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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.

Chimera

Novelization by Tracy Hemenover
From the television episode written by Rene Echevarria


What a chimera, then, is man! what a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a subject of contradiction, what a prodigy! A judge of all things, feeble worm of the earth, depositary of the truth, cloaca of uncertainty and error, the glory and the shame of the universe.


His name was Laas. Or, at least, that was what the monoforms had called him. It was the only name he knew for what he was, and so he accepted it. It was better than nothing.

They hadn't known what to make of him. He supposed that was understandable. He was alien to himself as well. No one had ever heard of anything like him, and neither had he. Yet he existed. As if some unknown entity had decided to create a unique thing with no single form, and had popped him into being on a random world, as a joke, or an experiment, to see what he would do, how others would react to him.

Not all of them were unkind. During his early life, one monoform tutored him in language and reading, as well as basic history, math, and science. But there was no science that could explain Laas. The Varalans had begun to explore their system, but they had not yet contacted other sentient species. Only Laas, but after some unpleasant experiences in their laboratories, he learned to avoid all scientists.

He taught himself to imitate the form of the people around him. But his attempt at simulating their appearance was imperfect, and they always knew he wasn't one of them. Their reaction was not one of overt hatred, but when he tried to attend their educational institutions, he met with either subtle social exclusion, or "friends" who were chiefly interested in gaining notoriety by associating with him. He was rarely allowed to interact with children, as if he were likely to change into some dangerous creature and eat them.

Once, a woman tried to see beyond his surface and treat him as if he were a person like any other. He grew closer to her than to any other monoform in his life. But in the end, because of their physiological dissimilarity, he could not give her what she wanted, so she finally left him.

Laas turned to other lifeforms. Animals didn't care what he was. Once they were certain he wasn't a threat, they accepted him. He learned to appreciate the beauty of their forms, the simplicity of existing as a beast, a plant, an object. He explored his abilities to the fullest. Almost no shape proved too ambitious for him, if he practiced enough.

Finally, after several decades, he tired of Varala. It was only one world, and there were no others like him here. He had to have a people somewhere. Perhaps they hadn't abandoned him; perhaps he had simply become lost as an infant through some accident, and they were looking for him. Clearly they were unlikely to come to Varala, so he would have to go to them.

His search began.

(-|-)

It was seven hours at warp five from Deep Space Nine to Dreon VII. That was more time than the conference itself had taken, if you could call it that. It had been more of a consultation really, O'Brien thought as he took the mug of hot Jamaican-blend coffee from the runabout replicator.

Not that he objected, at all. The excursion had been long enough to be a nice break from the routine, and yet short enough that there wasn't time to start to get bored and miss his family.

He yawned, entering the Rio Grande's roomy cockpit. The runabout was on autopilot, and Odo was at the conn position, examining something in his hands. He turned his head slightly in acknowledgment of O'Brien's presence.

"How long was I asleep?"

"Almost two hours," Odo said.

O'Brien leaned an arm against the chair of the ops console as he studied the flight status. "Dropped out of warp. We must be close to home." He took a sip of coffee.

Odo glanced at his own console. "We entered the Bajoran system a few minutes ago." He went back to studying the object in his hands, turning it over and over. O'Brien took a look at it for the first time. It appeared to be a crystal, shaped like a small, rounded-off pyramid.

"What's that?"

"The shopkeeper I bought it from called it a 'knick-knack'," Odo enunciated dryly.

O'Brien grunted. "Didn't know you collected 'knick-knacks'." He sat down.

"It's a present, for Kira."

A present! O'Brien slumped back in his chair, with a loud groan.

Startled, Odo peered at him. "You -- don't think she'll like it?"

O'Brien took time out from kicking himself long enough to glance at Odo's anxious face and realize that the constable had misinterpreted his distress. "Oh, I'm sure she'll like it. It's just, I didn't get anything for Keiko."

Odo nodded, looking a bit relieved. "Ah. Well, the conference kept you pretty busy," he said, in a somewhat half-hearted attempt to ease the Chief's husbandly guilt.

"Well, you found time to get something." O'Brien watched as Odo set the crystal down on its stand. Next to a small, fancily-embossed box. With dismay, O'Brien read the label. "Not chocolates as well."

"Rigalian chocolates. Her favorite." Odo gestured rather proudly at the box.

O'Brien suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. Until last year, he never would have pegged Odo as such a romantic. No one had, as a matter of fact. That had been before the staid, stoic constable had suddenly grabbed the then-Major Kira Nerys and kissed her passionately, in the middle of the Promenade, in front of the Prophets and everybody.

Now, to hear people tell it, you would think there wasn't a single person on the station who hadn't known all along. But truth be told, at the time, the only one who hadn't seemed surprised by the blossoming of Odo's and Kira's relationship was Quark.

That was some months ago now, and the change in Odo was remarkable. He was still reserved, dour, and businesslike while on duty, but if you watched him, you could sometimes catch a tiny smile on his thin lips when he looked at Kira. Kira, too, seemed to glow a little bit when Odo was near. And when they were off duty, it was rare now to see one without the other.

O'Brien was sincerely happy for them. Kira would always be like family to him, because of what she had done for him and Keiko; and Odo was a good friend, one of the most up-and-up fellows you could ever hope to meet.

With distressing frequency, however, he had heard Kira telling Keiko or Dax about some gift Odo had gotten her, or something special they had done together. He wished Odo would stop doing that. It was starting to make all the other attached males on the station look bad, dammit. He pictured the look on his wife's face when she heard about this latest generosity.

"I'll buy them from you," he said.

"I beg your pardon?"

"I'll buy them from you," O'Brien repeated, trying not to sound too desperate. "Come on, Odo, you don't have to give her two presents. You've only been gone a day."

Odo shook his head in firm denial. "I'm sorry, Miles, but the answer is no."

As O'Brien opened his mouth to commence begging, an alarm sounded.

Instantly, both of them tensed, alertly studying the sensor readouts and taking the ship out of autopilot. "There's something behind us."

"It's gaining on us fast," Odo noted grimly.

The object caught up with the runabout and overtook it. They watched the viewscreen in fascination as something came into view. It was as large as the runabout, resembling a strange and beautiful fish, with trailing fins that undulated as if it were swimming in space, or waving in the nonexistent breeze. It was difficult to discern whether it was a ship or a life form of some kind.

"Computer," Odo called out before O'Brien could. "Identify object, directly in front of this ship."

"Object unknown," the computer droned, as the whatever-it-was slowed, forcing the runabout to slow as well. They watched its tail fluttering gracefully before them.

"You think it's friendly?" O'Brien asked, as if Odo should know.

The reply wasn't very encouraging. "I hope so."

"It's certainly taken an interest in us."

The object moved out of the forward viewing radius. A moment later, the runabout shook, with a loud thud. "Uh-oh," O'Brien muttered.

Odo glanced at the sensors. "It's gone."

"What?"

"According to the sensors, there's nothing out there."

"Where'd it go?"

Another noise, coming from behind and above them. Odo whirled in his seat and watched the top bulkhead. The noises continued.

Something had boarded the runabout.

They looked at each other, then O'Brien slowly rose and stepped toward the back, drawing his phaser and aiming in the direction of the noises. Odo, who as always was unarmed, stood up behind him, as the noises seemed to center on a vent by the door. They crouched there, waiting.

Suddenly an all-too-familiar golden gelatinous liquid began pouring out of the vent, onto the floor. They jumped back.

"It's a Changeling!"

(-|-)

Odo watched the liquid reform, taking humanoid shape, and felt the same tangle of emotions he suspected he would always experience when he encountered another Changeling. Joy, longing, fear, shame, mistrust, regret. He didn't know what this one wanted, but he knew that in the past, every time he had dealt with his people, he had lost something.

The Changeling became a man, tall, with a face as indistinct as Odo's, except for the hint of ridges leading from the nose and slanting over the brows. His ersatz hair was dark and pulled back, fastened into a long tail with several holders.

"Stay where you are, or I'll fire," O'Brien warned.

The Changeling's blue eyes barely gave O'Brien and his phaser a glance before focusing on Odo with a look that seemed almost hungry with some unidentifiable emotion. "You -- you are a metamorph."

It was a term Odo had heard from the scientists back in his early days at the lab, but never from one of his people. "I'm a Changeling, yes," he said cautiously. This was odd behavior for one of the Founders, he thought. Awe and curiosity instead of smug condescension.

The other looked briefly at O'Brien. "Tell the monoform to put down its weapon."

Now that sounded like a Founder. Odo ignored the demand. O'Brien kept a steady aim with the phaser, though he was plainly prepared to follow Odo's lead.

"Why did you board our ship?"

