashing glimpse of what she was crossing them over making him wonder if any Changeling had ever broken into a cold sweat. Seeming to guess at his discomfort, Pell shook her head and chuckled.

"I apologize if the dress is a bit much. My main trip was to Risa, you know -- this is about as modest as you can get away with on Risa."

Her posture was, Odo noted vaguely, beautifully erect. The silk fell softly over the sharp points of her breasts, turning her nipples into two veiled but alert brown eyes that peered at him knowingly.

This is nonsense, he chided himself sharply. You can look at this woman completely unmoved if you want to -- it's not like you're one of these humanoids, with no real control over your form. Prepared to be a down-to-earth, asexual Changeling, Odo was nonetheless caught completely off guard by Darena Pell's next remark.

"Besides, my dress matches your eyes."

Odo stared at her, said eyes widening. Pell smiled, reaching out to take a strawberry from her plate and biting into it sensuously.

"So, Constable, what were your impressions of Curzon? I thought he was a wonderful Supervisor, although I know Jadzia disagreed with me about that, at least at first."

Odo gratefully seized on the topic of Curzon Dax. Somehow from there they shifted into Bajoran politics, and finally onto current trends in law enforcement. Before he knew it, Odo was enjoying himself immensely, more than he had in months -- except for during the vivid, mindless hours spent twined in Kira's arms. Now, with an additional secret weighing him down in more ways than one, Odo found immeasurable relief in just letting himself relax, relishing the sharp and witty intellect of the woman sitting opposite him.

Before he knew it, a quick check of the time made him realize that over two hours had passed. He stared at his companion, startled.

"I had no idea it was so late," he apologized. "You must be tired after your trip."

"I'm fine -- I planned on being up late tonight, so I took a nap." Pell's tone continued soft, conversational. "You know, I had planned to ask you to sleep with me tonight, but now you strike me as someone who's had his fill of lovers -- or perhaps, had his fill of waiting for the one lover you can never have your fill of. At any rate, I think what you'd like right now is a friend."

Odo stared at her until he realized she was actually waiting for a reply. "That's very -- insightful of you," Odo managed to breathe.

"So, you mustn't misinterpret my next request."

Odo looked at her, suddenly wary. "Which is?"

"That you come back with me to my quarters and continue our talk there."

"Don't you think that will look -- odd?"

"No -- I think it will look like I achieved my original intent." Pell smiled at Odo's sudden, shocked stare. "I have a reputation to uphold, after all -- and you, Constable, have one to change."

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

"In case you haven't noticed, you and I have had quite the little audience this evening."

"Oh, I've noticed."

"Well, I am willing to guess that this little audience is all betting that you will turn me down and walk out of here alone - in which case they will all kindly dismiss you as an absolute fool." Pell's smile was gently compassionate as Odo nodded slowly. "On the other hand, due to your skill in law enforcement, right now you're one of this station's -- remarkable institutions." She leaned closer, and Odo automatically followed suit, so that her next words were breathed in his ear. "You walk out of here with me tonight, and you're a legend."

Odo chuckled a bit, angling to look at her -- and was startled when her mouth met his. It was a decidedly non-platonic, although very friendly, kiss.

"There," she breathed against his lips, "just in case there was any chance of someone missing the point."

"I would say you've clarified it," Odo managed. His recently acquired "secret" was turning somersaults.

"You'd better lean into the next one, though. I suspect that time you looked like a rabbit caught in headlights."

"A what?" Odo leaned, warily allowing himself to enjoy the shape and texture of her mouth.

"That was better." Pell finally drew back, smiling. "Earth expression. Rabbits are apparently these timid little creatures, who become absolutely immobile when you shine a light in their eyes. And now -- shall we go?"

Odo nodded slowly, getting to his feet even while he wondered why he had allowed himself to be maneuvered into such a position in the first place. The answer came to him almost at once.

Because I'm tired of everyone's pity. They all think I'm going to curl up and die now that Lwaxana and Ry'mell are dead and Nerys is gone. But they're wrong -- I have myself, and now I have this new one, the new one tucked inside me. And that will be enough.

That thought firmly in his mind, Odo turned to offer Darena Pell his arm. She smiled and took it, unabashedly letting her warm, barely-clad body press into his side. Matching his normally long stride to Pell's shorter one, Odo led his prize through the room towards the table near the front where six of his closest friends and acquaintances on the station -- Quark having joined the group, apparently frozen in the middle taking a drink order -- waited with their jaws agape.

"Dax ... gentlemen ... Quark ..." Odo nodded a grave goodnight. Pell, on the other hand, gave her most dazzling smile and a wink.

Listening to the silence that followed them out, it occurred to Odo that this had to be one of the more satisfying moments in his entire public life.

SPACE

Struggling with some seedlings in Shakaar's garden on Bajor, Kira Nerys mentally added farmer to the list of occupations for which she showed absolutely no aptitude. Shakaar, on the other hand, looked positively in his element, digging happily in the dirt a few yards from her side.

"So, Edon, what are these supposed to be again? Bushes?"

"Trees, Nerys, trees! These will make a fine stand of jujul trees when they grow up."

If they grow up, Kira silently amended. Well, maybe the Black Hand won't leave permanent scars. She flexed her fingers ruefully.

Shakaar finally straightened and dusted himself off, smiling in contentment. "It feels good having you here, Nerys. I'm glad I was able to get away today to join you."

"How long do you get to stay?"

"Till tomorrow morning, if that's all right with you." Shakaar's eyes asked a soft question.

"Of course it's all right," Kira replied, trying to put more enthusiasm into her voice than she actually felt. "It's a good thing I just had my shots."

My shots. The shots I abandoned those months with Odo -- who would have thought I would need them? Who would have thought to connect mundane things like birth control with what felt like liquid light, searing my skin and boiling up to my very core? And happening over and over, every night in my dreams.

The pain caught her unaware, and she winced. Shakaar reached to lay a gentle hand on her arm. "Do you want to go inside and talk about it?" he asked quietly.

"Has the cabin been secured so we can go in by ourselves?" Kira asked ruefully.

Shakaar nodded. "Just you, me, and whatever is bothering you."

"Damn -- we have to bring that, too?" Kira laughed at her own grim joke. "Just as well -- some of your security guards look like they'd love to rescue these little trees from my evil clutches."

By mutual assent they settled at the cabin's rustic kitchen table, embarking on cups of raktajino that Shakaar insisted on making from scratch.

"Tastes like camp," Kira commented. "At least, like camp did when we were lucky enough to have raktajino."

"Which wasn't very often." They both drank deeply in grateful silence. Then Shakaar put down his mug and looked at the white, strained face of the woman opposite him.

"What's wrong, Nerys? Is it still the baby, or is it something else?"

"The baby --" Kira stared at him, shocked.

"Ry'mell." Shakaar looked puzzled. "Who else?"

Well, you've put your foot in it now, Nerys. Kira sighed. "I -- a week after I got here, I found out I was pregnant."

"You're --" Shakaar's eyes flew to Kira's unchanged waistline.

"No, I'm not. Not now. But I was pregnant -- by Odo."

"Well ... that must have been a medical first." Shakaar struggled for equanimity. "You say you're not now -- what happened? Did you have a miscarriage? Or did you -- have it terminated?"

"Sort of -- but not really." Kira reached out and covered Shakaar's hand with hers. "Odo is carrying the baby now. As it turned out he was better suited for it. Even if he hadn't been, I - I just couldn't deal with it."

Shakaar knew Kira Nerys extremely well, and he knew that there was little she couldn't deal with. "That doesn't sound like you."

"I was just -- so afraid."

"Afraid of having it?" This was sounding less and less likely.

"Afraid of having it -- and it not surviving."

"Oh..." Shakaar nodded slowly as comprehension dawned. "You mean because of an interspecies problem -- like Ry'mell."

"Only I told Odo I didn't want to have anything to do with it -- ever."

"And you regret it."

"I'm not sure -- on one hand, I can't stand the thought of losing another child. On the other, I feel like I've stabbed the best friend I ever had in the back. No, in the heart -- at least I looked him in the eye when I told him."

"What will you do if it turns out all right?"

"What can I do - other than ache for the rest of my life? I already made it clear that I didn't want any part of it."

"People do change their minds, Nerys."

"It doesn't matter if I do." Kira's eyes widened and lost their focus as she thought of those last moments with Odo before her surgery began.

Bashir had left the pair of them alone -- probably hoping I'd change my mind, or at least relent a bit, Kira thought tiredly. Odo was exhausted, despairing -- after being a rock for so long, it was like everything suddenly came to a head.

"I can accept that you don't want to carry the child. I can accept that you don't want to be any part of it if things don't work out. But never? Do you hate me that much?"

Her own voice had been cool, distant as she said, "I don't hate you, Odo. I'm just not in love with you. And I want my life back."

Odo had pulled himself to his full height, which she sometimes suspected him of adjusting for emphasis. His eyes turned colder than Breen. "Very well, Major. Just don't expect to change your mind later. When that child is placed in my substance, it becomes mine. Don't expect to have a part in it later if everything goes well."

Dragging herself back to the present, Kira buried her face in her hands tiredly. "I basically told Odo to go to hell. I don't expect that he'll want to welcome me with open arms should I change my mind."

"Yes, but don't forget the tale of the upright farmer."

The cheerful, masculine voice came from the direction of the door, gently accented with the sounds of one of the remote hill dialects. Kira and Shakaar both looked up, startled, to see an old, old vedek standing there in red robes. His face bore scars from some past abuse, but his dark eyes twinkled merrily.

"Uncle Arilsen!" Shakaar scrambled to his feet and wrapped the old man in an enormous hug. Kira got up more slowly, aware that the wise old eyes remained fixed on her face.

Shakaar turned back to Kira, arm still twined around the vedek's shoulders. "Nerys, this is my uncle, Vedek Arilsen. Uncle, this is Kira Nerys. I've told you about her."

"Vedek Arilsen." Kira extended a tentative hand. The vedek took it, and his eyes narrowed in concern.

"We have met once before," he commented, getting a surprised look from Kira. "So, you're the woman who would tame the vermokk?" Vedek Arilsen asked, nodding at Shakaar, who had the grace to blush. "But what is the vermokk that is eating your heart out, child?"

Kira threw Shakaar an indignant, questioning glance. Shakaar shrugged.

"No, he told me nothing," Arilsen said severely. "But I have eyes, do I not? And ears? You are sick to your soul, my child, and make no mistake, soul-sickness can kill you even though you remain on your feet, it can kill your pagh. And what is a Bajoran without a pagh?"

Vedek Arilsen thought briefly and furiously about something. Finally he gave a decisive nod.

"Very well. I had planned to stay here tonight visiting you, Edon, but that wouldn't have found much favor in any case." Arilsen raised his hand to silence Shakaar's protestations to the contrary. "Fine. You want your old vedek uncle in the next room while you sleep -- and not-sleep -- with your lover. I believe you." The skepticism was plain in the old man's voice. "But this one -- she is not ready to be anyone's lover right now. You, Major Kira Nerys of the Shakaar, are coming back with me to the monastery. Today. We need to take a long, hard look at this bleeding pagh of yours."

"No ... I don't think so." Kira shook her head adamantly, wary eyes fixed on the old man's face. "I'll be fine."

Vedek Arilsen approached her and gently cupped her right ear in his hand. "No, you will not be fine. You will continue to hurt and bleed, and you will hurt the ones around you -- you have already hurt at least one of them, wounded him to the heart. He and the child you are too cowardly to welcome with joy."

After a moment's stunned silence, Kira exclaimed strongly, "I am not a coward! Look, vedek or not, I don't know what makes you think you can just walk in here, call me names and start ordering me around! Coward -- ask your nephew if I'm a coward or not! I was there at Sh'nar ... Ke'erwit ... the liberation of Gallitep -- did he bother to tell you that?"

"Gallitep." The old man repeated the word softly, and gave an unexpected, beatific smile. "It is true -- very brave men and women liberated Gallitep. That is where I met you."

"You --" Kira froze, staring at him, incredulous.

Vedek Arilsen nodded. "When you liberated Gallitep I was one of the survivors you rescued. I had been there for five years."

"I -- I'm sorry, I didn't --" Kira looked sick at her error.

"It's no matter." Arilsen smiled, seemingly well-pleased. "It is very fitting -- the Prophets once sent you to rescue this old man." He paused, reaching out to rest his hand on her shoulder. "And now they have sent this old man to rescue you."

