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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.


Necessary Evil

Novelization by Tracy Hemenover
From the episode written by Peter Allan Fields


"I didn't kill him, you know."

Her name was Pallra. She stood gazing out a large window at the storm that lit the night sky in fitful flashes. The lightning silhouetted her form every few seconds. She always had had a sense of drama.

Pallra was something one didn't see every day: a blonde Bajoran. Even now, in her late thirties, she was lovely, her golden hair perfectly coiffed, her trim rounded figure shown to its best advantage in a slinky white bodysuit with a long flowing train draped from the waist.

There was perhaps something to be said after all, Quark thought, for women wearing clothing.

She turned her head to glance at him. An elaborate bauble jingled on her right ear. A wry smile curved her thin but shapely lips. "A lot of people believed it was me," she added casually. "That shapeshifter thought so. But he was wrong."

"It was a long time ago," Quark said.

Pallra finally left the window and walked -- no, undulated -- over to the couch, past the candles that, beside the lightning, provided the only illumination in the room. "Say what you will about the Cardassians...at least they could keep the power on." She gave a brief, light laugh. Most Bajorans never laughed when mentioning Cardassians. "Would you like more ice?"

"I'm fine." And so, my dear, are you, Quark thought, his eyes traveling over her as she sat beside him.

She smiled, as if she could read his mind. "You were always very kind."

"Was I?"

A delicate shrug. "You made life a little easier."

"I ran a black market for anyone who could pay," Quark said bluntly. Pallra was an old friend; he saw no need to be coy. "I never exactly thought of myself as 'kind'."

"There was always that little extra ginger tea in that package you gave me, wasn't there?"

Quark cocked his head slightly, studying her. He had known Pallra for years, almost as long as he had been running his bar on the station. It had always been a pleasure doing business with her...in more ways than one. But she had moved back planetside, to Bajor's capital city, nearly five years ago, following the death of her husband. In all the time since, he had not heard a word from her. Until that morning. Her voice had been like a breath from the past.

However, he had no delusions that the only reason she had invited him here was to reminisce.

"You didn't call me to Bajor," he said, "to talk about tea."

Pallra smiled again. "No." She rose, and paced slowly toward another window, giving him ample opportunity to observe and appreciate every smooth, mobile curve. Her voice floated back to him. "I need a favor."

"For old time's sake?"

"That's right."

"I'm still as kind as ever," Quark said pointedly.

"I can pay you."

"I'm listening."

She stopped and turned back toward him. "My husband kept a strongbox in our shop on the station, buried in the wall. I want you to bring it to me."

Quark asked the obvious question. "What's in it?"

"Nothing anyone would value."

"Anyone but you."

Another tiny shrug. "Sentimental reasons."

Quark wasn't buying it for an instant. "Why not take a sentimental journey back to the station? If it's your property."

All traces of her smile vanished. "I couldn't stand being back in that shop where my husband was murdered."

Uh-huh, Quark thought. "Or maybe," he suggested slyly, "you'd rather not let Odo see you there."

Pallra lowered her eyes. Which told him he was right. "I'm sure he's forgotten all about that by now." Her voice was demure. Then once more, she was all business. "Can you neutralize the security system?"

Who was he kidding? For a little latinum, and perhaps some other compensation of an...equally pleasant nature, he didn't need to know her reasons. He nodded.

Her smile returned, like the sun from behind a cloud. "It's behind the paneled wall on the left as you enter. Four panels in, five up."

"Four in...five up," Quark repeated, rising as he committed the directions to his formidable memory.

"And I can pay you five bars of latinum."

"Five?" A tidy sum. Quark committed that to memory as well.

She swayed closer to him, close enough for him to detect a whiff of tastefully subtle yet intoxicating perfume.

"And as always," she breathed, "my...personal gratitude."

Almost unconsciously, Quark stroked his right lobe, recalling the ways she had of demonstrating gratitude. A very good customer, Pallra was.

"A day," he told her. "Maybe two."

He left.

He did not see the other man emerging from the shadows of the dark apartment.

Nor did he see Pallra's slight, very precise nod.

(-|-)

Commence station security log, stardate 47282.5:

At the request of Commander Sisko, I will hereafter be recording a daily log of law enforcement affairs.

The reason for this exercise is beyond my comprehension...except perhaps that humans have a compulsion to keep records and lists and files. So many, in fact, that they have to invent new ways to store them microscopically. Otherwise, their records would overrun all known civilization.

My own very adequate memory not being good enough for Starfleet, I am pleased to put my voice to this official record of this day.

Everything's under control. End log.

How did anything ever get done in Starfleet, Odo wondered. One would think they had nothing to do all day but sit around composing and recording these log entries. And now Sisko had ordered him (actually, he'd worded it like a request, but Odo knew an order when he heard one) to keep a log as well.

Fine. But he was going to do it his way.

After he had finished, he stepped to the doorway of his office for one last look at the Promenade before retiring, as was his custom. It was late evening, station time. The crowds and noise were gone; the last few people remaining were hurrying home through the darkened thoroughfares. It almost seemed a different place than it appeared during the height of daily activity.

No one knew better than a shapeshifter how deceptive appearances could be.

Odo would have loved to go around personally finding out exactly what was going on in every nook and cranny on the station. However, he was already beginning to feel the strain of having maintained humanoid form for sixteen hours. It was time to recover his energies by not being any form at all for a while.

No sense in delaying any longer. He turned and went back into his office, locked the doors, turned out the lights, and disappeared into the little back area that served as his quarters.

Two pairs of Ferengi eyes watched.

Quark let out the breath he'd been holding. He had begun to think Odo was never going to head for that bucket of his.

He began to walk quietly down the silent Promenade. As he went, he whispered to his brother. "Now. When we get to the entrance, you stay flat against the wall. It's a Pulsatel lockseal. I can get it to release in twenty-five seconds."

Rom halted beside Odo's office. Anxiety was writ large on his homely features. "Twenty-five seconds? But someone will see us. Let me do it."

Quark gave a soft, scornful chuckle. "You? We'll be at it all night." He clapped Rom patronizingly on the shoulder, peered into the dark office for a moment -- he'd never been able to ascertain just how well Odo could hear in his liquid state -- and, detecting no movement, continued on his way.

Rom half-scurried to keep up. "All night? N-n-n-no. Only about ten seconds."

"How would you get a Pulsatel lockseal to release in ten seconds?" This Quark had to hear.

"You have one on the storeroom doors."

"So?"

Suddenly, Rom looked abashed. "Sometimes," he confessed, "when you forget to leave me the desealer, I -- I have to get the storeroom open."

Some people wondered why he kept his timid, slow-witted brother about. Quark wondered himself, at times. But the fact was that Rom was a born flunky. He took abuse well, and rarely complained. Also, his presence gave Quark someone to feel absolutely, unquestionably superior to. Quark had brought him along tonight for the company, and a chance to show off. Rom could also serve as lookout, and -- most importantly -- a scapegoat in case something went wrong.

Now, though, he was beginning to wonder (not for the first time) if Rom was really worth the aggravation it took to put up with him.

"You've unsealed the storeroom without my knowledge?" He grabbed Rom's arm, so outraged he nearly forgot to keep his voice down.

Rom cowered. "Only to serve the customers' needs."

"In ten seconds?"

"You forget fairly often."

Quark released him roughly and turned away in disgust. "Ten seconds!" He hated it when Rom gave him cause to wonder if there was some tiny particle of brain lodged somewhere in his skull. There had been that one time when Rom had plotted to kill him...

"We'll see how you handle the desealing rod," he decided as they came to the doors of the storage area that had once been the shop owned by Pallra's late husband.

"That's all right. I have my own," Rom said proudly, pathetically eager to restore himself in Quark's good graces, such as they were. He pulled a rod out of his jacket and held it up. "Nog made it for me. Boy's always been clever with his hands."

Quark stared at the rod. "My storeroom..." was all he could think of.

"Time this, brother," Rom smiled. "You'll be very proud."

Disgruntled, Quark watched as Rom plied the rod, entirely too deftly. In ten seconds, as predicted, the doors swung open.

"There. You see?"

"Thief!" Quark hissed. "Don't deny it. You've been stealing from me!"

Rom gasped, belatedly realizing he'd gone too far. "Brother, I never!"

Quark stepped into the shop. "Tomorrow morning, I'm changing my entire lock system." He produced a handlight and shone the beam along the left wall. "Four in...five up...Here, it's this one. Keep an eye on the Promenade while I burn off the panel."

"The glare could attract attention," Rom objected. "I have a better idea."

Quark looked at him as if he'd grown a third lobe. "A better idea?"

Rom dug inside his jacket. "I took the liberty of bringing along a small vial of magnasite drops." He produced the vial and held it up.

"Magnasite drops...What are magnasite drops?"

"A compound that will eat through duranium. One on each corner, and the panel will fall off."

"How do you know that?" Quark asked, with growing suspicion.

"When you were in the Gamma Quadrant overnight," Rom explained (Quark scowled, remembering Pel), "we did very good business." As he spoke, he applied the drops. Wisps of smoke rose. "Naturally, I had to keep your profits safe. But you had the only key to the latinum floor vault."

"You got into my floor vault? With that?"

Sparks popped from each corner of the panel, with a soft hiss-crackle. Then the panel fell to the floor, clattering slightly. Quark made a mental note to get hold of some magnasite drops.

"I didn't want to tell you, because then you'd know I burned off your floor panels," Rom admitted diffidently. "But I replaced them out of my own salary, brother."

"My vault..." Quark whispered. Later, he thought. Strangle him later.

The box was metallic, the size of two Ferengi hands. It nestled among the pipes and wires, just as it had done for five years. Maybe more.

"Should I take it out for you?" Rom offered.

"Don't touch it! Don't you touch anything! Ever, ever again!"

Quark reached into the wall.

