How The World Was Made by Cyndi
Summary: Death can't break the bonds of love we make. The hard part is creating them before it is too late. .o. Sequel to For Freedom's Sake. .o. COMPLETE!
Categories: Deep Space Nine Characters: Kira Nerys, Mora Pol, Odo
Genre: Angst, Drama, Family, Romance
Warnings: Adult Language, Adult Situations, Character Death
Challenges: None
Series: Freedom
Chapters: 21 Completed: Yes Word count: 109709 Read: 38074 Published: 08 Dec 2013 Updated: 24 Dec 2013
Story Notes:
Note: This takes place after the end of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and ties in with my fics For Freedom's Sake and Paternity. This story also slightly ignores the continuity created by the 2009 Star Trek film.

WARNING: This story involves graphic depictions of a terminal illness and death. I don't shy away from the ugly details. If you think any of this will be triggering, please turn back now.

DISCLAIMER: I don't own Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and I'm not making any money off this story.

Final Note: This story has its own playlist. The end of every chapter will have links music on box.com. They're perfectly safe and won't harm your computer. :)

1. Prologue: The Storyteller by Cyndi

2. 1. Unpleasant News by Cyndi

3. 2. Stardust is the Future by Cyndi

4. 3. Songs of Life by Cyndi

5. 4. Midwife for the Soul by Cyndi

6. 5. Bridges and Storms by Cyndi

7. 6. Unexpected Visitor by Cyndi

8. 7. Hardheaded by Cyndi

9. 8. The Perfect Dress by Cyndi

10. 9. Life's Little Hiccups by Cyndi

11. 10. Abreaction by Cyndi

12. 11. Bittersweet Homecoming by Cyndi

13. 12. Vows by Cyndi

14. 13. The Dying Process by Cyndi

15. 14. A Gift for the Future by Cyndi

16. 15. Life Is... (pt 1) by Cyndi

17. 15. Life Is... (pt 2) by Cyndi

18. 16. The Seed by Cyndi

19. 17. Belated Reception by Cyndi

20. 18. Footprints by Cyndi

21. Epilogue: The Storyteller's Legacy by Cyndi

Prologue: The Storyteller by Cyndi
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Prologue: The Storyteller

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Somewhere in the universe, six shadows converged inside a larger one cast by farming equipment.

He heard them.

He always heard them.

Children.

"I can't wait...when will he get here?"

"Ooh. It's my tenth time!"

"It's going to be my first."

"Mine, too! Has he arrived yet?"

"No, stupid! He only comes out when the sun touches the horizon."

"Hey! Don't call me that!"

Cool wind rippled the long orange grass. Large domed houses glimmered in the distance. A group of children chased each other between the automated wagons tilling the field for planting. By spring, there would be enough wheat and grains to feed the entire northern continent.

Shadows fell longer as twilight approached. Reds, yellows and purples layered the distant horizon. A tiny redheaded boy picked grass out of his head ridges.

"Kejoda!" his older sister called out, "It's almost time!"

"Relax, Morolan!" Kejoda called back. "I'll be right there!"

The descendants of the Bajoran race grew into a highly evolved humanoid species. They were touch telepaths bearing ridges from the bridge of their noses all the way to the backs of their heads. When Bajor's sun became a red giant, their distant ancestors evacuated Bajor and colonized the planet they now stood upon.

And once a year, something wonderful happened.

"Guys! The Storyteller is here! Let's head to the Memory Pond. Quick!"

Shuffling feet and quiet giggles filled the twilight air. Adults knew the Storyteller's tale word for word, yet they sent their children back year after year to hear it. Every girl and boy looked forward to this event-- the night they stayed up until dawn to hear the Storyteller's words.

They gathered in a circle around the Memory Pond, a kidney-shaped body of water that never went dry, not even in the harshest summers. The younger ones sat closer to the Storyteller than their older kin.

He always faced east. The sun remained at his back. His hooded brown robe concealed his face completely in shadow, and no wind or tiny hands pulling on it would make it move. And the younger ones did try. He never minded-- it became a rite of passage. Who was brave enough to tug the Storyteller's hood?

"Maybe he's a fish," said a little blonde girl.

A teenage boy retorted, "No, silly, fish die when exposed to air! He's just another Odoan like us."

Everyone gasped as the Storyteller spread his hands in a welcoming gesture. The children seated themselves in their proper age hierarchy around the pond. Their parents slipped quietly away, unnoticed.

Six fireflies flickered in the grass. They only came out the night the Storyteller appeared. All the other animals fell silent. Not a frog croaked and not a cricket chirped.

Everything became still. Even the wind.

The children on either side of the Storyteller grasped his outstretched hands. A ripple of hand holding moved through the gathering until everyone was connected.

Whispers raced along the pond. Its mirrored surface reflected images of the galactic center, a glistening white haze filling half the eastern sky. The Storyteller remembered when the Milky Way formed misty bands across the heavens...but not anymore. Not since the collision with a neighboring galaxy transformed it from a spiral into a sphere.

At last, the children's thoughts quieted themselves.

"Storyteller," Morolan spoke the rehearsed invocation, "we are ready to hear your wisdom."

The Storyteller gave a nod and entered their minds, showing them images as he spoke.

"Eons ago, a man set out on a journey. He never knew the events about to unfold would play an important part in..."
End Notes:

**Soundtrack for this chapter**

The Storyteller: https://app.box.com/s/m6auh9wykp8dpn7z6w93
1. Unpleasant News by Cyndi
How the World Was Made

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1. Unpleasant News

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The finality of everything struck as soon as the Founders' planet grew in his sight. Its host star, a red M-class, shone like a dying ember in the cold, silent void.

The Founders' solar system was a mere dot among many dusting the black vastness.

"Computer, standard orbit."

A Bajoran shuttle gently piloted itself into position above the planet.

"Standard orbit achieved."

"Excellent."

Mora Pol reached for the blue-gray cane propped on a nearby bulkhead. Its metal grip felt cool under his palm. With a grunt, he heaved himself onto his feet. Getting up took more effort than sitting down. He saw his own pained grimace reflected back at him via the control panel. The years faded his slicked-back hair to shades of white and silver, however he was proud to note his face hadn't changed much.

"You're still alive if it hurts," Mora muttered to himself.

His gaze refocused on the viewscreen. He hadn't seen this world in twenty years. Would they still recognize him? Would he still recognize them?

Fresh discomfort stirred in his lower back and crept outward. A hypospray hissed, relieving the misery before it reached its crescendo. Metorapan always worked quickly to dull the discomfort. Medicine marked his days now.

Mora secured the shuttle's controls and hobbled onto the transport platform. The cane took the pressure off his arthritic left knee, which he refused to have surgically replaced. He shoved the hypospray back inside the pocket of his plain gray travel jacket.

"Computer, energize."

Everything dissolved into sparkles and resolved again in shades of beige and red. His feet rested upon the only island amidst a shifting golden sea.

Mora had never been to the surface of the Founders' homeworld before. Everywhere he looked, he saw Changelings in their natural liquid state.

He stumbled as he moved to sit on a nearby rock. His cane slipped from his grasp. Before he could seize it again, it bounced off his foot and flipped into the living ooze.

"Oh, how clumsy of me. I'm so sorry!" Mora called out. "I hope I didn't hurt anyone."

A pillar of liquid rose above the calm surface. Mora's cane floated within it. As the Founder took shape, the cane slid out of its substance and into its forming hand.

Mora studied the Changeling's emerging features. Its Bajoran nose ridges almost looked natural. The aristocratic cheekbones gave its-- his-- face more definition and his blond slicked-back hair had a little wave to it. Full eyebrows still eluded him, however faint wisps shimmered on his simulated brow bones. His vivid electric blue eyes were piercing as ever. They never changed, even though his face evolved.

"You finally got the ears!" Mora said, grinning. He couldn't disguise his awe. "You're looking well...yes," his voice went hoarse, "you look fantastic!"

Odo stepped onto the island. His black knee high boots made no sound. He chose to 'wear' fitted charcoal gray pants and a steel blue tunic falling to his hips. Untied silver drawstrings hung beneath the tunic's wide collar, and a matching stripe ran vertically down the outside of the left sleeve. The materials behaved naturally on his body; not a single fold or crease seemed out of place.

Mora took his cane from Odo's hand and bit his bottom lip at the fond image before him. Odo had perfectly reproduced the outfit Mora wore on his wedding day.

"I got better at shape shifting," he said. Not one to mince words, he asked, "Why are you here?"

Mora saw the curiousness in Odo's eyes, so he didn't take his lack of a proper greeting personally.

"I'm here because-- "

A second form came onshore. Unlike Odo, this one looked just the way Mora remembered him: slicked-back auburn hair, deep brown eyes and slightly unrefined facial features.

Kejal bounded forward, shouting, "Father!"

"Oof!" Mora winced at being lifted off the ground in a bear hug. Kejal didn't see it, but Odo did. He leaned against Kejal's chest, having missed those strong, tight embraces.

"Mother, come on. Hug him!" Kejal extended an arm. Odo shook his head with a smile of his own. He walked into the group hug. Mora found himself enclosed in two sets of arms while silently dreading the revelation he was about to spring on them.

"He is a hugger," Odo said. "No one leaves without a hug from Kejal. It's become a bit of a tradition."

"I think it's wonderful." Mora replied. He gave Kejal a quick kiss on the cheek and noticed it still felt smooth like an infant's. "Kejal, is your appearance by choice?"

Kejal patted Mora's back. "I'm still working on my humanoid form. I learned how to shape shift right after I was born, but mastering it takes time. Mother has gone on several diplomatic missions within Dominion space to help heal the damage caused by the war, so he's had more practice than I have." He smiled, his eyes bright. "I'm the boss when he's gone."

"I'm sure you do a fine job." Mora squeezed Kejal's shoulder and let Odo help him sit down on a nearby boulder. Not the most comfortable seat, but better than standing. "As for why I came...I'm making my last journey off Bajor. This is the destination I chose."

Kejal's smile slipped.

Odo frowned. "Doctor Mora, are you saying you're-- "

"Yes." Mora looked up at them, his expression grave. "I'm dying."

.o

Odo stared at Doctor Mora, a man he almost considered impervious to illness. The years faded his hair to the color of stainless steel. He carried a cane and walked slower than he used to. Despite that, he didn't look sick.

"Are you sure there wasn't a mix up?" Odo asked. "Doctors make errors all the time. Are you certain you weren't misdiagnosed?"

Doctor Mora pursed his lips and his shoulders slumped. His defeated body language gave Odo his answer. No, the diagnosis wasn't a mistake.

"I have Delfeya syndrome," said Doctor Mora. "I was born with it, but I didn't know until I developed symptoms ten years ago. I should've known the heart murmur I had all my life was an indicator. Almost everyone with Delfeya syndrome has a malformed bicuspid valve, but not everyone with a malformed bicuspid valve has Delfeya syndrome." He spread his hands, "Look at me. I've accomplished a lot in my lifetime. A lot of people with this disease develop symptoms in their twenties, and I'm ninety-five years old. That's not a bad age to go."

Odo felt something within his substance freeze in a mix of shock and horror. Beside him, Kejal wiped a hand through his hair.

Delfeya syndrome was an extremely rare genetic disorder among Bajorans. No one knew they had it until the symptoms began. Once active, it destroyed the vascular system and robbed the body of its ability to produce oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Organ systems needed oxygen to function; without it, they failed. One by one. Death usually occurred within five years of onset. With treatment. Without treatment, people rarely lasted six months.

Odo remembered to mimic breathing again.

"That's real funny," Kejal snorted. "This is revenge for the deka seed pod pranks, isn't it?"

Doctor Mora clasped his hands on top of his cane. He shook his head. "I wish it was, Kejal."

"What is your prognosis?" Odo heard himself ask.

Doctor Mora's eyes focused on him. "Two more months...if I'm lucky."

Two months...

Kejal's gaze swung between Odo and Doctor Mora. He clenched his fists.

"No. No, damn you! I won't believe it! Somebody made a mistake! This isn't right!"

"Kejal-- "

"Don't. I don't want to hear this," Kejal snapped. He closed his eyes and liquefied where he stood.

"I'm sorry, Kejal." Doctor Mora whispered.

Odo sat beside his Bajoran mentor. He reached down and stroked his fingers through Kejal's natural form. Kejal resisted the comforting gesture by morphing himself into a jagged black rock.

Sighing, Odo turned towards Doctor Mora. "What about the treatments? There are several available, aren't there?"

"Odo, I was diagnosed ten years ago. My doctor gave me five years, and I fooled him. The treatments slowed the cell deterioration down, but they couldn't stop it. And recently, they ceased working altogether. They were awful...just awful. I couldn't get out of bed for days afterward. That left me three days a week where I was functional, and the rest were miserable."

"Doctor Mora, Kejal is right. You can't quit n-- "

"I had to make a choice, Odo. A choice between a miserable year of existing, or two months of living. When I looked at it that way, the choice was easy. I'm going to die either way, why not enjoy the time I have left?" Doctor Mora gazed out across the glistening gold horizon. He closed his eyes and smiled. "I wanted to see you and Kejal while I still have the energy to travel. I'll beam back up to my shuttle in a little while and head home."

The icy feeling in Odo's chest grew. Like it or not, Doctor Mora set his life on the path that ended here on the Founders' homeworld. If it weren't for him, he wouldn't have met Kira or given birth to Kejal. He owed everything he was to this man-- as much as he hated to admit it.

Sometimes, Odo despised his sense of duty. Doctor Mora represented a part of his life he never wanted to revisit. And here he was, sick and in need.

He always had a knack for showing up when I'm finally happy again. Perfect. Why am I doing this? Why should I care? What difference does it make?

Odo silenced his thoughts and forced himself to speak.

"No," he said.

Doctor Mora squinted. "Odo, I'm sorry that I-- "

"No, I meant you won't go home alone." Odo went on without looking at him. "Someone has to attend your needs when you get too sick to take care of yourself."

"Odo, that's touching, but," Doctor Mora regarded their surroundings, "what about the Great Link?"

Odo smiled halfway. "Little by little, it is shrinking. My people are setting out to explore the stars again. Their fear of the solids is dwindling."

"I see." Doctor Mora's eyes watered. "I still can't believe how good you look, Odo." He reached towards Odo's face. "May I...?"

Annoyed, but understanding, Odo shoved his discomfort aside and accepted the scientist's touch. His shoulders hunched as memories of the lab rose to choke him. A mental slamming of the door sent them back into the shadows.

He was proud of his skin now-- he'd made it indistinguishable in texture from other humanoids. Even his hair felt and behaved like a solid's.

"I can look like anyone I want, but I chose to evolve my default face instead. Kejal is still working on his appearance. He will look more like me in about twenty years. If he keeps practicing."

"Good. Very good," said Doctor Mora. He leaned on his cane again. His fingers were thin, and blue veins showed prominently under the skin on the backs of his hands. "You're remarkable, Odo. You really are."

Odo scowled and scooted out of Doctor Mora's reach. Comments like that made him feel like a specimen again.

"Where are you staying on Bajor?"

"I've elected to remain in my home. I don't want to spend my last days being poked and prodded by medical personnel."

Hah! You're lucky you had a choice in the matter. Odo sniffed, but didn't let his contempt show.

"Then that is where Kejal and I will stay as well." He shot Doctor Mora a look. "Don't read too much into it. Someone has to make sure you don't fall down and die on the floor." And finally, he tapped the rock near his feet with his knuckles. "Kejal, that's enough."

When no response came, he grumbled. "Typical."

"It's been awhile since I've seen that," remarked Doctor Mora. If Odo's bristling bothered him, he did a fine job of hiding it. "He was rarely unhappy, but once in awhile he had his moods. I think he inherited that from you."

"He did." Odo said. "I'll get his attention."

He touched the rock, letting his hands liquefy. The rock melted and reconstituted.

"Kejal!" Odo warned.

At last, the small boulder morphed into a proper humanoid shape.

"Parents aren't supposed to die!" Kejal growled before he'd fully solidified. "Father, give me a database. I'll find you every doctor who understands Bajoran biology. I don't care if we have to go to the Delta quadrant! We'll cure this!"

"Kejal," Doctor Mora grasped Kejal's wrist. "I'm sorry, son..."

