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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.

Note: This was written between the 4th and 5th seasons, and is based on some wishful thinking on my part. This is the way that, at that time, I would have liked the Odo-as-human storyline to have concluded.

Stream of Consciousness
by Tracy L. Hemenover


He was flying.

Free, he climbed the atmosphere, then spread his wings and soared. He flew and flew, strong and graceful. He was beyond longing and loneliness. They couldn't touch him. Nothing could touch him. All that mattered was the wind caressing his feathers, the starlit ground beneath him looking up in envy, the pure, wild exhilaration that made him want to sing with joy.

Below, he saw plants, and ground. And a huge lake of water that shone like amber.

No, not water...

A downdraft caught him unawares, and he spun out of control, screaming in terror. His wings would not work. He plummeted, straight into the lake. He made hardly a ripple.

The liquid in the lake closed over him, remorseless and uncaring. He gasped for breath, tried to beat his way back to the surface, but it drove him down and down, until he could struggle no longer.

Then he woke.

Moisture -- sweat -- was coating his face and the areas under his arms. He felt what must be his heart pounding, his muscles tense. His lungs heaved as he stared around the dark room.

For a moment he was disoriented by the strangeness of his body, of waking up in a bed -- of having been asleep in the first place. He felt...was this what they called being "dizzy"?

Had that been what they called a nightmare?

He willed himself to relax, fighting to slow his breathing. It took several minutes, but finally his body obeyed. Before, I could have made it do anything, instantly...

With one final, deep breath, he lay back down and resolutely closed his eyes. But sleep was reluctant to return -- or was it his mind that was reluctant, shying away from the images and yet holding onto them, replaying them over and over?

Funny...he had always assumed that humanoids could do this sleep thing whenever they wanted, turning consciousness off and on the way he had once been able to turn his substance from solid to liquid and back without a second thought.

Apparently not.

"Computer, time?"

"It is oh-four-hundred hours and nineteen minutes."

He sighed. Fine. Work had piled up during his illness and absence. He might as well put these hours before he was due on duty to good use.

Anything, not to think of flying.

"Lights," he ordered. He rose, unsteadily, and walked to the bathroom of his quarters. There were so many things humanoids had to do to put their bodies into order every day. Good thing he had once been so curious about what they did.

Without meaning to, he glanced in the mirror, at his face. The face that remained as smooth and undetailed as it had been before. His people had a cruel sense of irony.

He remembered explaining it to Dr. Bashir. They left it this way on purpose. To make sure I would never forget what I once was, and what I've lost.

He stared into his own eyes. He felt a rush of heat behind them, and watched as a single drop of liquid welled up. It trickled slowly down his face.

So this was what it felt like to cry...

(-|-)

"Odo?"

The voice registered on his awareness at last. He had the vague impression that it had repeated his name a couple of times already.

Turning his head, he saw Kira Nerys standing beside him, watching him with concern writ large on her mobile, lovely features. He'd have thought it would have been easier now, but instead it was worse, as he felt a lurch from his previously nonexistent heart.

He got himself under control -- he hoped -- and nodded to her politely. "Major."

"Where were you? You looked like you were light years away."

Odo folded his arms and surveyed the Promenade, his version of attempting to appear nonchalant. "Just thinking."

Kira stood with him for a moment, watching the clumps of people filtering past on their way about their business.

"It's hard, isn't it?"

"What is?" he asked absently.

"Adjusting. To...you know."

He shrugged. "It's a little strange, but I expect I'll get used to it soon enough." After all, it's not like I have a choice, he thought, but didn't add.

Kira peered at him, clearly not sure whether to believe him or not. Finally she tapped him briskly on the arm. "Come on. Let's go to lunch. My treat."

Odo groaned. "Not you, too."

She cocked her head curiously. "What do you mean?"

"Everyone's so determined to introduce me to the pleasures of eating and drinking. Dr. Bashir, Dax...even Captain Sisko invited me to dinner with him and his son."

"Did you go?"

"I told him I appreciated the offer, but I had plans."

"I guess I know how that feels," Kira said. "It can be a little overwhelming to be the object of so much...solicitousness." Her hand went to her swollen abdomen.

Odo glanced down at the hand, and what lay beneath it. "Are you sorry about carrying the O'Briens' baby for them?"

"No. There wasn't any other choice, after all. It was either Julian or me, and not only does Julian not have the right...equipment, but he couldn't exactly perform surgery on himself." Kira smiled, a wry little quirk of her lips.

"But you could have chosen not to live with them."

"True." She looked down at her hand, and removed it from her abdomen, as if feeling suddenly self-conscious. "I enjoy it, actually -- most of the time. It's kind of nice to be part of a family, even if it's only temporary. But there are times when I think that if I hear Keiko ask me how I am or Miles offer to get me a pillow one more time, I won't be responsible for my actions."

"So, if either of them turn up dead, I'll know who to suspect first."

Kira chuckled. She was the only person Odo knew who could tell when he was joking. "Well...see you later." She started to walk away.