(-|-)

It was only fair, of course, that he know what it was he had been risking so much for. The box was too light to be holding latinum. Jewelry, maybe? Nothing rattled inside when he shook it. He set the box before him on the bar and, very carefully, cut through the seal with a laser scalpel Nog had stolen from the infirmary while on a class visit.

With a flourish of his fingers, he delicately eased it open.

And inside...

"Just a piece of paper?" he exclaimed in disbelief, not to mention disappointment.

"A treasure map?" Rom suggested, poking his head over Quark's shoulder. Quark ignored him. Obviously Rom had been watching too many holo-adventures. He picked up the paper, unfolded it, and saw writing. Bajoran letters, in ink. How old-fashioned.

"What does it mean, brother?"

"I have no idea." Oh, he could read it, all right. Quark had long ago made it his business to learn to read the local language. "Eight names...all of them Bajoran." He came to a decision. "I want to get a picture of this list before I re-seal the box. Go. Get me an imager. Go!" He shooed Rom away, and his brother obediently shuffled out of the bar.

Quark stared at the list, flicking it thoughtfully with a finger. Yes...the more he considered it, the more sense it made. According to Pallra, it was her husband who had put the list in the wall. Why? Presumably, he had had something on the people whose names were on it. Something dirty, or else why bother hiding it in such a fashion?

Now Pallra was strapped for cash (she hadn't fooled him), and, knowing about the list somehow, had decided to do what her husband hadn't gotten around to doing.

The question was, what did these people have to hide? And, more importantly, how could he, Quark, turn it to his own advantage?

He was not, however, too lost in his musings to register the sound of a footfall behind him. It couldn't be Rom already. His brother was notoriously slow, in more ways than one. He turned, and saw a man there. Fairly tall, dark hair. The features were in shadow, but a stray gleam shone off the chained earring that marked the man as a Bajoran.

Quark rose, alarm klaxons ringing in his soul. "You can't come in here," he blustered. "We're closed."

The Bajoran leveled a phaser, pointed straight at him.

"Well...if you really want a drink..."

Realization hit him. How could he have been so stupid? He had gotten what Pallra wanted. Now, not only was he expendable, but he had seen the list. He gulped inwardly, but struggled to remain calm as death -- his death -- stared him in the face.

"She sent you," he said. "Didn't she?"

The Bajoran reached out and took the list from Quark's nerveless hand. He spoke for the first time. "She knew you couldn't resist opening it." He raised the phaser. "Sorry."

"Yeah, me too," Quark sighed, wishing he'd get it over with.

His wish was granted. The blast knocked him off his feet and blew him backwards, halfway across the room. The Bajoran turned and left, without a second glance. A moment later, Rom returned, the imager clutched in his hand. To his astonishment, he saw Quark lying on the floor.

It wasn't for him to question his brother's actions, but it did seem like an odd time, not to mention place, for Quark to go to sleep. He hadn't been that long.

He came closer. Quark was not asleep. His eyes were wide open and staring. He wasn't breathing.

"Brother? ...Brother?"

For a moment, Rom expected Quark to sit up and laugh at him. But Quark didn't move. Rom thought quickly. The best thing he could do right now...was to scream.

"Hhhhhheeeellllllpppp!!!!!" His voice rang through the dead-quiet Promenade. "Somebody helllpp!! My brother's been killed!!!"

(-|-)

"Ten cc's of cortolin! I want an antigrav lift in here, stat! Ready the cortical stimulator!"

Dr. Julian Bashir's usually suave, British-accented voice was distorted with urgency. He was bending over Quark, barking orders to the room in general. Two Bajoran medics were hustling to carry them out.

"What kind of weapon? I am waiting for an answer!"

Odo stepped forward from where he had been asking Rom a few preliminary questions. "Whatever it was had to get past the scanners. My best guess is a compressed tetryon beam weapon."

"Okay, okay, that's consistent with what I'm seeing." Bashir sounded calmer, but no less harried. "Get the stimulator over here," he directed a medic, who laid the instrument over Quark's knobby forehead.

Nearby, yet far enough away so that his presence wouldn't interfere with the medical activity, stood Commander Benjamin Sisko, his dark face set in the tense composure his officers had come to recognize in times of crisis. "Doctor?" he ventured.

Bashir spared him a glance. "Thoracic cavity rupture. Extensive neural trauma. Now!" he told the medic.

Odo watched for a few moments as Quark jerked upward, as if wakening, and was caught and laid gently back down by Bashir. Then he turned to Sisko. "Rom says it was a robbery."

"Was anything taken?"

"He says he doesn't know. But he knows." Odo spoke with complete confidence. He was something of an authority on Ferengis, much more so than he really cared to be; it came with his job. On general principles, he never believed a word they said without independent corroboration.

Major Kira Nerys had entered the bar and was now standing behind them. "Security is stopping everyone at the airlocks," she reported. "But it took them five minutes to get into position. The assailant may already be on a ship."

"Delay all outgoing vessels as long as you can," Sisko ordered. "Advise the respective security details." She nodded briskly and left.

Two more medics arrived at that moment with the requested antigrav lift. "We've got to get him to surgery," Bashir called. "Help me get him up here." Odo and Sisko both bent to assist the medical team. Quark was smoothly lifted onto the gurney and whisked off to the infirmary, past Rom, who perched forlornly on a bar stool, looking numb and lost.

"He's dying, isn't he?" he said in a hushed, hollow voice. "What am I gonna do if my brother dies?"

Very privately, Odo was amazed -- even a little envious -- at the genuine devotion Rom seemed to have for Quark. Just for a moment, he wondered what it was like to have a brother...or a sister...or any family at all. To care for another person, simply because that person possessed genes in common with oneself. He refused, however, to let any trace of sympathy show.

"Do?" he echoed, in deliberately callous tones. "Oh, you'll have a lot to do, once this place is yours."

"But if he dies -- " Rom stopped, blinking up at Odo in what appeared to be honest bewilderment. "Mine?" He said it as if it had never occurred to him before.

"'Wives serve, brothers inherit,'" Odo quoted. "Rule of Acquisition number one hundred and thirty-nine, if I'm not mistaken." He had learned the Ferengis' sacred Rules some time ago. Though the principles expressed therein disgusted him, he found they gave valuable insight into the workings of the Ferengi mind. Also, it irritated the hell out of Quark.

"I hadn't thought of that," Rom exclaimed innocently.

"Really?" Odo mocked. "I had. Because it's a solid motive for murder." He folded his arms, staring significantly down his incomplete nose at the Ferengi.

"Yes...actually, I have heard of a few untimely deaths that seemed..." Rom trailed off, his eyes widening as it finally dawned on him what it was Odo was implying. "Wait a minute. You're not suggesting that I -- "

"I've had my eye on you for a long time, Rom," Odo said ominously. "You're not as stupid as you look."

"I am too! I would never -- "

"Constable, it's his own brother!" Unexpectedly, Sisko stepped into the fray. His supple voice expressed deep shock that Odo would even think of entertaining such a vile notion.

"My own brother!" Rom grasped eagerly at the offer of support.

"I hardly think that -- "

"Stay out of this, Commander," Odo said coldly. "I know these Ferengi. They'd sell their own flesh and blood for a Cardassian groat." He scowled, affecting irritation at Sisko for butting in on police work. But inwardly he was nodding in approval at the human's quickness. Odo didn't seriously believe that Rom had shot Quark. However, he had his reasons for pretending the opposite: namely, a little fact he had discovered in his years as security chief. And that was that frightening a Ferengi was the best way to get him to reveal things. Sisko had picked up on what Odo was doing -- he too had had plenty of experience in dealing with Ferengis by now -- and was enhancing the effect by taking on the role of "good cop" to Odo's "bad cop".

"Odo, he's a family friend," Sisko said pleadingly. "His son is very close to my boy."

Odo almost snorted with amusement at the classic ploy of appearing to invoke a personal relationship. "Well, you'd better tell his son that Dad's going to the lunar prison on Meldrar One." He kept his eyes on Rom as he spoke, and leaned forward slightly for emphasis. "Two hundred degrees in the shade."

Rom was plainly getting desperate. "I didn't! It's not true! Ohhhhhhhhh..." he whined pitifully. "Irony of ironies! I finally get the bar, and I'm falsely accused of my brother's murder!"

Odo continued to play his part, eyeing Rom with the most severe expression he could muster -- and that was quite severe indeed. He waited.

As if sensing that Rom was about to crack, Sisko leaned over slightly to slip an arm around the Ferengi's narrow shoulders, in a reassuring manner calculated to send him straight over the edge. "Rom," he said gently, "as a friend -- if you know anything that might be helpful, I think you should tell us."

"There was a list," Rom said instantly. "The man who shot my brother stole a list."

The tactic had paid off. Sisko glanced at Odo. The glance clearly said, He's all yours. Then he straightened and stepped aside to let his chief of security handle the rest.

Odo bent forward until he was nearly nose-to-nose with the Ferengi. "What kind of list?" he demanded.

"Of names. Eight Bajoran names. It was in this box we -- found."

"Found?"

"In -- in a manner of speaking," Rom stammered.

Odo gave a low growl of disgust.

(-|-)

It was the middle of the period arbitrarily labeled the "night" on DS9. The Promenade was still dark and silent. However, it was no longer quite empty. Two figures walked along it. One was tall; the other, short.

Rom had become all helpfulness. Without prompting, he had volunteered to show Odo the place where the list had been "found". Apparently Rom was more afraid of Odo than he was of Quark. Or he simply didn't expect Quark to live, and hoped to demonstrate his innocence by cooperating fully.

"My brother was hired by someone on Bajor to retrieve it," he was saying as they passed the security office.

"Who?"

"He didn't tell me! He never told me anything. I tried soooo hard to earn Quark's trust." Self-pity laced through Rom's voice. "Now he's dead, and I can never earn his trust."

"Just his share of the profits," Odo said dryly.

