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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.

Heart of Stone
(A-story only)
Novelization by Tracy Hemenover
From the episode written by Ira Steven Behr & Robert Hewitt Wolfe


First officer's log, stardate 48521.5:

Odo and I are returning to Deep Space Nine after reviewing security procedures at Prophets' Landing, the Bajoran colony closest to the Cardassian border.

At the helm of the Mekong, Major Kira Nerys finished her log entry and glanced over at her companion.

Odo had joined her in the cockpit only a few minutes ago, having just completed his daily regeneration period. In response to her greeting, he had merely grunted. Now he sat silently across from her, his arms folded, staring stonily at the front viewscreen.

Kira was no empath, but it didn't take a Betazoid to figure out that somebody had gotten up on the wrong side of the bucket.

"Those orbital sensor platforms should give the colonists plenty of advance warning in case the Cardassians ever decide to violate the new treaty."

She turned her head toward him as she made this startling announcement. He looked about as enthusiastic as a Vulcan at an Argelian mud-wrestling exhibition.

"Hopefully," he agreed neutrally, without looking at her.

"How did your meeting with Security Chief Bemar go?"

"Fine."

Kira smiled. "Was he properly impressed by the depth of your expertise?" Bemar, a strapping middle-aged Bajoran, had looked askance at Odo when they had first met, as if he couldn't believe he was supposed to waste his time consulting with a security chief from a mere space station. Odo hadn't seemed too thrilled by the occasion, either.

Or by her question, to judge by the brief, Odo-variety almost-laugh she got in response. A sound he usually reserved for Quark or other annoyances.

Kira had had it. "Odo, is something bothering you?"

He finally favored her with a glance. "What makes you say that?"

Translation: So, you finally noticed.

"Well, for one thing, you haven't said five words to me since we left Prophets' Landing."

He snorted.

"Look, if I've done something to offend you, I wish you'd tell me what it is."

Odo appeared to debate that. At last, he said, "It's not important."

Fine, if he wanted to be that way. "Whatever you say," she said.

"Certainly not worth making an issue about."

"Well, glad to hear it," Kira said through her teeth.

"It's just -- "

She looked at him.

"When Governor Avesta invited us to dinner at his house -- "

"Go on," she encouraged.

"You said no."

"And?" She couldn't believe that was it.

"You never bothered to ask me if I wanted to go."

Kira stared at him. She probably knew Odo better than almost anyone else did, yet there were still times when even she had a hard time figuring him out. "You wanted to go to the governor's house for dinner?"

"Not particularly," Odo said.

"Well, then, what's the problem?"

He looked affronted, or as affronted as was possible with that clay-mask face of his. "The problem is, you never asked me what I wanted."

"Odo, you don't eat! Besides, you hate socializing with people you don't know."

"Well, that's beside the point." He sighed, though she sensed him relenting just a bit. "I would have liked to have been consulted, that's all."

"You're right. Next time we are invited out for dinner, I will make sure you are the one to say no."

She meant it sarcastically, but in response he gave a dignified nod. "I'd appreciate that."

At that, Kira found herself chuckling, which earned a mildly reproving glance from him. Her irritation with him evaporated. She had seen Odo furious before, but she couldn't recall ever seeing him just plain miffed. Though she supposed he did have a point. Very well, from now on she would try not to take him for granted.

Odd, how easy it was sometimes to forget how alien he was. Odo might look more or less humanoid, but he was actually a Changeling -- a sentient liquid who could alter his molecular structure at will. He normally assumed a humanoid shape, because humanoids were incapable of relating to him in his true form.

Even in his humanoid form, though, he wasn't the easiest person to get to know. Kira was privileged to be one of the very few whom Odo called friend; and in return, she numbered him among the people she admired and respected most. No one she knew was more willing to put principle ahead of personal interest. He had even rejected his own people when he had learned that they were the Founders of the Dominion, despite the fact that he had been searching for them his entire life. She could only imagine the price he must have paid; he had never talked about it, beyond saying he had accepted the situation.

While others tended to be put off by his crusty personality and suspicious nature, she valued his perceptiveness, blunt honesty, and dry humor. In many ways, it was the purest relationship she had ever had. Between them there was complete trust (which had been severely tested by one painful incident, but had survived). She even felt easy knowing she could get angry with him without permanently harming their relationship, and he had just proven that he felt able to do the same in return. And he was one of the only male friends she had from whom she had never felt any pressure, spoken or otherwise, for their association to go beyond what it was.

A signal from her console interrupted her thoughts. "Hold on. I'm picking up a wide-band subspace transmission from a Lissepian supply ship. They've just been attacked by a Maquis interceptor."

Odo leaned forward to study the readouts. He was now all business, his peeve with her forgotten. "Long-range sensors are detecting a modified Peregrine-class courier ship, lightly armed, one-man crew, bearing two-six-eight mark three-oh-one."

"The Maquis use Peregrine-class courier ships."

The Maquis were an organization of Federation colonists who had turned renegade when a treaty had ceded the planets they had settled in the Demilitarized Zone to the Cardassians. As a Bajoran and a former freedom fighter herself, Kira could sympathize with their position; but she agreed for the most part with Starfleet that they were far more likely to start a hopeless war than they were to get their planets back.

In any case, they were outlaws, and one of them had just attacked a presumably innocent ship. The Lissepians were known to have been used as intermediaries by the Cardassians, but gone were the days when Kira would have let that fact blindly dictate her actions.

"The Lissepians didn't sustain any serious damage. I'm going after him."

"Right," Odo nodded. He was with her once more.

