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Disclaimer: Paramount owns all characters and concepts of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. No infringement on their copyrights is intended. Please do not link this story without my permission.

A New Light
by Tracy L. Hemenover


"Now I know something's wrong."

Dax's voice echoed slightly in the confines of the springball court.

Kira didn't answer at first, but grabbed a towel and mopped her sweaty face and chest with it, then tossed it to Dax. "What makes you say that?" she panted.

"That's the third time this month I've beaten you at springball," the Trill declared as she dabbed at her spotted neck. Her smile was teasing, but there was a concerned look in her eyes.

Kira shrugged, affecting nonchalance as she picked up the ball. "Maybe you're just getting better."

Dax rolled her eyes, and pointed a finger at her. "You are avoiding the issue."

"What issue?"

"There, you see? You avoided it just then."

Kira looked at her friend for a moment. She was all too familiar with Dax in nosy mode. There would be no peace until she confessed to whatever was up with her.

Yet, how could she, when she wasn't sure what it was herself?

"Let's sit," she sighed, and walked over to the bench. She straddled one end, while Dax settled on the other, watching as Kira picked up a bottle of water and took a sip. She was starting to get her breath back.

"It's a lot of things," she began at last, passing the bottle to Dax. "I'm not even certain of just what."

"Does it have to do with Shakaar?"

How on Bajor did Dax do that? "A little," Kira admitted. "We're both so busy that it's hard to find the time to see each other. I haven't even heard from him in a couple of weeks now. And I can't help thinking about when I had a relationship before with someone who lived on Bajor while I lived here."

"You mean Bareil." It was not a question.

"Yes. It put a strain on things. I like to think we could have overcome it, but I'll never know that, because he died before we could work it out." Kira sighed. "Now the same thing is happening with Shakaar, and I'm not sure what to do about it, or if there's anything I can do, short of giving up my position here and moving to Bajor. And I don't want to do that."

Dax studied her. "Are you thinking of breaking up with him?"

"I -- I'm not sure. It's a hard decision to make, especially when I don't even know what I want."

"You love him, don't you?"

Kira opened her mouth to answer, and realized to her dismay that she had no idea what she was going to say.

Dax's blue eyes searched hers. "I guess that answers my question. I'm sorry. What are you going to do?"

"Don't jump to conclusions, Jadzia. I do love him. We're just -- having problems, that's all. We'll solve them."

"I hope so." Dax touched Kira's arm. "But remember, it's your choice. You don't have to stay in a relationship if you discover it's not right for you. And there are a lot of other men to pick from."

"Oh really? I hadn't noticed anyone falling at my feet lately."

Dax shrugged. "You never know. The right man could come by at any moment. Or, he could have been under your nose all along."

Kira looked at her quizzically. What a strange remark for Dax to make. But then, Dax loved to be cryptic. She was about to respond when her commbadge chirped. "Odo to Kira."

She jumped a little, then recovered. "Go ahead."

"There's a Cardassian transport docking at bay four in fifteen minutes, Major. Your presence is required."

"Why? Who's coming?"

A slight pause. "Parr Landa."

Kira went cold. "I'll be there."

Her heart pounding, she turned to Dax. "Sorry. I have to go. We'll have a rematch later, all right?"

Dax stood at the same time Kira did. "Who's Parr Landa?"

"A war criminal. The Cardassians have finally agreed to turn him over to Bajor for trial. Though if you ask me, a trial's too good for him."

Kira left the holosuite and raced toward her quarters.

(-|-)

Thirteen minutes later, she stood with Odo and two Bajoran deputies at the airlock to docking bay four. Parr Landa...the thought of him sickened her. One of Bajor's worst traitors and collaborators during the occupation. She had personally seen him murder ten people -- his own people -- including two children. All on the orders of a Cardassian who suspected that a rebel was among those ten unfortunate Bajorans.

Odo had nodded to her on her arrival, but said nothing. He knew a little about her acquaintance with Parr; she had told him, back in the time when they talked about everything.

That was another part of why things felt so...off lately. Odo had been her closest friend, but for months now, he had seemed as distant and reserved toward her as if she were just another person he worked with.

She had no idea why. Oh, she remembered the reason he had given her when he said he was cancelling their weekly meetings: they weren't really necessary, and he was "keeping to the essentials", whatever that meant. But there was something more, and she couldn't put her finger on it.

She tried to catch his eye, but he was looking at the airlock door.

Finally it rolled open, and three stony-faced Cardassians stepped through with Parr between them. He was fatter than she remembered, and his hair was thinner. He grinned at her as if they were meeting at a party. She glared back, but said nothing.

Odo conducted the transfer, speaking briskly to the Cardassians, then took Parr's arm and led him off with Kira and the two deputies.

"It's a pleasure to see you again, Nerys," Parr remarked pleasantly.

"The feeling is not mutual," she retorted.

Parr chuckled. "No, I suppose not. You've moved on since those days, haven't you? Is it true you're sleeping with the First Minister now?"

Kira gritted her teeth but remained silent, not trusting herself.

"Not that I'm surprised."

"That's enough," Odo growled, tightening his grip.

"Ooh, a tough one." Parr looked Odo up and down. "You're that shapeshifter I've been hearing about, aren't you? You must be even better than a First Minister. Eh, Nerys? Or hasn't she tried you yet?"

His voice a menacing rasp, Odo said, "If you don't shut up, I'll knock you out and carry you to a holding cell. Is that clear?"

"Touchy," Parr said, but at a shake from Odo, he subsided.

Kira looked away to hide her face, which, to her surprise, had become warm with emotions she couldn't begin to identify. Don't pay any attention, Nerys, she scolded herself. He's not worth it. He's just trying to upset you because that's all he can do, and he knows it.

When Parr was secured behind the forcefield of one of the holding cells, Kira followed Odo back out to the main security office. For some reason, she found herself lingering as he sat down behind his desk and picked up a PADD. He pecked at it a little with his fingers, entering a report on the safe prisoner transfer, then looked up.

"Something I can do for you, Major?" he asked.

"Um...no. I just wanted to say I'm sorry you had to hear that from him. He tried to start a relationship with me once, and..."