"I swear, I don't know who hired him!" Rom was so obviously frantic to be believed that Odo decided he was probably telling the truth. "All I know is that the box had been hidden there years ago."

"How many years ago?"

"I'm not sure. When the Cardassians were here. When the ship's store used to be the chemist's shop." Rom indicated a particular set of doors.

Odo stopped in his tracks. "The chemist's shop?"

"That's right," Rom said uncertainly, confused by Odo's sudden change in manner.

"Here? This is where you found the list?"

"Behind a duranium wall panel. I'll show you which one," Rom babbled eagerly. "Do you want me to open it? I can do it in ten seconds."

Odo barely heard him. Those three words -- the chemist's shop -- had struck an old memory, like a gong. Without a word, he turned to the doors and began punching his override code into the lock panel.

He knew every area on the station in general, and the Promenade in particular -- it was part of his job. But this particular place held a spot in his mind from which it would never be dislodged.

Here, five years ago, his career had begun.

(-|-)
The doors swung slowly open, and I stood on the threshold.

I walked differently back then. My humanoid appearance drew enough stares as it was -- especially since I had left the research center, where people had been at least somewhat used to me. To keep from attracting any more attention than was unavoidable, I kept my head low, my steps careful. I projected an air of surly indifference which my old teacher, Dr. Mora, used to deplore, but which served to keep the stares from becoming prolonged.

The Cardassians had known of my existence since I had been discovered in space nearly thirty years before. It was only through their graces that the research center was allowed to operate. Dr. Mora and his colleagues could hardly have kept me a secret even if they had tried.

From the time I became sophisticated enough to be aware of the situation on my adopted planet, I had expected to be conscripted in some capacity by the Cardassians. They surely would have been fools not to recognize my potential value to them. However, until now they had seemed content merely to watch me and let me be.

This had puzzled me, until I considered their point of view. I could indeed be very useful to them, but in order to use me, they had to handle me with extreme caution. A shapeshifter can be very dangerous if one has no means to control him.

Now, though, the day I had long dreaded had finally arrived.

When they came for me, I put up no resistance. I was not stupid enough to believe that just because I could change my shape I was invincible.

I could only hope that whatever it was they wanted from me, it would not force me to compromise myself in my own eyes.

It was not much of a hope.

Sitting inside the shop, his feet casually propped up on the counter, was a Cardassian. Even sipping placidly at a mug of redleaf tea, he exuded power, and confidence. I guessed immediately who he must be.

"You asked to see me?"

"Yes. Yes, please come in." He beckoned to me with the deceptive geniality Cardassians always show when they have all the advantages.

I had little choice. I stepped inside, and the door closed behind me. We were alone.

"I am Gul Dukat," he said, confirming my guess. "We've met before."

"Have we?"

"I wouldn't expect you to remember," Dukat said. "I was one of the guests at the reception at the Bajoran Center for Science. It must have been...two years ago." He set his feet on the floor, and the mug on the counter, and rose, leisurely.

"Ah. Yes. When the Cardassian High Command was invited to -- view me." I looked away. I hadn't met his gaze yet.

Dukat smiled. "You were very amusing that night."

"Was I," I said quietly.

"Yes. You did a Cardassian neck trick that brought the house down."

I remembered...all too well. "The Bajoran scientist who worked with me thought you might find it entertaining. He made me practice for weeks on the -- Cardassian neck trick." I strove to keep my emotions out of my voice. I was sure that Dukat hadn't called me here merely to reminisce, yet there must be a reason he was bringing up that evening, other than small talk. Possibly he was thinking of using my remembered humiliation as a leash. If so, he could think again. I would not give him that power by reacting.

"Gul Hadar couldn't stop talking about it. He wanted to send you out to entertain the troops." Dukat watched me as he confided this, perhaps hoping to see how easily I could be provoked. But I kept my face and body still, and after a pause, he went on. "I, on the other hand, began to wonder if you couldn't provide a more valuable service for the Cardassian Empire."

It's coming, I thought. I waited.

"I've stayed informed about you, Odo," he said. "Ever since you walked out on your Bajoran keepers."

I held my gaze away from him. "I simply felt I could learn more outside a laboratory."

"Yes, you've become quite the student of humanoid nature, haven't you?"

I let out a carefully controlled sigh at his lightly mocking tone. "Just what is it you need, Gul Dukat?"

"Have you ever seen a dead man?"

It was not a response I had been prepared for. But I lifted my head and looked him straight in the eyes for the first time. "Yes," I said. "In your mines."

"Oh, those are casualties," he said dismissively, as only a Cardassian can. He walked over to a bundle on the floor, covered by a sheet. "This -- " he flipped the sheet back, "is murder."

A corpse lay there. A Bajoran, male, a look of shock frozen on his features.

"And I've decided you're going to investigate it." He covered the body again.

"Me?" I was frankly startled. Of all my silent speculations as to why Dukat had finally sent for me, this was one possibility that had quite simply not occurred to me. I had been expecting some sort of spying mission, against the Bajoran rebels or perhaps the Federation. "Why me? I'm no investigator."

"Ah, but I suspect you'd make a good one." Dukat strolled back behind the counter. "Shapeshifting your way into places the rest of us can't go." His hand made a motion in the air, as if he were picturing me pouring myself through a crack.

"I have no intention of being a Cardassian agent," I said.

He regarded me, scaly eyebrows raised. I think he was taken aback by my bluntness. "Not an agent," he corrected me, mildly enough. "An investigator."

"There's a difference?"

"We can't have these Bajorans running around murdering each other, now can we?" He said it as one superior being to another. "I'm talking about order here. Justice."

I suppose I was angered by his blatant attempt to manipulate me into doing his dirty work for him. I even became a little rash. "There's very little justice in the Cardassian occupation of Bajor," I said, to the face of the Cardassian prefect.

"Don't push me, Odo." There it was: the steel behind the pleasant facade. He let the warning hang in the air for a long moment before continuing. "My superiors would have me solve this murder by rounding up ten Bajorans at random, and executing them. I'm hoping you'll give me a better alternative." He paused, to let his point sink in.

I was silent, thinking, and wondering why he did not simply do as his superiors wished and be done with it. Why would he care who had murdered a Bajoran? Then it occurred to me that he had a very good reason. The freedom movement had grown from an irritant to a serious problem for him. Equipment was being sabotaged and destroyed. Cardassians were being killed. His superiors were back on Cardassia Prime and had an empire to run -- as well as a war with the Federation to fight -- but Dukat was here. If he killed those ten random Bajorans, it could inflame the rebels to the point where no Cardassian would be safe. Including Dukat.

Should I help him? I had no personal reason to do so; I had no more love for the Cardassians than any Bajoran did. And yet, there were the ten Bajorans to consider. Ten innocent people who would lose their lives if I did not do as Dukat asked; I had no doubt that his threat was genuine. They would die, while a murderer would go free.

"Now," Dukat said briskly, having given me my moment to consider. "These Bajorans won't talk to us, but they seem to trust you. I understand you used to sort out petty disputes concerning food, blankets, everyday sorts of things. They come to you?"

He had kept informed. Since leaving the research center, I had acquired a reputation for resolving conflicts fairly. I had even begun to be sought out; "Take it to Odo" had become a familiar phrase when arguments arose among the Bajoran workers. The reasons were fairly obvious. I had nothing to gain or lose. I was nobody's friend. I was not Cardassian, not Bajoran, not anything.

What I said to Dukat, guardedly, was, "I suppose I'm considered a neutral observer."

"Of course," he said. "You're not one of them. And for that, you should be thankful... So. Here's one more petty dispute. Only this time, I'm bringing it to you." He came toward me and stopped, Cardassian-blue eyes boring into mine. "Find the murderer."

I sighed. I did not like anything about this. I had known I wouldn't like it from the moment they had come for me.

"Are there any witnesses?" I asked.

(-|-)

The victim was one Vaatrik. He was a chemist, and ran the shop in which he had been found dead that morning, killed by a single phaser shot to the chest. He had no known enemies, and had never been in trouble legally. In short, what the Cardassians called a "good" Bajoran, one who had gone about his business and obeyed every order his overlords had given him, without protest.

The location and position of the body suggested that he had been attempting to reach the comm unit on the wall when he died. Possibly he had surprised a robber. Yet nothing had apparently been taken, although there were definite signs of a search, signs that even I, inexperienced as I was back then, could discern. By whom -- the killer, or those who had found the body -- there was no way to tell.

As for my question, there were no witnesses. But Dukat told me that the widow, Pallra, was waiting for me.

He led me a little further along the station's Bajoran ghetto (which four years later would be reborn as the Promenade), and showed me into a room clearly intended as an office space. A woman sat there. She was thirtyish, Bajoran, a blonde, and I had heard men call women of her general type attractive. She turned her head as Dukat and I entered. There was a distant, detached look in her eyes -- understandable, I supposed.

"I'm sorry to keep you waiting, Mrs. Vaatrik," Dukat said to her, with some semblance of gentleness. He indicated me with a nod. "This is Odo. He'll be investigating your husband's death. Perhaps you two already know each other."

Pallra studied me. "Have you been into the shop?"

I presumed that she meant, had I bought anything from her husband? "No," I replied, a bit awkwardly. "I don't use chemicals."

"I've assigned this space to you," Dukat told me. I glanced around, startled, though I shouldn't have been; of course he would have anticipated my cooperation. "We'll get you anything you need. Madam," he nodded to Pallra, "my sympathies." He turned again to me. "Good hunting."

I watched as he left me alone with Pallra. Unusual -- a Cardassian showing consideration toward a Bajoran. Was he trying to impress me? To demonstrate that Cardassians were not the tyrants I might have been led to believe?

I turned back to Pallra. Not quite certain as to how to proceed, I imitated the noise humanoids make when they clear their throats. "I'm...sorry for your loss."

"Thank you," she said, with dignity.