(-|-)

As the Mekong leaped off in pursuit of its prey, Odo felt a certain amount of pleasurable anticipation at the prospect of this mostly boring trip (although it had had its...nicer aspects) turning into a chance to do something useful.

There was something indescribably satisfying about the way he and Kira each instinctively complemented the other. She was the better pilot, but he was quicker at absorbing and interpreting data. Without the need to waste any words, he automatically took over the task of reading sensors and left her free to concentrate on flying and possibly fighting. They had changed in the blink of an eye from a bickering pair of friends to an efficient team of officers.

"I don't know what the Maquis have done to that ship's engines, but it's fast," Kira remarked, keeping the runabout on a steady course toward the blip on her screen.

"Not fast enough, we're closing on him."

"We'd better catch him soon," she warned. "We're entering the Badlands."

The Badlands were a stretch of space near the Cardassian border, where the Maquis were known to have several hideouts. It was infamous for its plasma fields, where many ships had been lost. The most recent was a Starfleet vessel which had disappeared chasing a Maquis ship that had vanished a week or two before; Odo recalled Kira mentioning the calls she and Commander Sisko had been fielding from various admirals and anxious relatives, DS9 being the last place the starship had visited before its ill-fated mission.

He hoped he and Kira weren't about to find out the hard way what had become of Voyager.

The sensors gave him some unwanted news. "Wait a minute, I've lost him. The Badlands' plasma fields are disrupting our sensors."

"Increase the sensor bandwidth. That should compensate for the interference."

"I hope you're right," Odo said as he complied.

"Well, he can't have gotten far. He's got to be somewhere in this solar system."

Odo caught sight of the blip again. "There he is," he said with satisfaction. "Looks like he's trying to land on one of the moons orbiting that gas giant."

"I'm following him in," Kira announced.

"There's something wrong with his ship," Odo said, watching his screen intently. "It looks like his attitude stabilizers have failed."

"Can you get a transporter lock on him?"

"Too much interference. He's trying to land on that moon." After a moment, Odo sighed and shook his head. "We've lost him."

"Did he make it?" Kira asked.

"I don't know. Something in the moon's atmosphere is jamming our sensors."

Kira's sigh mirrored his own. "Then I guess we'll have to land and see for ourselves."

(-|-)

Some people might have felt intimidated by the darkness and the press of rock all around. Odo, however, strode down the cavern passageway without thinking much about it. After all, there weren't a whole lot of things he couldn't handle physically. Behind him, Kira showed no fear either; she had been in tighter caves than this during her days in the Bajoran underground, which had at times been a literal term.

He had other reasons for not liking this moon. "Tricorders are useless," he muttered as he shone his handlight along the rocky wall. "The atmospheric ionization is jamming their transponders."

"You sure he's in these caverns?"

"Well, he wasn't in the wreckage of his ship, and given the weather conditions on the surface, there's no way anyone could survive out there for very long, so that leaves -- " Odo stopped midsentence, as the ground beneath them rumbled and shook violently. He and Kira managed, barely, to keep on their feet.

"That's the third quake since we got here," Kira said as it subsided. "This moon must be seismically unstable."

"The sooner we find our fugitive, the better off we'll be," Odo observed. Too bad their equipment wasn't cooperating.

Kira gestured at the two passageways leading off from the point where they had stopped. "Well, finding him isn't going to be easy. These caverns could go on forever. And with all this seismic activity, I don't want to stay here any longer than we have to. Let's say we split up. We'll meet back here in twenty minutes, and if we haven't found him by then, we may have to leave without him."

Odo gave a snort. "If he's smart, he'll let us find him. A Federation prison would be paradise compared to this place."

"Let's hope he's smart," Kira said grimly.

"See you in twenty minutes."

(-|-)

It seemed to Odo that he hadn't gone far at all down the passageway he had selected at random when Kira's voice issued forth from his commbadge, distorted by static.

"Kira to Odo. Odo, can you hear me?"

"This is Odo. I can barely hear you."

"Odo, I'm trapped. I need your help." He halted in his tracks. "Come quickly. Odo, do you read me?"

"Stay where you are, Major, I'm on my way."

Odo turned around and jogged back the way he had come. He reached the fork, and started unhesitatingly down Kira's passageway, hoping he wouldn't be too late.

He heard Kira's voice. "Odo, is that you?" The voice wasn't over his commbadge, but he couldn't see her.

"Right here, Major." He reached a dead end and turned around, momentarily confused.

"Odo! Am I glad to see you!"

Finally he caught sight of her. She was sitting on a rock, with her left foot propped up on top of another rock; her right foot was hidden from view. Her handlight and phaser were on the ground beside her, as if she had dropped them. One hand was on her hip, and one elbow rested on her other thigh, in a pose that looked rather casual. The expression on her face could best be described as exasperated.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"You're not going to believe this." She gestured downward. "My foot is stuck."

"Stuck? How?" He approached her.

"I don't know." Kira sounded disgusted by her own clumsiness. "I must have stepped in a fissure or something. I can't get it loose."

"Let me take a look." Odo stooped to examine her right foot. It seemed anchored in place by an odd-looking growth of what appeared to be a crystal. He reached down, almost automatically, to touch it.

Abruptly the crystal expanded, until it covered her ankle.

Odo withdrew his hand, and studied the crystal. "It's not a fissure."

"Then what is it?"

"Your foot's encased in some kind of crystal. From the look of things..." He looked up at her. "The crystal is spreading."

She looked at him as if she thought he was joking. But she knew better than that.

Odo straightened up. "You're sure you can't pull it loose?"

