Disclaimer: Paramount owns all characters and concepts of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. No infringement on their copyrights is intended. Please do not link this story without my permission.
by Tracy L. Hemenover
"And what, pray tell, is a carnival?"
Odo, chief of station security on Deep Space Nine, looked across the desk at Captain Benjamin Sisko, and managed, without any particular expression on his sort-of face, to look bored, annoyed, and puzzled all at the same time.
Sisko, for his part, was barely managing not to smile. This was the reaction he'd thought Odo would have.
"A carnival is a travelling collection of amusements. They originated on Earth. They include rides, games, refreshments, displays -- that sort of thing. It's a fun thing to take one's family to. Or a date," Sisko added, thinking of a carnival he and Jennifer had once attended before Jake was born. Jennifer had loved carnivals.
"I see." Odo's tone said plainly that he didn't see why Sisko had seen fit to call him up to the commander's office to tell him this.
Sisko leaned forward. "The thing is, Constable, that carnivals have always had a...somewhat shady reputation. That is why I thought I should alert you."
"When is this carnival due to arrive?"
"Tomorrow morning." Odo started to speak; Sisko held up a hand to forestall him. "I know, it's short notice, but the operator only contacted us ten minutes ago. Chief O'Brien and his people are clearing out a couple of adjacent cargo bays."
Odo gave a grunt which Sisko had learned to interpret as, All right, but you haven't heard the last of this. "Who is the operator?"
"Hlantil Avrom, a Bolian. I want you to run his name through your computer. And prepare your deputies to keep a lookout while the carnival is here. Dismissed."
Odo nodded, turned, and left the office. Sisko picked up the baseball that rested on the desk and turned it over in his hands. Kasidy was out on a haul for the Bajoran Ministry of Commerce; she was due to return soon, but he had no idea if she would be back in time.
Jake? He'd never had the chance to take his son to a carnival. But Jake was getting a little old to want to attend one with the old man. He would much more likely prefer to bring his own date.
Dax? Maybe not -- considering what had happened at the Gratitude Festival last year...
Sisko put down the baseball. He'd think about it later.
Odo sat in his own office, reviewing the file on Hlantil Avrom. There was nothing much. No arrests, no convictions, no warrants. He snorted, and called up information about carnivals. Odo believed in knowing what he was up against.
He had read for about five minutes when the door buzzer sounded. He looked up, and saw Major Kira Nerys through the glass. "Come in. Major," he acknowledged as she entered the office.
"Constable," she said, nodding. To Odo's practiced eye, she seemed...hesitant, for lack of a better description. She stood there for a moment, then gestured at the computer. "What are you reading there?"
"The file on carnivals."
"Oh. Sisko told you, then?"
"Yes. Is there something I can do for you, Major?"
Kira's hesitation increased. "Oh, uh...well -- it's just that -- well, I've never been to one of these carnival things. Dax tells me it's traditional to go with someone."
Odo waited, curious.
"What I'm asking is if you'd like to go with me."
Odo stared at her. He had no idea what to say.
"I mean, what with Shakaar being so busy..."
Oh. For a moment, Odo had entertained an insane hope, mingled with sheer terror. Now, for once, he was glad he had never mastered humanoid facial expressions.
He contemplated telling her he too was busy, but somehow he found himself saying instead, "I...would be honored, Major."
Kira smiled in relief. If she had noticed his slight pause, she probably put it down to surprise at the unusual request. "Great. I'll meet you there. It opens at oh-seven-hundred hours." At the doorway, she stopped and turned back to him. "And, Odo...thanks."
Odo sat staring after her for a good minute after she was out of sight. Then he shook his head, and forced his attention back to the computer.
Word had spread quickly through the station, and by the time the carnival opened, there was a fair-sized throng built up. The Bajorans on the station were there out of curiosity, as were most of the other races present. The humans, however, had looks of real enthusiasm and were chattering excitedly.
Kira stood at the front of the crowd, by the entrance. She craned her neck to look behind her, and saw Odo making his way toward her slowly, impeded by the numbers of people. Of course, he could have oozed between them if he wanted to, but Odo wasn't terribly fond of using his shapeshifting ability in public. Finally he arrived at her side.