"Because I sensed you were here," the Changeling replied. "I had to see if it were true, if I'd finally found another metamorph."

"You've never met another shapeshifter?" Odo probed.

"I've been trying to find others of my kind for a long time." The Changeling took a step forward, gazing at Odo, and Odo recognized the expression on his face. Something he knew very well: yearning. And hope of fulfillment at long last.

O'Brien raised the phaser. "I told you to stay where you are."

The Changeling stopped, glancing at O'Brien before returning his gaze to Odo, who put a calming hand on O'Brien's arm.

O'Brien seemed to sense something, and looked at him askance. "How do you know he's not a Founder?"

"He's not." Odo stepped forward, gazing at the Changeling in fascination. With dawning surety, somehow he knew now who this was. His brother. "He's one of the Hundred."

"The Hundred?" The Changeling looked puzzled.

Odo nodded. "Over the centuries, our people sent out one hundred infant Changelings into the galaxy," he explained. "We were to learn about other species and eventually return home to share what we'd experienced."

"That would explain why I was alone on Varala," the Changeling said, with restrained eagerness at this long-awaited enlightenment, and Odo understood perfectly. "I didn't even know what I was at first, or that I could assume other forms."

"I was the same way," Odo nodded again, finding that he was almost as eager to provide the answers as the other Changeling was to ask the questions.

"I hate to interrupt," O'Brien broke in, "but shouldn't we get him into a containment field, until we're sure he's telling the truth?"

The Changeling lifted his chin. "I will allow myself to be taken prisoner to show my good faith, but only if you vouch for my safety," he said, clearly meaning Odo. His eyes flickered to O'Brien. "I do not trust humanoids."

(-|-)

Ordinarily, Odo would have been met at the airlock by Kira, since it was during her normal off-duty hours when the runabout docked, but she too had been off the station and would be back tomorrow morning. It was just as well, since Odo did not want to divide his attention right now.

He and O'Brien escorted the other Changeling to security, following procedure. The Changeling was silent, seeming indifferent to the people they passed, and to O'Brien, who kept his phaser drawn the whole time. Odo spoke to the Changeling briefly, then, after having him checked out by Dr. Bashir, left him in a cell, going up to Ops to inform the captain.

Sisko took it calmly, as he always did. He walked slowly around his desk to face Odo. "So, where is he now?"

"In a holding cell," Odo said. "Captain, he's not a threat to us. He's just a Changeling who's traveled a long way to find out where he came from."

"You believe his story?"

Odo nodded, confidently. "Yes, sir, I do."

"How can you be sure he's not a Founder?" Sisko asked.

"If he were a Founder, he'd be infected with the same disease that's afflicting the entire Link. I asked Dr. Bashir to scan him. His morphogenic matrix is as stable as mine." Sisko still seemed dubious. "Sir, with your permission, I'd like to release him."

Sisko looked at him again, and paced a little as he mulled it over.

"Well, Constable, I'm sure you can appreciate why I'd have reservations about that. We're still at war with your people. The Founders have deceived us before."

"I realize that, sir," Odo said, "but he is not a Founder. He's one of the Hundred, I'm sure of it." Suddenly aware that he had been speaking with growing passion, he lowered his voice. "Sir, I'm asking you to trust me on this."

Sisko was still looking hesitant. Odo couldn't blame him. He would be cautious too, if he were in the captain's position. It was wartime, and like it or not, any Changeling, with the sole exception of Odo himself, had to be presumed an enemy. But Sisko was a fair man as well as a pragmatic one. Odo was counting on that, and on the relationship he had built with Sisko over six years of service.

Finally Sisko spoke again. "All right, Constable. I'll release him into your custody."

"Thank you, sir." Odo left the captain's office.

(-|-)

When Laas had seen the small ship, he did not know why, but he was suddenly seized by a strong urge to get aboard it, a feeling that at last he had found one of his people. Then, when he had seen the other, he had known beyond all doubt, as if some instinct had drawn him.

After the ship had arrived at an oddly-shaped space station, the other metamorph, who called himself Odo -- and who seemed to be a person of some authority here -- took him to a cell, with an opening rimmed by a forcefield, where a human doctor had scanned him. Odo told him that there unfortunately were reasons why Laas should be confined, at least until Odo spoke with the captain of the station. Then he would return and explain.

It wasn't very long before Odo came back and released Laas. As he had promised, he began answering questions.

Were there others of their people here?

No, only Odo. He was the station's chief of security, as it happened.

What were their people called?

Changelings, also known as the Founders. They were the leaders of an aggressive alliance called the Dominion, originating in the Gamma Quadrant, some 90,000 light years away. The Dominion had come here, to the Alpha Quadrant, through a wormhole near the station, and the people here were at war with them. That was why the human, O'Brien, had been so suspicious, and why Laas had been taken prisoner; they needed to be certain that he wasn't an enemy agent.

If their people were enemies of the humanoids, why was Odo here?

Because Odo was, like Laas, one of the Hundred he had mentioned. He had been found by the Bajorans -- the natives of this system -- and raised by them. Odo had been like him, alien and alone, until four years ago, when he had discovered his people. And then he had rejected them, choosing to continue to live here instead of with them.

Laas asked why.

"When I found out our people were the leaders of the Dominion, I realized I had no place with them," Odo said. "This war they're fighting is wrong."

They were walking on the upper level of a large central public area, which Odo identified as the Promenade. All around them, humanoids bustled about their business. Laas ignored them.

"I can understand their distrust of humanoids," he said, remembering another thing Odo had told him: that according to the Founders, they had created the Dominion after centuries of persecution by "solids". "But why try to conquer them? Better to avoid them altogether."

Odo studied him. "You don't much care for humanoids."

"I know from experience they don't much care for Changelings." It was easy to fall into using the new word, Laas discovered. It sounded better, somehow, than "metamorph".

Odo glanced at the humanoids around them. "I think you'll find the people here are different."

"Oh?"

"They accepted me." Odo indicated himself, with a gesture at his chest.

Laas looked at him curiously. "Have they? Is that why you stay?"

Odo's gaze flicked downwards. "I told you, I want no part of the Founders." He sounded almost defensive. Interesting, Laas thought.

"But what about the hundred that were sent out?" he asked. "Haven't you tried to find any of them?"

Odo looked slightly startled, but Laas guessed that it was not something that hadn't occurred to him before. "No," he admitted. He waved his hand. "It's a huge galaxy. They could be anywhere."

"Hm. I found you," Laas said mildly, wondering what there could possibly be about these humanoids that could keep a Changeling from seeking his own kind. Particularly a Changeling who had been alone all his life.

Odo sighed. Laas had already noticed that it seemed to be a habit of his. A humanoid mannerism. "I have a life here. I have friends."

"When did you first assume humanoid form?"

"A little over thirty years ago."

Laas stopped, and faced him. "So that's it," he said. "It's all still so new to you. I spent the first part of my life living among humanoids as well."

"How long ago was that?" Odo asked.

"Over two hundred years."

For some reason, that seemed to surprise Odo. He let out another long breath of air, and they both resumed walking.

"I must have been sent out earlier than you," Laas speculated.

"Or it could be that I was adrift for a long time before I was found," Odo said.

"Either way, it would explain why you've chosen to stay here. I too was fascinated by humanoid life in the beginning."

"But you lost interest." There was a trace, almost, of sarcasm in Odo's voice.

"I found it limiting," Laas said frankly. "The Varalans never accepted me as one of them, and I was never really able to fully mimic their appearance."

Odo gave a slight, sympathetic chuckle. "Faces aren't easy."

"No," Laas agreed. It was obvious from looking at Odo that he had had the same trouble as Laas in that regard. He stopped at the juncture of a crosswalk, looking down at the first level of the Promenade. "And humanoids are not very tolerant of difference."

Again, Odo was quick to defend the monoforms. "Some of them are," he said. He made a gesture, down to the people milling around below them. "There are dozens of species on this station, and they tolerate each other's differences very well."

"Hm," Laas said thoughtfully. He looked down to where Odo had indicated. There was an opening into a bar, with an outer counter where a male monoform was being served a drink by another, large-eared one. "He has bumps on his forehead." He pointed out a woman who belonged to what seemed to be the prevalent race here. "She has a wrinkled nose. But basically, they're alike. They are bipeds that eat, sleep, breathe. You and I are nothing like them."

"We're Changelings. We can be like them when we choose."

"I choose to be like them as little as possible," Laas retorted. "That's where we differ."

That seemed to confound Odo. Changing the subject, he indicated a turbolift. "Let me show you where you'll be staying."

After the lift took them to the middle, or "habitat" ring of the station, Odo led him through a corridor. "You haven't told me your name," he said as they turned a corner.