Kira also stood. "Oh, believe me, I've tried."

"Maybe if you slip your foot out of your boot," he suggested.

"I can barely feel my foot. The crystal is pressing against it so hard there's no way I can get my boot off."

Odo considered briefly. "Hold on a minute." He turned away, shining his handlight along the nearest wall, and found a good-sized loose rock. He returned to her and knelt at her feet. "This might hurt a bit."

"Go ahead."

He banged the rock against the crystal. Nothing happened. He tried again, harder, but with similar results to the first time, as well as the next. The fourth time, the rock broke in two and fell out of his hand.

Kira chuckled.

Odo rose, regarding her. "I fail to see the humor in this situation."

"Come on, Odo, it's pretty ridiculous, don't you think? The two of us being outsmarted by a -- chunk of crystal?"

"I'm not giving up just yet," he said.

Kira sobered abruptly. "Neither am I. Hand me my phaser." He bent down to get it for her, and watched with some trepidation as she adjusted its settings.

"Are you sure this is a good idea? If you're not careful -- "

" -- I may blow off my foot and give Julian the chance to prove what a wonderful doctor he is?" Kira grinned briefly up at him. "Don't worry, I have no intention of giving him the opportunity. Stand back."

Odo stepped backward to a prudent distance as she carefully aimed the phaser downward at the crystal, and fired.

Instantly it grew to the height of her knee.

After a long moment of silence, Kira said ruefully, "I guess that wasn't such a good idea after all."

Odo came forward and bent down to take another look. "The crystal formation seems to have somehow fed off the energy from your phaser." Oh, brilliant, he mocked himself. No wonder you're the chief of security. He straightened, just as a quake hit. Kira rocked forward, pulling herself upright as the shaking stopped.

Enough of this. Odo hit his commbadge. "Odo to Mekong. Two to beam out. Energize." There was no response. He glanced at Kira, and hit the badge again. "Odo to Mekong." Silence. Odo sighed. "I can't contact the runabout, there's too much interference. I'll have to walk back to the landing site and try to transport you from there."

He started off down the passageway, but then stopped and looked back at her. There was still a fugitive in the vicinity, a probably dangerous one. Kira had her phaser, but how well could she defend herself while she was unable to move freely?

Kira seemed to guess his thoughts. "You're worried about leaving me here?"

"Now that you mention it," he admitted, "yes."

"I'll be fine, Odo." She smiled. "I promise not to go anywhere."

Odo eyed her. He had heard of humanoids' mental stability cracking under stress, but he'd have thought it would take somewhat longer than this. No, he decided, Kira must be using humor as a way to protect her mind against the situation. He'd heard of that, too. And if it helped her, far be it from him to rob her of it.

He nodded gravely, and hurried off.

(-|-)

The Mekong still sat where they had left it, of course. Odo entered, sat at the ops position, and quickly tapped a set of numbers into the computer. "Computer, lock onto these coordinates and initiate transporter sequence."

The computer twittered at him. "Unable to comply."

"Explain."

"The high level of atmospheric ionization is inhibiting transporter lock."

"Can you compensate for the interference by using pattern enhancers?"

"Negative. Pattern enhancers will not function in a polarized ionization field."

Odo rolled his eyes. "Is there any way to achieve a transporter lock in this kind of ionization field?"

"Negative."

So much for the transporter, he thought grimly. There was only one other alternative he could think of. "Computer, send out a priority one distress signal to Deep Space Nine."

"Unable to comply," the idiot machine told him. "Communications systems are inoperable due to atmospheric interference."

Odo could almost have said the words along with the bloody thing. He curbed his frustration with an effort, and growled, "In that case, launch a communications probe and instruct it to begin a continuous broadcast of our whereabouts as soon as it clears the atmosphere."

Beep. "Working." There was a slight boom, and the little ship rocked.

Finally, something had gone right on this deity-forsaken moon. "Computer, given ideal conditions, how soon can we expect help from Deep Space Nine?"

"Deep Space Nine should receive the probe's signal in approximately two days."

Odo bowed his head in weary aggravation, then leaned back in his chair with a deep sigh. Two days. He might have known. It seemed that if there was to be a solution to this problem, he was going to have to provide it himself. Somehow.

There was nothing to do but start back. He wasn't looking forward to breaking the news to Kira.

Halfway down the passageway leading back to her, he heard the sound of three phaser blasts. He froze for a split second, then ran onwards, dreading what he might find.

Kira stood there, as before, the crystal now encasing her midway up her right thigh, and starting up her left leg as far as the knee. Other than that, she seemed perfectly all right.

"Kira! I heard phaser fire."

She turned to him. "You just missed our friend," she said, sounding breathless. "He came out of that tunnel." She indicated a passage in front of her. "I think he was as surprised as I was. He fired at me from over there, and when I shot back, he ran off down the tunnel."

Odo looked at the wall behind her. There were two phaser burns on the rock. He shone his light on them, noting that the fugitive apparently had a Bajoran phaser similar to Kira's.

"Don't worry," she said, watching him. "His aim wasn't any better than mine was."

"He didn't miss by much."

"My lucky day," Kira said, with no small irony.

(-|-)

Slowly, the crystal grew up to Kira's waist. She stood now with her arms held out, to leave them free as long as possible.

Odo had been torn between searching for the fugitive on his own and staying to guard Kira. She had finally convinced him, however, that it was impractical and foolish to go running around these unknown caverns without the guidance of even a tricorder -- the hazards might not mean much to him, since he could use his shapeshifting ability to get out of almost any situation, but there was the risk of getting lost, and meanwhile the fugitive might find Kira again and shoot straighter this time.