SPACE

"Come in, Odo. Have a seat." Darena Pell's first steps into her quarters were more in the nature of short hops, as she reached down to pull off her shoes. She then wiggled her bare toes happily in the carpet. "If you'll excuse me for a moment, I'm going to 'slip into something more comfortable' - more comfortable for you, anyway."

Odo perched warily on the edge of an armchair, ready to bolt should any more of Darena be visible when she came out of the bedroom than was already showing when she went in. However, she was true to her word, emerging in a baggy blue sweatshirt that came almost to her knees.

"There," she grinned, "aren't you more comfortable?"

"Infinitely," Odo confessed, finally allowing himself to sink further into the chair. He felt extremely tired - his regeneration times were already getting longer, a trend he suspected would continue throughout the length of his 'pregnancy', however long that turned out to be. Almost two months now, and his burden felt like lead ... very active lead. Odo sighed briefly, closing his eyes.

"Are you tired?" Pell crossed the room and flopped down in the chair closest to his. "I don't mean to keep you up past your bedtime."

"It isn't past my bedtime - my substance has just been making a few adjustments of late." Odo considered what he was saying, and shrugged. He supposed that everyone would have to be told before too much more time had passed, and he planned to see Sisko the following day. "It's just that I'm, to use the humanoid term for it - pregnant."

"You mean you're carrying? A little Changeling?" Pell was wide-eyed and smiling with delight.

"So it appears." Odo managed a tiny smile, warming to the honest excitement in Pell's voice. "Would you - would you like to feel it?" It was something he had, for reasons unknown even to himself, desperately wanted to ask someone, only to be completely at a loss as to who. "It's very active right now."

"May I really?" Pell needed no second invitation. She came to stand by his chair, and then stopped. "Where do you keep it?"

"Oh - the traditional place. It's easiest there - least likely to throw me off balance."

"All right." Pell knelt down beside him, putting both of her hands in the area of his abdomen. Her face was a study in wonder.

"That's so marvelous - it doesn't feel like a humanoid baby at all, not really - it's so liquid!" Odo was startled as Pell leaned over to rest her cheek against him, closing her eyes and sighing contentedly. "It sounds liquid, too - joyous, like a brook. I almost wish I could climb in there with it, it seems so happy."

"Maybe - some other time," Odo offered gently. Pell looked up at him and smiled.

"I guess that is in the realm of the possible, isn't it?" She gave a blissful shudder. "I bet you give marvelous backrubs."

"I don't give backrubs at all, so I don't know if they'd be marvelous or not."

"You'd be wonderful at it - you could just ooze over every muscle."

"That sounds a bit too close to what I think of as - something a great deal more intimate. So I'm afraid my giving backrubs is probably out of the question."

"O-oh," Pell said knowingly. "That sounds interesting, too - but better not." She stood and draped herself back across her chair, her back propped against one armrest while her legs dangled over the other. "So, Constable," she asked quietly. "Assuming that Changelings don't reproduce by parthenogenesis, who's the other party? Major Kira?"

Odo looked at her sharply. "Where did you hear that?"

Pell smiled. "I didn't. But she's not here, and everyone else seems pretty much the same as usual. Besides, weren't the two of you living together before your son died? It stands to reason."

Odo sighed, lowering his head against his chest. "It doesn't matter. She doesn't want anything to do with me, or this." He rested his hand lightly against himself. He then gave Pell a puzzled stare. "Why am I telling you this? I barely know you."

"That's probably why. I'm a willing listener, but not someone whose opinion you necessarily value - and you know I'll be gone in a couple of days. We already have one secret together - our little ruse at Quark's. That creates an easy kind of - false intimacy."

"Are you some kind of psychiatrist?"

"Xenopsychologist. Behavioral."

"Ah. That explains it." Odo sounded a little less than pleased.

"Explains what?"

"Your -- intense interest in me."

Pell laughed. "I have plenty to do without work dictating my outside interests! No, Odo, let me assure you, what motivated my interest in you was something much more -- base."

"What do you mean -- base?" Odo felt a sudden renewed burst of wariness.

"Well, first of all, you have marvelous lines."

"Lines?" Odo wondered what it was he had said.

"The lines of your body -- your face -- they're very clean and spare, like an abstract sculpture." Odo jumped, startled, as Pell moved so she was sitting on the arm of her chair, and reached out to capture his hands in hers. "Your hands are very long and strong and elegant. And your eyes --!"

"What about them?" Once he understood what the conversation was actually about, Odo found it strangely enjoyable, perhaps because no one had ever had very much good to say about his physical form before.

"In the middle of such a -- seamless face -- you have these incredibly soulful, ice-blue eyes. They look like they've seen so much -- been hurt by so much -- but like they still long to see more. They are, Constable," she assured him, "very sexy."

Odo was amazed to feel a small smile touching the corners of his mouth. "Is that all?" It was far more than he had ever expected, but now that the subject was broached he couldn't resist making sure.

"Well ..." The dimples in Pell's cheeks deepened. "Your voice is marvelous -- it feels like some great cat's tongue -- rough and scratchy, but warm and soft, too. Very -- stimulating." Odo became suddenly, acutely aware of the fact that Pell still held his hands in hers as she began to move her thumbs slowly, sensuously, against the backs of his fingers.

"Are you sure you've changed your mind about trying to seduce me?" Odo asked cautiously. He wasn't at all sure what answer he would prefer to hear.

Pell smiled, releasing his hands reluctantly. "In my mind I have. It's a little bit trickier turning off those 'primal instincts'." She laughed in sudden delight. "It just occurred to me -- you have no sense of smell, do you?"

"No." Odo stared at her curiously, wondering at the sudden change of subject.

"It's just that I've been sitting here worrying that you could smell the musk coming off me in waves, and wondering if you were terribly offended and just trying to be polite."

"'Just trying to be polite' isn't something I practice at very often." In fact, to some extent Odo was practicing it right then, unclear on the humanoid concept of smell in general, and musk in particular. Suddenly, though, a vivid image passed through his mind of the rich, hot juices that had poured from Kira whenever they made love, her heated fluid mingling with his own -- musk. Of course it had a smell, all humanoid secretions had smells, most of them unpleasant, to hear the humanoids tell it. Odo's eyes, which had drifted shut with the invasive thoughts, flew open as he thrust the devastatingly sensual images from his mind.

He looked up to find Pell's eyes fixed searchingly on his face. "Gods," she said musingly. "I'm falling into the same trap as Jadzia -- trying to protect you when you don't need it, probably don't want it, and can bloody well take care of it yourself if you do, instead of just presenting you with an option and letting you make your own choices. Odo -- do you want to sleep with me tonight?"

Odo considered the question gravely. "No," he said finally, reluctantly. "As much as I would enjoy making love to you -- and I would -- I'm not ready for it yet. So I think we should either talk some more about Curzon Dax, or law enforcement, or else I should go back to my own quarters."

"Very well." Pell let the exchange pass as though it had never taken place. "When you were taking part in Jadzia's zhian'tara," Pell continued smoothly, as though the seemingly more neutral topic had never been dropped, "did Curzon -- do you remember if he ever thought of me?"

"As a matter of fact, I believe he did, while he -- we -- were playing tongo." Odo smiled a little at the memory. "He even mentioned you -- he said that the only person who could ever beat him at tongo was Darena Pell."

"I wiped up the table with him a few times," Darena agreed softly. The look in her eyes was curiously haunted, sad.

Odo peered into her shadowed face, and the last barrier between their achieving a lasting friendship fell as he said, "You were in love with him, weren't you?"

"With all my heart," Pell said simply. "But he never knew."

"Because he was in love with Jadzia."

"Exactly. Funny, that he could fall in love with someone who was so oblivious, and be so oblivious himself to me."

"It seems to be typical of how the emotion works," Odo said shortly, thinking of Kira and Lwaxana Troi. He added, "I take it you hadn't yet developed your 'direct approach'."

"Oh, but I had! Once I was Joined, and there was no chance that any Supervisor/Initiate scruples could raise their ugly heads, I finally approached him -- just as directly as I nearly did you. I got my symbiont five years before Jadzia got hers -- the last five years of Curzon's life. They seemed to be good ones -- I guess they weren't quite good enough for him to seriously consider what I was offering him. He was charming about it, of course -- no one could equal Curzon Dax for charm! -- you might even say he strung me along a bit. But his heart wasn't in it, and we both knew it."

"It must be hard, in a way, knowing that he's still there, inside the body of another close friend."

"Don't think I haven't considered that route! Sometimes Jadzia reminds me of him so much ... but then, she would." Pell laughed softly. "But in the end, it would still be the same Curzon, the one who was in love with Jadzia and not me. So I think I'll leave Jadzia Dax alone."

Odo reached out and took one of Pell's hands in his, squeezing it gently. She looked up at him, surprised, before returning the squeeze gratefully.

"Tell me," Odo at last ventured, "who were some of your former hosts? What were they like?"

"They're weren't any." Pell shrugged and smiled. "The Pell symbiont never had a host before me. So I guess you could say it's a very young symbiont, if you don't count the one hundred years or so it spent in the symbiont pools getting ready to be Joined."

"A new symbiont ..." Odo considered the idea carefully. "In a way that explains a great deal."

"Such as?" Pell smiled a little, as though she knew what he was about to say.

"It's like you seize moments - events - and sink your teeth into them, figuratively speaking. I imagine that a new symbiont is quite insatiable for new experiences."

"And I strike you as the insatiable type." Pell grinned. "That's true - and Pell has increased that quality, certainly. Which is not to say I merit anything near the reputation I've established for myself."

"Why exactly do you want such a reputation? It would seem to be - less than desirable."

"A truly aggressive female with a reputation for sexual prowess makes a lot of men nervous -- they're actually a bit put off by it. I'd rather be known for that than - than to be pitied for my sad, lonely state because I had the poor judgment to fall in love with a man old enough to be my grandfather. Especially one who didn't even have the good taste to appreciate what a rare gem he was being offered."

"Was Curzon the only person you've ever been in love with?"

Pell nodded. "I sometimes think he always will be." A rueful smile twisted her lips. "Oh, well, Pell, better luck with your next host. At least I manage to stay - entertained - and entertaining."

"I'm sure that you do - with tongo if nothing else!"

The pair chatted about simple, trivial things like tongo and dabo, and Pell came up with a wealth of interesting new ideas Odo could use for tripping up Quark. Almost three hours later, Odo stood up reluctantly.

"I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I must be going - I need to regenerate soon." He reached down and captured Pell's small, cold hand in his larger warm one. "Thank you for a - most memorable evening."

"No, thank you - I can't remember when I've enjoyed myself more." Darena Pell stood and twined her arms around Odo's neck, giving him a forthright kiss. He surprised her by "leaning into it" the first time, and she cautiously opened her mouth a bit, giving him every opportunity to withdraw without a further commitment. Instead he kissed her more thoroughly, seeming to savor the form and feel of her mouth, while sliding his hands sensually down her back. Finally he stopped and looked at her, the hint of a sparkle lightening his solemn blue eyes.

"It's one of the oddest things you humanoids do ... but it really is pleasurable, isn't it?"

"Speaking as a humanoid, I'd have to give that an unequivocal yes." Pell let her hands fall gently against Odo's chest, before pushing him firmly away. "Get out of here, Constable, before I do something you'll regret."

Odo managed another of his rather sad little smiles. "Are you sure I'd regret it?"

"Eventually, yes."

"But not tonight."

"Probably not." Pell sighed and stepped back into Odo's arms, resting her forehead against his shoulder while he gently ran his hands over her back. "Are you sure that you're not trying to seduce me?"

"The idea had crossed my mind," Odo confessed. "I'm just so -- so tired of feeling alone."

"Well, that's the problem." Pell was more decided as she stepped away, putting more than an arms-reach of distance between them. "In the morning you'd still feel that way. Besides, you're really not alone."

"Oh?" It was more a polite response than anything else.

"In here." Pell dared to step close to him again, putting both of her hands on his abdomen. "In some ways it's like having your own little symbiont."

Odo let his hands slowly cover hers -- not as hands, but as gentle plumes of his natural substance encompassing her and caressing her gently. Pell's smile was like a star rising in her face.

"Thank you."

"I only wish --"

"Yes?"

"That I had met you before -- that I had met you first."

There was no need to explain what he meant. Pell sighed her regret.

"I wish I'd met you first, too. Unfortunately, we both seem to be people who fall in love once and for always."

