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In The Light of Morning

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For once, the rumour mill on Deep Space Nine had no rumours to peddle--only fact. And it took very little effort to make its way around the station to all of the residents, as half of them had witnessed it firsthand. While the exact details could always be exaggerated, it was an accepted, irrefutable fact that Security Chief Odo had kissed Major Kira Nerys with passionate abandon in full view of everyone on the Promenade.

"It was sooo romantic," cooed Jadzia Dax later at Quark's, a dreamy look on her face as she cradled her cup of tea in her hands. Worf, Bashir and O'Brien were all gathered around their usual spot, each with their respective potions.

"It wasn't that romantic," Quark snorted from behind the bar. "When he was done, she still had her clothes on."

"And when he let her go, they just walked off together as if they were the only two people on the Promenade." The Trill was still lost in her reverie. Quark gave up and returned to his glass polishing.

Bashir shook his head. "No matter how many times I hear it, I still can't believe it. Maybe the surveillance cameras caught it?" Dax and Worf turned slowly to look at him quizzically; O'Brien merely smirked and took another sip of his Guinness. The doctor sheepishly spread his hands. "Well, after all, I introduced him to Vic; I may as well get some fun out of it."

"I do not understand why all of you take such endless pleasure in discussing it," Worf grumbled over his prune juice. "He has claimed his woman boldly and is to be commended. That should be the end of it."

"Claimed--his woman?" The voice of the Klingon's wife managed to be sensually warm and dangerously icy at the same time.

O'Brien stood, downing the last of his draught in one gulp. "Well, I'm for bed," he announced crisply. "Good night, all."

"Suddenly I find I can barely keep my eyes open either," Julian agreed. As he passed Dax, he murmured into her ear, "Just be sure you don't do any claiming tonight. I charge extra for stake removal." And with a peck to her spotted temple, he was gone.

A few hours earlier...

Kira Nerys was finding it very difficult to get through her shift.

Thank the Prophets she was working in Ops, where the people at least had pretensions to professionalism, despite their whispered comments when they figured she was out of earshot. Odo must be getting spontaneous bursts of applause as he surveys the Promenade, she mused to herself. The seconds shuffled along as she tried to focus on what she was doing. It didn't help to have Dax come breezing in and give her a big kiss on the cheek right in the middle of the day. Kira resigned herself to an afternoon even more agonizing than the morning had been.

"You minx!" stage-whispered the Trill. "You had me thinking it was Shakaar when it was really Odo all along!"

"You thought what you wanted to think," hissed the Bajoran. "And it wasn't Odo 'all along'."

"Well, then, when was that 'moment of clarity' you were going on about this morning?" Dax pressed.

Nerys sighed, deciding the best course was to give in now. "Last night, in the middle of something Julian calls the 'fox trot.'"

"Sounds kinky."

Kira looked about her, and satisfying herself that everyone else was a safe distance away, raised her voice slightly. "Well, it wasn't. It's an Earth dance--"

"Odo danced?" The other woman was delighted. "I'll bet he was good."

"Oh, gods," Nerys' shoulders slumped. "He was fantastic. Jadzia--" She paused, searching for the words. "It was as if everything I had been missing about him suddenly came into focus. I could finally see him, not just as he related to me, but as a real person." She stopped abruptly, considering what she had just said. "That sounds so selfish, doesn't it?"

"Not really. Odo only shows people small parts of himself, and besides, most of us are selfish in our relationships with others, Nerys. You're no different."

"Yes I am. I'm so different from him. The way he looked at me last night--" Nerys' eyes clouded at the memory. "It was more than desire, or passion, or love. I've seen those before. It was as if he was letting me see straight into his pagh. He was so--vulnerable."

"And did you like what you saw, Nerys?" Dax asked softly, surveying her friend.

"It was frightening," Kira admitted. But yes, I liked it. Prophets help me, I liked it. And I want more."

 
 
 
 
 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 
 
 
 
 

When the doorchime rang, Nerys almost jumped out of her skin. Her mind raced along a hundred different paths as she forced her feet to move toward the door. How about some idle conversation? How was your day? Would you like to hear some music? Want to hop into bed?

The door opened to reveal the Changeling dressed as usual in his brown uniform. Kira felt a twinge of disappointment until, seemingly reading her mind, he said, "I--didn't want to change--out there." Gesturing vaguely toward her private quarters, he asked, "May I?" She nodded dumbly, realizing he was trying to be discreet with her about his nature. Too bad discretion wasn't the first thing on your mind this morning, my friend, she thought, and a faint smile curved her lips.

