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This novelization was written out of appreciation for the episode it was based on, and the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. No infringement of any of Paramount's copyrights is intended.


The Begotten

Novelization by Tracy Hemenover
From the episode written by Rene Echevarria


It had been another dream about flying. He could still feel the lightness of his body, the wind through his feathers; he could see the ground far below, swaying, rising, and dipping as he banked and swooped, then climbed again. In the dream, he had believed he could fly forever. Even now he imagined that he could taste the freedom -- that if he opened his beak he could emit a majestic screech, a song of power.

What came out was a groan of pain.

Odo stiffened, gasping as the agony beat against every nerve in his back. For a long moment there was nothing but the pain and the harsh sound of his breathing. In, out, in, out...

He'd be damned if he would call for medical assistance. No, he would make it to the infirmary under his own power. His pride was all he had left now -- that and his job. They kept him going. Even now, after five long months as a solid.

Gathering his strength, he rose, walked mechanically to the bathroom and executed what had perforce become his normal routine. Against his will, he remembered when all he had had to do to prepare himself for a new day was solidify, uniform and all. Only after becoming a humanoid had he come to appreciate the amount of labor involved just in managing one's body. And that was without pain. He grimaced, gritted his teeth, and persevered.

The journey through the station seemed endless. His slow, stiff gait made a mockery of his usual even-footed, efficient stride, but his head was high and he held his gaze straight ahead. The corridor. The turbolift. The Promenade. Finally, the infirmary. He paused in the doorway, grimly marshaling all the tenacity he possessed in order to make it inside.

Bashir was there, of course, looking disgustingly fresh, scrubbed, and agony-free. He looked up from a medical report. "Good morning, Constable. What can I do for you...today?" The emphasis on the last word made him sound amused, damn him. Weren't doctors supposed to be sympathetic?

Odo dismissed the highly uncomplimentary words that immediately sprang to mind, contenting himself with a brief explanation. "It's my back."

Bashir did not look surprised. "Let's take a look." He gave a final poke at his report, then followed Odo.

"It happened this morning when I got out of bed." Odo could not suppress a loud groan as he managed to sit on the biobed. He watched Bashir, mentally daring him to comment.

All Bashir said, after scanning him for a few moments, was, "Ah."

Odo studied him. Ordinarily he could read Bashir like a book; the human possessed quick, expressive features which hid very little -- except when he was dealing with a patient. Then the neutral "doctor" face invariably came down -- meant, no doubt, to be soothing.

"I have Alvanian spine mites, don't I?"

"Actually -- "

"...I'll be in pain for the rest of my life -- "

"Odo." Bashir waited a fraction of a second, to be sure he had Odo's attention. "You have a pinched nerve."

Odo leveled a look at him. "Really."

"It comes from bad posture."

"Me?" Odo drew himself upwards, manfully ignoring the answering stab of pain. "Ridiculous. I've never seen anyone sit so straight." He folded his arms and squared his shoulders to emphasize his point.

"Exactly," Bashir said. "You carry yourself too rigidly."

"This is how I've always carried myself."

Bashir crossed the room to select a hypospray. "You haven't always had a spinal column," he pointed out. "You're not a Changeling any more. Now that you're a humanoid, you have to learn to relax."

"That's what you said last week," Odo groused.

"And?" Bashir turned to him.

"And -- it helped." It came out reluctantly, a concession. "That, and the prune juice."

Bashir came back over to him, hypospray in hand. "There. You see?" He pressed the hypo to Odo's lower back. It hissed.

"...ahh..." Odo couldn't help sighing in relief as his agony instantly, miraculously eased. Strange, how one never quite appreciated the simple absence of pain.

"I know what I'm talking about," Bashir concluded.

"Well..."

"Back trouble?" said another voice. Odo looked up in annoyance. Quark stood there, holding something behind his back, a half-expectant, half-calculating expression on his face. The day was just getting better and better, Odo thought sourly. Quark wasn't a person he enjoyed seeing on any occasion, but the fact that the Ferengi was barging in on a private medical consultation was especially annoying.

"It's none of your concern, Quark," he growled warningly.

"Bad posture." Quark nodded sagely at him.

"Would you get out of here?" Odo snapped.

"What you need is a good stretching regimen," Bashir said. "Worf's morning exercise class should be just the thing."

Oh, of course, Odo thought sarcastically. I'll start the day by posturing and bouncing in front of a bunch of supercilious Starfleet officers. Led by that lumbering lummox of a Klingon...

"Forget that," Quark was saying slyly as Bashir paused beside him on the way to a computer console. "I've got a holosuite program that'll take care of him. Three Orion slave girls straddle -- "

"Quark..."

Bashir grinned back at him before moving on. It did not improve Odo's mood.

"Go ahead," Quark said loftily. "Suffer."

"What do you want?" Odo demanded, irritable.

Quark swaggered toward him, his hand still held behind his back. "A Yridian I've been dealing with sold me something that might interest you."

Odo scoffed. "I don't think so."

"You don't know what it is."

"I know I don't want it."

"In that case," Quark said provocatively, "can you tell me how to get in touch with the Founders?" Odo looked up sharply at the mention of his people. "I know they'll want it." He slowly brought out the thing he had been concealing, watching the resulting change in Odo's expression with satisfaction.

Suddenly Odo no longer cared about winning this particular round of his ongoing war of wits with Quark. Nothing mattered except what he saw in the large squarish, ornate container Quark had revealed. He slowly took it from Quark, staring in wonder at the murky dark blue liquid inside.

"It's a Changeling," Quark whispered dramatically, and unnecessarily. His voice changed to normal. "Or it was, anyway. Since it's dead, I'll let you have it for five slips of latinum."

"It's not dead," Odo said, mesmerized. The Changeling was still liquid; dead Changelings, unless the cause of death was from an energy weapon, turned to an ashlike substance. He had seen it happen, once: to the one he had killed on the Defiant -- the one who was the reason his people had made him a solid.

"In that case, make it ten," Quark replied without missing a beat.

"It's sick." There was no other explanation for the blue color.

"Eight, and we'll call it even."

Odo grunted, not even looking at him as Quark quickly whipped out his sales PADD, punched up the amount, and pressed Odo's thumb to it for the dermal imprint. He didn't take his eyes off the Changeling at all as Quark walked triumphantly out.

Bashir approached behind him. "If that is a Changeling," he said softly, "maybe we should get it into a security field."

"That won't be necessary," Odo said distantly.

"But if it gets out of that container, it could be dangerous."

Slowly, Odo shook his head. "It's not going anywhere, Doctor," he asserted with confidence born of sure knowledge, born of memory. "It doesn't know how. It's just a baby."

(-|-)

"A baby Changeling?"

Odo stood watching as Captain Sisko bent down to peer with obvious fascination at the sickly life form, which had been transferred to a clear petri beaker while Bashir prepared some equipment. "Centuries ago," he reminded the captain, "my people sent a hundred of us out into the galaxy so we could learn about other races. When I was found, I looked very much like this."

"You were this small?" Sisko queried, wonder in his voice.

"Like a humanoid child, it'll grow. Its mass will increase as its shapeshifting abilities develop."

Sisko straightened, as Bashir approached from behind them. "As far as I can tell," the doctor said, "it was exposed to a massive amount of tetryon radiation. I'm going to have to purge the isotopes with an electrophoretic diffuser."

"Get on it," Sisko sanctioned with a nod. He and Odo watched wordlessly as Bashir carefully picked up the beaker and took it away. Then Sisko turned to Odo. "Are you sure it poses no danger to us, Constable?"

Odo brushed aside the familiar irritation at the nickname. "When I was first discovered," he told Sisko, "I didn't know what I was. I had no memory of where I was from. I didn't even know I had the ability to mimic other forms."

"Why would the Founders send such helpless creatures out into space?" Sisko wondered.