Odo ached at seeing Kejal's pain. "Kejal never witnessed another sentient being's death before. Not in person."

"I watched your experiences through the Link." Kejal huffed belligerently. "Weyoun died in your arms once."

"It isn't the same as actually being th-- Doctor Mora?"

"Oh, this happens." Doctor Mora pressed a cloth handkerchief to his nose. Blood stained the pale blue fabric. "It's part of the disease process. I'm fine, don't worry."

Kejal broke free and walked to the other side of the tiny island. Odo let him have his space. He had nothing to worry about as long as Kejal didn't turn into a Tarkalean hawk and fly away. When that happened, he disappeared for hours.

"He is the most sheltered of us all. Emotionally, he is as much a child as I was when I left your laboratory." Odo sighed. He pointed to the bloody fabric and asked, "Does that hurt?"

Doctor Mora shrugged. "No." He sat up straighter. "And I know you want to ask. Death doesn't scare me. I know where I'm going. Dying, on the other hand..."

Odo's lips pressed themselves together. He wished he knew how to reach out. A lot remained unsaid between them, and he couldn't find the means to face the battle-scarred mess of their past.

I forgave what you did, but I haven't forgiven you. Odo thought bitterly. And I don't know how to forgive you. Maybe I never will.

"I know, from experience, how awful it is to be alone and afraid." Odo kept his voice neutral. "We may have our differences, but I won't abandon you to die alone."

Doctor Mora tilted his head sideways to meet Odo's gaze. His eyes softened. He smiled behind the cloth pressed to his nostrils.

.o

Golden sparkles marred the line between the horizon and the formless fluidity of his people.

Kejal found no comfort in the view. The only father he'd ever known came back just to announce his imminent death. Parents were supposed to be immortal. Nothing phased them. Mountains crumbled and stars went supernova before somebody's parents died!

At least, that was what he wanted to believe.

He can't die unless he goes home, right? Kejal tried to rationalize. He squinted at the sky, his mind grasping at every excuse he could come up with. Then I can prevent his death!

His hands fell to his sides. He closed his fists. Yes, it was possible to delay death!

"Father, let's go somewhere."

The conversation between Odo and Mora fell silent. Kejal rounded on them, his brown eyes flashing.

"Let's beam up to your shuttlecraft and explore the universe." He approached Mora and sat on the ground, looking upwards at his face. "We can do it. There are a lot of fuel stations in this quadrant. We'll be able to travel for decades!"

Mora's eyes crinkled. He reached out and took Kejal's hand, giving it a strong squeeze. At last he pulled the bloodstained cloth away from his nose.

"How about your nebula?" Mora suggested. "It's on the way home."

"We can start with that." Kejal clutched Mora's hand like a lifeline. "Then we'll travel the galaxy." He knew his logic held no water, yet he kept hoping beyond hope his words would magically become truth. "You won't die if you stay off Bajor."

"Oh, Kejal..." Mora tried to smile, but his lips quivered instead.

Odo knelt behind Kejal. Kejal felt his mother's hands on his shoulders. A touch as familiar to him as the tiny, airy world he lived in before birth. Right then he wished he could return to that place. Nothing hurt there, and death didn't loom like a phantom.

"You can't keep someone alive that way," Odo told him.

"Watch me! I can try!" Kejal clenched his jaw. "I can try."

Mora tightened his grasp on Kejal's hand, and Kejal took comfort in feeling that strength. "I've been ready for the end for a long time now."

"No! Stop it! Let me find you a cure. You can't give up."

Kejal found himself pressed close to Mora's chest. Behind him, Odo also came nearer. He closed his eyes and sought solace between the only parents he'd ever known.

"Please, let me try to help you," he choked out. Tears were still beyond him, but his voice broke and his face pulled. "You're not supposed to die."

"Shhh. Kejal, listen to me." Mora grasped Kejal's shoulders.

At that, Kejal screwed his eyes shut again and covered his ears. He didn't want to hear this.

Mora moved his hands off his ears. "Kejal? Come on now, look at me."

"Why?" Kejal peered up at Mora's face. At the two dark blue eyes shifting slightly back and forth in their sockets as they gazed into his. A quirk of solids, he'd learned.

Yes, father, tell me how to cure you.

Mora said, "Having you walk this path with me will mean a lot. It won't be easy and it won't be pleasant, but I'll do all I can to prepare you." He leaned forward. "In the coming months, you will find out how strong you truly are."

"No."

"It is what it is, Kejal. I'm sorry."

"It doesn't have to be!" Kejal snapped. "It shouldn't be you, father. It's not fair."

"A lot of things in life aren't fair," Mora replied. "Sitting around and complaining won't change it."

"Giving up won't change it, either."

"Oh, son..."

"You didn't let me die, so I won't let you die." Kejal said insistently.

Parents were supposed to be immortal.

Kejal's substance recoiled in terror at the very thought of witnessing his father's last breath.
End Notes:

**Chapter soundtrack**

A Scientist's Hello: https://app.box.com/s/1h6tuas87qaxepzz71nd

Odo Appears: https://app.box.com/s/nabqjxs12gzw2i4yopdd

Parents Don't Die: https://app.box.com/s/2mztfsavl6twl4e6yoy9
2. Stardust is the Future by Cyndi
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2. Stardust is the Future

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Seeing Odo and Kejal react to the bad news made Mora's heart ache. Kejal grew especially attached to people. Odo acted reserved, but the evidence was all in the lines he could now form on his face.

Mora's combadge beeped, reminding him to take his dexalin. The metorapan came in a loose hypospray for quick access while the rest of his medications stayed in a small travel case. He pressed the hypo against his throat and delivered the medicine. Dexalin forced his shrinking supply of red blood cells to take in and transport more oxygen throughout his body. It helped combat the annoying fatigue he experienced while traveling.

He looked into the case again. Triptacederine was the strongest painkiller he had on-hand. He didn't need it, yet having it available eased his anxieties about the pain awaiting him in the future.

I'm still counting my blessings. This isn't cutting me down in the middle of my research. My work will be remembered. He glanced at Kejal and Odo. I accomplished a great deal, but there is still so much to do.

Mora put his medication away. He struggled to get up, but the rock bent his legs at such an angle that he couldn't heave himself upright. His inflamed posterior spleen and kidneys twisted his back into knots the second he bent forward. Pushing off his cane wasn't going to work either.

"Oh, damn my back," he grumbled.

Odo helped him stand. Mora gratefully accepted the assistance.

"Excuse me a moment." Odo moved to the island's edge. "Vokau? I need you here."

Another Changeling oozed onshore and assumed humanoid form. She was an exact replica of the female Founder who led the Dominion. Even her low, raspy voice sounded the same.

"Yes, Odo? What is so important that you cannot tell the Link?"

Odo glanced at Mora. "Kejal and I have to leave." He faced the female. "We will be in the Alpha quadrant, and we may be gone a long time. We don't want to be sent for unless an emergency arises."

"I understand. I'll make sure the Vorta and Jem'Hadar relay information to me. Reports will be sent to you if any drastic changes occur in your absence."

"That will suffice. Thank you." Odo said.

Vokau, as Odo called her, shifted her gaze to Mora. Looking at her upped his pulse rate. He gripped his cane to cover up his uneasiness. Until recently, Starfleet asked him to examine the imprisoned female Founder once a year to assess her health. A quantum stasis field kept her from shape shifting during his visits. She always cooperated with him, however looking into her cold, hateful blue eyes and knowing she ordered the deaths of billions without remorse chilled his blood.

"Vokau is a genetic twin of the female Founder. They aren't the same person despite their identical default appearances. I chose to name her as a means of differentiating her from her twin." Odo regarded her with a polite nod. "Kejal's default humanoid form looks like mine because he possesses my genetic material. We can vary our hair and eye color at will, and many of us have already done so to express some individuality."

He blinked and his eyes shifted from blue to green and back. "The Vorta did a lot of research when the Founders fell ill with the morphogenic virus. I'll make certain you get their files."

Mora's trepidation shrank at the mention of fresh research. "Thank you. I look forward to it. Vokau, it's a pleasure. I'm sorry about your-- "

"Likewise, and you don't need to apologize for my twin's sake. She let her distrust of solids corrupt everyone around her. Odo has shown us what she refused to see." Vokau said evenly. Her eyes, Mora noticed, were gray, not steely blue like her sister. "The war cost all of us a great deal."

"But the recovery efforts are going great." Kejal added. He reached out and hugged Vokau. "Keep an eye on things for us."

"I will." She relaxed into the embrace without returning it. "The sun will become active soon. You best leave before the radiation levels rise. The atmosphere will keep the planet safe, however anything above it is in danger."

Mora nodded to Odo and Kejal. He turned to thank Vokau, but found her already melting back into the Great Link.

"Well...let's be off. Computer, three to beam up."

Everything dissolved into shimmers and tingling. Once in the shuttle, Mora noticed a large solar flare forming on the red dwarf's western edge. The planet's orbit was going to take it right through the gaseous emission.

"The atmosphere gives us great auroras when that happens." Kejal said. He and Odo took over the helm seats. "Let's get out of here. That's coming fast."

Mora wilted into the third chair near the back. He rolled his cane between his hands as the shuttle left the Founders' homeworld behind. At the helm, Odo and Kejal talked quietly amongst themselves. Then Odo twisted his chair sideways.

"Doctor Mora?"

Mora made himself sit up straighter despite his fatigue. "The coordinates to Kejal's nebula should be in the system."

"Actually, I was going to comment on the fuel levels running low."

"Oh. Yes, I know. I planned to stop at Deep Space Nine to refuel before returning to Bajor."

Mora noticed Kejal flinching at mention of Bajor. He didn't expect to see Odo do the same!

"Deep Space Nine is still running?" Odo asked.

"General Kira runs a tight station." Mora grinned.

Odo's eyes lost focus for a fraction of a second. Since his face had more mobility, his expressions were as plain as Jeraddo on a clear night.

"I see." Odo stared down at his feet. Clearing his throat, he said, "Hold on, here comes the data transmission I promised you."

Mora glanced at his computer console. The new data rivaled the discoveries within his own research. He watched it scroll up the screen. His lips twitched in a smile-- information that extensive would keep him busy for awhile.

"By the way, Odo, you chose an interesting name for your female friend. I didn't know you spoke Vulcan."

"I only know a few words. 'Remember' seemed fitting, since her face will always remind me of her twin." Odo said, his voice faraway as if he only half-heard the conversation.

Amused, Mora leaned back in his seat. "We can radio ahead to let General Kira know you're coming."

"No, don't."

"Mother? Why not?"

"Just...don't. I'm still debating whether I want to face her at all. We can't stay...why should I put her through the pain of saying goodbye to me twice?"

Mora leaned forward. "Odo, how do you think she'll feel if she sees your name on the ship's manifest and you don't even stop in to say hello?"

Odo's voice became a faint rasp, "I'm not sure I can bear it. I love her with all that I am."

"Odo, when you love someone like that, it will be as if no time passed at all once you two say hello." Mora peered at the console screen on his right. And so it will be when I see my darling Leruu again.

"I...will consider it," muttered Odo.

"Still shy when it comes to women. Mother, you're the worst." Kejal stretched a tentacle between their seats to swat Odo's arm.

Odo caught tendril, lifted himself up and sat on it. "You certainly didn't get your charm from me." He looked over his shoulder at Mora. A hint of a smile crinkled the corners of his eyes.

Chuckling, Mora held both hands up. "It wasn't my doing."

Kejal pulled the tentacle back. "I'm gifted. I can't help it."

Odo snorted, shaking his head. "If I hadn't given birth to you, I would be debating whether or not you were actually mine."

Hearing Kejal's laughter filled Mora's heart with joy. He missed that sound.

The next few hours fell into comfortable silence. Mora scanned through the data on his console. Kejal monitored the ship's sensors for radiation. Odo manned the helm.

Hm, Mora squinted at the screen. Changeling morphogenic enzymes don't simply dissolve, they break down into telomerase! No wonder their DNA is so quick to repair itself if it suffers damage! Their telomeres don't shorten when they change form. They grow up, but they don't age to death. Changelings are biologically immortal! Oh...I hope I find input on how Kejal came to be...

Unaware of Mora's excitement, Odo said, "Approaching the nebula now."

"Ohhh..." Kejal leaned forward. "Watch out for the pulsar beam. Follow this course."

"Thank you." Odo's fingers danced across the touch screen panel. "The radiation levels are still high. I'm adjusting the shield parameters."

"Onscreen," said Kejal.

Mora pushed himself off his chair and stepped closer to the viewscreen. The supernova remnant resembled a smoky silver-blue bubble broken open at opposite ends by the pulsar hidden inside. Ionized interstellar gas glowed faintly around the sphere like clouds passing near Earth's full moon. The nebula's beautiful colors couldn't be seen by the naked eye due to its dimness, but its billowing filamentary structure was fascinating just the same. Mora watched the gaseous materials shift and roll as they expanded outward-- the decomposing corpse of a once-brilliant star feeding itself to the interstellar medium. At the moment of its death it crushed its atoms together into new elements. Now, those reincarnated particles escaped into the universe with the hope of becoming new stars and planets.

"That is all we are," he whispered. "Stardust."

"Father?"

"Everything we see around us started like that. Stars are our molecular parents. Even G-class stars like Bajor's sun send their matter out into the universe when they die. Any planets orbiting close enough are incinerated back into the ashes from which they came, and there is always the chance those ashes will be caught up to become new stars and planets." He smiled at Kejal. "Don't you just love science?"

Kejal grinned, turning again to the viewscreen. "What do you think, mother? Isn't it beautiful?"

Mora saw Odo smiling faintly. "Only you two would run into a supernova on the way home." He checked the panel and pointed to the viewscreen. "There is already one small area of increased density."

"Do you think it'll become a new star?" Kejal asked.

"It might," Mora replied. "In a few million years."

Kejal folded his arms and tucked his chin down in deep thought. "Then I want to name it now."

Odo looked askance at him. "Isn't it a little early for that?"

"You named me before I was born."

Mora leaned forward between them. "And what would you name a star that isn't born yet, Kejal?"

Kejal looked him square in the eyes. "I want to name it Pol...if that's all right with you."

"Heh, heh!" Mora rested his hand on Kejal's shoulder. He focused once again on the indistinct knot of gas newly named after him. "I would be honored."

"I hate to interrupt the moment, but the radiation is starting to degrade the sensors." Odo cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "We need to move on."

"Of course," said Mora. "Let's head to Deep Space Nine."

Kejal's smile slipped and Odo's shoulders hunched. Neither protested, however, and the shuttle turned away into the void.

Many hours later, the wormhole bloomed open like a massive blue flower in the blackness.

The next time I see this, I will be free of my mortal flesh, Mora thought as he closed his eyes in silent prayer. Leruu, my love, I will join you soon.

.o

Odo didn't care if his swift exit from the shuttle was considered rude. He shifted his clothing into a hooded Bajoran travel robe to hide his face and walked the length of the airlock.

"Mother, what are you doing?"

Doctor Mora quieted him. "Kejal, let him be."

Odo kept going until he couldn't hear their voices anymore. The station layout did not change over the years, though the light fixtures and computers had been updated to reflect Starfleet's influence. Quark's bar was still there. The Promenade remained mostly unchanged.

Odo stopped by the railing where Jake Sisko and Nog used to dangle until he chased them away. He touched it and smiled at the familiarity.

That's a relief...I was afraid of finding this place unrecognizable. Odo mused.

He leaned on the rail, watching the people pass below. An Andorian walked out of the security office. He carried himself confidently. His white hair was combed straight back and parted neatly around his antennae. The brown Bajoran security uniform went nicely with his blue skin.

"Good morning, Malath," someone said in passing.

"Chief," said another passer-by.

Heh, wonders never cease. Odo chuckled to himself. He still remembered the frightened Andorian boy who helped him identify the Yridians behind a fabric counterfeiting ring. I guess he truly was serious about being a security chief.

Odo's gaze wandered to Garak's Clothiers. Mannequins displaying uniforms, formalwear and casual wear offered hints at what waited inside. Odo spent a moment examining the Bajoran dress in the central display. A simple spaghetti-strap gown made of red satin overlaid by a gold lace jacket reaching to the floor.