Odo regarded her for a moment. "I see," he said neutrally. There was a pause, then he went on, more gently. "If anything, I'm the one who should apologize, for subjecting you to that. Had I known -- "

"Don't worry about it," Kira said quickly. "I've heard worse."

He nodded, and went back to his report. She watched him for a minute or two.

"Odo -- "

He looked up again.

What happened? Why is everything so awkward between us now? We've shared so much -- what made us into virtual strangers?

Looking into his calm, inquiring gaze, she suddenly couldn't speak. Except to say one word.

"Nothing," she said, and left.

(-|-)

Odo sat looking out the doors to his office, still seeing in his mind Kira's departing form. The PADD lay forgotten in his hands.

It was his own fault. He had made the decision to withdraw from her, to see her as little as possible, back when she and Shakaar had become lovers. The choice had been vital, to maintain his sanity, and his effectiveness at his job -- the job that was his only refuge and reason for being.

What he hadn't realized at the time was how his decision would affect Kira. He had thought he was doing the right thing; now he saw that in saving himself he had hurt her.

Good, part of him said. Why should I be the only one to suffer? Let her see how it feels, for a change.

Another part of him ached.

But, as always, he wrapped it up in a neat bundle and set it aside so that he could get on with the task at hand.

He ought to be good at that by now.

(-|-)

The thing that solid beings called sleep was alien to Odo. He had never been able to fathom why any species should evolve with the need to be unconscious for periods of time. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for predators to wipe them out.

He had asked Mora about it once, long ago, and Mora had replied that for the most part predators needed sleep too. That answer had hardly satisfied Odo, but at the time he had been wary of Mora's tendency to lecture him on science, in the mistaken belief that Odo might be interested in it as a career. So he had nodded, and found something else to do, quick.

He himself did not sleep. Whenever he reverted to his natural liquid state to rest, he felt enormous relief, as staying solid for sixteen hours straight was a constant drain on the energy it took to do so. But his mind remained aware.

Therefore, when he heard the call, "Security to Chief Odo," the only time it took for him to answer was the time it took to resume his humanoid form.

"Go ahead."

"Sorry to wake you, sir." Odo suppressed a snort; the deputy calling him was new to the station. "But we need you down here right away."

"What's happened?"

"Parr Landa's gone."

When Odo arrived in the holding area, he was met by two deputies who were scanning the cell that had held Parr. There was no trace of the prisoner.

"Report," he ordered brusquely.

The younger deputy, Ryal -- the one who had called him -- broke into a sweat, and gulped. "I was on prisoner watch duty, sir. I swear, I never left the room. I was looking right at him when he disappeared."

Odo gave a short nod, much to Ryal's evident relief, and looked at the other deputy. "Seeli. What have you got?"

She handed him the tricorder. "It was a transporter beam. I don't know how they got through the security shielding, but they did. The only people I can think of with transporter technology that advanced are -- "

" -- the Dominion," Odo finished grimly, seeing the readings for himself. He entered the cell, scanning both with the tricorder and with his sense of vision.

Something registered, something that might almost be a life form. He followed the beeps from the tricorder, and found it on the floor beside the bed.

It was a stone.

Immediately Odo recognized it. He had seen a similar-looking stone before, in a locket that a refugee from the Gamma Quadrant had worn around his neck.

Briefly, Odo thought of Croden, who had called him Changeling long before Odo had known that that was the name of his people. Croden had used the locket stone as a key. He had given it to Odo, who had kept it ever since. Odo was not normally sentimental about objects, but Croden's stone had been the first thing he had ever encountered that was remotely like himself.

He picked the stone up and held it. There was no doubt in his mind that it was a message of some sort, a message from his people, intended for him. And after a moment's thought, he had an idea of how to read it.

He turned his hand liquid. The stone became liquid as well. He felt its molecules interacting with his own, and a thought that was not his inserted itself into his mind.

When you come looking, bring no one with you except Major Kira.

Odo pushed the foreign molecules away as he resolidified his hand.

(-|-)

"How could this happen?" Captain Sisko's voice seemed made for strong emotions. When he was angry, that voice alone had quelled many a brave soul.

Odo stood calmly, withstanding the voice in the same way a rock withstands a wave crashing over it. "We found traces of a transporter beam in the holding cell."

"I thought Security had special shielding around it to prevent just such an occurrence." Sisko's voice quieted, but his dark eyes were still hard.

Odo hesitated for only a fraction of a second. "From the readings, it appears that the transporter beam was -- of Dominion origin."

Sisko stared at him in silence for a moment. Odo found himself recalling a time when the human had said to him, You know, Constable, I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but there are times when I wish you'd never found your people.

And Odo had replied, Believe me, Captain, sometimes I feel the same way.

Neither Sisko nor any other officer Odo worked with had ever indicated that they thought Odo was to blame for being of the same species as the Founders, the Dominion's ruthless creators and leaders. They knew that as soon as he had learned the truth about who his people were, he had repudiated them and all they stood for.

But there were times when Odo couldn't help but wonder if their seeming acceptance of him hid a deeper resentment that even the most rational humanoid could not quite purge. After all, the Founders were still for the most part a nebulous threat. Odo was present and visible: someone they could focus their fears on, whether they meant to do so or not.

Sisko sighed a little, and looked from Odo to the rest of the senior staff. "How many ships left the station last night?"

"Two," Kira said. "One was the Centennial, a Starfleet scout ship. It was phaser-scanned and the crew bloodtested, though of course that doesn't preclude someone acting as an agent. The other was the Cardassian transport that brought Parr here. My guess is it was them. That those weren't Cardassians, but Changelings. Hell, Parr was probably a Changeling too."

"Why would the Dominion pull such a stunt?" Bashir wondered.

"Isn't that obvious, Doctor?" Odo retorted, the harshness in his voice betraying his bitterness. "The return of Parr Landa to Bajor for trial was considered a major step forward in relations between Bajor and Cardassia, by both sides. The Dominion has an interest in causing trouble for all the Alpha Quadrant powers, but Bajor and Cardassia merit special attention, by virtue of their proximity to the wormhole." He turned to Sisko. "Captain, I'll need to take a runabout and see if I can follow them."

Sisko gave it only an instant's thought. "Agreed. You're the only one of us who may have a certain amount of -- immunity with the Dominion."