"I was beginning to think you'd changed your mind," she said.
"I would have called you if I had, Major."
Kira smiled. "I was joking, Odo."
Just then, a portly Bolian man appeared at the entrance, beaming. "Welcome, ladies, gentlemen, and androgynous beings of all species! The Rhontor-Avrom Carnival of Merriment is now open! Please deposit two strips of latinum in the admission box, and enjoy the sights, sounds, and thrills!"
Kira took Odo's hand so they wouldn't get separated, and moved forward. They put in their latinum. Once they were far enough inside that the crowd around them had thinned somewhat, she released his hand. "So, where shall we go first?"
Odo looked up. For some reason, he appeared to have been contemplating his hand. "I will leave that up to you, Major. As long as I am able to keep an eye on the carnival."
"All right, but make sure you enjoy yourself too, Odo. You don't have enough fun, you know that? Come on, let's see what's over here." Kira dragged him off.
She had a marvelous time. Carnivals, she decided, were one of the better things to come from Earth. The closest thing Bajor had was the Gratitude Festival.
Seeing Jake at one point with a human girl on his arm, Kira was reminded of last year's Gratitude Festival. She was relieved that the teenaged boy seemed to have gotten over the crush he had had on her, when he (and almost everyone else) had been influenced by Lwaxana Troi's Zanthi fever.
Kira allowed herself a small, sad smile at the memory of Bareil lusting after Dax...and couldn't help but blush when she remembered her own subconscious taking over.
"Is anything wrong, Major?"
"No -- nothing, Odo. I'm fine." Kira couldn't even begin to explain it to Odo. He hadn't been affected by Lwaxana -- although it was the Betazoid's amorous feelings for him that had led to the confusion.
She put it out of her mind, and bought something that looked like a big colored ball of lint on a stick. After taking a bite, she decided she didn't like it. Way too sweet for her taste. She handed hers to a child, and went for a jumja stick instead. Odo, of course, had nothing.
She was amused at the look on his face when she gave him the tribble -- fortunately only a stuffed one -- she won at a laser-targeting booth. (The woman running that booth, a tattooed Zibalian, looked both astonished and annoyed when Kira hit the target on the first try.)
In various places, she spotted Dax with Morn -- which made Kira do a double take -- and Bashir with Leeta. O'Brien waved to them once as he walked by with his wife and daughter. She didn't see Worf, but then, she hadn't really expected to.
"Well, Constable. Major. Enjoying yourselves?" It was Sisko's voice. Kira turned and saw him with Kasidy Yates.
"Very much, Captain, thanks," she said. She smiled at Kasidy. "I see you made it back in time after all."
Kasidy smiled back. "Yes, the run was over sooner than I expected. I got in late last night. I was dead on my feet, but I couldn't miss a real Earth-type carnival."
Sisko was looking curiously at the tribble in Odo's hand. Odo folded his arms to hide it, seeming almost self-conscious.
"Dad." Jake was walking quickly toward them, Leanne at his side. "Constable, Major -- I'm glad I found you all together. There's something I think you all ought to see." He looked concerned, rather than enthused.
Glancing at each other, they followed him to a forcefield-enclosed space in a corner where several people had gathered to watch the thing inside.
It was a gaudy multicolored ball.
Kira was about to ask what was so urgent about going to see a ball -- not to mention why one should be on display inside a forcefield -- when she saw it shimmer.
The ball melted down into a clear, thick, honey-colored liquid. Then it reformed, into a small, cute, furry animal. A Terran rabbit, which sat on its haunches and wiggled its nose at the crowd. Some applauded and oohed and aahed; others glanced uneasily at Odo.
His face showed nothing. But in his eyes was a look of absolute shock, giving way to fury.
Hlantil Avrom was escorted into the holding area in Security by two Bajoran deputies. His broad features reflected outrage and bewilderment. Sisko, Odo, and Kira were waiting there, and watched as the deputies put him into a cell. Odo nodded at the deputies, dismissing them.
"What is this about? Are you the station commander? I demand to know why I have been arrested!"
"I am Captain Sisko," Sisko replied, calm as usual. "This is my second-in-command, Major Kira Nerys, and Security Chief Odo."
