Unfamiliar pain welled up in his throat. The membranes inside his nose felt swollen. His eyes stung. Every beat of his heart hurt.
Odo was helpless. Despite all his efforts, he had failed.
He poured the gelatinous baby Changeling into his hands, offering the only comfort he could give.
"Please, don't die," he pleaded. "There is so much I want to show you. I was going to teach you how to be a Tarkalean hawk, remember?"
His palms stung as the baby Changeling disappeared. He gasped, showing his open hands to Doctor Bashir and Doctor Mora.
"What happened?" Doctor Mora peered at Odo's hands. "Where did it go?"
Odo's body tingled. The aching in his throat faded. A presence in his mind whispered its thanks.
Doctor Bashir ran a tricorder scan. He frowned. "Somehow it integrated itself into Odo's body."
Then the sensations hit. A mixture of agony and ecstasy. Odo staggered backwards with a hoarse cry. As Doctor Mora and Doctor Bashir caught him, he felt his internal organs collapse. His bones melted. Holding his shape took effort. The solid body he called a stranger-- a source of shame and punishment-- became once again fluid and familiar.
"Odo, what's wrong?"
Odo looked dazedly at Doctor Bashir. His clear blue eyes shone with realization.
"It can't be," he said.
"What?" asked Doctor Mora.
Odo's diaphragm twitched and dissolved. His quiet laugh sounded like a sob. He had only one desire.
Odo shook off the concerned hands holding him upright and walked through the medical bay doors. He willed his body to change, and it listened.
Startled onlookers watched the Tarkalean hawk soar across the Promenade.
Odo flew for the unnamed baby Changeling.
He landed and regained his humanoid form with his arms still outstretched in memory of flight. Being able to change shape again felt wonderful, but the price for doing so made him ache anew.
The baby Changeling he wanted to call his own was gone.
For Freedom's Sake
"Hold on, hold on so strong, time just carries on.
All that you thought was wrong is pure again.
You can't hide forever from the thunder.
Look into the storm and feel the rain!"
-- Josh Groban, "Brave"
Zero-hundred on the Promenade was the routine patrol hour Odo enjoyed. All the shops were closed for the night. Nobody was on the Promenade except for the night security detail and cleanup personnel.
Odo nodded politely to the crew members he passed. He watched a human female clean up discarded jumja sticks outside Garak's Clothiers and made a mental note to check his security footage. It had been awhile since he issued a citation for littering. Dax was the last culprit. Odo groaned at the memory. She left an empty glass on a bulkhead outside his office. The day after the citation, Dax broke into his office and covered every inch of the floor with replicated drinking glasses. Quark helped. Quark always helped.
The gruff Security Chief still didn't know what she found so funny about throwing his personal space into chaos. Neither Dax nor Quark cared about the fines they had to pay for their prank.
Grumbling, Odo shook his head and glanced at the lights cast by Quark's bar. Quark's back was turned as he tallied up the day's profit. Odo crept past the dabo tables and sat down at the bar. He folded his hands. And waited.
"...so Rom gets half of--" Quark turned, "AAH!"
Odo barely kept a straight face. He found sick amusement in scaring Quark out of his lobes.
"Good evening, Quark. I trust your business was profitable and legal today?"
Quark hastily put his PADD away. He took a deep breath and said, "Not that it's any of your business, but yes."
"It's always my business," Odo huffed.
"Nice to see you on duty again." Quark grumbled and wiped down the bar top. "How's it feel to have your shape shifting abilities back?"
The inquiry dug at a too-raw wound. Odo growled a warning.
"Okay, okay, I'm sorry about the baby Changeling. I can still get you your money back since it d-- okay! Fine! I won't mention it again!" Quark held his hands up in mock surrender. "By the way, you just broke your last record."
Quark grinned. "It only took me three seconds to rile you up. I can't remember the last time you were this grumpy."
"Oh, please. You're worse than a toothache." Odo narrowed his eyes. "And I am no more 'grumpy' than I usually am."
"Oh, yes you are." Quark said back.
Odo knew he'd been baited, but the reply came out before he could stop it.
"I am not!"
"Really?" The shrewd Ferengi pointed to a dabo table behind Odo. "Then why did you get into an argument with Klingons at that table two days ago?"
"They were disturbing the peace." Odo said.
"And how about the four Yridians you ordered off the Promenade this morning?"
"They were loitering outside Garak's shop."
"Uh-huh...then explain the-- "
"I didn't come here to be interrogated!" Odo snapped.
"I rest my case."
"Fine, Odo. Why did you come to my bar at this hour?"
"The same reason I always come here. To keep an eye on you."
Quark rolled his eyes. "It's so nice of you to check up on my welfare. I don't know how I would function without you."
"Hah! Welfare." Odo pinned Quark with his best glare as he got up and left the bar.
The walk to his quarters was uneventful. It had been a long day. He looked forward to a quiet, relaxing regenerative cycle. Sometimes it felt nice to enter his quarters and splatter across the ground in his gelatinous state.
Odo fell to the floor, expecting his body to melt like it always did, but only his head, arms and legs spread out as a fluid. The results were akin to an egg in a frying pan. He reformed again, his face a mask of confusion.
Was that a fluke?
He attempted to dissolve into goo a second time. Just like before, only his head and limbs responded. He solidified and sat up. His brow wrinkled. He tried to shape shift into one of the spiraling sculptures he used for practice. Once more, all but his torso responded.
Odo stared at his hands. Terror clutched his mind like a vice. Was he losing his ability to shape shift again? He leapt to his feet, coming face to face with his reflection in a nearby sculpture. His eyelids fluttered. He squeezed his own limbs and pressed on his chest. No bones-- not that he could feel, anyway.
"Computer, is there a quantum stasis field active in this room?"
The computer responded with a beep. "There are no quantum stasis fields active in this room."
"Are there any present on the station?"
Another beep. "There are no quantum stasis fields active on this station."
Odo paced around his room. His breath, or what passed for it, caught in his throat. No, this couldn't wait. He tapped his combadge. "Odo to Doctor Bashir."
"I read you," came the sleepy reply.
"I'm sorry to wake you, doctor. I may have a medical problem. I'm on my way to the Infirmary now."
"You aren't solid anymore, remember?"
Now in a borderline panic, Odo shouted, "Just meet me in the Infirmary!"
"Whoa, whoa...easy. I'll be in the Infirmary in ten minutes. Bashir, out."
Ten minutes later, Odo stood surrounded by the blinking lights and monitors of Deep Space Nine's medical facility. He had already demonstrated his inability to fully liquefy. Doctor Bashir scanned him head to toe and frowned at his medical tricorder.
"What?" Odo asked.
Doctor Bashir ran another tricorder scan. The handheld device pinged. He said, "The density of your morphogenic matrix is normal in your limbs, but the surface area of your upper torso has increased in mass and density by twenty five percent."
Odo squinted down at himself in dismay. His body appeared no different than it always had.
"I've had trouble reverting into my gelatinous state for the past week, starting three days after losing the baby Changeling. Last night it was a struggle, and tonight...this." Odo looked at his hands again. "It's normally the other way around. Holding my shape is to me what keeping your hand in a fist is to you. Until tonight, I, ah, I thought the problem was just, as you humans put it, stress."
"I didn't know Changelings could suffer insomnia," said Doctor Bashir. "I can see it has quite the effect on your disposition."
Odo gritted the stubs he passed off as teeth. He was glad he didn't have molars anymore-- the last time he did this with real teeth, he broke one. Toothaches were the most annoying sensation he experienced during his time as a solid. More annoying than a full bladder. More annoying than Quark.
"Quark said I'm grumpier than usual," he muttered.
"Mmhmm. We'll get to the bottom of this, Odo." Doctor Bashir gestured to the biobed.
Odo grunted in dismay, but he complied and laid himself down. Doctor Bashir moved the sensor array up to Odo's torso and calibrated the diagnostic systems.
"Get comfortable...this might take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours."
"Wonderful," Odo said to himself. He relaxed the best he could and prepared to wait.
Odo stirred through the floating sensation of waking from sleep. His head and limbs solidified. He blinked.
Sleep? He hadn't required sleep since he regained his shape shifting abilities! Not that falling asleep wasn't possible-- he managed it a few times after becoming a Changeling again, but he always slid off his bed and woke up on the floor in his gelatinous state.
Thankfully, Doctor Bashir thought to surround the biobed with a containment field. Odo nodded to show he was fully reformed and the field dissipated in a flash.
"I'm losing my shape shifting abilities, aren't I?"
"I knew it." Odo grumbled. "I'll be a solid again by the end of the week."
Doctor Bashir scratched his head. "Well, um...it's about the only description I can give for your condition. Mood swings, changes in your body...just look here."
Odo squinted at the screen where Doctor Bashir was pointing.
"Your chest cavity is less dense than its surface area, which seems to be more dense than the rest of you. And then there is this."
Doctor Bashir zoomed the scan into Odo's chest. There was a fist-sized pocket where his heart used to be during his time as a solid. It fit perfectly between the rudimentary lungs that helped him produce speech and regulate his humanoid body temperature. Something liquid moved inside the pocket. Odo watched it form little tentacles and roll about. He placed his hand on his chest.
"How...?" he asked.
"Well," Doctor Bashir cleared his throat. "I think it's the baby Changeling you were trying to help. It integrated itself into you, transformed you back into a Changeling and now it's reforming inside you using your morphogenic matrix and biomolecular structure. You have essentially become its new progenitor, and your body is adjusting itself to protect it until it can survive on its own. In essence, it's a pregnancy. Congratulations, Odo!"
Odo peered at Doctor Bashir as if he lost his mind. Didn't the doctor realize the problem this posed? How was he supposed to attend his duties with unstable moods and a new life form growing inside his body? What if the Dominion found out? What if news of his condition leaked to the Founders?
No. This little miracle was his to protect.
"I wish to make a formal request that your findings remain off the record, and that word of this doesn't get around. And contact Doctor Mora."
Doctor Bashir paused, "Doctor Mora? I thought-- "
"He is the most qualified person to assist you with these unusual circumstances," said Odo. He stood up straighter and clasped his hands behind his back. "How long do you think this Changeling will...gestate?"
"I don't know. I can tell you the little one's volume is half what it was when it was when we thought it died. Didn't you say it will grow as it shape shifts?"
Odo nodded, his eyes still glued to the monitor screen. The reality of the situation sank into his mind. He hadn't lost the baby Changeling after all!
"Then I suspect your gestation period will be determined by how active Junior is."
Junior? Odo glanced at Doctor Bashir. "I see. Thank you, doctor."
Then a new realization struck him. The station stood on the brink of a war. While he had no doubt Deep Space Nine was a safe place, he knew he couldn't raise a baby Changeling here. It would be a liability. Something the Founders might use against him. He needed to come up with a plan. Fast.
Odo asked, "Computer, what time is it?"
The computer beeped. "The current time is oh-eight-fifteen."
"I suppose I should go. I'm on duty in an hour," said Odo. "When you contact Doctor Mora, please make sure he keeps my condition a secret."
"Will do. And I request that you contact me if anything doesn't feel right."
"I'll do that."
Doctor Bashir smiled. Anyone could see the situation excited him on a personal and scientific level. "Good luck, Odo."
That should shut him up for awhile.
Odo put his feet up on his desk and smirked to himself. He just returned from doling out a littering citation. Quark thought he could get away with it, but Odo reminded him otherwise. Seeing the Ferengi mutter as he paid the fine was worth the trip. The exchange made Morn laugh. Morn had the weirdest cackle, and even Odo liked to hear it once in awhile.
He looked up when he heard the doors to his security office open. A lovely Bajoran woman in a red uniform approached his desk. Her body hadn't yet regained its shape after recently giving birth, but her presence exuded strength anyway. Just one of many qualities Odo found most attractive about her.
"Major Kira," Odo sat up straight and regarded her with a polite nod.
"Constable," Kira nodded back. "So, what's the big secret you wanted to tell me in person?"
