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State of Grace
by Tracy L. Hemenover
Already it had begun, he thought as he walked. The turned heads, the whispers, the looks of suspicion on some faces, fear on others. They had seen what had happened that morning, and they knew. No doubt the news had ricocheted throughout the station by now.
His face the same forbidding mask as ever, he walked the gauntlet of the Promenade, giving no indication of his feelings. Some people thought he didn't have them, that he hadn't even when he had been one of them. And now, he once more had virtually nothing in common with the people who lived here. They would always believe that.
He reached the turbolift, rode it to the level of the habitat ring which included his quarters, walked through the corridor, and paused outside his door, with his hand poised above the lock control panel, ready to give his code. The corridor was empty, and silent, except for muffled noises from two doors down, where Ensign Gold would have just arrived from his shift. Automatically he tuned his auditory receptors for minimum sensitivity, then marveled dully at the fact that he could do that again.
Looking at the door, he thought, with a strange mixture of grimness and excitement, Why not, and liquefied, oozing easily under the crack at the bottom.
Inside, he did not resume humanoid form, but instead began changing into everything he could think of. Why, he didn't know; perhaps some part of his mind wondered if he was dreaming this, if he would wake up soon in a bed and find himself still immutably, solidly human. As he had done every morning for several months.
A chair, a book, a PADD. A Rigellian fern. A surface on the wall, then the ceiling. A glass, a bed, a lamp, a shoe. A flitterbird from Rhymus Major, a Bajoran hara cat, a Kavarian tiger bat, a Mordian butterfly.
He didn't wake. Instead, he stilled himself at last to quiescence, a pool of amber in the shadows.
No more headaches, he thought. No stomach to fill, no bones to be broken. No need to relieve himself. No embarrassing physical reactions. No pinched nerves in his back, no cramped or fatigued muscles, no nausea. No smells, no tastes.
He remembered vividly the moment when the Great Link had expelled him, depositing him gasping and naked on its shore. His people despised solids with an ancient and adamant hatred, and they had made him into one, marking him forever with their disfavor, his face a permanent reminder. He had thought he could never regain what he had lost, but at times he had dreamed of it regardless. He had believed that if it should ever happen, no matter what miracle brought it about, he would rejoice, would glory again in his newfound freedom of form.
Now, all he wanted to do was weep. And he couldn't.
Odo stood in the doorway to Captain Sisko's quarters, and blinked in surprise, not to mention suspicion. "What's going on?" he demanded gruffly, glaring impartially around at everyone present.
Smiles bloomed across all of their faces. Bashir and O'Brien chuckled.
"You're a detective, Constable," Sisko said, reaching to put a hand on the back of Odo's shoulder and steer him into the room. The door closed behind them. "Use your powers of deduction and figure it out."
"You're having a party," Odo said dryly. "That much is obvious. What isn't obvious is why, when you called me here, you claimed you had security matters to discuss."
Dax sashayed up to him. She wore a deep blue casual dress, with her hair down, and she was grinning devilishly, almost ear to ear. "Because if he had told you it was a party, you would have said you were busy. No matter what you were really doing."
Odo hmphed. "As a matter of fact, I am busy. I'm very behind in my reports. Now, if you'll excuse me -- " He turned, but Sisko caught hold of his arm.
"Not so fast, Constable." He continued, ignoring Odo's sigh of resigned aggravation. "Right after calling you, I called Lieutenant Brilgar. He's taking care of the reports, and as of now, you are officially off duty for the night. You are also hereby ordered to have a good time."
"Forget it, Captain," Quark drawled, from a little distance across the room. "Good times and Odo are mutually exclusive."
Odo shot him a silent glare, remembering how he had actually bought Quark a drink two nights ago, so unable to contain his joy over the progress the infant Changeling had been making that he had spontaneously suspended his antagonism toward the Ferengi in a rush of exhilaration, the likes of which he had rarely felt in his entire life. It had been right before he had learned that the Changeling was dying.
"Nonetheless," Sisko said, looking at Quark. "We're celebrating tonight, and you are the reason." He turned to Odo.
"Why?" Odo asked bluntly.
Dax rolled her eyes, as if she were amazed at his denseness. "You've got your shapeshifting abilities back! And we're all happy for you. Except maybe Quark. That's why. Now stand still so I can hug you." She leaned forward and threw her arms around him tightly. He stiffened.