She smiled even more widely a few moments later when he emerged wearing a Bajoran-style suit of midnight blue. The dark colour accentuated his lean lines, and--almost--succeeded in making him look handsome. Then a thought struck her. What does it matter what he's wearing? It's him. All of it is him. A feeling of unease hit her in the pit of her stomach, as it always did whenever she dwelled on how alien he truly was. I'm so different from him, she had told Jadzia, but she hadn't really been speaking of his altruism, his unconditional, unselfish love for her.

Or had she? Wasn't that, in the end, the most frightening thing of all?

"Is that better?" he asked softly.

"You look--very nice," she managed, biting her tongue at the banality of the words.

"It was just--I understand that this is a special occasion, and I--" He faltered as she stepped toward him and placed her hands in his.

"I know," she told him, willing her fears to dissipate as she gazed up into his deepset blue eyes. She remembered the feel of his mouth against hers that morning, not at all as she imagined it might be, and another sensation began to supplant the nervousness inside her.

"Nerys." She felt rather than heard her name, brushing her lips like a caress, and then she realized his mouth was very close to hers, but he was waiting, maddeningly, for some sort of permission from her.

A small moan was her only response as she leaned into him, her mouth open and exploring. His hands traveled up her arms, gliding over her shoulders until they cradled her face, his thumbs circling gently over her earlobes and making her pulse leap in excitement. How did he get so good at this? her mind asked, and then she gave up rational thought for a little while. Every move she dared was countered by an equally sensual move on his part, as if they were having one of their sparring matches. If she thrust her tongue into his mouth, he drew back and took her lower lip between his teeth, gently nipping. If she pressed her body into his, he buried his fingers in her short carmine hair and ground his mouth into hers.

After one minute or several, Kira wasn't sure, she broke the contact with him, gasping for air. "Prophets," she breathed, "Do you know what you're doing to me? Do you?"

"I think I'm doing what I've dreamed of doing to you for so long. I think I'm making your breathing short"--fingers felt for her pulse and she arched her neck at the sensation--"your heart beat faster"--he captured her face in his hands and tilted it toward him so that he could kiss her briefly but deeply--"your lips swollen." He chuckled softly, and she felt the sound echo inside her. "I also think I'm still dreaming."

"Why?" asked Kira, resting her hands against his chest lightly in an effort to put some distance between them.

The Changeling shook his head. "Because you could have any man you wanted--" He stilled Nerys' sound of protest with a finger against her lips. "It's true," he whispered, tracing the outline of her mouth with a feathery touch that made her nerve endings sing. "You are the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, the most beautiful soul I've ever known. Why would you ever want--"

"Dammit!" she cried out, cutting him off, her eyes filling at the thought of what he had been about to say. "Stop painting me as the one with all the virtues. We're more alike than you think." Her words, wrenched from her before she could consider them, stopped her dead in her tracks. For several moments, neither dared to speak. Something she had heard the day before came to her and suddenly rang true: Talk about your cranky aliens. You two really are made for each other. She smiled wanly and reached up to caress the face of her old friend.

"Let's sit down, huh? Right now I want to sit, and talk, and get used to the feel of your arms around me."

Odo stared at her, then nodded slowly. "I'd like that," he told her roughly.

 
 
 
 
 

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"And then what happened?" Dax asked, the words muffled by the peanut butter and jelly sandwich she was trying, with limited success, to chew.

"We talked. And talked." Nerys was mystified by her friend's fascination with Earth foods, as if Worf's prune juice obsession was somehow contagious.

"And then what happened?"

"He left."

"You're kidding. Oooh! It's stuck again." Jadzia fell silent for a few blissful moments as she ungracefully inserted a finger into her mouth, trying to dislodge the offending sandwich from her palate. Nerys rolled her eyes and concentrated on her raktajino.

Mission accomplished, the beautiful woman washed down her lunch with the rest of her keeva juice. "So, what's been going on with you two lately?"

Kira smiled. "Give us a break, will you? Things have been a little busy here lately what with the station almost being blown to bits."

"I must say," opined the Trill, "I thought it was a bit strange that he was the one who recommended we leave you be after you had been taken over by that wormhole alien."

Kira looked up sharply. "Odo knew I had given myself to the Prophet freely, and he was willing to respect that, no matter what the cost," she replied coldly.

Then Dax's eyes danced, and Nerys realized too late that the other woman had been playing devil's advocate. "Sounds like true love to me," she grinned. "Now, how do you feel, Nerys?"