Then she stepped off the turbolift, and the rest of the Promenade ceased to exist.

General Kira Nerys looked as beautiful as Odo remembered. The natural lines on her face had deepened over the years, but her eyes still gleamed like flames behind stained glass. She'd grown her hair long again, judging by the bun at the nape of her neck. Her auburn locks showed hints of silver around her temples. She wore an elaborate blue Bajoran militia uniform. Everything about her exuded strength.

"General." Malath saluted her.

"Copper," Kira replied with a smile.

They went their opposite ways-- Malath on patrol, and Kira towards the turbolift leading to Ops.

Odo spotted a human florist setting up her booth below. Malath checked her permit before resuming his watch over the Promenade.

Odo turned, walking right past Doctor Mora and Kejal without either of them recognizing him. Their conversation filtered to his ears.

"You know how Odo is," said Doctor Mora. "He'll turn up, don't worry."

"I hope so...he's so good at shape shifting now. He could walk right past us without us knowing."

The irony almost made Odo laugh inwardly. His gaze went to the displays being set up by the florist. Her most expensive bouquet was a single white Andorian rose surrounded by four green orchids fresh off Qo'noS, five orange tulips from Ferenginar and six red Vulcan sun blossoms. White baby's breath filled in all the empty spaces between the flowers. Keeping all of them alive for delivery required heavy genetic engineering. Especially those thorny orchids, which only grew in toxic, acidic environments near volcanoes.

Kira wouldn't like the distraction of something so colorful in her office, no matter how pretty it was.

Odo purchased a Deltan rose from the florist. Then he headed for the nearest air vent, pressed the vivid purple rose into his substance and oozed inside the ventilation system. Three left turns. Straight up. Another left. Down.

A large, artificial tree near the door gave Odo just the cover he needed to resume his humanoid shape. He chose the same tuxedo he 'wore' when he said goodbye to Kira nearly thirty years ago. The rose popped out of his substance and into his hand.

The doors hissed open. Kira walked through. Everything in Odo's chest contracted into a point smaller than dust. He felt the rhythmic vibrations of her footsteps. The wind from her passing caressed him. She tossed a PADD onto her desk, dropped herself into her chair and exhaled. Her eyes remained closed-- she always started her workday by meditating and that habit hadn't changed.

Silent as a shadow, Odo positioned himself in front of her desk. His fluid interior churned like heated broth. If he had a heart it would be pounding itself out of his chest.

Kira opened her eyes. Her pupils equalized. She blinked.

Odo held out the rose. He watched her breathing quicken. Her beautiful brown eyes reddened around the edges. She did not take her gaze off him when she accepted the rose.

Finally, as her tears nearly overflowed onto her cheeks, she whispered, "Odo?"

Odo offered the bright smile he only saved for her. "Hello, Nerys."

Kira smelled the rose, set it down and stood up. She spoke again, breathless. "Odo?"

"In the flesh." Odo gestured at his face. "I got better at shape shifting."

Kira smiled through her tears-- Odo swore every sun in the galaxy shone on her face-- and rushed around her desk to embrace him. His whole body rejoiced in her familiar touch.

"You look beautiful," he whispered, holding her tight. They hugged that way for a full minute, neither wanting to move. Finally, Kira drew back a few inches.

"And you have nose ridges!" She laughed, straightened his bow tie and cupped his cheeks in her hands. "Your skin is so...and your hair-- Odo, you look amazing."

Their foreheads touched. Her breath drove his senses crazy. His emotions ran wild. The years hadn't erased a single iota of his love for her.

Odo brushed away the teardrop still clinging stubbornly to her lower eyelid. "I've missed you, Nerys."

Kira licked her lips. "Me too."

He mirrored her action. Just when he started to make a move, she grabbed the lapels of his tuxedo jacket and kissed him full on the mouth. Thirty years fell away in a single sizzling second. His internal liquidness rippled with the ecstasy only her touch could bring him. She left him gasping when he didn't need to breathe.

"Thank you for the rose," Kira whispered in his ear.

Odo finally remembered how to exhale. "Y-you're, uh, you're welcome."

She giggled and kissed him again. This time he was more prepared and slipped his arms around her waist, pulling her close. His eyes burned and his throat felt full, but mimicking the action of swallowing made both sensations fade.

"Kejal is here on the station too," he said.

"Really?" Kira's eyes lit up. "I was always sorry I never got to meet him-- or her? --in person. Everything was so hectic after the Dominion war. I'm surprised I had time to blink." She checked the ship's manifest on her PADD. "I see Doctor Mora also came. This is quite a reunion! What's the occasion?"

Odo took her hands. She'd painted her nails deep red like her uniform. The veins beneath the skin were more prominent than he remembered. He rubbed them with his thumbs, watching them flatten and refill under his touch. Her palms felt a tiny bit scratchy.

"Doctor Mora is terminally ill," Odo said quietly. "He came to the Founders' homeworld for his final journey off Bajor. I couldn't let him go home alone to die."

"Oh." Kira's expression sobered. "I'm so sorry to hear that. How are you taking it?"

"I...never expected it to happen like this." He shook his head. "Kejal gets upset if we talk about it. Doctor Mora is the only one who seems to have it together."

She nodded slowly, not letting him pull away. "How long does he have?"

"Two months. He is in the last stages of Delfeya syndrome."

At that, her hands closed more tightly around his. A gesture of quiet understanding. She was so strong, and he drank in her strength like soil after a rainstorm.

"When will you be leaving for Bajor?" asked Kira.

"Doctor Mora's ship is refueling at the moment, so I'd venture to guess around three or four hours. It depends on how much Kejal wants to explore." Odo managed a small smile. "Would you like to meet him?"

"Him?" Kira's eyes twinkled. "Odo, I'd love to."

Odo nodded once, resolute. "Computer, locate Doctor Mora Pol and Kejal."

The computer beeped. "Doctor Mora Pol and Kejal are in the Celestial Cafe."

Without a word, Odo shape shifted his attire into a black and brown Bajoran travel robe with fitted pants and knee high boots. Walking around the station in a tuxedo would draw too many stares.

"Shall we?" He offered Kira his arm.

Kira looped her arm through his, smiling. "Let's go surprise them."

.o

Chalan Aroya had to be the loveliest woman Kejal ever set eyes on. She didn't look her age at all. And she made the color purple appear absolutely spectacular.

"Kejal," Mora chuckled, "What are you up to?"

"I think I'm going to test how good I am." Kejal replied, smirking. "I can make her blush in three seconds."

Mora folded his hands and shot Kejal a teasing look. "I'll be timing you on that."

"She's coming."

"Here you go, Mister Mora. One plate of hasperat and one mug of deka tea." Chalan set Mora's items down and turned to Kejal. "So, you're a Founder? What brings you here?"

Kejal leaned back, draping his arm over the back of his chair and looking her squarely in the eyes. "Yes, ma'am, and I came to sweep you off your feet. I'm afraid I'd have to shape shift into you if someone asked me to shape shift 'beautiful.'"

Across the table, Mora almost spat out his tea.

Chalan's cheeks turned rosy. She tittered, tilting her head. "Oh, a flirt! It's been awhile since I had a flirt in here."

"That's a shame." Kejal winked at her, and she walked away giggling. He looked across the table at Mora. "Time?"

Mora tapped his combadge. "Three point one seconds."

"Argh! You can round that down to three."

"That would be cheating."

"You're no fun," Kejal chided playfully. "How's it taste?"

Mora took a bite of his hasperat. His eyes watered instantly, a sign it was made right. "Oof! Whew!" He shook his head. "I think my chest hairs are on fire."

Kejal laughed, "How ab-- "

"Excuse me." A blue hand settled on Kejal's shoulder. "You're under arrest for trespassing on my station."

"Malath!" Kejal practically launched himself off his chair. He slapped the Andorian on the back. "Whoever reported me is drunk."

Malath chuckled and offered Mora a polite nod. "Doctor."

"Malath," Mora nodded back. "How have you been?"

"Just fine, sir. I'm on duty and I can't stay, but I wanted to pass through and say hello to the gelatinous interloper." Malath elbowed Kejal in the side. "Computer dom-jot later for old time's sake?"

"Count on it. You're going to get hustled." Kejal said to Malath. "Why don't you hand over your virtual credits now and save yourself the agony?"

"Never!" Malath snickered.

"When are you going to bet your sister's underwear?"

The Andorian mocked offense. "Vara's underwear are not and will never be on the table, you perverted jelly doughnut!"

"She used to flash them at me!" Kejal grinned.

"No, the wind blew her skirt up and you know it." Malath smirked. Turning, he respectfully regarded Mora. "Take care of yourself, and may the Prophets aid your journey."

"Thank you," Mora dipped his head politely.

"I'll be waiting for those undies." Kejal whistled.

Malath shot back a sharp, but not serious glare and headed out to finish his patrol.

Kejal sank into his chair again. His shoulders slumped when he saw Mora dose himself with a hypospray. He busied himself by shredding an unused napkin one strip at a time.

"I can't imagine life without you. I won't imagine it."

"You went without me for twenty years." Mora pointed out. He wiped his mouth on a crumpled napkin, which had the Celestial Cafe logo in the corner. The spice in the hasperat caused beads of sweat to break out in the lines on his forehead.

Kejal shook his head. "That's different."

"In what way?"

"I knew you were still there."

"Ah." Mora patted the empty chair on his side of the table. He put an arm around Kejal once he'd switched seats. "I'll be even closer to you afterward, Kejal."

"How? Your body will be buried. Your pagh will go to the Celestial Temple."

"True." Mora held up one finger. "But I won't be gone from you. Not completely. All you have to do is remember, and I'll be right there."

Kejal lowered his head and picked at his fingernails. Voices outside prompted him to look towards the cafe door. Odo walked in at a leisurely pace. A lovely and very familiar Bajoran woman stood at his side.

"Mother." Kejal swallowed his sullen mood behind a smile. He recognized the woman on sight, but he waited politely for a proper introduction.

Odo placed his hand on the woman's shoulder. "Nerys, this is Kejal. Kejal, this is General Kira Nerys."

"Oh...Odo said you looked just like he used to, but he didn't say how much." Kira reached out, and Kejal leaned into her embrace. She gave good, strong hugs. "I love that hair color...how did you do that?"

Kejal backed away and rubbed at his waxy hair. "I matched your hair and eyes from memory when I took humanoid form."

She looked at Odo. Then back at Kejal. Her eyebrows went up. "You almost look like you're ours."

"That was the idea," Kejal laughed.

"It was remarkable," Mora added, setting aside his tea mug. "He didn't have any trouble taking a humanoid shape once he acquired the skill to do it. Odo had to work at it, and then I had to teach him how to walk, talk and form proper clothing...but Kejal just did it all one day."

Kira smiled a little at that.

Odo practically rolled his eyes out of his head. "Yes, because I started with nothing, and Kejal didn't. I gave him the basics before I handed him over to Doctor Mora."

"You and mother...you were the first faces I saw. Mother's emotions towards you were strong during my birth." Kejal explained. He met Kira's gaze. "I chose to look like the love you two share. Does it bother you?"

"No! Not at all. I feel so honored." Kira hugged him again. "I think of you every year on your birthday."

Kejal spared a glance at Mora, who seemed slightly distracted. The Bajoran scientist pushed himself upright and grabbed his cane.

"Would you excuse me? I need to use the facilities."

"Oh, of course." Kira stepped aside, letting him pass. "Do you need any help?"

Mora smiled kindly. "Thank you, but I'm fine."

Kejal watched Mora walk towards the door near the main counter. Mora favored his left leg heavily, and stopped twice to lean fully on his cane before he entered the restroom.

"I've never known him to be sick." Kejal whispered.

He felt Kira scoot closer. She exchanged looks with Odo. "It's never easy."

Sighing, Kejal shook himself into a more pleasant state of mind. "So...Kira, may I call you mom?"

"Mom?" Kira raised a brow while her eyes danced in amusement. "Isn't that Odo?"

"He's mother-- he gave birth to me." Kejal ignored Odo's annoyed grunt. "Pol is my father as far as raising me. But you're special to mother." He started to laugh upon realizing he made no sense. "I can't call you both mother...not without confusing you two. Your face was one of the first ones I saw. That makes you family to me. Like having two mothers."

She chuckled and squeezed his hand. "Kejal, you're so sweet! I-- yes...I'm honored to be 'mom' to you."

He beamed and hugged her. I know how much mother loves you...and by the look of it, you do too.

"I'm sorry, what?" Odo's voice pulled Kejal out of his thoughts.

A Vulcan patron at the restaurant stopped next to Odo. "The gentleman from your table is ill in the waste extraction facility," he said.

"Thank you, I'll attend him now. Excuse me." Odo hurried towards the facilities.

Kejal followed with Kira on his heels. They found Mora bent over the sink. His travel jacket, his mouth and the silver floor tiles were splattered with dark crimson stains. He shivered violently and his skin was pale. The sink looked like a murder scene.

"Kira to Bashir. We need an emergency transport to the Infirmary."

Odo seized Mora's cane. Mora heaved a millisecond before the group beamed. The bloody vomit splattered on the floor immediately after materialization.

"Oh! I'm so sor-- " Mora gurgled a second time. Odo shoved a metal cleaning container under his face to catch the emesis.

"Get him on the biobed!" Bashir ordered. He delivered something by hypospray that stopped the retching and ran a tricorder scan. Mora laid back, wiping unsuccessfully at the blood on his mouth. Somebody lowered the sensor array over the biobed.

"Father..." Kejal turned away from the horrifying scene. "No, no, no!"

"Shhh, Kejal," Kira wrapped an arm around his shoulders.

"Okay, I found it. An artery in his stomach burst. I'm repairing it now." Bashir glanced up as Mora's vitals stabilized and the shivering stopped. "Bajorans can't digest their own blood at all. And it looks like his posterior spleen and both kidneys are inflamed due to poor perfusion."

"He has Delfeya syndrome," Odo said.

"That explains a lot. Heck of a way to say hello." Bashir made a face that emphasized the wrinkles around his eyes. He ran a hand through his gray-streaked hair. "He'll be all right for now. What did he eat before this happened?"

"Hasperat," Kejal choked out. "He loves the stuff."

"Well, it doesn't love him anymore. The spices are burning through his stomach lining. Gastric erosion is a common issue with this disease." Bashir frowned at his tricorder readings. "Computer, lock onto the contents of the patient's stomach and duodenum and transport them to waste extraction."

The computer beeped. "Transport complete."

"No, no..." Kejal whispered again.

Kira squeezed his shoulders. "Hey, he's okay now."

"It's my fault. I suggested the Celestial Cafe because I know they serve the hasperat extra spicy."

"You didn't know this would happen." Odo joined them, giving Bashir room to work. "You did nothing wrong."

Kejal watched a redheaded human nurse wash the blood off Mora's face. She unclasped his bloodstained travel jacket and somehow slid it off his body without disturbing him. He wore just a gauzy black tunic underneath.

"He has medical hyposprays in his pocket." Kejal pointed out.

The nurse extracted the loose hypo and the case. She set them on the tray beside the biobed. "Thanks."

Mora's jacket went into the replicator for a quick cleaning. The nurse draped it over a chair afterward.

Kejal's hands shuddered. He couldn't erase the nightmarish images from his mind. The harder he tried to forget, the more vivid they came to him. His skin glistened and he felt his form losing cohesion.

"Mother...I can't hold my shape."

"Come here." Odo seated himself on the floor and Kejal melted onto his chest. He clung to him like glue in his gelatinous state.

"Is he all right?" Kira asked.

Odo grunted and replied, "Kejal has always been a sensitive person. He's lived a sheltered life compared to the others of our kind. I was much like him when I first left Doctor Mora's facility. When you look at him and watch him fly a ship, you can easily forget how young he is. For all intents and purposes, he is still a child."

"Like you when we met," she whispered.

"Yes...and the Occupation forced me to mature quickly. I wanted better for him and he got it. Everything I wanted for him. Doctor Mora did well."

Kejal took comfort in his mother's familiar voice. It was the first sound he remembered sensing. Odo's fingers stroked through his substance until his terror became manageable.