"Actually, Major -- I think I will accept your invitation, if it still stands," Odo said, surprising himself. He was beginning to feel the empty, almost-but-not-quite-aching sensation that he was coming to recognize as hunger.

"Of course it does." Kira smiled at him as he began to walk beside her. "So -- have you tried Bajoran food yet?"

Odo had to think for a moment. "Let's see...Earth, Vulcan, Trill, Bolian...no, I haven't. Oddly enough."

"Well, if you've no objection, I thought I'd try that new place, the Celestial Cafe. I get a little tired of alien cuisine sometimes."

"Very well."

They ascended to the second level, and made their way around the walkway to the Celestial Cafe. Inside, they were greeted by a small, pretty blonde Bajoran woman wearing a blue dress that showed a modest amount of cleavage. She smiled brightly when she saw Odo.

"Constable. I've been hoping you'd try my establishment."

"Ms. Chalan." Odo nodded.

"Aroya. Please."

Odo felt a sudden need to clear his throat. "Ah. Um -- Chalan Aroya, this is Major Kira Nerys, the station's second-in-command."

Aroya finally took her eyes off Odo long enough to acknowledge Kira. "Major Kira, so nice to meet you. I've heard so much about you."

Kira nodded, and suddenly burst into a fit of sneezing.

Aroya's eyes widened, and darted a glance down at Kira's midsection, then back up at Odo. "Oh...I see congratulations are in order?" There was a note of uncertainty in her voice that Odo couldn't quite fathom.

The sneezing finally abating, Kira shook her head. "Actually, it's not mine. I'm kind of acting as a surrogate." She looked away, as if wishing she hadn't blurted out that information.

"Oh." For some reason, Aroya seemed to relax slightly. She smiled again. "Well, since this is the first time either of you have been here, I'll just have to make sure you come back."

Waving off the waiter who automatically came over, she led them to a table beside the window that overlooked the Promenade. "My best table."

"Actually, just a quiet one in the corner will do," Kira said, before Odo could thank Aroya and sit down.

"Oh -- of course. Station business, I take it?"

"No, just lunch." Kira's voice had become just a little curt.

"This one will be fine," Odo said. "I like to keep an eye on the Promenade whenever I can."

Kira hesitated a little. "All right." They sat.

"I'll be back in a few minutes," Aroya said, and disappeared into a back room, throwing a glance over her shoulder at Odo.

"I wonder if she knows how obvious she's being," Kira said in a low voice. Odo looked up, startled, from the menu.

"Obvious?"

"Come on, Odo, where's that famous detective instinct of yours? She likes you."

As usual when someone suggested the possibility that someone else was interested in him, Odo felt at a complete loss for words. He covered it, also as usual, by falling back on skepticism. "You must be mistaken."

"No, I'm not," Kira said confidently. He gave a cynical half-laugh, unable to think of any other response to that. She ignored it. "How long have you known her?"

Odo shrugged. "Not long. It was just before I -- became ill. Garak called me down to his shop. She was there, buying a dress. He introduced us. I suspect he was doing a bit of matchmaking."

"Hm. His idea, or hers?"

"What do you mean?"

Kira rolled her eyes. "Odo, for someone who's so smart about people in general, you can be awfully dense about women sometimes, you know that?"

"I fail to see the distinction, Major."

"Exactly." Kira blew out an exasperated sigh, and shook her head. Odo watched her, puzzled, as she began to study the menu. They sat in silence for a minute or two, then Aroya returned.

"Have you decided?"

"Yes," Kira said. "I'll have the ratamba stew, with boton salad, and Dekar tea with kava."

Aroya tapped the order into a PADD, and both women looked at Odo. He cleared his throat, uncomfortable. He had known that humanoids enjoyed a vast variety of foods, but until now eating and drinking had been things he could only stand apart and watch others doing. Now the choices were available to him too, yet he had virtually no basis on which to decide what he wanted. "I'll -- have the same," he said at last.

"Are you sure about that, Odo?" Kira asked. "Ratamba is pretty spicy, and you're still not used to tasting things."

"We serve it mild too," Aroya assured them. "A lot of humans come in here."

"Fine." Odo's voice was sharper than he had intended. Aroya and Kira stared at him. He cleared his throat again. "I mean -- the mild ratamba will be fine, thank you."

"Odo, are you all right?" Kira asked, after Aroya had gone back into the back room. Her dark eyes searched his worriedly.

"Yes, Major."

"Don't lie to me, Odo. You're not good at it -- you haven't had the practice."

He glared levelly at her. "What makes you think I'm not all right?"

Kira shook her head. "Odo...you just went through an extremely major physical alteration."

"I'm used to extreme physical alterations, Major. I used to be a Changeling, remember?" Odo heard the bitterness in his own voice, and knew she didn't deserve it. None of his friends and fellow officers did -- they had been nothing but kind to him since this had happened. He turned his head, anger warring with shame.

"Of course I remember," Kira said, and there was a rare gentle quality in her voice. "But this -- this is the ultimate shapeshift, in a way. Only it's permanent. And the hell of it is, you didn't choose it. It was forced on you. Everyone knows that, Odo. And they admire you."