Kira shook her head. "I wish I knew. Every few minutes it seems I seesaw from one extreme to the other. First, I'm just glad to have my old friend back -- the next minute, it's more than that. The whole situation seems so strange, then it seems like the most natural thing in the world." She paused, the decided to plunge ahead. "Sometimes, I feel like I won't be able to stand another night without knowing what it's like to make love with him, and then I'm so afraid of what it might be like--of what he might be like--" Nerys rubbed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I'm afraid of him, Jadzia. Gods, I don't want to be, but I am. We resolved a lot of what happened between us during the occupation of the station, but it was all just words, really. You didn't see him when he was with the female Founder. It was as if he were dead inside, but this--shell, this hollow shell that looked like him was still walking around. I was sure that I had lost him to them, and I tried to accept it. I tried to think that even though I couldn't understand it, he was better off, he was finally with his people. And then--" She trailed off.

"And then he saved your life," Dax finished for her.

Kira nodded. "I've been thinking about it a lot lately. If I was the only reason he left them, gave up everything he'd ever wanted--I don't think I could handle that responsibility. And no matter how much he loved me, I would know I'd always be his second choice. I don't want that either."

"I think you were more of a catalyst," Dax mused after a few moments' contemplation. "What I mean is that your death sentence was what it took to snap him out of it, but I don't believe saving you was the only reason he had to leave them. He was with his people, that's true, and if he had found them seven or eight years ago, he might have gone--but maybe not even then. He was raised a Bajoran, Nerys, but even more than that, he was raised an individual. A big part of him loves his independence, his freedom to make his own decisions, just like the rest of us. And if he joined the Great Link, he'd lose that forever."

Kira considered the Trill's words carefully, and a slow, fond amusement came into her expressive eyes. "I can't imagine Odo being happy in a place where he wouldn't be able to grumble or complain about anything."

Jadzia covered her friend's hands with her own, and fixed her with the gaze of one who has lived a very long time. "He loves you, Nerys. He will never hurt you."

"I know."

"And you're falling in love with him."

"I know."

"Then that's all you need to worry about."

"For now."

Dax smiled as if she had just stated the obvious. "That's all we ever have, isn't it?"

 
 
 
 
 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 
 
 
 
 

It was an indication of the mood of the station in these days that news of war traveled even faster than news of love, and good news about the war moved faster than the tachyon bursts that constantly whispered to Deep Space Nine from the endless darkness, reminding it that it was not entirely alone.

"You have a three-day leave? How did you manage that?" rumbled Odo as they sat in his office, going over the morning reports.

"I didn't just manage one for me, I managed one for you, too." Kira concentrated on her datapadd. She tried not to wince at the audible pause.

"You--asked Sisko for leave--for me?"

She forced herself to look up at him. "Odo, I know I should've talked to you first, but I was sure he was going to say no. Then the Dominion diverted the bulk of its forces to the Romulan front, and now we're in the middle of the biggest lull we're probably going to get for a long while." Kira reached out her hand across the desk to touch his tentatively. "I want to go to Bajor, Odo. And I want you to come with me."

For a long moment, the Changeling looked down, seeming to study her hands. Kira never liked to look at them herself because of what she had done with them, but for him every part of her was made to be studied, touched, loved. His fingers intertwined with hers, and it occurred to her that his own hands were perfectly fashioned, as if he had concentrated all of his attention and artistry on those rather than on his unfinished face. Not everything about him is alien, she thought. Now if I can just remember that--

"Nerys?"

Kira snapped out of her reverie. "I'm sorry. What did you say?"

"I asked you when we were leaving."

A slow smile spread across her face. "Really?"

Odo cocked his head at her. "After all, we didn't conduct all of those training sessions for nothing. They can survive without us for a few days, and it's unlikely the station is going to be overrun anytime in the near future."

His words forced unpleasant memories to the surface of her thoughts, which she quickly suppressed. On her own surface, she continued to smile. "We leave first thing in the morning. Okay?"

"Okay."

 
 
 
 
 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 
 
 
 
 

Kira stood stock still in the main room of the cottage, watching Odo as he took in the view from the balcony. She had meant to join him after she finished unpacking, but she had stopped midway there when she had caught sight of him. His hands were gripping the railing tight, so tight, as if he were trying to keep himself from diving off into the scenery. He wants to change so much it hurts, she thought. But he won't--because I'm here. She wanted to walk up to him and whisper, "Do it. Jump. Fly. Soar. Melt. It won't bother me."

But she would only embarrass him. And it would bother her.

"Pretty, isn't it?" Odo started at the sound of her voice right behind him. Barefoot, she had approached him silently even on the wooden surface of the balcony, a skill from her Resistance days she had not yet lost.