"Don't let him fool you," Bashir told the room in general. "He's ecstatic; he just won't admit it."
O'Brien tipped his drink toward Odo. "Cheers, Constable. And congratulations." He grinned, clearly still on an emotional high himself, after the birth of his and Keiko's son three days ago. Odo wondered if it had occurred to the chief that while he had been gaining a child, Odo had been losing one. That was assuming O'Brien had been aware the Changeling had even existed.
Filled with feelings too conflicted to express, he accepted their well-meaning joviality with what he hoped was something resembling good grace, as they partook of the meal the Captain had cooked, and the drinks Quark was serving.
Champagne; he recognized it from the bubbles he saw rising in the glasses. He remembered the champagne he and Mora had drunk together after the baby Changeling had formed an imitation of Odo's face.
Jambalaya with rice and shrimp. One of the Captain's favorite staples. Odo had eaten it once with him, and had decided that of all the foods he had tried since becoming human, this was one he was unlikely to develop a taste for. Too spicy for his inexperienced and still tender palate. He had drunk a lot of water that night. Now he could almost taste the dish, smell it, yet he knew it was imagination and not reality. He recalled how food had felt, going into his stomach -- when he had had a stomach.
He stood apart and watched.
"How are you doing, Odo?" asked a quiet voice. He looked, and saw Kira beside him, looking up at him with a half-smile on her face, almost as if she guessed what he was really feeling.
He gave a slight shrug, admitting, "I've been better."
Her eyes registered surprise, but all she said was, "Want to talk about it?"
Odo glanced down at her, noting her newly-slender figure, the slight shadow behind her eyes. He knew she was still feeling wistful over giving up the baby she had borne for the O'Briens. In a way, she had lost something very similar to what he had lost. She might understand.
He gathered a sigh, let it out, and surveyed the party for a moment. "This...is wrong."
"Major." Odo turned a reproving eye back on her. "When a humanoid child dies, it is not regarded as a cause for celebration."
Despite his best effort at control, his voice was rough, harsh, and he fought an urge to walk away, walk out of there, leave everyone to their party and their drinks. He raised his chin, gazing straight ahead, and waited for the protestations.
After a moment, he felt a hand hesitantly enfolding his in a warm grip. He closed his eyes, knowing that she was completely unaware of what her touch did to him, how the slightest brush of her skin against his imitation of skin reverberated in him like the most intimate of humanoid caresses. At least he could once more control the color of his face -- and he had no body parts that were likely to betray him. He stayed still, feeling her hand tighten around his.
"I'm sorry, Odo," she said softly. "Want me to tell Sisko to call it off?"
He shook his head. "It wouldn't do any good." He meant that it wouldn't make him feel any better.
Kira tugged on his hand, a signal that she wanted him to follow her. He did, and she led him to the huge oval window. She did not let go of his hand as they walked, nor after they had sat down on the huge curved rim of the window. For a moment, she was silent, looking out at the stars. He looked as well, and saw the wormhole suddenly flare open in a blaze of blue and white fire, then close again with a brilliant flash.
There was a silly notion that had sprung up on the station over the past couple of years, that if one made a wish whenever one saw the wormhole in action, that wish would come true. Odo had no idea where the idea had come from, had never held with it, but now...
However, he had too many wishes to choose just one.
Kira joggled her hand, the one holding his, and he looked at her. She smiled. "I'm sorry I didn't come around and see you while you were working with the Changeling."
He managed a wry smile. "I understand you were busy with other matters." After a pause, he said, "I'm sorry I didn't come to see you."
"Be glad you didn't. You would have hated it. Miles and Edon were behaving like children. I had to make them leave. But I let them come back for the birth. Miles wasn't there when Molly was born; I couldn't make him miss this one."
"Are you happy it's over?" he asked.
Kira sighed. "I don't think I'll miss being pregnant. I'll miss the baby, though."
"I imagine the O'Briens will be happy to let you see him at any time, Major. And at least he is alive and well." Odo was aware of the edge in his words, but couldn't quite control it.
"Odo, I -- " Kira stopped and peered closely at him, wonder dawning in her eyes. "You loved that baby Changeling, didn't you?"