Father will be all right. He has two months...no, dammit my father will live forever. Parents never die...
End Notes:

***Soundtrack for this chapter***

Kejal's Nebula: https://app.box.com/shared/3i0euceriz

A Lover's Reunion: https://app.box.com/s/0yoj0whu1l4kn05z3f0j

Mora's Collapse: https://app.box.com/s/jthx5euxxemfpxxp4g45
3. Songs of Life by Cyndi
.o

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3. Songs of Life

.o

.o

.o

.o

His medical doctor was a bearded man by the name of Doctor Lenen Kez. He only came up to Mora's elbow when they stood side by side. Dwarfism was rare among Bajorans, but he happened to have it and it never impeded him.

The weight of his gaze pieced the distance across his desk. He opened the file and showed Mora the colored graphs marking his genes.

"There is no easy way to say this," said Doctor Lenen. "It's Delfeya syndrome. It can be treated, but there is no cure."

Mora frowned at the graph. "Delfeya syndrome. I've heard of it, but I haven't studied it. What do you know about it?"

Doctor Lenen's dark eyes flickered. "I can connect you with the latest research and help you educate yourself on it. But in the simplest terms, your blood vessels are weakening and your body is losing its ability to produce new red blood cells."

"Is it fatal?" Mora asked.

"Yes, eventually. Delfeya syndrome is a terminal disease. There are drugs to manage the pain and fatigue, and if you choose to treat it, the treatments will slow its progress considerably. You may survive up to five years."

Closing his eyes, Mora sucked air in through his teeth and stood up. "I have to give a lecture in thirty minutes. I need to go. Thank you, doctor."

He didn't wait for Doctor Lenen to bid him farewell..

That day, it was sunny and hot-- a brutal midsummer with record high temperatures.

Mora cursed out loud all the way to the Bajoran Institute for Science building. Once there, he washed his face, put a lab coat on over his sweat-stained clothes and gave a lecture on genetics to a classroom full of fifty eager students.

At the conclusion of the lesson, he locked himself in his office and made the computer tell him everything about Delfeya syndrome. It included detailed autopsy images. His eyes narrowed at the pictures of necrotic kidneys, spleens and digestive organs.

"...and depending on which organs fail first, the progress of Delfeya syndrome often varies. Sufferers whose heart and lungs are affected first often die within a month, but this is rare. Even rarer is damage to the brain, which results in paralysis and dementia. The organs most commonly affected first are-- "

"Enough." Mora held his head in his hands. "Computer, stop."

Someone rang his office door chime. The three-tone buzz startled him.

"Yes?"

"Doctor Mora, sir, it's Doctor Weld. May I enter?"

Mora sighed and let his colleague in.

Doctor Weld didn't waste any time cutting to the chase.

"You looked unwell. I came to see if you're all right."

"Oh, I'm fine. Doctor Lenen made a mistake. I'm sure of it." Mora waved a hand. "I'm going to have a second opinion soon. It's probably a virus."

The other scientist quirked an eyebrow.

"The testing is too extensive for something as simple as a virus."

"I'm an old man, what do you expect?" Mora shrugged and clapped his colleague on the shoulder. "At least it isn't a brain leech!"

Three weeks later, he had his diagnosis confirmed by a second doctor. The experimental treatments began five days after that office visit. Once a week, he sat alone in a sterile room while hyposprays injected chemicals into his bloodstream. An hour later, people smeared a cold, clear gel all over his skin. Head to toe. Then he stood naked between two emitters cut exactly to his size while radiation bombarded his cells. Radioactive particles attached onto the chemicals injected into his bloodstream and "switched off" the genes responsible for Delfeya syndrome.

Mora's health paid the price. Radiation sickness became a bothersome side effect. Someone said his hair would fall out. It didn't, it just turned gray prematurely. He went for days without eating due to the horrendous vomiting. His sustenance became vitamin injections through hyposprays. He lost almost twenty pounds in the first month.

Everything turned into a medical procedure. Day in, day out, he endured the poking, prodding, indignities and exams. Most of the time, the assistants never said a word to him. Their heads were too wrapped up in research and they rarely looked up from their PADDS.

Once a treatment completed, the technicians helped him into a shower and scrubbed the gel off his body.

Mora felt like a lab specimen. He longed for a kind smile or a gentle touch. Something that wasn't so cold and clinical.

Now he knew why Odo left. Mora wanted to leave! To walk away from everything, but he couldn't give up. Studies were ongoing-- many said a cure could develop anytime. He had to stay alive for that!

Time became Mora's enemy, and the therapy only offered a stopgap against the inevitable. As he aged, more and more of his cells produced the malfunctioning genes, and the side effects slowly chipped away his resolve.

Six years passed. Doctor Lenen was surprised to find Mora still alive. Bedridden and pale, but alive.

"I never do what people expect of me," Mora tried to joke.

The aging doctor didn't laugh.

Seven years after his diagnosis, Mora was forced to retire from the Science Institute. Doctor Weld took over his position.

Ten years post-diagnosis, with his body too weak to turn over in bed, Mora listened to his final defeat.

"No change. We'll have to up the radiation output. Unfortunately, you'll face more pain and nausea."

It was all over. The treatment had become worse than the illness. He couldn't take it anymore. His quality of life slipped away every time he dragged himself into the medical facility.

This wasn't life. He refused to endure such torture all the way until his last breath.

"No." Mora managed to say. "No more...I can't live like this. No more. Please. I'm done."

The technician, a stout man by the name of Nelarn, said to him, "If you stop the treatments now, you will die in less than three months."

Mora heard himself begging, "Please...I'll accept whatever happens without treatment. I'm done. I'm finished. I don't want to die miserable like this. I'm going to get my affairs in order. Let me die at home in my own bed. Please, no more. No more of this. I want to go home..."

And so he went home. It took only a month for him to regain his strength and the weight he lost. He spent three days looking at his holograms of Odo and Kejal and praying for wisdom. Prayer-- something he neglected often during his years as a scientist and professor.

Mora dreamed of a familiar planet. The Prophets themselves had told him where to take his final journey off Bajor.

He didn't tell anyone about his imminent departure. He left his home during a freezing rainstorm that chilled his bones. His shuttle took off on a course destined for the Founders' homeworld.


The memory faded when Mora's dark blue eyes snapped open.

Dull pain spread through his lower back and abdomen. He reached blindly for his pocket only to find no coat on his body.

Mora groaned and lifted his head.

"Ah! Easy, sir. Welcome back." A redheaded human nurse appeared at his bedside. She smiled compassionately, "My name is Alice and I'm your nurse. You're in the Infirmary. What do you need?"

"My metorapan. The loose hypospray next to my medicine case." Mora curled his lips off his teeth as the vice-like pressure crawled up his spine. "Ooh, please hurry. The dose-- should be-- mmh-- should be-- pre-programmed."

The hypospray hissed and the agony shrank from unbearable to a mere nuisance.

"Mm, thank you so much, Alice." Mora sighed. "I suppose that was my last taste of hasperat."

Lately, there were many lasts.

"Doctor Mora?"

Mora turned towards the familiar gravelly voice. Odo approached his bedside. In his hands he cradled a plastic container full of golden fluid.

Eugh, Kejal must have been in dire need if he's regenerating in a wash basin!

"How are you feeling?" asked Odo.

"Oh, as good as can be expected. I'll live for now." Mora waved his hand. "Where is Kira?" He let Alice scan his vitals before she walked away to tend a Bolian in the other bed.

"She had to get back to her office," said Odo. His face softened. "By the way, Doctor Mora, you were right."

Mora raised both eyebrows and chuckled. "I told you so."

Odo's lips quirked. Then his expression sobered and he set the basin down on the edge of the biobed. "Kejal thinks he caused this."

"Nonsense."

"I know...but try telling him that."

"It's only going to get more difficult as time goes on." Mora licked his lips, frowning when he tasted the coppery remains of blood on them.

"I think he's afraid to see you get sick." Odo stretched out his hand, hesitated and laid it on top of Mora's. "You were always so active. Everything was a new discovery."

"The discoveries haven't stopped, they changed. But I agree, these last ten years taught me how to sit still." Mora fixed his eyes on Odo's. "What about you, Odo?"

"Hm?"

"How do you feel right now?"

Odo suddenly found interest in everything else in the room. "I...just want to make sure you stay comfortable."

"You're evading the question."

"I don't know! I don't know what to feel!" Odo snapped.

"Shhh...Odo, Odo, relax. I'm sorry. I won't prod."

Sighing, Odo let his shoulders slump. "You seem to be handling this better than all of us."

Mora rested his other hand atop Odo's. "I didn't in the beginning. I spent years expecting a cure to appear within the next six months. I researched everything. I tried the experimental treatments. My genes were destined to give me Delfeya syndrome the moment I was conceived in my mother's womb." He shrugged one shoulder. "We didn't know when the disease would outrun the treatments, but we knew it was going to happen."

"Life is all about waiting games. Giving birth, for example...that was one hell of a waiting game." Odo shot Mora a knowing look.

Mora faced Odo more fully and squeezed his hand. "Dying is similar to birth. Sometimes it's easy, and sometimes it takes a struggle to achieve the end result. I remember-- when I first walked into the room while you were in labor, you were suffering...you were gasping for air."

"Yes...I was exhausted, and the pressure in my chest made it difficult to relax."

"But you did it, even though it hurt at first." Mora said simply. Odo tried to pull his hand free, but Mora wouldn't let go. "Birth pains serve a purpose, and so do dying pains."

"How can the pain of dying serve anything?" Odo gestured to the table, "How does this mean anything to you other than it feels awful?"

"When Kejal was born, did you even think about the pain you endured before you relaxed?"

"No. I could only think of him."

"You see?" Mora's eyes twinkled. "Think that way of me, too. Think of my impending freedom...not my suffering."

"Easier said than done."

Laughing, Mora slapped Odo's forearm. "You never change, do you?"

"I don't see how this is funny."

"But it is! If you don't laugh, you cry." Mora said. He pushed himself into a sitting position and waved off Odo's attempts to make him lay down again. "This biobed is set up for someone shorter than I am. It's starting to hurt my back. I think it's a sign that I should head for home. Would you be so kind as to get Doctor Bashir's attention?"

"Hmph." Odo grunted. "Just don't try to stand up until you're cleared."

"I can't go anywhere without my cane."

"Good."

Mora could only shake his head as Odo left to locate Bashir. He picked up the basin full of Kejal and set it in his lap.

"Situations like this are never easy, Kejal," he murmured to the golden liquid. The lines in his face deepened. "Ah, let's not dwell on the sadness. I'm glad you're coming home with me again. You'll be pleased to know the canopy of your deka tree is as wide as my house now. Can you believe it?"

The liquid in the basin bubbled slightly. Regenerating Changelings remained aware of the world around them-- they didn't appear to sleep in the same sense as a solid humanoid.

"I'm sure you're experiencing a lot of emotions right now." Mora continued. "Whatever you do, don't run from them."

He set the basin aside and laid himself down on his side. Without intending to, he dozed off. He woke again to the sound of the doors whizzing open.

"Ugh." Mora pushed himself to sit up once more. He'd napped for approximately thirty minutes.

"So sorry about the delay. I was in in surgery." Bashir bustled into the room with Odo close behind. "Feeling better are we?"

Mora nodded without hesitation. "My stomach isn't bothering me at all now."

"I see." Bashir's brow furrowed when he studied his tricorder screen. "Scans indicate no further blood loss." He closed the tricorder with a click and handed Mora a container of white capsules. "It's going to take a few days for your stomach lining to heal. Until then, take one of these once a day to reduce the acidity in your stomach. I'm sorry to say you'll have to avoid the heavier spices if you don't want a repeat of this."

Mora narrowed his eyes at the triangular bottle. Yet another medication to add to his list. He placed it in the case with his hyposprays. "Understood. I'm sorry to take up your time like this."

"It's no problem." Bashir smiled and crossed his arms. "Deka tea is also good for heartburn, but your blood chemistry tells me you're already an avid drinker of the stuff."

"Mmhmm. I like to tell doctors not to worry about the blood in my tea stream." Mora joked. He regarded the younger man seriously. "Thank you, Julian."

"You're welcome." Bashir offered his hand for a handshake. "Take care of yourself, Pol, and good luck."

"You, too." Mora accepted the polite gesture. "Ready, Odo?"

Odo grunted the affirmative.

Doctor Bashir said, "By the way, Odo, you look fantastic. I almost didn't recognize you. It's good to see you again, and I'm happy things turned out well for Kejal."

Odo glanced at Bashir. "Thank you...you look quite distinguished in your old age."

"Tch, oh please, you should see Quark. He's a prune."

"No. I'm going straight to the shuttle after this."

Mora laughed heartily at hearing Odo's dour refusal. He let Bashir help him to his feet and slipped his arms through the sleeves of his travel jacket. Odo handed the cane over, picked up Kejal's basin and rudely walked out of the Infirmary without another word.

"Some people never change," Bashir remarked with a shake of his head.

"He's still in shock." Mora said. "Thank you again, doctor. Dying on a waste facility floor wasn't my idea of a dignified end."

He knew Bashir could appreciate his morbid humor. The doctor's quiet chortling followed him as he made his way onto the Promenade. Being forced to use a cane meant walking slower, and moving slower meant he saw more of the world around him.

A young human couple held hands near one of the observation windows. Two Ferengi quarreled about their mothers. A Vulcan child peered intently at her educational PADD.

And Kejal stood outside the Celestial Cafe, talking quietly to Chalan. Unlike earlier, he wore a neutral expression even as his gaze remained riveted to the lovely Bajoran woman's face.

"...but he's all right. There he is. Father!" Kejal waved.

Chalan turned, and the sad light in her eyes let Mora know Kejal told her of his condition. He'd grown so accustomed to the pitying look people gave him that he didn't bother getting annoyed by it.

"I'm so sorry about what happened." Chalan said. "I've already refunded your account."

"Oh, thank you, but it wasn't necessary." Mora leaned on his cane and chuckled. "Nobody pushed the hasperat down my throat."

Chalan smiled fondly at him. "That's true. Ah, I hope this doesn't come across as too forward...my dearest friend is a palliative care nurse on Bajor. Kejal mentioned you wish to remain in your home, and she does in-home care." She handed him a napkin with a name written near the logo.

Mora quirked an eyebrow when he read it. Aleexa...interesting name.

"I know you'll like her right away." Chalan's face became serious. "She cared for my father in his final days. She is extremely spiritual, a great cook and she listens to everyone who needs to talk." She nodded slightly towards Kejal, "She might be good for him, too."

Her kindness warmed Mora's heart. He dipped his head in thanks. "You're too kind, Miss Chalan. Thank you for this. I'll definitely take her into account."

"Wonderful. Good luck to you. Now...you, young man," she turned to Kejal and lightly kissed his cheek. "Take care of your father."

Kejal's eyes nearly popped out of their approximated sockets. Chalan giggled. He touched his face after she slipped back into the restaurant.

"She...she kissed me!"

Mora laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. "Aren't you supposed to be a charmer?"

"But she-- she--" Kejal straightened, pouting. "I had a lapse, that's all!"

Words couldn't express how much Mora missed Kejal's screwball sense of humor. He prodded him with his cane. "You're too much. Heh, heh, we best get to the shuttle. No doubt Odo is getting impatient."

Together, they headed towards the nearest turbolift.

.o

"I was about to come looking for you." Odo said gruffly. "I've been waiting for twenty minutes."

"Sorry." Kejal replied without any real remorse.

"Kejal was letting Chalan Aroya know I'm all right," said Doctor Mora. He eased himself into the seat next to the science station. "She was concerned."

"Hmph."

The airlock hissed shut. Odo checked the seal and found it secure.

"Shuttlecraft two-five-one, you are clear for departure to Bajor."

Kejal said, "Acknowledged."

Odo kept his hands in his lap and let the computer guide the ship safely away from Deep Space Nine's docking ring.

Kejal reached for the PADD sitting on the control panel. Computerized dom-jot appeared on the screen. "Oh, here we go." He smirked, "Prepare to suffer, Malath!"

"We're being hailed," said Doctor Mora.

Odo sighed. "Onscreen."

His dark mood lifted a little upon seeing Kira's face. He managed a faint smile. "General."

"Constable," Kira said affectionately. "I rearranged my schedule. I'll be able to come down to Bajor in a week."