"It's perfect," he breathed. One hand released its hold on the railing to take hers and raise it to his lips. "Thank you."

Kira suddenly felt very small, and she tried to distract herself by studying the landscape. The cottage she had chosen after spending several nights going through holos was not the one she had stayed in while she was expecting Yoshi. Hardly "the most romantic spot on Bajor", it nevertheless had a starkly beautiful quality she thought he would appreciate. Situated beside a deep volcanic lake in one of Bajor's northern provinces, it was isolated from its nearest neighbour by at least four kilometres of mountainous wilderness. Nerys had too many other things to worry about without adding in unwanted visitors.

Like whether I'll be able to-- Kira cut herself off abruptly. Drawing Odo into her arms, she gathered courage as she kissed him deeply and felt him respond to her. When they broke apart, she murmured huskily, "Want to go for a walk by the lake?"

The Changeling nodded mutely, and Kira took his hand, squeezing it firmly. She wasn't sure which one of them she was trying to reassure.

 
 
 
 
 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 
 
 
 
 

"You're making a mess of that."

"No, this is the way it's supposed to look. I think." Kira lifted the end of the stick so she could scrutinize the object on the end. "Dax told me they're supposed to turn brown. See for yourself," she said, holding it up for his inspection. The Changeling and the Bajoran were seated on the ground near a gently dying bonfire on the edge of the lake, she using his chest as a backrest. If he were anyone else, I'd be concerned about him getting uncomfortable, she mused, but Odo was not subject to muscle strain.

"They're meant to be eaten?" he asked skeptically.

"Yes--"

"Then I don't think they're supposed to have cinders stuck to them," Odo observed primly.

Kira turned so that she could look up into his sphinxlike face. In the flickering light, she couldn't tell if he was amused; his eyes only reflected the flashes of flame that occasionally leapt from the embers, defying the inevitable end. "I knew that," she shot back. "I was just practicing with that one." Deftly, she picked off the offending marshmallow and flung it in the fire. After she had skewered another one and began to roast it over the coals, she licked her fingers clean. "Mmm," she purred, "Tastes good, at least."

Just then, a puff of wind caressed the shore of the lake, causing her to shiver slightly; the fire's heat had decreased considerably and the nights were cool in this part of the world. Without a word, without jostling the arm that held the stick, Odo's arms moved to encircle her waist. He seemed warmer than usual, but that could have been an illusion. What truly surprised her was how good it felt, how much like home it was, to be enveloped in him, his arms wrapped about her, his legs straddling hers, his chin resting on her shoulder. Is this what it would be like? she wondered, beginning to relax into his body. Odo sensed the change in her, and his head turned so that he could bury his face in her hair. His nose nuzzled her ear, and she arched her neck--

"Damn!"

Odo jumped and broke his hold on her. "I'm sorry--"

"It's nothing. I dropped the stick. It was my fault, not yours." Then, not giving herself time to think, Kira twisted around to face him. "Or maybe it is your fault," she murmured, her mouth meeting his, hard, putting him off-balance and toppling them backward to the ground. Her kisses were hungry, almost as desperate as their first had been, and after a few startled seconds Odo began to return them in kind. Kira's lips roamed, planting a kiss on his chin, then his cheek, then his earlobe, then trailing down his neck, trying to draw from him some sort of response she could recognize. She was rewarded when she reached the hollow of his collarbone; a ragged groan escaped him and she felt her name vibrate against her lips. Pushing herself up on her arms, she raised herself above him. "You called?" she asked archly.

"Nerys," he repeated, and she decided that she loved to hear him speak her name in those rough, jagged tones. His hand reached up and ran through her short hair, fingernails grazing her scalp and stirring something deep within her. Though it was too dark to see the look in his eyes, Kira swore she could feel his gaze on her, and her skin tingled. "Is this the right time," he managed hoarsely, "to tell you how much I love you?"

The pit of her stomach gave way in response to his words, and she realized this was the first time she had heard them from 'her' Odo. My Odo. That sounds--wonderful. She tried it aloud, experimenting. "My Odo," she told him, and felt him freeze in shock. She lowered herself so that her mouth was hovering inches from his. "My Odo," she murmured again, softly, and in the dim light she could see him shaking his head in disbelief.

"My Odo," she whispered, stilling his movement with a kiss that was sweet, the sweetest she'd ever known. After a moment, the Changeling's mouth opened beneath hers, and she was irrationally sure that she could taste his joy. The emotions he felt seemed to pour from him like warm wine; they infiltrated her pores and seeped into her consciousness, intoxicating her. She was dimly aware of his hands running down her back, gliding lightly over her buttocks, then coming back up to rest on her hips, where they stayed, immobile.