"To find out if the species they encountered posed any threat. What better way to gauge another race than to see how it treats the weak and vulnerable?" This was not something the Founders had ever directly told him during his few encounters with them, but a blank he had had to fill in for himself.

Sisko nodded a little. "I see your point."

I wish I did, Odo thought wryly. How many of my siblings have survived to this point, to be placed in containers and stared at by aliens? Let alone to accomplish what I have, becoming more or less a member of a society? How many died in mishaps suffered in the vacuum of space? How many are suffering, exploited, abused? I suppose, all in all, I have been rather fortunate...

Sisko glanced at Bashir, who was bent over the baby Changeling, talking with an assistant. "How long before it is able to take humanoid form?"

"Several months. Why?"

"Well, there's still a lot we don't know about your people. The Changeling could provide Starfleet with valuable information about the Dominion."

Odo wanted to protest -- this Changeling wouldn't know anything about the Dominion, and as for biological data, Starfleet already had access to what was known about Odo when he had been a Changeling. But then he realized that Sisko was speaking in terms of what Starfleet's point of view would be. Instinctively he knew he had to be involved. "Well, that being the case, I'd like to be allowed to work with it, to teach it how to shapeshift."

"I can't think of anyone better qualified," Sisko agreed with a slight smile at Odo's grateful nod. "You might just want a little help. Maybe you should contact Dr. Mora."

Odo's head came up sharply at the mention of the Bajoran scientist who had studied him years ago. "Mora? Why?"

"Well, he managed to find a way to communicate with you. He obviously knows what he's doing."

Odo released a breath, acknowledging Sisko's point. "Maybe so. But I prefer to do this alone."

To his further relief, Sisko assented. "It's your call." He started to leave, as Odo gave an affirming grunt; but then he stopped and turned as a thought struck him. "But, it's always nice to have someone around to help change the diapers."

"I'll keep that in mind." Odo nodded gravely to Sisko, thinking very privately that it would be a warm day on Breen before he consulted Mora about anything to do with this Changeling.

(-|-)

"The purge was almost a hundred percent effective. The concentration of isotopes is nearly negligible," Bashir was telling Odo.

The security chief gazed at his new charge, which now glowed a robust gold as it sat on the lighted panel where it had been purged of the contaminating isotopes. "It certainly looks healthier," he agreed.

Bashir smiled briefly. "Well, I'd better go check on Kira. Did you hear? She's in labor."

"Mmhm." Odo's response was barely more than a grunt. It wasn't that he wasn't concerned about his fellow officer and friend; but he doubted that he was the one she wanted or needed to see at the moment, especially with First Minister Shakaar, her lover, coming to the station to attend. This Changeling, on the other hand, did need him.

Bashir paused for a long moment. He had obviously been expecting more of a reaction, knowing of Odo's friendship with Kira, if not of the deeper feelings Odo had long harbored. "...But," he said at last, "I guess you have your own baby to think about."

Odo looked up at him but didn't comment, and after a moment, Bashir went into a small cubicle and began packing scanners and other supplies into a kit. "There is still a small degree of instability in its morphogenic matrix," he said. "I'm hoping it'll level out. I've set the computer to monitor for biomemetic fluctuations, just in case."

"Thank you, Doctor." It was a dismissal.

Bashir stopped at the door on the way out, poking his head back in. "Good luck."

Odo watched him go. He was alone in the infirmary with the Changeling. Leaning on the console, he folded his hands before him, gazing into its amber depths.

"How do you feel?" he asked softly. "Better?" It didn't move a molecule or make a sound in response. "I realize you can't understand a word I'm saying. But that doesn't matter. I know you're aware of me. You see, I was once like you." He nodded slowly, though he knew the gesture would mean nothing to it. "I spent months in a lab, being prodded and poked by a scientist who didn't recognize I was a life form."

He started to reach for the beaker, then thought better of it and drew his hand back.

"He thought I was a specimen," he confided. "A mystery that needed to be unraveled. He never talked to me. It didn't occur to him. I didn't know what I was, or what I was supposed to do. I was lost. Alone." He leaned closer to the Changeling. "But it's not going to be that way with you. No. I'm not going to make the same mistakes that were made with me."

This time he gave in to his impulse, and carefully picked up the beaker, steadying it against his other hand as he straightened.

"Come on. I want to show you something."

(-|-)

Miles O'Brien wouldn't have believed that a person could be bored out of his skull and nearly crazed with anxiety at the same time. Until now.

He hadn't been with Keiko when their daughter, Molly, had been born. It had been during a shipwide emergency on the Enterprise; he had been stuck on the bridge while Keiko was trapped in Ten Forward. He had always regretted that fact, and he had vowed that, come hell or high water, he was going to be there to greet his son when he emerged into the world.

He listened to the soft hiss of the sand within the jeweled rattle-like instrument held by the Bajoran midwife -- Y'Pora, he'd been told her name was -- as she rolled it briefly between her hands. Then, the different noise of the whatever-it-was (he hadn't caught the name of it) that Keiko faithfully shook beside him.

Keiko's elbow jabbed his ribs to inform him that he was off the rhythm.

Belatedly, he struck the gong in his hands, and listened intently as Y'Pora rolled, then Keiko shook. This time his timing was good -- but he sneezed as he struck. The incense was getting to him.

Keiko froze. "I'm sorry," she whispered apprehensively to Kira Nerys -- who reclined on the birthing chair, until now basking serenely in the slow drone of the ceremony which was the prescribed manner in which the women of her people had borne their children since time immemorial. Of course, in this case, it wasn't Kira's child who now resided inside the mound of belly that swelled under her white robe. It was a human baby, Miles' and Keiko's, and he was ready to come out. Whether the baby himself was of the same mind was another matter altogether.

Kira opened her eyes, glanced at the human couple, and at Bashir, who stood unobtrusively beside her with his scanner, then nodded to Y'Pora. The midwife began the rhythm again, without comment.

Miles repressed a sigh, and dutifully banged, feeling guilty for wishing he and Keiko hadn't been so quick to agree to Kira's giving birth by the ancient Bajoran method -- one of many rituals largely abandoned during the Occupation that were enjoying a resurgence four years after its end. Kira had done him and Keiko an enormous favor by allowing their child to be placed in her body, after Keiko had been injured in a runabout accident; and then by continuing the pregnancy to term, which had been necessitated by the high degree of interconnectedness that a Bajoran woman quickly formed with a baby in her womb. The least they could do was go along with Kira's desire to observe her people's customs.

It was just that it was taking so long. The cello was his instrument, not the gong. He'd have been happy to play cello for Kira, but that had been nixed. Not Bajoran enough. And when he had suggested that they simply play a recording of the ceremonial rhythm, all three women had glared at him so ferociously -- especially Keiko -- that he had backed down hurriedly and never mentioned it again. He'd rather face a roomful of Jem'Hadar -- alone and armed only with a putty knife -- than his wife when she was angry.

Nevertheless, he worked up the nerve to whisper to her, "Something's wrong. Kira said this would only take about an hour."

Bashir, who had sat down at his other side, leaned over to put in his two slips. "For Bajoran women, giving birth is all about being relaxed."

"He's right, Miles," Keiko admonished, not looking at him as she shook her instrument and he banged his. "That's why it's so important for us to keep the rhythm."

"She's not going to relax until Shakaar gets here." Miles lowered his voice further as Kira stirred slightly. "I called him almost six hours ago. It takes half that time to make the trip from Bajor."

"He's the First Minister of Bajor," Keiko reminded him. "He's a very busy man."

"And so am I," Bashir announced, as if taking the opportunity to escape. "I have three surgeries scheduled this afternoon. I'll try and pop by later." He shouldered his medkit bag and rose, removing the ceremonial scarf that all who entered the room -- except Kira -- had to wear, and made his exit. Miles stared resentfully after him.

"Y'Pora," Kira said in a low, dreamy voice. "The baby is moving."