"The Varalans called me Laas. In their language, it means 'changeable'. Not very imaginative, is it?"

"At least it's appropriate." Odo sounded vaguely amused. "Mine means 'unknown sample'. The scientist who found me didn't know what I was." He ushered Laas into a room. The door closed behind them. Laas saw that the room was filled with assorted objects of many shapes, sizes, and textures.

"These are my quarters," Odo said. "I'll be staying...somewhere else." Laas stepped forward, curiously examining a large double-arched sculpture that looked like a giant abstract four-legged spider. "Feel free to shapeshift as you please. Some of these forms are quite interesting."

There was dust on the sculpture, Laas noted. "This hasn't been used in some time." He walked forward to an oval window, where there was a view of the surrounding space.

"I've...been busy."

As Odo spoke, Laas saw something else. Something so...humanoid that it looked out of place in this shapeshifter's playground of a room. It was a framed image, sitting on a table. The image was of a woman. A woman with a red uniform and a wrinkled nose, her mouth wide and teeth bared in that ridiculous expression humanoids wore when something pleased them.

Laas picked the image up. He believed he now had some inkling of what had been keeping Odo so busy, and possibly where he planned to be staying while Laas was here. "Who is this?"

Odo approached, looking at the image. "Her name is Kira," he said, and Laas detected a hint of shyness in his tone, as if he hoped Laas approved.

"Ah." It wasn't as if Laas didn't understand. After all, in the absence of one's own kind, one formed bonds with what was available. "I had a mate once," he added, as an afterthought.

"Oh?"

"On Varala, not long after I first assumed humanoid form." Laas continued to study the image. It reminded him a little of Jalena. Not so much the facial structure, but the personality captured in that frozen smile.

"And?" Odo asked. "What happened?"

Laas looked up. "We couldn't have children. That was important to her." The memory wasn't painful any more. Just something that happened. Jalena would be long dead by now, anyway. He gave the image to Odo, who silently looked down into the face there. "Is it something that matters to this Kira?"

"We've...never discussed it."

"Neither did we," Laas said. "At first."

Odo didn't respond. His perturbed expression as he continued to gaze at the image told Laas much. Obviously, Odo was still enmeshed in the dreams that Laas had long ago discarded, hopes of being part of the humanoids' world, of being loved by one of them, perhaps even having a family with her.

Laas did not regret his bluntness. The words might hurt Odo now, but not as much as the truth of them would when he learned it firsthand. Odo loved this woman, that much was plain, and she might even actually love Odo in return; but when a humanoid woman wanted children and her chosen mate could not give them to her, love ceased to be enough.

"Do our people reproduce?" he asked, realizing as soon as the words left him that it might have been a stupid question. There was no such thing as a life form that didn't reproduce in some fashion. He must be so excited by the discovery of a fellow Changeling that he was losing his wits. He would have to try to be more careful.

Odo's answer was surprising. "It's more complicated than that," he said, putting aside the image of his Kira. "In our natural state, we don't exist as separate entities."

"I don't understand."

"Our people spend most of their time in the Link."

"The Link?" Laas queried, mystified.

"It involves a melding into one -- a merging of thought and form, idea and sensation..." Odo seemed rather awkward as he said it, as if he were merely repeating someone else's phraseology for something he didn't completely grasp himself.

"You're speaking in riddles," Laas told him.

Odo made a slight noise of frustration. "It's difficult to explain."

"Then don't," Laas said. "Show me."

There was a pause as Odo appeared to hesitate, then he said, "Of course." He extended one hand toward Laas, who looked at it uncertainly. "Take it."

Slowly, Laas reached out and clasped the offered forearm, feeling Odo's hand grip his as well. For a moment nothing happened, then Odo's hand and arm became liquid. Laas was startled to realize that he felt an overwhelming urge -- no, a need -- to do the same. He was powerless to fight it. Could a drop of water resist becoming one with another? He felt solidity loosening.

A mingling. Blending. He was no longer Laas; he was Odo too. A rapture so keen that it was akin to sensuality flooded his/their perception as their union became complete. This was what they were. This was the answer they had both sought. The peace they would never know outside of this joining.

With it came knowledge. And grief. Some unknown disease was destroying the Founders, turning their people to ash. Soon only the Hundred would be left, and they were scattered and lost, perhaps forever. There was no one to share the loss with. No one who was sorry. Why would they be? The Founders were the enemy. But they were his people. His dilemma would end with their deaths, but there would always be an emptiness in his universe. An ache of how things should have been.

Then the face of the woman in the picture. She was everything. The only thing that filled the void inside, that made it bearable to exist as a separate being. Nerys. Nerys.

(-|-)

Odo withdrew, and reformed, watching as Laas did the same. Yes, it had been like this for him the first time, and he too had gazed in wonder at his hand, the hand that first felt the Link, just as Laas was doing now.

Had he done Laas a disservice in trying to help him? From the moment the female Founder's hand had first liquefied in his, he had never been the same. Until then, he had thought he could live the rest of his life as a solitary being if he had to, as he always had; afterwards, even now, part of him was always longing to link again. Laas would feel that too, now.

"For the first time in my life, I understand how I was meant to exist," Laas said at last. For the first time since coming out of the Link, he looked at Odo. "You've given up a great deal to remain here."

"Yes," Odo said softly. "Yes, I have. But I won't have anything to do with the Founders and their war."

Laas' voice was almost gentle. "Odo, we linked. I know the truth. You stayed here because of Kira. If it weren't for her, you would be with our people."

Astounded, Odo stared at him. It was true that Kira had played a large part in his rejection of his people, even before he had fully realized his feelings for her. But he had always believed that his moral objections to what his people had done, the misery and death they had caused -- were causing -- had been the driving factor. The Founders, of course, had always seemed to think that Kira alone stood between him and them...yet their word was suspect. Now, however, Laas was contending the same thing.

Could it be that they realized something he had never admitted to himself?

"War or no war," Laas said, "you would be a Founder."

(-|-)

There had been a time when Kira Nerys had not enjoyed coming back to Deep Space Nine after a visit to Bajor. Then, the station had been merely an assignment, a place she was bound to by duty. Bajor, on the other hand, was not only her homeworld, but her home.

It still was. And yet, so was DS9, now. It would have seemed impossibly paradoxical to her a few years ago, but now she had reason to know otherwise, and that perhaps home could be a person as well as a place.

The meeting with the Chamber of Ministers had gone well, all things considered. She had been asked by the First Minister to give her perspective as the Bajoran liaison to Starfleet, and as one who had firsthand knowledge of the war with the Dominion.

There had also been a dinner, which had turned out better than she had expected. Not as well as it could have, of course, since Odo hadn't been able to come with her. But it was pleasant enough. Shakaar had been there with his new female companion. He had had a look that Kira couldn't recall ever having seen on him before: contentment. She had teased him about it later.

"Rela makes me happy," he had replied, with a little shrug and that familiar half-smile.

"I'm glad," Kira told him, meaning it. "Is it true you two have been to the Kenda Shrine?"

Shakaar nodded. That, and the grin suddenly spreading across his face, told her what the verdict of the Prophets had been. Impulsively, she hugged him. "Edon, that's wonderful."

"Thank you, Nerys. That means a lot." His arms closed briefly, affectionately around her, and then he pulled away to look into her eyes. "And how about you? Is that Changeling of yours treating you all right?"

She smiled. "Better than all right, and you know it."

"I know." Shakaar's smile softened. "I may not know Odo nearly as well as you do, Nerys, but I've always thought he was a good man. Make sure to bring him along next time, huh?"

"I will."

Now, she strode through the airlock and onto the Promenade, heading for the security office. Odo would be there this time of day. As she walked, she considered the news he had told her via subspace, when she had called him to say she was about to catch the shuttle back.

She decided, for Odo's sake, that she would be happy, even though she knew he had gotten nothing but disappointment and lies from his people since he had first found them. She just hoped that this time it would be different. And there was every reason to expect that it might. After all, this new Changeling was seemingly like Odo -- a Changeling, yet not a Founder.

As she reached the office, she saw Odo behind the desk, his lips resting against two long fingers as he gazed at nothing, obviously deep in thought. But he did look up when she entered.

"Hi."

"Hello, Nerys." He smiled, as he usually did when he saw her; yet this time there was a distant, preoccupied look in his eyes.

"I can't believe it -- another Changeling!" she said brightly, coming forward, around the edge of his desk to face him. "What's he like?"

Her lover was silent. For a moment, she felt a tiny sting of fear. Had this other Changeling already done something to betray him? Then Odo spoke, and she realized that he had simply been trying to think of a fair description.

"He's...complicated." As if to indicate his helplessness to explain further, he spread his hands.