Feeling helpless and useless, he examined the crystal, for lack of anything better to do. If only he had something besides his own senses to tell him what it was, precisely. Was it organic, perhaps? A life form that fed by waiting for some unlucky creature to step on it, then growing up over its victim and slowly digesting it?

To all appearances, and according to her, Kira was not in pain, or even particularly uncomfortable. Maybe digestion only began when the prey was completely enveloped?

He firmly rejected that morbid line of thought. They were not going to be here long enough to find out.

Then he almost snorted aloud at himself. If determination were all the situation called for, Kira would be free already.

"I wish I could analyze this material," he mused, half to himself.

"Too bad our tricorders don't work," Kira said, unknowingly echoing his own thoughts.

"Or our communicators, or the transporter," Odo agreed, letting out the snort he had held back. "Our fugitive couldn't have chosen a better place to hide. Very convenient, don't you think?"

"You make it sound like he planned on trapping us."

Odo stood up. "Well, maybe he did. But it's not going to work. I'm going to get you out of here."

Kira looked down at the cave floor. Her earlier good humor was starting to crack around the edges. "How long do you think I have, Odo?"

"Long enough," he said, with more confidence than he felt.

She obviously wasn't fooled. "I figure, at the rate the crystal's been growing, I'm going to be completely covered in less than twelve hours." Her voice trembled. He realized she was fighting tears.

Another tremor chose that moment to hit. Kira threw her arms over her head as a few rocks thudded down the walls. The tremor stopped, and he saw moisture in her eyes when she looked up at the ceiling.

"Unless this cave collapses first."

"There has got to be a way to shatter this crystal!" Odo raised his voice, without thinking.

"I'm sure there is, but that doesn't mean we're going to find it in less than twelve hours!" she snapped back.

"We'll find it!" Odo walked off a few paces and sat down, getting a handle on his temper. It wasn't her fault she was stuck, after all. It was the situation that had him on edge. Kira was plainly angry, too, and unleashing that anger at the only available target: him.

And who was to say she was wrong? A fat lot of good he had done her so far, hadn't he?

Dax or O'Brien would have had Kira out in no time, with some contrivance or other. But Dax and O'Brien were on DS9, two days away, and he, Odo, was all Kira had. Unfortunately, this was not his field. His field was catching criminals. But this was not a problem he could solve by arresting it.

Criminals...crime...crime reports...

"Major."

She glanced irritably at him.

"Do you ever look at the criminal activity reports we get from Starfleet Security?"

Kira looked at him quizzically, taken aback by the change of subject. "Not often," she admitted.

"You should. They make fascinating reading." Odo rose and walked slowly toward her as he spoke. "A few months ago, we got a report on a theft on Remmil Six. It seems the natives there spin a kind of crystalline webbing that they use to construct their buildings. A band of Nausicaan raiders broke into their Central Museum by using a high-frequency ultrasonic generator to create a sympathetic vibration inside the webbing and shatter it."

"So, all we need to do is find a band of Nausicaan raiders and ask them to give us a hand?"

"No. I might be able to put together a makeshift generator using the co-variant oscillator on the runabout. The trick will be finding the right frequency to create a sympathetic vibration inside this crystal." Odo was thinking aloud and quickly. This was the only idea he had come up with so far that had a chance of working. "I'm going to have to go back to the runabout and start assembling the generator. Keep your phaser handy, in case our friend decides to come back."

Kira gazed at him. Her eyes were drying. He was enormously gratified to see hope in them once more. "I will," she promised.

"I'll be back as soon as I can." Odo started off briskly.

"Constable."

He looked back at her.

"When we get back to the station, I'm going to start reading those criminal activity reports."

He nodded, pleased. "I'll make sure you get them."

Then he turned and left her there.

(-|-)

A couple of hours later, the generator was assembled and nearly ready to go. Odo set it up near Kira, and sat on a convenient rock -- something this place had plenty of -- while he made a few final adjustments.

He was rather proud of his handiwork, considering that he was no engineer. O'Brien would probably have fallen down laughing at the thing. But then, all it had to do was find a correct frequency, and vibrate at that frequency.

Hopefully, that would be soon. The crystal was now up to Kira's chest. Her arms were still free, but she now had to hold them up at a rather awkward angle.

"How long do you think it's going to be before the generator finds the right frequency?" she asked. Her throat sounded parched. Odo regretted that he hadn't been able to get her any water; the replicator on the Mekong was as affected as everything else was, and he couldn't take the time to look through the caverns for a subterranean pond or stream.

"It's hard to say," he replied to her question. "It could take hours."

"I don't suppose there's any way to speed things up."

Odo paused, looking at her.

She smiled wryly. "I didn't think so."

"Don't worry, Major," he said. "I have every intention of getting us back to the station by tomorrow night." He reached for the side of the generator to activate his creation. As an afterthought, he added, "Chief O'Brien is counting on it."

Just as he'd hoped, Kira's curiosity was aroused. "What does O'Brien have to do with it?"

Odo glanced up briefly, then down again as he checked the generator. "We...have an appointment," he said, doing his best to act as if he did not wish to continue the topic.

"What kind of appointment?"

To foster the illusion, he didn't answer at first, but rose, picked up the two pattern enhancers he had brought from the runabout, and walked with them to her left side.

"Talk to me, Odo. Helps pass the time."

Odo paused, and sighed. "The Chief and I are supposed to go kayaking together in a holosuite," he said, with just the right amount of reluctance, as he set down one of the pattern enhancers.