"Do you -- have any idea who might have done this?" It was a place to start, I reasoned, hoping I didn't sound too much as if I had no idea what I was doing.

She startled me by saying calmly, "I have a very good idea."

"You do?" I blurted.

Pallra turned slowly and looked me fully in the eyes. "May I be honest with you?"

"That might be helpful." Probably the touch of sarcasm was uncalled-for, but it helped to restore my wits.

"My husband was having an affair." She saw my sharp glance, and gave a little shrug. "Some girl showed up on the station a couple of weeks ago. He became infatuated with her...I don't know. Why are men like that?" She gazed at me as if expecting me to have an answer.

"Believe me," I told her with complete sincerity, "I have no idea."

An odd response, perhaps, to someone who most likely was not aware of my nature. But she did not ask me what I meant by it. She did not even seem to have heard.

"We had two wonderful years together," she said softly. "'Til she arrived. And now, I -- "

I interrupted. "You loved him very much?"

She glared at me. "Of course I did."

"Then perhaps you could explain something I don't understand."

"What's that?" she asked frostily.

"Mr. Vaatrik was found dead two hours ago; Mrs. Vaatrik hasn't shed a tear."

It was her turn to be startled. "What makes you think -- "

"By necessity, I'm an observer, Mrs. Vaatrik," I explained. "When a humanoid cries, the epidermis below the eyes swells noticeably. Your epidermis is perfectly normal."

When I had first resolved to create for myself a humanoid form of my own, I spent years studying humanoids in order to simulate their appearance and movements as closely as possible. The result is not exactly what I had hoped for, but I gained a side benefit from that study: I learned to read people. I am not, of course, empathic, and make no claims to infallibility; but usually I can gauge the current emotional state of a humanoid with some degree of accuracy, by interpreting small gestures and changes of expression.

Pallra had struck me throughout our interview as remarkably unemotional, especially for someone so newly widowed. Even allowing for individuality, it simply didn't seem normal. Not for a native of Bajor, which is not a planet of stoics.

I had clearly caught her off guard. She was reduced to stammering. "I've been too angry to cry -- I -- I -- the shock -- "

"Of course," I said neutrally.

She fell silent, her eyes downcast.

Deliberately, I eased off, refraining from pressuring her further. She understood now that I wasn't as clueless as I might appear; that was enough for the moment. I walked slowly behind the desk -- my desk -- for the first time. "So. You were about to accuse this other woman of the murder, I believe?"

"He confessed his indiscretion to me days ago, but said it was over."

"And when he broke it off with her, she killed him in a jealous rage?"

"Something like that."

Passion, jealousy, murder. I was beginning to feel as if I had somehow wandered into a bad melodrama. And yet, I was also beginning to feel a spark of real interest in the case. I may have been essentially blackmailed into the job, but I truly wanted to do it as honestly and thoroughly as I possibly could. Dukat had wanted an investigator. Now he had one.

Step two, I thought, was to talk to this "other woman". "Do you know her name?" I asked.

"No," Pallra said. "But I can point her out to you."

(-|-)

Terok Nor, as the station was then called, was a dark place. Literally, because Cardassians prefer dimmer light than many humanoid races, including Bajorans; and figuratively, because of what it was: a military outpost, ore processing facility, and slave colony.

This was the first time I had set foot on it. I had not had much opportunity to actually notice it, however, having been hustled from the airlock to Vaatrik's shop and then to my new office. Now, though, as I walked out with Pallra, I truly saw the ugly, miserable scene outside for the first time.

Bajorans shuffled here and there with burdens of ore and other material. Cardassians roamed importantly among them, some with weapons cradled in their arms -- more for effect than because they expected trouble. Instructions and announcements blared almost continually from a comm unit somewhere.

"When was the last time you saw Mr. Vaatrik?"

"At dinner. He went back to the shop to do some inventory work afterward." Pallra raised a hand to her face, as if to wipe away a tear. I wondered if I really looked that gullible, but did not comment, and fortunately she chose not to pursue that angle with me. She dropped her hand.

"You don't live in community quarters?" I asked.

"No. We were lucky enough to be assigned a private room. I guess because we ran the shop. But at least we had a little privacy."

My intuition said she was lying. Not about her and her husband's living quarters, but about the reason. Privacy was not likely a widely available commodity here, judging by the sheer numbers of Bajorans I was seeing before me. I thought it improbable that the Cardassians would accord that privilege to Vaatrik on the basis of his occupation alone. To them, all Bajorans were slaves; what did it matter which task they were slaving at? So what had Vaatrik done to merit such privilege?

Pallra stopped suddenly, pointing. "There. That's her."

The replimat was just ahead of us, a small area with a few tables and chairs set up. A young Bajoran woman was turning away from the replicator with a bowl full of oatmeal and a mug, probably of water.

She too was attractive by humanoid standards, I supposed. Her auburn hair was long, tied back at the nape of her neck. Her eyes were large and dark brown; her face was narrow, but looked expressive. The expression on it at the moment was blank, weary and numb.

It was the first time I saw Kira Nerys.

(-|-)

"Odo!"

He looked up at the sound of Kira's voice.

It was now "morning". Nothing had been found in the former shop, as he'd more or less expected. He had sent Rom home, then returned to his bucket to complete his interrupted regeneration period.

Kira was striding toward him through the bustling Promenade. Inconsequentially, Odo noted how little she had changed in the five years that had passed since they had first met. True, her hair was now cropped short, and she wore a red Bajoran militia uniform. But she was always Kira.

Perhaps it was he who had changed. Five years ago, he had been awkward, withdrawn, wary of all contact: decades of being a laboratory subject and general curiosity could do that to a person. Now, though, he had a place in society -- a place that was unquestionably his, one he occupied with efficiency and a certain pride. The people whom it was his job to protect did not love him, but they trusted him, and gave him respect, for the most part, and that was all he asked for.

But Kira gave him more. She gave him friendship -- something that until now he had only been able to observe others practicing. Now he could see why it was so praised by most humanoid societies: he found it very...satisfying. Very fulfilling. And perhaps even more than that...

"We haven't picked up anyone at the airlocks," Kira reported, stopping in front of him. "I can't hold up outbound traffic any longer."

"I'm sure he disposed of the weapon before he left." It had been what Quark would call a "long shot", anyway.

Kira paused. "I heard about the list. The one that Quark got out of the wall." Her eyes telegraphed to him that she had more on her mind than just the list.

"Rom said it had been hidden there during the occupation," Odo nodded, subtly encouraging her.

"I couldn't help wondering if it had something to do with Vaatrik."

So she was remembering that time too. Odd, that an attack on Quark, and a stolen piece of paper, could suddenly bring up the memory of the beginning of their acquaintance, and a name neither had spoken in years. "I've been wondering the same thing," he admitted.

Kira gave him the strangest look. As if she wanted to say something to him. It was all but visible on her lips. Then, something stopped her. She closed her mouth, nodded once, and strode off to other duties.

Odo watched her retreating figure, vaguely puzzled. Kira, hesitating to say what was on her mind? To him?

But then he pushed the encounter out of his mind, to make room for his own duties. There was a crime to solve...two crimes.

(-|-)
Security log, stardate 47284.1:

In this job, there is no unfinished business. This assault on Quark reopens a five-year-old murder case that I've never -- not for a moment -- closed.

Patience is a lost virtue to most. To me, an ally.

"I barely saw it! I'm sorry! I don't remember any of the names!"

Ferengis made difficult witnesses at the best of times; a dense one, even more so. Unfortunately, until Quark regained consciousness -- if he regained consciousness -- Rom was all Odo had. Losing his temper now would do no good. "All right," he sighed, with the strong suspicion that he was wasting his time. "All right. Let's just...relax for a moment."

"I really ought to be getting back to my bar," Rom said.

"He's not dead yet, Rom," Odo reminded him acidly.

"They're not keeping him alive by artificial means, are they? My brother wouldn't want that."

"No," Odo drawled, "he's clinging to life all on his own."

Rom's face fell, just a little. "Typical."

I'll tell Quark when he wakes how touching your brotherly concern was, Odo thought wryly. "All right," he said. "Let's try again." He walked slowly around the chair Rom sat in, making his voice as soothing, as hypnotic, as he possibly could. "Close your eyes...take a deep breath..." Rom obeyed. "Clear your mind of everything in it...if there's anything there..." Odo couldn't help adding, under his breath. "Breathe...breathe..." At last, he knelt beside Rom. "Now...what do you see?"

"The bar."

"Yes...?"

"With my name on it." Rom smiled dreamily.

Odo restrained an impulse to shout at him. "The past, Rom, not the future," he said instead, wearily. "The box opens...there's a piece of paper inside it..."

"Yes! Yes, I see it!"

"Quark unfolds it..."

"Uh-huh."

"There's a list of names...Bajoran names..."

"Right."

"The one at the very top catches your eye...and the first letter is...?"

"C!" Rom exclaimed excitedly. "It's a C!"

Now they were getting somewhere. "And the next letter is...?"

"Uhhh..." Rom shook his head.

"Skip to the last letter of the name, Rom," Odo said quickly, before the Ferengi could lose his concentration.

"O! It's an O!"

Odo nodded encouragingly. "Starts with a C, ends with an O..."

"And there's a mark in the name..."

"An apostrophe..."

Rom's eyes flew open. "Ches'so!" he proclaimed.

"You're sure?"

"Yes!"

"Ah!" Odo straightened.

"...maybe."

Triumph fled. Odo knelt back down. "Maybe?"

"It's something like Ches'so," Rom ventured. "I think."

Odo sighed. There were days when he wondered why he had even bothered leaving his bucket.

Well, it was something, anyway. He noted the name on a PADD and escorted the Ferengi out of his office. "Call me day or night if you remember something else," he instructed as they stepped out onto the Promenade.

"Uh-huh," Rom nodded, looking relieved. He hurried away to the bar.