Odo nodded, expressionlessly. He knew that his "immunity" had probably ended the moment he had killed a fellow Changeling on the Defiant. But there was no point in bringing that up. "I'll need Major Kira as well." He chose not to tell Sisko why, at least not now.

"All right," Sisko said readily. He knew as well as anyone that Odo and Kira had made a good team in the past. "Good luck."

As Odo left the wardroom with Kira behind him, he tried not to think about the fact that, next to Quark, or maybe Worf, she was the last person on the station he wanted to be confined in a runabout with.

(-|-)

"There it is. Definitely a Cardassian warp signature."

"Huh. That was easy." Odo studied the sensors on the Yukon as the runabout sped after its prey. "They seem to be headed for the Badlands."

"Not where you'd expect a Cardassian ship to go, wouldn't you say? Nothing less than a Galor-class warship, anyway, what with the Maquis still active."

Odo's only response was a grunt.

Some time later, as they entered the area of the Cardassian border known as the Badlands, Kira wanted to punch something in frustration. Something about their enemies' behavior was maddening, as if this was -- what had Sisko called it once? -- a game of cat-and-mouse. And she had no doubt as to who was the mouse, even though she and Odo were the ones doing the pursuing.

And Odo: what was up with him? Throughout the journey he had seemed preoccupied, detached. He spoke to her, but only when spoken to.

This was the perfect opportunity to ask him why he had been so remote toward her in the past year. But something kept holding her back from initiating that particular subject. Perhaps it was that she instinctively didn't want to intrude on the thoughts he must be having at the prospect of encountering his people again.

Finally, after a long stretch of silence, surprisingly it was Odo who spoke, leaning forward intently over his console. "That's odd," he said.

"What is it?"

"Does that moon look familiar to you, Major?"

Puzzled, Kira studied the body on the runabout viewscreen. It was just a small, nondescript moon, orbiting a gas-giant planet. "No," she said. "Should it?"

"We were here once before. Remember, when we were returning from that security review on Prophets' Landing, two years ago?"

Kira looked at the moon again. Now, with her memory jogged, it was coming back to her. A signal from a freighter that had been attacked. A Maquis ship. A chase, to this very moon. A search through some caverns. Then, waking up in a stasis chamber, with Odo bending over her.

"Now I do," she said, in answer to his question. She checked the sensors. "That's the same moon, all right. But there's something different about it."

Odo nodded. "No atmospheric ionization to interfere with readings. And according to those readings, the moon is perfectly stable seismically. The interference and the quakes when we were here before must have been staged by the Dominion."

"Somehow I'm not surprised," Kira observed sourly. "I don't like this. This is looking more and more like a trap."

(-|-)

"How very astute of you, Major."

It wasn't Odo's voice speaking. Kira blinked and looked around.

What the hell? Where was she?

She was no longer on the Yukon, but in a cave. And standing beside her was a familiar-looking woman with smooth, minimal features, flat short hair, and a painfully simple orange dress.

"Greetings," she said calmly.

Every muscle tense, Kira forced herself not to leap forward and attack the smug face before her. Instead, she snarled, "Where am I?"

"You do not recognize this place? You were here two years ago, with Odo."

Kira looked around, and took a deep breath. "Okay. Now, the question is -- "

"Why," the Founder finished for her. "And the answer is that you are here as...incentive."

"Incentive? Incentive for who?"

"Let us say that I wished to show Odo something."

Kira shook her head, with a disbelieving smile. "Didn't you think of just contacting him?"

"I plan to do just that," the Founder said smoothly. "But first, I wish to have a few words with you."

Kira made herself relax slightly. She even turned away and strolled to a wall, then turned back, her arms folded. "I don't get it. What is the matter with you people? Hasn't it occurred to you that if the only way you can communicate with Odo is by leading him into a trap, maybe, just maybe, it's because he wants nothing to do with you?"

The Founder sat casually on a boulder. "Imagine, Major, if you had had a child, and that child had turned against you. Would you not do everything in your power to reconcile him to your ways?"

"We're not talking about a child here."

"By our standards, Odo has barely begun his life. Yet he has chosen to spend it where he does not belong, and to ally himself with our enemies."

"You know," Kira said, "I always wondered something, ever since we came across you Founders. Hasn't it occurred to you that if you didn't want Odo corrupted by us solids, you shouldn't have sent him away in the first place? But you did. And you're actually surprised that he didn't somehow turn out exactly like you?" She shook her head again. "You people are amazing."

The Founder eyed her coolly. "Do not attempt to judge what you cannot hope to understand."

"What I hope is that I never understand you," Kira retorted.

"We do not require understanding from solids," the Founder replied loftily.

Kira had to restrain herself again. She refused to throw a fit and provide entertainment for this tub of goo. Instead, she changed tack. "Fine," she said. "So why bring us back to this place just to get Odo to talk to you? And why did you beam me here and not him?"

"I told you, I wished to speak with you, alone."

"All right. So speak."

The Founder rose, and smiled, ever so slightly. It was not a pleasant look at all.

"Do you recall the last time you were here?" she asked.

"We chased a Maquis fugitive here. It turned out to be you. You pretended to be me, and tried to get Odo to go back to the Dominion with you. But it didn't work. And whatever you're trying now won't work either." Kira mustered all the bravado she had learned from a lifetime of dealing with Cardassians and other bullies.

"That remains to be seen. I'm curious, Major -- did Odo ever tell you how he uncovered my ruse?"

Kira frowned, puzzled at the question. "No. What does that have to do with anything?"

"You solids are so impatient. I suppose that is because of your short lifespan, and perhaps being locked in one form as well. But no matter, I am coming to it. Did you never wonder why he was less than forthcoming with you on that occasion?"

"Why should I? He said it wasn't important. I believed him. So what?"

"Then I will tell you."

Kira sighed loudly. "Fine, since it seems to matter so much to you."

"Here," the Founder said, "in this cavern, when Odo believed that I was you, and that you were about to die, he admitted that he was in love with you."

Kira stared at her.

The Founder let out a little sigh. "Unfortunately, I made the error of telling him that I -- or rather, you -- returned that love. He knew it was not so, and so he deduced the truth. I will confess that he was wiser than I credited him."

"You're going to have to do better than that," Kira said. Odo, in love with her? It was insane.

"Believe what you will. The truth remains the truth." The bland, smug smile returned. "Why don't you ask him yourself, when he arrives?"