He took his hand from hers. "Does that surprise you, Major?"
"I -- I guess I just never thought -- "
"You never thought I could love anything or anyone? Even when I was a humanoid, I was still a Changeling inside, and Changelings never feel anything, is that right?" He snorted. "Well -- surprise. I did feel something for that child. It was my sibling. It had been wrenched out of the Great Link and sent into exile, just like me. I would have done anything to protect it, to teach it. But it died." His voice was low, but the intensity with which he spoke had attracted the attention of some of the others, who were now looking their way. He didn't care. "Yes, Major, I loved that Changeling, and now I am grieving for it, and I would gladly trade what it gave me if I could make it live again."
He got up abruptly.
Ignoring the startled, questioning looks of his friends, he stalked through the room and left the Captain's quarters.
He was in his own quarters again, standing in humanoid form with arms folded, looking out the window. He did not have a view of the wormhole from where he lived, but he imagined it opening and closing, and he imagined making a wish. Perhaps he should try that sometime. He had nothing to lose.
Hearing a sound behind him, he turned.
And saw the female Founder, the one who had most often served as their spokesperson. She stood there watching him silently, with her bland, assessing gaze.
Odo grunted, somehow unsurprised. "I had the feeling you would show up sooner or later."
The Founder inclined her head, her eyes stern, and her lips stretched in a thin smile. "Did you? It is pleasing to learn that you have finally thought of us. Although it is also unfortunate that you did not do so while the...infant still lived."
"What do you mean?"
She stepped closer. "Why did you not inform us that one of the other explorers had been found?"
Odo stared at her. Incredulity fought with outrage, and he let out a short bark of laughter. "Excuse me? The last time we met, you and the rest of the Great Link rather gave me the impression I was no longer your concern. What was it you said to Captain Sisko? Ah, yes. 'He is yours. Take him and go.' I had no idea I was expected to feel as if I still owed you something."
An emotion -- a fleeting look of resignation, perhaps -- flashed across her face and was gone. "Your bitterness is understandable, Odo. However, we were under the impression that you had accepted our judgment, knowing full well our reasons for what was done."
"I had." Odo felt anger rise up again. "What other choice was there? I played by your rules. I paid the price you set. And yet you want more?" He shook his head. "I had almost convinced myself I had gotten used to being a solid. Eating, drinking, wearing their clothes, performing their bodily functions. Another few months, and I'm sure I would even have stopped seeing it as a punishment, despite your best efforts."
"And yet, now you are a Changeling again." She looked at him evenly.
Odo stopped short. Although he no longer had a stomach, he felt as if it were twisting inside him.
"You think I killed it," he whispered.
The Founder sighed. "Imagine yourself in our position, Odo. One of our explorers is found, and comes into your possession. It has suffered damage and is ill. You know that we are the only ones who can treat it. Yet you do not notify us, nor do you attempt to bring it to us. You keep it, and allow a humanoid scientist to experiment on it. You participate in those experiments. And then, as the infant dies, you absorb it into your body, regaining what was taken from you as punishment."
Odo nodded slowly, reluctantly comprehending her point of view. It didn't mean he had to like it. "I -- understand how that might look to you. However, I assure you, I had no intention of doing so. The thought that it might be possible never crossed my mind. And even if it had, I would not have purposely harmed the Changeling for any reason. You have my word on that."
"And do you believe your word is sufficient?"
"I realize it might not be. Therefore, I will Link with you if you want proof. We both know that although you have shown yourself very capable of hiding things from me -- " he made no attempt to disguise the caustic edge in his voice, "I lack the skill to do the same in return."
She studied him for a long moment, weighing his offer. "Very well. Although I do not promise that the Great Link will accept your explanation."
"I'm aware of that," Odo said. "But it is all I have to give." He held out his hand, and she took it wordlessly.
He allowed her to initiate the Link, as a token of his sincerity, and stood quietly while she liquefied her hand against his, causing him to follow suit instinctively. As she sent her thoughts through him, he experienced a bittersweet sting of pleasure at the sensation of once more being Linked to one of his kind, something he had only felt a few times, and had expected never to feel again.