Y'Pora, a middle-aged Bajoran woman with piles of braided brown hair and a lively, gentle manner, smiled as she held the rattle (or whatever it was) between her hands. "Relax. Breathe. It won't be long now."

Then there was a movement at the door. Miles turned slightly, and saw Shakaar Edon entering the room, hastily donning the scarf and striding to her side. The rhythm faltered and died.

"Sorry I'm late," Shakaar said contritely, taking Kira's hand. "How are you?"

Kira smiled at him. "All right."

Suddenly aware of the silence, it seemed, Shakaar glanced around. "I threw you off, didn't I?"

"It's all right," Kira reassured him. "I'll get back on track. I'm glad you're here."

That makes one of us, Miles thought. Nice of your lordship to drop in. He banged the gong. Without the accompaniment of the rattle and the shaker, it echoed inconguously through the room, earning him a glare from Keiko as she grabbed his arm.

It was going to be a long night.

(-|-)

"This is the replimat," Odo told his charge, oblivious to the activity around the two of them. "Humanoids come here to eat. They -- " he paused, catching himself (he still made that mistake from time to time), "...we, rather...need to ingest nutrients." He gestured with one hand, unperturbed by the fact that the gold liquid inside the mug wasn't moving or responding. Or by the curious looks from various other replimat patrons.

"This is my home. It's a space station. People of many different species live here together. After you've learned to take humanoid shape, I'll show you everything. You can live here too -- it's a fascinating place."

"Constable," asked a deep, puzzled voice, "why are you talking to your beverage?"

Odo looked up, identifying Worf by the smell of the prune juice in the glass he held as much as by his large, craggy Klingon features.

"It's not a beverage," he said, with dignity. "It's a Changeling. Excuse me, Commander."

He picked up the mug, Changeling and all, and went out, leaving Worf to look askance at his own drink.

(-|-)

In the science lab, he located a wide, flat petri dish and slowly poured the Changeling out into it. "There we go, hah? Doesn't that feel better? Nothing like spreading yourself out after being cooped up in a jar, eh?"

He remembered the bucket in which he used to spend his rest periods as a liquid, until after he had found his people. That discovery -- despite the way things had turned out -- had inspired him to discard the bucket, and that had felt so good that it had changed his entire outlook.

This Changeling is never going to feel that it needs to hide in a bucket, or a jar, or anything else, he vowed silently.

"You have no idea of the marvels that are in store for you," he whispered to it. "Do you know what you are? You're a Changeling. A shapeshifter. You can be anything. A Tarkalean hawk soaring through the sky...or a Filian python burrowing deep beneath the ground...it's all yours for the taking."

He reveled for a moment in the memory of when he had been these things, the pleasure of doing what he had been formed to do. It had been one of the very few things he had truly enjoyed.

Then he shrugged. "I was never a very good shapeshifter," he admitted. "If you could see the face I'm stuck with, you'd know what I mean...But I think I could be a good teacher. You'll be better than I ever was." He leaned closer. "And I promise I'll never treat you the way I was treated. Never."

"Odo!"

The voice was familiar. Too familiar.

Odo turned, startled. "Dr. Mora! What are you doing here?"

The Bajoran scientist came forward, smiling widely as he said the words Odo had most definitely never wanted to hear, especially coming from him. "I heard about the Changeling. I came to help."

Odo watched in dismay as Mora bent over the petri dish to peer intently at the baby Changeling. "Remarkable," the scientist enthused, straightening. "It's much larger than you were. What is that, about a quarter of a liter?"

"I suppose so," Odo muttered.

"You didn't measure it?"

"What difference does it make how large it is?"

Mora eyed him in disbelief. "It can make a great deal of difference. Size can be an indication that it's already exercised its ability to shapeshift."

He leaned back down, watching the unmoving Changeling. Odo watched him in turn, unsure how to react to this development. It had been nearly three years now since Mora's first visit to the station -- when Odo, under the influence of a volcanic gas, had uncontrollably shapeshifted into a monstrous manifestation of his darker emotions which had targeted his former mentor. This, ironically, had led to an easing of those emotions as they applied to Mora; once he had been cured, he had accepted the scientist's offer of reconciliation, and they had kept in touch now and then.

For a while. Then, Odo had found his people, and subsequently learned that they were the Founders of the Dominion. After choosing to reject them and return to DS9, he had of course informed Mora of the long-awaited discovery of his origins -- but had gotten far from the reaction he had expected. In fact, he had gotten hardly any reaction at all.

Odo had found out later that a colleague and friend of Mora's had been on New Bajor when the colony had been destroyed by the Dominion.

He hadn't known what to think, other than that Mora must somehow blame him for it. He didn't know that that was the case, but he hadn't wanted to confront Mora and perhaps have his suspicions confirmed. So he had stopped trying to renew contact, and the silence between them had become once more as profound and resentful as it had been during the seven years from when Odo had left the laboratory until Mora first came to DS9.

"I...thought you were on Earth, working with Starfleet on new ways to detect Changeling infiltrators."

"Mm." Mora straightened again. "Fortunately, I was visiting my parents on Bajor when I got the news of your find." He took his eyes off the Changeling and focused on Odo with his penetrating gaze. "How are you, Odo? I've been worried."

"Worried?" Odo affected not to know what Mora was talking about, while thinking cynically, Is that why you haven't bothered to send any messages?

"I heard that your people took away your ability to shapeshift."

I wondered if you had. "Thank you for your concern. But I'm fine."

"I knew you were going to say that," Mora commented. "You never want to give anything away, even though it's all right there in your face." Odo shot him a look, but didn't deign to reply, as he crossed to a computer. Mora followed after a moment. "Well, let's get started, hm? We have a lot of work ahead of us."

"Actually, Doctor -- " Odo began.

"I told Starfleet I wouldn't be coming back for a couple of weeks."

"That may have been premature."

Mora picked up a device. "No," he said blithely, "it'll take at least that long to get the Changeling to respond." As he spoke, he went back over to the baby Changeling and aimed the device.

"Don't do that!" Odo snapped. He strode over and snatched the device away from Mora, who watched in mild reproof as he deactivated it.

"Well. I see you still have trouble controlling your temper. I was just trying to determine its mass."

Odo sighed, reining in his exasperation with no small effort. If you only knew how well I'm controlling my temper right now, he thought grimly. "Dr. Mora, I understand that you want to help. But I am going to do this alone."

"Alone?" Mora looked at him as if he couldn't believe Odo was serious. "Odo, you don't know the first thing about teaching a Changeling how to shapeshift."

"Well, then I'll just muddle through somehow." Odo was nearing the end of his patience. He aimed a look at Mora that was just short of a glare. "You did."

There was silence for a few moments as Odo crossed over to a collection of planters used for botanical specimens. Mora obviously chose not to comment, going instead to the environmental controls.

"It's too warm in here," he said. "You know, a Changeling's morphogenic matrix is most malleable at seventeen degrees celsius."

"I used to be able to change shape in almost any temperature," Odo countered.

Mora stepped closer. "That's true. But why not make it easy for the Changeling?" Odo didn't reply, and after a moment Mora continued. "It took me weeks to figure out the optimal temperature, the humidity, even the light levels. Now, don't you think that's information you could use?"

Odo picked up a round planter. "Well, I suppose I could look at your reports," he conceded.

"Oh, feel free, of course. Except I was never one to keep extensive records. I always wanted to move on to the next test."

Odo let out a snort that contained more bitterness than he had intended. "Believe me, I remember your...tests...very well."

"Oh." Mora nodded slowly, watching him. "So that's what this is about. You still resent the things I did to you in order to induce you to shapeshift. Well, I know they weren't pleasant for you, but really, Odo, I would hope that you would get past that by now. I am disappointed."

Disappointed? Odo hid the cold anger growing inside him. He wondered how Mora would have felt if his parents had subjected him to physical pain -- not normal disciplinary measures, but actually experimenting on him -- and then expressed disappointment because he hadn't "gotten past it".