"I don't have to. You see, you don't know him. You gave up that chance a long time ago. I've been his friend for years. There are no secrets between us. If Odo did feel that way, I'd know."

"You are so certain?" The Founder cocked her head slightly. "Perhaps you are right. Perhaps part of your mind does know, yet refuses to acknowledge it. Because if you did, you would have to face being loved by a being whose physical nature repulses you."

"That's not true!" Kira said hotly.

"Is it not? Think of it, Major. A man who is no man at all. A thing who shares nothing with you except a semblance of humanoid form, when he is not a pool of liquid."

Kira turned away.

"Yes, I see it does repulse you. You claim friendship with Odo, yet you cannot accept what he truly is. Do not trouble yourself, Major. You cannot be blamed for having emotions as limited as your body."

The Founder stepped back and dissolved. Kira could have sworn that the superior look on her face remained a full five seconds after the rest of her had beamed away.

She picked up a rock and flung it at the spot where the Founder had stood. The childish gesture gave her no satisfaction. She paced the cavern; there were several passages leading away, but each one had a forcefield at the entrance.

Trapped.

(-|-)

Odo was nearly frantic. Scan after scan of the moon and its vicinity had proven fruitless. Think, Odo, he commanded himself. Obviously it was the Dominion who had beamed Kira off the runabout. But why just her?

The only possible answer he could come up with would have made his blood run cold, if he had had any.

She must be a hostage.

And he knew now why the message-stone had demanded that she be the one to accompany him. The Founders knew of his feelings for Kira. He himself had told one of them, though not by choice; they had tricked it out of him.

Who better than Kira to use as leverage over him?

He ruthlessly pushed his fear and self-reproach away. He had to concentrate.

Finally an idea hit him. Rather than look directly for Bajoran lifesigns, he would scan for any area on the moon that the Yukon's sensors couldn't penetrate. He watched the readings, and in a few seconds he had located just such an area.

He was about to aim the runabout to land near that area, when a signal sounded, indicating he was being hailed.

Quickly, he answered the hail. Time to see what they wanted.

"Greetings, Odo," said the Founder who appeared on the comm screen. It was the same one he had met twice before, once on his homeworld, and once here, when she had impersonated Kira. At least, he expected she was the same one.

"What have you done with Major Kira?" he barked at her, in no mood for pleasantries.

"She is unharmed."

"I hope so, for your sake," Odo said. But his threat sounded vague and empty, even to himself. "What is the point of all this?"

The Founder smiled a little. "You will learn that soon enough, Odo. But first..."

(-|-)

Kira sat down, hugging her knees to her chest. Nothing to do now but think.

Could it be true?

She found herself reviewing her acquaintance with Odo. It was the most satisfyingly undemanding friendship she had ever maintained; neither had ever tried to change the other or asked more than the other was willing to give.

Somehow, she had always assumed that he saw their relationship exactly the same way she did.

What if she'd been wrong?

Had he ever given any indication? It had never occurred to her to read any deeper meaning into anything he had said to her or done with her. She knew what he was -- a shapeshifter. Yet for some reason she had always taken him completely at face value.

What about the time when she'd been recalled to Bajor, and Odo had been so furious with her for not fighting it that he had actually come to her quarters and shouted at her?

Or the stricken look in his eyes when he had learned the truth about who had killed Vaatrik?

Hadn't he seemed taken aback when she had told him of her love for Bareil, before recovering and claiming to have known it all along?

And his reaction last year when she had begun seeing Shakaar romantically had been rather odd, hadn't it? In fact, now that she thought about it, that was when he had cancelled their weekly meetings.

But she still remembered the chats they had had before. The way he would patiently listen to whatever was bothering her, then make some observation that helped her see things from a different perspective. The awareness of being the only humanoid on the station whose company he seemed to truly enjoy. The big things, like the times when he had saved her life, and the little things, like the raktajino he used to have ready for her without fail when she arrived for one of their meetings.

Had he been telling her every day, in a thousand ways, for years? Had she simply been too blind to see it?

She knew Odo had feelings, of course. Why shouldn't love be one of them? Yet she had never known him to pursue anyone, or to let himself be caught when someone pursued him. If she'd thought about it at all, she'd assumed it was because he was waiting for someone of his own species.

But he had abandoned all such hope, not to mention any chance to procreate, when he had rejected his people -- on what she had thought were purely moral grounds.

Could she have had something to do with it, as well?

Of course, the possibility existed that the Founder had been lying. They were masters at manipulation and deception. Yet, what purpose did this particular lie serve, if it was a lie? It made absolutely no sense. Then, neither did their bringing her here and telling her this, then disappearing.

There was only one way to find out, and no way to do that at the moment.

And if she asked Odo, and he confirmed it...

What then?

(-|-)

Finally, she heard footsteps. Odo stood there, in one of the passageway entrances. He touched something she couldn't see, and the forcefield flickered off.

"Major, are you all right?" He entered the cavern, unslinging something from around his shoulders. It was a Bajoran-issue medikit.

"I'm fine," she said, in a voice that sounded distant even to herself.

He knelt beside her. He didn't look like someone in love. He looked...like Odo.

"Tell me what happened," he said.

Kira struggled to gather her thoughts. "It was the Founder we met on your homeworld, the one who impersonated me two years ago."

"Did she tell you why she brought you back here?"

"She said she wanted to show you something. But she's been gone for some time now. She beamed off to somewhere." Kira drew in a deep breath. For some reason she found herself steeling her nerves as she had never had to during her days of fighting Cardassians. "Odo...I have to ask you something. Something...extremely personal."

He didn't reply. Which could mean anything.

"The Founder told me how you figured out she wasn't me."

A pause. He still wasn't looking at her. "She did?" he finally asked.

"Odo." Why was this so difficult? Say it, Nerys, just say it. "Are you in love with me?"

The silence seemed to stretch forever.

Finally, he turned to her, slowly. "Yes," he said.

Kira's eyes filled. She flung herself to her feet. "Damn you!" she swore. Suddenly she was angrier at him than she had ever been. "Why the hell didn't you tell me?"

He stood when she did. "Would it have made any difference?" he asked.

"Yes! No...I don't know." She forced herself back to calm. "It's just...do you have any idea how big an idiot this makes me feel?"