"And to what do I owe the honor?" Avrom inquired sarcastically.
Odo spoke. His gravelly voice was stern. He was plainly still very angry. "Are you aware, Mr. Avrom, that you have been displaying a sentient being in your carnival?"
Avrom stared at him. "What?"
"Holding a sentient being against their will, not to mention transporting and putting one on display, is against both Federation and Bajoran law," Sisko replied.
"I know that! I assure you, Captain, I have never done any such thing! Please tell me why I am being accused of this!" Avrom looked genuinely stunned.
"You have on display in your carnival a...shapeshifting life form," Odo said. Kira could tell he was having a hard time keeping control of himself.
"Where did you...acquire it?"
Avrom knit his brow. "I bought it from a trader. He said it was something he picked up in the Gamma Quadrant two years ago. Are you saying it's sentient?"
Sisko looked at Odo. "Constable, if you would?"
Odo glanced at him, and nodded shortly. He stood back, and released his humanoid form, melting down into a golden blob, then solidifying into a replica of one of the chairs at the interrogation table.
Avrom gaped as Odo resumed humanoid shape. His jaw moved up and down several times. "You...you mean, you're...another one?"
"That is correct," Odo said, his voice curt.
"I -- didn't know. How could I have known? It never gave any indication..."
Sisko held up a hand. "I myself tend to believe you, Mr. Avrom. But I'm afraid we will have to let the courts decide whether they agree or not. A starship will arrive tomorrow to take you to the nearest Starfleet base with a Judge Advocate's office. Being a Federation citizen, you will be tried as such. Your carnival will be disbanded and its equipment impounded until a decision is made. That will be all."
They turned and left Avrom in his cell, still protesting his innocence.
Sisko went to Ops; Kira stayed behind. "Odo? Are you all right?"
Odo sat down behind his desk, brooding.
He looked up at her. Finally, he said softly, "I'm fine, Major."
"You don't look fine."
Odo rose from his chair. "What do you want me to say?" He paced a few steps and back. "Do you want to know the first thing I thought when I saw one of my people on display in that carnival? I thought, That could have been me. I could have ended up behind that forcefield, being gawked at like some -- animal."
"But you didn't."
"Oh, but I did. I was." He saw her puzzled look, and sighed. "There was a time when I too was a curiosity. A freak. Odo'ital."
Belatedly, Odo remembered that the real Kira had not heard the story. Instead, he had told it to the leader of the Founders, whom he had believed at the time to be Kira. "Odo'ital...unknown sample. A Cardassian term. It was what was written on the label on the beaker I rested in at the lab. Literally translated, it means 'nothing'. That's how I got my name, Major."
Kira gazed at him in wonder. "Odo, I had no idea. Why didn't you ever change it?"
He shrugged. "One gets accustomed to a name. And over the years, it has become simply that -- a name." Odo folded his arms, shaking his head. "When I saw another Changeling being used in that manner, I realized how fortunate I have been, in a way. At least the people who found me were not out to make a bar of latinum. If Dr. Mora had not been a scientist, neither he nor anybody would likely have realized or cared that I was sentient."
Kira frowned. "You know, I hesitate to bring this up -- but what if this is some kind of trick by the Founders?"
Odo gave a snort. "Don't think I haven't considered that possibility. However, my instinct tells me that that is not the case. Remember, when I found my people, I learned that I was not the only one who was sent away. I was one of one hundred newly formed Changelings who were sent out to explore the galaxy."
"And you think this is one of the other ninety-nine?"
"That is my belief, yes."
"How can you be sure?"
"I can't," Odo admitted. "But just now Avrom said that he bought it from someone who said they found it in the Gamma Quadrant. I detected no prevarication on his part."
"You could be wrong," Kira said.
"I'm aware of that. However, there is no way to be certain either way at present." Odo walked around the end of his desk and headed for the door. "I will be with the...other Changeling."
The Changeling was still in the cargo bay, which was bereft now of the crowds. The booths and rides still stood; the forcefield around the Changeling was still in place. Dax and Bashir were there, scanning it warily.
Dax turned at the sound of footsteps behind them. Odo stood there, frowning. "Deactivate the forcefield," he said. "Then please leave us."