"Hah."

"No, really, Odo, they do." She laid a hand on his, leaning forward as if to force him to listen. "They know how hard you've worked for years to protect the people on this station. They know what you've given up to stay here. And now the Founders have done this to you, yet here you are, going on with your life and doing your job. No one will think any less of you if you're having trouble regaining your -- equilibrium."

Odo stared down at her hand. He heard her words, and the conviction behind them. He believed her, or rather, he believed that she believed. But all he could feel was her touch. Much like that moment once when she had taken his hand and pretended that they were a couple, to fend off the unwanted romantic attention of an acquaintance of Quark's. This is Odo, she had said. My lover.

He jerked his hand away from hers as if it had burned him.

"I'm sorry, Major. This was a mistake." What had possessed him? Hadn't he been trying to keep to the essentials?

Aroya, coming back with their meal, stared open-mouthed after Odo as he got up and walked out of the restaurant without looking back.

(-|-)

Through the angular transparencies of the door to Captain Sisko's office, Odo could see Sisko sitting there, staring into space as he cradled his baseball in his hands, resting his chin on the ball.

Odo knew from experience that the times when Sisko looked as if he were doing absolutely nothing were often the times when he was hardest at work.

He pressed the door signal. Sisko glanced at him, put down the baseball, and said, "Come in."

Odo entered the office and stood before the captain's desk, hands behind his back. "You wanted to see me, Captain?"

"Yes." Knowing how little Odo cared for preliminaries, Sisko got right to the point. "The Cardassians have agreed to give the last of the missing Orbs back to Bajor."

"The Orb of Healing?"

Sisko nodded. "There's going to be a ceremony a week from now. It's been decided that it will be held on DS9, as a symbolic gesture -- as you know, we're considered neutral ground, and therefore safe."

Odo snorted. "Comparatively."

A smile played at one corner of Sisko's mouth as he nodded again. "Comparatively."

"Very well." Odo drew himself up, almost unconsciously. "Give me the names of the people to contact, and I'll make security arrangements."

Sisko picked up a PADD lying on his desk, and handed it to Odo, who turned to leave. But then he was stopped by Sisko's deep voice. "Constable?"

"Yes, Captain?" Odo turned back toward him.

"There was one other matter I wanted to discuss."

Odo waited.

"Kira told me what happened at the Bajoran restaurant today."

An odd, uneasy feeling came and went in Odo's midsection, like something turning over. "Oh?"

"Not the exact details," Sisko reassured him. "But she said something about you seeming...upset...and walking out on lunch. Is that true?"

Odo suspected that Sisko knew damn well it was true; Kira was not in the habit of making up stories. He let out a long sigh, just to inform Sisko, in case he didn't know already, that he considered it none of his business. "Yes."

Sisko paused, obviously choosing his words. "Constable -- Odo, I've known you for four years now, and I'd like you to know I think of you not only as one of my most valued and trusted officers, but as a friend."

The uneasy feeling came again, stayed, and grew. "Captain, I -- "

Sisko held up a hand. "Let me finish. I'd also like you to know that I would feel the same whether you were a Changeling, or a human, or a two-headed Malgorian. What you've done for this station, and the people on it, has been nothing less than extraordinary. And I'm not just talking about providing security."

"That's very -- kind of you to say, Captain, but -- "

"I'm not through yet." Sisko smiled a little. "My point, Odo, is that you make it hard sometimes for the rest of us to remember what you've been through. We see you every day, just doing your job -- as you would put it -- and we think of you as something that'll never wear out, as long as there's a bolt left of this station, because you're there, no matter what. But that's a disservice to you. Because, hard as it may be for us to believe, you have vulnerabilities, like anybody else. And that is why I am asking you to see Counselor Telnorri."

Odo looked at Sisko long and hard. "Because I walked out of a restaurant without eating lunch?"

"No. Because you have undergone a tremendous personal loss; because you are being forced to adjust to what is, for all intents and purposes, a new body with unfamiliar needs and limitations; and because the only reason you are suffering all this is that you followed your conscience. There is only so much any of us can take, Odo. Even you have a breaking point. And I'd prefer it if you get some help before you reach that point." Sisko paused, took a deep breath. "I'm not ordering you to do this, because it hasn't affected your work -- yet. But if you don't get help, and it does affect your work...then, rest assured, Odo, I will order you."

Silence, while Sisko fixed him with that quietly implacable gaze of his.

Odo bent his head under its weight. It was all he could do.

"I'll...think about it," he said at last.

"Do that," Sisko agreed calmly.

Odo made his escape.

(-|-)

He dreamed again of flying.

Once more he was the bird of prey, ascending into a dark sky and reveling in the sight of the ground below, the stars above.

He saw the golden lake.

Suddenly he was no longer a bird. His wings were replaced by arms. He was humanoid, and naked. He fell, his throat raw from the scream that was torn from it.

He plunged into the lake, and felt a bittersweet pang of elation, a sense of contentment and belonging, of being home. Then the liquid again closed over his head. He was being drawn into it, but at the same time he knew that he was being shut out forever. It pressed him down and down...until he drowned, and woke.