"Yes, that." Odo set his security reports aside and leaned across his desk. "I don't know how to say this, and it's going to sound preposterous coming from me, but..." He took one last glimpse at the door for prying ears. "I'm going to be a parent."
Kira straightened to her full height. She folded her arms and chuckled, arching one sculpted eyebrow. "Really? So, who is the mother?"
"Uh..." Odo glanced down at himself. "Technically, I am, since I'm carrying it inside my body."
The humor left Kira's face. She walked around the desk and gazed at Odo more closely. "Odo?"
"Do you remember the baby Changeling I told you about?"
"Mmhmm," Kira nodded.
"It...it didn't die like I previously thought. Doctor Bashir says it somehow integrated itself into my body after it reverted me to a Changeling. It sounds impossible, yet it's there. And as one of my closest friends, I felt I could entrust you with the secret."
"Secret?" Kira smiled. "Odo, this is great news! You should tell everyone."
"Kira," Odo took her hands. His own forwardness surprised him. The look on his face kept her from saying more, and the fears he had for the infant Changeling poured out before he could stop them. "Please, Nerys. I don't want this news getting around the station. If word gets back to the Founders, I fear they'll come and take it from me. I...I fear they will punish this innocent Changeling for my crimes. Secrecy is the only protection it has."
Her fingers closed around his. They were soft. Reassuring. For a moment, he wished he could tell her he loved her. Yet he could not. Burdening her with his feelings while she was with Shakaar wouldn't be fair.
"Odo..." Kira squeezed his hands. "I can keep a secret. But why me? Shouldn't you be telling Captain Sisko?"
Odo shook his head. He smiled wryly. "You are more experienced in childbirth than Captain Sisko is."
"Hm, true." Kira chuckled again and tilted her head. Her Bajoran earring glittered. She asked, "Have you thought of a name for the baby Changeling?"
"I...have something in mind. I was planning to name it before, but there wasn't time to get around to it." Odo met her eyes. "I want to name it Kejal. Because that is what you fought for. It's what we all fight for. And this one-- " he touched his own chest, " --will know it."
Her kind expression made his fingers tingle. "That's a perfect name. Do you know if it's male or female yet?"
Odo looked into her large brown eyes. "We won't know until it chooses for itself. I modeled myself after Doctor Mora because I didn't know any different." His head sank into his shoulders for a moment. He shrugged. "He'll tell you embarrassing stories about my first encounter with a female if you ask him."
"You know I won't put you through that," she replied.
"I appreciate it."
Kira's combadge beeped and delivered a message from the main computer. She straightened. "That's my reminder. I'm supposed to meet Dax in the holosuite. We're trying out a new relaxation program."
Odo's spirits sank. He was hoping to spend more time with Kira. His expression remained neutral, revealing nothing. "Oh...well, enjoy yourself, Major."
"I will...and I'll keep this between us. I promise." Kira smiled tenderly at him. "By the way, how are you going to give birth?"
"I have no idea," said Odo. The irony of the situation wasn't lost on him. "I don't even know how long it will gestate. I might deliver in two hours or two months."
"Well, let's hope it gives you some warning." Kira looked amused. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Nodding, Odo politely dismissed her. The door hadn't even closed yet when another Bajoran walked through.
Odo stood and greeted the man whose form he tried to mirror so many times. The hair was the only thing he got right.
"Oh, Odo!" Doctor Mora didn't disguise the grin on his face, "I came as soon as I heard."
"Well," Odo shrugged and forced his gravelly voice into a lighter, less serious tone. "I figured you would be delighted to be a 'grandfather.'"
Doctor Mora laughed. "It's quite a miracle, isn't it? So, when are you off duty?"
The Infirmary biobed became a familiar fixture. Odo willingly laid back while Doctor Mora and Doctor Bashir bent over the monitors. He stemmed the flood of unpleasant laboratory memories by mentally going through his security checklist.
Morning, afternoon and night patrols? Done.
Daily malware scans on all systems? Done.
All luggage scanned and secured? Done.
All cargo bays secured? Done.
Everyone coming and going accounted for? Done.
Harass Quark? Done.
"Yes, Doctor Mora?"
Doctor Mora showed him his tricorder screen. Odo recognized the pocket and moving mass of fluid within it. He lifted his head for a better look.
"Is this a live scan?"
Odo couldn't describe the emotions running through him. The infant Changeling was forming tentacles and curling them, only to lapse back into a gelatinous state again. It wasn't able to hold a shape for more than a few seconds at a time.
"It looks like it's...practicing," he said, unable to stop himself from smiling. "Just like I did when I learned to form tentacles."
"You sure loved to do that," Doctor Mora remarked. "Odo, have you thought of a name for it?"
"I have," Odo replied, his eyes shining. "I'm going to call it Kejal."
Doctor Mora's expression softened. He patted Odo's arm and chuckled. "A wonderful choice. My goodness, I do feel like I'm about to be a grandfather."
"Kejal?" Doctor Bashir asked. "I-I'm sorry, my Bajoran is a little rusty. What does it mean again?"
"Kejal is our word for freedom, Doctor Bashir."
"Ahh, thank you."
But Odo wasn't listening to them anymore. His gaze remained fixed on the tricorder viewscreen. The infant Changeling formed its entire mass into a tentacle no larger than his little finger. It slapped against the side of its protective pocket before melting into liquid again.
Odo jumped with a gasp. He felt that. "Oh...did you see that?"
Doctor Bashir and Doctor Mora grinned at each other.
"The pocket is actually full of air, not liquid like I first thought. And it hasn't changed its size at all, but the baby Changeling's volume has increased by ten percent since yesterday." Doctor Bashir leaned on the side of the biobed. "I suspect only two conditions will lead to it being born. One-- it outgrows the pocket and bursts free. Or two-- it can hold a shape long enough to work itself out of your body. Where it will emerge from is anyone's guess. Doctor Mora, what do you think?"
"I agree with your hypothesis, doctor." He leaned over Odo as well. "I think, regardless of what triggers its birth, it will choose the path of least resistance. Unlike a solid species, that could be anywhere on your body."
The idea of a baby Changeling coming out of his face almost made Odo laugh. That would be a sight to remember.
I suppose I'll just sneeze, Odo mused to himself.
Doctor Bashir and Doctor Mora moved away to talk quietly amongst themselves. Odo was grateful for the slight distance. He rested his hand over his chest. Lying flat on his back meant he felt more of the tiny movements inside him. The prickly sensations reminded him of champagne bubbles. Then, a tentacle-- a faint tapping under his palm. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
Little one, are you aware?
The response was a faint, primitive consciousness. Enough for an entity to recognize itself as alive and that it wasn't alone. Nothing more.
Odo let his hand drop back onto the biobed. He remembered Lwaxana Troi telling him about sensing the thoughts of unborn Betazoid babies.
'Such contentment,' she said...
"It knows it is alive," Odo spoke quietly. "I can feel its awareness. It is...like I was...ah, I need to rest."
Doctor Bashir reached out. "Doctor Mora, it's all right. This is what I've been telling you about. Watch his torso."
Odo stopped listening. His limbs and head were melting. He remembered Doctor Mora erecting the containment field. Then slumber claimed him, and he didn't fight it.
The early hours of the morning found Odo walking his usual patrol around the Promenade. He nodded to the shopkeepers who noticed his passage. The Yridians he cited for loitering were enjoying breakfast in the Klingon restaurant. They looked like a shifty bunch. No doubt up to mischief. Odo made a mental note to watch them. He clasped his hands behind his back, making eye contact with each Yridian as he passed the Klingon delhi.
At the Celestial Café, he paused to smile at Chalan Aroya. She noticed him, grinned and waved back. He gave a slight bow before resuming his patrol, ever-conscious of her eyes watching him pass. Aroya was a sweet girl. Her affections towards him were flattering, but she wasn't his type. Their differences outweighed their similarities.
A flicker caught Odo's attention. He looked up and forgot all about Aroya.
Quark had erected an obnoxious blinking sign outside his bar. The gaudy lights spelled out: Come to Quark's! Quark's is fun! Colorful bouncing arrows pointed to the entrance.
Even worse, it started playing music. The same obnoxious song Quark once installed on all the viewscreens.
Of all the obnoxious, energy-wasting... Odo strode up to the bar and summoned his most intimidating security officer voice, which boomed enough to make Morn jump. "QUARK!"
"Ah, good morning, Constable." Quark set two bottles of Aldebaran whiskey on the bar top. "What can I do for you?"
Odo folded his arms. He suspected Quark purchased the sign on purpose to annoy him. Still, busting him always felt satisfying. "Your sign is a blatant violation of advertising protocol."
Quark put on his most innocent face. "What sign? I don't remember a sign."
Odo loomed over the short Ferengi behind the bar. "You know which sign I'm talking about." He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb.
Suddenly, Quark 'remembered.' "Oh, that sign!"
"Yes," Odo smirked, "that sign."
"Pretty snazzy, isn't it? I paid good money for it."
"And you wasted good money for it, because it's a violation. I want it gone by twelve-hundred, or I'm throwing you into a holding cell and ejecting all of your profits into space."
"Now you're being sadistic." Quark fidgeted with a PADD containing the bar's menu. "Not only that-- you're grumpier today than you were two days ago."
"Oh, no, Quark." Odo narrowed his eyes and rapped his fingers on the bar top. "You haven't seen me grumpy yet. But keep testing me, and I promise you'll regret it. Now get rid of the sign."
Quark touched the heels of his upturned palms together and bowed. Odo turned away, ignoring Quark's voice when he told Rom to pay up.
"Gee, is it a good idea to get Odo all riled up?" Rom asked.
"Always, Rom. Always."
Odo shook his head and kept walking. That felt great.
He turned and regarded Kira with a polite nod. "Major."
Kira fell into step with him. She said, "I just talked to Doctor Bashir and Doctor Mora. You're free at thirteen-hundred, right?"
Odo clasped his hands behind his back and replied, "Yes, I take an hour long break to go over the midday reports. Why?"
"I booked us the relaxation program in the holosuite. I think you'll like it. Plus, you asked me about..." She dropped her voice to a whisper, "birth."
"I...yes, I did, didn't I? I would like to know how Bajorans go about it."
That made Kira grin up at him. "Then you'll love this program. I'll see you at thirteen-hundred."
Any reason to be around Kira was a good one. Odo knew telling her his feelings was impossible. But being near her, sharing the same space she did...to him, that was enough.
"Very well, Major. Thirteen hundred it is."
"Constable," Kira dipped her head. She stepped into the turbolift while Odo continued straight ahead towards his office.
He took out his security report PADD and prepared his team's assignments for the day. Then he went over the identities of everyone who entered the station since he came on duty. Today, there weren't many, and none fit the description of known criminals.
But there may be unknown criminals in the mix, Odo reminded himself.
The station records noted several shipments of fabrics arriving in cargo bay four. That always happened when Garak's replicator malfunctioned. Odo kept scrolling. A minor incident in the Replimat-- nothing worth noting. Two Klingons disturbing the peace also wasn't surprising.
He sighed. Concentrating on the text might have been easier if his chest didn't feel like a glass of champagne. Last night, he barely felt it at all, and when he woke today he found it hard to ignore.
"What do you think, little one? Should I run an extra security scan on cargo bay two?" Odo mumbled at his chest. He knew the being he carried didn't understand a word he said, but it was aware of him and his voice. Talking to the infant made him feel somehow closer to it.
"Hm, no? How about cargo bay six? Bubble at me for a yes."
A few minutes went by before he felt it.
"There." Odo activated the scan subroutine on his desk console. "I'm running the scan right now. Heh, maybe you'll grow up to be a security officer yourself. What do you think?"
More bubbling. That sensation was life. A veritable blank slate of potential. Odo couldn't help himself-- he laughed. He knew it wasn't really an answer. The timing amused him just the same.
His office door opened. He stifled his laughter; he had an image to keep up!
"Odo, it's wonderful to see you so happy."