Dragging her mouth from his, Kira moaned. "Touch me, Odo. For gods' sake, touch me. Please." She was startled by the pleading note in her voice. The realization of how much she wanted him stirred her fear, and she drew back a little to give herself a moment to breathe.

"Nerys, I don't--" Odo trailed off, unable to find the words.

"Don't what? Is there something wrong?" Kira could barely make out his face now, but she could hear his voice shaking.

"I don't know--how much more of this I can stand. I don't want to frighten you--but this is too much for me. I'm not sure I can maintain my form much longer."

Nerys looked down upon him fondly, trying to muster her courage. She was glad in some ways for the darkness, because he could not see the doubt that briefly crossed her face. But the darkness also hid his expression, and for an instant she saw him as he had been a few months ago, his eyes dead to her, unseeing. This is now. Concentrate on the present, she told herself angrily. "It's okay," she soothed, as soon as she could be sure of her voice. "It won't bother me. Don't fight it." Kira prayed to the Prophets she wasn't lying to him --or to herself-- as she leaned close and kissed him.

Odo began to touch her then, and her body burned at every point of contact with his. Finally, when her senses were completely overloaded, she sat up and began to unbutton her tunic.

"Here?" Odo asked, surprised.

"Do you know a better place?"

"I just-- don't want you to catch cold."

Kira felt a tug of emotion at his concern for her, but aloud, she merely drawled, "Then you'll have to keep me warm, won't you?" The Bajoran woman wore no undergarments, and she heard a sharp intake of breath as Odo made this discovery, his hands running up her bare sides. Her hands in turn reached automatically for the fasteners of his shirt-- and stopped.

"I--" Odo faltered, making the first move. "I could change--"

Behind a tree? Nerys finished for him in her head. "No. It's all right, I said. Really." After an awkward moment, she could feel his body shift beneath her. Kira fought down the wave of panic that swept through her and placed her hands on smooth, warm flesh. Not so alien... In the darkness, she could make out that he chose a slender, sinewy form; shamelessly, she ran her fingers over the planes of his body, learning him. With a groan, he rolled her over onto her side and began his own exploration.

Soon they lay together, her naked length pressed to his. Neither moved, but Kira felt a trembling coming from one, or both, of them.

"Are you cold?"

She shook her head, hardly daring to breathe. He touched her cheek.

"Are you sure?"

She nodded. "Yes." She breathed then, and they moved together; he was around her, inside her, and she had never felt so loved, so cherished--

And then it all went to hell. He gasped her name, and she felt him change. Kira felt her arms sink into his back where they encircled him. Recoiling from him, she had a sense of drowning. Nausea engulfed her.

Of its own accord, her mouth formed the word, "No," but she could not force the sound past her lips. Her hands came up and pushed against his chest. "No. I can't. I can't. Please." She heard the pleading note in her voice this time and hated herself for it, but she was powerless against the fear.

Even in his altered state, it did not take long for the Changeling to accede to her wishes. Withdrawing from her, he coalesced into his humanoid form and sat, not touching her. The Bajoran woman resisted her body's urge to seek a fetal position. She did not have the strength, however, to keep the tears from coming.

After a minute of silence, she began to shiver. Reaching for her tunic and slacks, she took a deep, shaking breath. "Odo, I'm so sorry."

"Don't apologize. I understand why you're afraid." His voice was drained, flat.

"Do you?"

"It's because of the way I was--during the occupation," he told her, his voice betraying a self-loathing that startled her, even in her numb state.

"Yes," she admitted, strangely relieved that she was finally telling him the truth. "I thought I would be able to get past it tonight, but it's going to take a bit more time."

"No. It will never happen, because deep down, you will never be able to trust me again."

"Odo, that's not true."

"I don't blame you, Nerys," he said heavily. "I abandoned you--"

"But you came back to me!" protested Kira, almost as frightened at the turn of the conversation as she had been a few minutes ago.

"And I might abandon you again. That's what you're thinking."

The Bajoran shook her head. "I don't know what I'm thinking anymore. I just need time to get used to your shapeshifting--"

"Nerys, please," he begged, and she felt the pain in his voice stab into her. "I may have been able to muster the courage to tell you that I love you, but don't ask me for that kind of courage. If I ever--hurt you again the way I did tonight, I don't think I could live with myself."

Kira fought back a fresh flood of tears at the despair of his words, and she reached out to him instinctively seeking to give--and receive--comfort.