"So it would seem."

Odo, his hands once again in humanoid form, released Pell's as he turned towards the door. Once there he turned back. "Darena?"

"Yes?"

"Dinner again? Tomor --" he recalculated and corrected himself, "-- tonight?"

Pell dimpled. "My, people will be talking. I'd love to."

"Since you're the one who'll be eating, I'll leave the choice of restaurants to you. Unless you want to keep torturing Quark."

"I love torturing Quark."

"Oh, good." Odo gave an evil chuckle. "So do I."

"Now take your sexy voice and go home."

"I will." Odo paused, considering. "Do you have something to wear that isn't -- isn't like what you wore tonight?"

"Oh, yes," Pell assured him. "Something much worse."

"Good."

Exchanging wicked smiles, they finally said good-night.

SPACE

The monastery seemed unchanged from the last time Kira had prowled restlessly through its grounds -- even to the crooked line of rocks she herself had planted in the stream. That had been a long time ago -- back when she was first becoming interested in Bareil, dead over two years now. Looking out over the wild foliage and sparkling water, she missed her lost lover with a sudden, wrenching pain -- although whether it was Bareil she missed or the comparatively simple emotions she had once had, Kira wasn't quite sure.

Bareil, though, was gone -- and instead she had the odd old man who was now stepping briskly through the trees to meet her, his face wreathed in smiles. Vedek Arilsen raised his hand in greeting as soon as he realized she had seen him -- she had never seen a person so vibrant with simple gladness.

"Good morning, Major Kira Nerys!" he called. "Did you sleep well? Many people find our beds here too hard -- but you are used to worse if you were with the Shakaar."

"I slept fine," Kira lied. Erotic dreams of Odo had tortured her throughout most of the night, until she had finally broken down and done something about the ensuing problem herself. Vedek Arilsen cocked a suspicious eyebrow at her.

"That explains your lovely coloring and clear eyes, no doubt."

Kira winced. She had taken a quick look at herself in the mirror upon rising, before fleeing to the monastery grounds, and she knew how awful she looked. "Fine," she said shortly, "I had bad dreams all night."

Upon arriving at Kira's side, Vedek Arilsen reached out to once again cup her ear in his palm, gently sensing her pagh. "Bad dreams, you say? Or merely -- disturbing?"

"They count as the same if they keep you from sleeping."

"True enough." The vedek dropped his hand, nodding. "Now, come with me -- we will walk a bit, and you will talk to me. Otherwise this whole trip will be a waste of time, and you do not strike me as a woman who wastes time gladly."

"You're right," Kira conceded, "I'm not." She fell into step beside her host, matching her stride to his somewhat slower one.

"And you are thinking that you are wasting it now. I will ask you again in the end if you have wasted it -- I suspect you will have a different answer for me then."

Kira managed a slight smile. "I hope you're right, sir."

"So -- you used to come here to visit Bareil. A lovely man, Bareil. He would have made a good Kai."

"I thought so," Kira said quietly.

"Did you ever forgive him for not taking that power -- for not telling the world about Kai Opaka and what she had done? For not saving himself instead?"

"How did you know about that? I didn't think Bareil told anyone."

"Even vedeks like Bareil need their spiritual counselors. I was his for many years." Arilsen shrugged. "Besides, I listen! The best qualification to be a vedek is have big ears -- to hear everything! Why, if there was a Ferengi vedek, he would be the next Kai."

Kira tried not to shudder at the idea. "Bareil couldn't have done anything else. He was an honorable man."

"Is honor what you value most in the ones you love? Or is it power?"

Kira felt decidedly off balance. "I -- I never really thought about it before. But -- of course it is. Honor -- integrity -- they're much more valuable in a person than power."

"Because power is transitory? And honor is not?"

"I guess that's part of it."

"Then why do you love my nephew?"

"I don't understand."

"Edon is a dear boy, a good boy, and now he is also a powerful man. But honorable? Perhaps as honorable as an ex-terrorist can be."

"I --" Kira stopped, acknowledging that she was outwitted. The old man had a point, hate it though she did to admit it.

"Now, though, I want you to tell me about the other one."

It was telling that Kira failed to pretend that she didn't know who the vedek was talking about. "Odo," she said softly, "probably is the most honorable man I've ever met."

"Odo ..." The vedek mused thoughtfully, pursing his lips. "When I first met him,they called him a shapeshifter, but it is not nice to call them that, now that we know who they are. They are Changelings, from the Gamma Quadrant."

"Excuse me - you say you've met him?"

"I know him very well ... Odo! He stayed here once."

Kira turned to stare at him. "Odo?"

"Yes ... Odo! About ten years ago it was -- not long before he ended up on that station of yours -- only it was theirs then -- the Cardassians. He had just left that place - the research center where they were too excited about science to remember that all people - even shapeshifting people - have a soul, a spirit that must be nurtured before all. He had stopped on our grounds - they were more accessible then, many of the walls were broken down. He was trying to decide where to go and what to do - he only knew where he did not want to be, at that research center where they treated him as a valuable subject, but not like a person. I found him here, and we talked." The vedek smiled, pleased at the memory. "In the end he stayed for three days.

"A bundle of doubts and questions he was -- but such a pagh! I have never sensed one more beautiful. Haunted, tortured, but very beautiful. He did not believe that he had one, of course." Vedek Arilsen chuckled. "Belief is irrelevant. The pagh is there." The vedek considered his own words thoughtfully. "If this one they called odo'ital was sent to Bajor, it was because Bajor called him here."

"'Odo'ital'," Kira mused thoughtfully. "Isn't that Cardassian for 'nothing'?"

The vedek nodded gravely. "So he thought himself to be. How could he not, when the name is given? Odo Ital - the scientists called him that for many years, it was their little joke - but not so funny to Odo. I think, though, that perhaps this name feels different now. His messages sound -- oh, they are still Odo, but they are changed ... perhaps he is beginning to believe in that beautiful pagh of his."

"You still hear from him?" Kira looked at the old man, surprised.

"Every month, without fail, on the fourteenth day. Longer messages of late, telling me about the poor little Ry'mell, the one you helped care for. A man of very regular habits, your Odo."

"That's true," Kira said automatically, before adding, "But why do you call him mine?"

"A man gets a child on a woman, I think a little bit of him at least belongs to her. Do you not agree?"

"I would -- but I already gave it back." Kira leaned over to pick up a bit of greenery from the forest duff, and began working it into shreds.

"That is unfortunate." The vedek fell into deep thought.

They walked along in silence for a moment before Kira finally ventured, "Vedek Arilsen, I -- may I ask you something?"

"As many somethings as you want. Of course, there are questions to which not even I know the answers -- but I will try."

Kira took a deep breath. "When we liberated Gallitep -- and the survivors we've met since -- I'd be lying if I said I'd met any like you."

"Nosy old men?" Arilsen's eyes twinkled.

"No." Kira smiled. "Men ... people who are so ... carefree. So happy. I wasn't even a prisoner there, I only saw the camp when we liberated it -- yet I've never felt quite the same since -- about anything."

"Ah. I see." The vedek was silent for a long moment, seeming to weigh what he had to say next. "Let me tell you about the man I was before Gallitep -- perhaps it will help you to understand me now."

He nodded at a fallen tree not far from their path. "Let us sit here a bit -- and if I make you angry you can have your revenge, as I will never be able to climb back up from such a seat myself."

Kira laughingly helped him lower himself onto the waiting log, before seating herself gracefully a few feet away. "That's fair," she conceded.

"You are a kind young one not to laugh too hard at the old man ... a little, that is only right." Arilsen made a soft clucking sound against his teeth. "Now, let us look at the man I was ... and how he came to be the one that I am.

"First of all, I was what might be called a 'successful cleric' -- I played the game very well. Who knows -- if things had stayed as they were, I might have given Winn a good challenge myself." He nodded at the questioning lift of Kira's eyebrows. "Yes, I very well might -- but I ran afoul of a Gul who wanted to rape one of my acolytes, and so I ended up at Gallitep. So did my wife and two children."

Kira became very still. The soft voice continued without pause, gentle and hypnotic.

"I am not as old as I look, you see -- Gallitep gave me many of these lines that my vanity tells me I might otherwise not have. I suppose I could have them removed, but where is the honor in that? I wear them for my family -- my family that died there.

"My little one ... my daughter ... she was only six. Gallitep killed such young ones very quickly. My son was twelve -- he might have made it, I tell myself, if one of the guls had not seen him and taken a fancy to him. He was a proud boy, a handsome boy, much like Edon at that age -- the guards took him to the gul one night, and dragged him back in the morning ... he had bled to death from what they did to him. The guards threw him at his mother's feet."

Kira finally found her voice. "Vedek -- please! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to --"

Arilsen shushed her gently. "I have told this story many times, Major Kira Nerys. And to understand my journey, you must know its beginning."

Tears flowing freely down his face even while he smiled, Arilsen continued without further pause. "I was like a madman. I cursed all Cardassians -- even the record keeper who stood to one side, looking as sick to his heart as I have ever seen a man look. I even cursed the Prophets themselves."

The vedek's voice had dropped to an almost whisper. Then he shook himself, and resumed his usual brisk tone.

"My wife -- physically she was weak, but in her spirit -- her pagh -- how strong she was! Like a mountain, like the green land itself ... she held out her hand when I would have thrown myself at them and said, 'We are of Bajor. We will always have someone to love.'

"Of course, I thought she had gone mad. But it reminded me that I had her to take care of -- as I say, she was weak. But she somehow managed to live, until almost the end ...

"It was the Cardassian record keeper who helped most -- I could hear the Prophets' laughter in that. At first I thought that they mocked me -- but they did not. The small goodnesses of this one frightened Cardassian -- this Aamin Marritza -- they were the Prophets' laughter at the foolishness that makes beings kill each other in the first place, when there is so much goodness just waiting to bubble forth in the soul."

"Marritza?" Kira looked startled. "I knew him, too." She fell silent, remembering.

"He died on your station, did he not? An evil thing -- and yet a man can do worse than to die with a pure heart.

"Marritza -- he brought medicine when my wife became ill. An old blanket -- extra bits of food -- it was like he felt responsible for what had happened to her son, although he had only looked on when they brought his lifeless body back to us, and made a notation in his records. He helped me bury her when she died -- prayed with me over her grave. And I believed in that moment that the Prophets -- that God, if you want to use the term your human friends use for that which ties us together in this universe -- heard both our prayers, and gave us what we needed for all that was to come. For me, it was to discover that my wife had been right -- there is always someone, something to love."

"I wish I could -- could feel the same way you do," Kira said sadly. "It just seems -- so dangerous to love someone or something too much."

"Dangerous? Perhaps. You risk the heart when you love. And it is a hard lesson, to love no matter what. But life teaches us whatever lessons we can learn." Arilsen inched closer to Kira, and reached out to take her hand. "It stretches us! So much! Sometimes we break from it. You, Kira Nerys, are being taught a very hard lesson, but in the end it is up to you to decide if you will learn, or if it will break you. And if you let it break you, evil will have had its way again in our world. That, to my way of thinking, is the most dangerous thing of all.

"Only if you limit yourself, only then is it dangerous to love. If you see everyone as someone to love, then you will never be alone. And you will always have love to warm your life."

"How can you say that -- how can you feel that about people like Gul Darhe'el? Feel love for the 'Butcher of Gallitep'?" Kira demanded, suddenly angry.

"I said nothing about feeling!"

"But you said --"

"I said you must love. Love is something you do, not something you feel! You want warm, fuzzy feelings, get yourself a tribble -- nice little pets, by the way, I had one once ... but love! Love is hard work sometimes! There are people that to love them is so hard that it hurts your teeth -- but if you grit those teeth and love them anyway, then the Prophets will do the rest."

"But why aren't you angry?" This was the question that haunted Kira. "How can you accept what happened to you?!"

"I was angry -- my pagh was on fire with anger! But now? What would you have me do? Reject it utterly, and live soured and fruitless all my days? I believe that in the end I have had more that is good than what is evil from the world. The Prophets were able to reach into the hell that was Gallitep and show me love, in the brave woman who was my wife, who was never afraid to love ... and in the frightened Cardassian who risked himself as best he could to help us, just a little.

"In the end, child, suffering can bring one of two things -- purification or bitterness. The choice was mine. And, I think, that same choice is yours."

Kira looked up at Arilsen, startled, as he angled himself to his feet, apparently far more supple than he claimed to be.