Odo smiled up at Doctor Mora. "How can I not be? I've discovered something I thought I lost."
Doctor Mora folded his arms, amusement still present on his face. "I'm sure you didn't ask me to meet you in your office to tell me that."
Odo's smile slipped. He shook his head. "No...but I've been thinking. I...I'll just get to the point. Once this infant Changeling is born, I want you to take it back to Bajor and raise it."
Now the Bajoran scientist was peering at him with curiosity written on his aged features. Exactly what Odo expected.
"We're about to go to war with the Dominion. I don't want the Founders getting their hands on this Changeling." Odo's hand went to his chest. He leaned forward in his office chair. "Once it is born, I will link with it. I will tell it what it needs to know to shape shift, and then I want you to take it. I...I trust that you can keep it safe until the war with the Dominion is over. I, uh..." Odo tilted his head and met Doctor Mora's eyes. "It's my way of saying thank you for your help."
Doctor Mora seated himself across from Odo. His face practically glowed. He reached over the desk and rested his hand on Odo's shoulder.
"Are you sure?"
"Then I would be honored, Odo. Thank you."
Odo rested his hand over Doctor Mora's. "I am not off duty until zero-hundred, but if you want to have dinner sometime today...I don't mind sitting and watching you eat."
His dry humor wasn't lost on Doctor Mora.
"Oh, yes. You know, I still remember how you tried to copy everything I did. Even eating."
Odo rolled his eyes. "Yes...I thought the food simply disappeared after you chewed it up."
"And it was a mess when you tried to mimic me. Larish pie all over your face. Ah, those were the days. Though I never should have explained swallowing to you..."
That was a memory Odo found most unpleasant. "You had no idea it would just fall right through me. I only have an approximation of an esophagus."
"It was still an interesting experiment. Do you ever miss having a sense of smell and taste?"
"Not really. There were times where I found them almost overpowering." Odo admitted. "But I didn't mind them."
Smell-- sometimes he hated that sense. Until he had it, he never realized his office was a landing pad for everyone else's flatulence. He used to wonder why some people paused before exiting the door. O'Brien was the worst culprit. Odo swore he did it every single time.
"Odo's office is the best place to fart. He can't smell it and the doors help it disperse." O'Brien said once.
Odo's lips quirked in a half smile. No, he did not miss his sense of smell at all.
He sat back in his chair. The security scan completed. No anomalies.
"It feels like champagne bubbles," he said.
"You're feeling it move already?"
"Yes," Odo replied. "It's the same sensation you feel when you take a drink and let it sizzle in your mouth. Champagne...heh...it's the only drink I miss. Oh, it's moving. Here."
He moved Doctor Mora's hand to his chest. "There. Did you feel that?"
Doctor Mora's eyebrows went up. He adjusted the position of his fingers. "No, it must be too small for-- ah! I felt that."
Odo's memory of that hand stretched almost as far as he could remember. It reached out and touched him the first time he assumed a humanoid shape. Back then, his features were even more primitive than they were now. A week of sticking his tentacles into Doctor Mora's mouth and nose provided the tactile information needed to form them.
The scientist lifted his hand off Odo's chest.
Odo imitated the act of clearing his throat. "All I ask is you don't experiment on this Changeling. Teach it what I can't, but-- "
"Say no more," Doctor Mora held up a hand. "I understand...and I give you my word."
A troubled corner in Odo's mind quieted down. The sentimentality made him uncomfortable. He shifted in his chair and said, "So, about dinner..."
"Ah! How does eighteen-hundred at Quark's sound?"
Odo checked his schedule. Nobody was docking then. He nodded and added his dinner with Doctor Mora into that time block. "It's in the system now."
"Excellent. Hm, it's almost thirteen-hundred. I should eat lunch."
"Thirteen-hundred?" Odo's eyes widened. Time sure flew. He practically jumped to his feet. "Doctor Mora, you'll have to excuse me. I'm supposed to meet with Major Kira at thirteen-hundred."
Doctor Mora shot him a knowing look. "Of course. I'll see you later, Odo."
The holosuite program wasn't anything Odo expected. He found himself lying facedown on a cushioned table while a holographic Bajoran woman kneaded his back. If he picked his head up and looked straight ahead, he would see the edge of a sheer rock cliff and the sparkling ocean crashing onto the rocks far below. Odo's favorite part was the bubbling hiss of the sea foam. It sounded like champagne.
Suddenly, it didn't matter that he lacked muscles to massage. This felt amazing. He almost melted into a happy puddle. Literally.
"...it's a natural process, and the body knows what it's doing. I let myself surrender to it. It's nothing to be afraid of. Fear causes tension, and tension leads to pain." Kira spoke from her massage table next to Odo's. She had just finished explaining the traditional Bajoran way of giving birth.
Odo twisted his head to look at her. "What was it like to have the O'Briens' baby?"
He understood the biological basics of Bajoran childbirth. Now, he wanted to know how she felt.
Kira inhaled in the salty ocean air. "It felt amazing, Odo. I slipped into another level of consciousness. I remember...he moved the whole time. It was so easy. I-I just breathed and let my body bear down. I felt him rotate as he crowned. I felt every inch of him leaving my body. It was...powerful."
"I'm sorry I wasn't there to support you."
She giggled at him. "Odo, you were busy with the baby Changeling. It needed you. It still needs you."
Odo let his eyes slide shut. "Nerys..."
"I would like you to be present when I have mine. I...think your experience with the process might put me at ease."
She reached out and touched his arm. It was bare, since he shape shifted his uniform away in favor of the pale blue towel draped over his backside. She told him the massage would feel better that way, and the mesh modesty screen between their tables meant he would not see anything inappropriate if she sat up.
"I wouldn't miss it for the world." She said.
Odo didn't hide his smile. How many times did he do that in the past few days? It was cramping his style.
Kira began, "One thing I'm still curious about..."
"The other Founders-- do they have names?"
"No," Odo said. "There is little individuality in the Great Link, so names aren't necessary."
Kira let go of his arm. She stretched and exhaled. "Do you miss it?"
"Sometimes." He opened his eyes to meet hers. "Until I remember they aren't the people I thought they were. They shunned me. Then again, I suppose I can't fault them either. They were always linked. They always had each other. They knew who and what they were. I had to muddle through alone."
He winced inwardly. Why am I pouring myself out to her like this? Ugh, Odo, get a hold of yourself!
The holographic masseuse asked him to turn over. He did so, adjusting the towel for modesty. There was no real need to since he refrained from shape shifting external genitalia, but he didn't want to make Kira uncomfortable.
Beside him, Kira held onto her towel when she rolled onto her back. She appeared self-conscious of her postnatal body. He wished she wouldn't be. She was beautiful to him no matter her form.
"But it isn't so awful," Odo went on before Kira could feel sorry for him. "I've seen and accomplished a great deal in my life. I have much to be proud of."
He sighed as the masseuse worked her fingers in circles around his temples.
"Mm...one thing is for sure. You keep the station in order." Kira grinned at him.
Odo stared up at the blue sky that matched his eyes. "I may not believe in gods the way you do, but I believe in justice."
"You can't go wrong as long as you believe in something."
"Mm." Odo's view was suddenly blocked by cleavage when the holographic masseuse leaned over to work on the front of his shoulders. She was wearing an obscenely low-cut white dress and no undergarments.
"Tell me something, Major. Did Quark write this program?"
"He helped," said Kira. "Why?"
Odo averted his eyes from the jiggling breasts. "Just wondering."
The upper level of Quark's bar provided a great view of the Promenade. Nothing escaped the watchful Security Chief's nearly unblinking eyes.
Odo sat alone, holding a facsimile of Bajoran springwine in a tall wineglass. He concentrated until the liquid became the proper shade of pale, translucent blue.
Quark complied with the sign removal. Odo was glad for that. Throwing him in a holding cell created too much trouble. Besides, that little twerp had the awful habit of singing until Odo blocked off his ears to shut him out.
Doctor Mora emerged from the turbolift below. Odo waved to him, and in a few minutes they were reunited at the table.
"I want to try something from Earth, but I have no idea where to start," said Doctor Mora. "Did you taste any Earth cuisine before you regained your shape shifting abilities?"
Odo swirled his 'wineglass' and replied, "I recommend a dish called shrimp alfredo. Humans make fantastic pasta."
Doctor Mora placed his order on the small computer in the middle of the table.
"Doctor Bashir wanted to take a sample of the..." Doctor Mora gestured vaguely at Odo's chest.
"Don't worry. I talked him out of it. I made you a promise and I intend to keep it."
Relaxing wasn't something Odo did well. He became tense again the minute he exited the holosuite with Kira.
Rom delivered Doctor Mora's shrimp alfredo and a glass of Bajoran ale. The food came in a broad, steaming bowl.
"Here is your order, sir. Anything else for you?"
"No, thank you." Doctor Mora borrowed Rom's PADD to pay for his purchases and add a generous tip. He always tipped well for a meal, regardless of how terrible it ended up tasting. His impeccable manners were something Odo often admired.
Rom offered a Ferengi bow and darted towards the next table.
"Dabo!" Someone shouted below.
"Mm!" Doctor Mora closed his eyes and chewed slowly on his first bite of shrimp alfredo. "This is absolutely delicious. Thank you."
Before Odo replied, Quark's voice shouted across the bar, "Hey, I just found out someone's pregnant! Guess who?"
The dabo wheels whirred to a stop. Everyone fell silent in the bar. Odo stiffened where he sat. Doctor Mora frowned. Odo looked over the side since the table also offered a view of the bar. Quark glanced up at him and grinned.
Quark's grin widened. "Aren't you going to venture a guess?"
"No, I'm not," he snapped.
Others called out names. Quark, always looking for a profit, was taking bets.
"Aw, I'm so sorry, everyone. You all lost." He gestured to a dark-haired human female in a Starfleet uniform. The same woman Odo saw sweeping near Garak's shop. "Please extend your congratulations to Ensign Williams! How far along are you? Ah. Twelve weeks!"
People cheered. Others groaned at losing the bet. The dabo wheels resumed spinning.
"Ugh." Odo lost his focus on the springwine facsimile. It dropped onto the table as ooze and rejoined the sleeve of his uniform. He clasped his hands together and looked around the Promenade.
Doctor Mora acted completely unbothered by the noise below. "Odo, you're fidgeting."
"That was too close," said Odo. He recognized that his anger was misplaced, but it kept welling up anyway! "Quark is an idiot. Taking bets on a pregnancy...humph!"
"Mm-mm, this food is fantastic...ah...sorry. Odo, I think your situation is too unbelievable to be true."
"Kira believed me when I told her."
"Oh? You seem quite taken with her."
Huffing, Odo avoided Doctor Mora's eyes. He hated how well that scientist knew him. "It's nothing."
"I saw how you were looking at her earlier."
"Enough!" Odo slapped his hand down on the tabletop. His shoulders sagged and he stared at his own fingers. "I...am too different to be anything more than her friend. I've been her friend for a long time, and I won't jeopardize that. Besides, she is quite happy with Shakaar."
"I can put in a good word for y-- "
"No! No, that won't be necessary."
"All right, all right." Doctor Mora wisely dropped the subject and wiped his mouth with a napkin. He smiled, sipping his Bajoran ale. "I think I'll save the rest of this for later. Good choice, Odo. Thank you. What is this dish called again?"
Odo said, "Shrimp alfredo."
"I'll remember it now." Doctor Mora replied, patting his stomach. He glanced around and lowered his voice. "Have you been experiencing any unusual symptoms?"
"Well...aside from being a little tired, no. Why do you ask?"
"I'm just making sure your work isn't affected by your condition. You may need to request temporary leave if you're unable to perform your duties."
"Bah. I'm already affected. You saw what happened when I regenerated. It's the same way with shape shifting. I can change everything but my torso."
To demonstrate, Odo formed his left arm into a huge alien claw and snatched the menu off an empty table. He held it up for Doctor Mora to see before returning it to its rightful place.