Odo was quiet. Just watching her.

"We're friends. I trusted you! You were the one person I could count on to be honest with me, no matter what. Prophets, how could I have been so stupid?"

He reached a hand toward her; she jerked away.

"Leave me alone. Just -- leave me alone."

For a long moment, he looked at her. His expression was unreadable. Then he said, "As you wish, Major."

He walked back to the passageway, stopped, and turned. Incredibly, there was a smile on his face -- one of his wispy little closed-mouth smiles. And a hint, just a hint, of smugness, as he began to melt and flow, and reform.

Into the female Founder.

"Do you see now that there is no future for you among the solids, Odo?" she asked. "She rejects you, as I told you she would."

Kira gaped at her. And then, at the medikit as it too began to change, and grow into a formless golden column that resolved itself into the familiar features of Odo.

"I'm sorry, Major." He lowered his head, but not before she saw the infinite pain in his eyes. "For everything."

"Odo! What the hell is going on?"

"After you were beamed off the runabout, the Founder contacted me, and informed me that if I did not cooperate, you would be killed. I agreed, hoping that I would be able to protect you if she tried to harm you in my presence."

Kira shook her head. She couldn't believe this. "So, it's true?"

After a moment, he nodded.

Kira put her face in her hands and turned away, unable to speak.

"You have a choice now, Odo," the Founder said. "The truth is now revealed, and you have seen the results. Either you can return to the station with Major Kira and continue your foolish and hopeless infatuation, or you can come home."

There was an agonizingly long pause, then Odo spoke, his voice even rougher than usual. "You...still would take me back? After what happened on the Defiant?"

"Are you surprised by this, Odo? It is true that we were angry that you broke our most sacred law and harmed another Changeling. But in time I was able to convince the Great Link that you were not to blame. After all, it is only natural that you should feel loyalty toward the solids; they and their misguided ways are all you have known. And for that, we are at fault, not you. It was a mistake to send you and the others away. Please, allow us to make amends for our error."

"How?" It was almost a whisper.

"By bringing you home. This time, there will be no tests, no waiting, as there was when you first came back to us. We know now that it was unkind of us to impose such limits on you. Instead, you will be freely permitted to join and share in the Great Link. You will know all the history of your race. And you will learn the full use of your abilities. We will heal you of the harm the solids have done to you. Your link to them will be gone, but you will form new links. You will even be able to help create new ones of your kind. You will live as you were meant to live, Odo. You will be one of us again."

Silence.

Kira turned around. She had to see the outcome of this.

The Founder was watching Odo, hands clasped before her. Odo faced away from her, looking downward, as he often did when he was thinking hard. At Kira's movement, he stirred and looked at her, then away again.

He was actually considering the Founder's offer.

The thought that he might accept shocked her. This was Odo. Honest, cynical Odo, who was so principled that he had rejected his people, the same people he had been searching for all his life, and never once looked back.

With sudden insight, for the first time Kira realized that his integrity had cost Odo far more than he had let on to her, or to anybody. His people might be devious, manipulative tyrants, but they were his people nonetheless. Why hadn't she seen before that he might still yearn for them, even as he did all he could to oppose them? That the Great Link, with its promise of absolute belonging, might be a more powerful temptation for him than she could possibly imagine?

There were a lot of things about him that she hadn't seen, apparently.

"Don't do it, Odo," she said softly.

His head came up with a jerk as he stared at her.

Kira came forward as she spoke. "Can't you see what she's doing? You're an embarrassment to them. The fact that you turned your back on them showed them, and everyone else, that they're not perfect. You're their mistake, and all they want to do is correct you."

"You are wrong, Major," the Founder said. "We wish to give him everything that he has been denied for far too long. There is nothing for him on your space station, no purpose but to protect solids who cannot appreciate or understand him. Least of all you. You boast of how well you know Odo, and yet you were unaware of his feelings until now."

Kira took in a breath to retort, then stopped herself. What was there to say? The Founder had a point.

Odo looked from her to the Founder. Without warning, his hand shot out, grasped the Founder's wrist, and turned liquid. Immediately her arm did so as well.

"Don't speak to Major Kira in that way," he said evenly. "It was my decision not to tell her."

The Founder gazed at him in what looked like genuine astonishment. "Very well," she said at last. "But why are you doing this?"

"Let's just say I've learned from past experience. I understand that lying is impossible in telepathic communication; I'm willing to bet that the same is true of Linking. Is that the case?"

She lifted her chin. "Yes," she admitted.

Odo nodded. "Good. Now, what you said, about my joining the Great Link -- were you sincere?"

"Yes."

"I see," he said. "Well, I'm glad you're being honest with me, for once. I will return the favor. My answer is...yes, I will go back with you."

Kira's jaw dropped in shock.

"On one condition."

The Founder drew herself up, regaining some of her arrogance. "You are not in a position to give conditions, Odo. Is it not enough that we are willing to forgive you?"

"It might be," he said. "Except that you have gone to a great deal of trouble to set this little meeting up. Not to mention the fact that I've heard different versions of this offer nearly every time I've encountered one of you Founders. Forgive me if I sound egotistical, but to me that indicates that you must want me back very badly. Now, do you want to hear my condition?"

A pause, then the Founder said, "What is it?"

"That you abandon your plans to conquer the Alpha Quadrant."

Kira was staring at him. So was the Founder, a mixture of emotions playing behind that enigmatic, featureless face -- outrage, indignation, and wonder.

"I congratulate you on your boldness, Odo," she said at last. "But you do not know what you are asking."

"On the contrary," Odo retorted. "I have a very good idea of what I'm asking."

"Did you learn nothing in the short time you were with us? The solids are our enemies. We must control them, so that we can survive, and bring order to the galaxy."

Odo shook his head. The expression on his face was almost pitying. "You really don't know what you sound like, do you? Those are the same words that every conquering race uses to justify their actions. Including, very likely, the solids who persecuted our people long ago. Don't you see? You have become no better than they were."

"You are wrong. We are superior to solids."

"We are different," he corrected her. "Yet even if we were superior, as you say, that still would give us no right to enslave them. And as long as you continue to do so, I will never willingly join you."

The Founder smiled slightly. "Are you certain? I feel your longing, even as you speak."