"I have my own ideas about how to teach the Changeling," he said calmly, determined not to let Mora or anything else get to him.

"I imagine they're less invasive?"

"Exactly."

"Hm." Mora sounded skeptical.

Odo turned to him. "You don't think that I can do it, do you?"

"I didn't say that. As a matter of fact, I'd be fascinated to see what you have in mind."

Odo gave him a glare, and said something he knew he would regret as soon as he opened his mouth. "Well, in that case, why don't you stay and observe?"

"If you insist."

Mora sauntered off toward a computer, leaving Odo to stare after him with the definite feeling that he had just been maneuvered into doing exactly what Mora wanted.

It was an extremely familiar sensation.

(-|-)

In the middle of the birthing rhythm, Kira suddenly gasped, her hand flying to her abdomen. Shakaar, who had been wandering around the room, instantly rushed to her side. Keiko put down her shaker and went to her as well, her hand joining Kira's.

"What's wrong?"

"I don't know -- it's like a cramp or something."

"You shouldn't be feeling any pain." Y'Pora had calmly produced a medical scanner and was waving it slowly over Kira. Her lips pursed as she studied the readings, then looked up. "Well, it appears you're not going to be having the baby today."

Kira stared at her. "What?" She spoke for all of them.

"You were in labor too long," Y'Pora told her.

"I wonder why," Miles muttered, casting a dark look at Shakaar.

"For whatever reason," Y'Pora said, looking sternly at Miles, "you weren't able to fully relax. Your system had to stop producing endorphins before they accumulated to toxic levels."

"When will she have the baby?" Shakaar asked. Miles thought cynically that the First Minister's main concern was to have Kira's attention fully on him again.

"Well, could be a few more days." Y'Pora consulted the scanner again. "...Or a few more weeks."

"Weeks?!" Kira stared at her, then collapsed back against the pillow with a loud groan. "If I don't have this baby soon, I'm going to go out of my mind!"

Y'Pora looked at her kindly. "Well, if you want, you can go see Dr. Bashir and have him..."

"No." Kira was calmer, her hand seeking out Shakaar's on her shoulder. "No, I want to have this baby the traditional Bajoran way."

"We're a hundred percent behind you, Nerys," Keiko said stoutly. "Right, Miles?"

"Absolutely," Miles said, on cue. He knew better than to say what he really thought.

Kira looked up at Shakaar. "Can you stay?"

"I'll have to rearrange my schedule," he said. "But I think so."

Y'Pora put her scanner away. "Nerys, return to your quarters and rest. I'll come by and see you later." She narrowed her eyes at Shakaar. "You, be punctual next time, or don't come at all." He looked properly chastised, and she pinned her gaze on Miles. "And you...practice."

She struck the gong with her finger and walked out.

(-|-)

Odo held up a small glass marble before the baby Changeling. "This is a sphere. It's one of the most basic forms in nature." He set it inside the dish, sending it spinning around the rim, circling the Changeling, who sat unmoving, as it had through everything thus far. Odo caught the marble and lifted it out of the dish.

"Interesting, isn't it?" Mora chimed in helpfully, standing close.

"You're in my light," Odo informed him. Mora lifted his hands in mock surrender and stepped away. Odo picked up the petri dish. "Now. This won't hurt a bit."

Very carefully, he poured the Changeling into a round glass planter, making small reassuring noises as he did so.

"This," he told it, "is also a sphere." He turned it, gently sloshing the Changeling around inside. "Feel its symmetry, the softness of its shape? The sameness? ...Now, you try." He poured it slowly back into the dish.

It lay there, motionless.

"I understand that you prefer to remain shapeless. Believe me, I remember how relaxing it could be. But you have to learn to take other forms. That's what Changelings do. It can be immensely rewarding. I remember when Dr. Mora here coerced me into taking the shape of a cube, with one of his electrostatic gadgets." Odo didn't care if Mora took notice of his choice of words; in fact, he rather hoped he would. "Once I did it -- and he turned the infernal thing off -- I was perfectly content to stay a cube for hours. It was fascinating. All those right angles. Of course, he had other plans. Before I knew it, he had me spinning around in a centrifuge."

He glanced at Mora, who remained silent, then returned his attention to the Changeling. "Well. If you're not interested in a sphere right now, we can always try a cube." He picked up a square planter, showed it to the Changeling. "What do you think?" It didn't appear to think anything at all. He put the square down and went for a glass pyramid. "This is a pyramid. It's one of the most mysterious shapes in nature..."

(-|-)

For the next several days, Odo worked with the Changeling. Fortunately, the traffic through the station was fairly light that week, and very little took place that his deputies couldn't handle; after all, what else had he trained them for?

It was like investigating a particularly difficult and intriguing case, in a way. He spent nearly every waking moment with the Changeling, and barely slept or ate in the time he was away. He talked to it throughout, doing his best to encourage it as he repeatedly demonstrated as many simple shapes as he could think of, over and over and over again, with every ounce of diligence and patience in his mental arsenal.

He tried mightily not to be discouraged by the Changeling's complete lack of response. But nevertheless, not once did it make any move on its own, nor did it give any sign whatsoever that it had remotely gotten the idea of what was expected of it.

By the morning that he walked back into the lab after a nearly sleepless night, he was growing frustrated. And there was only one target he could take it out on.

"What are you doing?" he demanded, seeing Mora standing beside the Changeling and aiming a scanner at it.

"I'm measuring its volume," Mora replied, his tone betraying his own fraying patience. He shook his head. "It's been here a week, and it's only grown seventeen percent. After three days in my lab, you were twice that size."

"Well, maybe I was anxious to grow up so I could get out of there," Odo growled.

"The point is, you've made no progress. By this time, I had already gotten you to mimic half a dozen simple forms."

"I'm trying to gain its confidence, not teach it tricks." How typical of Mora, to meddle his way into a project in which he was neither wanted nor needed, and try to take over. Then, when that had failed, he had stayed to kibitz. And, of course, to criticize any methods that he hadn't thought of first.

Mora eyed him. "It's a shame you're not a Changeling any more. You could link with it and teach it everything it needs to know."

To Odo, who had tormented himself with that very same thought ever since he had first encountered the Changeling, the words rang like an indictment. His voice hardened. "You make it sound like it's my fault!"

"It might very well be," Mora shot back. "Let's face it, Odo, your shapeshifting ability was somewhat limited. Maybe that's why your people were able to force you to take a humanoid form."

"That is pure speculation!" Odo was seething. As if he were to blame for having been a victim of the Founders' grand "exploration" scheme, just like this Changeling.

"Let's run a few tests and find out."

"Oh, you are just dying to get me into one of your contraptions, aren't you?" Odo was quite conscious not only of the fact that this argument was rapidly transmuting into a full-blown quarrel, but that he was willingly and actively piling on the fuel and fanning the flames. He didn't care. All that mattered was how viciously good it felt to attack Mora.

"I'm trying to help!" the Bajoran scientist protested.

"I am not about to submit myself to another round of your experiments!"

"Everything I did to you was for your own good!"

Odo huffed scornfully.

"True, some of the tests I subjected you to proved inconclusive -- "

"The vacuum chamber springs to mind." Odo rounded on him. "The cytoplasmic separator...come to think of it, the protein decompiler as well."

"How could I know until I tried?" Mora cried out. "By the Prophets, Odo, I wasn't even sure you were a life form!"

"I wasn't sure about you, either."

"Once I realized you were sentient, the Cardassians wanted to know everything about you. I was under enormous pressure to come up with results. And-I-did!" Mora enunciated each word for emphasis. "My technique worked! The fact that you are standing here whining about it proves it!"

Odo looked him in the eye. "You enjoyed watching me suffer," he accused.

"You really believe that? How pathetic!" Mora's voice dripped with contempt. "If it wasn't for me, you'd still be sitting on a shelf somewhere in a beaker labeled 'unknown sample'!"