Odo was still watching him go, shaking his head, when Kira walked up to him. "Anything?" For reply, Odo handed her the PADD. She peered at it. "Ches'so?"

"Might be the first name on the list. Remember anyone from those days on the station with that name?"

Kira shook her head regretfully, giving him back the PADD. "No. But I wasn't here very long."

Odo hmphed slightly. "So I recall."

"We never talked about it," she said unexpectedly. There was a note of -- sadness? -- in her voice, and her eyes were troubled.

"We never had to," Odo said.

"I would have been executed."

"You were innocent of the crime I was investigating," he reminded her gently.

It didn't seem to reassure her. "That wouldn't have mattered to the Cardassians."

"It mattered," Odo said, "to me."

Again, Kira gave him that anguished look.

It did not occur to Odo to ask her directly to tell him what was bothering her. That had never been how their relationship worked. When she was ready, she would talk.

Until then, he would be there...as always.

(-|-)
If anyone had told me, after that first conversation with Kira, that the two of us were destined to become friends, I would never have believed them. Even despite the circumstances, the beginning was rather less than auspicious.

I approached her as she began to eat. "You mind if I join you?"

She glanced up at me briefly, then went back to her meal, without answering. A different reaction than I was used to; usually it was a puzzled scrutiny as the person tried to identify what species I might be. Instead, her dark eyes had taken me in and instantly dismissed me, as if she saw men who looked like me every day.

Having received as much of an invitation as I was likely to get, I sat down uncomfortably across from her. I was somewhat at a loss: I had always concentrated far more on my shapeshifting skills than on my social ones. Striking up conversations with total strangers was not my strong suit, by any means. Especially with a woman who was the first suspect I had ever questioned, in the first murder case I had ever investigated. But I had to start somehow. So I said the first thing I could think of that I had heard others use with some degree of success.

"Pretty girl like you shouldn't be eating alone." The words sounded odd in my voice, even to me.

"I don't do whatever it is you want," she said flatly, with that celebrated Bajoran bluntness. "Not for money, not for food."

I instantly recognized my mistake. She obviously thought I wanted to mate with her. I began to fumble for words. "No -- you misunderstand..."

She glanced at me again, puzzled but patently skeptical.

"I'm sorry...of course, I can see how you could...let me start over -- " I was seriously considering reverting to liquid right there, oozing away, and slipping onto the next ship bound for anywhere else.

"You some kind of security officer?" She truly looked at me for the first time. The curiosity was there, now -- mingled with mistrust.

"How did you know that?" To go from a man angling for sex to a security officer on police business was rather a long leap, but apparently I had somehow made it, in her eyes.

She returned to her oatmeal. "You are, aren't you." It was a statement, not a question.

"Unofficially, I suppose that's true..." The label made me uneasy. It had a ring of authority, and the only authority here was Cardassian. But I had taken on the case, so there was no denying that that was indeed what I now was.

"Unofficially? What's that supposed to mean?"

"Gul Dukat asked me to investigate the murder of a man named Vaatrik. I understand you knew him?"

She scowled slightly. "Who says I did?"

"His widow." I indicated Pallra, who still stood where I had left her, watching us silently. When Kira followed my gaze, their eyes met. Pallra gave her a long, poisonous glare, then folded her arms, put her nose in the air, turned her back, and walked slowly away.

Jealousy. Definitely.

Kira looked back down at her bowl. "I suppose she also told you I killed him," she said, in a low voice, without looking at me.

"Did you?" I asked.

Her gaze came up again to meet mine. "No."

"On the contrary," I said. "You were in love with him."

She looked at me as if I were insane. "No."

"But -- he was in love with you."

"No."

"Doesn't sound like much of a romance," I opined.

"We weren't having a romance."

"Then why would he tell his wife that you were?" Humanoid behavior is often incomprehensible, but this defied all logic. It was like hearing of a Ferengi starting a charity, or a Klingon selling flowers.

She took a bite of her oatmeal. "You'll have to ask him," she said with her mouth full. She was being ironic, of course.

I looked hard at her. "If you were having an affair, I promise you I'll find out about it."

"All you're going to find," she said, "is that I've been here for two weeks. I met the man right after I arrived. He had Pyrellian ginger tea. How he managed to get it, I don't know, but I happen to like ginger tea. We became friends. Maybe he was attracted to me...It never went anywhere."

I was silent, weighing her story against Pallra's. One of the two women was lying. Maybe both were.

Kira gave me a speculative look. "Why do you think Dukat wanted you on this investigation?"

"I'm sure he had good reasons," I said uncomfortably.

"Why not his own security people?"

I had wondered the same thing. But I told her what Dukat had told me. "No Bajoran would talk to them."

Kira gave a little, mirthless hmph of a laugh. "That never stopped the Cardassians before. They have ways of getting their information." When I declined to rise to that bait, she shrugged, and picked up her mug. "Something to think about."

If she was trying to divert my attention from her by insinuating that I was being used, she was too late. I already knew that. "Where were you last night?" I asked.

She sighed, putting down her mug and pushing her bowl away. "I was at the bar. I heard the Ferengi are allowed to hire some Bajorans for dog work." Again, she shrugged. "It's better than the mines."

"You haven't spent any time in the mines," I said instantly.

"How do you know?" she challenged.

"Your hands."

Automatically, she glanced down at her hands, as if they belonged to someone else. They were as slender and fine-boned, yet strong-looking, as the rest of her. They also weren't so smooth that they looked as if she had never performed manual labor, but they were without the amount of scars, bruises, calluses, and ground-in grime that people tend to acquire digging ore.

She looked back up at me. A rueful smile nearly crossed her lips. "You're not bad at this." It was a tacit acknowledgment that she had underestimated me. "You're right. My last job was at a replicator plant on Bajor."

I looked at her keenly. "You're not allowed to quit those jobs. What happened?"

"I hit a supervisor. For trying..." She paused, and bit her lip. She actually looked somewhat apologetic. "What I thought you were trying a few minutes ago."

"I appreciate your restraint this time," I said dryly. "You're not planning on leaving the station soon?"

"If I were, would you have the Cardassians stop me?"

"Yes," I told her.

"Then I'm not planning on leaving the station soon," she deadpanned.

I stood up. There was nothing more to ask her until I had checked out her alibi. I turned to leave, but was stopped by her voice.

"Let me tell you something. 'Unofficially' or not, you're working for the Cardassians. Sooner or later, you're going to have to choose whose side you're on." Probably she had sensed my basic honesty, and was trying to distract me again, by inducing a crisis of loyalties.

Honest I may be, but not naive. "I don't choose sides," I informed her.

"Everyone has to choose sides, Constable."

That was the first time anyone had called me that: an obsolete term meaning a police officer. Now it is something of a nickname for me around the station, though it is often used as if it were an official title. I have never grown to like it.

I frowned at her, and left her there.

(-|-)

"I don't know what you're talking about," Pallra said.

"You knew nothing about a list?"

"Nothing."

Odo folded his arms and paced a little, a habit of his when questioning a witness or suspect. He hadn't decided yet which one Pallra was. It was partly in order to make up his mind that he had taken a runabout to Bajor to speak with her.

She too was much the same as she had been five years ago, when he had last seen her. Beautiful, gracious, elegant, and not a lot of help. One thing, though, had changed: her acting had improved. Her bland poise was difficult to read.

"Why would your husband have hidden a list of Bajoran names?" he asked.

"I can't imagine why," Pallra replied, as smooth as Krausian silk. "Are you sure it was his?"

"No," Odo had to admit.

"Maybe the Cardassians put it there before they left."

He shook his head; he had already discarded that possibility. "Someone on Bajor told Quark where to find it."

"I wish I could help," Pallra said. "I sort of liked that little Ferengi."

"Oh, don't write his eulogy yet, he's still with us."

Later, Odo would reflect that perhaps if he hadn't been so deep in thought, he might have noticed the reaction in her face. "I thought you said -- "

"He was shot at point-blank range. The Federation doctor saved his life."

Pallra smiled. "Good for him."

Right now, Quark was the least of Odo's worries. He turned back to her as another idea struck him. "Does the name Ches'so mean anything to you?"

If it did, she hid it well. "I don't think so. Who is it?"

"Oh...just someone I'd like to talk to. Thank you for seeing me." That was that. Odo started for the door.

Pallra rose from the chair she had been lounging in. "If this has anything to do with my husband's murder, I'll want to be of help in any way I can."

The automatic doors had already parted to let Odo out, but now he stopped, as if just remembering something, and walked slowly back toward her. "Oh -- there was one other thing...I understand your power was recently terminated for lack of payment."

Her smile froze. "That's right."

"Yet you were able to transfer funds to the power company this morning."

"I don't appreciate you looking into my private affairs."

Pallra's voice was even and pleasant, but he knew he had made her angry. Interesting. He spread his hands, as if placatingly. "Just part of a routine investigation. If you could tell me where you got the money?"

"A loan. From a friend."

He nodded. "Of course. And your friend's name?"

Pallra smiled again. She took his arm, and steered him gently, but pointedly, toward the door. "Odo, this really has nothing to do with your investigation."

"Good. Then you won't mind giving me the name."

"I'm sorry," she said firmly. "My friend is married. I won't drag him into this."

"Ah." He left, this time. He really had no grounds to make her answer his question, but at least there was one thing he knew for sure: she was lying. Oh, it was likely enough that she was no longer in mourning -- he'd never believed she'd really been in it in the first place, despite the deep devotion she claimed to have had for her late husband. She was hiding something, and it was nothing so mundane as a mere illicit love affair.

Unfortunately, he did not know what it was, nor could he prove it...yet.

(-|-)

Security log, supplemental:

The Ferengi holds onto life like it's gold-pressed latinum. Maybe he just doesn't want his brother to get the bar. Or maybe he knows he's the only real witness I have.