"Oh? I'm glad to hear it." Odo ignored Kejal and Doctor Mora's exchanged smiles of approval. "I look forward to seeing you again. I apologize for my swift departure."

"Odo, don't. I understand. It's okay." Kira glanced offscreen. She scrunched her nose in the cute way that made Odo's internal fluids ripple and returned her attention to him. "I have a meeting in ten minutes, so I need to end this communication. It's good to see you again, Odo...it really is. Kejal, Doctor Mora, try not to get into trouble."

"Malath is the one in trouble." Kejal snickered. "He's still awful at dom-jot."

"Don't mind him." Doctor Mora raised his hand in a polite wave. "We will all see you on Bajor later."

Nodding in agreement, Odo prepared to end the communication. "Good luck, Nerys. Odo out."

Odo overrode the autopilot sequence and took the shuttle around Deep Space Nine. He felt rather than saw Doctor Mora watching the viewscreen.

This is the last time he will see the station, Odo thought. I went so long without him in my life. Now, he is about to leave it forever. Why does this situation feel so different?

"Tch, look at this, mother!" Kejal waved his PADD at Odo. "I'm clobbering him."

"Yes, very nice." Odo said without really paying attention.

Deep Space Nine's spires danced against the stars. Its lights were millions of tiny eyes peering into the universe.

Odo focused on the helm controls. "I'm taking us into warp."

Humanoids couldn't feel a ship accelerate into warp due to the inertial dampeners, but Odo always sensed it. He enjoyed the slight compression in his substance.

"This is incredible!" Doctor Mora exclaimed. "The Vorta are quite detail oriented, aren't they?"

"To an annoying degree." Kejal replied. "They must have the DNA and default humanoid profiles of every Founder on the homeworld."

"Remarkable...Odo, have you gone over any of this?"

"A little."

Odo heard Doctor Mora flip open his little case of hyposprays. He didn't know which one was being used, nor did he turn to find out. Afterward, Doctor Mora replicated a small dish of salad topped in Bajoran shrimp.

"Computer, larish pie," Odo said. Swiveling his chair to face Doctor Mora, he picked up the fork, cut off a small piece of the pie and ate it. He still couldn't taste or smell, but he didn't mind the pie's rough texture.

"You can eat?" Doctor Mora's eyes lit up.

"Mm." Odo swallowed. "It's only the appearance of eating-- I'm incapable of mimicking digestion. I create a pocket to hold food or fluids, and later I discretely pass them out of my body in the same condition they went in." He took another bite, swallowed it without chewing and encased it inside a small vacuole at the back of his throat. Then he willed it to circulate down his arm. All at once, the piece of pie he just consumed reappeared on his palm looking exactly like it did on the fork.

"Mother!" Kejal made a face.

Odo ignored his son's posturing. "I still can't taste anything...but people seem to be more comfortable around me when they see me eat. Someday, Kejal will be able to do this as well."

"Oh..." At that, Doctor Mora set his salad dish down in his lap and brought his hands together. "You've come so far. Just when I think nothing more can amaze me, you do just that."

Why did Doctor Mora's approval mean so much now? Usually the scientist's compliments grated on him. Odo shook his head. He excused himself to dispose of the food matter via a replicator in the communal sleeping quarters.

"Father, what season is it on Bajor right now?"

"It's about to become spring, which is a relief. The rainy winters make my knee hurt like you wouldn't believe."

"Ouch." Kejal chuckled. "And Malath has surrendered. Ha!"

Doctor Mora joined in. "You and your dom-jot."

Odo leaned on the edge of the doorframe where the others couldn't see him. Kejal and Doctor Mora got along so well. Odo could scarcely believe the strong, choking emotion sprouting like weeds in his mind.

Jealous of my own offspring? Ridiculous! I wanted him to have a better life than I had! Kejal is still like I was before it all went wrong. He is so free. Hmph! I thought I'd grown beyond such pettiness.

Odo dared peek around the corner. Doctor Mora sat at the helm now, telling Kejal a story about a science experiment gone haywire. Kejal was seated on the floor at his feet, looking up with a smile.

"...and when I poured in the sulfur pellet-- boom! Foam everywhere. I tasted rotten eggs for weeks."

Kejal threw his head back when he laughed. "Oh...remember that failed hasperat souffle? I tried to clean it up before you returned home."

"Oh, Prophets." Doctor Mora snickered. "The look on your face when I walked in-- classic!" He sobered, looking towards the viewscreen. "Odo never had mishaps like that. He only saw my house once in all the time I worked with him."

"Mother isn't angry about the lab anymore."

"True, but he carries the pain and resentment of it everywhere he goes. He hides it well, but I can see it."

Odo pressed the door switch so he didn't have to hear more. He released his solid form and slid down the wall onto the cold, carpeted floor. Once in his liquid state, he oozed into the middle of the room and turned his awareness inward.

About an hour later, he sensed the door opening and the vibration of three appendages touching the ground.

"Oh, Odo, I'm sorry if I'm disturbing you. I need to rest for awhile." Doctor Mora's voice lightened, he was smiling as he spoke. "Don't worry, I won't talk."

Odo perceived Doctor Mora climbing onto the bunk. Within twenty minutes he detected the regular vibrations of snoring.

He slithered towards the sound. Doctor Mora always slept on his right side. The sleeping scientist faced outward, his right hand folded beneath his head and the left one dangling off the bunk. He'd propped his cane against the wall nearby.

Silently, Odo made his way onto the bunk and morphed into a fleece blanket. He focused solely on the regular breathing and steady heartbeat of his former mentor. Every sound, even the snores, burned themselves into his memory.

I can't imagine his last breath, Odo thought. I can't imagine it.

Doctor Mora's snoring paused, making Odo tense up. After a moment, it restarted with a vengeance. All Bajorans snored because their nasal passages narrowed under their nose ridges. Kira's snores sounded like purring. Doctor Mora's sounded like one of those two wheeled motor vehicles Doctor Bashir rode in a holosuite program. What were they called again? Harlequin Devil-sons?

Odo mentally shook the head he didn't have at the moment and let his awareness turn inward once again.

Doctor Mora slept until Kejal landed the ship. Odo slid off and reformed before gently waking him to disembark.

.o

It was the middle of the night and quite chilly.

"We timed that well, didn't we?" Kejal shouted over the driving rain pouring down outside the space port. "This is the best microburst I've ever seen. Wow!"

Strong wind howled past the platform. Kejal didn't mind getting wet, but Odo and Mora scooted back.

"I hate rain," Odo groused. He wiped the water droplets off his sleeves. "Where is that damn hover tram?"

"Here it comes." Mora pointed with his cane.

"Kejal, get out of the rain!"

"Calm down, mother! Water never killed anyone."

The white and red vehicle descended from the second level of the space port. A ramp extended out of its side to allow Kejal, Mora and Odo aboard. Rain pattered against its metal surface.

The driver asked, "Where to?"

"My home." Mora replied. He gave the driver the coordinates to his residence.

"I missed the rain." Kejal remarked. He lacked a sense of smell, but he could feel the dampness in the air when he inhaled through his nose.

"I don't," Odo grumbled. "Ugh, Kejal, you're soaked!"

"So what?"

Mora lifted a hand. "Ah, leave him be, Odo. He loves rain."

"Hmph!"

Kejal sobered. Taking Odo's hand, he closed his eyes and let his own arm melt. Mother, what is it?

It's nothing. Don't trouble yourself...rainy weather annoys me.

Then why are you trying to pull away from me?
Kejal pressed deeper into Odo's consciousness. Please, mother. I love you and I'm worried-- tell me the real reason you're angry.

Odo's consciousness sank like cool air in a hot room. Kejal received images of himself and Mora sharing a laugh in the shuttlecraft. No emotions or explanation came with it. Then Odo withdrew, leaving Kejal more confused than before.

"The rain is letting up," said Mora. "That won't be the last downpour, judging by the horizon."

Mora lived on the very edge of the Eastern Province. His house was literally the last one between the city and the wilderness. Its northern windows overlooked a pond, its southern windows revealed distant city lights at night, the eastern windows showed the garden and the western window in his bedroom offered fantastic views over the side of a rolling green hill. Each spring, flowers sprang up on the hillside until the landscape resembled a painting. Kejal always wanted to capture some of that beautiful life, so in his formative years he planted a garden and a deka tree. It seemed fitting, somehow, to see beauty through all the house's windows.

Reaching Mora's home took approximately three hours due to the rain reducing visibility. Kejal, who dried off during the journey, noticed Mora favoring his arthritic knee after the hover tram dropped them off at his doorstep.

Nobody was sorry to get in out of the storm.

"Lights," said Mora, and the lights came on to reveal the earthy, minimally decorated building he called home. "I apologize for the mess. I wasn't expecting you two to return with me."

PADDS littered the table by the wall in the main sitting room. The couch pillows were tossed on the floor. Not a mess in the traditional sense, but to two Changelings who favored order, it looked like a tornado hit the room. Odo and Kejal both cringed.

"We can organize this, father." Kejal patted Mora's hand. "Don't worry."

Odo glanced at Mora. "Here, let's get you seated. I can tell your leg is bothering you. Where would you like to be?"

Mora gestured at the large, overstuffed chair by Kejal's favorite oval window. Odo helped him sit on the thick, bouncy cushion. Mora kicked his shoes off, took out his metorapan hypospray and dosed himself. The wrinkle in his brow soon faded.

"Traveling isn't as easy as it used to be," he sighed. "It's good to be home again."

Home for the last time. Kejal thought sourly. He looked out the eastern window and his mouth dropped. The beautiful deka tree he left behind had grown so huge. Mora wasn't exaggerating about its size. The tree's canopy easily spanned the width of the roof!

Well, hello old friend.

Kejal watched a curtain of drooping branches dance over the puddles amidst the tree's roots. Round, flat seed pods littered the ground, all of them shaken down by the rain and wind. They were bright orange when ripe and easy to spot on the wet green grass. He made a mental note to clear them away in the morning. Picking up the seed pods was an exercise in futility between fall and spring, yet Kejal enjoyed doing it. Messy deka trees were healthy deka trees.

Something new hung from one of the tree's thickest limbs. A swing made of two ropes and a wooden plank. Kejal used to shape shift into one when curious children came around to watch him practice his abilities. Mora must have put it there after his departure.

As for the rest of the garden-- Kejal wasn't surprised to notice the plants he grew thirty years ago weren't there anymore. He understood that Mora physically couldn't maintain the garden in his absence, but he still felt the urge to make it beautiful again.

"Doctor Mora?" Odo's voice roused Kejal from his ruminations.

"Oof, oh, I'm tired. This trip took more out of me than I realized. I think I'll retire for the night." Mora got himself out of his chair and hobbled into his bedroom, his cane clicking against the hardwood flooring.

"Do you need any help?" asked Kejal.

Mora shook his head, yawning. "I'm fine, thank you."

Odo stared at the bedroom door long after it slid shut.

"I suppose I can't blame him," he remarked.

Outside, the rain stopped again.

Kejal smiled and headed for the back door. "Come on, mother. Meet my tree."

Unmindful of the cold dampness, he stepped out beneath the deka tree's sprawling limbs. It seemed to reach for him, and two wet, leafy branches bumped into his cheek. He caught them in his hands and stroked the long sickle-shaped leaves. The tree's familiarity sent a warm tingle across his palms.

"I missed you too, old friend." Kejal said. He continued forward, stepping in puddles to avoid crushing the seed pods. Despite the rain, the tree's trunk remained mostly dry. He leaned against it and relished the strength in its bulk.

Odo took care to avoid the puddles Kejal walked through. "So this is the tree you raised?"

"From a sapling the size of a twig." Kejal tapped a tall pole still visible near one of the roots. "I tied it to that until it was big enough to stand up straight by itself. There is grating underground that trained its root system to grow down instead of out under the house. Without guidance, deka trees get gnarled and bent over like the trees in the hills, and the roots go everywhere." He stroked an errant leaf. "But if you guide and tend them, they grow like this."

"I see." Odo looked up. "It must be very rewarding."

"It is." Kejal grinned with pride. He took Odo's hand and pressed it to the thick, smooth trunk. The quizzical expression on his mother's face made him chuckle. "This is my mother, old friend...he feels a lot like me, doesn't he?"

Wind sent the leaves rustling.

"I...don't see the purpose of this," Odo remarked.

"Trees know." Kejal said. "They get to know you if you let them. They are more aware of the world than you realize." He bumped his shoulder into Odo's. "'To become a thing is to know a thing.' You told me that right after I was born. I've shape shifted this tree countless times. I know it, and it knows me. Come on."

"Where are we going?"

"I need space." Kejal gingerly led Odo past the back yard border and onto the open, grassy land. "I don't know about you, but I feel like being a tree right now."

With that, Kejal focused on becoming the tree he remembered thirty years ago. A shape so familiar it required less thought than blinking. The soil swallowed his feet as they transformed into roots. He grew taller and taller-- a sensation similar to launching into space-- and felt his branches expand like dozens of outreaching arms.

The wind brushed Kejal's limbs. His leaves became the strings of an ancient musical instrument. They touched and mingled with the original tree's branches. A shiver of recognition ran through it. He let three leafy twigs brush against his mother. Greeting him the same silent way his tree acknowledged him.

Mother, be a tree...

But Odo couldn't understand Kejal's silent request. He stood there, turbulent beneath his otherwise calm exterior.

Something cold impacted a leaf. It sent a silvery thrum through neighboring branches.

"It's starting to rain again," said Odo. "I'm going back inside."

Kejal sensed Odo's footsteps walking away, but they were quickly lost in the percussive onslaught the clouds unleashed. His leaves became strings plucked by the wind and drums struck by the rain. Vibrations from the raindrops hitting the ground rumbled around his roots.

The downpour didn't break until light appeared on the horizon. Kejal angled his leaves towards the golden brilliance all plants recognized as life. Then the sun's warmth enveloped everything in its ethereal hum. Shivering water droplets cast miniature rainbows on their surroundings, and the heavens rejoiced at the renewed promise of another day.

Nature sang all around, and Kejal found peace in its song.
End Notes:

***Chapter soundtrack***

Remembering the Diagnosis: https://app.box.com/s/plql2ijk9xy5df69jikj

Feeling like an Outcast: https://app.box.com/s/5wrnobtweuaxvotk22mb

Nature's Song: https://app.box.com/s/8kq0g0j2y7ylx0txazm4
4. Midwife for the Soul by Cyndi
.o

.o

.o

.o

4. Midwife for the Soul

.o

.o

.o

.o

In his dreams, he saw the accretion disk of a proto-star greedily pulling gas into its core. He floated above the chaos, watching it spin. Then the pain started, and his body wrenched him back into reality.

Mora woke up feeling like he collided with a starship. A squirt of metorapan and a touch of dexalin steeled his resolve. He managed, after some struggle, to get into his bathroom and grab his straight razor. A hot towel, followed by warm shaving gel, briefly helped him forget his discomfort. Scraping the stubble off his chin made his body ache. He could barely remain standing when he relieved himself, and he frowned at the red in the toilet basin. Putting his rumpled hair in order was a simple matter-- he washed his hands and wiped it back with his wet palms.

There is no way I'm going anywhere today, Mora groaned to himself. He knew these days were coming, but his physical inability to do what he used to still got on his nerves. He climbed back into bed with a sigh.

Then his nose decided to bleed. It dripped onto his black nightshirt.

Cursing under his breath, he replicated a handkerchief and pressed it to his nostrils. Blood in my urine, and now a bloody nose. My morning is off to a fantastic start!

The nosebleed didn't last long. Mora blew his nose to clear it and tossed the stained handkerchief into the replicator. He looked longingly at the thick gold and red quilt serving as the comforter on his bed. Leruu made it by hand. It was her gift to him on their first wedding anniversary.

"No more cold nights, my love."

"Oh, Leruu, it's beautiful!"

"Happy anniversary, Pol."

"Happy anniversary, my darling."


He smiled, running his hand over the silky material. Leruu always had an eye for color and decoration. The quilt matched both the red drapes on the window and the gold prayer mandala sitting just beneath it.

Mora lit the candles in front of the mandala. He prayed the same prayer he said every day since his diagnosis: Prophets, please just get me through today.