"No!" She was startled by the harsh cry, almost a sob, the force of which rocked her back on her heels. "I can't." Then, without another word, he stood and strode away from her into the darkness. And Kira sat and stared at the place where he had been for a long time.

 
 
 
 
 

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Kira rose from a fitful sleep just as the first rays of dawn began to escape from behind the mountains. She had lain awake for hours but had not heard him come into the cottage. That did not mean anything, she knew, for Odo could enter or leave a place as silently as he wished; but somehow she was fairly sure he had not returned last night.

She padded into the kitchen to prepare a raktajino, then decided against it when she felt her stomach turn over. I have to find him, talk to him, she told herself. Of course, that's assuming he'll even want to speak to me. Nerys still wasn't quite sure of what she was going to say to him. One thing she had realized last night was that she was in love with him. She could tell him that.

She was also afraid of him. He knew that already.

Shrugging on a light sweater, Kira stepped out of the cottage. The air had a light scent of fall, but the days were still warm and the temperature had not yet dropped far enough to start killing the leaves. Kira was unused to this kind of weather in her native province, but she loved to walk through the autumn forests in this part of Bajor. She wanted to share every inch of her beloved world with him, but at this moment she was wondering if that would ever be possible.

Nerys watched as a large bird of prey flew overhead, gracefully soaring above the lake. She recognized it as a rare Northern Red Hawk, called the Prophet hawk by the nomadic people of this region, who knew that its presence meant abundant fishing was nearby. Laying her search for Odo aside for a minute, she tried to calm her mind by following the movements of the bird. She watched as the Prophet hawk caught an updraft of warm air, spreading its beautifully plumed wings and circling heavenward until it became almost too small to see. Then, abruptly, it folded its wings and dove steeply toward the water. Must've spotted a fish, Kira thought idly. Gods, I wish my life could be that simple.

The hawk was clearly visible now, from the black and white tail feathers to the sleek reddish brown head with its streamlined jaw and tooth-filled snout. Transfixed, Kira saw it gain more and more momentum until its edges seemed to blur with the speed of it.

Suddenly it occurred to Kira that the bird was falling too fast, that it would not be able to recover from its dive toward the water. The next three or four seconds stretched to an eternity as the Bajoran woman's heart sped to match pace with the plummeting animal.

Then, just before the it hit the water and disappeared, the hawk screamed.

Kira's heart stopped. She had recognized the voice.

"Odo!" she shouted, but he was gone. She started running for the shore, then halted. How could she ever hope to find him in all that water? And if he had survived the impact unharmed, what would he be? A fish, perhaps? Kira was rarely uncertain about anything, but she found herself totally at a loss for what to do next. Prophets, her mind whispered fervently, just let him be all right.

She had no idea of how much time had passed. Her limbs felt weighted down as if she had strayed too close to a black hole; her eyes restlessly scanned the lake, searching, searching...

And then she saw him.

Odo broached the surface about thirty feet from shore. Head thrown back, he emerged from the water as far as his torso, then sank back down again. He spread his arms wide and splayed his hands. Kira could tell even at this distance that his fingers were webbed.

She could also tell that he was the most beautiful golden colour she'd ever seen.

"Odo," she breathed softly to herself, in wonderment.

He seemed to be made entirely of light. Of course, she had seen him shapeshift before in the context of his work, to apprehend a criminal or to avoid a blow, but never like this. She watched him as he swam normally as a humanoid for a few metres, then began to change again, elongating himself until he had totally lost his familiar form and became a ribbon of gold light weaving through the water.

Odo was normally so self-conscious about his shapeshifting that she knew he could not be aware of her presence. Enthralled, Nerys watched as a half-dozen other forms leapt, swam and glided through the water, each more graceful than the last. And as she watched, she slowly came to understand a truth she would not have thought possible had she not seen it with her own eyes.

"Prophets," the Bajoran murmured aloud, "It's him." For no matter what shape he took, Kira recognized him. And as he changed, she heard her mind whisper over and over with tender possession, my Odo. My Odo.

Finally, he emerged as a humanoid once more, his back to her. Kira wondered if he had spotted her, wondered if he was even capable of seeing at all in that state. And maybe he can see everywhere at once, she speculated, shaking her head at how little she truly knew about her friend.

Suddenly, she realized that she had kicked off her shoes and was pulling her sweater up over her head, as if her muscles knew what to do even before her heart. Then, just as suddenly, she knew that the fear had left her, and she almost laughed aloud with the joy of it. Cautiously, stealthily, the former terrorist crept toward the shore and slipped into the water unnoticed. It helped that he appeared exhausted from his furious round of shapeshifting, but even with that advantage, he was bound to notice her before she reached him. The ripples she had made were already spreading over the glasslike dawn surface of the lake.