"So, I have answered your questions. I will leave you with mine. Is that fair?"

Kira nodded slowly. Arilsen peered down at her with thoughtful, compassionate eyes.

"You suffered greatly when this little one, this Ry'mell died, did you not? So I must ask you -- why are you making his small life less than what it could be? Not a blessing, but a curse? Why are you choosing bitterness?"

Arilsen gave her one last smile before turning to continue down the path. Kira stayed rooted where he had left her until darkness finally began to fall, and the vedek sent a young acolyte in search of her. The acolyte found her still huddled on the log, her face streaked with tears -- but the face that turned up to meet him looked younger and more peaceful than it had in months.

For Kira Nerys, healing, or at least the beginning of healing, had begun.

SPACE

"Whose program did you say that was?" Darena Pell demanded as she and Odo descended from the holosuite level at Quark's. "When you said a boat I thought it would be restful -- every muscle in my body hurts!"

"I suppose I'll have to give you that massage after all," Odo said blandly. Quark, whose eavesdropping capacity had only expanded in the month since Pell had arrived on the station, looked stricken at the thought. "It's Chief O'Brien's. It was very nice of him to lend it to us."

"Nice? Sadistic is more like it!" Pell let out her full-throated laugh. She then crossed to the bar, calling, "Quark, you dear man, may I have a glass of champagne? Come to think of it, make it a bottle -- and not replicated!" She gave Odo a sultry stare. "I feel like celebrating. Again."

Quark nearly moaned in anguish. Odo supplied the final thrust by waving aside the Ferengi's offer of a glass.

"That's all right -- I can make her one." Odo raised his hand suggestively to Darena's lips. Even though they had planned this little masquerade carefully, he found it hard not to jump as Darena kissed his fingertips, before running her tongue slowly down the line of his index finger to envelop his thumb with her mouth.

The sound that burst out of Quark was something in the nature of a stifled squeal. Odo smiled a little, before putting his arm around Darena's shoulders and steering her out of the bar. Darena had her champagne bottle grasped firmly by the neck, and she waved it cheerfully at Quark as they left. "I take it Quark doesn't know yet," she murmured under her breath.

"I just haven't gotten around to it yet." Odo smiled a little, smugly patting his seemingly unchanged waistline.

"Exactly who have you told?"

"Captain Sisko - and you - and Dr. Bashir knows, of course."

"That's it? You are playing this close to your chest, aren't you, Constable."

"I like sustaining the mystery."

Pell chuckled softly as they continued their stroll down the Promenade.

"Now what?" Odo asked, after they paused to exchange a brief greeting with Dax, who acted like an bemused but ecstatic mother hen.

"Now we go back to your quarters, and you get me something to eat out of your replicator."

"You had better be careful ... I've never had to use it for food - I have no idea if it works properly, it could poison you."

"I'll take my chances. Besides, I've been here a month and you have yet to show me where you live! I should be hurt, you know."

"I don't have any furniture," Odo said by way of an apology. "Besides... I've entertained there so rarely."

"Only Major Kira?"

"Not even Major Kira." Odo looked up and smiled at the surprise in Pell's eyes. "I had different quarters when Ry'mell was alive. No, I was thinking of Ry'mell's mother."

"Lwaxana Troi. Deanna Troi's mother."

It was Odo's turn to be surprised. "Did you know her?"

"Only by her reputation!" Pell laughed. "I went to school with Deanna. I remember how appalled she would be at her mother's behavior - and how wonderful I thought she must be - warm and passionate and alive." Pell sounded suddenly wistful.

"What about your parents? Do you see them often?" Reaching the door to his quarters, Odo keyed in the lockcode before standing back so Pell could precede him inside.

"No more often than I can help it," Pell said darkly. She advanced into the room, her eyes wide with delight. "Odo, this is wonderful! This - is it a sculpture, or do you shapeshift with it?"

"I suppose it's the former, but I use it for the latter." Odo walked into the room and rested his hand gently on the convoluted structure. He then turned, businesslike, to walk towards the replicator. "What would you like to eat?"

"Hmm ... Terran strawberries ... Thalian chocolates ... and didn't you say something about making me a glass?"

Odo spoke into the replicator, handing Pell the items she had requested one at a time. Pell dipped a strawberry into her champagne and nibbled at it delicately as she began to wander idly around the room. She paused before a small table, the only conventional furniture in the room, that held a small, exquisitely enameled box, and a holographic image in a heavy silver frame. She picked up the picture to look at it closely.

Kira Nerys laughed joyously from the silver frame, as did the small, dark-eyed infant of about three months of age she held on her lap. Odo came up behind Pell, putting his hand on her shoulder and studying the object she held.

"For some reason, one day we decided to have some pictures made. The next week we found out he was dying."

"'One moment of joy, captured in crystal'." Pell set the image down reluctantly. "'Our lives, each day, in crystal come and go -- each moment ought be captured, yet we know it not'."

"Is that a poem?"

Pell nodded, smiling. "The only part I remember of a very bad poem I wrote when Curzon died. I've destroyed it since -- I can just see some bright soul wanting to include it in the introduction should they ever do a posthumous compilation of my scientific papers." She laughed, but her face turned suddenly bleak.

"I've loved him for so long, Odo -- I feel like such a fool. How can you love someone like that with absolutely nothing to show for it -- nothing but a couple of lines of bad poetry?"

"Speaking as another fool, I have no idea what to tell you." Odo reached out and drew Pell into his arms as she angrily forced back the tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks. She looked up at Odo despairingly.

"Odo, I know we've behaved ourselves since that first night, but -- will you kiss me again?"

Odo's only reply was to lower his mouth gently to hers and let it stay there for a long, long moment. Pell's hands moved with sudden urgency over his back, drawing him tighter against her. Odo paused in what he was doing, capturing her face in his hands and looking earnestly into her eyes.

"I'm sorry, Darena -- I don't have a bed." He ran his fingertips back into her heavy auburn hair. "Is this what you want?"

"I'm not sure," Pell confessed, even while she ran her hands over his body in a way he found startlingly intimate. "Is it what you want?"

"I can't have what I want," Odo said simply. "But if you're willing to compromise, then so am I."

Pell sighed, letting her hands fall to her side and taking a step back. "That's just it -- I've never been good at compromises. And I doubt if you have either."

Odo acknowledged the truth of her words with a dry chuckle. "I guess we're fairly hopeless."

Darena Pell raised her fingertips to her lips, tossing him a kiss as she moved toward the door. "Quark's for dinner again? I thought I'd go all out and wear the new little red thing."

"Ah. That would be the strategically knotted handkerchief?"

Pell laughed and grinned. "Maybe I'll let you blow your nose in it," she volleyed back, before skimming blithely from the room.

SPACE

For Kira Nerys, the month had been a less than easy one. Upon looking back, she sometimes wondered if giving birth to a baby changeling wouldn't have been easy in comparison to the process of finding rebirth for herself.

She talked to Vedek Arilsen every day - whether she wanted to or not. No matter how remote the spot she found for herself in some corner of the grounds, he would always find her - to tell her stories, about farming and the 'green land' as he called it, or sometimes even share little jokes. Nothing too obvious - and nothing that didn't eventually lead to some observation on the condition of her pagh, and what Arilsen saw as every person's obligation to bring love to a planet too long known for its suffering and loss.

Some days Kira was receptive. Some days she argued. Occasionally she would throw up her hands and refuse to talk at all until the vedek relentlessly managed to coax a smile out of her. Finally, on one occasion, he brought along his newest acquisition - another pet tribble.

"Talking to you made me think of how much I enjoyed these furry ones in the past. So I said, 'Arilsen, why not have another little tribble to purr in your ear? Next to a wife, it is the best thing an old man can hope for, yes?" Kira laughed in spite of herself. "And if the tribble, it tries to make many little tribbles - well, we ate many things during the Occupation, did we not? They might be tasty!" Feeling quite certain that the vedek's tribble and any progeny it might produce were safe from harm, Kira held the fuzzy animal -- incidentally the ugliest member its species she had ever encountered -- to her cheek and smiled, letting herself be lost in the hypnotic thrumming sound it made.

"Today is the fourteenth day of the month," Arilsen commented unexpectedly. Kira looked at him, puzzled.

"And --?"

"I have heard from your lover - from Odo."

Vedek Arilsen persisted in referring the Odo as Kira's lover, much to her annoyance. She gave an exasperated sigh and thrust the tribble back into his hands while it trilled indignantly. "Why do you insist on calling him that? Don't you think I'm good enough for your nephew?"

"No," the old man said decisively.

"Thanks a lot!"

"Nor is he good enough for you. The only one good enough for you is the one you are meant to be with."

"And you think that's Odo."

Arilsen nodded solemnly.

"Well, I think you're wrong."

"So why don't we ask the ones who know?"

"What do you mean?" Kira had learned through hard experience that this holy old man had a million worldly tricks up his sleeve, and tended to view most of his suggestions with a certain initial suspicion.

"I want you to come inside with me."

"Why?" Kira's eyes narrowed. "Do you want me to see Odo's message? Because I'm not interested." She actually was - desperately - but even more desperate to deny it.

"I do not want you to see Odo's message. He meant that message for me, not you."

"Then what?"

"I want you to see the Prophets' message. Now, come, and carry little Floss. It is hard terrain where you have hidden yourself - if I trip, I will drop her." Kira reluctantly resumed custody of the tribble, and followed the vedek down the rocky, weed-thick hillside.

Arriving inside the doors of the monastery, Arilsen reclaimed Floss and handed her off to one of the acolytes - all of whom seemed to almost worship the old man - and led Kira down through a turning of corridors to a room that she instantly remembered. She stared, thunderstruck, at the case which held the Orb. Arilsen caught her expression and shook his head.

"I told you we were coming for you to see the Prophets' message. What did you think, that they would use subspace?" Arilsen moved briskly towards the ornate case, folding back the doors before stepping aside. "I will be in the next room if you need me," he said quietly, leaving Kira Nerys alone to meet - herself.

Images - bathed in brightest light. A tiny child, a girl, a stubborn-faced little Bajoran with auburn curls. 'Kirys,' a voice said, 'this is your mother."

Whose voice? Kira wondered. It seemed important that she know. Then a small boy stepped in front of her, seemingly a child of about seven, with a thin face and Betazoid black eyes.

'Why won't you let me live?' he demanded, and Kira suddenly knew him, knew him as Ry'mell. 'Why do you want me dead?'

"No," Kira whispered. "No, I loved you."

'You wanted me dead, too.' Another red-haired girl, this one older -- a sad-looking child with wide blue eyes that looked strangely familiar. 'You would have killed me.'

"No!" Kira exclaimed. "I don't even know you!"

'I doubt if you know yourself.' It was Lwaxana Troi, the baby Ry'mell, the Ry'mell Kira remembered, cradled in her arms. Her black eyes were solemn.

"I know myself just fine! Leave me alone!" Kira wondered if she had screamed the words aloud.

'Shh... it's all right...' Gentle hands closed on her shoulders. Vedek Bareil's voice sounded softly in her ear as his hands reached around her from behind, sliding up to cup her breasts ... she was naked, as was he, pressing into her back and buttocks. 'Nerys ...'

She turned dreamily to look at him, raising her hands to his face - only his face went liquid, running down over her hands, reshaping, re-forming into oddly seamless features with crystal blue eyes. Odo ...

"Odo," she whispered. "Why are you here?"

'Because I belong here ...' Odo caught her against him in a firm grasp, wrapping around her, entwining her ... He melted slowly down her torso, taking all of her strength with him, until she lay prostrate on the floor ... his substance flowed into her, white hot fire reaching to her very core ...

"I love you ... Odo, I love you ... I love you ..."

Kira came to her senses, still standing, but out of breath, sweat pouring off her body. The telltale throbbing between her thighs was unmistakable, and she gasped, wrapping her arms around herself until her mind recognized the fact that her uniform was still in place. Vedek Arilsen finished closing the doors to the case that housed the Orb, before turning around to face his guest with quietly knowing eyes.

"So ... did the Prophets show you my nephew, child? Or did they show you your future?"

"I think they showed me my past ..." Kira crumpled against Vedek Arilsen's chest, to be held there while she cried like a heartbroken child.