At first, Dax hesitated, but then she acquiesced. If anyone could deal with this Changeling, it would be Odo. She switched off the forcefield, and Odo stepped inside the enclosure. He turned and looked pointedly at Dax and Bashir, who both withdrew and left the cargo bay.
The other Changeling was in the form of a Corvan gilvos, an endangered species that resembled a twig. As Odo watched, it became a ball again, a smaller one this time.
Odo remembered when shapeshifting had been his only means of communication too.
He shifted, into another ball.
After a long moment, the other Changeling swiftly became a wide variety of objects and creatures in succession. Odo changed to match each one.
This was getting nowhere, he realized. He could play mimic until he collapsed into a puddle, and it still would accomplish nothing.
Then he remembered the Link. How the female leader of the Founders had touched him, her hand turning liquid, which had caused him instinctively to turn liquid as well. The Link could also be a weapon -- as the Changeling who had sabotaged the Defiant had proven. And it was the one sure way of exposing one of his people, as he had done once on Earth.
Now perhaps he could use his gift as it must have been meant to be used.
He reached out a limb and touched the other Changeling. Then he reverted to his true form, while still in contact.
As he had expected, the other went liquid as well.
Their molecules ran into each other and mingled, with their thoughts.
Odo did not perceive words, because the other had not yet learned to think in language. But he did feel its ecstasy and wonder at encountering another like itself. It was very much like what he had felt at first when he had found his people.
Yes, he thought to it. I am like you.
He "heard" the thought echoed back to him, with a sense of excitement as the other discovered that words had meaning.
Resume solid form. I will care for you.
He felt the other's comprehension and easy trust. Sending final reassurances, he withdrew himself and became humanoid again.
The other Changeling made a valiant effort to imitate him, but ended up with a torso and limbs way out of proportion. Odo could well sympathize. Humanoid form was not as easy as it looked; it had taken him years to learn, and he still didn't have it quite down.
He reached out and initiated the Link again, letting the other know it was all right. He indicated that the other should take some simpler form for now, like the ball.
It understood, and when he withdrew once more, became a ball.
Odo picked it up, held it in his hands, and walked out.
"What if it is a Founder?" Kira cast an apologetic look at Odo as she said it. They sat in the wardroom, with the rest of the senior station staff.
"It is not a Founder," Odo said evenly.
"Are you certain, Constable?" Sisko asked.
Across the table, Worf rumbled, "What way do you have of knowing that?"
Odo sighed a little, and explained. "When I first found my people, one of the things I learned was that when we merge in liquid form, we are able to share thoughts and memories. They call it the Link; the collective merging of a mass of Changelings is known as the Great Link." With practiced ease, he put aside the longing that talking about the Great Link produced, and the thought of regret that he himself would never share it.
Bashir was wide-eyed with interest. "Fascinating. Like a species-specific version of the Vulcan mind-meld."
"Doctor," Sisko admonished quietly in his bass voice, and Bashir shut up.
Odo continued. "I am convinced that this is one of the other Changelings who, like me, were sent away as explorers."
"But from your description, it sounds like a younger individual than you," Dax said.
"The leader of the Founders never implied that all of us left at the same time. This one was probably one of the last, launched only a few years ago at most. There is no way of telling, of course; it can't describe lengths of time."
Bashir spoke up. "Where is it now?"
"In my quarters."
The doctor glanced at Dax, as if for support. "Is that wise? Perhaps it should be in...more of a controlled environment."
Odo glared at him. "It is not a prisoner, Doctor."
"I wasn't suggesting that. I meant that perhaps either Dax or I could -- study it."
Odo stood up. His glare had intensified to a seething glower. "I have no intention of ever allowing another one of my people to be a laboratory specimen, or an object of curiosity. Not if I can prevent it. If you want biological data on Changelings, contact Dr. Mora on Bajor."
He left the room.
Kira rang the buzzer at the door to Odo's quarters. After a long pause, she heard his voice. "Enter."
She went inside, and saw him standing there amid the array of exotic objects that cluttered the room in uncompromising disharmony. The decor, she knew, was not calculated to please humanoid eyes but to provide a variety of things for Odo to practice imitating in his off hours.