Kira smiled incredulously. "You're kidding. How did he talk you into that one?"

Good. He had managed at least to distract her for the moment from her plight.

"He didn't 'talk me into' anything," he said. "It's really quite enjoyable."

Her eyes widened. "You mean you've done it before?"

"Twice." Odo crossed behind her to place the other enhancer at her right side. "He invited me one evening, and seeing I had no plans, I accepted."

It hadn't begun quite as easily as he'd implied. He had been surprised and suspicious when O'Brien had made the offer. It was very rare that Odo was casually invited anywhere; he was not a "social animal". However, O'Brien had seemed sincere, telling him he wanted to try two-man kayaking and needed a partner.

Odo's next thought was that Bashir must be busy and O'Brien was desperate. But O'Brien had just looked at him and said, "No."

Finally it had dawned on Odo that O'Brien was trying to get to know him better. It had all started with the loan of an Earth detective novel, which Odo had caught the Chief reading and expressed curiosity about; and it had continued when Odo had defended O'Brien on Cardassia Prime against a false charge of running weapons to the Maquis. His attempts to make it more of a fair trial had failed, but he had managed to drag it out long enough for Sisko and the others to uncover the truth.

It had only been the just thing to do. But humans, Odo had found, had a need to demonstrate gratitude.

He had discovered, much to his surprise, that he really did enjoy kayaking. It wasn't quite the same as becoming a bird and flying, but it did have its own measure of excitement.

Besides, he reasoned, since he was going to be among humanoids all his life, he might as well cultivate relationships with them, and participating in some of their activities was as good a way to start as any.

Kira was still trying to acquaint herself with the idea. She laughed. "I'm sorry...I'm just having trouble picturing the two of you together in a boat."

"Well, if it helps any, he's the one who does all the singing," Odo told her, with a completely straight face. He didn't have to work very hard to achieve it.

"He sings?"

"He says it's necessary to establish a smooth paddling rhythm," he explained matter-of-factly.

Kira laughed again, delighted. "This gets better and better! What kind of songs does he sing?"

"Ancient human sea chanteys, for the most part. He's particularly fond of one called, 'Louie, Louie'."

"I never pictured O'Brien as the nautical type."

Odo walked back over to the generator. "Next to his work and his family, shooting the rapids is his favorite activity." He sat back down and picked up a phase adjuster, to make some last calibrations. "He's had the holoprogram since he was on the Enterprise."

"How long do these boat trips usually take?"

"That depends."

"On what?"

"On how many times we capsize."

"Must be a very difficult program."

He looked up at her, and rose again, his work complete for now; he went back over to her. "It's very difficult. According to him, he's dislocated his shoulder half a dozen times trying to make it down those rapids."

"Then why does he keep doing it?" she wondered.

"Because he loves it," Odo said. "And it's been my observation that you humanoids have a hard time giving up the things you love. No matter how much they might hurt you." And perhaps it wasn't only humanoids who had difficulty with that...

"I'm glad you're here, Odo."

He gazed at her, touched by that simple declaration. She was remarkably brave in her predicament, he thought. But would he have expected any less from her?

"I'm glad I'm here too," he replied softly.

A quake hit, with such suddenness that Odo nearly lost his balance. Rocks began to fall from the ceiling, some missing them by bare inches.

"Odo!!!" Kira screamed, and ducked her head, covering it with her arms in a futile attempt to protect herself.

Quickly, Odo shifted his shape. He stretched himself above her, becoming a huge dome. As the quake continued, he felt rocks bounce off him, rocks that could easily have crushed Kira's skull had he not acted to shield her.

Slowly, Kira put her arms down, gazing up at him in what looked like awe.

The quake finally subsided, and Odo resumed his humanoid form. "Major?"

She recovered her voice. "I'm all right. What about the generator?"

Odo went quickly over to it. Miraculously, it appeared untouched. "It's fine. It still hasn't found the right frequency to shatter the crystal."

"Tell it to hurry. A couple more tremors like that last one and this whole cave is going to collapse."

He didn't want to point out that there was no way to rush things. "We'll just have to make sure that doesn't happen," he said instead -- an inane remark; how was he going to do that? "After all, we've been in worse situations than this one, and come out all right."

"Name three," Kira challenged.

Odo stared at her.

She smiled slightly. "I can't think of any, either."

"No -- it's not that...it's just that -- that wasn't the response I expected."

"What do you mean?"

He straightened, and walked toward her as he spoke. "In the detective novels Chief O'Brien gives me to read, when the hero says, 'We've been in tougher situations than this one', his friends always agree."

"I never read any of those books."

Odo sensed that she was beginning to lose hope again. He sighed in frustration. "There must be some...humanoid platitude I could use to cheer you up."

"I don't have much use for platitudes, Odo," Kira said quietly. "I'd rather face the truth of a situation and go on from there."

He nodded. "I feel the same way."

"I know you do. That's why you and I get along so well."

"I suppose it is."

It was a precise summation of their friendship. From her point of view, at least.

Before he could wander into a subject he did not want to, could not, broach, he added, with all the bravado he could muster, "But in this case, the truth is we're going to get you out of here, Major. And that's no platitude."

He couldn't tell if she was fooled or not.

If not, he didn't want to know.

He wondered if he was fooled, either.

(-|-)

Two more hours passed. The crystal crept up to Kira's neck. It enveloped her arms at last; only her head, her left hand, and the fingers of her right hand were still visible.