SPACE

Pell beat Odo to Quark's by about fifteen minutes, and proceeded to drape herself on a barstool, there to engage in some good-natured Ferengi-baiting. The 'strategically knotted handkerchief', an engaging concoction of Mr. Garak's, clung revealingly to her body in a few vital places, and left several others, nearly as vital, quite exposed. She might have been Quark's only customer for the profoundly dedicated attention he gave her, and Pell rewarded his efforts by running a red-nailed fingertip softly up and down the lobe of his left ear.

"Quark," she cooed, "you're so good to me."

"Anytime." The Ferengi couldn't spare breath for a lengthier response, he was close to gasping.

"It's so sweet of you - and look! Odo's here, so you won't have to keep me entertained any more." Pell drew back her finger and slipped off the barstool, while Quark's half-closed eyes flew open to give her a dismayed stare.

"Odo! Darling!" Pell slinked over to put her arms around Odo's neck, kissing him softly on the cheek. "I'm so glad you're finally here. Shall we eat?"

"You will, anyway. I don't eat." Occasionally Odo would make a point of reining Pell in a bit when her behavior became too fantastic, for the sake of credibility. He smiled, offering her his arm. Suddenly he gasped. Both of his hands flew to his midsection, his face astonished.

"Odo, what is it?" Pell turned to stare at him, the femme fatale replaced by the anxious friend. "Is it the baby?"

"Baby?" Quark's head flew up, his eyes growing nearly as wide as his ears. "Baby?"

Odo nodded, clutching at the nearest table, his face turning glossy and slick. "You'd better call Dr. Bashir. I'm not sure that he'll know what to do either, but at least he can -"

Just what Odo thought Dr. Bashir could do remained a mystery. He collapsed in mid-sentence into a glistening puddle of changeling-goo, one that throbbed ominously with an ever-shifting pattern of colors. Quark gave Pell a respectful glance.

"That was fast."

Pell raced for the main Promenade, kicking off her heels as she ran. "Someone get Dr. Bashir!" she yelled at the startled passers-by. "Tell him to get his ass into Quark's now!"

When she really needed to make herself heard, Pell's voice was a feminine rival to Sisko's at its most imperative. Every combadge within earshot was activated, all directed to the Infirmary. Bashir came into view within seconds, medscanner clutched in his hand.

"Julian! Odo's in labor!" Pell dashed back into the bar while Bashir's pace noticeably quickened. Every remaining person on the Promenade came to a dead stop, exchanging startled looks, while several mouthed the word:

"Labor?"

Julian, tearing around the corner into the bar, very nearly skidded into his patient, now spread out over a considerable portion of the floor. Interest among the bar's regular patrons was intense, to the point that Morn had actually moved to a stool closer to the scene of the action. The crowd, in fact, was considerable, with Quark starting an impromptu pool as to what would come out and when in fact it would make an appearance. He was also running a special two-for-one offer on synthale.

"All right!" Bashir bellowed. "Clear this area NOW!" He whirled and beckoned to several hovering, uncertain security guards. "Keep anyone else from coming in! And you, get in here and make sure this crowd stays out of my way!" Two guards stepped gingerly around their incapacitated Chief of Security and began to herd the crowd away from the bar to the back of the room.

"Can't you beam him to sickbay?" Quark exclaimed indignantly. "This is interfering with my business!"

"Quark -" Bashir growled warningly.

"Look, Quark, do this." Pell beckoned the Ferengi to her side. "Go lure 'em in through the upstairs entrance. Tell them they can have a bird's-eye view from the upper level tables."

Quark visibly brightened at this flash of business savvy. Pell grinned as she watched him scurrying up the stairs, before shaking her head in remorse. Her words came with a sigh.

"Odo will never forgive me ..."

SPACE

"Vedek Arilsen," Kira asked softly, "why was Ry'mell the way he was?"

They were working together in the vedek's small vegetable patch - or rather, the vedek was working after having sternly ordered Kira to keep her "black hand" to herself. So Kira sat on the edge of the patch, playing with some blades of grass and watching Arilsen's contented grubbing. And thinking, always thinking. Her mind seemed to be in a permanent uproar as she finally stopped resisting the task of looking into herself, and began figuring out what had happened so she would know what to do next with her life.

Vedek Arilsen sat back on his heels, looking at her questioningly. "What way? Sick?"

"I just don't understand - what was the point of his living if he had to suffer like that? He didn't learn anything from it. He just died."

"The Prophets gave him to Odo and to you. A very rare gift. You should know that by now."

"So ... he was there to bring me and Odo together?"

"Perhaps. Perhaps he was just there to teach you how much you can love."

"Seems like a lot to do for just that."

"Just that?"

"Right, yes, I know, it's the most important lesson I could learn." Kira sounded well-tutored, if only partially convinced. "It just seems hard on Ry'mell."

"Ry'mell has stepped beyond us into joy. Do not begrudge it to him."

"I don't begrudge it - but if beyond is so wonderful, why are we always so sad when someone dies and goes there?"

"Because here is wonderful, too." The vedek gave a joyous smile. "This life is the Prophets' first great gift - and the only one we have actually seen, so it seems like the best. We have faith in the joy beyond - but this! This life we know."

Kira stared at him doubtfully.

Arilsen sighed. "All right - think of it like this. The child knows its parents - it loves them. As she grows up, she learns that there is another love perhaps to come - the love of a good partner - but the parents are there, she knows them. And if they do not prepare her for the possibility of a greater love, she may never recognize it. She stays at home - she misses the joy she might have had. What we, the vedeks, do, is try to prepare such as you for the greater love - the greater life - but we know that until you see it, the most important life is the one that you already have. And that is good! The gifts of the Prophets are precious!"

Kira sighed. "I wish I could be like you."

Arilsen shook his head. "You, Major Kira Nerys, would make a very bad vedek."

Kira chuckled. "Don't think I'm good enough?"

"Good enough? Of course. Suited for it? Never! No matter how long you hide here, you will remain what you are."

"What's that?"

"A do-er - not a be-er - and not the best listener. You need a challenging career - a good husband - and maybe a little Changeling or two to keep you on your toes."

"Odo again," Kira said wryly. "You must like him."

Vedek Arilsen stood carefully, dusted off his hands, and came to sit on the grass at Kira's side. "Have you ever wondered about this child of yours - the one you gave back to Odo to bear?"

"Of course I have," Kira whispered. "How could I not?"

"You know it is a miracle."

Kira gave a rueful smile. "I know, I know ... all life is a miracle."

"Ah, but there are miracles and there are miracles. If you were to be pregnant by Edon - well, that would certainly feel like a miracle to this old man, even if I do not think you belong with him. But Bajorans having babies with Bajorans - it is what we do, yes? It would be a miracle as much if we did not have babies together.

"But with this Changeling of yours - there is, I believe they would say, 'no scientific explanation.' A miracle, I would say."

"I wonder when it will arrive?" Kira mused. "It wouldn't be for months if it were a humanoid, but with a Changeling, who knows?"

"I do," the vedek said decisively.

"In the Prophets' good time?" Kira asked, smiling.

"Yes, of course, but that is not what I meant. No, the little Changeling came a month ago."

Kira sat up straight, staring at the man sitting next to her. Her heart felt like a hammer pounding in her throat.

"What? Why didn't you tell me?"

"Do you think I knew? Today is the fourteenth. I told you he sends me a message on the fourteenth. The little one came right after he sent his last message. So I will always be able to remember the day." The old vedek smiled, seemingly well-pleased.

"Odo's had the baby? Is he all right?" She paused, fearful. "Is - it all right?"

"I would assume from his message that it is the most perfect and wonderful being to ever enter the universe. I must tease him now -- tell him he is getting softer than little Floss." Arilsen chuckled gleefully at the thought.

"He thought the same thing about Ry'mell," Kira observed bleakly. "You should have seen him counting toes..."

"Yes, but this one is healthy, or at least as best they can tell. A good little Changeling --" the vedek smiled "-- but with her mother's red hair."

Kira was deeply grateful that she was already sitting down. "A girl ..."

"So it seems. Before, Odo was not so sure if it would start out with a gender -- but it did! Even little Changelings are boys or girls, or at least this one is a girl ... Major Kira Nerys, you have a daughter."

A soft, wondering smile crossed Kira's face, to be suddenly squelched. Her mouth set in its sternest lines, Kira looked away.

"She's not mine. I gave her up, and Odo warned me not to try to take her back. Besides, he's the one who deserves her, not me."

"Babies are only by deserving now? Funny, I know many people who deserve babies and do not have them -- and many who have them who perhaps do not deserve them. I do not think I would limit this great thing to deserving and not deserving. Besides, since when are babies not for sharing? You shared making it, or else I have been shut away here much too long."

"Don't you understand?" Kira glared at the old man, suddenly furious. "I told Odo that I didn't want her! And he told me not to bother changing my mind! It's over, dammit! Over!"

Kira was dismayed to hear the note of near hysteria in her voice, and turned her face away. There was a pause, and then Vedek Arilsen's voice fell gently on her ears.

"Do you truly not remember the Tale of the Upright Farmer?"

"No," Kira said shortly. "I remember you mentioning it once, but I don't think I ever heard it."

"Oh, but it is a good tale! Listen carefully, Kira Nerys, and I will tell it."

"All right." Anything, Kira thought tiredly, to get you to leave me alone.

"One day, long, long ago -- all the best tales happened long ago, have you noticed that? -- there was a very upright, very honorable farmer. A farmer of kava, he was not always kind -- but always fair. A man of justice."

Kira's head shot up suspiciously at the mention of justice. Arilsen went on calmly as though he hadn't noticed.

"This farmer, he eventually took a wife -- a young, pretty wife. A good girl, but not so good at staying at home on the farm and raising kava instead of having fun. She was young, she was lively -- she wanted to see the world, not the kava root growing in every field. So one day she says to the old farmer, 'Husband, I am sorry, but I want to see the world. You are a good man, and I love you, but if I stay here it will eat my soul.'

"The old farmer, he loved his young wife dearly, and his anger was as great as his love. He told her, 'Go where you will -- but do not think to come back to me! Your home is no longer with me!' And so he washed his hands of her. She left the kava farm, thinking never to return.

"So forth she went -- and the pretty young wife found the world not so pretty, for all of its sparkle. She missed the upright farmer, and she came to a day when she even missed the kava fields -- she who I suspect had the black hand, much like your, Kira Nerys. One night, when only one of Bajor's moons was above the horizon, she thought to go back to peep at the home she had left behind, to see it once more before putting it behind her forever.

"The spring moon shone bright on the kava just coming into greening, and the young wife, she lay down amidst the kava and wept for its beauty and for her loss, and for love of the good farmer. The farmer, he heard her weeping, and went out into the field to find her. He picked her up, and brought her in by the fire, and gave her hot ginger tea, and asked her no questions.

"The young wife, she was astonished, and she said to him: "Husband, why are you so kind to me? When I left you told me that, even if I changed my mind, I must never ask to come back!'

"The old farmer agreed. 'I know,' he said. 'I said all of those things to you.' He looked out over his fields, and then back into his young wife's face, and he said, 'But I changed my mind, too.'"

Falling silent at the end of his story, Vedek Arilsen plucked a blade of grass from the ground and twirled it idly between his fingers. Kira could barely speak for the lump in her throat.

"Did Odo -- did Odo say he wanted me back?"

"In so many words? -- no." The vedek picked up a small stick and began writing industriously in the dirt at the edge of the vegetable patch. Kira noticed, surprised, the characters that comprised her name: Kira Nerys.

"Then what makes you think he's changed his mind?"

Seemingly changing the subject, Arilsen commented idly, "You have not even asked to know your daughter's name, Major Kira Nerys."

"Her name?"

"She does have a name, you know," the vedek reproached Kira gently.

"Fine. What's her name?" Kira's voice was sharp with disappointment at being led to the edge of hope and then abandoned.

Vedek Arilsen smiled, leaning forward to smooth away the last two letters in Kira, and the first two letters in Nerys. Tapping what remained, he said, "This. This is her name."

"Kirys?" Kira whispered.

"That," Arilsen said solemnly, "is what makes me think he has changed his mind. But only you can judge the truth of my feeling -- and you cannot do that here. It is time you went home, Kira Nerys -- to whatever welcome awaits you." The vedek smiled. "I know you think this old man is a crazy optimist -- so be it! But I think your welcome may a good one."