Quark was still in the infirmary, still unconscious, still with his eyes wide open, as if in death. Why hadn't anyone closed them, Odo wondered. He stood looking down at the little bar owner who had been the bane of his existence for five years now. Strange, how five years could seem like a lifetime. It felt as if there had never been a time when he hadn't been plagued by Quark.

Once, he had almost been rid of the Ferengi. Almost. When Starfleet had taken the station over, Quark had been all packed up and ready to leave. But then, the new commander, Sisko, had persuaded him to stay, as an example to the station's business community.

Although he had had a sneaking admiration for the human's methods, Odo had doubted the wisdom of keeping Quark around. If it had been up to him, the Ferengi would have been booted off the station years ago. Quark was conniving, greedy, sleazy, and proud of it. A hefty percentage of whatever shady goings-on were occurring on the station at any one time had his hand in them somewhere.

And yet, Quark did have his uses. He was a more or less reliable source of information that certain types of people wouldn't give a security chief. In return, Odo was often willing to be flexible about some of the Ferengi's lesser transgressions. Quark knew this, and was generally careful not to go too far. The unspoken arrangement had worked well over the years.

It was the oddest relationship Odo had ever had. To be sure, he didn't trust Quark as far as he could throw him. But nonetheless, he took a certain amount of relish in their daily battle of wits. It was a constant give-and-take, a game that never ended. What might life be like without it?

Get well, Quark, Odo said silently to his adversary. I don't think I could stand the lack of opposition.

"The next several hours will tell the whole story." Dr. Bashir's soft voice intruded gently into his train of thought. "We've done everything we can for him." He walked past Odo, into the other room. Odo frowned; the human had looked at him in much the same way he looked at anxious relatives of a critical patient.

At that moment, Kira came in with a PADD in her hand. She glanced at Quark, then turned to Odo. "I've got some good news and some bad news. I think I've found our Ches'so."

Odo took the PADD and looked at the image of a Bajoran man, dark-haired and bearded. The name beside it was Ches'sarro Seeto. Well, give Rom credit for coming close. "Who is he?"

"A Bajoran mining engineer. He's been very active in charity work for the war orphans."

"What makes you think he's our man?"

"Some connections from my past suggested he might be."

Her former terrorist associates, Odo surmised. Their memories must be long indeed. A thought began to nag at him.

Kira continued. "The bad news is, he's dead." Odo looked up sharply, the thought vanishing. "Drowned in a pond on his property last night."

Odo let out a long, frustrated sigh. He felt a stab of anger -- anger directed at himself. "I'm responsible," he muttered.

"How?"

"I mentioned the name Ches'so to the Vaatrik woman. If she recognized it as Ches'sarro and thought he might lead us to her..." He trailed off as another realization hit him.

Ches'sarro's name had been the first one on the list. Ches'sarro was now dead. Who had retrieved the list? Quark. Who had hired him? Only Quark knew. But who else could it have been except Pallra? And Odo himself had told her that the attempt on Quark's life had failed.

Fortunately, he could still rectify his mistake. He tapped his commbadge. "Security to the infirmary."

"Acknowledged," said the voice of one of his deputies.

Odo turned to Kira, his mind racing. "Major, I need some help. Advise the medical examiner that I want a complete autopsy on Ches'sarro, and that his death is to be treated as a suspected homicide. I'll need the communications records for the Vaatrik home for the last fifty-two hours. And have the Central Bank keep a supervisor on duty all night. I'll need several bank records as well."

"Whose?"

"I don't know yet."

Kira looked at him curiously for a moment longer, then nodded and left the infirmary, as a young Bajoran deputy entered and stood at attention. His name, Odo recalled, was Daral.

"I want round-the-clock armed security on Quark," Odo instructed. "No visitors."

"Yes, sir."

(-|-)
I disliked Quark's from the moment I first stepped inside. It was filled to the brim with people of every description, talking and laughing as they merrily parted company with their earnings. The gaudy lights, the crowd, the noise, were an assault on my senses. I am private by nature, and prefer quiet.

However, much as I would have liked to avoid the place, I could not do so. I had to confirm an alibi.

I had been told that this Quark was a Ferengi, so I looked the crowd over for a large pair of ears. I didn't have to look long. A raucous laugh drew my gaze, and there was a Ferengi, slapping a smiling Cardassian on the chest armor. "Stop by one of the holosuites! Two programs for the price of one!" He left the Cardassian, and made his way behind the bar, where he began wiping some glasses. I followed.

"I'm looking for the proprietor of this establishment," I said over the noise.

The Ferengi turned slowly, looking me over with open curiosity, combined with caution. "Does he owe you money?" he asked.

"No."

"Are you here to arrest him?"

"No." Did everyone get asked these questions here?

He relaxed slightly, and smiled, showing a jagged set of pointed teeth. I had never met a Ferengi before, but I instantly mistrusted that smile. "Then you've found him. Quark. At your service." He set down the glass he had been cleaning. "First drink on the house," he said jovially. "An old, dreadful Cardassian tradition. What'll you have?"

"I don't drink."

Unfazed, he set out another glass, with a bit of plant material protruding from the top, intended no doubt to be attractive. "A soft drink, then." There was a faint hint of amused condescension in his tone, as if any adult person who didn't drink alcohol must be either a snob or a prude, or both.

"I don't drink," I repeated.

Finally he seemed to get my meaning, and recovered after a moment from the shock. "I guess that's why we don't see you around here much." He meant my species, which of course he had never seen at all, but I let it pass.

"I'd like to ask you a few questions about the death of the Bajoran chemist -- "

Quark interrupted, his eyes lighting up suddenly. "Wait a minute! You're the shapeshifter!"

I looked away, trying to control my irritation.

"You're the one who's working for Dukat!"

"I'm not working for Dukat," I said, a little more sharply than I had intended. Then I softened my voice. "I'm just trying to solve a murder."

He was too excited to listen. "I've heard about you. You do some -- Cardassian neck trick." He gestured at his own neck. "Am I right?"

"Not any more," I said in a low voice. I'd had no idea that that silly trick had gotten so famous.

"That could go over big in this room," he said hopefully.

My distaste for him, already great, increased. Why is it that, when people first learn that I am a shapeshifter, most of them instantly assume that I wish to demonstrate for them on the spot?

I wrenched the conversation back onto track. "I'm checking on the alibi of a young Bajoran woman. Red hair, named Kira Nerys? She said she was here last night."

"Yeah, I remember her," Quark said. "She wanted a job."

"How long was she here?"

He smiled toothily. "Long enough."

I peered intently at him. "Long enough for what?"

"Oh...you know."

"No, I don't," I said with exaggerated patience. "Why don't you tell me?"

His grin broadened, as if he was entertained by my apparent innocence. "She was showing me her...ah...initiative."

"Is that some kind of sexual reference?" I demanded.

"These jobs are hard to come by," he said, and leered. "Her credentials were...very impressive."

I had had enough. Growling, I reached across the bar with both hands, grasped him by the lapels of his loud jacket, and pulled him toward me until our noses almost touched.

Quark let out a startled squawk. "Hey! Listen -- listen here, what's the problem?"

"The problem is, you're lying," I said into his face.

"You've got it all wrong!"

"I want the truth. Otherwise, I'll just turn you over to Dukat, and he can get it for me."

My threat had the desired effect. "Okay, fine," he said quickly. "I didn't realize we were dealing with a murder here." (This, despite the fact that I had mentioned it.) "She didn't pay me enough for that anyway."

Slowly, I released him. "She paid you for an alibi." I nodded my head. I had to admire Kira for thinking ahead. "I wonder how Gul Dukat will react when I tell him about that."

"I'm sure it'll cost me a case of Cardassian ale?" Quark looked beyond me as he spoke, raising his voice.

"Two cases, at the very least," agreed another voice. I turned and saw Dukat himself strolling casually through the crowd to join us. He looked at me with approval. "A broken alibi -- that sounds like progress. Is there someone you want me to arrest?"

"Not yet," I said. I wasn't satisfied. The false alibi was damaging, but so far the evidence against Kira was still entirely circumstantial.

"But soon? I need a name, Odo."

I did not, and do not, respond well to being pushed at any pace but my own. "You'll get your name," I snapped, disregarding for the moment who I was talking to, "when I'm certain it's the right name."

Again, I had dared much. Dukat's eyes widened in what looked like pure astonishment. "Listen to the way he speaks to me, Quark!" Then, surprisingly, he laughed. "You're not afraid of anyone, are you, shapeshifter? Not even me. I was right about you. You are the man for this job."

I understood something then that I hadn't before. And that was the fact that Dukat actually, genuinely liked me. My intransigence did not infuriate him; in fact, it delighted him no end. Perhaps a person in his position, with his intelligence, frequently tired of cowering subordinates. I, however, was someone he could not intimidate. I must have been quite a novelty to him. I was accustomed to being a novelty, but not for such reasons. Usually, it was because of my appearance and my abilities.

Quark showed an ability of his own: seeing which way the wind was blowing. If I was to be Dukat's investigator, and I was high in the Gul's favor, he had better get on my good side, quick. "Listen," he ventured. "I feel, you and I, we've gotten off to a bad start here. Let me make it up to you. Do you...need anything? A little ginger tea? No -- you don't drink -- um, chocolate?" I didn't respond. He tried again, lowering his voice suggestively. "Maybe...companionship?"

My head came up before I could stop it. This creature knew of other shapeshifters? Then I realized that he meant sexual companionship, probably with some holographic fantasy temptress.

I have no idea what Dukat saw in my face, but he began to laugh. Quark promptly joined in.

I stood there and let them laugh.

(-|-)

Sisko glanced up from the after-duty drink he was sharing with Dax in Quark's -- soon, perhaps, to be Rom's -- and saw Odo approaching, a PADD in one hand. "You look like you just lost your best friend, Constable," he observed. He meant it semi-jokingly, but Odo's frown only deepened.

Dax gazed up at Odo, concern on her face. "Is Quark -- ?"