Finally, he eased himself back onto the bed and pulled the covers up to his chest, his face contorting at the constant tension in his lower back. Metorapan barely controlled his pain on days like this.

Oof, I definitely overdid it yesterday.

"Father? Are you all right? May I come in?"

Mora glanced towards the closed door at the foot of his bed. "Of course, Kejal."

The door opened. Sunlight flooded into the dim bedroom. Kejal carried a breakfast tray containing deka tea and a plate of groatcake dripping with syrup.

"Oh, how thoughtful. Let me just sit-- " Mora's back twisted itself into knots. He collapsed backwards before he sat halfway up. "--urgh!"

Kejal set down the tray and hurried to Mora's bedside. His eyes were wide open, bordering on panic. "Father? What is it?"

"It's just my back," Mora grunted. "I'm fine. Honestly, son...this isn't the end. Shhh." He squeezed Kejal's shoulder. "Pain is part of this, Kejal. It's my own fault for exerting myself too much over the past three days. Now, bring me that tray. It looks good."

While Kejal's back was turned, Mora forced himself to sit up against the headboard of his bed. The pain left his expression in time for Kejal to turn around and set the tray on his lap.

"Thank you," said Mora. He used his first sip of tea to wash down an antacid capsule, but something seemed off.

Mora lowered the mug and peered inside. He found a deka seed pod floating in his tea.

"Oh." Kejal stared. "How did that get there?"

"You little sneak!" Mora chortled, fishing the seed pod out. "Get out of here and take your seed pod with you. Go bother your mother! Out with you! Out!"

"I'm going, I'm going!" Kejal echoed Mora's laughter.

From further away, Odo grumbled, "What are you two doing?"

"Bothering you."

"Hmph! How about helping me clean up this countertop instead? It's in complete disarray."

"Sure." A pause. "Mother...he isn't feeling well today."

"It's to be expected."

Mora ate his breakfast in silence. Kejal left the bedroom door open. From his bed, Mora could see the oval window. Beyond it, the deka tree's glistening branches rippled in the sunlight. Mornings after a storm were Mora's favorites-- rain made everything new.

"I'd like to visit the market today. It's the right time of year to plant a new garden." Kejal rattled something when he set it down. "Father likes spiny basil plants, and crystilia grows really well right next to the house. Oh, and I know just where to put the Vulcan orchids, too. And, ah, I think I some pansies will look good in the pot by the door."

Odo grunted. "If you say so. Now, can we get back to organizing?"

There was a pause before Kejal said something too quiet to hear clearly.

Mora pushed the tray away once he finished his meal. He reached for the napkin Chalan gave him. Beside the name, she'd written a communications frequency and the name of an organization. Mora spoke the numbers to his console and commanded it to make contact.

The face of a graying Bajoran woman appeared. "This is Jann Rana of the Bajor Palliative Care unit. How can I help you?"

"Good morning. My name is Mora Pol. I was recommended someone who works from your location. Someone named Aleexa. Is it correct that she does home care?"

Her expression lightened. "Ah! Yes. Are you calling for yourself or someone else?"

"Myself," Mora replied. "I've been fighting Delfeya syndrome for the last ten years, and it's catching up to me. I have my medical record on-hand if you require it."

"Thank you." Jann rattled off a series of numbers. "Please transmit them through this secure frequency."

Mora did that.

"Got it. I'll pass this on to Aleexa. If she is available, she will visit you later today to assess your condition."

"That quick?"

Jann nodded once, her smile gentle. "Thank you for selecting our services. Feel free to contact me again if you have any questions."

"Oh, many thanks." Mora was relieved at not needing a long-winded conversation to get this started. "I hope you have a wonderful day."

"I offer you the same. Good day."

The communication screen went dark. Mora laid back with a heavy sigh. Now that he had that taken care of, he picked up the PADD holding all the new data about the Founders.

Changelings are biologically immortal. Mora remembered leaving off there. They all come from the same genetic progenitor, yet their DNA patterns have endless variations. How strange!

Odo appeared in the doorway. "Doctor Mora? Are you all right?"

Mora lowered the PADD. He smiled up at Odo. "Yes."

"Is there anything you would like me to do?"

"Oh, thank you. The breakfast tray can go."

Odo leaned over and lifted the tray without effort. "Kejal wants to take me to the market." Finally, he offered a small smile of his own. "You know how persuasive he can be."

"Mmhmm, all he has to do is open his eyes wide and plead, and you're through."

Chuckling, Odo shook his head. "I love to make him happy...it doesn't matter what it is. Who knows? I might learn something new."

"Learning...yes." Mora squinted at the PADD. He laid it in his lap and focused on Odo again. "There is always time to learn."

"I think a lack of it is what led the Founders to fear all solids, but we would be here all day trying to discuss that." Odo straightened, balancing the tray on his forearm. "Kejal and I will be gone for a few hours." He twitched his shoulder and a Bajoran combadge appeared on his vest. "Don't hesitate to contact me if you need anything."

"Thank you, Odo." Mora dipped his head in gratitude. "I'll be all right. Go on...Kejal truly comes to life when he has his pick of gardening materials."

"I look forward to it."

With that, Odo was gone. Mora heard Kejal loudly announce their departure. Odo's and Kejal's quiet voices passed the bedroom window and faded around the corner.

Mora dozed for an hour before his back complained about lying in bed. So much for resting. He forced himself onto his feet. Getting dressed was out of the question, so he put on his lightweight house robe because, as his father used to say, 'who wants to stare at an old man's leg veins?'

It was a nice day out. Mora hobbled into the living room and opened the front door to inhale the fresh morning air.

A Talaxian woman nearly jumped out of her skin. "Oh!"

Mora gasped. "Oh! Oh my! I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."

The woman laughed, and it sounded pleasant like a fast-moving brook. "No, no, it keeps me on my toes!" Her voice was quiet and low. "Hello, I'm Aleexa. And I already know you're Doctor Mora Pol."

"I see my reputation precedes me." Mora said. He smiled and beckoned for her to enter.

Aleexa politely wiped her feet before stepping over the threshold. She was a head shorter than Mora, her body plump and her smile jolly. Her large honey brown eyes twinkled kindly. Like all Talaxians she had brown and yellow spots all over her pale skin, and a small transparent barrette kept the plume of sandy-colored hair atop her head from falling in her round face. She dressed smartly in a dark brown Bajoran nursing uniform, and over it she wore a purple ankle-length travel jacket. A knitted white knapsack hung off her shoulder.

"I know about your work as a scientist, so when I got your records, I jumped on the chance." Aleexa extended her hand, "I'm honored to meet you, Doctor Mora."

"You may call me Pol if you like, since you might be taking care of me pretty soon." Mora accepted her offered hand. Warm, soft and strong in its gentleness-- a good sign. "Please, let's go sit down. I'm afraid I overexerted myself yesterday, and I'm paying for it today."

Aleexa nodded. "Of course."

Mora showed her the way and slowly situated himself in the large chair by the oval window. Aleexa sat on the footrest right in front of him.

"I like to get right down to business when I assess a patient. I usually start with a baseline exam," she said. "I noticed you're having a little trouble walking."

"I have arthritis in my knee." Mora rubbed the offending joint. "It's not related to the Delfeya syndrome. Also, uh, I'm not at my best today. I'm not this limited all the time."

"That's fine. I prefer seeing people 'in the middle of the pond' like this. I get a better idea of what good days and bad days are like that way." Aleexa noted the arthritis down on the PADD she took out of her knapsack. "I'm going to need you to stand up while I run a scan. I can help if you need it."

"Thank you, I've got it. Give me one moment." Mora frowned and struggled onto his feet. The crushing pain in his back almost wrenched his breath away, but it dissipated once he achieved a vertical base.

Aleexa held her medical tricorder near his feet and scanned upward. She passed it right over his head and retraced her path down his back.

"Your tricorder is so quiet," said Mora.

"It's less bothersome that way, especially near the end. I can verify that someone has died without disturbing the family." Her tone turned teasing, "But if you prefer a noisy tricorder, I can change it."

Aleexa's frankness was refreshing. Mora felt comfortable with her already. Everyone else danced around discussing death, and she mentioned it like an everyday subject.

"Actually, I like not being able to hear it. It feels less medical."

"There you go, that's the point. Oh, I see you have some gastric erosion, and your kidneys and posterior spleen are swollen. Is that new?"

"The stomach lining is from last night's hasperat. The posterior spleen and kidneys have been that way for months, and they're the cause of my back pain. Metorapan stops it on an average day, but today it's just keeping things bearable. Standing up is difficult...ooh-- do you mind if I sit again?"

"Oh, go ahead! I'm finished scanning. Here, let me ease you down." Aleexa wrapped her hands around Mora's upper arms and gently assisted his descent onto the chair. To his surprise, the discomfort in his lower back hardly changed. "There, better?"

"Much...that was amazing." He smiled at her.

"Sometimes, touch just helps." Aleexa grinned back. "I'll see about getting some adaptive equipment for your house to help you get up and down, but I need to take a look around first."

"That's fine."

"Great!" She took an earpiece out of her knapsack and held up a small cup-shaped microphone. "I'd like to listen to your heart and lungs. Tricorders are great, but they don't tell me everything."

"All right." Mora admired her thoroughness. He sat up straighter, letting her place the microphone where she needed.

"Mm, your heart has a grade two murmur. It's been awhile since I had a growler."

"That's congenital...it never troubled me. It is interesting to note that most people with Delfeya syndrome have heart murmurs. Heh, heh...ironic. I went in for a checkup because I kept getting short of breath. I thought something was wrong with my heart, and after all the tests I learned the truth. My first instinct was to go back to work and pretend I wasn't sick. None of it felt real until I started the treatments."

"People usually react that way. It's not abnormal unless the denial interferes with the treatments or the end-of-life planning. I've seen that before...it isn't pretty." Aleexa moved the microphone lower.

Mora stayed quiet until he saw her write on her PADD.

"So how will this end?" He met her eyes. "What sort of death will I die?"

Aleexa didn't shy away from his gaze. "What happens to your body late in the disease depends on the organs most affected by the Delfeya syndrome. In your case, it will probably start with kidney failure, which will progress to multi-organ failure."

"Mm...what about pain? Will it get worse than this?"

"I won't lie. Yes, it will. There may be times where we have to play guessing games with herbs and medicine to get it under control, but it will be managed. I promise you that. I'll do everything I can to keep you comfortable."

"Can it be done without altering my consciousness?"

She nodded, her expression serious. "Yes, but towards the end your consciousness will likely be altered. During the last few weeks or days before death, as your brain receives less oxygen, you might hallucinate and you might get confused about time or place. Most people slip into a coma before they die. But..." She tilted her head to regard him again, "...with experience, I've learned that patients with unresolved issues suffer more than those who don't. Sometimes the pain of dying isn't always physical, although it manifests that way, and medicine can't control that. So if you have anything that needs resolving, you should do it sooner rather than later."

"I see..."

Aleexa stood and touched the microphone to his upper back. "It's all right. Breathe normally."

Mora did what she said while her words permeated his mind. Something inside him compacted into a tight ball. He thought of Odo and how they still had rifts despite the healing between them. He thought of Kejal, who seemed intent on pretending everything was fine.

"I have a lot of work to do." He squared his shoulders. "Thank you, Aleexa. Oh, I'm sorry, you're still trying to listen, aren't you?"

"It's fine! I'm glad I could help." She winked at him. "Deep breath, please."

Mora inhaled through his nose and exhaled from his mouth. She shifted the microphone lower and asked him to do it again, so he did.

"Lungs sound a little chunky."

"It may be the dexalin. I take it to help with the fatigue."

"Mmhmm, increased mucus in the lungs is normal. Do you ever cough it up?"

"Very rarely. Sometimes I find blood in it, but I'm not sure if it's from my lungs or residue in my throat from past nosebleeds. I never have trouble breathing."

"Then it's probably leftover blood. Nothing to worry about." Aleexa took the earpiece off and sat back. "All right, I think I can help you with the spleen and kidney swelling right now. Bajoran patients with this issue usually respond well to fruit smoothies with takeo herbs. Drinking one along with the metorapan might do you a lot of good. And, by the way," she playfully tossed her hair, "I make some of the best smoothies you'll ever taste. I'm a kitchen queen."

Mora folded his hands in his lap, smiling. "How about I test your skills and ask you to make me one right now?"

"Ever the scientist." She giggled. "Name any fruit you like."

Laughing, Mora said, "Alvas. I happen to have a bowl of them on the counter. The blender is in the corner."

"Ah, thank you." Aleexa glanced at the holograms near the window when she put her equipment away. "Oh, you had quite a long braid when you were younger."

"Mmhmm. I cut it off right after I was sent to work at the Science Institute. Leruu was so upset-- she loved my hair long and braided it for me every morning-- but she understood why I had to do it. She saved the braid. It's in the chest behind the holograms."

"Oh...how sweet. Where is she now?"

Mora licked his lips. "She died many years ago of a fever, and our unborn child went with her." His vision blurred. He remembered when he couldn't talk about her at all. Kejal coming into his life changed everything. He looked up, smiling faintly. "I look forward to seeing her again and meeting our baby."

"I'm sorry she's gone." Aleexa's warm hand settled on his shoulder. "It's good that you have hope, though. A lot of people are angry at this stage...you seem to be in a good place right now. But don't be afraid to talk to me if you need to." Then she moved away and rummaged in the kitchen. "Now, who are the other two people, and what is going on in that series under the window?"

"Thank you." Mora leaned back in the chair, chortling to himself. "Do you like long stories?"

"Oh!" Aleexa's whole face lit up. "Always!"

Of course. Mora almost forgot how Talaxians loved stories. He cleared his throat and watched Aleexa assemble the blender.

"Aha, I'm sure you'll enjoy this." He tapped on his cane and started to speak. "It happened less than a year after Leruu died. A Cardassian presented me with a beaker full of fluid. Nobody knew what it was, and they chose me to find out. Little did I know it would become..."

.o

Odo wondered, for the millionth time, where Kejal got his energy. He stood in the middle of the gardening section of the market, watching his offspring make his way from one end to the other. Kejal pushed a hover basket with his colorful selections arranged from largest to smallest.

"I thought you were coming for seeds," said Odo.

"No." Kejal paused, looking at a pack of Albanian rose seeds. "Plants grown from seeds can take up to two years to produce flowers. Some take even longer."

"Oh." Odo peered into the basket. "It looks like far more than we need."

"That's because it's close together. Wait until the garden is all set. Then you'll see." Kejal tapped the side of his head. "I already have it mapped in my mind. Now we-- ooh! Alderbaran climbing vines!" He sprang towards a square pot with a small blue-green vine clinging to a metal rod in its center. "The trellis needs something. This is perfect! Fertilize it and it grows like crazy. These are bioluminescent at night and they don't need a lot of sunlight."

Odo smiled a little as he watched Kejal's eyes light up. "How long will it take you to plant everything?"

"Uninterrupted? About a day. I doubt I'll be doing it all at once. It's almost impossible to plant anything when it's raining. I'm hoping to get the spiny basil planted first. It likes wet soil and the rain made everything just right for it. I don't have to pre-water."

Odo's combadge beeped. He tapped it. "Yes, Doctor Mora?"

Doctor Mora's voice sounded amused. "Odo, are you and Kejal still in the market?"

"Yes, we are. You didn't tell me how picky he is about the plants he chooses."

Laughter on the comm line. "Isn't it refreshing? Anyhow, make sure he picks up a takeo plant, would you please?"

"All right. Anything else?"

"No, that's all. Thank you, Odo."

"You're welcome. Odo out."

"Takeo plants? I hadn't thought of those. Come on, they're in the herbal section. Ah, this place makes me wish I had a sense of smell."

Odo followed Kejal past a Bajoran peddling fruit. They stopped near a shelf of tall, potted shrubs, each one labeled in several languages. Takeo plants had four stems popping up off a thorny central stalk. Clusters of fat, juicy purple leaves grew along the length of the stems.

"Will this do?" Odo picked up a random plant.

"Let's check. They're not healthy unless you can rub the leaves without them oozing on you. Here's how you test it." Kejal gingerly took a takeo leaf between thumb and forefinger and massaged it. Viscous clear fluid welled up where the leaf joined the stem. "See? This one's no good. Its cell walls are too weak to sustain its needs. It'll never grow its leaves back after they get picked off. Takeo plants are herbs and you need them to keep producing leaves."