She caught one, and held it firmly between hers. "Like you," she said, and was rewarded by a brief, low chuckle of acknowledgment. But then his smile faded, and the pensive look returned to his eyes. She squeezed his hand to get his attention again.

"You all right?" she asked.

"I'm fine." His gaze darted downward and to the side, a telltale sign.

"You seem far away," she encouraged, searching his posture for clues. It was difficult. Since they had become a couple, Odo was far more open about his feelings, at least when they were alone; yet there were still times when he retreated into his old ways, refusing to give anything away, even to her.

But now, suddenly, he helped her out, by turning his eyes up toward her so that she could see the shadows there. He had decided to answer her unspoken question, even though she knew instinctively that he was afraid she might not like it.

"We linked," he said.

"I see," Kira said softly. She did not let go of his hand.

Odo turned in his chair to face her, looking deeply into her eyes. "There's nothing to worry about," he said. His words came quickly, in an attempt to reassure her, or maybe himself. "He's not a Founder. He's not trying to lure me to the Dominion. The Link...is part of what we are. It comes as naturally to us as talking does to humanoids."

"It's a little more personal than talking, isn't it?" That was something of an understatement, judging from his previous attempts to describe linking to her.

"I suppose," Odo admitted.

Kira clasped his hand a little tighter in hers. He was right to be concerned for her feelings on the subject of linking. Not for the reason he was thinking of: the time when the female Founder had used the Link to manipulate him. But the fact that he had linked with this other Changeling did worry her.

No, she wouldn't tell him. It wasn't that she was trying to hide anything from him, or at least she didn't think so. She simply wasn't sure what she found so disturbing, or why, or whether she even had a right to feel this way. Odo was a Changeling. Changelings linked. That was the way it was, period. And she had known that, long before becoming romantically involved with one.

She decided to change the subject, and the mood. "So, do I get to meet him?"

"If you like."

"I would," she affirmed, smiling.

"Then I'll arrange it," Odo said, returning her smile. It was then that she finally got the feeling that he really was glad to see her.

(-|-)

It was a small gathering that clustered together beside the bar in Quark's that evening. All the senior staff were here, with the exception of Captain Sisko, who was having dinner with his son; Worf, who had declined the invitation; and Odo, who had yet to arrive. Miles and Julian stood sucking down synthales, behind Kira and Ezri Dax, who were seated.

At last, Kira saw Odo approaching the bar, with a humanoid-looking man who presumably was the other Changeling. "Here they are," she said, watching as Odo guided the newcomer inside and up to the group.

"This is Laas," he said.

Kira smiled at the Changeling, whose expression did not change in the slightest. "Nerys," she introduced.

"Julian."

"Ezri."

"Miles."

Laas gave O'Brien a cool glance. "We've met," he said, a trace of irony in his voice.

"Look, I'm sorry," O'Brien said amiably. "We didn't know who you were at first. You gave us quite a scare when you rammed the runabout."

Laas made no reply to that, and there was a brief silence until Ezri, sensitive to the hint of tension in the air, jumped in. "I've always wondered how it would feel to be able to fly through space like that," the Trill chirped, her rather overly emphatic cheerfulness almost hiding the nervous flutter in her voice.

Laas favored her with a slight, patronizing smirk. "It's a shame you're incapable of ever experiencing it."

Smiles faded. "Guess so," Ezri offered lamely, and seemed to find something of great interest in the bottom of her glass.

Laas may not have been a Founder, but he certainly seemed to have their arrogance in abundance. Kira was beginning to wonder if Odo was the only Changeling in existence who didn't. Ordinarily she wouldn't have stood for this treatment. But she knew that Odo was hoping his friends, and she especially, would get along with Laas, so she decided to give him another chance. "Tell us about Varala," she said.

Bashir chimed in, as if he were grateful for the change of subject. "No Federation ship's ever been there."

"It's just the same as any other planet overrun with humanoids," Laas replied casually. "Cities and farms everywhere, other life forms displaced from their habitats. Once, I migrated to the southern continent with a herd of volg. When we returned to our breeding grounds the following summer, they had been fenced off. The herd died out within two generations. It's always that way where humanoids thrive. They disrupt the natural balance."

The humanoids looked at him, Odo, and each other, shifting uncomfortably in their seats. It was painfully obvious to all of them that Laas knew perfectly well how outrageously rude he was being, and did not care. In fact, he seemed to be reveling in it.

Quark chose that moment to approach them, carrying a plate of food that included a large slab of steaming meat. "Who ordered a vilm-steak?" he called out.

The timing was atrocious, to say the least. Bashir gave the group in general an embarrassed, almost guilty look. "Uh, better keep that warm," he said to Quark.

Quark eyed Laas. "Whatever you say." He whisked the meal out of sight.

Laas watched the entire exchange with a smug expression that said eloquently that his point had just been made for him. "The truth is," he stated airily, "I prefer the so-called primitive life forms. They exist as they were meant to, by following their instincts. No words get in the way, no lies, no deceptions."

O'Brien straightened. He'd had enough of the insults, Kira could tell. "We're not the ones who can disguise ourselves as anything we want."

Odo gave him a long, searching look. "Meaning?"

"Meaning shapeshifters are not to be trusted," Laas told him. There was a triumphant quality in his voice, as if he had been hoping to be challenged. He and O'Brien exchanged a look that was frankly hostile.

"I trust Odo," O'Brien said at last, evenly.

"Of course you trust Odo," Laas all but sneered. "Look at him. You've convinced him that he is as limited as you are."

"Laas..." Odo was now glaring at the other Changeling, who seemed unaffected.

Suddenly it seemed that everyone had given up all attempts at politeness. Ezri widened her eyes at Laas, sarcastically. "You've seen through our evil plan."

"Foiled again," Bashir added with a humorous twist of his mouth.

Ezri and O'Brien smiled, but Kira was watching Laas. "It's not funny," she said.

"No," Laas agreed. "I'm very worried for him." He gave Odo a glance.

Somehow, Kira knew that Laas was telling the truth. Well, fine, so he disapproved of Odo's life. But that didn't give him the right to pronounce judgment on it. "Odo can take care of himself," she said calmly, looking Laas in the eyes.

"Thank you, Colonel." Odo nodded toward her, with great dignity.

Another awkward silence fell.

"Well," Odo said at last, in a tone of forced heartiness. "This has been...interesting. If you'll excuse us, Colonel, Counselor, Doctor, Chief...Laas." He emphasized the last name, pointedly, and gestured toward the door, indicating that Laas should go.

Laas silently walked out of the bar. Odo followed, turning back briefly to his friends with a helpless shrug, as if to apologize for having exposed them to this unpleasantness.

"Nice seeing you again," O'Brien called after Laas.

As they watched Odo pointing Laas down the Promenade and saying, "This way," the others rolled their eyes, smiling at each other's sighs of relief.

It was easy for them to dismiss Laas, Kira thought. Not so easy for her. She had come to recognize how vulnerable Odo was when it came to his people. Despite his resolve to stay apart from the Founders, they still had an influence on him. No one could tempt him, or wound him, like another Changeling -- no one, except perhaps herself.

And Laas was the first and only Changeling Odo had ever encountered who had been as alone as Odo had for most of his life. Not only that, but they had linked.

She could not escape the feeling that a contest had just begun, and that her opponent was the only being in the universe against whom she might not win.

(-|-)

"Was it really necessary to insult my friends?" Odo demanded, striding out of the turbolift and onto the second level of the Promenade. He was furious. He had known Laas didn't like humanoids, but there was absolutely no excuse for that sort of behavior. He had met Klingons with better manners!

Laas followed as Odo crossed a walkway and headed for the outer rim. "I was merely speaking my mind."

"Well, you could call it that," Odo allowed, sarcastically.

"Humanoids are such tragic creatures," Laas went on, totally unrepentant. "They've lost the ability to take joy in simply existing, and yet they haven't evolved to the next level, where consciousness exists independent of form."

"You're certainly not afraid to make grand generalizations," Odo observed. Apparently the ability to refrain from continually pointing out the shortcomings of those deemed less "evolved" than oneself, to their faces, was not one of Laas' criteria for superiority.

"I've been many things in my time, Odo. I speak from experience." Abruptly, Laas stopped, and held out a hand toward Odo. "Enough talk. Link with me."

Shocked by the audacity of suggesting doing such a thing in public, Odo looked at him, mindful of the passers-by. "Here?"

"Why not?" Laas asked.

"I don't think that's a good idea." Odo could just imagine the reactions of the onlookers if they saw a pair of Changelings intermingling before their eyes. Full-scale panic was the best case scenario he could picture. The worst, he didn't want to contemplate.

Laas lowered his hand. "Are you embarrassed?" he challenged.