"Quark is stable." Odo handed Sisko the PADD.

Sisko looked at it. It appeared to contain a collection of Bajoran-looking names. "What's this?"

"The list."

"You found it?" Dax asked.

"No. I assembled it from the Vaatrik woman's communications records. She's been talking to each of these people a lot. Odd thing is, she'd never talked to any of them until two days ago."

"When the list was found," Sisko mused. If any doubt had remained as to who had hired Quark, it was gone now.

Odo went on. "Interestingly, every one of them has transferred exactly one hundred thousand Bajoran litas into her bank account within the last twenty-six hours."

"Blackmail?"

"Blackmail."

In the year that had nearly passed since he had first met Odo, Sisko had come to realize that the shapeshifter did have facial expressions; it was simply a matter of detecting and interpreting them. He knew how Odo usually looked when he was making progress on a difficult case -- especially a case like this one, which he understood was connected with a murder from years ago which Odo had been forced to leave unsolved. And this was not how Odo usually looked in these instances. Instead, he looked positively grim -- as if something he had learned was disturbing him deeply.

"What do they have to hide?" he mused.

"For one thing," Odo said, "that they'd come out of the occupation with that kind of money."

"You think they were working with the Cardassians," Dax said.

"Selling out their own world for a profit." Odo sounded profoundly and personally disgusted. "Collaborators...not even a Ferengi would do that." It was the strongest condemnation Sisko had ever heard from him. Odo's antipathy toward Ferengi was well known. "That explains a lot of things," the shapeshifter added, as if to himself.

"Do you have enough to charge her?" Sisko asked.

"Not yet. But I'd like to bring her in for questioning. With your permission, I'll ask the Bajoran authorities to transfer her here."

Sisko handed him back the PADD without a word. Odo gave a very slight nod, acknowledging the tacit approval, and went out.

A Bajoran man sitting at the bar, drinking alone, saw him go, and got up to leave as well.

His name was Trazko.

And he had a job to finish.

(-|-)

Nobody ever had to teach me the justice "trick". That's something I've always known. A racial memory from my species, I guess...it's really the only clue I have to what kind of people they are. Are these kinds of thoughts appropriate for a Starfleet log? I don't care.

There's no room in justice for loyalty, or friendship, or love. Justice, as the humans like to say, is blind. I used to believe that. I'm not sure I can any more.

"Yes -- I lied about my alibi. That doesn't make me a killer."

Kira sat in my office. She was clearly upset, and not having a great deal of success hiding it. Possibly she was hoping that, like most humanoid males, I would be uncomfortable with her display of emotion, and relent.

I was not humanoid. "Where were you when he was murdered?"

"Asleep." Her voice trembled. "Alone."

"No one saw you in the community quarters."

"I wasn't there. I found a small corner, and -- "

"You're lying," I told her.

She blinked. A scared look came onto her face. But she began again, gamely. "I -- "

"Don't bother. Your whole face changes." I shook my head. "I should have seen it before. You don't lie well."

Her gaze dropped, and her shoulders sagged. It was as if the energy to fight me had literally drained out of her body. For a moment, I thought she might start to cry. But she didn't. Instead, she said, "Thanks." Her voice was barely audible.

"So why don't you start telling the truth?"

A pause. "Whose side are you going to be on, Constable?" she asked quietly.

I felt anger rising inside me. "I'm not going to play your game." My voice was cold.

"When I tell you the truth, you'll have to choose."

I turned on her. "No. No. That's why I was given this job. That's why all of you always come to me with problems. I'm the outsider. I'm on no one's side. All I'm interested in is justice. If you're innocent, you'll go free; if not, I'll turn you over to the Cardassian authorities. That's the only choice here."

A long moment passed after my tirade. Kira closed her eyes. She seemed to be struggling with a decision. But there was none to make. There was nothing more for her to hide behind.

"I didn't kill him." It was barely more than a whisper. She opened her eyes. "When he was killed, I was on Level Twenty-one."

I quickly recalled what I had learned of the station in my short time here. "Twenty-one? Ore processing?"

"Check the Cardassian security logs. You'll see a breach on Twenty-one last night." I went to the computer and did as she suggested.

Kira went on, steadily, unemotionally. "I'm in the Bajoran underground. I came here to commit acts of sabotage against the Cardassians. Last night, I succeeded."

There it was. "The ore processor was damaged by a subnucleonic device at twenty-five hundred hours last night," I read. "It'll be out of operation for two weeks."

"Give the mine workers a little time off, at least," Kira said, mirthlessly. "I'll describe the device I used, if you still don't believe me."

I turned back toward her. "That's why you needed an alibi from Quark."

When it had transpired that Vaatrik -- her friend, or perhaps lover -- had been murdered at roughly the same time as the sabotage, Kira had known she was doomed. Her only hope was to lie. I had uncovered that. Now, although she did not know me or have any reason whatsoever to trust me, she had put her life into my hands.

"If you tell the Cardassians the truth, none of this will matter. I'll be executed for the sabotage. Who cares about Bajorans killing Bajorans when you can hang a rebel?" The bitterness in her face and voice was indescribable.

At that moment, Gul Dukat entered my office, and Kira went rigid, unable to stifle a gasp.

Dukat seemed to sense the tension in the air. He looked at Kira, then at me. "Is this her?"

I began, "I told you, when I have the name -- "

"Is this her?"

Kira sat absolutely still, like an animal paralyzed by the gaze of a predator. She watched me dumbly, her brown eyes huge. She was waiting for me to say the words. When I said them, it would all be over for her.

I was thinking very quickly. Kira was not the murderer; I believed that now. But she was a rebel spy and saboteur, and the law demanded that I turn her in to Dukat. However, I had discovered something when I had become involved in this case. I had found in myself an instinct for justice that I had not known I possessed. Justice was a part of me. And justice and the law are not always the same thing.

Kira was fighting for her people. I do not even know my people -- but I hope that if I ever find them, I will do whatever I can to fight for them, too.

In the meantime, to make a young woman -- a mere girl, really -- pay for her loyalty with her life was not justice.

I chose. "No," I said to Dukat, very clearly. I lifted my chin at Kira. "You can go."

She needed no urging. She rose and started quickly for the door. But as she tried to push past Dukat, his hand shot out and caught her by the arm. She froze. Dukat looked once more from Kira to me, slowly.

"If you're lying, shapeshifter..."

"If you know as much about me as you say you do, Gul Dukat," I interrupted sharply, not bothering to hide the anger in my voice, "you know I don't lie. I am convinced that she did not kill Vaatrik."

Dukat stared at me. Then realization crossed his face. He was the one who had forced this job on me -- no doubt against the wishes of some of his advisors who likely favored the random-execution method of crime solving. To question my judgment would have been the same as admitting he had been wrong. He held Kira's arm a moment more, then released her.

Kira did not look back.

(-|-)

The next day, as I was passing by an airlock, I saw her again. She had a small travel bag slung over one shoulder. It was plain that she was waiting for the next shuttle back down to Bajor. I was about to walk on, but, to my surprise, she called to me. "Odo."

I stopped and turned back toward her. She hesitated, then plunged on. "I -- I've been hoping I'd see you before I left. I wanted to ask you something."

"What is it?"

She glanced quickly around, as if to make sure we were alone, and lowered her voice. "Why? I mean -- why didn't you tell Dukat? You would have had something to show for your investigation, at least. And if he finds out you know who sabotaged the ore processor..."

I was silent for a moment, debating how to answer her. The simple truth seemed best. "I told you," I said. "All I'm interested in is justice."

Kira searched my eyes. Surprise registered in hers, as if she was only now realizing that I had indeed meant what I said.

"Oh. Well...thanks." She paused awkwardly. "And -- be careful...Constable."

The airlock door rolled open. I inclined my head slightly toward her. "And you also."

Kira smiled at me, and stepped through the airlock.

(-|-)

The second most likely suspect was Pallra. However, I could find no evidence to verify her guilt, and eventually she moved back planetside. No more leads appeared, and the case went unsolved.

Dukat seemed impressed with me regardless. He offered me a permanent post as chief of security on Terok Nor.

Some might have wondered why he did so -- but only if they weren't Cardassians. My pursuit of justice may have been a foreign concept to Dukat, and it may have meant that he could never completely count on my support in matters of policy, but it also meant that he could trust me, as long as I was given free rein to do the job my way. Dukat knew also that things that might sorely tempt others -- such as money, food, sex, and, most importantly, power -- held no interest for me.

I accepted the job. There were other crimes, other cases. Most of them ended satisfactorily. I gained experience, and earned both resentment and respect. Dukat and I came to understand one another somewhat and get along tolerably well, although I never made the mistake of assuming that he was my friend.

On a few occasions, I saw Kira on the station. When I did, I knew she was on another mission. And if, after something or other mysteriously went right on those missions, she suspected a subtle influence at work -- someone with the kind of access allowed, say, a security chief -- she had the discretion not to ask me to confirm it.

When I had been on Terok Nor for four years, the Cardassians finally withdrew from Bajor after sixty years of occupation. Before leaving, Dukat asked me to accompany him, promising an important post in the Cardassian government. This offer, I refused. I was needed most where I was.

I kept as much order as was possible in the chaos the Cardassians left behind. I like to think that perhaps I prevented the damage they did to the station from being worse than it was.

Starfleet came; Terok Nor became Deep Space Nine. Kira was assigned by the provisional government as liaison officer, and I was retained as chief of security. We began finally to work together. And somehow, despite the way we had met just a few years ago, we became friends.

The wormhole was discovered: my first clue as to where I might have originated.

Life went on.

(-|-)

Odo stood alone in his silent office.