"Major," he said, in his usual gruff, reserved tone.
"She is one of the objects in this room. It's -- a sort of game. I was in the process of determining which one she is."
"She?" Kira looked at him curiously.
Odo gave an affirmative grunt. He bent and examined a statue of a Baneriam hawk that sat at his feet. "And I believe I have found her." He touched the statue, and his hand became liquid.
The statue became liquid as well, and reformed into a female humanoid with hair much like Odo's, only it was dark. Kira blinked.
"Hello," the other Changeling said. Her voice was as rough as Odo's, but somewhat lighter. She looked at him. "That's Major Kira."
"Yes," Odo said. "But you should wait until you're introduced. Major Kira, this is Ara."
Kira realized she was gaping, and managed to close her mouth. "Uh...hello, Ara."
"Hello, Major Kira," Ara said. "Are there a lot of Bajorans like you on the station?"
"Yes -- there are mostly Bajorans living here." Kira smiled. "Ara. That's a nice name."
"I know. It's from a Bajoran story Odo read once. I liked it, so I decided that would be my name."
Kira shot a glance at Odo. "Oh. Good choice. I know that story too. Um...do you mind if I talk with Odo alone?"
"No." Ara picked up a PADD, as Odo followed Kira outside into the corridor.
"How did she learn so much so fast?" Kira asked.
Odo clasped his hands behind his back. "She absorbed her knowledge of language, among other things, from me, through the Link."
"Is that how she can do a humanoid form like you now?"
He nodded. "Things like the humanoid form, which it took me years to learn, she was able to assimilate within days. I suspect I was rather slow."
"No, Odo, you weren't slow. You just didn't have any other Changelings to learn from. She has one: you."
"I suppose. Is there something you wanted to see me about, Major?"
Kira sighed. This was going to be difficult. "Yes. Sisko sent me to talk to you. Starfleet is pressuring him about Ara again."
Odo made a low grumbling sound of exasperation. "Ara knows nothing about the Founders."
"Only what she's gotten from you, that is?"
His gaze broke from hers, and he sighed a little. "I haven't shared that knowledge with her yet," he admitted. "It seemed...premature. She knows that we are both Changelings, and I have told her what I know of our people's culture, but not quite everything."
Kira looked hard at him. "Odo...are you doing this because of what happened with that Jem'Hadar?"
He appeared puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, are you still trying to make amends for what the Founders have done? Odo -- you may be the same species as them, but that doesn't make you responsible for their actions. They created the Dominion long before you were born, or formed, or whatever."
There was a long silence. Finally, Odo said quietly, "Perhaps. But I do have a responsibility toward Ara."
Kira nodded. She thought she understood now. "You're her father, in a way, aren't you? You've adopted her." She smiled, as an idea came to her. "Prophets, I'm brilliant -- I'll tell Sisko you've adopted her, and he can tell that to Starfleet. They wouldn't want to break up a family, now would they?"
She didn't give him a chance to object if he was going to, but turned and strode off down the corridor.
The next day, Odo decided it was time Ara saw the rest of the station, and got used to seeing other people, as well as them seeing her. He was aware of the rumors circulating about her, and it seemed wise to let them be dispelled by familiarity.
Ara was delighted by the variety she saw. In a way, Odo was too: her presence allowed him to view this world of his from a different perspective.
She wasn't quite like a humanoid child, in that she lacked their rambunctiousness. She had a certain innocence, but it was tempered by maturity and responsibility, which, he suspected, was another influence of his through the Link. After she had accompanied him on his rounds through the station, he felt she could handle exploring on her own without getting into trouble.
She met him later by the observation window on the upper level of the Promenade, full of stories about what she had seen and done.
"A Ferengi male was talking to a human male, and he said the human was too soft on females, whatever that meant, and the human said actually the females were soft on him. I wasn't sure what that meant either, but -- "
Something occurred to Odo. "Were you in humanoid form when you heard this?"
"No. They were talking in Quark's; I was one of the table decorations."
"Ara, you shouldn't listen to other people's conversations."
She looked puzzled. "But you do it."