"I don't understand it!" Odo was at the end of his patience. He had taken three rods out of the generator in an attempt to see if they were malfunctioning, but they seemed fine. He held them in his hand as he paced restlessly, angrily around the generator. "I've run through the entire harmonic spectrum and none of the frequencies have had any effect on the crystal!" He set the rods down. "It's almost as if the structure is mutating to keep us from finding the right frequency!"

"Odo..."

Kira's voice was a harsh croak. Probably the crystal was pressing on her rib cage, making it hard for her to breathe.

He was beside her instantly. He permitted himself to take her free hand in his. Her fingers were cold.

"Yes, Major?"

Her mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out.

"I wish there was something else I could do..."

"Just...keep talking to me," she whispered.

Another, minor tremor passed. "What do you want me to say?" he asked as it subsided.

"Anything. Tell me a story."

"A story..." Odo fished frantically in his mind for a story, but drew an utter blank. Who could think of stories at a time like this?

"I know...tell me how you got your name."

"My name?" He was momentarily puzzled at the choice of subject matter. But it was better than nothing, he decided. "Ah -- now that you mention it, that is an amusing story..."

"Tell it to me."

"Well..." He thought back as best he could, marshaling his memories. "As you know, when Dr. Mora first brought me to his laboratory, it was under Cardassian supervision. All specimens had to be clearly labeled in Cardassian, so the overseers would always know what the scientists were working on. Since no one was exactly sure what I was, Mora labeled me 'unknown sample', which the overseer translated into Cardassian as -- odo'ital."

"So your name is Unknown Sample?" Kira laughed. It came out as a horribly dry cackle.

"No. No...odo'ital literally means the word -- 'nothing'." Odo made himself shrug, as if it mattered to him not at all. "Even after it became clear that I was sentient, the Bajoran scientists kept calling me that. As a joke, they split it into two words, like a Bajoran name: Odo Ital. Which eventually got shortened."

"To Odo?"

He made an affirmative noise, as another tremor struck. Kira looked on the verge of tears.

"But, the thing is -- for the longest time, whenever anyone would use my name, the first thing I would think of was what it meant: nothing." He had no idea why he was saying this, but having started, he couldn't stop. If he did, she would ask why. "What better way to describe me? I had no family, no friends, no place where I belonged. I thought it was the most appropriate name anyone could give me. And then, I met you."

She looked at him oddly as he paused.

Suddenly Odo realized how dangerously close he had veered.

"And the others," he added quickly. "Sisko, Dax -- even Quark. Now, whenever I hear one of you call me Odo, I no longer think of myself as nothing. I think of myself -- as me."

Kira slowly laid her head down. She must be mentally and physically exhausted. He felt her wet cheek rest against his hand, the one that held hers.

He wanted to take his hand away. He wanted to leave it there forever. "I'm sorry, Major," he said at last. "I guess that story wasn't as amusing as I hoped it would be."

"No, I liked it very much," she whispered. There was a long pause. "The ultrasonic generator isn't going to work, is it?"

Odo could no longer find it in himself to summon up false cheer or bravado for either of their sakes. If he tried, it would be a lie. He had never lied to her. Directly, anyway, he thought, with a flash of pain. "No," he admitted at last. "I'm afraid it's not."

Kira lifted her head. A tear slid down the side of her nose. He repressed the urge to wipe it away with his hand. "I don't suppose...you have any more ideas."

"I wish I had," he said simply, hating himself. He wished he hadn't failed her.

He wished so many things.

Odo'ital, indeed. That was what he came down to in the end. That was all that his efforts had been worth. Nothing.

"Neither do I," Kira said. If she blamed him, he couldn't see it in her eyes. Part of him wished he could; another part was passionately grateful that he couldn't.

"It doesn't make sense," he muttered, his mind turning over the events since she had become stuck, trying to pinpoint what he had done wrong, and coming up empty-handed. He couldn't accept that this was how a friendship ended, with a slow death by crystal on some rotten, nameless moon. "The ultrasonic generator should have worked. Something's not right here..."

"Odo." Her voice was so low he could hardly hear it. "You've done your best. It's time for you to go."

He looked at her, startled. He couldn't quite believe he had perceived her words accurately, though he knew he had. "Go?" he echoed, stupidly.

"This place is going to collapse any minute. The Maquis is probably dead from one of the cave-ins. There's nothing more you can do for me."

"If you're asking me to leave -- " he began.

She interrupted. She seemed to have gained strength from the anticipation of an argument. "As your superior officer, I'm telling you to take the runabout and get the hell off this moon. That's an order."

It was the practical decision, the right decision. But he couldn't have obeyed her order even if he were going to die in the next moment. He watched her, as rooted to the ground as she was, as she drew a long, shuddering breath.

Finally, she recovered enough to glare impotently at him. "Odo, why are you still standing there? I told you to get out of here!"

"I'm not leaving," he told her.

"Constable," she rasped, "I gave you a direct order!"

"You can order me all you want," he declared stubbornly. "As of now, I'm resigning my commission."

Her expression changed, from authoritarian to pleading. She was no longer pulling rank. She was frightened for him. "Odo, if you stay here, you'll die!"

"You don't know that for certain," he contended, pacing agitatedly a few steps away, then turning back. "And even if it were true, I'm not going to abandon you!" As if in ominous counterpoint to his words, the cavern rumbled and shuddered.

"I want you to get out of here," Kira repeated.

"Don't you understand? I can't!" he shouted at her.

"You have to! Odo, please!"

Another tremor followed hard on the last one. Odo leaned on a boulder for support, against more than the upheaval of the moon beneath him. He stared at her desperately, willing her to comprehend his reasons, without his having to tell her...