Odo tried a different plant. "I see...this one isn't leaking. Fascinating." He chuckled to himself. "You seem to know plants the way I know criminal investigations."

Kejal set the faulty shrub aside and put the one Odo just checked in the basket. "It takes practice. Gardening is so rewarding...seeing something you're taking care of grow into the world you brought it to-- sometimes I think flowers are how plants thank us for giving them a chance."

Then Kejal went off ahead to pay the gardening merchant. Odo stood back, watching. He flashed back to the days when Kejal was just a rippling sensation in his chest. It amazed him how something so small could become the person he saw laughing and talking animatedly about mulch. Kejal often expressed his joy at working in a garden over the Great Link, but it wasn't the same as actually experiencing it first-hand.

Odo wanted to join that part of Kejal's life, to really, truly know him.

Everywhere I go, I feel like an outsider. Even with my own people. I don't want to feel that way around Kejal. I want to live inside his life the way Doctor Mora did. They are so close...

"Mother?"

Blinking, Odo turned his eyes towards Kejal. "Finished here?"

Kejal nodded. Behind him, the merchant collected the plants in a shallow crate meant to be carried aboard a hover tram.

"And that's how you buy plants." Kejal said with flourish while they waited for the tram to pick them up.

"You would make a fantastic botanist." Odo remarked.

"Maybe!"

The tram arrived and he helped Kejal settle the crate safely near their feet. Kejal told the driver where to go.

Odo watched the various leaves and blossoms shiver as the tram pulled away from the market. He didn't speak for almost an hour. Kejal had no problem filling the silence by joking with the driver. Odo jumped in during a lull in the laughter.

"Kejal..."

"Yes, mother?"

Mother... Odo smiled inwardly. No matter how many times he heard it, he found it sweetly amusing. "I'm sorry that I wasn't with you in the beginning."

Kejal took his hand and squeezed. "I've told you in the link and I'll tell you again now. You did what you had to. Father did everything you wanted him to."

Tingling sensations prickled Odo's eyes again, like his body tried to shape shift something. He blinked and it was gone. "I missed an important time in your life."

"I wouldn't be who I am if it weren't for you. You made the right choice."

Uncomfortable now, Odo leaned forward on the hard tram seat. "I wish I had the closeness with Doctor Mora that you have. When I see you two...I-- ah, never mind."

"What?"

"Nothing. Look, we're almost home. Let's gather everything up."

Kejal raised a brow. "Right. I got the crate. You let father know we're home."

Getting out of a hover tram never felt so good. Odo hopped off before it completely stopped moving. He keyed the code to open Doctor Mora's front door and was greeted by the sound of quiet laughter.

"Doctor Mora? We're back." Odo said.

"Odo!" Doctor Mora sounded downright jovial. "Come in and meet my new friend!"

"New friend?" Odo ventured into the sitting room to find Doctor Mora seated in the large chair by the oval window, sharing some sort of fruit drink with a Talaxian woman. "Oh...hello. I didn't know Doctor Mora was expecting company."

"Good morning, Odo! I'm Aleexa. Pol told me all about you." Aleexa stood and extended her hand, and Odo politely shook it. She smiled. "Oh, look at those beautiful eyes you have. I'm sure women comment on them a lot."

Odo stopped himself from shying away at her compliment. "Um, sometimes...thank you." He cast a curious glance at Doctor Mora. The scientist was dressed in casual house clothing-- a loose blue and brown shirt with an asymmetrical neckline and matching pants hemmed precisely at his ankles.

"I just hired Aleexa to be my palliative care nurse. She's going to attend to my needs from now on, and she's quite a sweetheart," said Doctor Mora.

"Pol, you flatterer!" Aleexa smiled at him and returned her attention to Odo. "And, Odo, if you have anything you need to talk about related to Pol's condition, please don't hesitate to speak with me. I don't just take care of a patient, I also tend to the family."

Now Odo really wanted to shape shift into a pebble and roll away.

"I'll keep that in mind, thank you."

"Now you," Aleexa turned to Doctor Mora, "Don't forget-- you need to drink a takeo smoothie each time you take your metorapan. The batch I made up should last a week. Just pour and sprinkle."

"I'm sure my back will remind me if I forget." Doctor Mora replied. "I feel better already. I never would have thought to combine herbs and medicine."

Aleexa said, "Men usually don't-- it's a funny phenomenon amongst Bajorans. Women are the ones who say the herbal remedies aren't working, and trying a drug does the trick."

"Heh, heh! Women...the universe's biggest mystery."

"Oh, we unravel if you're patient." She giggled and looked around. "Now where is the other fellow? I thought there were two of you."

"Right there." Odo gestured to the back door, where Kejal busily swept up the deka seed pods littering the ground. "We were out selecting items to plant in the garden."

"Well he looks like a darling." Aleexa clasped her hands together. "How adventurous is he?"

Odo looked pleadingly at Doctor Mora, who only shook his head.

"Aleexa is quite perceptive about people," he said. "Good luck hiding anything from her."

Odo's hackles raised at Doctor Mora's condescending tone. He wanted to bark that he could read people too, but he decided against it. Starting an argument wouldn't serve any purpose. Besides, Aleexa came across as a kind individual.

Maybe Doctor Mora didn't realize his remarks rubbed wrong.

Forcing his annoyance aside, Odo ignored her question and asked, "How long have you been nursing?"

"Twenty years," Aleexa replied. "I consider my line of work as being a midwife for the soul." She exchanged smiles with Doctor Mora.

Odo couldn't help himself. He had to grill her. "Ah, so what adjustments will you be making to his care right now?"

"I've already ordered adaptive equipment and an adjustable bed." She gestured to the chair. "There will be grab poles next to every chair to help him get on his feet. The same goes for the bathroom-- grab bars in the shower and next to the waste receptacle. The goal is to maintain his independence as long as possible."

"But I wanted to get used to the new bed right away, so it'll be arriving with the rest of the equipment. I can transfer my original bedding onto it without having to alter anything." Doctor Mora sipped his smoothie through a straw. "How did the market go?"

At that, Odo finally relaxed. "Kejal was everywhere. I never knew he had that kind of energy."

"He looks like a lively one." Aleexa patted Odo's forearm. "If it's all fine with you, I'd like to go out and meet him."

"You're welcome to it." Doctor Mora gestured to the door. "Please leave it open. It's a nice day...I'd like to enjoy the fresh air. I'll have Odo close it if I get chilly."

"You got it." She pressed a button to open the door and left it that way when she stepped through.

Odo eyed Doctor Mora. "You look better than you did this morning."

"That's her doing. Amazing, isn't she?" Doctor Mora's straw gurgled as he drank the last of his smoothie. "Takeo herbs mixed with metorapan...it's practically a miracle." He straightened and bent his normally limited leg. "Even my knee is less stiff!"

"Doctor Bashir said takeo herbs help with inflammation, but I never imagined them helping this much." Odo remarked. He liked seeing Doctor Mora showing improvement after the awful mishap on Deep Space Nine.

Then he focused on the holo-images he hadn't paid attention to last night. Kejal's birth, captured as holograms, shone in his eyes.

"Oh..." He knelt to examine them closer. Unconsciously, he laid a hand on his chest.

"Do those images bother you?"

"No. That moment was special to me."

Doctor Mora clasped his hands together. "Me, too." His expression softened. "So was the day you came into my life. I simply didn't know it at the time."

Something in Odo's substance fell inward. He sat down on the floor, unable to say how much it meant to hear that. Then he realized he was sitting exactly where he saw Kejal sit in the shuttlecraft.

And he said the first words that sprang to mind.

"Doctor Mora...you need to clip your toenails."

Doctor Mora burst out laughing. "Only you would notice that!" He examined his feet. "But it's true, and now I think I can actually reach them for the first time in six months. My clipper disk is in the chest. It should still be set on the measurements I prefer."

Odo opened the chest and retrieved the small, flat disk from its home beside an elongated gold box. He handed it to Doctor Mora. "If you find out you can't...I'll...I can do it for you."

But Doctor Mora didn't need any help, and he took such joy in the act of grooming his own feet that Odo wondered when he started taking life's little simplicities for granted.

.o

Kejal tossed an errant deka seed pod onto the sizeable pile he swept up against the house. The grass beneath his now bare feet felt soft on his toes. He heard the back door, but paid it no mind until an unfamiliar voice called his name. Only then did he turn. There stood a slightly chubby Talaxian woman with eyes a lighter shade of brown than his own. Nothing about her looked delicate, but she radiated a friendly warmth as soon as she smiled at him.

"You're Talaxian!" Kejal blurted out. He remembered his manners and straightened. "Sorry...hello. You're the first Talaxian I ever met." He focused until spots similar to hers appeared all over his skin.

The woman laughed, a sound as jolly as her appearance. "That's a greeting I've never experienced before. Pol told me all about you and Odo. My name is Aleexa. It's so nice to meet you, Kejal."

"Likewise," Kejal grinned, letting the spots vanish off his body. "So, what brings you here?"

"I'm a palliative care nurse. I came to help Pol with his end-of-life needs."

Kejal winced and went back to sweeping. He didn't let her see the smile drop off his face. "I see...um, whoops, I'm sweeping that way."

"Oh!" Aleexa hopped aside. She was more agile than her appearance let on. "As I was saying...I won't be just tending to him. I take care of families, too, since this is always a difficult time."

"I don't like to think about it." Kejal peered at Aleexa. "It's too hard."

She came closer to him. "What happens when you do think about it?"

He couldn't meet her gaze. "I feel empty if I imagine him not being there. He raised me for my first ten years." The push broom dropped from his suddenly limp hands. "Part of me wants to be angry with him for getting sick and making me feel this way. But that wouldn't be fair to him, would it? I'm angry at the disease, too, because it's the reason this is happening."

"Anger is a normal reaction, Kejal." Aleexa stepped into his line of sight. "May I suggest something?"

He nodded.

"The three of you are together." Aleexa spread her hands. "That wouldn't have occurred if Pol wasn't ill. There would be no reason for him to seek you out. He had infinite choices for his final journey off Bajor. Risa, Earth, Vulcan...so many possibilities, and he chose your planet. I saw his face glow when he spoke to me about you and Odo. He loves you both like his own." She touched his arm and he couldn't avoid looking into her eyes. "At this time in someone's life, the best way to show him you love him is to help take care of him. Watching his decline won't be easy, but you learn to look past it."

Kejal's internal fluids churned until he had to concentrate on holding his humanoid shape. "Father has always been so strong and active. I can't imagine him sick or weak."

"And he can stay active for a long time. Part of my job is ensuring his comfort. People who have their pain controlled remain out and about longer than those who don't. His pain is already greatly reduced-- and he can't fool me either. I'm very good at picking up nonverbal pain cues." She gave his arm a squeeze and looked alarmed when she was able to close her fist completely. "Oh! Oh goodness! Did I injure you? I'm sorry!"

Kejal glanced between her hand and his arm. "I'm a liquid based life form. I don't have bones. You can't hurt me. Here, this is what I really look like."

He abruptly liquefied at her feet.

Aleexa knelt over him. She jumped back with a gasp as he reassumed his humanoid form. "Oh! How amazing! Pol said you and Odo are shape shifters, but it's another thing to see you do it."

Kejal's smile became genuine. "Oh, that's nothing. Watch this."

He hunched low to the ground and concentrated on becoming a large, crystalline stone. Getting the angles and colors right was a formidable task, especially when mimicking mineral deposits. He was proud of his ability to achieve several varieties of rocks.

"Kejal?"

Kejal perceived the vibrations of Aleexa's voice without actually hearing it. His ability to see, feel and hear varied depending on what he shape shifted into. Rocks were good for going numb and keeping people away.

Again, he concentrated, and his hard surface elongated as he shifted into an exact replica of the push broom lying on the ground.

After a moment, he proudly reclaimed his humanoid form. "I can take a lot of shapes, but I'm still working on this one." He gestured at himself. "Someday, I'll look more like my mother. Just, um...don't ask him to shape shift for you. He gets touchy about it."

"Yes, so I've heard. I'm glad you aren't." She glanced at herself. "I wish I could shape shift into a thinner body."

"Really?" Kejal cocked his head at her. "You look fine to me."

Aleexa's cheeks turned darker pink. "Thank you." She looked up at the tree. "Say, I have an idea! Pol mentioned your intent to rejuvenate this garden. Why don't the three of you do it together?"

Kejal's defenses almost rose. Gardening was very personal to him. He did everything a specific way.

It's the last time I'll plant a garden while he's alive, isn't it?

The sobering thought overrode his need for perfection.

"This is all wrong..." Kejal whispered. "Father can't die. Parents are immortal."

Aleexa placed a hand on his shoulder. "Letting go is the hardest part."

"Then he can't die unless I say goodbye. If I don't say goodbye, he won't die!"

"Oh, Kejal." She let her arm fall at her side. "Sometimes, it takes time. You don't think so now, but you'll just know when the time is right to say goodbye."

He clenched his fists, his eyes fixed firmly on a spot between his toes. "There isn't a 'right time.'"

"True. Losing someone you love never feels right. It hurts. But it hurts worse to lose them when you still have so much to say. This is a time where you should say the things you always thought you had the time to say."

"Aleexa, I'm terrified to look at him. What if he drops dead while I'm talking to him? What if I walk into his room tomorrow morning to wake him up and realize he died during the night?"

Aleexa cocked her head. "Is that what this is about?"

"Isn't that how it happens?"

"No." She sat down on one of the deka tree's roots and patted the spot beside her.

Kejal seated himself. He folded his hands in his lap. "I never saw a sentient being die before. Not in person."

She picked up a deka seed pod and rolled it between her mottled hands. "Dying is a biological process, just like birth. Both show signs that the end result is imminent. It may be hours or it may be minutes before, but I can assure you that you will know it's close by the time Pol reaches that point. He won't suddenly expire right in front of you."

He challenged her, "Is it going to hurt?"

"The disease will cause him pain. I'll make sure it stays controlled. He won't be suffering at the time of death. I promise you that."

Kejal chewed on his bottom lip while he absorbed Aleexa's words.

"Pol is on a journey that starts here and ends in the Celestial Temple." She touched his hand. "I'll walk with all of you through every stage of this if you want me to. If something bothers or frightens you, let me know. I'll be glad to explain what is happening. All you need to do is ask."

"I just have to ask?"

"Mmhmm."

The conversation made Kejal squirm. He studied the deka tree's branches and changed the subject. "Will you go get everybody? The spiny basil plants are father's favorite, and they need to be planted first. Do you want to help?"

Her eyes lit up at that. "Thanks, but I can't. I have to finalize everything on Pol's equipment before it arrives tomorrow. I'll be back in the morning. It's been nice meeting you, Kejal."

Kejal stood-- Mora taught him it was always polite to stand when seeing a lady off. "Likewise, Aleexa."

She smiled at him and headed towards the back door. The sound of farewell pleasantries filtered into the not-quite-spring air.

Kejal brought the individually potted spiny basil plants to the swath of smooth rocks on the garden's eastern edge. They were nicer than fences for marking a property line. He retrieved the gardening equipment from the shed attached to the house.

Odo emerged first. "Careful, the ground is damp. Wouldn't it be better to put your slippers on?"

"I'll be fine. Leruu always gardened barefoot." Mora joined him. He gestured at Kejal. "And I'm not the only one."

"I'm afraid I'm at a loss here," said Odo.

Mora didn't lean on his cane as much when he walked across the grass. His whole demeanor was noticeably brighter. "You won't be for long. Kejal, how is the soil?"

"Wet, but good for planting." Kejal replied. "We're going to get dirty."

"Perfect! It isn't gardening until you're filthy. Oh, Odo, don't look so worried. Dirt won't kill you. Now, let's see if I can get myself down on the ground."

Kejal tossed the kneeler cushion in front of Mora right before he dropped awkwardly into a kneeling position. Once he got settled, he relaxed.

"There we go." Mora set his cane aside and rubbed his hands together. "Well, let's get started. Odo? Come on, you don't need shoes out here."

Grunting, Odo shape shifted his boots away and wiggled his toes. "If you say so." He eased onto his knees next to Kejal.