"I have wished for many things in my life." He glanced at Kira, then away again. "I am accustomed to not having them."

Kira bit her lip. Intentionally or not, his words hurt.

"Very well," the Founder said. "Not all of us are involved in the plans for the Alpha Quadrant. You need not be, either."

"I'm afraid that isn't good enough," Odo said.

The Founder's eyes turned cold. "We have been more than patient with you, Odo. We have allowed you to stay on your precious station, wasting your time and talents, and pining for this solid. In return, you have aided our enemies, and even murdered one of your own race. Still we were prepared to take you back. And now you presume to dictate to us?"

Odo looked at her calmly. "It looks that way, doesn't it?"

"So be it, fool!" she spat. Abruptly, her arm solidified, and she pushed Odo backward so that he fell to the floor. Kira instinctively knelt beside him.

The Founder glared at them both. "This is not over."

With that, she became a column of sparkling light, and was gone.

"Are you all right?" Kira asked breathlessly.

"I'm fine, Major."

Kira rose, offering him her hand. He hesitated, then grasped it and used it to pull himself up.

Suddenly Kira was acutely aware of how close she was standing to him. She had stood like this with him before, but she had never in all their years of knowing each other had such a reaction to him. He had always simply been Odo to her -- her good old dependable, trustworthy, and above all, safe friend. Now the wash of emotions confused and disoriented her. She hastily stepped back, letting go of his hand.

"Um, let's get out of here," she said.

She deliberately didn't look at him.

If she had, she would have seen the despair in his eyes before he lowered his gaze to the ground and followed her out of the caverns without a word.

(-|-)

It was a week later.

Jadzia Dax sat in Quark's, sipping at her raktajino and indulging in one of her favorite pastimes: people-watching. Of all the places in the quadrant, this particular table, looking out onto the parade of life that was the Promenade, was one of the best locations for exactly that.

She straightened a little, her interest piqued. Kira had come walking into view. The Bajoran major stopped abruptly and turned around, as Odo joined her. He gave her a PADD; she glanced at it, nodding shortly once or twice as he spoke to her. Then she handed him back the PADD, turned, and walked off. Odo stood there a moment before he too left, in the opposite direction.

Now that was odd. It used to be that when Dax saw Kira receive one of Odo's reports, their body language was less -- formal than that. Kira would smile and perhaps chat a little, and even Odo would seem to relax subtly. This exchange, however, had been downright abrupt, if not cold.

Very odd, indeed.

"Another raktajino, Commander?" said Quark's voice. Only then did Dax notice that she had finished her cup.

She tore her gaze from the Promenade, and smiled up at Quark. "Yes, thank you."

The Ferengi placed another cup on the table before her, in exchange for the empty one, which he put on his tray. "Anything wrong? You seem distracted."

"Hm? Oh. Sorry, Quark. I was just wondering about something."

"Something I can help you with?" Quark gave one of his leering smiles, as usual when he made one of his routine attempts to ingratiate himself with her.

Dax looked at him speculatively. "Maybe you can. Have you heard anything about Kira and Odo?"

"Depends. Can you be more specific?"

"Well, I saw them just now, and I was wondering if they'd had a fight or something. Now that I think of it, Kira's seemed preoccupied ever since they both got back from the Badlands. You wouldn't know anything about it, would you?" She had to admit to herself that it was a long shot -- neither Kira nor Odo were likely to have confided in Quark, of all people -- but it was worth a try.

Quark looked suddenly thoughtful, for him. "No, but you might have something. Odo's hardly come in here and harassed me at all in the past week. Not that I'm complaining. But -- you say Kira's acting weird too?"

"That's right."

The Ferengi seemed to deliberate something in his mind, then come to a decision. "Well, I probably shouldn't be doing this, but that's never stopped me before..."

He sat down at the table with Dax and began talking, in a low voice.

(-|-)

Kira sat in her quarters, attempting to get into the right frame of mind to pray. Somehow, though, she just couldn't seem to manage it. She hadn't been able to for the past week.

Her attempts to get in touch with Shakaar had proved just as futile. She didn't know whether to be angry, sad, or relieved about that.

And Odo -- all she could manage around Odo was "yes" and "no".

It was just as well that he seemed as reluctant to be in the same room with her as she was with him.

As she contemplated giving up and working out her frustrations with some solo springball, the door to her quarters buzzed.

Kira sighed. "Come in."

No sooner were the words out than Dax strode into the room.

"Are you out of your mind?" the Trill demanded.

Surprised, Kira blinked at her. "Hello to you, too."

"What are you doing here?"

Kira made a show of looking around the room. "I thought I was relaxing in my quarters. They look like my quarters, anyway."

"Yes," Dax said, "but you shouldn't be here."

"Excuse me? Where should I be, then?"

"You should be with Odo."

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about you patching things up with him. Really, Kira, you can be so dense sometimes. Do you have any idea what you're doing?"

"I -- "

Dax sat in a chair near Kira, leaning forward urgently. "Something's wrong between you two. It's been wrong for quite a while now, but it became even more wrong when you went to the Badlands together. Which tells me something happened there. Well? Are you going to say what it was?"

Kira struggled between outrage at Dax's startling, uncharacteristic intrusion and a sudden longing to tell her everything, just to confide in somebody.

The longing won.

"He's in love with me," she blurted out, feeling the blood warm her face. It took a moment to dare to look up again at Dax.

When she did, she saw Dax nodding. "I know."

Kira's eyes widened. "What -- you knew?"

"I suspected," the Trill clarified. "Remember my zhian'tara? For a few days afterwards, I had Lela's memory of being you, as well as impressions of everyone else -- Julian, Benjamin, even Quark -- from my other hosts. They faded. But with Curzon and Odo, it was a lot stronger. Those two really merged. There are still times when I can feel a little bit of Odo in me." She grinned suddenly. "Don't tell him. He'd be mortified."

"It would have been nice if you'd have told me," Kira said bitterly.

"It was only a vague impression, not enough to be sure. And even if I was, it was Odo's place to tell you if he wanted to, not mine."

"But you're sure now?"

Dax nodded. "Quark told me."

Kira felt her blood boil. "Quark? Odo told Quark and not me?"