"No," he insisted, still obstinate. "I won't leave you."

"Why???" she all but screamed at him.

"Because -- "

He was going to have to say the words, the ones he had sworn to himself he must never say. She was going to die, and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. If this was not a time for total honesty, what was?

She should not die without knowing the truth. The full truth.

"Because..." He stopped, forced himself at last to complete the sentence. "...I'm in love with you."

Hearing his voice, his own voice, hoarsely declaring his darkest secret aloud, was too much. He sank slowly to the ground. It had been every bit as difficult as he had imagined.

"So...now you know."

He did not dare look at her. He didn't want to see her reaction. What was her face reflecting? Shock? Revulsion?

After an eternity, he finally heard her voice, as if from a great distance.

"Odo...I'm in love with you, too."

(-|-)

How long had he loved her?

He had no idea. Certainly it hadn't been from the beginning, six years ago in the darkness of Terok Nor. Then, they had been on opposite sides: he the station's new security chief, she a rebel spy suspected of murder, a murder he was investigating. He had done his job, decided she was innocent, let her go, and that was that.

But by the time he had discovered the truth -- just over one year ago now -- they had become close friends. That truth had hurt their relationship, but in time he had come to trust her again, although he had many times asked himself why. Was it merely that she was no longer that person who had killed and lied -- or had his own feelings played a part he could not admit even to himself?

Those feelings had confused and disturbed him ever since that day when, to his amazement, he had realized what they were, and what they meant.

He was the outsider. The neutral observer. He wasn't supposed to fall in love. He had no right to feel this way for her. No right. She was a humanoid, and he was almost as far from humanoid as it was possible to get and still be a sentient being.

And she was his friend. He treasured that friendship -- the oldest and perhaps only real one he had. Why risk it by letting her know that for him it had gone far beyond that, and could never go back?

So he had kept silent, and tried to forget. Until now. Now, the words were out at last.

He had never thought how he might react if she said that she loved him too. The possibility had never crossed his mind. Now that she had, he was at a total loss for words, caught between joy at her declaration, sadness that it had come in such a situation as this, and a growing, nagging suspicion...

He cursed that suspicion. He had been among Ferengis and other criminals too long. Why couldn't he accept it? Did he have to question everything? Even this?

"Odo."

"Yes, Major?"

"You haven't said a word to me in over an hour."

Odo looked up from where he had crouched, examining the phaser burns on the rock behind her. The crystal had enveloped Kira up to her chin. Her head was now the only part of her that remained uncovered. Now, when she spoke, her words were slow, her voice ragged.

"I've just been going over a few things in my mind." Reverting to his role as investigator had always helped him to cope whenever he felt lost, out of control. Pragmatism focused him, let him spread a layer of calm over his turbulent emotions. He was even able to rise to his feet and walk past her, toward one of the passageways across from her.

Kira watched him. "I'm sorry I waited so long to tell you how I feel about you."

He stopped, looked at her, but said nothing.

"If I'd told you earlier, maybe things would have been different."

Very slowly, Odo nodded. "Ah." He let the corners of his mouth turn up, just a little.

"What are you smiling at?" she demanded.

"I think I've finally figured out what's going on here. This whole situation hasn't seemed right since the beginning. There have been too many coincidences...too many unanswered questions."

"Are you still trying to prove that this is all some kind of conspiracy?"

He didn't answer. Instead, he fired a question of his own. "You said the Maquis was standing here when he shot at you?"

"That's right."

"How tall was he? My height?"

She knit her brow, seeming mystified by his behavior. "No. Maybe shorter."

He bent down a little. "Like this?"

"More or less. What does it matter, anyway?"

"It matters," he said. "Because from this position, you're blocking those phaser hits. There's no way someone standing here could hit those rocks without hitting you first."

"Maybe he was standing somewhere else."

"Maybe." He came back toward her. "Or maybe you were lying to me. Which makes two times you've lied to me today."

She looked at him as if he had lost his mind. "What are you talking about?"

"You lied when you said you were shot at by the Maquis. And you lied -- when you said you loved me."

"I do love you," she protested.

Odo shook his head, sadly. "I wish you did, but you don't. Remember, Major, I pride myself on my ability to observe humanoid nature. And I've watched you for the past three years. In all that time, I never saw any indication that you had those kind of feelings for me. You like me...you think of me as a close friend...but love? I'm afraid not."

He was half hoping she would deny it. That she would convince him she was telling the truth after all.

She did not, however, deny it.

"Maybe I told you I loved you because I thought it would make you feel better. Because I thought that's what you wanted to hear."

"You're lying again," he told her, with a growing confidence that made him ache inwardly. He had so wanted to be wrong. "The Kira I know has far too much regard for our friendship to lie to me, even for the best of reasons." As he spoke, he found himself picking up her phaser, without consciously knowing yet what he planned to do with it.

"Odo -- I can explain -- "

"Good," he said coldly. Slowly, he brought the phaser up and aimed it straight at her. "Then you can start by telling me who you are, and what you've done with Kira."

"Kira" smiled at him. It was not a pleasant sight.

She shimmered, and became a column of shining amber gelatin which shifted, finally resolving itself into a woman sitting on a boulder.

It was a Founder -- a Changeling, one of his people. The one who had greeted him when he had found his homeworld, who had answered his questions and given him a sample of the total communion of physicality, thought, and feeling that his people called the Great Link.

As before, she took a humanoid form which, except for appearing female, mirrored his own, with the same simplified, sculpted features. Then, it had been a gesture of welcome. Now, it struck him as condescension.