"No," Odo said defensively, even as he folded his arms to emphasize his refusal.

"You don't want to do anything to remind them that you're not truly a humanoid." Laas sounded accusing.

"I don't go out of my way to point it out, no."

"Why not? Are you afraid they will reject you?"

Odo gave an exasperated sigh. "I don't like to confront people with something that might make them uncomfortable."

"So you deny your true nature in order to 'fit in'." Laas stressed those last two words as if they described something contemptible.

Odo shook his head. "You're reading too much into it." What was the matter with Laas? Had he never learned, in two hundred years, that there were things one simply didn't do? That other beings besides himself had sensibilities and rights? That it was impolitic, at the very least, to rub people's faces in the fact that you could do things they couldn't? Perhaps this was one reason that their people had met with such hatred in the past.

He started to walk on.

"Before I came here, when was the last time you assumed another form?"

Odo stopped, brought up short by the blunt question. He found himself unable to give a reply. He avoided Laas' eyes. The other Changeling studied him, as if Odo's silence was precisely the answer he had expected.

"You can't even remember," he said. "You've been pretending to be a humanoid for so long, it doesn't even occur to you that you can be anything else."

"That's not true," Odo protested. "I've just been involved with...other things lately."

"Like what? Courting Kira? She can't even link with you."

Stung, Odo whirled around to glare at him. "Leave her out of this."

"It won't last," Laas told him, with all the unshakable confidence of a Founder.

"The fact that your relationship failed doesn't mean that mine will," Odo retorted, as calmly as he could.

"True," Laas countered. "And if you're very lucky, you can watch her grow old and die."

He had gone too far. Odo advanced a step, warningly. "I think you should stay out of my affairs."

"I don't want to see you make the same mistakes I made," Laas told him. The disdain was gone from his tone; he was speaking from sincere concern, at least as he saw it. "You're wasting your time trying to be a humanoid. You're limiting yourself. Let's leave here, Odo. Let's find the others. A hundred were sent away, and they're out there, somewhere."

He lifted a hand to indicate the stars outside the observation window nearby.

"If we can find even a few of them, we can form a new Link. Think of it, Odo. We can exist the way we were meant to. As Changelings."

Odo gazed into Laas' serious eyes.

It was a good goal, a quest that might prove essential to the survival of their people. A chance to start anew, to avoid the mistakes of the Founders. To find the others, the ones who were like him, who had been cast adrift in the universe to fend for themselves.

He had fantasized about it many times in the years since learning the truth about his people. It had haunted him, unspoken in his mind, during those times when he had most despaired of Nerys ever loving him. But even then, though the sight of her tormented him every day, the thought of never seeing her again had been worse. There were also his responsibilities on the station; he could not simply abandon them.

Now, of course, things were different. He and Nerys were finally together. His dream had come true, and instead of turning to smoke, as he had feared in the early weeks, it had grown.

Yet, the other dream still existed.

It was there, in the stars. And there was no way for him to have both.

(-|-)

"I can't believe he actually thought you'd just drop everything and leave with him."

Nerys' voice broke the silence. Odo observed the light glittering in the depths of the crystal "knick-knack" he had given her. He had told her everything that Laas had said, and now he sat beside her as she reclined on the couch-bed in her quarters, a pillow on her lap. It was the first opportunity they had had to relax together since she had returned to the station.

"He just can't understand why I want to stay here," he said, putting the crystal back on its stand.

"How did he take it when you said no?"

Odo was silent.

"You did say no...didn't you?"

"I told him I'd think about it." Fearing that she might misunderstand, he quickly explained. "I didn't want to dismiss it out of hand. He would have taken offense."

Glancing behind him at his lover, he saw her troubled expression. She had never been able to hide her feelings from him. He leaned back, an elbow beside her head, so that he could face her.

"Why do you look at me like that?"

Her gaze moved away from him. "It just -- bothers me that he thinks that you're not happy here," she confessed. "Makes me think he knows something that I don't."

"What makes you say that?"

"He linked with you."

"Ah." Odo began to understand.

"Something about that gave him the impression that you might want to leave here," Kira continued, not looking at him.

She was afraid, he recognized. She was thinking that there might be things about him that she could never know, important things which he wouldn't or couldn't communicate to her, because she wasn't a Changeling. And Laas was.

"It's just wishful thinking on his part," Odo tried to reassure her, gently. "The thought of the two of us going off together, looking for the others, exploring the galaxy as Changelings, is very alluring. To him," he added, after a pause. It was a brief one. But it had lasted a little too long.

Kira caught it. She raised her eyes toward him. "Sounds like it's alluring to you too."

"I'm...happy...here." He separated and emphasized each word, to bolster their meaning.

After a moment, she shifted her position, closer to him, and leaned against him, her head on his chest. He wrapped an arm around her, tenderly, resting his chin on her hair, luxuriating in the warmth of her body where it touched him.

"I'm sorry I can't link with you." Her voice was quiet, tinctured with a sadness that made him ache.

This, he realized, was the last boundary between them, the one barrier that they would never be able to surmount. No matter how much they loved each other, he was still a Changeling, and she was still a humanoid. He was liquid; she, flesh. He was on the young end of a lifespan of centuries, perhaps millennia; she would age and be lost to him in a mere handful of decades.

He sighed, and held her closer.

"It doesn't matter, Nerys," he whispered. "I love you."

(-|-)

Odo strode down the corridor to his quarters. He had made his decision. Not that there was one to be made. As he had said to Nerys, he had not endured years of unrequited love for her only so that he could throw everything away on some wild quest after only a few months of being with her. Somehow it seemed to him that it would make all that they had been through meaningless, and he wasn't willing to do that.

The door to his quarters opened, and inside, he saw a large flame blazing in the rim of the window.

"Computer! Activate fire suppression syst -- " He broke off midword, as a sudden intuition flashed into his mind. There was no reason for a fire to be burning in his quarters. No fuel source that he could see. It could only be --

"Laas?" No response from the flame. Yet although he could feel its heat, somehow he knew he had guessed correctly. "I -- I need to talk to you."

The fire transmuted into a gelatinous mass, and then into Laas' humanoid form. "You didn't realize it was me," he said. "Did you even know we could exist as fire?"

Reluctantly, Odo shook his head. It had occurred to him to try it, once or twice, but he had dismissed the idea as impossible. Now, Laas had just proven otherwise.

"I didn't think so. No matter." Laas stepped closer to Odo. "Once we're away from here, I'll teach you to become things you've never even dreamed of."

Odo shook his head again, more decisively. "I'm not leaving," he said. "I'm staying here."

Laas blinked. Clearly, he had taken it for granted that Odo would see the sense of his position and be eager to join him once he had thought it over. "Why?" he asked. "So you can keep on pretending to be one of them?"

"I'm sorry if you're disappointed," Odo told him simply. There was no need to reply to Laas' question; it was Odo's own affair, and Laas most likely knew the answer anyway.

Laas gave him a long look, then said coolly, "I'll survive." He turned away, walked toward the window, and then stopped and turned back. "But when I find some of the others, I'll send for you. You'll change your mind. You'll join us." There was not even a slight hint of doubt in his voice.

"It could take a long time for you to find another Changeling," Odo said.

"Is that supposed to discourage me?"

Odo sighed. "All I'm saying is, you don't have to leave -- right away. I wouldn't mind the company of another Changeling. I'm sure you wouldn't mind either."

Laas studied him for a moment, and finally nodded. "All right, Odo. I won't abandon you to these monoforms. As a favor to you, I'll stay a while."

"You might as well," Odo said. "If you can't get along with me, what makes you think you can get along with any other Changeling?" He smiled.

"Just remember," Laas told him, "I have no interest in monoforms, even if they are your...friends."

"After what happened at Quark's, I don't think you have to worry about an overcrowded social schedule," Odo said wryly.

Laas gave a little smile of his own. "Good."

They stood facing each other for a long moment, then Laas extended his hand. With only a second's hesitation, Odo walked across the room to him. Laas' eagerness was almost palpable as his hand closed around Odo's arm. Yet he waited, letting Odo be the one again to initiate the Link. As if he was trying to subtly remind him that this was what Odo wanted and needed as well.

Odo could not dispute it.

(-|-)

Later, he was at work, updating his files with new data on a smuggling ring that he had been keeping track of, when he heard something just outside his office. Voices. Children's voices, laughing excitedly. Odo put down his PADD, and left his office to see what was going on.

The deck of the Promenade was swathed in fog. Several people were standing in it, staring at the swirling vapors, and murmuring to each other, their tones indicating varying degrees of amazement, confusion, and apprehension. A couple of Bajoran children, however, were playing in it, running back and forth, vastly amused by the fact that they couldn't see their feet, until their anxious mother gathered them to her side and led them away.