"Only after Quark had already figured it out. Remember, he's known Odo as long as you have. And there's a saying on Trill: the wall between enemy and friend is as wide and as strong as a hair."

"I'm happy for the both of them," Kira said sarcastically.

Dax looked keenly at her. "Why are you so angry?"

"I'm not angry," Kira lied.

"Yes, you are."

"Okay, I'm angry." Kira rose and began to pace restlessly. "Wouldn't you be? He lied to me."

"He didn't lie, he just didn't tell you everything."

"Same difference!"

Dax rolled her eyes. "You're being unreasonable, Kira. Everyone has a right to keep their emotions private. Just because they don't go around blurting them out doesn't mean they're lying."

Despite herself, Kira saw the logic in that. "All right, all right. It's just that -- " Words failed her, and she sat down on the bed.

Dax finished for her. "You feel stupid. And you hate that."

After a pause, Kira nodded, reluctantly.

"Then it's not Odo you're angry at, but you." When Kira didn't reply, Dax moved to sit beside her. "You shouldn't be so hard on yourself, you know. In some ways, Odo's better than a Vulcan at hiding his feelings. It took Quark years to realize them, and Quark's very good at things like that."

"I guess so," Kira muttered, like a child being lectured. "I just don't understand why he would hide them from me."

"Well, you'll have to ask him, won't you?" Dax got up, took Kira by the arm, and hauled her up as well. She pushed her toward the door. "What are you waiting for? Go!"

Kira went.

(-|-)

Odo used to look forward to when he could turn liquid for a few hours. Not only was it a chance to rest and regain energy, but it was the only time of the day when he could stop pretending to be what he was not: a solid, humanoid being.

Now, he dreaded it. Or, at least, he wished -- for the first time in his life -- that he could switch off his mind the way humanoids could. Without the refuge of sleep, all he could do, as he lay in a small golden lake in his dark quarters, was think, and remember.

...the first time he had met Kira, sitting down with her -- meaning only to question her about Vaatrik's murder -- and clumsily making some idiotic remark about how a pretty girl like her shouldn't be eating alone. It was a wonder she hadn't slapped him. Or worse...

...the slow turning of antagonism to respect, and respect to friendship -- the first real friendship he had ever known, and one he came to treasure as he did nothing else...

...startling himself with the shock and dismay he felt when Kira sat on his desk one day and told him of her feelings for Vedek Bareil. He had managed to cover, but inwardly he had been shaken by two simultaneous realizations: that he loved her, and that she must not know...

...finally declaring his feelings when she was on the brink of death, and roiling with shame and anger when he discovered his people's trickery...

...watching, a year after Bareil's passing, as Kira and Shakaar fell in love, and feeling as if he were dying slowly...

...knowing at last that she finally knew, and wishing, when she released his hand as if it were poisonous, that he had never been formed...

When the door buzzer to his quarters sounded, he ignored it. It sounded again.

"I know you're in there," a muffled voice said. Kira's.

He didn't move a molecule.

Finally, he heard the door whoosh open, and saw the light from the corridor outside as she entered. "Odo?"

His stubborn, proud streak kicked in. He stayed pooled on the floor, like an oil slick.

"I'm going to turn on the lights, Odo. I'd hate to step in you." When he didn't answer, she called out, "Computer, lights." They came on, obediently. "There you are."

He saw her feet approaching, and stopping beside him.

"Odo -- " Kira sighed in frustration. "Dammit, it was hard enough working up the nerve to come here. The least you could do is de-liquidate. I feel silly, talking to a puddle."

Odo finally moved. As was his wont, he established height first, then thickness, then distinguishable form, adding in details and features at the same time that he became fully solid. At last he stood in front of her.

"I certainly wouldn't want you to feel silly, Major," he said, with irony, and watched her flush slightly.

"Sorry," she said. "I didn't mean -- I was just being flippant."

"Ah," he nodded, without enthusiasm.

Kira looked at him, obviously perplexed and uncertain. "I -- didn't realize you might be...you know...sensitive about that."

"Are you sensitive about the fact that your body is solid and has a constant shape?"

She blinked. "No. You're right, of course." The flush deepened. "Damn. I'm doing this all wrong. Let me start over." She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, released it, and opened her eyes again. "Odo, I wanted to say -- I'm sorry."

"Oh?"

"Yes. I've been rotten to you in the last few days, since...you know. I was mad at myself, and took it out on you. It wasn't fair, and you didn't deserve it, and I apologize. I also want to say...thank you."

Odo cocked his head, curious. "For what?"

"For what you tried to do. Bargaining with that Founder for the fate of the Alpha Quadrant." The ghost of a smile curved Kira's lips. "Even though it was one hell of a crazy thing to try. What were you thinking?"

"I suppose I figured I had nothing to lose," he allowed.

"Nothing? If she'd accepted, you would have never come back to the station." Kira looked keenly at him. "Odo, do you agree with what the Founder said? That you're wasting your time here? That you're not appreciated?"

He was startled out of his attempt to be cool toward her. "No -- of course not." A pause. "There have been times when I have thought those things...but on the whole, I wouldn't trade my position for anything."

"Not even the Great Link?" she ventured.

Odo thought for a moment, then shook his head. "Not as long as my people are what they are."

"But still...were you really willing to give it all up? The station, your job, your life?" Kira swallowed. She seemed to be trying to get her courage up again. "Me?" she finally added.

He found himself fighting an urge to touch her face. He vanquished it by turning away.

"If it would have saved your life...yes." He was aware of her stepping around to face him, to make him face her again.

"Why?" she demanded.

His voice remained low. "For a long time -- I wanted more than anything...for you to love me. But when we were back on that moon, I realized -- that it doesn't matter to me anymore whether or not you feel the same way about me that I feel about you. All that matters...is that you exist."

Was that moisture he saw gathering in her eyes?

"Oh, Odo," she breathed, at last. "I had no idea."

"That was because I never meant for you to, Major," he said quietly, looking downward and away once more.

There was another pause. Kira bit her lip.

"Why me?" she asked, finally.

"It's -- rather simple, really." He finally looked back up at her. "To the scientists at the lab, I was a curiosity. To the Cardassians, I was an exploitable resource. But when we became friends, I realized that to you, I was neither. I was -- a person. Can you imagine what that was like for me?"