"I must be a sight when I regenerate," he mused.
"It's a fascinating sight, yes."
"So glad I amuse you."
"I didn't mean it that way, Odo. It's interesting, seeing how your body is changing for the little one."
Odo tightened his lips. He couldn't believe he misread such a simple sentence. It was hard not to, when much of his youth involved shape shifting for the amusement of others.
"You become a chair, but you can't mimic a face? What kind of shape shifter ARE you?"
"That man with the funny face? Oh, it's just Odo. Watch this. Odo! Turn into a rock! Now do that Cardassian neck trick! Ooh! Can you be a bush? Oh wow, turn into a basket!"
Odo fell for it so many times. He used to reform with a smile, desperate for friendship...only to watch the other people walk away. His innocent and curious nature made his peers laugh. Oftentimes, humanoids treated him like he had no feelings to hurt.
He could remember liquefying beneath a fallen tree to escape an assault by three obnoxious Klingon children. They rolled the tree off his hiding place and stomped on him until he shape shifted into dirt. It took them three hours to give up.
That was when Odo started speaking with a deep, gruff voice. He taught himself how to frighten his tormentors away by growling at them. And he stopped shape shifting for others' amusement.
Odo surfaced above his thoughts. Doctor Mora's hand rested on his clenched fist.
"I'm...fine. I was just remembering...things." Odo lowered his head. "Things that are long gone. I don't want the infant to go through what I did. I endured things I never told you about. I was too ashamed."
"The Klingon children...I told you they chased me. I didn't tell you how they stomped on me when they found me in my liquid state. You thought I learned to shape shift into dirt after showing it to me in the lab, but I really learned how when I did it to hide from those Klingons."
Odo paused. All expression left his face. He told Doctor Mora everything. About getting bullied, shamed and shunned for being different. His less-than-pleasant disposition wasn't entirely the scientist's fault.
The hand holding his fist squeezed tight. Tears welled in Doctor Mora's eyes.
"I failed you in those days, Odo, and for that I am deeply sorry."
"It's the past." Sighing, Odo laid his other hand on top of Doctor Mora's. "I never blamed you for what other people's children did to me."
"Still, I am sorry. I should have known you were being mistreated." Doctor Mora finished his drink. "I give you my word that your little one won't go through that. I'll be more vigilant, and I'll teach it how to interact with its peers. Something I should have done with you in the beginning."
Odo felt himself smiling. A real, genuine smile from his eyes to his mouth.
Doctor Mora's expression softened too. He winked at Odo and flagged Rom down.
"May I have a reheat container for this? It's far too delicious to send back to the replicator."
"Uh-huh! Coming right up."
Rom reappeared with the requested device. A small, unassuming gray box that tripled as a storage device, a microwave cooking unit and a serving container. Kira swore by them during her pregnancy. Odo didn't have enough fingers to count the nights he walked across the Promenade with one of her craved foods in a reheat box. She hated to wake up the O'Briens and she knew he stayed on duty until the wee hours. He never let her down.
Once, he broke into Quark's bar to make her a grilled cheese sandwich with Bajoran shrimp on the side because she had to have it right that minute and didn't want it from a replicator.
And there were the nights he sat with her until she stopped sneezing long enough to fall asleep. Always with her head in his lap. He missed those nights the most.
Odo looked up. He'd been staring at a bulkhead like an idiot. "Hm? Yes?"
Doctor Mora closed the reheat box. "Thinking about her again?"
Odo growled a warning.
"You've made your point." Doctor Mora chuckled. "Thank you for dinner. I'll let you get back to work."
A second after Doctor Mora said that, Odo spotted an Andorian male slipping fabric from Garak's shop into his tunic.
"Yes, and I have work to do right now." Odo pointed with his thumb, "Shoplifter on my right. Excuse me, Doctor Mora."
Doctor Mora gestured for him to leave first. No doubt he would stay and watch the action.
Odo exited Quark's bar and strode into the Andorian's path. Arms crossed, chin up and back straight-- he prided himself on his commanding presence. The Andorian slowed his stride. It was a child perhaps four years younger than Jake Sisko. Odo figured his thievery was a dare. Children did that a lot-- they dared each other to slip something past the 'creepy shape shifting Security Chief.'
The blue-skinned alien smiled up at Odo. Trying to play it cool. Too bad his twitching antennae and sidelong glances gave him away. Odo would have known he had a shoplifter on his hands without seeing him commit the crime.
"Drop the merchandise," Odo commanded.
"I don't know what you mean," said the boy.
"Oh, really?" Odo reached into the Andorian's tunic and pulled out three yards of orange Romulan satin. "Ah, I imagine this would set Garak back quite a bit. This isn't easy to come by. Now, what is your name?"
The Andorian's antennae sagged. "Zhry'malath Namar. Non-Andorians call me Malath."
"Well then, Malath, you have three choices." Odo grasped the boy's arm. "First choice: we walk back to Garak, you apologize for stealing and return the fabric. Second choice: we walk back to Garak, you apologize for stealing and you pay for it. Or, your third choice: I toss you into a holding cell and track down your parents. What will it be?"
Malath's eyes widened. Odo tilted his head, unrelenting.
"Oh please, sir! I'm sorry!" Malath hung his head. "I-I'll return it."
"Wise choice. Let's go."
Odo marched Malath towards Garak's Clothiers. The Cardiassian waited by the entrance. His vaguely reptilian features scrunched in a frown.
"Slippery little fellow, isn't he?" Garak remarked. He handed Odo a roll of fabric similar to what Malath stole. "And he tried to replace what he stole with counterfeit material."
"Really?" Odo smirked. "I heard there was a fabric counterfeiting ring plaguing Bajor, but I never thought I'd see it on Deep Space Nine. And from a child, no less. Well, Malath, it looks like you're in a lot of trouble."
"No! It's not me!" Malath's antennae folded back, betraying his anger. "I had to do it! I'm sorry!"
"Sure you did." Odo handed the real Romulan satin back to Garak and took the counterfeit material in its place. "I'd like to hear all about it in my office."
"Hey!" Malath protested.
"Oh, by the way, Garak..."
"How are your replicators working?"
Garak eyed the delicate material in his hands. "Not a single hiccup in months."
"I see. Thank you."
"My pleasure, Odo."
"All right. Now you..." Odo dragged the upset Andorian into his office and plopped him down in a chair near his desk. "Start talking."
Malath hung his head. His voice twisted itself small. "I-It's a group of Yridians."
"They said they'll kill me if I don't deliver. I..." Malath sighed, his anger gone. Now, he squirmed in his seat, clearly distressed. "I stowed away on a Yridian ship after I ran away from my parents. We were staying on Bajor. My parents told me a secret. I got so mad at them that I ran away and hid in a cargo container full of fabric. It smelled funny, like that stuff I switched out in the shop."
Odo took Malath's statement down on a PADD. "Mmhmm, go on."
"Somebody moved the container aboard the ship that came here. I-I-I tried to yell for help. Nobody came. I yelled so loud, but it didn't work."
"I'm surprised you didn't decompress." Odo said.
"I was scared of that happening!" Malath replied. "The Yridians found me after docking here. I couldn't run away. They said they will take me back to my parents if I assist them."
Odo mentally rolled his eyes. Children were so gullible. An unfortunate result of their inexperience with the world.
Malath's expression twisted. He began to sob, hiding his face. "They'll kill me for talking to you! They saw you take me away. I'm scared...I'm really scared, sir!"
The boy's body language gave no indication of lying. Malath was a frightened child desperate to go home. Nothing more than a pawn in a greater chess game. But pawns were amazing pieces when played right. Odo saw an opportunity.
"Tell me, Malath...can you identify the specific Yridians making you do this?"
"I can't tell you any more."
The child wasn't going to cooperate without reassurance. Taking a deep breath, Odo forced himself to speak gently. "Listen to me, Malath. I won't let you get hurt, but I can't stop the Yridians unless you identify them for me. One of my deputies will stay with you, and I will make sure your parents know where you are. I'll help you, and you'll help me. It's a fair trade, don't you think?"
Malath chewed on his bottom lip. He wiped his face. "I-I think so. Am I still in trouble?"
"Not from me. Now, can you help me...er...catch the bad guys?"
Malath's antennae swiveled. He relented. "I will try."
"Good." Odo faced his main viewscreen. "Computer, retrieve the files of all Yridians who came aboard the station within the last seven days."
The computer beeped. "Searching."
"Your parents must be worried," Odo said.
Shrugging, Malath fidgeted with a loose thread on his deep purple tunic. It was made of fine fabrics. Which meant he came from a rich Andorian family. "They're having another baby."
Ugh, pregnancy is a plague! Odo thought. He tilted his head. "That doesn't seem like a reason to run away."
"The youngest always becomes the favorite!" Malath cried. "I am not ready to be an elder brother! They should have consulted me first!"
"I'm sorry to hear that," Odo replied casually. He had little sympathy for Malath's situation, but he understood why he fled. "Ah, here we go."
Going through the identification files took a some time. Just when Odo thought the boy couldn't deliver, Malath stopped the computer on an old Yridian bearing a nasty acid scar stretching over his mouth and nose. His name was Slek Ygroness and his file listed him as a merchant.
Hah! A merchant with scars is a little too suspicious for my taste.
Malath identified three more Yridians. Odo double checked their names and identifying images. No criminal records, but they had memorable faces.
Gron Pitrek had shifty, squinty eyes.
Lapniss Ykiln was missing part of an ear.
Ashbock Jekmuss looked the most clean-cut...for a Yridian.
Odo smirked and tapped his combadge. "Odo to Deputy Pinar."
"I have a young Andorian who needs to be placed in protective custody. He is a witness to criminal activity. Please report to my office."
"On my way, sir. Pinar out."
"I'm not staying with you?"
Sighing, Odo regarded the boy. "No. I'm in charge of this case. Deputy Pinar will take care of you until I arrest the Yridians. By the time I'm through with them, their new criminal records will follow them for the rest of their-- "
Odo found himself seized in a tight hug. He rolled his eyes and tolerated it for the child's sake.
"Oh, thank you, sir! Thank you." Malath paused. He stared at Odo's face. "Do all shape shifters make a bubbling sound in their chests?"
Before Odo answered, Deputy Pinar entered the security office. The Bajoran man looked mildly amused at the situation. He smiled and reached out to Malath. "I am Deputy Pinar, and I am in charge of your care."
Malath's antennae twitched. He let go of Odo. "I'm really sorry. I'm not a thief...I just want to go home."
"And I promise you will. Good luck, Malath." Odo handed Deputy Pinar a PADD. "Have Slek Ygroness sent to my office. Here is his identification file."
"Consider it done."
Odo's office doors hissed shut. He leaned back in his chair, waiting. Before long, a grayish alien whose appearance couldn't decide between a rodent or a reptile walked in. The scars on his face were more hideous in person.
"I fail to see why you summoned me," said the Yridian.
"I figured you would say that, Mister Ygroness." Odo replied.
"Call me Slek."
"Slek, then." Odo put on his best poker face. "I caught a shoplifter outside of Garak's Clothiers."
He didn't miss Slek's throat bobbing in a swallow. So, the Yridian was nervous already. "What's that got to do with me?"
"Oh, I think you know."
"My apologies, but I don't."
Odo reached under his desk and dropped the counterfeit fabric in front of Slek. Slek flinched, a micro-expression of shock and anger flashing over his wrinkled features. Odo eyed him like a predator assessing prey. "I think you do. So make this easy on yourself and tell me what you're up to."
Jumping to his feet, Slek jabbed a finger at Odo's face. "You can't prove anything!"
"SIT down!" Odo growled. "Or I'll throw you in a holding cell."
Slek wisely seated himself. The scar on his mouth distorted his features when he sneered.
"Now," Odo paced around his office with his hands clasped behind his back. "What is going on in cargo bay four?"
"I have no idea." Slek said. He started fidgeting again. Such a terrible liar. Quark was more convincing than this idiot!