(-|-)

"You don't look so good," Quark observed, pouring a drink.

Odo gave a short, scornful laugh. "Why, thank you for the expert opinion, 'Doctor'." As he spoke, he continued his usual sweeping scrutiny of the bar and its patrons, arms folded.

Quark shook his head, and handed the drink to Morn. "If you ask me -- "

"No one did."

"If you ask me," Quark repeated, "the Founders made a mistake."

Odo finally deigned to look at him. "Oh?"

"They shouldn't have made you a hu-mon. If they'd have had any sense, they would have made you..." Quark smiled maliciously. "...a Ferengi. Now that would be poetic justice."

"Next time I see them, I'll remember to thank them for showing such good taste," Odo said, with heavy irony.

Quark's smile faded. Odo turned away from him and resumed his vigil.

"Odo."

"What is it, Quark?"

"You know...first drink is still on the house."

Odo swiveled around to peer closely at the sober expression on Quark's face. Their first meeting, so long ago, replayed itself in his mind, and he knew Quark was thinking of it too. He snorted. "I may have to drink now, but I have no intention of accepting one from you."

"Suit yourself." Quark shrugged, as if it made no difference to him, and began to wipe the bar, in a slightly overly casual way which Odo recognized immediately. "I just thought if you had a drink in front of you, you'd have an excuse to stick around. It's not like you can turn into a table any more."

"Is there some reason I should want to 'stick around'? Other than the obvious necessity of keeping you in line?"

"Nah. No special reason. Just that...I heard Kelny Vorzak was planning on visiting the station."

Odo rifled through his mental files. Vorzak. He'd heard the name. In another moment he had it. Kelny Vorzak. A Cardassian, rumored to be half Bajoran, though no one was really sure. One thing that was sure was that he was a pirate and smuggler who had been in and out of prison several times. "Interesting."

"Especially considering the timing," Quark agreed, polishing a glass.

Odo gave him a sharp look, but refrained from asking what Quark meant by that. Of course Quark would find out about the Orb coming to the station. "So. I take it he'll arrive within the week?"

"Try within the day."

Odo nodded slowly, and rose. "I see. Thank you for the...enlightening conversation, Quark."

"Don't mention it."

Odo allowed a very slight smile to curl one corner of his mouth. "I'll take that literally."

Quark nodded back. "I'd appreciate it."

(-|-)

Odo had rarely had to rely on technology for surveillance. Before, he could have simply morphed into some object or animal conveniently near his target, and watched and listened. Now, that option was no longer open to him. He had to remind himself that most security chiefs were not Changelings, and a lot of them had arrest records as good as his.

Well, almost as good.

Besides, his morphing ability had never been as vital to his work as his other skills -- patience, thoroughness, observation, deductive reasoning, and sheer intuition. Those, he still had in full measure.

Nonetheless, it secretly galled him that he himself could not be directly present when Vorzak held his meeting in a holosuite with a person named Represh -- a Yridian trader, according to a swift computer check.

He sat at a table tucked away in a corner of Quark's, wearing civilian clothes, with a drink (plain water) in front of him. He sipped it slowly, while, through the electronic device planted in the room, commlinked to another device which he carried inside his ear like an old-fashioned hearing aid, he gathered that they planned -- as he had expected -- to steal the Orb. Represh would carry out the actual theft, while Vorzak would pay him one hundred bars of latinum.

The meeting concluded abruptly, and Odo nearly missed it. Hurriedly, he tapped his hidden commbadge and signaled his deputy, Seeli, who was installing a monitoring device in the communications system of Vorzak's vessel under the guise of a routine inspection. Seeli acknowledged; she was finished and just about to leave the vessel. Odo sat back with a sigh, and tried not to think how much simpler this would have been before.

A few minutes later, in his office, he listened to a transmission from Vorzak's vessel. The recipient was Pennori Selim; the message was that all had gone as planned. Pennori Selim turned out to be a Cardassian official who had been forced to resign a year ago after expressing views in support of the True Way -- a Cardassian terrorist organization opposed to peace with Bajor and the Federation.

"Good work, Constable," Sisko approved when Odo made his report. Odo thought there was an extra warmth in the captain's voice, as if he were trying subtly to reinforce the concept that Odo was still a good security chief, regardless of his morphing ability or lack thereof.

Odo cleared his throat, embarrassed. "It's a little soon for congratulations, Captain. The Orb hasn't been successfully transferred back to the Bajoran government yet."

Sisko spread his hands. "No. But at least now we know who we're dealing with. I trust you have a plan to prevent the theft?"

"Not yet."

Odo wasn't aware that he was rubbing his forehead until Sisko said, "Another headache?"

Odo stopped -- caught -- and made himself lower his hand. Honesty, though, forced him to admit it. "Yes. I don't know how you humanoids stand them."

"We usually don't. We go to doctors, and they help us get rid of them."

"Hmph."