She examined him thoroughly. There was no part of him she didn't have the ability to rummage through, so he didn't try to stop her at all. He realized she was ascertaining his physical status, as well as perusing his memories and emotions concerning the baby Changeling. At last she withdrew, solidifying her hand and letting him do the same. Her expression was thoughtful.
"Now do you see?" he said.
"I am satisfied," she admitted. "I will present your side of the matter to the Great Link. We will then decide what is to be done." Then, unexpectedly, she reached up to touch his face. "It is gratifying to know that you are well, Odo," she said quietly.
Odo was silent as the Dominion transporter beam took her away. For a long while he stood looking at the spot where she had stood.
He was passing by the replimat, and saw Kira inside, sipping at a cup of raktajino and staring into space. Odo stopped, watching for a moment, then steeled himself and approached her. "Major."
She looked up. "Odo."
For a moment he was silent, then he cleared his throat -- needlessly, of course. "I...want to apologize for last night. My behavior was inexcusable."
There was a pause, then Kira indicated the chair opposite her. "Please. Sit." Odo did so, folding his hands on the table as he waited anxiously (though he knew he gave no sign of it) for her response. He was startled when she laid her hand on his two joined ones. "I'll accept your apology if you'll accept mine."
"You were right, Odo. I never thought of you as having those kind of feelings. But after you left, I realized that that was stupid of me. I mean...you've been my friend all these years, haven't you?" He nodded. "You like and respect me, the way I like and respect you, right?"
Odo found his voice again. "Of course, Major," he said.
"And I trust you as much as I've ever trusted anyone in my life. How could I trust someone if I thought they didn't have feelings? You made me realize that, last night. I've been unfair to you, and I'm sorry. And I want you to know that after you left the party, I told Sisko and the others what you said to me, about the Changeling. They understand, and they're sorry too. Sisko said he'd be willing to hold some kind of service, if you want."
He considered that for a moment, then shook his head. "I don't believe a service would help. But I'll tell him I appreciate the thought, when I see him."
Kira peered at him over the rim of her mug as she took a sip. "I guess this has all been very strange for you, hasn't it?" she said thoughtfully. "First, being turned into a human, and spending all those months as one. Then, you had a child to take care of...and then you lost it. That must have been devastating."
Ordinarily, Odo would have stiffened, and claimed to be fine. Instead, he lowered his head, nodding slowly. "It was," he affirmed softly.
"But you got your shapeshifting ability back at the same time." She shook her head. "Talk about mixed emotions."
"Exactly." Odo felt a surge of gratitude. Kira was not normally one to think or talk about feelings, her own or anyone else's. She preferred to simply feel them. Now, the fact that she had gone to the effort to empathize somehow made him feel better about everything, as if she had lifted a burden from him. It made him love her even more. Of course, he wasn't ready to tell her that just yet, if ever. The new understanding between them was enough, he told himself.
"Odo." He looked up at her. "Maybe it would help if you thought of it as a gift."
He gave a soft grunt. "That's what Dr. Mora said."
"He was right, then."
"Perhaps," he acknowledged. "But it's a gift I didn't want to receive. Not in that manner. I...feel as if I profited from its death."
For a minute or two, neither of them spoke, as Kira finished her raktajino. She put down the mug, a pensive frown on her face, then took his hand again, making him look down at it, then up into her eyes. They were deep brown, and beautiful, and the look in them was as earnest and straightforward as always.
"Maybe...maybe you shouldn't think of it as dead. It's here." She squeezed his hand. "It's with you. It's in you. We humanoids -- when someone we love dies, we sometimes comfort ourselves by thinking that they're still around in a way. But Odo, in this case, it's the literal truth. The gift the Changeling gave you wasn't its shapeshifting ability...it was itself."
Odo stared at her face, at her hand, still locked with his own. Her words spun inside him, as he turned them over, examined them, then stored them in his ever-precise, crystalline memory.
He felt for the presence of the infant who had given it all back to him. The child was gone...and yet, as Kira said, it was there, suffused throughout his body. He remembered the shock of Linking as the child had invaded him in its dying moment, soaking into his hands, its essence flashing through him like lightning. Changing him forever, again.
He would think of it every time he shifted his shape.
Gazing into her eyes, he said in a voice audible only to himself and her, "Thank you...Nerys."
Copyright by Tracy L. Hemenover
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