Odo knew he couldn't bust Slek based on body language alone. Catching a criminal shared many similarities to playing chess. He had to position his pieces strategically and hope Slek made an error. Odo just placed him in check. Slek's next move determined whether or not his situation left him in checkmate.
"Scans indicate a large shipment of fabrics in cargo bay four," he said.
"So what?" Slek snapped. "That Cardassian owns a clothing shop."
Mmhmm, here we go. Odo kept pacing. "Oh, how unfortunate for you. He only orders off-station when his replicators malfunction. And right now his replicators are working just fine."
Slek stiffened, his lips pressing into a line. "I'm finished here. I want to go."
Odo gestured to the door. "Go right ahead." Because I'm going to catch you, and there is nothing you can do about it.
The angry Yridian practically sprang off his chair in his haste to exit Odo's office.
Moments like these made Odo love his job. He sat down behind his desk, propped his feet up and prepared the full report for his security team. The station wide alert preventing the four Yridians from leaving went out next. Before calling it a night, he left his office and headed straight to Quark's bar.
Once in awhile, Quark was useful.
Odo wiggled his toes as the masseuse worked expertly on his feet. He glanced at Kira, who occupied the massage table a few meters away. Sunlight shimmered across her dark auburn hair. The length of her body blurred behind the modesty screen. Her skin looked so vibrant against the pale blue towel.
He found himself envying the masseuse's hands and simultaneously cursing himself for it.
Really? Jealous of something generated in a holosuite? Note to self, Odo, you are a moron. She only has eyes for Shakaar anyway.
Kira gave a contented sigh. "Mm. A sting operation?"
Odo grunted and refocused on their conversation. "Yes. There seems to be a Yridian fabric counterfeiter passing as a merchant on the station. His reaction to my questioning tells me he is guilty, and now I have to prove it. Quark is my undercover man. He is going to help me expose the operation."
"Quark is helping you? Ugh...I know I don't have to worry. You're too good at your job, but Quark? Let's hope he doesn't bungle it up."
"He won't. I threatened to halt his shipments of Klingon bloodwine if he did."
"Ahh, that's one way to make him cooperate. Ooh, more on the left shoulder."
"Oh, I'm fine. I played Springball with Jadzia last night. I'm paying for it today."
Kira looked over. "So, how is the little one?"
Odo stretched out on his back. The young masseuse smiled at him. He had altered the holosuite program with an option for modest Bajoran clothing. It made the situation less awkward.
"The latest scans show it takes up ninety percent of the pocket in my chest when in its liquid state."
"Really? It grew that fast in a couple days? How active is it?"
Odo chuckled. "It's been holding the shape of a tentacle for the past several minutes. I...ah, wait, it just moved. It's liquid again."
Kira propped herself up on one elbow. "You can tell what shapes it's taking?"
"Sometimes, if I'm in the right position at the moment it decides to practice. Like right now." Odo sighed, letting the masseuse knead his legs. "So far, its repertoire only consists of tentacles, a sphere and a mound. I saw it do all three onscreen last night. I enjoy it the most when it becomes a sphere, because I can feel it roll whenever I move."
Kira's eyes lost focus, remembering. "Oh...I remember when I learned the difference between Kirayoshi's elbows and feet. I found out exactly what made him wiggle, too. He didn't like it when I tried to sleep on my right side. He kicked my bladder until I turned over or sat up. And he hated it when I ate spicy food. Being elbowed in the ribs from the inside is a...different...experience."
Somewhere, a holographic seagull squawked.
"You sound like you miss feeling those movements," Odo said.
"I do...kind of." Kira laid back again. "So, tell me more about this sting operation."
Smirking, Odo rested his hands on his chest. "Normally, I shape shift into something in the cargo bay and wait for the perpetrators to act. Since I can't do that right now, I planted motion-activated surveillance devices in cargo bay four. I'll receive an alert if any activity is detected. I told Quark he can choose when he goes in as long as it isn't the hours between oh-one-hundred and oh-six-hundred, which is when I regenerate."
"That seems like a longer regeneration time than usual."
He peered at her. "I'm gestating another life form. It's tiring work."
"No argument there."
"Mm, and Quark will...ahh, that feels nice." Odo reveled in the masseuse working on his chest and sides. Being unable to liquefy all the way diminished the restfulness of his regeneration cycles. A good massage almost made up for it. Especially today, when he woke up feeling particularly exhausted. His chest kept increasing its internal density, and he had to consciously return it to normal. He chalked it up to one more annoying result of his condition.
"Mmhmm. What were you saying about Quark?" Kira hedged.
"Oh. Sorry. Quark will pose as an interested customer, and my team will strike when he makes the purchase. He has spent the past two days reeling them in, so I suspect something will happen soon."
"I hope it works out, and let me know when you catch them." Kira hid a yawn behind her hand. "You know, Odo, I think this is the most I've ever heard you talk in all the time I've known you. Well, while off-duty, anyway..."
"Oh?" He lifted his head. "Am I boring you?"
"Not at all." She was smiling. "Did you finish the novel I sent you?"
"The one about the Bajoran detective on Risa? Yes, four days ago. It was quite good." This time, Odo grinned at the sky. "I think my favorite part was Detective Shaarlek catching the drug-smuggling Yridians in a ship's cargo hold. How appropriate."
Kira laughed, and to Odo it sounded like music.
"Oh," she picked up her combadge and asked it for the time. "I need to get back. I'm on duty in ten minutes. Odo?"
He rumbled, "I think I'll stay a little while longer."
"Heh, heh! Maybe it's doing you some good after all. Computer, remove masseuse A."
Kira's Bajoran masseuse and table disappeared. She pulled her uniform on while Odo politely kept his gaze averted.
"Anything to help me prepare for Kejal's arrival," he said.
It was the first time he referred to the unborn Changeling by name. He didn't realize he did so until the words left his mouth.
Kira adjusted her uniform once she had it back on her body. She sounded amused, "I'll say a prayer for you two in the shrine."
Once in awhile, Odo wished he could share her faith.
"Thank you, Nerys."
"You're welcome. Take all the time you need in here. Mother."
Odo snorted at that. Kira smirked back. She exited the holosuite without a sound. Her towel and modesty screen disappeared when she stepped out the door.
Why did every room she left feel diminished?
Heh, love...it does funny things to a man.
Odo watched a puffy cloud drift overhead. It bore some resemblance to a starship, but his stomach didn't lurch in realization like it did when he had a digestive tract.
The emotions of solid humanoids...Odo missed having them. He had feelings as a Changeling, but solids experienced their strongest ones in such a visceral manner. Distinguishing one emotion from the other was rather difficult at first, as various mental states often generated similar physical effects. He literally had to think about the situational context in order to understand the reactions going on inside his body.
Anger, fear and excitement created itchy, knotting sensations in his intestines. Joy and sorrow caused his eyes, nose, throat and chest to prickle and burn. Enjoyment in its purest form let him sink so deep into himself that he swore he slipped into another dimension. Being in love-- especially around Major Kira --created a warm pleasantness behind his sternum. He even remembered the embarrassing-yet-interesting tingle of sexual arousal when Quark paid a dabo girl to flash him as a prank.
These effects were all hormonal mixtures triggered by external stimuli. Cortisol, testosterone, endorphins, prostaglandins, adrenaline and dopamine. Odo found them fascinating, and his experiences helped him understand a great deal about why people committed crimes.
I still haven't figured out the term 'butterflies in the stomach.' I suppose I never will. One thing is for sure-- I gained a new respect for Vulcans.
Odo commanded the holosuite to dispel his masseuse and got up. His towel reformed into his uniform. He stood on the edge of the cliff and peered across the ocean far below. Most seas looked peaceful from a distance. The water sparkled like sapphires under a spotlight. Each wave built up, crested and crashed against the rocky shore in a sizzle of foam. Odo felt something similar inside himself, and he had a harder time willing his body back to normal.
His gaze drifted to the rocks below, and he remembered water's power to reshape a world. The Great Link wasn't much different. But the Great Link let him down. The Great Link rejected him. The Great Link was just like everyone else.
"Computer, end program."
The rocks, the sunlight and the ocean faded into black walls and holographic emitter arrays. Odo left the holosuite behind and returned the program's isolinear rod to Quark.
"I didn't know you were a fan of Bajoran massages," Quark remarked, flashing a sharp-toothed grin.
Odo shot him a baleful glare. Before he could say something cutting, a rough baritone voice called out, "Constable!"
"Good afternoon, Worf." He nodded to the Klingon. "What can I do for you?"
Worf came right up to him. Odo remained where he stood, since stepping away would be culturally disrespectful.
"There are four Yridians at a table upstairs. They have been behaving suspiciously since they arrived in this bar."
Odo did not risk looking at them. "That doesn't surprise me. They are probably planning an escape, and their plan will fail. They know I'm onto them."
"Prune juice," Worf said to Quark. He bared his fangs at Odo. "You should apprehend them now."
"Not yet," said Odo. He leaned on the bar. Speech required more conscious effort, as if the air weighed too much. "I plan to catch them with proof of their crime. I have circumstantial evidence of a fabric counterfeiting operation. I need something more solid before I can officially arrest them, and catching them in the middle of a sale is the perfect way to do it."
"I see." Worf didn't appear pleased. "Perhaps..." He stopped and stared. "Are you unwell?"
Odo realized he was rubbing his chest. He let his hand drop to his side. "I'm fine. Ah, here comes Dax. Excuse me."
He left Quark's bar, brushing past Dax before she drilled him about the relaxation program.
"Odo, how's it-- "
"Not now!" Odo barked. If he came across as rude, too bad! He retreated into the safety of his office and didn't venture out again until he saw Worf and Dax climb the spiral staircase leading to the holosuite. Then he made a beeline for the Infirmary.
Something wasn't right.
"It's all right. The baby Changeling is fine."
Doctor Bashir's tricorder flickered and beeped. He repeated his scan twice more. The results weren't going to be any different. Why did he keep doing it?
"The pocket has definitely moved. It's two centimeters lower than before. When did you first notice the tightness in your chest?"
"I've been feeling it since I woke up this morning, but it just recently became impossible to ignore," said Odo.
"You let this go on for six hours?"
Odo pinned the Chief Medical Officer with a glare. "Yes, so?"
"Odo!" Doctor Mora hurried through the Infirmary doors. He was out of breath. "I came as soon as I heard. Odo, how are you?"
Odo shrugged his shoulders and crossed his arms. "I'm fine."
"The baby Changeling is putting pressure on the inside of its pocket," said Doctor Bashir. "And the pocket itself has moved." He showed Doctor Mora his latest scans, "The extra mass he built up in his torso is pressing against the pocket. My guess is this will continue until the baby is forced out of his body."
"It stops when I resist it." Odo cut in. "It's no different than fighting to hold my shape after the Founders made me sick."
"But you may not be able to resist it indefinitely." Doctor Bashir folded his tricorder shut. "Odo, you're in labor, and I have no idea what effect it will have on your body. I suggest you relax and let us monitor you."
"This is so exciting," whispered Doctor Mora. For once, Odo agreed with the sentiment. He was going to bring Kejal into the world!
Odo's combadge beeped. An automated message informed him of rapid activity in cargo bay four. He stiffened. "I'm afraid I can't relax just yet. I'm overseeing a sting operation."
Doctor Mora gasped. "In your condition? I don't think that's wise."
"Odo..." Doctor Bashir stepped forward. "Let your deputies handle th-- "
"No! People will suspect something if I don't show up to assist." Odo frowned at them both. "I'll be heading to my quarters once the situation is neutralized. If you two don't mind, I prefer to give birth in the privacy of my own space. I won't have this event become a spectacle."
"Odo, please...we need to monitor y-- "
"With all due respect, Doctor Mora, it is my body. I'll be fine. I've been holding it off for six hours. I can hold it off a while longer." Odo nodded once, reassuring himself. "Excuse me."