"Yes...I guess I can." Her eyes searched his. "Odo -- did I ever tell you you were the first friend I ever had who wasn't a Bajoran?"

"No."

"Well, it's true. That's part of what made our relationship special to me. Because of you, I learned that I could actually trust someone who wasn't like me. And if it weren't for you, I don't think I'd have any of the other friendships I have here. Dax...Sisko... The point is, you gave me that."

Odo gazed at her in wonder.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is that I felt secure with you. I thought I knew where we stood with each other. And then I found out I was misinterpreting things all along. Do you understand how much of a fool I felt like?"

"That was never my intention, Major," he said softly.

"I know that, now. But I still can't help but wonder why you felt you couldn't tell me."

He looked down again. This time, though, to his surprise, she reached out, laid her hand on his face, and gently forced him to gaze into her eyes again.

Slowly, trying to ignore her touch, he said, "There...were a lot of reasons. You were happy with Bareil, and later, with Shakaar. It would only have complicated matters, if you had known."

When he fell silent, she pressed, "There's more, though, isn't there?" He managed a nod. "What is it?"

"Can't you guess?" he asked.

He took hold of her wrist, removed her hand from his face. Deliberately, he liquefied his hand. Kira watched as it surrounded hers, spiraling around it as no solid hand could. To her credit, she didn't flinch, but that might have been from sheer force of will.

"That," Odo said, "is why, Major."

He reformed his hand, and released hers. She raised it slowly, feeling it with her other hand, her eyes never leaving his.

"Are you saying it's because you're a Changeling, and I'm a humanoid?"

He nodded, his gaze breaking from hers.

Kira lowered her hand. "And you thought I'd reject you because of that?"

Again, after some hesitation, he nodded.

"I guess I'm not the only one who was being an idiot."

Odo glanced up at her. She was smiling faintly. He couldn't be sure whether he'd heard correctly or not.

"Excuse me?" he ventured.

"The Founder accused me of not being able to accept what you were. She probably told you something similar two years ago, didn't she?"

The Founder's parting words to him on that occasion rang through his mind. She is never going to love you. How could she? You are a Changeling. "Yes," he admitted.

"She was wrong, Odo. I accepted you as a friend, didn't I?"

"Friendship...is one thing. Love -- "

" -- isn't all that different," she finished.

Her eyes were earnest, open, warm. For the first time, he allowed himself to feel a tiny spark of hope. He was afraid to speak, fearing it might shatter the fragile new understanding that was forming between them.

Then she startled him by reaching up with her hand, placing it on the back of his neck, and gently touching her mouth to his.

Shocked, he stood absolutely still, though he could have sworn he felt the station lurch beneath him as the kiss continued.

When it showed no sign of stopping, he raised his arms from where they hung stiffly at his sides, and tentatively embraced her. She responded by leaning upward even further, pressing her lips to him and moving them in almost a biting motion, but without teeth. Dimly, he recalled seeing lovers kissing in this manner in shadowed corners of the Promenade, and wondering why humanoids chose that particular gesture to demonstrate affection.

Now, he felt he could grasp its appeal.

A sound -- a groan? -- escaped him, and he tightened his arms around her body.

Finally, Kira drew back. Her breathing had become shallow, and a light film of sweat was on her skin. She was slightly flushed. She looked deeply into his eyes.

He found his voice. "Does this mean -- ?"

She laid a finger over his mouth, silencing him. "What do you think?"

"Are...you certain, Major?"

"Nerys," she corrected him, in a whisper.

"Nerys," he repeated, feeling odd. He had never called her by her given name before.

"I haven't been certain of anything for a long time," she said softly, in answer to his question. "But I am now."

He had to ask. "What about Shakaar?"

She pulled back, and he released her, watching as she composed herself. "I think it's been over between Edon and me for a while now."

"Oh. I'm...sorry."

Kira looked up at him, a slow smile spreading across her face. "I'm not." Without warning, she kissed him again.

This time, he wasn't caught quite so off-guard, and returned it more readily than he had before. Yes, he could definitely get used to this.

She broke it off again, delicately tracing the edge of a barely-formed ear with one finger.

"Want to discuss it further?" she asked. "In my quarters?"

"Your quarters?" he echoed, still not quite believing this was actually happening.

"Well, I don't see a bed here, do you?"

(-|-)

There was one awkward moment, when she presented her body to him, and he was unsure of how to reciprocate, since there were parts of the humanoid anatomy he had never considered it necessary to practice forming. But she whispered to him that it was all right. She would accept him in whatever shape he chose to be, because no matter what it was, it would be him.

Since she had divested herself of all trappings, all covering, all pretense, he did the same.

She did not know what to expect when he enveloped her. Only once before, a short while ago, had she been touched by his true substance, and that only on her hand. She was surprised at how he felt. Not quite wet, not quite dry. He didn't coat her like slime; rather, he flowed across her skin like incredibly soft silk, leaving nothing of himself behind.

Then all such thoughts were forgotten, as he began to explore her thoroughly. Caressing her face and neck. Sliding over her limbs and torso, front and back. Rippling across her sides, around her breasts, between her legs. He touched her everywhere, simultaneously. Here, he tickled. There, he soothed. In another place, he stimulated until she writhed, helpless with ecstasy.

For him, there was a response as well: a most welcome surprise. He knew that humanoids could experience pleasure from certain types of physical contact -- a fact she was demonstrating quite amply -- but he had never thought that he too could partake of that pleasure.

It happened the first time she skimmed his surface with her hand, and again when, as if guessing what it did to him, she dipped her fingers into him and sent a thrill swirling to the outer edges of his being. There was no climax, per se -- no building to a peak, ebbing away, then building again -- only a constant stirring of sensations with every twitch, every movement of her body against him.

He decided (with whatever small portion of his mind was still capable of thought) that he had indeed been an idiot to have waited this long.

They continued until at last, exhausted, she gasped for him to stop. He did, gathering himself together back into humanoid shape, and holding her as her body quieted to normal. He observed that her breathing was becoming deep, regular.

She spoke three words before sleep overcame her.

"I love you."

Unnoticed by either of them, something that until then had been a data PADD, sitting unobtrusively on a table, stealthily slipped down to the floor and oozed out of the room.

The Founders would not be pleased.

-The End-


Copyright by Tracy L. Hemenover

 

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