Soon, Kira found herself in water up to her chest as the lake floor descended steeply beneath her. About five feet away from him, she spoke his name. He did not turn, and her heart sank.

"I noticed you just before you got into the water," he told her. "How long were you standing there?"

"I saw you first when you were the Prophet hawk," she ventured. "I didn't know it was you until--you--" Kira trailed off. "Well. You were--beautiful. Everything you did was--beautiful, Odo."

She was sure he shivered then. "I thought you'd still be in bed. I didn't want you to see me."

Slowly, as if approaching a wild thing that might bolt at any moment, she had inched toward him. Now he was close enough to touch, but she resisted. "I wish I had seen you before this," she said. "Then I wouldn't have acted so idiotically last night."

Odo turned at that, finally, to look into her eyes questioningly. She felt the cold heat of his blue eyes on her. "I don't understand," he growled.

Nerys took a moment to gather her thoughts, then ploughed ahead. "It's as if I always saw you as--two people--the Odo I knew and the--Founder." He flinched at the word, and she hesitated. "I never knew that the shapeshifting you do--when you're like that, you can still be you." She shook her head. "I suppose that must sound incredibly stupid to you."

"No," he murmured, and her heart leapt at the spark of tenderness in his voice. "It's true. I wasn't myself during the Dominion occupation. And each time I Linked, I could feel more of my identity--falling away."

"Then why did you do it?" Kira heard herself demand vehemently, forgetting the need to move carefully in her unresolved rage at his betrayal.

Then Odo's blue gaze captured hers and calmed her, slowing her pulse. "I suppose the easiest explanation," he told her frankly, "is that I was tired of being lonely."

Kira yearned to reach out to him at that, but she knew he would interpret it as pity. Instead, she said, "I went and ruined it for you, didn't I?"

"No. It's not your fault that I made the decision I did."

"You'd rather be with them, wouldn't you?" she asked softly, trying to keep her voice level. His eyes held hers, but they narrowed slightly. "You can tell me--I won't be hurt." Liar.

The Changeling hesitated for a breathless moment. "I may go back to them someday. I can't deny that. But I hate what they're doing now, and I can't be a part of it. The Founder almost had me convinced that I should forget about--solids, that I should let everything go." He shut his eyes, remembering. "For a while I suppose I did just that. I shared their view of the universe, their utter disregard for other forms of life, their history of persecution which allows them to justify the most hideous crimes.

A thin smile came to his lips. "But they had forgotten that they had made me a solid once, and I could never forget what it had been like." Odo reached out tentatively to touch her cheek, and she turned her head into his palm. "'To become a thing is to know a thing.' And I've known what it's been like to be respected, to be accepted, to work among humanoids and be considered a friend." Fingers cupping her jaw, he bent to kiss her briefly, softly. "Your friendship has meant more to me than anything else in my life, Nerys. I spent the night here, in the water, thinking about that, and how lucky I've been. I hope we can--return to the way things were, that I haven't ruined everything."

Nerys thought her heart might burst. Her hands reached out, fingertips tracing his collarbone, gliding over his shoulders, caressing his beautiful unformed face. Fearlessly, she drew close to him until their bodies touched lightly, and she was rewarded when his eyes widened in response. "So what you're saying," she managed, emotion roughening her words, "is that this isn't a good time to tell you how much I love you?"

The Changeling met her level brown-eyed gaze sharply, and his harsh stare seemed to demand entry into her pagh. Smiling triumphantly, Kira opened herself to his silent question, her reply shining from her like pure, golden light.

"Nerys," he cried, pulling her to him in a crushing embrace. She gasped, laughed and sobbed as she hugged him back, squeezing him with all of her might.

"I was so afraid I'd lost you, my old friend," she whispered in his ear as soon as she could catch her breath. "But I'm not afraid any more. I'm not afraid."

And then, because there was nothing left to say, she kissed him until she dissolved with him into the water that surrounded them both.

 
 
 
 
 

Epilogue

 
 

It had been a week since the funeral.

Kira Nerys and Odo lay entwined together in her bed late that morning. The Changeling had just finished his regenerative cycle and had coalesced around the Bajoran woman, seeking and giving comfort as he had every morning since that terrible day. It had been another restless night for them both, she tossing and turning, his gelid substance shifting and pooling beside her. When she had first noticed his movements late one night, she had wondered then if he dreamed, but had forgotten to ask him the next day. Now she did not want to know, for she had enough dreams and nightmares of her own to fill her waking and sleeping hours.