"If it wasn't for me," Odo countered venomously, "you'd be a nobody. Starfleet wouldn't hire you to judge a science fair!"

"I'm getting a little tired of sitting here watching you. But I can't seem to pull myself away. I can't wait to see what next preposterous thing you're going to try!" Mora gestured toward the Changeling. "Who knows? Maybe in a couple of months, it may get so tired of your incessant chatter that it might actually do something!"

"You'd just love to get your hands on it, wouldn't you? You can sell tickets on the Promenade!" Odo deliberately mocked the singsong tones of a carnival operator. "Dr. Mora's Chamber of Horrors, open for business! Right this way!" He gestured as if to usher spectators into a freak show.

And saw Sisko standing there.

"How's it going, gentlemen?" The captain's quiet voice resounded in the suddenly even quieter room like a stone dropped into a lake.

Odo cleared his throat, with all the dignity he could muster. "Making progress, sir." He was genuinely and thoroughly embarrassed. Very rarely had he earned any rebuke from Sisko in the past. Now here he was, caught in the middle of very nearly a knock-down, drag-out fight.

"I'm glad to hear it," Sisko remarked dryly. Clearly he was quite deliberately refraining from giving any indication that he had heard any portion of the verbal fracas. "I was just talking with Starfleet Command. They want you to establish communication with the Changeling as soon as possible."

"At the rate we're going, that is still a long way off," Mora said.

"Better not be too long. Otherwise, Starfleet is going to want to take over the project."

"Sir -- " Odo automatically protested.

Sisko turned to level a cool look at him. "As long as you're making progress, there's nothing to worry about." Obviously satisfied that his point had been made, he turned to go, but then stopped. "Oh, by the way, Starfleet wants you to file daily reports for their review."

"Understood, sir," Odo said.

"Carry on." Sisko left.

Odo turned to look at the baby Changeling, still spread out unmoving in its dish. Could Starfleet really take it away? What would he do if they tried? If he knew Sisko -- and he did -- the captain had already done much to ensure that Odo was given every chance to accomplish his task. He had argued with and even disobeyed Starfleet for Odo's sake in the past. Odo owed Sisko much, personally as well as professionally. He couldn't make Sisko choose yet again.

Mora stepped up to him. "Now you understand the kind of pressure I was going through," he said pointedly. "I brought my old equipment from Bajor. Maybe it's time we started unpacking."

(-|-)

"Any time you're ready," Mora said, with irony.

Odo sighed, and slowly poured the baby Changeling out onto a console with a lit circular area in the middle of it. He remembered this console very well, and suppressed a shudder at the thought that they were going to do to the Changeling what had been done to him, despite all his initial intentions. Would the Changeling lose all trust in him -- as he had lost his trust in Mora?

He leaned down to speak softly to it. "Don't worry. You're going to get through this all right."

Straightening, he gestured to Mora to begin. But the scientist shook his head.

"Oh, no. I'm just an observer here."

Mora moved away. He was plainly driving home his point by insisting Odo step into his role. After a moment Odo reluctantly took his place at the controls. He cleared his throat, flexed his fingers, and finally dialed in the lowest setting, activating the machine with a final uneager jab. Nothing happened.

"Odo, the Changeling won't respond to anything less than six millivolts."

Sighing, Odo started to comply, then stopped, looking beseechingly at Mora. "There must be some other way."

"Spare the rod, spoil the child," Mora quoted. "Odo, without discomfort, the Changeling will be perfectly comfortable to remain in its gelatinous state. It'll just lie there. Never realizing it has the ability to mimic other forms, never living up to its potential." At Odo's continued hesitation, he added persuasively, "Odo, six millivolts is not going to hurt it. Once it realizes there's no charge in the center, the procedure will be finished."

Odo was still not certain about this, at all. But he steeled himself, cleared his throat again, and made the adjustment. To six millivolts.

At first, nothing seemed to happen, as usual. Then, slowly, the Changeling began to move, for the first time. It sent a projecting tentacle out into the center of the lit area of the console. Odo glanced at Mora.

"Checking to see if I'm enjoying myself?" the scientist said wryly.

The rest of the Changeling joined its tentacle in the center, becoming a small mound.

In that moment, Odo forgot his trepidations and his animosity toward Mora, as an unbelieving smile lit his face. "That's it. You've found it."

"I smiled the first time you did that," Mora remarked. "Little did I realize you would end up hating me for it." At Odo's look, he added briskly, "Well, shall we move on?"

Odo straightened. "Why not?"

(-|-)

It had been a tense week for Miles O'Brien too. There were times when he had to forcibly remind himself that however impatient he was for this child to be born, it had to be ten times worse for Kira. She had never asked to be drawn into his and Keiko's reproductive life, and it was hardly her fault that they had failed to provide a soothing enough environment for the first attempt. (Though he wondered, since Bajoran women supposedly needed so much relaxation to give birth, how any Bajorans had managed to be born during the Occupation.)

In any event, he had been given family leave by Sisko, since the captain couldn't have his chief of operations bounding off to attend the birth in the middle of some equipment crisis. That was well and good for Sisko, but it left Miles with little to do except worry and watch Kira.

What saved his sanity was the massages. He had learned the art from his father, who had perfected it on his mother during her pregnancies; and he had put it to good use with Keiko as a pleasant routine that often led to other things taking their course. The associations that had brought up had very nearly, in fact, led him and Kira into deep trouble; but fortunately they had steered clear of that particular spacemine, and back into friendly territory.

Right now he was just thankful for something to do with his hands. With strong, careful strokes, he kneaded her left calf as she lay on her bed. She was half dozing, as far as he could tell, though now and then she gave a low "mmm" or a contented sigh.

Then he heard a throat clearing, and looked up, as did Kira.

"Edon." She smiled, as Shakaar came into the room and sat beside her on the bed. They hugged as best as they were able with her lying down.

"How are you feeling?" he asked.

"All right. My feet are a little swollen."

"A little?" Miles queried in disbelief. "They've never been this bad."

Shakaar ignored him. "There's a zero-grav tumbling performance on the Promenade tonight. You want to go?"

Kira looked reluctantly tempted. "Well, maybe..."

"You can't go standing around for an hour!" Miles protested.

Shakaar finally looked at him. "Chief, would you mind leaving us alone for a minute?"

"I'm almost done."

"I'll take over." Shakaar shifted his large frame about and began rubbing Kira's other calf.

With their combined attention fixed on her lower limbs, neither man noticed Kira putting her hands to her huge belly, or heard her murmur, "I think it's time."

"You've got to do it harder."

"I know what I'm doing."

"It's time," Kira said, a little louder.

"And you've got to work up the legs..."

"It's time," Kira repeated. Much louder.

Finally it registered on them that she had spoken. Then the actual words she had said sank into their brains.

Hurriedly, they stood up, one on either side of Kira, and took an arm each. For a moment they tugged her back and forth like two children fighting over a doll, until, with an irritated snort, she pulled free of their "assistance" and got up by herself.

They followed her from the room.

(-|-)

"Now, if I were you, I'd hold this shape. Otherwise, you'll be in for a bit of a shock..."

It was amazing how far a taste of success went in changing one's attitude. Odo had even begun, after all these years, to understand Mora's treatment of him when he had been nothing but a glob of mysterious protoplasm. Before, he had been too preoccupied with his own memories of the pain he had felt to realize the very real and legitimate necessity of it. If there was anyone to blame, it was the Founders, for depriving him of the benefit of learning from his own people.

This Changeling, however, had an advantage Odo hadn't had. In its case, its teachers knew what it was and what they were doing. This time there would be no vacuum chamber, no centrifuge. And when the time was right Odo would explain everything so that it would know and understand, and not go through life wondering why it was so different and why it had had to learn pain so early.

He slowly and carefully tipped the beaker upside down onto the charged console. The Changeling slid out, began to slump into a puddle...and then drew itself back up into a cylinder shape. Odo felt almost beside himself with joy.