He got briskly to his feet. "So! I am throwing you out! You are going home -- today." Kira looked up at him, startled. Arilsen shook his finger at her. "The next transport leaves in an hour -- you must be there to catch it. You and little Floss -- I think she will like a space station, yes? I have heard they are very fond of space stations, these tribbles -- tell Odo that Vedek Arilsen sends Floss as a present for the new little Changeling. I send her Floss, and many blessings."

The old man smiled with a look a sudden, radiant sweetness. "The biggest blessing I send is her mother -- and you can tell him I said that, too! And if I am not invited to officiate at your wedding -- I will come and do it anyway!"

Kira gave a faint smile. "Vedek Arilsen, when I get married - if I get married - no matter who I marry - you will be the first person I call."

Arilsen looked at her and sighed. "You still cannot believe, can you?"

"Not quite." Kira shook her head. "I'd like to, but - you didn't see his face the last time we met. If we can just somehow be friends again - that will be enough for me."

"Then walk with the Prophets, Kira Nerys." The vedek put his hands on Kira's shoulders and kissed her solemnly on the forehead. "They will take you where you are meant to go."

SPACE

Kira was surprised to find the station largely unchanged, and realized with a jolt that she had been away for only four months. It somehow seemed so much longer - like a whole lifetime had somehow passed in that comparatively brief span of time. She stood uncertainly at the exit from the docking port, rucksack in one hand and Floss's cage in the other, nervously surveying the expanse of corridor beyond. At first she thought that not a soul she knew would be there to greet her - not that she could really expect anyone to be there, as she hadn't taken time to advise them of her return - but her look brightened when she saw Chief O'Brien come tramping into view, arguing vigorously with one of his technicians.

"Chief!"

O'Brien looked up in surprise, a grin splitting his honest, open face. "Major! I didn't know you were back today!"

"It was kind of news to me, too, Chief." Kira fell happily into step beside him as they headed towards the nearest turbolift. As they boarded it O'Brien asked, "Habitat Ring or the Promenade, Major?"

"Well, Chief, if you'll do me the favor of beaming my bag to my quarters, I might just go straight to the Promenade."

"Sure, Major - happy to." O'Brien took the larger of the two bags. "What's that small one?" he asked, nodding to the item she still held.

"This," Kira said, flipping back the cover, "is Floss. Vedek Arilsen from Bareil's old monastery sent her to Kirys." It felt odd to Kira to say her daughter's name so casually, although she had been whispering it off and on like a mantra ever since she first learned what it was.

"That's right." O'Brien smiled at little, but looked suddenly uncomfortable. "I forgot - you're due some congratulations, too, aren't you?"

"So I hear," Kira said quietly. "Have you seen her, Chief?"

O'Brien chuckled. "Kirys? Every day. She's usually in the Security Office with Odo - I don't think he lets her out of his sight for more than an hour at a stretch."

"That's - very nice."

Kira was appalled at the wracking sob that rose in her throat, but she was powerless to do anything to stop it. Another one followed it in quick succession - the image of Odo sitting alone in his office with the daughter she had never seen was too wrenching to contemplate, yet contemplate it was all she could do. A whole month, Kira thought, a whole month wasted - and Odo never told me. A whole month with a whole lifetime to follow ... Kira felt her knees giving way, her back sliding along the turbolift wall as she sank to sit huddled ungracefully in a corner. O'Brien gaped at her, alarmed.

"Major ... oh, sweet Jesus ... Major, you'll work the whole thing out. He named her after you, didn't he? I admit he's been a bit taken with Pell, but -"

"Pell? What's a Pell?" Kira stared at O'Brien, uncomprehending, before deciding she didn't really care. Instead she drew her knees tighter against her chest, burying her face in her folded arms.

"Major Kira ..." O'Brien was about to hit his combadge and call Dr. Bashir when the turbolift stopped and opened onto the Promenade. A brief moment later, Darena Pell stepped inside. Her eyes widened, startled, as she took in the sight that suddenly confronted her, of Kira Nerys huddled in what was practically a fetal ball with Miles O'Brien kneeling helplessly at her side. After less than a second of indecision, Pell came quickly to O'Brien's side, putting her hand on his shoulder.

"Miles, can you go get Major Kira something to drink, and tell Dr. Bashir that I may be needing him? And key this thing so it will stay stuck here and shut until you get back."

Glad for the chance to do something more active, O'Brien shot from the turbolift like a disruptor blast. The door <whooshed> closed behind him, and Pell sat down companionably at Kira's side, saying absolutely nothing as she waited for the storm to cease.

Eventually Kira stopped crying and raised her tear-stained face to look around her. Her visage was decidedly calmer as her gaze fell on the woman next to her.

"You're Dax's friend -- the psychologist," Kira observed. Pell smiled, nodding her confirmation.

"Guilty. I'm Darena Pell."

"Oh, Prophets," Kira exclaimed weakly, with the ghost of a laugh, "are you what O'Brien was talking about?" Looking at the smaller, younger, better-dressed, clearer-eyed woman beside her, Kira felt suddenly overwhelmed.

"Never listen to idle gossip." Pell repeated the old Earth axiom in a casual tone. "Odo and I are just friends."

"Just," Kira repeated bleakly, at Pell's off-handed claim to the one thing Kira still dared to hope for. "You're lucky -- he's a good friend to have."

"Well, yes, he is that," Pell agreed. She took in Kira's tear-stained face with a compassionate smile. "You've been doing a lot of this lately, haven't you?" she added as Kira rubbed her sleeve across her eyes.

"Yeah ... a whole lot," Kira conceded. "I must have been saving it up."

"Well, that's no wonder. I imagine you couldn't devote much time in the Resistance to letting your hair down."

"Not much at all. Although I had more to let down then." Kira laughed a little, remembering. Pell, whose hair was much the same length as Kira's had been in those days, and exactly the same color, chuckled her understanding.

"It's a pain, isn't it?" she asked, referring to her own hair. "I keep threatening to shave mine off."

"I did that once, back when I was twelve," Kira confessed.

"Really? How was it?"

"Well, I've looked better -- but it was the sunburn that really decided me to grow it back."

Something about the mundane conversation was curiously calming. Kira was able to look up with relatively dry eyes as the turbolift doors opened, and O'Brien cautiously poked his head in, a glass of something blue extended in front of him. Pell smiled and took it from him, before handing it on to Kira.

"What is it?" Pell asked curiously.

"Maraltian seev-ale," Kira replied before O'Brien could open his mouth. "From Quark's private stock."

"That's right." O'Brien looked at her, puzzled. "How did you know?'

Kira didn't answer him directly. Instead she asked, "Did Odo send this?"

"Well ... in a way." O'Brien looked suddenly uncomfortable. Kira and Pell both stared at him curiously.

"What do you mean, in a way?" Pell wondered.

"I -- when I went into Quark's I said I needed something for -- for an hysterical woman in one of the turbolifts. Odo was there, and he suggested this."

"I think he means you," Pell said gravely, throwing back her head to peer at Kira from narrowed eyes.

"You think?" Kira chuckled. She considered the glass in her hand, and reluctantly concluded that a shot of hard liquor was the last thing she needed. Instead she handed it back to Pell, who, nodding her understanding, returned it to O'Brien. "What the hell is Odo doing at Quark's now?" she wondered. "This early in the afternoon, he's in his office." One thing Kira felt could be relied on was Odo's regular work schedule, unchanging as the Dakhuran hillsides.

"It's his weekly holosuite appointment with Kirys," O'Brien and Pell both answered, almost in unison. Kira stared from one to the other in surprise.

"Odo takes the baby to a holosuite? At Quark's?"

"Yeah ... it's a sort of -- picnic," O'Brien explained.

"Come on," Pell said decisively, getting to her feet and grabbing Kira by the hand.

"Why? Where are we going?" Grabbing Floss's cage from the floor beside her, Kira nonetheless held back from following Pell once she had gotten to her feet. The smaller woman tugged insistently.

"You're going on a picnic. Come on."

"No!" Kira held back with every ounce of her strength. "I can't just go barging in after all this time!"

"What the hell is going on here?" Jadzia Dax appeared in the doorway behind O'Brien. Her eyes brightened when she saw Kira. "Nerys! You're back!"

"Yes, and she's going on a picnic," Pell said determinedly, still pulling. Dax needed no further explanation.

"So she is," the second Trill agreed. O'Brien jumped out of the way as Dax lent her considerably greater strength to Pell's to tug Kira out of the lift onto the Promenade.

"Dax!" Kira's eyes widened in shock at the betrayal.

"In the words of a certain former Bajoran resistance fighter -- 'it's time for a less subtle approach.'"

"Did she say that?" Pell asked Dax curiously as they continued their abduction of the furiously resisting Kira.

"She sure did."

"Good for you, Major!"

"Right before she nearly got us all killed."

"Now that shows initiative."

"Doesn't anyone care what I want?!" Kira exploded.

"Well, we would --" Pell began apologetically.

"-- except that you don't seem to know what that is," Dax finished for her. "Now, do we drag you kicking and screaming all of the way, or will you come along quietly?"

Looking into her friend's eyes, Kira knew that Dax was fully capable of carrying out her threat unless Kira resorted to something truly direct -- like a well-placed kick in the symbiont. Kira considered it, but decided not to, especially as Pell looked more than willing -- in Kira's own best interests, of course -- to club her in the back of the head if she tried it. "Fine," Kira said shortly. "Let's get this farce over with." Holding her head high and Floss's cage carefully in front of her, Kira swept down the Promenade and straight into Quark's, ready to face her destiny.

Barely acknowledging the pleased-if-surprised greetings that met her on every side, Kira marched straight for the stairs that led to Quark's upper level, Dax and Pell maintaining a discreet but conscientious rear guard. "Which holosuite is he in?" Kira tossed back over her shoulder as she reached the head of the stairs.

"Holosuite C," Pell supplied helpfully. Quark, looking up from the lower level, began to sputter in alarm.

"Major, you can't just go barging in on one of my customers!"

"Watch me." Kira keyed in her override code with an absolutely steady hand. Once inside, she quickly added those codes that would guarantee that no one of a lesser rank could follow her without going through one hell of a lot to do so, before finally turning and venturing into whatever world Odo had seen fit to fabricate for himself and his daughter.

At first the setting was startling in its familiarity, as Kira recognized the monastery garden where she herself had spent so many hours these past months. Then she took in the differences -- namely, the large razor-cat with a small cub rolling together in the middle of a clearing, completely absorbed in play. A laugh distracted her abruptly from their antics, and her eyes took in the figure sitting on the grass at the edge of the clearing. Startled, Kira recognized --

Herself?

Meanwhile, the razor-cat had finally noticed her presence. It morphed into the figure of Odo, sitting on the grass, holding the cub in his arms. Kira glanced again at her holographic replica, and Odo ordered, "Computer. End holographic program of Kira Nerys."

The holo-Kira vanished. Kira wished tiredly that she looked half that good -- when she had looked in the mirror that morning, the shadows under her eyes had had shadows. She finally let her eyes meet Odo's as she tried to smile.

"I'm sorry for butting in," she said quietly. "A gang of Trills dragged me here."

"Trills can be very -- persuasive," Odo agreed. His gaze traveled intently over Kira's face. "Major, if you don't mind my saying so, you look like sh - not well at all."

Kira managed to chuckle. "Thanks. I understand that's an improvement over the way I looked last week."

"Oh? How was that?"

"Really like shit."

There was a sudden glimmering of reddish-gold gel as the razor-cat cub in Odo's arms morphed into a little girl who looked to be about eight months old. Her hair was determinedly red, and five tiny Bajoran ridges marked the small, upturned nose. She looked at Kira doubtfully, then broke into a radiant smile.

"Mama!"

Kira stared, electrified, into her daughter's face. Then, for what felt like the fifty-seventh time that day, she burst into tears.

The force of the downpour drove her to her knees. If it hadn't, she would probably have stumbled from the holosuite and retreated back to Bajor forever.

Odo scrambled to his feet, calling, "Computer! Activate holocharacter Sitter-1!" The form that appeared was of a smiling, middle-aged Bajoran woman. Odo deposited Kirys in the holographic nanny's arms.

"Please take Kirys to the other end of the garden and play with her." The holograph, agreeable as only a holograph could be, promptly did as she was asked, while Odo moved to where he could kneel at Kira's side. "Nerys ... shh ... it's all right." After a moment's hesitation, he pulled her gently into his arms. "It's all right."