"What time is it?" Kira asked sleepily.

Odo turned his head so he could see the bedside chrono. "Ten forty-five," he rumbled.

Nerys placed a hand over his chest, seeking the faint vibration she had come to recognize in him as his heartbeat. Signs of life. She needed them more than ever now.

"I should have been at temple almost an hour ago." Despite her words, she made no effort to rise.

Odo tenderly combed her rumpled hair into place with his fingers. "We've got to stop this, you know," he told her softly.

"Stop sleeping in on our day off?"

"You know what I mean." Odo had always been the only being in the universe who could scold her without inciting her to anger.

"Yes," sighed Kira, "I know." Pushing herself up on her arms, she looked down on him fondly. "What I don't know is what I would've done without you the past few days."

If the Changeling had been capable of blushing, she imagined he would have. He smiled faintly and reached up to stroke her cheek. "I was just about to say the same thing to you."

And then, suddenly, uncontrollably, Nerys began to cry for the first time since Jadzia had died. She collapsed on top of Odo, her liquid tears running over his surface, her sobs resonating against him as if he, too, were capable of crying. After a minute or more of complete numbness, she became aware of his arms holding her tightly to him, and she clutched at him spasmodically.

"I didn't want to start this, because I was afraid I'd never stop," she gasped.

"You'll stop when you're done. Don't fight it," Odo murmured.

"I keep playing it over and--over in my head hundred times a day, a thousand." The words began pouring from her, blurted between sobbing gulps of air. "Every time my mind screams, Why her? Prophets, why her?' She had more life in her than anyone I'd ever known. She had so much life left to give. I've seen hundreds die, dozens of them friends that I cared for--loved. Each time I cried, I prayed, and after a while everything made sense again. Now--" Nerys wiped her face with the palm of her hand, her tears finally beginning to subside-- "I'm-just-so-angry. And no matter how many times I walk into that temple, the prayers won't come."

Odo stared at her, surprise registering on his masklike features. "This is serious for you," he acknowledged. She nodded mutely, sitting up. "Nerys, anger as a response to death isn't abnormal. It's something I'm used to. But I can understand how it would be frightening for someone of your faith."

"I've been angry before. But not like this. Not at the universe. Not--at the Prophets themselves."

"You've never been face to face with your gods before."

Kira turned to face him, her voice threatening to break again. "But shouldn't that make my faith stronger, not weaker?" she cried.

The Changeling sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm hardly the one to be lecturing you on matters of religion."

"No. Please. I value your opinion more than anyone's. I need to know how you--cope."

He smiled thinly. "I don't have a magic formula. I have a belief of sorts, that there is some sort of justice in our lives, and that I can help to protect it. I suppose everyone has to have some kind of belief like that, some way to bring order to things.

"When someone like Jadzia dies, I try to make sense of it, just like you do, but ultimately I can't. I can't find any meaning in death, Nerys, no nobility, no reason that explains it. All I can do is remember them and cherish the memory of their lives."

Despite herself, Kira smiled. "That's beautiful," she whispered. Suddenly, images began to flood her mind: Jadzia's beautiful face, all innocence after perpetrating some new mischief; Jadzia on her wedding day, as fierce and as proud as any Klingon; Jadzia in one of those silly pointed hats they wore on their excursions to the Holosuites; Jadzia with the evil twinkle in her eye as she gossiped shamelessly in Ops; Jadzia, friend, sounding board, hothead, madwoman--

"Minx," Nerys murmured, then, to her great surprise, began to laugh. Wiping away the last of the tears, she took Odo in her arms and kissed him soundly. "Thank you," she whispered.

"For what?"

"For reminding me that life--and joy--are everything. It's the most important message I learned from Jadzia, and it's what I'll always cherish about her." Nerys paused for a moment, remembering. "A few weeks ago she told me that now was all we ever have, and at the time I thought it was a cynical way of looking at things. But today I understand what she meant. She meant that we have to savour every moment of our lives as they come to us, to live them to the fullest."

"If only we could live that way all the time," Odo murmured wistfully.

"But we can, love. We can." And then she pressed close to him, feeling his warmth in every pore, feeling her nerves hum with the vibration inside him, feeling his love sheathing her body like a second skin. She heard him gasp in surprise, and she knew that it was the same for him. "You see?" she whispered. Odo nodded wordlessly, his eyes closed, a sweet, unguarded smile illuminating his features.

And after a time Nerys could not be sure which parts of them had once belonged to her. But by then, it no longer mattered.