"I had to try that three times before you caught on," Mora commented, smiling jubilantly.

Odo shot him a sidelong look, then inclined his head. Somehow the memory wasn't as bitter now. "Actually, the first two times, I didn't change my shape on purpose."

"You're not serious." The shock on Mora's face was genuine; this was obviously news to him.

"I suppose I didn't want to give you the satisfaction."

There was a pause. "Well," Mora said at last, "someday...if you're very lucky...this Changeling will give you the satisfaction of saying, 'Thank you very much. You did so much for me.' Then again, it may leave...the way you did. It will announce that it's striking out on its own, and you will never hear from it again."

Odo supposed that was meant to be a shot at him. This time it didn't rankle as much as it might have. Mora may be laying it on rather thick, but Odo was beginning to see his point, at long last. Back then, when he had walked out of the laboratory and out of Mora's life, he had wanted to hurt Mora as Mora had hurt him. Now, finally, he had an inkling of just how successful he had been.

Finally, Mora said, "I'm getting something to eat."

Odo turned off the current in the panel, and began to follow him out of the room.

Behind them, with its visual perceptors, the Changeling saw that the two moving shapes were going away. It didn't know what they were, or what the sounds they made meant. Nor did it have the ability to ask. But it wanted to know.

The hurting-thing under it no longer hurt, no longer made it want to get away and hold itself in a shape where there was no pain. Now it was fascinated by this new thing it had discovered it could do. It decided to try on its own, when there was no hurting to make it do so.

One of the shapes turned back, and stopped. The shape that the Changeling had seen the most, who kept making noises to it, whereas the other made noises only to the first shape. It occurred to the Changeling that it wanted to try to make noises back. Maybe if it moved itself to look like the shapes, it would figure out how.

Odo stared. The Changeling was still in its cylindrical shape. And it was moving. Shifting.

As Odo bent down to watch it, transfixed with awe, the Changeling seemed to be trying to form itself a head. A head with a face. Though it was hazy and incomplete, with a start he recognized the features the Changeling was striving to imitate.

They were his own.

(-|-)

They talked nonstop all through the Promenade and into the security office, positively giddy over the breakthrough the Changeling had just made. "For a minute there, I thought it was going to say something!" Odo was enthusing as he went behind his desk and picked up a PADD.

"Oh, put that down, we're celebrating!"

"It's just that I've fallen behind in my security reports over these last few days," Odo explained.

"Well, you can catch up later," Mora said impatiently. "Aren't you excited about what's happened?"

"Of course I'm excited." That, in fact, was why Odo was going straight back to his too-long neglected job -- to regain his equilibrium.

Mora was talking again, his eyes alight with possibilities. "Tomorrow, we can expose the Changeling to some simple life forms so it can mimic them. Some algae, some fungus, and in a few more days, maybe even an invertebrate."

Despite himself, Odo began to dare to look ahead too. "I can't wait until I can actually communicate with it. There's so much I want it to see, so much I want to share..."

"Well, you may get that chance sooner than you think. The Changeling is developing far faster than you did." Mora caught himself at a look from Odo. He hastened to add, "I don't mean that as a criticism. If anything, it's a compliment. I was wrong. Your approach to communicating with the Changeling was sound. I mean, don't you see? It's reaching out to you. It's curious about you. The first time you did anything like that was when you formed a tentacle to slap my hand away from the control panel."

"I remember," Odo said. "I wanted you to stop zapping me." He surprised himself by chuckling a little. He certainly hadn't thought it was funny at the time, but now he could look back on it with different eyes.

"You've formed a connection with this Changeling," Mora told him. His tone grew quiet, almost wistful. "That is something I was never able to do with you."

"That's not true," Odo demurred. "I respected you."

"You feared me." That was one of Mora's better traits. Once he had stopped trying to manipulate people and chose to examine his own motives and behavior, he could be unmercifully honest in his self-evaluation. As a result, Odo felt less antagonized and defensive, and was able to offer honesty in return.

He shrugged. "You didn't know what I was. You were experimenting on what looked like a lump of organic residue." His voice became rougher. "That's what I'd still be if it weren't for you."

For a moment, their earlier hostility echoed in each of their minds, and was thankfully gone.

Mora gazed at Odo, the sudden shine in his eyes betraying his emotions. "You don't know how much it means to me to hear you say that." Suddenly he seemed to gather himself. "Ah. I'm sorry -- I know this kind of talk makes you uncomfortable." He essayed a smile. "But I suppose it's all my fault for having poked and prodded you so much. You may have grown up with a less forbidding disposition."

Odo hmphed slightly. "Something tells me no matter what we do to that Changeling, it's going to have a more pleasant disposition than mine." He shrugged. "It's just the way I am."

There was a pause.

"Well. I'll leave you to your work."

Odo watched as Mora started to go. On impulse, he called out, "Dr. Mora -- "

Mora stopped, turned.

Odo put down the PADD. He went over to the replicator behind his desk. "Two glasses of champagne, please. We're celebrating!"

As Mora came back into the room, a pleased smile lighting his face, Odo began happily to consider a name for the Changeling.

(-|-)

When Kira gasped, for one awful moment Miles thought the birth was going to be called off again. He stopped banging and watched anxiously as Y'Pora took out her scanner. Time seemed to hold its breath as she studied the results.

"The baby has turned," she announced at last. "It's time." She put the scanner away, moved to the foot of the birthing chair, lifted Kira's gown, and smiled. "Awake, child."

Keiko's smile was beautiful as she continued the ritual. "We await you with love."

"And welcome you into the world," Shakaar concluded, even though it was Miles' line. At this point, however, Miles didn't care. He started around to join the others at Kira's feet. But Shakaar moved quickly to intercept him. "Why don't you stay there?"

Miles looked at him, wondering if he was daft. "I can't see from here!"

"Exactly."

"It's my baby!" Miles couldn't believe the man. Jealous over his seeing Nerys' privates, at a time like this!

"Ssssh," from Y'Pora.

Shakaar struggled to hold Miles back. He was taller, but Miles was powerfully built, and the Bajoran man was having a time containing him. "You'll make Nerys uncomfortable."

"What are you talking about? She's been living in my home for the last five months!"

"Be quiet!" Keiko hissed at them both.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Shakaar said, to Miles.

Miles pushed against him again. "Look, I missed Molly's birth. I am not going to miss this one!"

"We are trying to have a baby," Kira said sternly. The two men broke apart and looked at her. Miles noted with no small concern the dangerous glitter in her eyes. "I am sick of this ridiculous little competition between the two of you. Now, if one of you says one more word, you're going to have to leave."

They both began to protest, simultaneously.

"All right, that's it. Out. Both of you."

They stared at her.

"Kira -- " from Miles.

"Nerys -- " from Shakaar.

"Go," Kira said.

Miles was still staring at her in disbelief. "You're joking."

"Does it look like she's joking?" Keiko challenged fiercely. "Out!" She pointed at the door.

Slowly, reluctantly, both men walked out of the room to wait in the corridor with the two deputies who were there to guard Shakaar.

"Nice going," Miles grumped.

"Do me a favor," Shakaar shot back. "Next time you have a baby, leave my girlfriend out of it, huh?"

They turned away from each other in disgust.

(-|-)

It had not been a good night at Quark's. The volume of traffic through the station, and therefore through his bar, had been down for a couple of weeks now. Not disastrously, but enough to concern him. The Ferengi trudged down the spiral staircase from the holosuite level, muttering to himself as he jabbed at his bookkeeping PADD.

"...comes to three hundred and twenty-four...I'm going to have to start watering the drinks again."

His sharp ears caught a sound from behind the bar. Someone was there, and not making any effort to be silent, either. Cautiously, he took a step toward the bar, prepared at any second to make a dash for security if it was a robber.

Then a figure rose from behind the counter. It was Odo.