There was general concern, but the situation didn't seem to be verging on a riot. Odo stepped through the fog, hoping that his familiar presence would have a calming effect. Especially since he had a very strong suspicion of what the fog really was.

He saw O'Brien and Bashir standing together outside Quark's. "Great. The environmental system's out again," the Chief was muttering.

Bashir sighed. "There goes our holosuite reservation."

"I'd better go see what the problem is." Resigned, O'Brien made as if to walk away, but then Odo reached them.

"Don't bother, Chief," he told him. "There's nothing wrong with the environmental system."

O'Brien looked at him in bewilderment. "Then where's all this fog coming from?"

"It's not fog," Odo said. "It's Laas."

"Laas?" O'Brien echoed.

"What's he doing?" Bashir wanted to know.

"Being fog. What's it look like?" Odo replied, a little tartly.

O'Brien did not seem mollified. "Can't he be fog somewhere else?"

"Or at night, when nobody's around?" Bashir suggested.

Odo approximated a shrug. "He's not hurting anyone."

O'Brien glanced down the thoroughfare. It was true; no one was panicking or passing out. "Still...it's kinda creepy," he opined.

Bashir leaned in, almost smiling. "Careful, Miles, he might hear you."

O'Brien looked at him, then at the fog. "Good," he said loudly.

He and Bashir turned away and disappeared into Quark's. Odo looked around to make sure that the public's uneasiness was not escalating. It wasn't, although a pair of Klingons nearby had walked into the fog and halted, exclaiming to each other in disgust.

Odo decided that he had probably better put a stop to Laas' antics. They weren't exactly likely to sway humanoid opinion in favor of Changelings. Of course, Laas had made it more than abundantly clear that he didn't care what any humanoid thought of him. Probably he was showing off for Odo's benefit, demonstrating yet another ability that Odo was missing out on learning by not joining him.

All right, he'd made his point.

"Laas," Odo said quietly to the fog. Then, a little louder, "Laas."

The fog began to coalesce and condense. The process was fairly slow, not surprising since Laas was currently covering nearly half the Promenade. A protrusion of him formed, sucking the fog in until it became a column of Changeling. Odo shook his head wearily, folding his arms as he and the crowd watched Laas morph to humanoid form. As Laas finally completed his transformation, he folded his arms as well, in deliberate mockery of Odo's stern pose.

"Congratulations," Odo said dryly. "You've managed to disrupt the entire Promenade."

"I was just relaxing," Laas said, all innocence.

Aware of the onlookers, Odo broke the tableau by dropping his arms to his sides. "If you want to relax, do it in private."

Laas widened his eyes slightly. "Did I embarrass you?" he asked, as if he'd had no idea that Changelings didn't imitate fog on the Promenade every day.

"Yevat! What is this Founder doing here?"

The two Klingons were approaching, their rugged features fierce with suspicion. Odo recognized them as a couple of ensigns from Martok's crew, who had been on the station several times. Their names were Hoth and Kelor; he knew nothing else about them. It was Hoth who had spoken.

"He's not a Founder," Odo told them. "Now move along."

Hoth ignored him. "Don't change form in my presence again," he said to Laas.

"I will change form where I please," Laas replied loftily.

Hoth stared at him menacingly, baring his teeth.

"Look at him," Laas said, to Odo. "Look at the hate in his eyes."

Laas' attitude was not helping, Odo realized with dismay. He held up a hand, hoping he could at least persuade his sibling to refrain from aggravating the situation. "Laas -- "

"Your hands are stained with the blood of Klingon warriors," Hoth accused haughtily.

Laas raised his hands and pretended to examine them. "But then the stench would still be on them."

"P'tak!" the Klingon spat, his d'k tahg dagger flashing into his hand.

Just as swiftly, a portion of Laas' substance extruded from his own hand and became a metal sword.

"Mine's bigger," Laas announced.

Anyone with any sense knew that a blade could do nothing to a Changeling. But Hoth was apparently not the sharpest bat'leth on the rack. With one more incoherent Klingon insult, he lunged forward and sank his dagger deep into Laas' torso.

Laas merely looked down, his midsection softening into his gelatinous state, so that the knife passed through harmlessly.

"No!" Odo shouted. He grabbed Hoth's weapon arm, forcing it down and pushing the Klingon away. As he did so, there was a burst of movement in his peripheral vision. The other Klingon, Kelor, had moved his hand, as if to go for a weapon. In a motion too fast to follow, Laas' "sword" shot forward and plunged into Kelor's chest.

Abruptly, everything seemed to slow down. Kelor stared uncomprehendingly at the blade protruding from between his ribs. Laas yanked the sword away, and it was gone, once more becoming part of his hand. He watched calmly as the mortally wounded Klingon gurgled once, then fell backward onto the deck.

"Nooooo!!!" howled Hoth, struggling to free himself so that he could leap onto Laas and tear him to pieces, not that he could do so even if Odo hadn't been restraining him.

Laas looked totally unconcerned.

(-|-)

"Dr. Bashir wasn't able to save the Klingon's life. General Martok has asked that Laas be detained until the magistrate can determine jurisdiction." Sisko thumped the PADD against his palm as he paced behind his desk. Odo was standing opposite him, as was Worf, who had become essentially the liaison between DS9 and the Federation's Klingon allies.

"Jurisdiction?" Odo queried.

"The Klingons want to extradite him," Sisko explained.

"That's ridiculous. He killed that Klingon in self-defense."

"That is in dispute," Worf reminded him.

"He was about to draw his disruptor," Odo said.

"According to the other Klingon, he was reaching for his dagger."

Odo rolled his eyes. Of course Hoth would try to take advantage of the confusion about what exactly had happened, in order to vindicate himself and Kelor of any wrongdoing. It was unfortunate that the Klingon hadn't used that sort of cleverness before his actions had led to the death of his friend. But it made no sense. Having let Hoth stab him, why would Laas then kill Kelor, if he hadn't seen the Klingon reaching for his disruptor?

Sisko looked keenly at him. "Are you saying that's not true?"

"It all happened too fast," Odo admitted, reluctantly deciding that he had no evidence to present for Laas' side. "But their intentions were obvious. One of them put a knife in his chest."

"The Klingons are arguing that since Laas knew he couldn't be harmed by a knife, he wasn't justified in responding with deadly force."

Odo folded his arms. "Since when do the Klingons resort to legal quibbling? They get involved in fights all the time. They never file charges. It isn't honorable."

Sisko acknowledged that fact with a slight nod, but said, "In this case, the Klingons are exercising their rights under the law."

"Sir," Odo began, hoping to appeal to Sisko's sense of fair play, "they're only doing this because they distrust Changelings."

"He should not have provoked them," Worf put in.

Odo glanced at him. Naturally, the fact that Worf was supporting his fellow Klingon was hardly surprising. "Provoked them? They attacked Laas."

Sisko looked down at his PADD. "They claim he 'surrounded them menacingly'."

Odo laced his voice with ridicule. "They felt menaced by fog."

"They weren't the only ones," Sisko pointed out. "There are twelve other people who filed complaints."

"Is it a crime to shapeshift on the Promenade?" Odo asked.

"It's not a crime," Sisko conceded. "But it's obviously not a good idea."

This was monstrously unjust. Why couldn't Sisko see it? Why were he, Worf, and Martok so intent on blaming Laas that they seemed to be looking for reasons to excuse the behavior of the Klingons? There was only one answer that Odo could think of, an ugly one. He felt a surge of sudden resentment.

"You're going to allow the Klingons to extradite him, knowing they won't give him a fair trial." It was not a question.

Sisko seemed to dodge it. "That's not my decision. It's up to the magistrate."

"But you'd just as soon be rid of him," Odo accused. "You never wanted him on the station in the first place. I practically had to beg you to let him out of that holding cell."

"That's quite enough, Constable." Sisko leveled a quiet glare at him.

Odo fell silent. Perhaps he had gone a little too far.

After a moment, Sisko continued. "Now, Martok has expressed some concerns about our security arrangements."

Odo tilted his head at him. "Meaning?" he asked, with deceptive calmness.

"He's not sure it's appropriate that you should be in charge of the prisoner," Sisko informed him.

"May I ask why?" Odo asked evenly.

Sisko looked surprised that the question had needed to be brought up. "Because you were witness to the alleged crime."

Odo drew himself up. "That's a relief," he said, his voice cold. "For a moment, I thought you were going to say it's because I'm a Changeling." He looked Sisko directly in the eyes, almost daring him to deny or confirm it.

The Captain did not reply.