Sisko studied him. "Odo, has Dr. Bashir examined you? I know he did right after you came out of the Great Link. But have you been to see him since we returned to the station?"

"Why?" Odo let out a brief, humorless laugh. "One thing I'll say for what the Founders did -- at least they did cure me of that molecular destabilization."

"Nonetheless, I think you should. That's what he's there for." Sisko didn't say any more on the subject, but Odo knew he was pointedly refraining from referring to Counselor Telnorri.

(-|-)

It didn't surprise him one bit when, the next morning -- after another restless night filled with dreams of flying and falling -- he received a commbadge call from Bashir, saying that the entire station staff was due for routine physicals, starting, of course, with the senior officers, Starfleet and Bajoran alike.

Odo submitted, but he made it clear that he did so under protest.

"This should help the headaches," Bashir said, as the hypospray hissed softly against his arm. Odo felt the dull throb recede almost immediately. "Stop by later, though, just before you retire for the night, and I'll give you something to help you sleep."

"I haven't said anything about not sleeping."

"You didn't have to." Bashir smiled a little. "I know a case of sleep deprivation when I see one. Headaches are a common symptom, for one thing. A decrease in one's ability to concentrate is another, and so is a slowing of reflexes, all of which you are exhibiting."

Odo made a sound of disgust.

"Not to mention increased irritability," Bashir added cheerfully, "though, admittedly, where you're concerned it's hard to tell the difference."

"Very funny, Doctor." Odo rolled his eyes. "I've never understood why you humanoids evolved with a need for sleep, anyway."

Bashir shrugged. "Frankly, no one knows quite why, but it appears that we humanoids are stuck with it, regardless. And that includes you, now."

"Don't remind me," Odo growled, and left the infirmary.

When he got to his office, he saw Kira waiting there. He steeled himself -- he had to face her sometime -- and entered, nodding to her as he walked around the desk to his chair. "Major."

"Constable," she acknowledged.

He sat down. The awkward silence was almost tangible. Finally he cleared his throat. "I'd -- like to apologize for what happened at the restaurant the other day."

"No need." Kira looked down at the PADD in her hands. "You've been under a lot of strain lately. I guess this -- " she indicated the PADD, " -- isn't helping."

"Is that the plans for the Orb ceremony?"

"Yes." She reached across the desk to give it to him. "First Minister Shakaar is coming, of course -- "

Odo very carefully did not look up from the PADD. He didn't want to see Kira's face as she said her lover's name.

" -- along with Ministers Nemell, Rozahn, and Arlis." He glanced back up in time to see her grimace sourly. "And Kai Winn. From Cardassia, there's Legates Ghemor..." Kira smiled a little; Odo remembered that the formerly exiled legate had befriended her, that time when she was being held on Cardassia. "...and Turrel, and Guls Marratt, Zirana, and Krenn. There'll be a reception the night before the ceremony at nineteen hundred hours, in the wardroom. The ceremony is set for thirteen hundred hours the next day, in front of the Bajoran temple. Followed by another reception at fourteen-thirty. The usual diplomatic stuff."

Odo grunted approvingly as he finished reading the schedule. It looked to be in order.

"What about your end?"

"We're set. The Orb that will be arriving with the Cardassian delegation is a fake. It will stay with the Cardassians in Legate Ghemor's quarters. Ghemor has agreed to send the real one to the station a day ahead of time, where my deputies and I will keep it secure until the ceremony. Meanwhile, we'll continue to keep a close watch on our friends Vorzak and Represh. The minute anyone unauthorized tries to enter Ghemor's quarters, they'll be arrested."

"Sounds like a plan." Kira took the PADD, and rose. She stopped and turned at the door. "Want to try for lunch again?"

Odo stared at her for a moment, then finally shook his head. "I'm sorry, Major. I -- have a lot of preparations to make. I'm afraid I won't have time for lunch."

"You're sure?" Kira looked disappointed, and vaguely troubled.

"Yes, I'm -- " He checked himself, and went on in more even tones. "Yes, I'm quite sure."

"All right," she said quietly.

After she was gone, Odo closed his eyes in a vain attempt to shut out the image of the hurt he had seen in hers.

(-|-)

Odo managed to be busy installing the real Orb in a vault within the recesses of the station's security complex when First Minister Shakaar and the rest of the Bajoran delegation arrived.

At least he had finally been able to sleep through the last few nights, without the dream. The sleep aid Bashir had given him was quite effective, and did not impair his faculties, as he had feared it would. The headache did not return; he felt sharper and more able to focus mentally. Bashir had warned him, however, that the drug would gradually lose its effectiveness if used too frequently, and recommended that Odo wait a couple of days before resuming the treatment, to prevent his body from becoming too accustomed to it.

So many things to do to maintain the healthy continuation of a humanoid body. Eat, but not too much of the wrong foods. Exercise, but not in such a way as to injure oneself. Use drugs if necessary to relieve pain or to ensure that one got enough rest, but not too often. Not to mention keeping oneself clean so as to avoid offending others. How were they able to keep it all straight, to do the same things routinely and automatically, every day? He had the help of his natural inclination toward orderliness -- which was still a part of him, despite everything -- but what kept them doing it? (Granted, not all of them did.)