"No!" The heightened emotions made Odo's chest clamp down. Hard. In shock and pain, he snarled, "If you lay a hand on me, I will personally throw you both into a holding cell!"
Doctor Mora stepped back and placed his hand on Doctor Bashir's shoulder. "Doctor...let him go. He's right. I took too many of his choices away. Let's not take this one away, too." He met Odo's eyes. "Odo? Go, but be careful."
Grateful, Odo hurried out of the Infirmary and into his office. He regained control of his body on the way.
"The Yridians identified as Slek Ygroness, Gron Pitrek, Lapniss Ykiln and Ashbock Jekmuss are present with Quark in cargo bay four."
Odo's eyes glinted. He tapped his combadge, "Odo to security team Alpha. Cargo bay four just lit up. Mobilize and prepare to move in."
He grabbed his PADD and patched in a video relay from the surveillance devices.
Quark stood beside several cargo containers. He put on quite a show of admiring their contents.
"Klingon leather...Vulcan silk. Oh, and I see you have Ferengi cotton! Where did you acquire this?"
Slek dipped his head, "I have an excellent dealer."
"He must be rich. So, how much for the cotton?"
"Two thousand," said Gron. "The Klingon leather is five thousand, and the Vulcan silk, the rarest, is ten thousand."
Odo shook his head. These fakes were gouging people. What amateurs!
He bent over his desk, tensing his body until it behaved itself. Afterward, still shaking, he left his office and took the turbolift to the cargo bay levels. Security team Alpha was a group of eight Bajorans armed with phasers set to stun. None of them could move until Quark 'legally' bought the materials. Odo told them it shouldn't take long.
But Quark, being Quark, just couldn't resist hamming it up, which slowed the whole operation to a crawl. Odo rolled his eyes, grumbling. The minutes stretched into an hour. He fought the pressure in his chest six times while he waited. The spasms happened frequently now, and they were harder and more painful to resist.
"Sir, are you unwell?"
Odo realized he was leaning back against the wall with his eyes closed. He straightened, refocusing on his PADD. "I'm fine."
Come on, Quark, make the deal and get it over with!
"You know..." Quark held up a roll of fake Andorian tulle. "This fabric will make great drapes for my personal quarters. Did you say it's nine thousand? I've seen bigger rolls in more colors for less."
Ashbok leaned into Quark's personal space and barked, "How much less?"
Quark flinched. "Um..."
"Bashir to Odo."
The security officers looked curiously at Odo. A few eyebrows went up.
Odo growled, "Not now, doctor!" He pressed his hand to the wall beside him and turned off his combadge.
Onscreen, Quark reached into the last crate. Finally! He lifted a yard of something heavy and thick. "Is this Vitarian wool? Er..." Within moments of touching the material, he recoiled. Then he groped it again. "Wow...I'm allergic to wool fibers. Makes me itch like I'm full of Klingon skin mites on contact. I thought this was real."
"It was treated with a hypoallergenic formula. So, what did you say you'll pay? Six thousand?" Slek's scars wrinkled on his lips. He whipped out a PADD.
"Oh? In that case...give me stock in all of it." Quark pressed his thumb to the PADD and sealed the deal. "It's a pleasure doing business with you, Slek."
"Slek!" Lapriss raced into the picture holding one of the surveillance bugs. "We're being monitored!"
Quark tried to run for his life. Slek seized him by the coattails and pinned him against the wall.
Time to move.
Odo crept to the door of cargo bay four. He counted down from three to zero using his fingers. Then he punched the command that opened the door. His officers burst into the cargo bay and screamed at the Yridians to put their hands up.
Odo tapped his combadge, reactivating it. "Odo to Kira."
"Major, I have our counterfeiters. I'm sure the Bajoran business bureau will want to hear about this."
"Acknowledged. Odo? Are you all right?"
"I'm-- " Odo ducked behind a crate at the sound of phaser fire. He choked with 'lungs' that wouldn't quite inflate, " --fine! They're armed!"
"I'm coming to back you up. Kira, out!"
Odo achieved a clear view of Slek from his position behind two large cargo containers. The other Yridians had been stunned by his deputies, leaving only Slek in a stand-off against the security officers.
Slek, being a coward, held Quark in front of him. He pressed a Klingon disruptor pistol to the Ferengi's head. Quark held out his hands and started babbling.
"I'm a victim in this, too! You know Odo, he's always on my case. I-I didn't know we were being monitored! I-- "
"Shut up!" Slek squeezed Quark's throat until his voice choked off. That was the only part Odo liked.
"So, Odo is the shape shifter's name? Heh, heh! Speaking of Odo, where is he?" Slek asked. "Maybe he's this bulkhead!" He kicked the bulkhead behind him.
Odo wiggled his fingers, smirking to himself. Suddenly, he leapt between the cargo containers and wrapped a giant tentacle around Slek's knees. A jerk of his shoulder yanked the Yridian off his feet. Slek lost his grip on both Quark and his disruptor. Quark bolted out the door as Major Kira rushed in.
"Odo!" Kira knelt and aimed a phaser rifle at Slek.
"I have it under control, Major."
"Heh, a little backup never hurt."
"I concur, and here is the criminal, his assistants and all the evidence necessary for conviction." Odo dangled Slek upside down over his head. "Slek Ygroness, you and your cohorts are under arrest for assault and possession of counterfeit materials with the intent to sell." He paused until he trusted his voice to stay steady. "I think the Bajoran business bureau will want to talk to you. Oh, and one more thing..." He narrowed his eyes, "...every single person you swindled will be paid back through your account."
"You can't do that!" Slek cried, kicking his feet. "You'll ruin me!"
That was the instant Odo let go. The Yridian crashed to the ground in an graceless heap.
"You'll ruin me!" He shouted again.
"I don't think so. You did a fine job of that on your own," Kira said coldly. She kept her phaser rifle trained on Slek until Odo's deputies handcuffed him. Then she handed it off to be put back in the weapons locker.
Odo ordered the computer to beam his deputies and the Yridians to the security station. His men could handle booking the counterfeiters and their merchandise for transport to a Bajoran prison facility. Thanks to Quark taking his sweet time, their entire inventory was recorded on file. Cataloguing it wouldn't take long.
Kira peered into one of the crates. "You didn't tell me they were setting up shop down here."
"I wasn't entirely sure until Quark made the purchase." Odo shook his head. He leaned back against the wall. "I suspect they wanted to plant counterfeit materials in Garak's shop. Think about it-- he takes the blame and they escape the station with their goods to swindle another planet."
"You really do soak up those novels," Kira giggled. Her expression sobered. "Odo, are you all right?"
"I'm fine. I-- " Odo gasped and clutched the wall behind him. Staving off the pressure in his chest required his full concentration. He didn't talk until he regained control. "I'm just in labor. Nothing to it."
"Odo! How long ago did it start?"
"The spasms happen regularly every five minutes. I-- ahh-- have been fighting them off all day. They didn't require concentration until two hours ago. I...need to get to my quarters."
"You are so stubborn, Constable." Kira said, moving closer to him. "Computer, two to-- "
"No! No beaming. I can't risk leaving any records in the pattern buffers."
"I'll be all right. They only just started to hurt." He straightened. "Let's go before I have to fight another one."
Nodding, Kira stayed close by his side. Together, they left the cargo bay and stepped into the nearest turbolift. She tapped her combadge. "Kira to Bashir."
"Kira! Where is Odo? Is he all right?"
"He's fine. I'm with him. We're heading to his quarters."
"Doctor Mora and I are on our way."
"Understood. Kira out." And to the turbolift computer, she said, "Level sixteen."
The motion made Odo's head swim. He couldn't conceal his discomfort anymore. His body tried to clamp down before the turbolift reached its destination. Kira rubbed his arm and whispered soothingly until he regained control of himself. It was strange-- he felt perfectly fine between each paroxysm.
"We're almost to your quarters. Can you walk?"
"One moment." Odo grunted. He straightened, his face once again composed. "Ready."
Kira went ahead and opened the door to his quarters. Odo punched in the code to close it once he was inside. Doctor Bashir and Doctor Mora hadn't arrived yet.
Odo sank to sit against his computer console. He closed his eyes and instinctively resisted another tightening. The spasms would not relent. All day, he fought them. Now he no longer had the energy to keep doing so. He moaned and writhed like a skewered insect on a pin. How did Kira give birth through such discomfort? Was it a good idea to let her see him like this?
"Augh! Damn! Computer, lower the lights by fifty percent, and lower the temperature to seventeen degrees Celsius. Unh...damn. Damn!"
Kira knelt on the ground beside him.
"Odo," she whispered. "You're fighting it."
"Have to," he grunted. "Painful."
"It hurts because you're tense. You need to relax. Trust me, Odo." Kira took his hand. "Computer, play soothing ocean sounds."
The hiss of foamy waves sizzled through the speakers.
Odo grimaced. Kira grasped his shoulder. "Here. Scoot forward."
He inched himself forward. She slid to sit behind him. Her cool fingers kneaded his shoulders and back. Not quite as skilled as the holosuite masseuse, but he had no complaints. Those were Kira's hands, and anything related to Kira felt wonderful to him.
"Lose yourself in the sound of the sea," she said. "Let your body relax. Computer, add Bajoran birth percussion."
Over the ocean sounds, Odo heard a Bajoran cabasa, a rattle and a gong. They gave rhythm to the waves.
"Mm...have you assisted like this before?"
"I did a few times during the Occupation."
"What did-- here comes another one."
"Relax. Let it happen."
The door chime rang. What annoying timing! Odo couldn't answer, so Kira did it for him. He was glad when she didn't move away. Her presence kept him calm.
"Doctor Bashir and Doctor Mora are here," she said. Then, to them, she went on, "Keep your voices low. He is starting the relaxation process."
Odo opened his eyes and met Doctor Mora's. The Bajoran scientist knelt by his left side.
"You had us worried."
"Yes...I apologize for that. I caught the criminal I was after."
"Only you would arrest somebody while in labor." Doctor Mora said, grinning. "Do you feel ready for this?"
Odo flinched. "I don't-- have much-- c-choice now."
"You're right about that. Your body made some progress while you were gallivanting around in the cargo bay." Doctor Bashir held his tricorder above Odo's chest. His eyes glimmered. "The pocket is five centimeters lower than it was earlier. Here comes a...I suppose I can call it a contraction."
Odo wanted to ask Kira what to do. The tightness slammed down like a tsumani, briefly preventing him from inhaling enough air for speech. He tensed his whole body. It hurt as bad as his transformation into a solid. No, it hurt worse than that. He thought his torso was about to explode.
"Relax. Breathe." Kira kept her voice soft, establishing a rhythm with the percussive sounds playing in the background. "You're a rock right now, but you need to be silk. Slow down. Relax your neck. Relax your arms. Relax your legs. Relax your back. Relax everything."
Odo let his head lay back on her shoulder. It wasn't easy, going against his own instincts. Carrying himself rigidly was something he always did in his humanoid shape.
"Think of how you feel on the massage table in the holosuite." Kira suggested. Her hands continued kneading his back and sides.
"I have painkillers on-hand," said Doctor Bashir.
"No...no drugs...might affect Kejal..." Odo shook his head.
Kira's massage was working. He let his limbs become as floppy as his natural liquid state. All at once things got easier. He could inhale during a tightening as long as he did it deeply and slowly. The pain of letting his body work was far less than fighting every wave.
For a time, no one spoke. Odo sank deeper into himself. Waves came and went, and Kira reminded him to keep his body loose through each one.
The tricorder whirred without disturbing the atmosphere. Doctor Bashir whispered something. Doctor Mora answered him. They both sounded far away. Only Kira's voice remained clear and distinct in his ears.
"That's it. One contraction at a time."
He felt a tiny pop. The air bubble caught in his throat. He burped just like a humanoid. Normally, it would embarrass him, but in his current condition he couldn't spare the energy to care about manners.
"The pocket ruptured," Odo said.
Doctor Mora gave his hand a squeeze. "It shouldn't be long now."