Odo left. He was scowling as he exited the turbolift and started across the Promenade. Was it possible that Laas had had a point? Had he, Odo, been too blind to acknowledge it, unwilling to examine his beliefs for fear that he might be forced to conclude that all his years of trying to live among solids had been a waste?

Not that he believed that his humanoid friends were insincere. No doubt they too had always believed in their acceptance of him. But how far did that acceptance go? Only as far as this form he wore? Was there truly no place for a Changeling in their world after all?

"Odo!"

Quark. The last person he wanted to talk to right now. But he slowed, resigned to hearing whatever his nemesis wanted to complain about this time.

The Ferengi caught up to him. "I heard about your friend. Rumor has it the Klingons want to put him on trial."

"They're the ones who should be put on trial," Odo growled, bitterly. "If they'd attacked anyone other than a Changeling, they would be." Immediately, he wished he hadn't said anything. It was none of Quark's business. He moved on. Unfortunately, Quark followed him into his office.

"You're probably right," Quark said. A sufficiently unusual statement that it caused Odo to turn and look at him. "That fog episode certainly didn't help matters."

"Laas was only doing what comes naturally to us." Odo began to busy himself at the computer behind his desk, hoping Quark would take the hint.

"You never pulled a stunt like that. You're smart enough to know that people don't want to be reminded that you're different. Who wants to see somebody turn into goo?" Quark lowered his voice. "I hope you don't do that around Kira."

Irked, Odo glared at him. "Why shouldn't I?"

"Well, if she's anything like me, she'd rather you didn't."

Odo simmered at the presumption. Quark had really overstepped his bounds this time. But, a tiny voice within whispered, haven't you always been circumspect with Nerys about letting her see you in your natural state? Why is that? Are you afraid of her reaction? If so, then how truthful can your relationship with her ever be?

"Don't you get it, Odo? We humanoids are the product of millions of years of evolution. Our ancestors learned the hard way that what you don't know might kill you. They wouldn't have survived if they hadn't jumped back when they encountered a snake coiled in the muck, and now, millions of years later, that instinct is still there. It's genetic. Our tolerance to other life forms doesn't extend beyond the two-arm, two-leg variety." Quark paused for breath. "I hate to break this to you, but when you're in your natural state, you're more than our poor old genes can handle."

Odo leaned over his desk. "So what are you saying, Quark?" he demanded. "That the Klingons couldn't help what they did, because of their genes?"

Quark shook his head. "I'm not trying to excuse what they did. I'm only telling you why it happened." He actually looked as if he honestly regretted the necessity of what he had taken upon himself to say. "Watch your step, Odo. We're at war with your people. This is no time for a 'Changeling Pride' demonstration on the Promenade."

(-|-)

Deputy Tano straightened automatically when his superior entered the holding area. "Constable," he said crisply.

"I'd like to have a few minutes alone with the prisoner," Odo told him.

"Sorry, sir. I have my orders." The deputy looked a little embarrassed.

Sisko, Odo thought. Placating Martok. Nice of them to let me know. He nodded to Tano, acknowledging his officer's dutifulness. Tano stayed where he was, watching as Odo went over to stand in front of the holding cell that contained Laas.

Laas was in humanoid form, sitting on the bunk. He did not turn his head, although Odo knew he had registered his presence. Odo folded his arms, feeling self-conscious.

"I don't know what to say," he admitted after a long moment.

At last, Laas deigned to glance at him. "You could say you were wrong," he suggested, in a detached tone, as if nothing could affect him one way or the other any more. "You could say the people here are no different than any other humanoids." His gaze returned to a spot on the wall directly ahead of him.

The same old ground. Odo decided against retreading it. Instead, he said, "Hopefully this will all get straightened out at your hearing." The words sounded feeble and hollow, even to him.

"I am sure it will be fair and impartial," Laas said, the irony in his voice unmistakable.

"Just tell them exactly what happened."

"My word against a humanoid's. Whom do you think this magistrate is going to believe?"

Laas was right. And it was Odo's own fault that it had come to this. "I shouldn't have convinced you to stay," he said, regretfully. "If I had just let you go, none of this would have happened."

"My only consolation," Laas said, "is that this may finally make you understand that you don't belong here." He raised his gaze to Odo again. "You saw the hatred in that Klingon's eyes. Perhaps now you'll recognize it when you see it hiding in the faces of your so-called friends."

He rose, coming forward to face Odo across the barrier of the forcefield.

"They tolerate you, Odo, because you emulate them. What higher flattery is there? 'I, who can be anything, choose to be like you.' But even when you make yourself in their image, they know you are not truly one of them. They know that what you appear to be does not reflect what you really are. It's only a mask. What lies underneath is alien to them. And so they fear it. And that fear can turn to hate in the blink of an eye."

(-|-)

Since they had become a couple, it had become a tradition of sorts that one of them would visit the other after their duty shifts were over every day, and then they would spend the evening together. This time, however, when Kira arrived at Odo's quarters, she found him pacing like a pent-up razorcat.

"What's wrong?" she asked. It was rare to see him this visibly agitated over anything.

"They're going to extradite him."

She knew, of course, what he was talking about. She had heard the news about Laas, from Sisko. "You don't know that," she attempted to soothe him. It had no noticeable effect.

"Yes, I do," he retorted. "And no one is going to do anything to stop it."

"There's not much anyone can do."

Odo stopped briefly, and faced her. "If he weren't a Changeling, the Captain would find a way to intervene." He turned angrily away.

"Oh, no, that's unfair."

He whirled back. "Is it?"

What had gotten into him? It wasn't like Odo to take the fate of a prisoner so personally -- of course, he's never had a Changeling prisoner, has he? Almost as disconcerting was the fact that he seemed to suspect Sisko personally of bias. That had never happened before.

"You're starting to sound like Laas," she said.

Odo resumed pacing. "Maybe that's because I'm starting to see things more clearly now."

Kira looked hard at him. "What is that supposed to mean?"

He stopped and turned to face her again. He spread his arms, to indicate himself. "Look at me, Nerys!" he demanded. "What do you see?"

"I see you."

"No." He came back over to her. "This is -- just a form I borrowed. I could just as easily be someone or something else." He bit off the word "thing" as if he hated its existence.

"I know that!" Kira stepped close to him. "But this -- " She gripped his arms. " -- is what you have always chosen to be. A man. A good and honest man. The man I fell in love with. Are you trying to tell me that he never really existed?"

"I don't know," Odo said.

Shocked, she could only stare as he broke from her grasp and turned away.

"I care for you more than anyone I've ever known." His voice was harsh with emotion. "These last few months have been the happiest of my life. But even so, part of me wishes that Laas and I were out there right now, searching for the others, existing as Changelings. Because that's what I am. Not a humanoid. I'm a Changeling."

In his voice she heard the anguish of the dilemma that he had lived every day of his life. Honesty was an integral part of his being, yet his very nature forced him to constantly violate that ethic, just to exist in her world. And that was a large part of why he craved the Link with his people so much. In the Link, the paradox ceased to be. He could forget the loneliness of his separation, and interact in his true form, without having to practice the deception of what she saw now.

Kira swallowed back tears. She had as much as told him that it was his mask she loved, not him as he was. And so she had finally lost him, after all.

"Well, then, maybe you're right. Maybe you do belong out there."

Without looking at him, she left the room.

(-|-)

Still on guard duty, Tano looked up to see Colonel Kira entering the holding area. He stood a little straighter. "Can I help you, Colonel?"

"I need to talk to the prisoner. Alone."

"Aye, sir." Tano left the room.

Slowly, Kira walked over to the cell that contained Laas. The Changeling watched her curiously, his features registering surprise. Naturally, she was probably the last person he'd expected to visit him. He stood, facing her. She looked at him for a long moment; then suddenly she reached up to the forcefield panel and slapped it. The field was gone with a brief fizzle of energy.

"Go to the third planet in the Koralis system," she said. "You'll find an orbital tether running down to an abandoned mining complex. I'll tell Odo to meet you there."

Laas looked closely at her. "Is this some kind of a trick?"

"Do you want to get out of here or not?"

He needed no further urging. As he stepped out of the cell, still watching her warily, she nodded toward a vent on the wall. "That vent will lead you through some conduits to an airlock."

"Why?" he asked at last, clearly bewildered and still a little suspicious.

Kira looked him straight in the eyes.

"I love him," she said.

(-|-)

"Escaped?" Sisko walked around the edge of his desk to stand beside his chair, staring incredulously at Kira, who stood beside Odo. Nearby was Worf. "How did he get through the containment field?"

"I can't explain it," Kira said. "All I can tell you is what I saw. He turned into some kind of plasma energy and forced his way through. Before I could stop him, he had disappeared into the air vent." To Odo, who knew her better than anyone else, she sounded oddly dispassionate; but he couldn't quite put a finger on what was wrong, if anything.