"Constable?" Quark couldn't believe his eyes.

"Quark!" Odo didn't growl his name like he usually did. He made an expansive gesture with the two bottles he held, one in each hand. Then, he smiled. Smiled.

Quark walked slowly over. "What are you doing back there?"

"What does it look like I'm doing?"

"We're closed."

Odo waved off that technicality. "Have a seat." He indicated a bar stool, and set the bottles on the bar, to begin hunting for glasses.

Deeply suspicious, Quark peered at him. "You're in a good mood."

"Yes, I am," Odo confirmed cheerfully.

"Which means you're probably about to arrest me on some trumped-up charge." As he spoke, Quark felt more sure of himself. That had to be it.

But Odo was shaking his head. And chuckling. Odo, chuckling. "Not at all." He began to pour two drinks into the glasses he had found. "I am buying you a drink."

Quark sat. Slowly. "Why?" He was put in mind of the time when Odo had grabbed his ears, planted a giant smooch on his forehead, and proclaimed him to be a "magnificent scoundrel". But that hadn't really been Odo, that had been Curzon Dax.

"Dr. Mora has gone to sleep, and I -- " Odo uncorked the second bottle, " -- still feel like celebrating." To Quark's further consternation, he chuckled yet again.

"What are you up to?" the Ferengi demanded.

Odo looked at him with a genuinely amused version of his usual mock long-suffering act. "I am happy, Quark. Can't you just accept that?"

That's it, he's finally lost his mind. "No," Quark said bluntly. "It doesn't fit. If you're happy, there's something very wrong in the world. The center cannot hold," he quoted from an Earth poem some Starfleet officer had recited once in the bar.

"There we go." Odo finished pouring.

Quark looked at him. "I've got it. You're getting back at me for selling you that sick Changeling."

"Actually," Odo told him, "I should thank you."

"If you want the money back, just say so." Not that you'll get it, Quark added silently.

"It changed my life." Odo picked up a glass. "Here's to you, Quark."

Quark eyed him for a long moment. "All right. All right, I confess. I don't know what I did, but I did it. Just stop. I can't take any more."

Odo ignored him. He leaned forward. "Did you ever think about having children?"

"Huh?"

"See, I never did. It just seemed like too much trouble. But then, fate -- " Odo snapped his fingers. " -- dropped one into my lap. And I couldn't be happier. Cheers."

Quark picked up the other glass and looked at it warily, wondering just how long Odo had been at the bar and how drunk he was. He'd never seen Odo really sloshed before, though he'd thought he'd seen him headed that way a couple of times, not long after the security chief had been made into a humanoid. Funny, he'd have figured Odo as a mean drunk, or else one of the type who got sloppily depressed and morose. Not bouncing around burbling about how happy he was. Guess you never know about some people.

Odo put down his glass. "Strange," he mused. "Over the past few months, I came to accept the fact that I'd never have any contact with my people again. They rejected me. They turned me into a humanoid. Part of me was lost forever." For a moment, the Odo Quark knew was back, as he stared into space. Then, disconcertingly, he chuckled again. "But -- that little ball of goo back in the lab changed everything. I feel as if I'm experiencing what it is to be a Changeling again. And somehow, being a solid doesn't seem so bad any more."

For some reason, Quark relaxed. It was crazy, but suddenly he believed. Something about Odo's last speech just seemed to convince him. Odo wasn't drunk. He hadn't gone insane. He was just...happy. Who would have thought it? Quark found himself joining in as Odo began to chuckle again. Miracles did happen, it seemed.

"Fill me up," he said.

As Odo started to open another bottle, his combadge bleeped. "Computer to Security Chief Odo, please acknowledge."

Quark had never seen the joy drain out of anyone's expression so fast, to be replaced by a look of dread. "Go ahead."

"The life form being monitored is displaying biomemetic fluctuations beyond stated parameters."

"Have Dr. Mora meet me in the science lab."

Quark stared after Odo as the former Changeling hurried out of the bar, their conviviality suddenly a thing of the past. Huh, nice while it lasted. He knocked back the drink.

(-|-)

Odo strode into the lab to find Mora already there, gazing at the beaker which held the Changeling. The Changeling had returned to the dark blue color it had been when Odo had first seen it. He felt his heart lurch inside his chest, one of the most unsettling sensations he had discovered since becoming human.

"What's happened?" he asked.

"Its morphogenic matrix is destabilizing." Mora's voice was very soft. He turned to look Odo in the eyes. "It's dying."

I should have known, Odo thought savagely, berating himself as they hustled the Changeling to the infirmary. You'd think I would have learned by now.

Bashir met them in the infirmary, having been summoned there by Odo. He took the Changeling, and for what seemed like an agonizingly long while he analyzed it, his face looking grimmer by the second. At last he turned back to Odo and Mora. "Its lifesigns are fading. The radiation must have damaged its cytoplasm in a way we weren't able to detect."

Or, we forced it to do too much too fast, Odo thought despairingly. Or, it's me. I actually dared to think I might have found a little hope, a little contentment, and this is my punishment. "There must be something you can do," he pleaded.

Bashir didn't answer; he was picking up the Changeling in its beaker from the analyzer.

"You might try an enzymatic induction," Mora suggested. "That might stabilize the biomemetic fluctuations."

"It's worth a shot." Bashir took the Changeling off.

Odo started to follow. "It has to work, it has to -- " Somewhere inside he knew he was babbling, but he couldn't stop. It was Mora who gently interposed himself.

"Odo, please. Wait outside. We'll do everything we can."

Reluctantly, Odo obeyed.

(-|-)

"I feel...so good..."

"You're doing great, Nerys," Keiko encouraged, standing at her shoulders. Every so often she would rub them. She wasn't the expert at massage that her husband was, but Kira seemed to appreciate it.

Y'Pora smiled. "Here he comes."

Kira looked at the biological mother of the baby now on his way out of her body. "Keiko, would you do me a favor?"

Outside, in the corridor, Shakaar and O'Brien had lapsed into morose silence as they waited, accompanied by the stolid presence of two station deputies. Now, the sound of the door opening broke their respective reveries. They looked up hopefully as Keiko appeared.

"Kira said you can both come back in if you promise to behave," she informed them.

She withdrew. They looked at each other.

"After you," Miles said politely.

"Why no, after you," Shakaar said.

"Please."

Keiko reappeared, an impatient scowl on her face. "Would you two get in here? You're going to miss everything!"

After she had gone back in, the two men looked at each other again, then simultaneously crowded through the door.

Once inside, they were just in time to see Y'Pora encouraging Kira from between her uplifted and spread legs. "That's it, Nerys. Relax." Kira smiled, with a slight nod, as she obeyed. "That's right. Breathe."

Miles wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't seen it. He had never heard of it being so easy. The Bajorans could definitely teach humans a thing or three about giving birth. One more breath, and the baby was sliding out easily into Y'Pora's waiting hands, announcing his arrival with a lusty bawl.

Y'Pora held him up, beaming.

"Look at him, Miles," Keiko breathed, tears in her eyes.

"He's beautiful," Miles affirmed, his heart full, nearly to bursting. He was Miles Edward O'Brien, he was the husband of Keiko, and he was the father of two children.

He smiled as he met his son for the first time.

(-|-)

Odo had never prayed. He had turned the same skeptical eye on religion, Bajoran or otherwise, with which he viewed nearly all things humanoid -- even after having become a humanoid himself. It seemed foolish to him to believe in things that couldn't be proven; to ask for answers and favors from something that never spoke to you.

Now, inside his mind, he was entreating every deity he had ever heard of, from the Prophets to K'olkr, pleading for the life of this baby.

Every so often, he had caught himself almost dozing against the wall, then roused himself with a round of pacing. Once, Quark had come by and tried to interest him in going back to the bar for some food; Odo had refused rather testily, forgetting momentarily the camaraderie they had actually shared late last night. The Ferengi had looked almost -- concerned. But he had finally gone away.