Another wave. Another breath. Doctor Bashir's tricorder flickered. He nodded, looking pleased.
"Breathe, Odo," whispered Kira. "Stay relaxed."
Odo became acutely aware of the infant Changeling's mind. It wondered who and what it was, the same way Odo did while trapped in a jar.
You won't begin alone like I was, little one. You won't spend your life wondering what you are or what you're supposed to do. Your name is Kejal, you are a Changeling, and you are about to be born. Don't be afraid. I am with you...
Odo's body clamped down again. His lips parted. He inhaled against the onslaught, letting it pass painlessly through him. As he did, he sensed the infant linking with him while his body moved it forward. Such a tiny, innocent mind. Such contentment.
"It...it's moving," Odo murmured. "It's linked with me...I am telling it...not to be...fearful. Nerys, it isn't afraid."
Kira rubbed his upper arms. "Good...you're doing fine. Take it slow, there's no hurry."
Doctor Bashir scanned him again. "Odo, do you know where it's going to emerge?"
"Don't worry about that," said Doctor Mora. "I brought a container."
Kira shushed them both. That instant, in her arms, Odo felt safer than he ever did in his life.
Another wave. Rougher than the last few. This one had two crests. More followed right behind it. He bobbed against them like a flotation device in a stormy sea.
Why did he feel so good?
Doctor Mora took Odo's hand. "What is it, Doctor Bashir?"
"Look at this. His morphogenic enzymes are bonding into a chemical similar to endorphins."
"Will you two please whisper?" Kira massaged Odo's shoulders again, a gentle reminder to stay calm. "If he can make something similar to endorphins, then he'll stop if you don't quiet down."
Odo worked through the next surge. He was hardly aware of the world beyond Kira's arms. His whole body tingled and his eyes flew open. The pressure had changed. It concentrated on one point.
"Easy," Kira caught him before he sat up. "What is it?"
Doctor Mora leaned forward with the bowl. "Odo?"
"So close," Odo gasped. There was no pain now.
"He's fine." Doctor Bashir smiled and showed Doctor Mora his tricorder. Then he met Odo's eyes. "It's right under the surface. Odo, you're doing fantastically. Are you, uh...pushing?"
Odo's forehead wrinkled. "No, my body is doing it on its own."
"That's it." Kira started rubbing his sides. "Relax. Breathe."
Sighing, Odo returned his focus inward and let his body work. He was bringing life into the world while in the arms of the woman he secretly loved.
"It's moving again. It feels...I-I feel...so...good. Nerys, what is happening?"
"You found your center. You're ready." Kira gave his upper arms a squeeze. In a lower tone, she began, "Awake child..."
"...w-we await you with love..." Odo heard himself say.
"...and welcome you into the world," Doctor Mora finished.
The sensations in Odo's body were almost too much to bear. The front of his torso began to liquefy. His mind told him to stay solid. His body wanted to release itself.
"Let it happen, Odo. Don't think." Kira's hand stroked his brow. "Relax and let it happen."
Odo tilted his head and looked into Kira's eyes. The next wave came. He didn't fight it.
A tiny, viscous bulge appeared on the center of his chest. Doctor Bashir and Doctor Mora gasped. The tricorder beeped and whirred. Odo hardly noticed. The baby was hesitating just beneath the surface.
Little one, it's time. I understand why you're afraid, but don't be. There is so much to experience. We'll do this together, all right? You and me. Odo focused on how safe he felt in Kira's embrace. This feeling is what awaits you.
Fear became acceptance. The infant pressed upwards, and ecstasy bombarded Odo's senses. He planted his hands on the floor, opening his mouth in a silent cry as he threw his head back in total surrender. The room spun around him. His vision went white. He felt every ripple of the baby Changeling leaving his body. It was raw. It was powerful. It was visceral.
Afterward, he remained poised, gasping. His eyesight cleared. Something extraordinary just happened, but it took his mind a moment to stop spinning and process his amazement.
He had given birth.
The room fell silent enough to hear a pin drop.
Odo was the first to move. He blinked. Twice.
Kira grasped his shoulders. She gave him a slight shake. "Odo, are you all right?"
Unable to speak, he nodded and focused on the new life lying in his lap.
Kejal didn't move at first. It laid motionless like toothpaste squeezed from a tube. Suddenly, one "tip" lifted itself up.
Odo's eyes softened. He scooped Kejal into his trembling hands. It held its shape. The tip closest to him bulged outward and became a primitive copy of his face. Tiny, colorless eyes met his.
The infant-- Kejal --knew him.
"Hello," Odo said softly. His chest felt empty, but his hands were full. He beamed at the tiny newborn.
Kejal mirrored Odo's mouth movements and smile, but it didn't make any sound. It tilted its "head" towards Kira and its features shifted to vaguely match hers. Then it melted into a puddle in Odo's hands.
"Oh, Odo!" Kira squeezed him from behind. "Congratulations!"
Doctor Mora patted Odo's arm. His face was streaked in tears. "That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen in all my years as a scientist."
Odo placed Kejal in the bowl Doctor Mora brought. Doctor Bashir watched. His face looked a little red, like anyone trying to stay professional. He moved the tricorder over the tiny Changeling.
"It's healthy, if I compare its readings to Odo's on a normal day." He grinned. "I think I agree with you, Doctor Mora. That was remarkable. How do you feel, Odo?"
Odo was still trying to make sense of his experience. "I'm-- fine. I'm fine."
Kira helped Odo to his feet at the same time she got up. Odo met her gaze and shifted his weight. He was sure that if he still had blood running through his body, his face would be flushed as red as her uniform.
"Nerys, thank you...I-- "
"You're welcome, and you did great." She took his hands. Her smile warmed the same space Kejal just vacated. "I should be thanking you for sharing this with me. Birth is a vulnerable time for anyone."
Oh, if only you knew how hard it was to not say 'I love you,' Odo thought. "I..." He blinked. It hit him fully, right then. "I had a baby."
Kira giggled, squeezing his hands. "You sure did! It's a shame you want to keep it a secret."
"I know. I have to until the war with the Dominion is over."
She looked down and nodded. "Doctor Mora will take good care of it. But, Odo...letting that baby go will be hard. It will hurt. Even though you're doing this to protect it."
Odo hung his head. He stared at their intersecting fingers. Shakaar or no Shakaar, Odo felt it was time. "Nerys-- "
"Odo, I think someone is looking for you," said Doctor Bashir. He was holding the bowl. Inside it, Kejal waved three tiny tentacles in the air.
Odo had to let go of Kira's hands in order to cradle the silver bowl on his forearms. He only half-heard Doctor Mora recording a personal log entry about the birth. That Bajoran hadn't changed a bit, but Odo trusted him to keep the baby safe.
"Life always prevails," Doctor Mora muttered to his PADD.
"Yes, Doctor Bashir?"
The young doctor smiled, "It's healthy as can be. No instabilities." He nodded to Kira, "And how is your postpartum period?"
"It's better than I thought." Kira answered. She jumped when a tentacle wrapped around her finger. "Oh!"
"Major, I'm so sorry if-- "
"No, Odo, it's all right." She wiggled her finger. "I really think it'll choose to be a boy."
"What makes you say that?"
Kira looked amused. "It has a strong grip like Kirayoshi." She sighed, "I should go. Everybody is going to wonder where I've been. Will you be all right?"
Odo glanced at Doctor Bashir and Doctor Mora. They were dying to scan him. He could tell.
No, he wasn't fine. Not really. Not when he knew he had to say goodbye to Kejal in a short while. He composed his expression. "Yes. I'll be fine."
Kira stepped back. "Good luck, Odo."
Odo nodded once. He watched her leave without knowing his feelings for her. Then his attention returned to the tiny ball of goo in the bowl. "Someday, Kejal, you will understand what you just witnessed."
An arm wrapped around his shoulders. He felt Doctor Mora leaning against him. The contact made him uncomfortable, but he tolerated it.
"How are you feeling?"
Shrugging, Odo let Kejal's tentacles grip his thumb. "I feel just fine. No pain...no ill effects." He glanced at Doctor Bashir. "Tell him to get his scans over with. I know he wants to."
Doctor Mora laughed and beckoned Doctor Bashir over. Odo set the bowl down to prevent interference with his readings.
"It looked like it hurt when Kejal emerged," said Doctor Bashir.
Odo faced him fully. "Actually..."
"Your eyes were rolling back-- "
"Ugh, never mind." Odo let his hands fall at his sides and followed the tricorder with his eyes.
"Anyway...your body absorbed the pocket. It looks like the density in your torso is still high, but I imagine it'll return to normal the next time you regenerate."
"Good. Is that all?"
Doctor Bashir cast a sidelong glance at Doctor Mora. "Are you sure you want him to take Kejal? I'm sure we can set up a facility to raise it here."
Odo's eyes hardened. His glare put a Tarkalean hawk's to shame. "Kejal will not be a lab rat living in a facility. Doctor Mora and I agreed-- Kejal is to be raised in a home, not experimented on in a laboratory. It is going to be cared for, nurtured and allowed to grow up in a safe environment. Far away from proton decompilers, cytoplasmic separators, centrifuges and vacuum chambers."
He didn't realize the effect his speech had until he noticed Doctor Bashir backing away. The young doctor exchanged glances with Doctor Mora.
Embarrassed by his own display of emotion, Odo cleared his throat. "I-I... thank you, doctor. You can go if you like. I'll contact you if anything goes wrong."
Doctor Bashir closed his tricorder. His face became a mask of professionalism. "Take care of yourself, Odo. Doctor Mora?"
"I'll be right there," said Doctor Mora. He moved to let Doctor Bashir exit Odo's quarters.
"Well, that was quite an experience," he remarked. "Kejal already has a head start thanks to you."
Odo ducked his head, avoiding the scientist's gaze. He touched his own chest and smiled to himself. "Kejal won't begin the way I did-- alone, unaware of myself and my abilities."
"And how did it feel?"
"When you gave birth. How did it feel?"
Blinking, Odo finally found a suitable description. "Transformative, and I am the only one aware of it."
He saw Doctor Mora shake his head and smile. "It's a shame you aren't religious...experiences like that are special. Maybe it was the Prophets reaching out to you."
Odo allowed himself a small half smile. "Perhaps...but it could just as easily have been the pseudo-endorphins Doctor Bashir said I was producing." He shrugged. "Major Kira is the reason the pain stopped. She helped me relax. She...can make anything negative become positive."
"Are you ever going to say anything to her?"
His back stiffening, Odo turned his head and refused to answer. He calmed himself down. This wasn't a time for anger. "I don't know, Doctor Mora..."
Doctor Mora patted his shoulder. He had that annoyingly knowing look in his eyes. "Someday, then. Good night, Odo."
Then he left, and the room fell silent.
Odo sat down the floor and placed Kejal's bowl in his lap. Every minute he had with this brand new life was precious.
"Today was quite an adventure, wasn't it?" He reached into the bowl and touched the baby Changeling. It was warm and bubbled at him like it did before birth. That made him chuckle.
Kejal oozed towards Odo's fingers. When Odo lifted his hand, Kejal hung from it like a piece of wet cloth drying on a line. Odo let the baby slosh into his palms. He held it the same way he did when it gave back what the Great Link took away.
"I want to thank you for returning my ability to shape shift. Your gift means everything to me, Kejal. I won't take it for granted."
The tiny face formed again. This time, a hand came with it! A feeling of gratitude touched Odo's mind. Kejal was thanking him too.
Odo grinned as he felt the hand grasp his thumb. Then it dissolved into liquid again. New forms were more tiring than familiar ones. Hands could be especially difficult. So many joints and appendages to account for. Faces weren't easy either. Odo's was still a work in progress.
"You're learning faster than I did," he sighed. His smile slipped. "Kejal...ah, this is too hard to say, and you're still so small...but life won't be easy for you. People may laugh at you, or treat you as entertainment. Others will fear you, because it is the nature of solids to fear what they don't understand. Some will be curious, but others will shun you for being different. It happened to me, and it was painful, but it doesn't have to be that way for you. I-- ugh, as Doctor Mora says, I'm not 'using my words' very well, am I? Here...let me tell you this way."