"According to the operations log," Worf put in, "one of the airlocks was activated shortly after that."

"If he left the station, why didn't our sensors detect him?"

"A Corvallen freighter was leaving about the same time. He must have shadowed it to keep from being spotted."

Kira watched the captain pace. "He could be anywhere by now." Again, that calm restraint, almost too calm. Yet with their relationship hanging by a thread, Odo wasn't prepared to question it too closely.

Sisko shook his head grimly. "General Martok is not going to be happy about this."

"By fleeing, the Changeling has demonstrated his guilt," Worf rumbled sententiously.

"Either that, or his lack of faith in our justice system," Odo said dryly. True, it looked very bad. He had a few things to ask Laas himself.

"He must be apprehended and brought to trial," the Klingon insisted.

"Mr. Worf," Sisko ordered, "have all available runabouts begin a sector-wide search."

"Aye, sir."

"Good luck," Odo said, with irony, as Worf left the office.

Sisko gave him a significant look. "Constable, I know it's a long shot, but I'm sure you can agree we should do everything we can to find him." He raised an eyebrow, pointedly.

Odo nodded. "Of course."

"Dismissed."

Odo followed Kira out of the office, walking past Worf to the turbolift. "Level 9," Odo told the computer as they boarded.

They were silent, both staring ahead. Odo didn't know what he could say to her. He knew he'd hurt her, but didn't know how to mend matters, except by taking back the things he had said. And he couldn't do that. It had been the truth, regardless of how it pained them both.

Kira finally glanced at him.

"You didn't hide it very well," she said. "That you're glad he escaped."

At least she was speaking to him. That was something. "I should have known he'd be able to escape," he said. "What's a forcefield to a Changeling with his abilities?"

But the more he thought about it, the more suspicious it seemed. Why had Laas waited until now to run? And why run, when until tonight, he had seemed resigned to facing the consequences of his actions? And why suddenly choose to escape while Kira happened to be with him? Come to think of it, why had Kira been visiting the holding cell?

There was silence for a moment while the questions ran through his mind. Then, suddenly, Kira turned to him. "You said you wished you were out there with him. Well, it's not too late."

Puzzled, Odo finally looked at her. "I don't understand."

"He's waiting for you, at an abandoned mine on Koralis III."

He stared. Now at last he realized what she had done, why her behavior had been so off.

"You helped him escape."

He almost reeled with the enormity of it. She had aided and abetted a suspected felon. And lied to the Captain. To the Emissary. Why?

She answered the question before he could ask it. "I don't want you to stay here under some sense of obligation," she said quietly, as the turbolift reached its destination.

Then suddenly, she reached down, and took his hands in both of hers.

"Good luck."

She brought his hands up to her lips. And kissed them, gently at first, then with growing emphasis. Her eyes squeezed shut, as if she were fighting not to weep. But then, she opened them again, and looked deeply into his. "I hope you find what you're looking for," she said softly.

Odo watched, stunned, as she exited the turbolift.

(-|-)

It had been at least three decades since anyone had been on Koralis III, a former Bajoran mining colony that had been annexed at the start of the Occupation, and stripped bare of everything by the Cardassians. Perhaps some Bajoran rebels might have hidden out here, but now they too were gone. Nothing here now but stone, more stone, scraps of metal, and the drip of water somewhere.

Odo walked through the cavern, his footfalls echoing against the silent walls.

"Laas?"

Beyond a pair of rusting support braces, he saw movement. And Laas stepped out.

"I knew you would come." He smiled. It was perhaps the first time Odo had seen happiness on that face since they had last linked. Eagerly, he walked forward. "This is a new beginning for us, Odo. A new beginning for our people. You and I are about to embark on the adventure of our lives." Odo did not reply. Laas finally sensed something. "What's wrong?"

"I'm not going with you," Odo told him, simply.

Laas backed away, staring at him with complete lack of comprehension. "Then why are you here?"

"I've come to say goodbye."

"Don't be a fool." Laas sounded almost desperate. "What are you holding onto? Kira? Even she knows that this is what's best for you. Why else would she have helped me to escape?"

Odo shook his head, sadly. "You really don't know, do you? You have no idea what it means to love someone enough to let them go."

For that was why Nerys had done it. She loved him. All doubt of that was gone. His happiness was more important to her than her own, and so she had set him free.

His own people had certainly never done that. Nor would they. They wanted him, not for himself, but so that the Great Link could be complete. He was not truly important to them as an individual, because they didn't consider him one. They were wrong.

"She let you go so that you could find out where you belong," Laas insisted.

"I know where I belong," Odo said. "Laas, humanoids are not the petty, limited creatures you perceive them to be. What Nerys did should prove that, even to you."

Laas looked at him scornfully. "Love conquers all, is that it?"

"I'm sorry you can't understand. You've done many things, been many things...but you've never known love."

"Compared to the Link," Laas countered, "it is a pale shadow, a feeble attempt to compensate for the isolation that monoforms feel because they are trapped within themselves."

Spoken like a Founder. But this time Odo had an answer, one that worked for him, and that was all that mattered.

"Perhaps the fact that it's not easy is what makes it worthwhile."

Laas made one last attempt. "Odo, the Founders are dying. This could be your last chance to exist the way you were meant to. Don't throw it away."

As I was meant to... By whom? And why were Changelings able to change shape, if not so that they could live among other lifeforms? The Founders, and Laas, might be satisfied with the answers they found in the Link -- but that was not the be-all and end-all of their existence. And perhaps "being as they were meant to be" had made things too easy, preventing them from knowing the joys that could only be earned by struggling to overcome the odds.

Perhaps one day Laas would learn it for himself.

"You'd better go. They're looking for you." Odo paused. "Good luck."

He extended his hand, for one last link. After all, it would be a long time before Laas found any of the others.

Laas looked at the hand, but did not take it.

"And to you, Odo," he said. "You'll need it more than I."

He walked out of the cavern, leaving Odo alone.

(-|-)

"Watch over him. Help him find his way."

Kira Nerys prayed before her mandala. Odo had been gone for nearly twelve hours, and she missed him fiercely. No one seemed to understand quite why she was so depressed. They thought he was coming back. They didn't know that he was gone forever.

She didn't regret it. Any of it. Not loving him; not being together with him, even if it had turned out to be for less than a year. His lifelong search had been for home. If it wasn't here after all, then keeping him would have done nothing but make them both unhappy. How could she not have let him go?

Now, tears threatened to fill her eyes once more as she prayed to the Prophets. Even though Odo didn't believe in them. That wouldn't stop them from keeping an eye on him for her.

She opened her mouth to continue, but the doorchime interrupted. She sighed, and composed herself before calling out, "Yes," and turning toward the door.

It opened, and he walked in.

He faced her silently. For a long moment, she was unable to speak. Then finally she found her voice.

"I didn't think I'd see you again."

"I couldn't go," he said simply.

As if drawn by a magnet, Kira stepped toward him. He came forward, and they met in the middle. She saw something in his blue eyes that she had never seen there before. He had found his place to belong.

She spoke, softly. "If I ever made you feel that you couldn't be yourself with me, I'm sorry." She had always simply assumed that Odo stayed in his current form with her because he wanted to. She hadn't realized that he truly needed to know from her lips that she could accept the other shapes of him as well. She would no longer make that mistake. She would not lose him again.

"I want to know you. The way you really are."

Without speaking, Odo slowly held both his hands out to her. She raised hers, placing them against his outer shell of humanoid skin. It was warm, and felt much like solid flesh, except for the hint of something more under the surface, the sensation that something was moving underneath, ready to flow into something new at any moment.

He moved his hands upward, and she did the same, her palms still touching his, until they reached her chest level.

Then Odo began to shift.

He retained his humanoid shape at first, but it was no longer that of her Odo. And yet it was. This was what he had always been, his true self. She caught her breath as he began to shimmer and glow, pulsing against her hands. Then he abandoned all form, gradually spreading around her and above her until she was surrounded by a luminous curtain of amber and gold.

Her arms high above her head, she turned, trying to see all of him, captivated by the sheer alien beauty, the wonder of this being who loved her. Her lover. Odo. She wanted to laugh, to shout her joy to the universe. She wanted to embrace him, everything he was, in all of his forms. Instead, she closed her eyes, capturing the moment in her memory forever.

He had come home.

THE END


Acknowledgments:

I'd like to thank Gary Himes for supplying the quote at the beginning.

Also, for their kind words, encouragement and suggestions: Ina and Fliss.

This is very probably my last DS9 novelization, though I don't necessarily rule out perhaps going back and doing earlier episodes, someday.

Tracy L. Hemenover


 

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