"I do it when I need to, as part of my job. I don't do it casually. Let me explain something to you, Ara. You and I have an advantage over people who can't change shape. But that doesn't give us the right to use it against them without cause."
"And that's what I did?"
Ara looked contrite. "I won't do it again," she promised.
There was a moment of silence between them, then Ara spoke again. "What was that human talking about when he said females were soft on him? It made both him and the Ferengi laugh."
"It was a joke referring to sexual relations," Odo told her.
"Oh. What are sexual relations?"
"It is how humanoids reproduce their species."
Ara contemplated that. "That's why they have male and female?"
"Yes. Of course, with us, it's a matter of preference which we choose to appear as. Most humanoids are born male or female, and they generally stay that way." Odo folded his arms. "May I ask you something, Ara? It's something I've been curious about."
She smiled. "Of course."
"Why did you choose a female humanoid form?"
"Why did you choose male?" Ara countered.
Odo thought for a moment. "I suppose because Dr. Mora is male. Do you remember when I showed you that holo of him, and you commented on how similar we looked?"
"Yes. Your hair."
Ara shrugged. "Well, I don't know why I chose female at first. But I think I'll keep this form. It looks almost like somebody who I want to be like."
"May I ask who?"
"Major Kira." She said it matter-of-factly.
Odo studied her. Yes, he realized, there were definite elements of Kira which had appeared since yesterday. Ara's hair, though flat against her head like his, now had red highlights, as Kira's did. And was that a hint of Bajoran ridges across the upper nose?
He felt a little uneasy, for reasons that had nothing to do with Ara. The leader of the Founders had also once imitated Kira, so flawlessly that even he, who knew Kira better than anyone else, had been fooled. The reminder was disquieting.
"Why Major Kira?" he asked.
"You love her, don't you?"
Odo was astounded. He turned away from her gaze, unsure how to respond.
"I know because of the Link...I -- I'm sorry. I try to respect your privacy, but some things leak through anyway, and I couldn't help it." After a long, silent moment, Ara shyly reached out and touched his hand. "You're not angry, are you?"
"No," he managed to say, at last. "Not at you. At myself."
"I should have realized I was letting you see things I didn't intend for you to see. But -- I am hardly an expert in the Link myself."
"I can change," Ara said. Distress rose in her voice. "Into anything you want. I just thought, because Major Kira -- "
He looked at her.
"Because you love her -- I thought, if I looked like her...but I'm no good at it -- "
Abruptly she turned and ran away.
Kira sat meditating in her quarters. Suddenly she felt, rather than heard, a movement behind her. She turned around and saw something oozing under the door. It collected into a pile and drew up into the form of Ara.
The Changeling looked at her for a long, long time. There was almost a wistful expression in her eyes.
Kira was about to touch her commbadge and call for Odo when Ara spoke at last.
"I wish I were you," she said.
She melted back into a formless blob, and slipped back out under the door.
A long search turned up nothing. Odo could have called out his deputies and had them combing every inch of the station, but Ara wasn't a criminal, and he didn't want to treat her like one. Besides, she might be frightened into escaping altogether.
Finally, he had no choice but to return to his quarters for his daily reversion to his natural form.
"Ara?" he ventured, after stepping inside.
There was no answer.
He sighed -- he'd been hoping she might have come back here, the place on the station she knew best -- and let go of solidity, with the usual sense of profound physical relief, although this time there was a feeling of failure and regret as well.
Then he sensed another presence joining him, intermingling in a way that had become familiar.
Forgive me, Ara thought to him. He felt her genuine contrition.
There is nothing to forgive, Odo replied.
Together they rested through the remainder of the night.
Ara withdrew first, and resumed humanoid form, sitting on the floor. After a moment, Odo too solidified, and sat looking at her.
"I need to talk," she said quietly. "In solid form, if you don't mind."
"Of course not."
She paused, gazing at the carpet. "Why are we here, and not with the rest of our people? Where are they, Odo?"
Surprised at the question, he didn't answer at first.
"I've wondered about that for a while now. Is there some reason you don't want to tell me?"
"Yes," he admitted.
He sighed. "Because I don't want you to be hurt."
"How can knowing where I came from hurt me?" she demanded.