Kira sobbed on and on ... the short-lived attack on the turbo-lift, the many varied tears of the past months were nothing compared to the monsoon of weeping that beset her now. She hadn't cried so hard since the night Ry'mell died. Odo held her close, rocking her as he might Kirys -- as he had rocked Ry'mell -- until she finally started to calm down, snuffling a little against the side of his neck. He felt so warm, so deceptively solid against her own trembling form -- Kira clutched at him tightly even while she wondered if he would ever hold her again.

"Odo, I'm so sorry ... I'm so damned sorry ... I know you told me, but -- I just wanted to see her, just once -- I'll go back to Bajor, I knew I shouldn't have come --"

"What are you talking about" Odo whispered. "No one needs you on Bajor. You're needed here."

"Sisko can find another liaison officer ..."

"Yes, but Kirys can't find another mother ... a holographic image is a very poor substitute." Kira felt the sudden pressure of Odo burying his face in her hair. "And I can't possibly love anyone else like I love you. Prophets know, I've tried my damnedest."

"Oh, Odo..." Kira was caught between a laugh and a sob. "I have, too ..."

Kira slowly let herself be disentangled from Odo's arms as he seated himself on the grass next to her. A projectile of reddish-gold Changeling gel shot suddenly shot across the holosuite toward them, and Kira found herself with a lapful of freshly morphed daughter, whose blue eyes fixed enraptured on her face. Odo ordered the holo-form that chased after Kirys out of existence.

"Hello, Kirys." Kira raised her hand to touch the little face, marveling at how soft it was. "Odo, she's so beautiful."

"She takes after you -- fortunately." Odo smiled a tiny smile of pure infatuation. "It took her a little while to settle on this shape, but she's remarkably adept at her shapeshifting -- she has things to teach even me." Odo reached out to capture one of the small hands in his, and it was clear, to Kira at least, that Odo had found one other person he could love with every ounce of feeling that was in him. Then his face grew solemn.

"Nerys ... I would be lying if I said that there weren't a few moments, in the beginning, when I never wanted to see you again."

"Only a few?"

"All right, then - a lot. And now there's something I need to know."

"Yes?" Kira didn't dare take her eyes from the top of Kirys' head.

"Have you come back for Kirys - or for me?"

Kira wondered how she could possibly answer his question in less than ten thousand words. She finally settled on one. "Both."

"Yes, but would you have come back if it hadn't been for Kirys?" Odo sounded much like the criminal investigator she had heard so often in the past. Knowing that investigator as well as she did, Kira could only tell the truth.

"I - I don't know. Kirys was part of the picture before I had time to figure our - your and my - part of it out."

"When you first left ... I wanted to die," Odo said simply. "We had such trust between us, and then you turned into a stranger ... I never want to go through that again, Nerys. I never want my - our daughter to go through that, either." The quickly amended 'my' clued Kira in as to how far she had to go.

Kira bowed her head under the weight of Odo's disillusionment. A single tear, welling up from Prophets knew what still untapped source, splashed on top of Kirys' head. The little Changeling stared up at her mother, tiny brow furrowed in concern, and Kira kissed the small face with absent-minded fervor.

"I don't know what to say," she said finally. "I can't imagine ever leaving you again - but I can't imagine trying to stay if you don't want me." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Or if you don't trust me."

"You say you can't imagine leaving me - even if something were to happen to Kirys?"

Kira was appalled at the thought, but she knew what he meant. "No," she said simply. "Not even then. In the end, I guess this is between you and me." She looked over at Odo's averted profile. With sudden, gentle decisiveness, she put Kirys down on the grass in front of her, where the baby sat looking interested but not at all alarmed. Kira then reached for the small covered cage, almost forgotten at her side.

"Kirys, this is for you. Vedek Arilsen sent it to you."

Kira opened the cage and let the tribble - a smallish one, with dingy tan fur and brown spots - loose on the grass, where it began nibbling contentedly. Kira wondered briefly if the holographic turf would disagree with it or - worse - make it reproduce, but for the time being it seemed impervious to both possibilities. Kirys, oblivious to these questions, nearly fell forward on her nose in her excitement.

After making sure the tribble was not going to a certain mauling and possible death, Kira turned her full attention to the silent Changeling at her side.

"Odo, I love you. I want to be with you, but -- Odo, one day I will leave you. You're going to live a hell a lot longer than I will. But I promise you this - that death is the only doorway that I'll walk out on you through again."

Odo looked at Kira solemnly. "I suppose that will have to be good enough."

An odd little squeal distracted both of them. There were now two tribbles on the grass -- one extremely large for a tribble, although just the right size for a baby Changeling.

Odo shook his head. "She hasn't learned to adjust her mass yet," he commented. I imagine it's a developmental thing."

Kira shook her head with a helpless laugh. "I don't know how I'll ever manage to keep up with her."

"You won't," Odo assured her. "I can't. You just have to rely on her letting you catch up."

"Maybe we can do it better together." Kira dared bring her hand to rest on Odo's knee, where he covered it gently with his own. Kira's eyes fluttered closed in relief. Catching the slight motion, Odo reached out and put his arm around her shoulders, and they sat together watching Kirys playing on the grass. Odo chuckled.

"Darena says that when she's old enough to play dress-up is when we'll really have to worry."

"Dress-up? What's dress-up?" Kira, who's childhood activities had mainly consisted of playing springball with her brothers and ambushing Cardassian guards, stared at Odo curiously.

"Something like what you and Dax do in the holosuite. Apparently some little girls like to put on their mother's clothes and shoes and make-up to pretend that they're adults."

"Okay." Kira's face was still a question mark.

"Well, Kirys won't have to put on your clothes. She can just put on your shape --"

"Right ..." A picture was slowly beginning to form.

"-- or Dax's -- or even Leeta's," Odo added.

The picture clarified sharply. "Over my dead body!"

Odo let out a low, gravel-ly laugh. "That's why I need you -- the voice adamant in a sea of reasonable compromise."

His voice, with its notes of warmth and welcome, sent a thrill racing up Kira's spine, with a reflexive tightening of the muscles in her groin. "I can't wait to make love with you," she said simply. "I've dreamed about it every night."

"We'll get to it - don't worry. Her regeneration times are much longer than mine."

They sat together in exhausted, contented silence for a few moments, watching Kirys' foray into tribble-hood. Finally Odo rose gracefully to his feet, reaching down to lift Kira up after him. "What is it?" she asked. The simulated sunshine had made her drowsy and a little disoriented.

"Our time's almost up. Do you have any idea what Quark charges for overtime?"

Laughing, Kira picked up Kirys while Odo gingerly took charge of the tribble. "What are we supposed to do with this?" he demanded, his tone aggrieved.

"Same thing we're supposed to do with this." Kira nuzzled the larger of the two tribbles, causing it to promptly morph into humanoid form. Kirys gazed at her mother in bemused delight.

"Oh?" Odo gave Kira a questioning look.

"We raise it."

Chuckling, they both turned toward the holosuite exit, Odo bundling the tribble into its cage. As they came close to the door, Kirys grew increasingly excited -- almost anxious -- and kept looking at Odo as though for confirmation.

"What is it, sweetheart?" Kira asked softly, kissing the small, worried face.

"She thinks you can't leave the holosuite," Odo explained. "Because of ..." His voice trailed off, faintly embarrassed.

"Oh ... it's okay," Kira reassured her daughter, "I can come with you now."

Kirys' reply came in the form of soft hands that turned liquid as they touched her mother's face. Kira was startled by but assented to allowing small tendrils of Kirys' substance explore the inside of her nose. Odo rumbled apologetically, "She does that with anyone who'll let her. Bashir thinks she trying to learn how to form olofactory centers. Most people -- don't care for it very much."

"No ... I don't mind." Kira wasn't thrilled either, but braced herself against the decidedly uncomfortable sensation. Kirys finally withdrew the inquisitive probes, relaxing against her mother with a happy sigh.

As they emerged from the quiet holosuite into the controlled bedlam that was an afternoon at Quark's, Kira and Odo were both startled to hear a small cheer comprised of various familiar voices go up from a nearby table, and to see a fairly raucous display as strips of latinum exchanged hands.

"Told you!" Pell crowed to a disgruntled-looking Worf. "Pay up!"

"I believe you owe me, too," added Dax. "And so do you, Benjamin!"

"I never bet," Sisko insisted. "I only expressed certain -- reservations."

"Well, I for one was never a happier man to lose a bet," announced Chief O'Brien, handing over a small sum to Dr. Bashir, who smiled in contented silence.

"Welcome back, Major," Sisko called, eyes twinkling. "You're just in time for a senior staff meeting."

"Since when do you have senior staff meetings at Quark's?" Kira asked suspiciously.

"Since when was I on senior staff?" Pell whispered to Dax, who shushed her.

"Oh, just today -- we thought we should all get together to welcome you back."

Kirys, meanwhile, had turned into a squirming dynamo, holding out her arms towards the group at the table. Odo rolled up his eyes.

"She wants to go to Bashir. He's the first thing she saw when she was born -- I think he's impressed her, like a baby duck."

"More than he impressed me when I first saw him," Kira commented, amused. She nonetheless gave Bashir a reassuring smile as she passed her daughter into his arms.

"Kirys is going to marry me when she grows up, aren't you, sweetheart?" Bashir settled Kirys on his lap with the ease of practice, and she gestured at him in wild excitement, indicating the cage in Odo's hand. Sighing, Odo placed the cage on the table, while Kira felt a sudden stab of concern.

Bashir liberated the tribble to Kirys' complete and enthusiastic approbation, making the sole comment, "Major, that has to be the ugliest tribble I've ever seen." Worf eyed the small, furry thing with disgust. Floss returned the sentiment, hissing and backing away from the irritated Klingon.

"Do we have to have that -- thing on the table?"

Kirys, who had already sensed in Worf a less-than-devoted admirer, stared at his stern visage resentfully. Suddenly Bashir found himself holding an oversized tribble -- one that also hissed at the astounded Klingon. Worf stood up, stiffer than usual with outraged dignity.

"I have to get back to the Defiant. We are in the middle of refitting the weapons system."

Silence fell over those remaining at the table until Worf was safely out of sight -- and earshot. Then there was general collapse all around, as almost all of the senior staff, along with a visiting Trill, proceeded to laugh until they cried. Even Odo chuckled, while Kira, finally cried out, nonetheless had to sit down rather quickly, clutching at her sides as she chortled helplessly. Kirys, resuming her humanoid shape, looked up anxiously as Bashir, still gasping, wiped the tears from his eyes.

She looked over at Odo, then at Kira, obviously concerned. Kira smiled encouragingly, and Kirys exclaimed, reassured, "Mama!"

The entire group at the table froze, staring first at Kirys, then at Kira, and then back at Kirys. Kira looked at Odo questioningly, even while she realized how extremely quiet Kirys had been before now.

Odo gave her a reassuring smile. "She never talked before today. No one was sure why -- her vocal cords and palette are both perfectly formed. I guess she just didn't have anything she needed to say," he finished quietly.

"Oh," Kira whispered. Suddenly she felt exhausted enough to pass out at the table where she sat. Studying her pale face, Odo said suddenly, "Doctor, would you mind watching Kirys for a little while?"

"I would be delighted." Bashir made a great show of kissing Kirys' cheek, evoking a delighted laugh.

"She's going to go straight for your nose again," Dax warned. Love Kirys though she did, the Trill had her limits.

"She just wants to be able to smell my new cologne." Bashir withstood a new assault by the determined baby Changeling with remarkable forebearance. "Besides, just wait until she decides that she wants taste buds."

"Where are you two off to, Constable?" Sisko asked.

"I thought I would walk the major to her quarters." Odo replied. The group at the table fell silent again, their faces guarded question marks. Kira felt a sick jolt to her stomach. Odo frowned at the suddenly changed dynamic.

"She needs to pick up her things," he explained, a bit annoyed that he needed to do so. Gripping the edge of the table, Kira willed herself not to faint from relief.

"Well, her bag's still here," O'Brien offered, as the group quietly breathed a collective sigh. "Quark's keeping it behind the bar."

"Quark has it?" Kira paled at the thought of Quark having possession of a bag that contained her underwear.

Odo, sensing her thoughts, reached down to pat her shoulder. "He wouldn't dare."

"Thank you for the welcome." Kira scrambled to her feet, smiling at her friends. "I'll see you all later." She turned with Odo to start walking towards the bar.

In the space of a heartbeat, a small example of the Gamma quadrant thumbing its nose at the laws of physics -- and genetics -- shot from Dr. Bashir's arms and plummeted across the room after her mother. Kira whirled just in time to catch Kirys, who reshaped in her arms, whimpering.