"Well done, Odo," she congratulated him, in a tone that sounded lightly mocking. "You really are quite a skillful investigator."

He slowly lowered the phaser. "And you're quite a skillful Changeling," was the only thing he could think of to say in reply.

It was a woeful understatement. She had impersonated Kira so brilliantly, down to the smallest detail of appearance, voice, mannerisms, and personality, that even he, who had known Kira for years, would probably never have figured it out if not for those two tiny slips of hers. How had she been able to pull it off so well? Had the brief time she had been acquainted with Kira on the Founders' planet been enough, or had she actually been on the station, secretly studying him, Kira, and their relationship?

"You still have much to learn," she said, rising and walking toward him. She stopped about a foot away.

Odo didn't doubt that. Having been separated from his fellow Changelings since infancy, he had had to teach himself how to use his shapeshifting ability. Some forms he could do excellently, others not so well. That was part of why he had settled on such a generic-looking humanoid form for himself.

Yet, whose fault was that? Had he had a say in the matter when they had sent him away?

He didn't bother pointing that out. Instead, he said, "If you want to share your wisdom, tell me where Major Kira is."

"Close by."

He gazed at her, more realizations crowding in. "You were the fugitive we were chasing, weren't you?"

"That's correct."

"How did you get your hands on a Maquis ship?"

"Now, Odo," she said coyly. "You really can't expect me to give you all the answers." There was that hint of mockery again.

He ignored it. "But, why lead us here? Why replace Major Kira?"

A brief quake struck, delaying her answer for a moment. "I needed to understand why you chose to live with the solids, rather than your own people. I suspected it had something to do with Major Kira." She gazed at him. "Now, I'm certain of it."

An extra twist of the knife. The chagrin he felt at having been so completely fooled was nothing compared to the knowledge that he had unwittingly given away a piece of himself to an enemy.

Yes, she was his enemy, even though neither she nor any other Changeling he had encountered had ever yet indicated that they wished him ill. He may be of their race, but he would be even more of a fool if he believed that they would not store this information away to use against him, and possibly Kira too, in the future.

But what was done was done, he told himself. He had to concentrate on the here and now.

"So your plan was to let me think she died. You thought that would take away my link to the solids?"

She confirmed it with a nod. "Then you would return to us."

"I assure you, nothing will ever make me do that," he said.

"I wouldn't be so sure," she retorted coolly.

Her arrogant assumption strengthened his resolve, if nothing else. He would never go back to them, even though that meant he would never truly belong anywhere as long as he lived.

But the saddest aspect of it was that they didn't understand why this was his choice, and they never would. Kira was only part of it. The many, formative years he had spent away from their influence -- because of a decision they, not he, had made -- had left him too different to ever be one of them.

Despite what he wished.

Now, though, the important thing was Kira. "Tell me where she is."

The Founder regarded him sardonically. "And if I don't? Then what? You'll shoot me? No Changeling has ever harmed another."

Odo raised the phaser.

"There's always a first time," he said evenly.

She eyed the phaser, and he had the tiny satisfaction of seeing that smug self-confidence lapse, just a little. Would she call his bluff?

Was it a bluff?

"Major Kira is down that tunnel, two hundred meters south of here," she said at last. "Save her, if it suits you. But it won't make any difference." She looked at him with some unidentifiable emotion behind her smoothed-out features. "She is never going to love you. How could she? You are a Changeling."

She enunciated her last sentence as if it were a utterance of doom.

Odo looked at her, and knew, in what, had he been humanoid, he would have called his heart, that she was right.

He lowered the phaser, as she stepped back and dissolved into a haze of light. Apparently the Dominion's technology did work here. Somehow that did not come as a shock.

Another prolonged tremor was in progress when he found the stasis chamber. He looked into its small window and saw Kira -- the real Kira -- in it, asleep or unconscious. Quickly he opened the chamber, throwing aside the top panels. To his intense relief, he saw her stir as the seal was broken.

"Major?"

Kira blinked. She seemed dazed and confused, but unharmed, as far as a hasty head-to-foot assessment could tell him. "Odo?" she mumbled. "What happened? What am I doing here?"

He took her arm, helped her to her feet. "It's a long story. Right now, we have to get you to the Mekong."

(-|-)

The airlock doors rolled aside to admit Odo and Kira onto the Promenade of Deep Space Nine.

Kira had listened in amazement as Odo had given her his account of what had transpired while she had been unconscious on the moon. She found it difficult to take in that the Maquis fugitive had actually been a Changeling who had attacked a ship for the sole purpose of luring Odo to that moon and pretending to be her, of all people.

But then, the Founders had already proven themselves to be devious as well as tyrannical. How was it possible that Odo had come from the same species as them? And now, it seemed even he wasn't exempt from their schemes.

"There's one thing I still don't understand," she said as she and Odo walked through the corridors on their way to report to Sisko. "If that Founder was trying to test your allegiance to the solids, why did she impersonate me?"

Odo approximated a shrug. "I suppose it's because you happened to be with me in the runabout. It could have just as easily been Commander Sisko, Dr. Bashir..."

"What finally made you realize the truth?" Kira kept a grin off her face as she asked. Odo wasn't exactly a boastful person, but she knew he wasn't one to shy away from fully explaining his cleverness when he felt he had done well. Only because it was true, of course.

"Well, she eventually made a mistake. She said something I know you would never say."

"What's that?" she asked curiously.

Odo walked on.

"Just a slip of the tongue," he said. "Nothing important."

And that was all.

(-|-)
THE END


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