He caught himself, more times than he cared to, thinking of the days when he could remedy all his physical needs, without having to resort to aid from any doctors or drugs, merely by reverting to a liquid state.

That night, the dream returned. After awaking, he tried without success to sleep again, and spent the rest of the night catching up on his reports. If nothing else, he thought wryly, Starfleet was probably happier with him now than they had been since taking over the station.

The next day, the Cardassian delegation arrived, and Odo could not avoid the first joint reception; all the senior staff were required to be present. He mingled as little as possible, and mostly stood in one corner, keeping a brooding, vigilant eye on the proceedings -- "like a Baneriam hawk looking for prey," as Quark had once complained.

He couldn't help but watch Kira, though he tried not to. Oddly, she was mainly talking to Legate Ghemor, and not First Minister Shakaar, as he'd expected. She actually seemed to interact with Kai Winn -- whom Odo knew she despised -- more than she did Shakaar. Despite this, to anyone else, she might seem normal, but Odo had always been able to read her like a book. Kira's heart was most definitely not in this gathering.

Shakaar, for his part, appeared as hearty and outgoing as he had been the first time Odo had met him. Was it Odo's imagination, though, or was there a flicker of...sadness, or guilt...in the First Minister's eyes when he glanced in Kira's direction?

Well, he'd heard it said that all romantic couples had their quarrels from time to time. It was probably nothing. They'd most likely make up in a little while, and be sleeping in the same bed tonight...

Determinedly, he rejected that train of thought, and counted the little dishes of food on the buffet table. Ten hasperats, seven taspar eggs, eight moba fruits, eleven slices of larish pie, two carafes each of kanar and Bajoran spring wine, five plates of Earth noodles with ratamba stew -- no doubt one of Captain Sisko's personal concoctions...an interesting variety of aromas, now that he was equipped to appreciate such things...

A voice issued from his commbadge. "Security to Odo."

He quickly left the room, in order not to disrupt the party. "Odo here. What is it, Seeli?"

"We've arrested the Yridian, sir. He was caught trying to override the lock codes on Legate Ghemor's quarters."

"Good work. I'll head for Security and check on the item, just to be safe. Have Ryal and Dejarna meet me there. Odo out."

He made his way down to his office. It was dark -- Ryal and Dejarna hadn't yet arrived. He heard a faint noise -- a whisper of movement -- deeper within the complex. Operating on instinct, he immediately went toward it to investigate.

Reaching the vault room, he saw someone there. Vorzak. The hybrid Cardassian was just coming out, the ornate case containing the Orb of Healing in his arms. He dropped it when he saw Odo.

"You're under arrest," Odo said.

Faster than Odo's eyes could follow, Vorzak drew a knife and charged him.

For a brief, fatal instant, Odo forgot he couldn't shapeshift.

The knife bit swiftly and deeply into the solid, humanoid flesh of his abdomen, up to its hilt. Pain shot through him, radiating in waves of agony from the wound. Red blood spurted and flowed onto the floor. He fell, and was unable to move his limbs or to breathe freely.

As he collapsed before it, the case that held the Orb opened.

His rapidly dimming vision was seared by a flash of brightness...

(-|-)

He stood on a rocky shore beside a rippling sea of gold. Startled and disoriented, he gazed around, then down at himself. A knife handle protruded from his abdomen, and there was blood on his uniform. The pain throbbed through his body, yet he could move and breathe.

A little sloshing sound drew his attention, and he stared in its direction. There. One ripple grew rapidly and approached him. By the time it reached the shoreline, it had coalesced into a familiar female shape.

The face, a mockery of his own, looked at him with unmistakable hostility behind the piercing blue eyes.

"Why are you here, Odo?" she asked coldly.

He gestured toward the knife. "Because of this. This is because of you."

"You are not our concern any longer. You are a murderer of your own kind. We have judged you, and punished you. Go back to your people, Odo."

"You are my people. You created me."

"We created you, yes." Behind her, other shapes rose and formed themselves into semblances of humanoids. "But you are not of us now. You are a solid. You belong with the solids. When we have conquered the home you share with them, you will be no more to us than any other solid. You will live as a slave, or you will die."

"No," he whispered.

The other Changelings came forward. In their faces he saw anger, and hatred. They reached toward him, and he knew that they were about to finish the job the knife had started. They were going to kill him.

He turned and fled. But the ground was unfamiliar, and treacherous, and his wound made it nearly impossible to walk, much less run. He barely managed to stay upright among the crevices and boulders that appeared in his path. Suddenly the ground ended, and he found himself facing the Great Link again, and an ever-growing multitude of shapes rising from it.

They advanced on him.

(-|-)

"Odo. Odo, can you hear me?"

Slowly, he forced his eyes to open. There was a blur in front of them, a blur that resolved itself fuzzily into a face. Kira's face.

He was lying on a bed. The beeps of Starfleet equipment told him he must be in the infirmary. Something warm clasped his hand. It was another hand. Hers.