He had never planned to be here. He had been coerced into the job, thrown in to sink or swim, without training. He had been reluctant and uncertain at first. But then he had made a surprising discovery: he enjoyed it. After years as a laboratory specimen and object of curiosity, at last he had found something he excelled in, other than shifting his shape. Best of all, while that ability was quite an asset, it was not as important as his other skills: observation, deduction, and patience, not to mention sheer raw intuition. Those were not innate, but hard-won. Those, he could take pride in.

But he had never solved that first case. Until now. Now, he believed he finally knew who had killed Vaatrik.

This time, however, it did not feel good at all.

(-|-)

A fresh, sweet scent drifted through the infirmary. It was not a common aroma there, where all manner of often noxious ailments were treated. Daral, the security deputy on guard, turned, and saw its source: a bunch of flowers held in the hand of a Bajoran man, who smiled innocently.

"Is it too late for visitors?"

Daral recalled Odo's orders. "I'm sorry, sir. No visitors are allowed."

"Perhaps you could just put these in water for him." The man held the flowers out to him.

"Of course," Daral said, reaching for them.

The Bajoran shoved them into Daral's stomach, hard.

Through a shocking haze of agony, Daral stared down at the knife handle protruding from just under his sternum. At the red blood darkening his brown uniform.

The flowers fell to the floor. After a moment, so did Daral.

Trazko turned away. Now to business.

When Pallra had hired him to ensure that Quark could neither incriminate her nor horn in on her blackmail scheme, he had confidently assured her of his reliability. After all, hadn't he done this sort of work since the end of the occupation? And hadn't he been the most efficient killer in his particular terrorist cell before that?

Then, yesterday, as he had been deciding where to spend his well-earned wages, she had called him with the news that Quark was still alive, much to her displeasure and Trazko's chagrin. He had partially redeemed himself by making certain that Ches'sarro Seeto had an unfortunate fatal accident, before returning to the station to await another opportunity to finish the job on Quark.

His target lay unmoving, unblinking, a life support unit covering his torso. This was almost going to be too easy. Trazko found the controls and switched it off. Then he picked up a pillow, placed it over Quark's face, and pressed.

At that moment, he heard a gasp behind him. He whirled and saw another Ferengi, gaping at him in shock.

Immediately Trazko abandoned Quark. His most urgent priority now was to eliminate the witness. He made a grab for the ugly little troll's throat, but at the last moment the Ferengi twisted and jerked backward, and Trazko was able only to snatch a hold of his jacket.

Worse still, the Ferengi began howling like a red alert klaxon as he struggled wildly to free himself. Trazko couldn't get a better grip on him so he could shut him up. They lurched about until the Ferengi crashed into a cart full of medical supplies.

That tore it. Now Trazko would be lucky just to escape. He could always try again later. He turned and fled -- too late. As he reached the door, he was nearly bowled over by that freak of a security chief.

Odo had heard the racket and acted quickly, taking a deputy and rushing to the infirmary at top speed. He was first in the door, as a Bajoran man was running out. Odo promptly grabbed him and shoved him against the wall, holding him still with little effort despite the man's struggles, while the deputy checked on Quark and Daral.

Odo slapped his commbadge. "Odo to Bashir! Report to the infirmary immediately!"

"On my way," said Bashir's voice.

Rom was still howling. Odo had to shout to make himself heard. "It's over, Rom, over! You're a hero."

The howling stopped. Rom blinked at him. "I am?"

"You saved your brother's life," Odo told him.

Rom smiled. Then he thought about it, and started howling again.

On the bed, Quark finally moved. Or, at least his face did. His mouth twitched, and then, very slowly, smiled.

(-|-)

Kira was there when the Bajoran transport arrived, and Pallra stepped through the airlock, escorted by planetary security officers. Together, she and Odo took charge of the grandly dressed widow and led her to the holding area of the station's security complex.

Trazko had been stonily silent since his arrest. No matter -- a confession was hardly needed. Rom's testimony, backed up by the evidence of the injured deputy, ensured that. Odo also had enough to link Trazko to the murder of Ches'sarro Seeto and put him away for a good long while.

Pallra made a show of looking Trazko over long and carefully. At last, she turned back to Kira and Odo. "I've never seen him before in my life," she declared, as cool as ever.

You're good, Pallra, Kira said silently. But you're not good enough.

"Really," Odo said, his tone reflecting Kira's thoughts. "Your communication records indicate that you made several calls to his home. And received several as well."

Kira crossed to Pallra. "You also transferred a large sum of money into his account two days ago."

Pallra's cool became cold. "I want to confer with my advocate."

"Certainly," Odo agreed. "I'll make arrangements for you to speak with him. Meantime, the two of you can introduce yourselves to one another." He switched off the forcefield leading into an empty cell, and waited.

Pallra stood still. Kira thought maybe she needed help getting the idea. She took Pallra's arm; Pallra yanked it away, glaring at Kira, who glared right back and took her arm again. Finally, Pallra seemed to realize that she was well and truly beaten. But her head was high as she stepped past Odo and into the cell.

"I don't care what you think you know, shapeshifter," she said haughtily. "You will never be able to prove that I killed my husband." She turned to face him as he reactivated the forcefield. "Because I didn't."

"I know," Odo said.

Kira turned her head to stare at him. But he avoided her eyes and left the holding area, heading back towards the outer office.

Sweet Prophets, he knows.

From the moment, she had heard about the list, Kira had known that Odo would not let this case go. Not this time. Tell him, a part of her mind had urged. You owe him that much. Tell him, before he figures it out on his own.

And yet, she hadn't been able to bring herself to do it. Something had held her back...something she could only call cowardice. Instead, she had tried to act normal, going on about her business as if this were just another case she was helping Odo with, and hoping against slim hope that things would stay as they had been after all.

She found him standing behind his chair, his back to her.

"When did you realize?" she asked, simply.

There was a heaviness in his voice that made her chest ache as he answered. "The possibility occurred to me when you got the name Ches'sarro so quickly. Your friends from the underground must have already suspected him of being a collaborator." He turned to lean on the back of the chair. He still wasn't looking at her. "Once I knew the eight names were a list of collaborators, the murder of Vaatrik made sense for the first time. He must have been a collaborator too -- he had the money for ginger tea, he had the private quarters." He paused, and sighed. "I never had a motive for his murder, until now. He kept his wife in relative luxury; she surely wouldn't have killed him. So, who would kill a Cardassian collaborator?"

Finally, he looked up, and into her eyes. "Someone in the Bajoran underground, of course."

Kira sighed. The moment she had hoped would never come was here. She would rather die a million deaths at the hands of Cardassian torturers than have to face Odo right now. But she forced herself to come forward and stand across his desk from him, meeting his gaze head on.

"A colleague of mine was given the job of sabotaging the ore processor," she said, at long last. "Vaatrik -- was my responsibility."

"You were here to execute him."

"No." Her denial was emphatic. "I was here to find the list. The names of the Bajorans who were selling us out. We'd been informed that Vaatrik was our direct link to Dukat."

"Ah." Odo nodded slowly, as the last piece of the puzzle finally fell into place. "That must have been why he chose me to investigate. He had to stay as far away from this...incident as he could, so as not to endanger his network of Bajoran sympathizers."

Dukat had been in a delicate position. When one of his top pet collaborators had turned up dead, he hadn't dared follow standard Cardassian operating procedure. To avoid giving the rebels ammunition for their cause, he had to look as if he wanted to catch the actual murderer. So he had taken a daring step. He had brought in Odo, a newcomer to criminal investigation, but one with a reputation for integrity and impartiality.

However -- and this was the rub -- Dukat had wanted the case investigated, but not necessarily solved. He had told Odo to find the murderer, and at the same time had set him up to fail, by neglecting to mention the minor fact that Vaatrik had been a collaborator.

Knowing Odo as she did, Kira was sure that no amount of subsequent successes in the five years since then had managed to completely erase that failure from his memory. If he had been trained in security work...if he had been just a little more persistent, a little more thorough...

Yet now, the knowledge that that one failure was no fault of his, that he had simply been deliberately screwed before he had ever started, was plainly giving him no comfort at all.

"Obviously, I never found the list," she made herself continue. "But that's what I was looking for in Vaatrik's shop when he walked in on me." She hesitated, then said it, at last. "I -- didn't have a choice."

Odo regarded her. The bleak, betrayed look in his eyes cut right through her. Had he practiced that expression? Was it natural and unconscious? Or was she imagining things? "I misjudged you, Major," he said. "You were a better liar than I gave you credit for."

"You were working for the Cardassians!" she flared at him.

"I haven't been for more than a year. You've had all that time to tell me the truth."

Kira caught her breath. He was right, utterly and completely right. She had no excuses. The only thing she could do was offer reasons -- feeble as they were.

"I tried to tell you the truth a hundred times." She paused, casting her gaze downward. "What you think of me...matters a lot. I was afraid -- " She couldn't go on, couldn't trust her voice.

He said it for her. "That it might affect our friendship?" His voice was softer than she had ever heard it.

She bit her lip and nodded, unable to meet his gaze. There was a long moment of silence, broken at last by his voice, softer than she had ever heard it.

"Maybe...it doesn't have to."

Kira dared to look up at him. His eyes were hooded; she couldn't read his expression. Yes, she had hurt him; yes, she had let him down; and he would never know just how deeply she regretted having done so. And yet, despite everything, he was holding out the possibility of forgiveness.

She had to swallow hard to battle back a rush of tears at the realization that she meant as much to him as he did to her, that he didn't want their friendship to end any more than she did. Somehow, that knowledge hurt worse than his condemnation would have. Damn it, why wouldn't he yell at her, throw her out of his office, tell her he never wanted to see her again?

"Will you ever be able to trust me in the same way again?" Asking that question was a mistake, she realized as soon as the words had left her lips. She was the one who hadn't trusted him enough to tell him the truth.

Odo lifted his head and looked at her. He drew himself up for a moment, and at that moment, she knew the answer he wanted to give her.

But he didn't give it.

She watched as he lowered his head again. And they stood like that for a long time.

(-|-)

THE END


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