"What is it?" Kira exclaimed anxiously. Odo put an additional soothing hand on Kirys' back.

"She's afraid to let you out of her sight." Odo coaxed Kirys to put her hand in his. "Shh, it's all right." His fingers glimmered briefly, shifting and melding with his daughter's. After a moment their fingers separated, and Kirys consented to let her father return her to the custody of Dr. Bashir, while Kira looked on with a sense of astonishment and loss.

"She'll be all right now," Odo offered as he joined Kira at the bar after she had reclaimed her bag and surreptitiously checked to make sure that all of its contents remained intact. "She knows you're here to stay."

Walking out onto the Promenade, Kira glanced sideways to give Odo a grateful smile. "It sounds like maybe you trust me again."

"You gave me your word," Odo said simply. "You're not always the smartest woman I've ever met, but I've never known you to break your word."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Constable." Kira reached to entwine her fingertips with his. Hand in hand they continued down the Promenade.

Back in the bar, Darena Pell and Dax were gloating. "I told you they'd be together," Pell said gleefully. Dax smiled at her friend, enjoying the turning of the tables even while she wondered if Pell was as happy as she seemed to be.

"Now, we just have to collect from Worf," Dax mused.

"Seeing him meet Kirys the Tribble was more than worth the latinum," Pell remarked with friendly malice.

"That goes on both sides," Sisko agreed contentedly. He laughed. "Wait until I tell Jake!"

"Looks like I'm free tonight after all," Pell observed. She looked across the table to where Bashir was busy making foolish noises at Kirys. "How about you, Julian?"

"What?" Suddenly aware that a vital question had been asked, Julian looked up sharply. Dax glanced over at Pell, surprised.

"I asked you if you're free tonight." Pell batted her lashes in frank invitation.

Like spectators at a springball match, all eyes followed the ball back to Bashir. The doctor straightened and managed to say, with debonair casualness, "Why, yes -- I am."

"Oh, good!" Pell exclaimed happily. "I was playing springball with Leeta a few days ago, and we were saying how we should all have dinner together sometime."

"Oh ... dinner ... with Leeta -- and you?" Bashir looked torn between disappointment and bewilderment.

"Yes, but Leeta's on Bajor for the next two days," Dax supplied helpfully.

"Well, that is a problem," Pell mused. "Hmm ... I don't suppose you'd consider having dinner with just me, would you, Julian?"

"Oh, I - I think that would be very nice," Bashir conceded. Dax considered how fun it was watching Bashir trying not to salivate.

"Let's see - have you ever tried Dax's Hoobishan bath holoprogram? We could have a nice little dinner by the pool."

"That sounds - perfect."

"Well, almost." Pell smiled a lopsided, rueful smile. "I don't have a swimsuit, but you're a doctor - so that won't bother you, will it?"

"Oh - um, no, of course not." Bashir had moved past stunned to mesmerized.

"We don't actually use them on Trill, not in the baths - will you do me one favor, though, just so I'll feel more comfortable?"

"Of course ... what's that?"

"Leave yours home, too. See you at twenty-hundred hours?"

Bashir nodded, dazed, as Pell got up from the table and skimmed out of the bar.

This time the laughing nearly went beyond crying. Dax thought that she'd pee her pants.

The Klingons had a saying -- today is a good day to die. Jadzia Dax considered and rejected it, thinking instead, today is a good day to be alive.

A very good day to be alive. Dax looked over at the utterly dazed Bashir with a mischievous smile.

"Maybe I'll come, too, Julian," she offered. "The baths are much more fun if you don't have to wear a suit."

Dax smiled serenely into Bashir's widening eyes. On a day like this, even Dr. Puppy deserved a bone or two.

SPACE

"New quarters again?" Kira asked, after Odo escorted her into the unfamiliar rooms not far from her own in the Habitat Ring. "And real furniture?"

"Well, I needed the room," Odo explained. "I didn't want Kirys to grow up feeling any more -- different, isolated than she had to. So I decided to provide her a more humanoid environment as a -- frame of reference."

Kira wandered through the main living area, attractively if not stylishly furnished in what Kira thought of as "Bajoran old-and-comfortable". A lot of thought had gone into the process, though -- there was nothing that a small and active Changeling would find easy to destroy, no matter what shape she took. Peeking in doors, she saw that one room contained Odo's elaborate shape-shifting structure along with other things she had always wondered about in his old quarters. Another room was clearly devoted to Kirys, and Kira promised herself a thorough perusal of her daughter's toys and surroundings later. The last room contained a comfortably large bed. Kira looked back at Odo with a wry smile.

"Been entertaining?"

The old Odo wouldn't have known what she meant -- but then, the old Odo wouldn't have had a bed in the first place. The new one chuckled. "It's never even been used. My -- 'decorating consultant' -- advised me to be ready for all possibilities."

Kira quirked an eyebrow at him. "If your 'decorating consultant' is who I think it is, I think that lack of use is just because you haven't quite gotten around to it yet."

Odo looked at her, startled. Kira commented, "It's Darena Pell, isn't it?"

Odo smiled a little and nodded. "Someone already told you?"

Kira shrugged. "There have been hints." She crossed to sit on the overstuffed, faded sofa, letting her head droop tiredly back against the cushions. "You really didn't sleep with her?" she asked curiously.

"I didn't even 'not-sleep' with her. Which isn't to say that the idea never occurred to me." Odo crossed to sit on the sofa's other end, and Kira, after a moment's hesitation, lay down so her head was in his lap.

"So why didn't you?" Kira asked. She was so tired, but there were still a few things that she had to know.

"Because she wasn't you."

It was the right answer. Kira felt the last of her tension drain from her body. Next thing she knew, she was coming groggily awake, dimly aware of the fact that strong arms were carrying her and laying her down on something soft -- the bed? She opened her eyes to dim lighting and Odo's blue eyes shining softly.

"Odo?"

"Shh ... go back to sleep. I have to go get Kirys."

"I'll come with you." Kira struggled to get up.

"There's no need." Odo pressed his hand gently against Kira's shoulder, pushing her back against the pillow. "Besides, you need the rest." He smiled, ever so slightly. "At least, you will."

"No," Kira said, suddenly insistent. "I need you." She pulled Odo down against her, noting with a shiver of passion the way his surface softened receptively under her hands. "Yes, like that," she whispered. "Just like that."

Her clothing proved no obstacle to the substance that crept gently across her avid form, the golden gel that was her lover's true body slipping under and past the various fabrics that covered her, finding and caressing the bare flesh underneath. There was a dull splitting sound as a multitude of seams suddenly split, and Kira sobbed out her passion while Odo partially re-formed in her arms, face and upper body clearly visible and warmly solid beneath her hands, even while his molten self poured into her below. The sobs rose to a half-strangled scream as humanoid and changeling fell together into bliss.

Afterwards, Kira lay shuddering while Odo caressed her softly - running his hands in a way that was strangely soothing over her breasts and sides and thighs, a gentle combing motion that released her to float on an ocean of peace. Kira traced the line of Odo's chest with her fingertip, smiling a little as she did so.

"I need to get some more clothes out of my bag. These are shot." Kira reached behind to pick up a rag that once formed part of her shirt.

"I don't know why. I think you look wonderful."

"I am not going prancing around with no clothes on in front of my daughter, thank you very much!" Kira grinned in amusement at the very notion.

"Well, she'll prance around in front of you - I guarantee it," Odo assured her solemnly. "It has been extremely hard to convince her that she has to shape clothes - and she's forgotten to re-shape them in some of the most embarrassing situations. Her favorite spot seems to be in front of the Bajoran temple."

Kira giggled as she contemplated the image of tall, distinguished Vedek Tonsa, and the expression she was quite sure had crossed his face on each and every occasion. Thoughts of vedeks naturally drew her thoughts to a certain friend on Bajor.

"We have to take her to see Vedek Arilsen. He'll be so pleased."

"I was thinking maybe next week, if that's all right with you."

"First day off I get," Kira agreed. "I've been gone for so long, it may be a while."

"Actually, I was hoping you might extend your leave a little while longer."

Kira's eyes widened. "I hardly think Sisko is going to like that!" Her gaze softened. "Don't worry, Odo. We've got all the time in the world. The vedek will understand.

"Besides," she added, dimpling, "we can always invite him here. The last thing he said to me was that he expected to preside at our wedding - and he said to be sure and tell you so."

"Are we getting married?" Odo asked, smiling that odd, strained smile of his. Kira traced the lines of his mouth with her finger, love as sharp as pain burning in her chest.

"Damned straight. No baby of mine is going to be a bastard."

"Such an odd concept," Odo commented. "A child is or it isn't. What else matters?"

"I happen to agree with you there, but you know Bajor ... Now, let's go get ours before she changes into a Dabo girl and marries Dr. Bashir."

"All right." Odo kissed Kira one last time, his lips gentle and undemanding. Kira had a sudden, painful sense of the first time he had kissed her, of all the time that had elapsed between that moment and now, and of the miracle that somehow come to pass.

'Suffering can bring one of two things -- purification or bitterness ... the choice is yours." Kira remembered Vedek Arilsen's words, and looked intently into Odo's eyes, searching for any remaining doubts and finding none in their unquestioning love.

Purification ... redemption.

And finally, peace.

Dressing in her spare clothes, Kira's gaze chanced to fall on the holographic image of herself and Ry'mell, still neatly ensconced on the same small table. The silver frame was much besmeared with the marks of small hands. Kira picked it up, smiling sadly.

"There hasn't been a morning that I haven't woken up and wondered for a second where he was." Kira studied the image intently. "But now - I don't know, it's like - it's like -"

"Like he's still here?" Odo observed. Kira pondered his words, and nodded slowly.

"Yes. Like he's still here. I haven't felt that way before - maybe because I was the one shutting him out."

"'... I have heard the key/Turn in the door once and turn once only/We think of the key, each in his prison/Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.'"

Kira stared at her lover, astonished. "Odo - was that poetry?"

Odo looked at her as though she were deranged. "Of course it's poetry. I don't talk like that."

"I'm just surprised. I didn't think you read any."

"You'd be surprised the things you don't know about me, Major," Odo replied archly.

"I'll bet. I still want to know what kind of mischief you got up to with that Trill."

"Nerys - are you jealous?" There was a not quite hidden hopefulness in the Changeling's voice.

Kira smiled. "You bet your sweet ass I am.." Joy ran like wine through her veins.

Odo's eyes radiated pure satisfaction. "Good. See that you stay that way." A little grin lurked around the corners of his mouth.

"So, Odo," Kira said, linking her arm through his as they stepped through the door on their way to reacquire Kirys, "when did you start reading poetry?"

"Actually, it was one of the kinds of mischief I got up to with 'that Trill'."

"Hmm ... we do have some catching up to do, Constable."

"Good thing we have plenty of time to do it in, Major."

"Yes," Kira agreed. "All of the time in the world..."

THE END

SPACE

* T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922). V, What the Thunder Said.

(c)1996 by Carolyn R. Fulton. All rights reserved.

STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE is the property of Paramount Pictures, Inc., as are all of these lovely characters and places, with the exception of Darena Pell, Vedek Arilsen, and Oira Kirys, who were created by yours truly. Fan fic being what it is, while I am blithely using Paramount's property without their permission (I figure they're getting paid way too much to worry about me), my characters and my story are mine. Since I'm getting paid diddly, I expect to be asked for my permission if you want to use anything of mine.

And speaking of permission, special thanks to Catherine Weller for her gracious permission to use the idea that a shapeshifter could figure out how to taste and smell things if he or she could find a humanoid gracious enough to allow an intimate exploration of his or her nose and mouth. Such a clever concept! :-)

Other thanks are also in order. I am extremely lucky in that I have friends who are not afraid to tell me when I get off track, or when something, quite frankly, sucks. And they do it in such a supportive, comprehensible way that I am able to do better. We don't always agree, but we never lose our respect for each other's judgment or for each other's work. And that, dear readers, is a GIFT beyond measurable worth.

So "The Fire and the Rose" is dedicated especially to Cristy and Sara, with much love. Looking forward to many more happy hours in "Odo's Lair"!

And lastly, thanks be to God for all the Beasts Who Shout Love at the Heart of the World -- let their voices be heard and not silenced.

So, I reverted to my old ways and went for a happy ending. Sue me. :-)

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

SPACE

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