"N -- N -- "

"Sssh, don't try to talk. You're in the infirmary. Your deputies caught Vorzak as he was running out after he stabbed you. The Orb is safe. You succeeded, Odo. You stopped it from being stolen."

How well she knew him. She knew that would be his first concern.

"Major." It was Bashir's voice, low and soft, but adamant.

"I have to go now, Odo, so you can rest. I'll come back later. Listen to Julian, you hear me? He's going to fix you up, and you'll be back on your feet in no time."

"Ner -- "

He was choking. He couldn't breathe. The only sound he could produce was a gurgle from his throat.

"Get out of here, Major! Now!" Bashir began bellowing orders to his medical team.

Odo could no longer hear them.

(-|-)

He faced the other Changelings again.

"Stop!" he shouted to them.

They hesitated, and looked at him, all with the same harsh expression on their mask-like faces.

A surge of anger ran through him like a shock wave, giving him strength. Yes, he was angry. He had felt many things toward his people since he had learned who they were. Sadness...shame...longing...but never anger. Or had the rage been there all along, suppressed, merely awaiting a chance to grow to a point where he could recognize it?

"Who are you to condemn me? You gave up all right to judge my life and my choices long ago. I was newly formed when you sent me away. What crime had I committed then? I was a child of yours, and you threw me out as if I were nothing. You didn't care who would find me, or how they would treat me. I was just an experiment to you."

"You were an explorer, Odo," said the female who had always seemed to act as their spokesperson. "You had a sacred task, to learn and to bring back your knowledge. You failed in that task."

He laughed bitterly, incredulously. "I failed? When I came back to you, you never even asked me what I had learned. Your only concern was that I be no different from you. You sent me as an infant, so that I could absorb experiences without bias, but you were too biased yourselves to accept those experiences."

The female's expression did not change. "We had to protect ourselves."

"From what? From ideas that might contradict the lies you've told yourselves for centuries? That might even have made you feel guilty for what you've done to others? Oh yes," he said sarcastically. "I can understand perfectly why that was so much more important to you than I was, or whatever knowledge I had."

She gazed at him pitilessly. "And the solids are more important to you than we could ever be. You proved that when you murdered another Changeling, for their sakes. That was when we knew that you had been corrupted beyond redemption."

"You are the ones who are corrupt. You use your history as victims to justify victimizing other races, even those who never harmed you. I killed once, to defend myself and my friends. You have killed and enslaved millions, for no reason other than that they were not Changelings. You claim the solids are treacherous and bigoted. Perhaps some of them are, but their evil is nothing compared to yours!"

"If you love the solids so much, Odo, then it is only fitting that you die as a solid."

Almost as one being, the Changelings closed on him, slowly, inexorably. There was no fleeing this time; he was surrounded. They became a vast, seething mass of liquid that rose and rose. He choked as it engulfed his face.

As in his dreams, he was forced down, struggling uselessly, until his struggles ended.

(-|-)

A gentle male voice. "Nerys? I thought I'd find you here."

Kira's voice, tired. "Please, Edon. I don't have time for you now."

There was a long sigh from the First Minister. "I know you're angry with me, Nerys. I guess I don't blame you. But can't we put that aside for now?" A pause, then quiet footsteps as Shakaar advanced, to the side of the bed. "How is he?"

"Stable," Kira replied, softly. "Julian says it's still touch and go. We almost lost him...we still could -- " She stopped abruptly.

Another pause. Odo heard Kira's breathing grow harsh. Almost as if...as if she were crying. Kira, crying? He nearly opened his eyes, just to see if she really was, but then Shakaar spoke again.

"He means a lot to you, doesn't he?"

A little silence. "Odo is probably the best person I know, Edon." Kira's voice was strained, but level; she was in control of herself. "No. Make that the best. You know..." She laughed, a brief bark of sound forced out by tension. "I always used to wonder what he ever saw in us humanoids. We certainly didn't give him much reason to admire us. Did you know he was raised in a laboratory?"

"No, I didn't."

Kira sighed. "Prophets know, he's seen us from so many of our worst angles, that you'd think the second he finally found the other Changelings, he'd jump right into that Great Link of theirs and never come out. But he chose us. And now I guess he's paying the price for it. I wonder if he'll still think we're worth it, after this." Her voice wavered. "If he even survives..."

A silence fell, which must have lasted only a few seconds, but seemed like years. Odo felt vaguely ashamed at being an eavesdropper. But he couldn't find the strength or the desire to reveal the fact that he was awake just now.

Shakaar said quietly at last, "I think I understand now."

He didn't explain what he meant by that, and Kira didn't ask.

At last, the First Minister spoke again. "The post-ceremony reception is going on now. I have to get back to it. There should be some food left. Are you coming?"

"How can you expect me to go mingle with Winn and smile at a bunch of diplomats at a time like this?"

"Nerys, you won't do any good hovering over him. Why not take your mind off things for a while? You can always come back later."

"I can't, Edon. Please. Just go. Go be the First Minister, then go back to Bajor and what's-her-name, and leave me alone."