A slight commotion down the Promenade had also drawn Odo's attention at one point, but he had relaxed on seeing that it was O'Brien, in the middle of a group of station personnel, all grinning. O'Brien's grin was the biggest of all, as he shook hands with some of them and hugged the rest.

He had come towards Odo then, and informed him, as if Odo hadn't already deduced it for himself, that the baby had been born. Odo had congratulated him, because it was obviously the expected thing. Fortunately, O'Brien didn't seem to notice his lack of enthusiasm, and had practically pranced off to Quark's after Odo had told him Bashir was busy with a patient. He hadn't questioned why Odo was hanging around out here, either.

Odo had settled back into waiting, until finally the infirmary door opened. Instantly he went inside, and was met by Bashir. The human's somber expression was not a good sign.

"There was nothing we could do," he said simply. "I'm sorry, Odo. It won't be very long now."

With a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach, Odo looked beyond him, to where Mora stood, holding the Changeling in its beaker. He crossed over to him. Silently, Mora gave him the beaker, and walked a little way off, laying his hand briefly on Odo's shoulder in sympathy.

Odo looked into the beaker. The Changeling's blue color was beginning to turn black. Instinctively he knew that it was about to become ash. And that he wanted to hold it before it did. Slowly, he poured it out into his hands.

"Please," he whispered. "Don't die. There's so much I want to show you. I was going to teach you how to be a Tarkalean hawk, remember?"

The Changeling was completely black. Now. It would turn to ash now, and he would be alone again.

Instead, it vanished.

Yet it was still there, soaking slowly into his hands and throughout his being. Linking with every cell. Linking.

At his startled gasp, instantly Bashir and Mora were at his sides, Bashir scanning him, and Mora demanding, "What happened? Where did it go?"

"It's somehow integrated itself into Odo's body."

All Odo could do was hold out his hands. He felt extremely strange. He had come to know many sensations since becoming humanoid that had seemed odd to him at first -- hunger, thirst, itches, aches, nausea, desire, tears. Now, with no warning, he felt as if he were experiencing all of them at once...and more.

With another gasp, he reeled backward, until he struck the wall. He somehow managed to stay standing, though he couldn't have said how much longer he could do so, even with Bashir and Mora holding him up.

Bashir's voice, seeming to come from a great distance. "Odo, what's happening?"

What, indeed. He hadn't felt like this since...since...no...

"It can't be." His voice sounded choked in his own ears.

"What?" from Mora.

Odo didn't answer. He couldn't have if he had wanted to. Slowly he straightened. Bashir and Mora hesitantly withdrew their supporting hands as he walked carefully to the doorway.

And then...

Startled eyes stared upwards from the walkways of the second level of the Promenade, and below. Necks craned to follow the movement of the Tarkalean hawk that soared past them all, its flight rising, then dipping, then rising again. The breeze from its wings beat briefly against the faces of the ones closest to its path, stirring their hair for a moment, then was gone as the bird rushed by them and onwards.

In the doorway of the infirmary, Julian Bashir and Mora Pol gazed speechlessly at the pile of brown uniform on the floor, left behind by its owner, who was now landing beside the observation windows all the way on the other side of the hub.

Molecules once more loosened and surged freely, gathering mass and reshaping, re-creating themselves in a dance they had never expected to feel again. The figure grew, elongated, forming itself a head, torso, limbs; then settling and solidifying.

Odo stood poised on the deck, his arms still held outward in the memory of flight. His body still knew, he thought with dazed wonder. It remembered. The knowledge had never been completely gone; he had borne it through all these months of solidity. The baby Changeling had bridged the gap for him as it died in his hands.

If he had been able, now, he would have wept.

(-|-)

Kira was silent as she walked Shakaar to the airlock. He sensed her mood and refrained from speaking. For now, he wasn't her lover, but the man who had been her leader and friend since she had been a child. She was grateful to have him, to have anything.

The confusion of emotions swirled in her mind. It was over. She was free. She could live her own life again; there was no little passenger inside her whose well-being she had to consider. She could fight, and run, and do the things she had always done.

So why this emptiness? As if she had lost something? The baby hadn't even been hers to lose. She had known that from the moment he had been placed inside her, and she had accepted it. She had given birth to him, but she was not his mother, never had been, and never would be.

Shakaar stopped. They had reached the airlock. At last, he spoke, gently. "This might be a good time to take some leave and come down to Bajor."

She looked downwards. "Maybe in a few weeks. Right now, I feel like staying here."

"So you can be close to the baby." Kira nodded, and Shakaar took her hands in his. "He's a good-looking boy," he said.

"Yes, he is, isn't he?" She smiled.

"Shuttle four-seven-oh-nine for Bajor now departing," a computer voice droned.

"You'd better go." Her voice was small, soft.

"I have a few minutes left." Kira looked up at Shakaar, and he enfolded her in a comforting embrace.

(-|-)

"How does it feel to be yourself again?" Mora inquired as Odo politely carried the scientist's bag for him to the airlock. They stopped just short of it, Mora turning to Odo for his answer.

Odo had been subdued since his miraculous reconversion. When he had first become humanoid, his body had been a stranger to him. He had slowly gotten accustomed to its new sensations and demands. Now everything was familiar again. He had absolute control over his body once more. He could make it into almost anything he wanted. He had never let himself think about how it might feel to become a Changeling again -- and now that he had, he had no idea how to feel about it.

"I -- just wish it hadn't happened the way it did," he admitted, thinking of the baby Changeling, its brief life, and its death. No matter what happened, he would never forget.

"I am sorry," Mora said, and Odo believed him. "If it helps...think of it as a gift. Something the Changeling wanted you to have."

Odo looked at the man who had studied him, who had also raised and educated him. His...father. The Changeling concept of family was radically different from the humanoid one -- but the humanoid view was the one Odo was most familiar with, for better or worse. Mora had given him what the Great Link had denied him. He was far from perfect, but he was the only "parent" Odo knew.

He spoke, with difficulty. "I think...I finally understand how much I meant to you. And what you must have gone through when I left." He regretted every harsh word, every year of silence. The fault had belonged to him as well as to Mora. Now, he only hoped the blaming was over, on both sides.

"You had to find your own way in the world."

"I should have included you in my life," Odo said, and meant every word. He held out his hand.

"You still can." Mora took Odo's hand, and after a moment drew him into a long, warm embrace.

Startled at first, Odo tensed, then tentatively relaxed. He had only rarely been hugged in his life. It felt...good. Changeling or humanoid, this was one thing that would always feel the same. He returned the hug, and even let his head rest on Mora's shoulder.

"Take care of yourself, Odo," Mora whispered hoarsely.

Odo nodded against his shoulder, and again when they separated and he handed Mora his bag. He watched as Mora turned and headed into the airlock, from which Kira was emerging.

She was slender again, and as beautiful as she had always been to him. But with his customary observational skill, he perceived a pensive air about her, even as she smiled at him. "I thought the O'Briens were having a party," he said.

Kira nodded. "Shakaar and I stopped by. I didn't feel much like celebrating."

"Oh?"

Kira took the monosyllable as encouragement, to talk about whatever was on her mind. That was part of the shorthand of their relationship. Naturally, she didn't stop to wonder why she had never felt so free to talk this way to anyone else, even Shakaar. "I got into this because the O'Briens needed my help. I never wanted a baby. But now..." Her voice grew soft, a confession. "I just wish I could hold him in my arms -- and never let him go."

"I think I know how you feel, Nerys."

Would she notice how easily he addressed her by her given name, something he had never done before? Would she realize that he spoke from experience and not merely sympathy? That, in a way, each of them had just gained something precious by losing something equally precious?

"Want to take a walk?" she asked quietly. Odo nodded, and found a simple comfort in the arm she slipped around him as they went.

He told himself it was enough.

(-|-)

THE END


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