As much as he wanted to deny it, the time had come. She deserved to know. "I spent a lot of years wondering who I was and where I came from," he said. "I had no one who could tell me. Then I finally found the answers, when I least expected them. But I also learned that sometimes the answers can hurt worse than the questions."
Ara frowned. "That doesn't make any sense."
"It will, when you know."
"So tell me!"
Odo hesitated, then said at last, "You've learned about the Dominion, haven't you?"
"The ones in the Gamma Quadrant who rule all those other planets?"
"Yes. Our people -- they're the Founders of the Dominion."
She stared at him. "No."
Ara rose to her feet and turned away, walking off a few paces. "No. It has to be a lie. Why are you lying?"
Odo got up too. "Have I ever lied to you, Ara?"
There was a long pause. "No," she whispered finally.
"I know this is hard for you. I remember how I felt when I first realized."
She turned to face him again. "Is that why you're not with them now?"
He nodded. "Once I knew the truth about them, I couldn't stay. I chose to come back here, to Deep Space Nine."
"And they just let you?"
"They have a belief: 'No Changeling has ever harmed another.' And they could not have kept me there without harming me. So they let me and the other officers go. Although they have tried, at times, to get me to return to them."
"But you didn't."
"No," he agreed.
Ara was silent for a moment. "How did we come to be apart from them in the first place?"
"The Changelings used to explore space openly, as peaceful wanderers," Odo explained. "But the races they met feared and hunted them, because of their shapeshifting abilities. Finally, they founded the Dominion, to control other races so no one could hurt them again. Or so the leader of the Founders told me. However, they were still curious about the galaxy. So they sent out one hundred of their children to explore for them. One went through the wormhole and ended up here, in the Alpha Quadrant. That one was me."
"And I'm another one?"
She turned away again. Even without the Link, he could sense how upset she was. "You're right. The answers do hurt worse than the questions. Why didn't you leave me in that carnival? At least I would have been happy, not knowing any better!"
"Would you? Surrounded by people staring at you, who didn't even know you were trying to talk to them? I've been in a similar position, Ara. How could I have let you go through what I did?"
"But...what can I do now? I can't go to them -- to the Founders. Because I believe in justice, like you. You've given me those beliefs. But I can't stay here either."
"Why can't you?" Odo asked.
Ara turned around and looked at him. "I know you love me, in a way. Like a parent loves a child, or an older sibling loves a younger one. But you'll never love me the way you love Major Kira." He started to speak; she stopped him. "It's not your fault. I saw her in the Link, and I also saw how you feel about her. She must be very special. She doesn't know, does she?"
"No," Odo admitted, softly. "She doesn't."
"Why don't you tell her?"
He was silent for a long time, then finally he answered, "Because I am a Changeling."
They were interrupted by a beep from his commbadge. "Security to Odo."
"We're all here and ready for the briefing, sir."
Odo gave a start. He had never been late for a security briefing since he had become chief. "Acknowledged, Ensign. I'll be there shortly."
Hours later, he was walking through the Promenade when a plant unexpectedly lost its shape and flowed into a new one: Ara.
"I've decided what I'm going to do," she said.
"Yes. I've been thinking about what you said about the other Changelings who were sent away. They still don't know who they are. I'm going to try and find them."
Odo stared at her. "You're serious?"
"Yes. I'm very serious."
"That's an enormous task, Ara. There's no way of knowing where any of them are."
Ara shrugged. "I know. But someone has to try. There's only you and me, and you have...other obligations. I'll slip aboard a ship for the Gamma Quadrant, and make my way around."
"What are you going to do if you find any?"
"I don't know. But at least if I get to them before they make it back to the Founders, maybe there'll be other Changelings besides us who believe in justice. And maybe that'll help things someday."
Odo had a feeling that trying to dissuade her would be a waste of time. "Let me show you the charts on the Gamma Quadrant, at least."
Ara smiled. "I already looked at them. I know where to go, and where not to. I'll be fine." She held out her hand.
Understanding, he grasped it, and their hands melted together like liquid gold.
And in that touch were all the goodbyes they needed.
Copyright 5/11/98 by Tracy L. Hemenover
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