"Tirla."

"Whatever," Kira snapped. "Goodbye, Edon."

There was another pause, then Shakaar said, "Goodbye, Nerys." His voice was very low. Footsteps receded, and there was silence, except for the random sounds of various medical equipment. And Kira's voice.

"Odo...I don't know if you can hear me or not. But -- I just have to say this." A gusty sigh. "I guess you're getting to see the down side of being a humanoid. We're so vulnerable, to so many things. Knives, phasers...violence in general...not to mention diseases and accidents. Not that you didn't know that before, but now you're experiencing it firsthand. And it's not fair. It's just not fair."

Another short, mirthless laugh.

"I remember you telling me once, before you met the Founders, that you thought your sense of justice was a racial memory. You thought it was a clue to what your people must be like. It must have hurt you awfully to find out you were wrong. I was there. I watched your face. And I remember feeling so -- guilty. Because I was glad they were the Founders. I was glad, because I knew you wouldn't stay with them, that you would come back to the station. It was so selfish of me, but I couldn't help it, because it meant I would still have you as my friend.

"Hah...listen to me." A deep, shaky sigh. "I'm babbling on and on at you, just like I always used to do. Telling you about my feelings, not letting you get a word in edgewise. I guess you're kind of a captive audience now, aren't you? But all those other times...how did you manage to listen to me ramble and never once tell me to just shut up? Why do you put up with me? You're never that patient with anyone else... Well, whatever the reason is, I'm grateful for it, Odo. I just hope I'll be able to rattle on at you for years to come."

He felt her take his hand again, almost hurting him with the intensity of her grip -- a welcome distraction from the pain in his midsection. It seemed almost as if she were clinging to him for dear life. His life? Or hers? (Why had he thought that?)

"Get better, Odo. Please. Give us that time. It's all up to you."

(-|-)

It was all up to him.

He was back on the shores of the Great Link, with the Founders shimmering in waves at his feet. The knife was still in his belly, and the pain was still there, but it was bearable. He looked out and contemplated the people who had once been his.

Somehow he knew that these were not dreams. These experiences were like a puzzle he had to solve. And he was beginning to suspect that he had the answer. He had had it all along.

In the first vision, he had run away from them. In the second, he had confronted them. Neither had worked. This was his last chance.

"Listen to me," he called out. There was no reply, but he knew they were aware of his words. "I know why you are the way you are. You only wanted never to be hurt again. But you have become so obsessed with protecting yourselves that you have forgotten the things that make your survival worthwhile. You know order, and you know domination, but justice and love have become alien to you.

"I am sorry for you. But my life is mine. I will be what I choose. I don't need you any more. You have no power over me."

(-|-)

The hand that Kira held slowly melted into something that glowed with an inner, dark-golden fire, like a living jewel.

"Nerys..."

She stared at him, wide-eyed, a jumble of emotions flickering across her face all at once. Astonishment, wonder, confusion, and happiness. Wildly, she slapped at her commbadge, missed it the first time, slapped again, and hit it. "Kira to Bashir! Julian, come quick! Bring a bucket!"

"A bucket?" came the understandably bewildered reply.

"You heard me!"

Bone and sinew and muscle and organs dissolved. There was no more wound, no pain. Odo sat up, his "hand" still enveloping Kira's. He looked at her and smiled.

"Don't tell Quark just yet," he said softly. "I want to surprise him."

Kira was laughing and crying simultaneously. "Odo -- Odo, you...you're -- "

"Yes. I am."

"But -- but -- "

"How?" He snorted a little. "To be honest, I'm not certain. I never did quite figure out how they locked me into a solid shape to begin with. But -- I think I had a little help."

"Help?"

"From the Orb. I remember that as I was falling, when I had been stabbed, the case opened up. Maybe it was the vibration from the impact I made hitting the floor. I don't know. At any rate, there was a flash, and..."

Kira was open-mouthed with awe. "You saw the Orb of Healing?"

"And apparently it healed me." Odo shrugged a bit.

"But -- the case wasn't open when Ryal and Dejarna found you."

"I can't explain it, either. At the moment, however, I'm not sure I particularly care." He smiled again. For some strange reason, he felt as if the dark cloud that had hovered over his life for as long as he could remember was finally dissipating. However, he had to wonder if it had really been the power of the Orb that had healed him, or if it had merely showed him how to heal himself.

Footsteps pounded into the infirmary, and Bashir stood there, holding a bucket, and panting as he stared at Odo -- at the liquefied hand that encased Kira's. Odo finally solidified the hand, letting go of hers and looking calmly back at Bashir.

"Don't just stand there, Doctor," he said. "Bring that bucket over here. I've held this shape much longer than usual."

Still mute with shock, Bashir walked slowly over and set the bucket down beside Odo.

Odo stood, and looked down fondly at Kira.

"I have something I want to tell you, later."

Before she could respond, he inclined his body, and became an arc of shining amber that poured itself quickly and gracefully into the bucket, to take a much-needed rest.

A rest without dreams.

-The End-


Copyright by Tracy L. Hemenover

 

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