Odo set the bowl aside and relaxed. His form melted, surrounding the baby Changeling. Kejal's hungry mind reached out. Odo fed it everything he could offer. He pleaded for forgiveness, and Kejal gave it without judgment.
And there is one more thing I want to show you.
Seconds after reforming, Odo looked down at the tiny cube on the floor in front of him.
"Fascinating, isn't it?" He smiled and patted the cube. "Now, we both had quite the day. Are you ready to rest for the night?"
No response, of course, but Odo didn't need one. He closed his eyes and relaxed, letting his form liquefy. Kejal reverted itself and shifted until the edge of its puddle touched Odo's. Odo moved to surround the infant, holding it close.
Docking port two was quiet in the wee hours of the morning. Odo got to it first. In his arms, he cradled a silver cremation urn shaped like a tiny photon torpedo case. Kejal was inside, and the urn would serve as cover for the infant Changeling's journey to Bajor. Urns were rarely scanned unless suspicions arose. Odo made sure he purchased it at a time coinciding with cremations taking place on the station.
Carrying life in a container symbolizing death. The irony didn't escape Odo. He caught himself rocking and patting the smooth little urn while he paced around near the airlock.
That morning, when his regeneration finished, he found two bowls sitting on the floor. One wasn't quite as reflective as the other. Still, a dingy but glistening bowl was pretty good for a Changeling so young. Odo himself didn't manage anything shiny until just before he left Bajor.
And Kejal still hadn't mastered keeping its shape when startled. All Odo needed to do was pick up the bowl and it liquefied in his hands.
"I'm sure you'll find this urn fascinating once Doctor Mora lets you out," Odo whispered. "The shape you're in right now is called an oblong. It is a hybrid between a rectangle and an oval. Can you feel the rounded edges?"
Footsteps prompted him to stop talking. He glanced over his shoulder.
"You're up early," he said.
"I know." Kira leaned against the docking bay doorway. She walked up to Odo and held up a long white stick with a large blue ring at the end. A red bow glistened beneath the ring.
A Bajoran baby rattle.
"I thought the little one might like this."
"Oh! Thank you, Major." Odo accepted the gift. "Kejal...listen." He shook the rattle a few times. "This is for you. The shapes will be good practice."
Odo expected Kira to duck out again and go back to sleep. Instead, she gestured towards the urn Odo was holding. "Goodbyes aren't easy, are they?"
"I...I agree. They aren't." Odo looked down at the urn. He remembered something he saw O'Brien do. "Would you like to hold it?"
Kira's expression softened. She came forward without hesitation and let Odo settle the urn in her arms. She cradled it like any other infant.
"He's heavier than last night. He-- oh...I feel silly calling Kejal an 'it.'" She rocked the urn the same way O'Brien rocked his newest baby. "I can't imagine you ever being this small."
"I know, it's remarkable how far I've come." Odo looked amused. He formed a pocket on his pants and tucked the rattle inside for safekeeping. "But shape shifters such as myself grow as we exercise our abilities. I don't think it will take Kejal long to reach my size. And I hope it doesn't grow up to be like me."
"Hey, you aren't so bad." Kira nudged him with her elbow and grasped the urn at both ends. She handed it back, saying, "I still think it'll choose to be a boy."
"You sound so sure of that," Odo mused.
"How long until we find out if I'm right?"
"I don't know. I suppose we have to wait and see."
More footsteps echoed through the corridor. They stopped at the doorway. Odo faced the sound and unconsciously held the urn a smidge tighter.
"Good morning, Doctor Mora."
Doctor Mora looked tired. No doubt the excitement of last night didn't let him sleep much. He smiled when he saw Odo. "Good morning, Odo. Good morning, Major Kira."
"Doctor," Kira dipped her head respectfully, a gesture that Doctor Mora returned.
"How did things go last night, Odo?"
Odo shrugged. "We linked. Kejal can take on basic shapes, but needs practice holding them. Same as me at first. It's quite curious about the world and wants to try everything at once."
"I'll make sure it learns as much as possible. But this time, no zapping." Doctor Mora winked one eye shut.
"No zapping," Odo agreed. He stared at the urn in his hands.
Kira scooted closer. Despite his best poker face, she knew what this moment was doing to him.
"I got into this because the O'Briens needed my help. I never wanted a baby. But now? I wish I could just hold him in my arms and never let him go."
Odo brought the urn closer to his chest. Right over the spot Kejal emerged from at birth. His throat didn't ache the way it did during his time as a solid, but his emotions were the same. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
"I love you," he whispered. The very words he wished he could say to Kira. He tried to say them again while looking at her and they refused to form. Funny, he did everything to hold them back while in labor. But now, with a clear mind, the declaration stuck somewhere in his throat. His hands quivered. He gave up and stroked the urn. "Someday, I will see you again. I promise, Kejal. I promise."
The computer sounded a departure notice. Odo clenched his jaw. Kira reached up and patted his back.
Doctor Mora came forward. "It's time, Odo."
Odo wanted to clutch the urn and flee the docking bay without looking back. He stood there like a statue as Doctor Mora gently lifted the metal container out of his arms.
"Kejal enjoys being swirled in a bowl," He said, trying to fill the sudden emptiness. "It likes to be poured into different shaped containers, too. Make sure you talk to it often so it gets to know your voice. And when the war is over, let it go if it wants to look for me."
Doctor Mora nodded, squeezing Odo's arm. "I promise I will do all of that."
"All right." Odo nodded. Somehow, he kept himself composed when he walked Doctor Mora through the airlock. He started to leave, stopped himself and turned. "Oh, and Doctor Mora?"
Odo took a last look at the silver urn. "Teach it about the Prophets."
Both Kira and Doctor Mora tilted their heads. They smiled at each other. Doctor Mora nodded.
"Goodbye," Odo replied.
Kira waited with him until a loud click indicated the ship's departure. Odo stared at the airlock door. His back was towards Kira. He grimaced and his face twisted, but he lacked the ability to cry.
The baby Changeling he called his own was gone.
"Odo? Are you okay?"
Kira's voice startled him. He schooled his expression and stood up straighter. This was for Kejal's safety. A good life awaited it. A good life without the Founders or experiments.
"I...it feels so empty." Odo sighed. He knew his job would distract him once he went on duty. "I'll be all right. You know how I am. Shall I walk you to the turbolift?"
Exactly thirty minutes from that moment, Odo completed his patrol of the Promenade and walked into Quark's bar. The Ferengi was nowhere to be seen.
"Quark!" He bellowed.
"Ow!" Quark smashed his head on the rim of his own bar. He clutched the sore spot and glared. "I'm right here! No need to yell! So, what is it this time? The barstools are too high? Are the lights too bright?"
Odo dropped a hundred slips of gold-pressed latinum on the bar. They hit with a bang that made Quark jump. His face remained a mask of seriousness.
"Actually, Quark, I came to say thank you for helping me."
"Fine, fine," Quark rolled his eyes. "I'll get right on th-- what?"
"Thank you," Odo said again.
Odo straightened. "Ferengi Rule of Acquisition number seventy-six. Have a nice day, Quark."
"Hey! Hey, hold on! That's not fair! You just cost me the hundred slips you paid me! Odo!"
Odo turned away from Quark and smiled as he exited the bar. On the Promenade, he spotted Malath running into the arms of two adult Andorians. They embraced him tightly, and if they were still angry it didn't show. The female had a small but obvious pregnancy bump.
Malath noticed Odo. His antennae twitched. He hurried towards the gruff Security Chief.
"Thank you so much." Malath dug into his pockets and took out a slip of latinum. "I had my allowance converted. I want to help pay for any damage I did. Is this a lot?"
Odo knelt to regard the boy on his level. Now, he understood what Malath's parents must have gone through. They were looking on that very moment, worried, because their child was talking to someone so different.
"Keep your money," Odo said, closing Malath's hand around the latinum slip. "You helped me catch the Yridians behind a new counterfeiting ring. They're going to be in prison for a long time. For that, I should thank you."
"Mmhmm." Odo stood up again. "Now run along. Your parents missed you."
"Right! But, um...wait."
Malath hugged him. "Oh, your chest isn't bubbling now."
Odo stood stock still. He finally gave the boy a brief pat on the head. "The cause of that is gone now."
"Oh..." Malath stepped back. "You know, I want to be a security person like you when I grow up." He grinned. "Goodbye!"
The young Andorian darted towards his parents. They waved without coming any closer, something else Odo was used to. Odo folded his hands behind his back, offering a curt nod in reply before heading into his office.
Something rattled when he sat down. He blinked, looking around for the source. Was it his chair? His desk? He tapped his foot and the noise came from his pants.
Odo realized he forgot to pass along the rattle Kira gave him. He took it out of his pocket and turned it over in his hands. His eyes glistened with renewed feelings of loss. Then he smiled, knowing what a good life Kejal was going to have, and placed the rattle on a shelf behind his desk.
It isn't goodbye forever...not this time. Odo thought to himself. Until then, Kejal, this rattle will remind me of you.
Ten years later...
The Great Link was Odo and Odo was the Great Link. Time had lost all meaning since he returned to his people, averted their extinction and forgave their misdeeds. He told the Link about loving Kira. He shared all of his experiences among the solids. They knew everything he knew, felt everything he felt and lived everything he lived. And with him, they anticipated.
No one could be certain of exactly what date a Bajoran ship passed through the atmosphere. Someone called for an investigation, and the volunteer surfaced.
Odo emerged from the Great Link and stood upon the only piece of land on the planet. He wore a plain tunic and boots like the rest of the Founders. It seemed appropriate.
A shrill keening sounded overhead. Odo watched a Tarkalean hawk circle through the clouds. His eyes opened wide. The ocean of Changelings around him churned as the bird landed on a rock. It shifted into a seated humanoid form, its outer skin fashioning a tunic like Odo's. Odo saw his own facial features looking back at him. The Changeling had Kira's brown eyes and dark auburn hair slicked back like Doctor Mora's. There were even faint wisps of eyebrows.
Odo stared in awe. If he had a heart, it would have pounded.
Kira was right.
"I've waited my whole life to say this back to you." Kejal got to his feet. He took Odo's hands, looked right into his eyes and smiled. "Hello. I love you, too."
Odo's breath caught in his throat. He beamed, pulling Kejal close to his chest. "Oh, Kejal, I've waited for this moment for ages."
The female Changeling took shape beside Odo. Facial expressions didn't come naturally for her, but her husky voice was warm when she spoke.
"You must be Kejal."
"Yes," Kejal replied. He had such a happy sounding voice-- similar to Odo's, but not as gruff.
She lifted her head. "We have been waiting for you."
Odo slipped his arm around Kejal's shoulders. He kissed him just above the ear, his mind flashing back to the ecstasy he felt when he brought Kejal into the world. That moment changed his life.
The Female stepped back into the sea of Founders. She spoke over her shoulder, "Come. It's time to join the Great Link." Then she liquefied and disappeared.
"I'm ready," said Kejal. He grasped Odo's hand. "Mother?"
Mother... Odo closed his eyes. He let his arm melt. Kejal did the same. Odo saw Kejal growing up, making friends and praying to the Prophets. Doctor Mora doted over him like a son. When he fell ill with the morphogenic virus, Doctor Bashir sent Doctor Mora the formula for the cure. The illness was the only suffering he experienced. Everything else...
Kejal lived a happy life among the solids, yet he always longed to know his mother.
And you will know me, Kejal. You will know us all.
Odo tilted his head back and slipped into the Great Link. Kejal did the same, spreading his life experience to everyone around him. He was hungry for knowledge. The same hunger present at his birth. Now, it would be fully satisfied.
For the first time in his life, Odo felt complete. He rejoiced with the others as the Great Link, a living ocean of memories, welcomed its last droplet home.