"First, mother, learn the tools." Kejal gave Odo the trowel first. After Odo examined it closely, Kejal showed him the small three-pronged cultivator. He explained each tool's purpose while Odo examined them.

"Hm." Odo nodded, taking it in. "It sounds easy enough."

"Great! Then let's dig in." Kejal transformed his left hand into a cultivator and pounded it into the mud to break it up. Beside him, Mora did the same. After a moment's hesitation, Odo reached from Kejal's right and mimicked their motions.

Kejal could tell the soil was ripe for planting by how easily it came apart under his cultivator tines.

"Ah, the smell of wet dirt." Mora sighed. "Are you going to crush the seed pods into mulch?"

"Mmhmm."

"I'm stuck," Odo said. He tugged his arm.

"Try pulling upwards." Mora replied.

"I did. I'm stuck."

"Hold on." Kejal grabbed Odo's wrist with his free hand and yanked.

Suddenly, Odo's arm came loose from the dirt. He almost toppled backwards. A huge root from a long dead plant clung to the tines of his cultivator.

Kejal burst out laughing. "Good one!"

"Ah. That used to be Leruu's Vulcan rose." Mora said fondly. "It stopped blooming after she died."

Odo shook the root off his cultivator. "I see."

"I think the dirt is stirred up enough." Kejal morphed his cultivator into a trowel. "Let's start digging."

Luckily, Odo needed little instruction. Kejal showed him how deep and wide to make the hole. Mora reached for the first spiny basil, lifted it free from its pot and ruffled up its roots.

Together, all three of them eased the first plant into its new home. Mora's hands felt strong around Kejal's. Their eyes met. They smiled at each other.

"We'll give Odo a green thumb yet," Mora said with a wink.

Kejal turned his thumb green and held it up. "Oh, like this?"

"Heh, heh! Kejal, you're too much!"

"It looks like rain again." Odo straightened, his hands covered in mud.

"Rain won't hurt the plants." Kejal gestured to the deka tree. "My old friend here is very good at filtering the rain. Everything should be fine as long as nothing floods." He sat down and felt a wet squish under his backside. "Woops!"

Odo sneered. "What now?"

"Uh...I found a mud puddle."

"Yes, it seems you did."

Playful moments from his mother were rare. Kejal capitalized on it and wiped his muddy hands on Odo's arm. "Here, I saved some for you."

"Didn't Doctor Mora say it isn't gardening until someone gets dirty?"

"Yes..."

Mud splattered on the side of Kejal's face.

Odo smirked, his eyes gleaming with mischief. "Then we're gardening."

Kejal looked at Mora. Mora looked at Kejal. They erupted in laughter.

"Definitely gardening." Mora snickered. He glanced at the sky, squinted and heaved himself onto his knees again. "Come on, help me get these spiny basil plants into the ground before the next wave of rain hits."
End Notes:

***Chapter soundtrack***

Dreaming of a Star/Meeting Aleexa: https://app.box.com/s/sbrbu4o16fupeq653410

Shopping With Kejal is Crazy: https://app.box.com/s/vp2wu5wxopu8lqv6iwm5

Planting: https://app.box.com/s/11nssdpdzish9vxastrk
5. Bridges and Storms by Cyndi
.o

.o

.o

.o

5. Bridges and Storms

.o

.o

.o

.o

The combination of metorapan and takeo herbs saved Mora's sanity. He woke up to minimal pain. Spending hours bent over plants used to mean agony the next day.

This morning? Nothing he couldn't push through as long as he got his next dose of medication right away.

Rain fell in sheets against his bedroom window. A lightning flash heralded the reverberating boom of thunder. He was glad everything got planted yesterday. The plants could enjoy their first drink from nature itself.

"Wow! That was close!" Kejal shouted. He appeared in the bedroom doorway. "Father, did that wake you?"

Mora shook his head. "I woke up because of the rain." He grunted, sitting up. "Do me a favor...bring me one of those takeo smoothies. It should be in the cooling unit. You just have to fill a drinking glass, break up three leaves and sprinkle them on top. Aleexa left a bag of leaves on the counter, but we'll get the rest from the plant you brought home."

"Okay. Just a minute, then. Oh!" Kejal ran to the window after another lightning flash. The following thunderclap rattled Mora's bones. "Good one. Be right back!" He disappeared to make up the smoothie.

Mora dosed himself with the dexalin and metorapan while Kejal was gone. He limped into the bathroom sans cane. No blood in the urine-- Mora considered that a good start. He managed his morning routine of shaving and combing his hair without too much struggle. Kejal returned just as he sat down on his bed again.

"Ah, thank you." He sipped the thick concoction. A little bitter for his taste, but not enough to complain. "Where is Odo?"

"Regenerating." Kejal watched the rain fall outside. "He's using that huge vase by the wall."

"Ah. How long is his regeneration cycle now?"

"Every fifty two hours for one hour."

Mora wiped his upper lip. "And yours?"

Kejal fidgeted. "Sixteen hours, just like mother was. I still can't fall asleep while in my humanoid shape like he can." He squinted. "How does that taste?"

"It's all right." Mora finished the smoothie. "Amazing how well it works. I should be miserable right now. I haven't felt this good in a long time. It even helps my knee-- I can walk short distances without the cane! Isn't that wonderful?"

"I'm glad it helps," Kejal replied. He sat on the foot of the bed. "Maybe you'll get better after all. Miracles happen. We could try the herbal route and forget the artificial chemicals."

Mora sighed, dismayed. Kejal was showing the parts he inherited from Odo.

"Kejal, there aren't any miracles for me."

"Did you try everything?" Kejal wrinkled his forehead. "There might be new treatments right now that we haven't found yet."

"Kejal-- "

"Aleexa might know someone who can contact someone else and-- "

"Kejal!" Mora snapped, sitting up straighter. "I understand you're upset. I know you don't want to hear this. I am going to die in two months, and nothing will change that."

"You can't just give up!"

"Do you think I didn't try? I lived far longer than my physician predicted. I fought with everything I had, and I squeaked out several extra years. There comes a time when the treatments stop producing results."

"So you gave up!" Kejal countered. "You just gave up!"

Mora pulled himself upright and met Kejal face to face. He kept his voice low. "No. I changed my plan."

The pain in Kejal's eyes almost ended him right there.

"I'm scared, father..." He whispered. "I can't imagine you not being here. I won't imagine it!"

Mora grasped Kejal's arms and gave him a slight shake. "You have to face it. Like it or not, that time is coming. You'll see a sunrise and I won't be here. And when that day comes, Kejal, my son...remember this moment. Remember me telling you that you are going to be fine."

Shaking, Kejal wrapped his arms around Mora's shoulders.

"I can't imagine that sunrise," he whimpered. "I can't."

"You can." Mora pressed his fingers against Kejal's clothing, denting the mimicked fabric. "The morning after my death, you will watch the sunrise from the oval window just like we used to. You will see the most beautiful dawn of your life and realize life goes on. I want you to smile for me when that morning comes."

Kejal hung his head. Or would have, if Mora's shoulder wasn't in the way.

"I can't smile when I'm in pain, father."

"I know you can't now, but you will later. Kejal, I'm going to make you a promise."

"Oh?"

"By the time I die, you'll be rejoicing over my freedom." Mora smiled, raising both eyebrows. "I'll certainly feel a lot better once it's all said and done, but I can't go until I know you and Odo are all right."

"Good, then I'll never be okay with it!" Kejal wriggled free. "If it means you live, then I won't be fine with any of this!"

The smile slipped off Mora's face. "Kejal! You're being irrational. Think! Think about what you're saying!"

"I don't have to! Dammit, father, I won't let you die!" Kejal kicked the cushioned chair by the bed and stomped out of the bedroom.

Mora heard the front door open. Two voices greeted each other, and then a Tarkalean hawk flapped past the bedroom window.

"Pol!" Aleexa called from the living room. "Are you awake?"

"Yes!" Mora managed to make his tone congenial. He shrugged off his bedclothes and reached into his closet. "Just a moment. I'm dressing."

The Talaxian woman respectfully waited outside his bedroom door until he'd pulled on a shirt and pants. An old, wooly vest went over them for extra warmth. He chose dark gray attire like the clouds outside. A fitting color for his mood.

"Good morning!" He said once he'd made himself decent.

"Well, well, you're walking so much better." Aleexa rubbed her hands together, smiling. She'd styled her hair into a rope-like braid that swung when she turned her head. "Everything is ordered and will arrive by transport shortly. If there's anything you want off the bed, grab it now."

"The b-- oh! Of course. Will it come already dressed, or should I keep the sheets?"

"It has sheets already. I like to let people personalize their beds." She touched the edge of the red and gold comforter. "This quilt is so beautiful...where did you get it?"

"Thank you. Leruu made it." Mora took the hand-made quilt off the bed and folded it into a neat pile in the corner.

Aleexa attached a small tracking device to the foot of the bed. A blinking white light signaled its activation.

"Is everything all right?" She pouted her lower lip out. "You're wearing a frown today, and I know it's not because of your back."

"Ah." Mora sighed, puffing out his cheeks. "Kejal and I had a little disagreement. One minute, he seems to accept what is happening, and the next he thinks he can prevent the inevitable."

Aleexa chewed on her bottom lip. "Mm...denial and bargaining. I see that a lot. Ooh, stand back. Here comes the bed."

Mora moved aside as his bed disappeared in a shimmer and the new one reappeared in its place. It didn't look much different from his original bed, save for being lower to the ground. It had several differently-shaped pillows piled up on top. The headboard and a railing displayed touch screen controls.

"So many pillows," he mused.

"They'll help keep you comfortable when you're less mobile. Right now, I'd like to show you the controls. Are you up for that?"

"Absolutely."

Aleexa helped him toss the extra pillows aside and spread the quilt over the memory foam mattress. "The controls on the headboard are mostly for me. You have the same ones on the rail here." She pointed to the panel on the right side. "This setting will make the left or right side of the bed wider. Up to three people can lay on it together. Now switch it over to turn the display yellow, and you can raise the head or foot of the bed. The purple setting raises and lowers the entire bed, so feel free to adjust it to where you want. The air icon makes the mattress shift under you. It helps prevent bedsores. Don't worry, you won't feel it moving around. You can also heat or cool the bed if you like, that's the symbol in the lower right corner. And if you get confused, the red circle will take you to a settings menu."

"Ah. Thank you." Mora reached out and raised the bed to the same level as its predecessor. Then he climbed on and laid back, finding the mattress far more forgiving than his own. "This is much nicer on my back."

"You'll sleep like a baby."

"Definitely!" He sat up and ran his hands over the quilt.

I'm going to die in this bed.

The sobering thought gave him pause.

Aleexa whispered into her combadge and Mora heard the familiar whoosh of a transporter beam. She excused herself from his room and returned carrying a large container.

"Here are the grab poles and bars for the bathroom. Mind showing me where you prefer them again?"

"Certainly." Mora said.

Aleexa had him cover the toilet and sit down. The narrow bathroom meant he had a wall in arm's reach in front of him. She positioned the grab bar and attached it with suction. It was made with two large hand grips to prevent slippage.

"And don't worry about sanitation. The grips have pressure sensors, and they disinfect themselves within ten seconds of you grabbing on and letting go. The poles I'm putting to each side will help you sit when that gets difficult. Just use the little rungs on the sides and walk yourself down with your hands. They're also self-cleaning."

"Excellent."

Mora followed Aleexa through setting up grab poles in his shower. He showed her where he stepped out and she set down four non-slip strips.

Aleexa straightened once she finished. "We don't want you hitting your head and causing a massive brain bleed. It's not a nice way to die."

"Definitely not." Mora agreed.

He grabbed his cane as he followed Aleexa into the living room. They arrived just in time to see Odo emerging from his regeneration.

"Don't watch," Mora reminded Aleexa.

Aleexa caught on immediately. Without missing a beat, she knelt by Mora's favorite chair and deployed a grab pole.

"Good morning, Odo," she said brightly.

Odo did a fine job of not looking perturbed. "Good morning." He glanced out the window. "Quite a storm."

"It sure is. Oh, Pol, that reminds me-- I left my rain poncho on the floor by the door. I'm sorry about the puddle. I'll make sure it's cleaned up so you don't slip."

"I'll take care of it," said Odo. He paused to watch the grab pole emerge from its suction cup like a metal tree. "Interesting."

Aleexa smiled up at him. "This is Talaxian medical technology." She winked one eye shut. "Having two spinal columns means twice the back issues."

Odo snorted at that. "I remember the brief time I had one. I don't miss it at all." He walked away to take care of the poncho issue. "By the way, Doctor Mora, I heard you and Kejal arguing. Don't worry, he will come back. Kejal always comes back."

.o

Kejal always comes back, Odo repeated to himself. He hung Aleexa's wet poncho on a hook that swung out from the wall beside the door. Then he morphed his hand into a towel, cleaned up the rain puddle and wrung it out on the ground outside.

It wasn't unusual for Kejal to run off when he became upset. Sometimes he broke away from the Great Link to sit on the island and sing. A few found it irritating, but Odo loved hearing Kejal's voice. Like the other Hundred who grew up without the Great Link, Kejal took solace in solitude. He had thoughts he preferred not to share, and he valued his individuality.

Odo's hands went to his chest. Even after thirty years, it felt too empty when Kejal wasn't around.

He forms with a combadge. He can reach me if something happens.

"You look bothered."

He bristled and faced Aleexa, barely keeping his tone neutral. "Did I? I must have that kind of face."

She smiled, her eyes pleasant. "I know Kejal is having trouble accepting Pol's illness."

Odo nodded. No denying it. "He reminds me of myself when I was a lot younger. By the way..." He gestured to the hook where he hung her poncho. "You can hang any rain gear up here."

"Oh! I didn't know. I'm sorry." Aleexa's cheeks colored. "Anyhow, I'm about to put together some lunch. Pol says you're the one who eats...so you're welcome to share the table with us if you like."

Annoyed, but unwilling to be rude, Odo clasped his hands in front of himself. "I heard Talaxians have a natural gift for preparing food."

"Mmhmm. I can teach you."

"I uh...I have no sense of smell or taste." Odo said, suddenly self conscious. "I may evolve them someday, but for now they are beyond me. I hope you don't take offense."

"Nonsense!" Aleexa gestured towards the kitchen. "You don't need smell or taste to cook as long as your hands and eyeballs work."

"I'll admit, I find the preparation of food fascinating."

She giggled. "All the more reason to join in. Come along."

Doctor Mora looked up from the PADD in his lap. "Careful, Odo," he grinned, "she might domesticate you."

"Don't be ridiculous. I-- " Odo found himself holding a whisk. " --feel strangely domesticated."

Aleexa and Doctor Mora barely stifled their laughter.

"Here." Aleexa sprinkled bits of takeo into a bowl of water and added something orange. "Stir until it's a thick liquid. It takes some work. Careful, it can splash."

"Wouldn't a mixer be more efficient?"

"Mixers make it too watery. It's something done better by hand."

"Ah." Nodding, Odo gripped the whisk and stirred the contents in the silver bowl. She'd been right-- it took effort to get started, but got easier the more he worked at it. "What will this be a broth for?"

"It's a vegetable soup I came up with." Aleexa said. She began chopping several vegetables he'd never seen before, save for the lettuce. "Everybody I know loves it once they try it, and Pol expressed interest in tasting it." She winked. "I call it the Aleexa Special."

Odo found a comfortable stirring rhythm. "What does it taste like? I, ah, spent a brief time as a humanoid. I do understand the concept of taste."

"Oh? Well then, I'd say it's a little on the salty side with a hint of spice. It won't upset a disagreeable stomach. Quite the opposite. The broth by itself is pretty nutritious."

Doctor Mora used the new grab pole by his chair to help himself stand up. He joined them in the kitchen. "Really now? Then let me in on your secret. No, no, Odo, go ahead and keep working on that."

Aleexa started to name off the vegetables she brought. Doctor Mora listened intently. Odo didn't miss his mentor's occasional glances towards the front door.

Odo let the whisk sit in the bowl and tapped his combadge. "Odo to Kejal."

"I'm fine, mother." Kejal answered, and Odo's worries eased away.

Doctor Mora jerked his head up. He clasped his chest in visible relief.

Kejal went on, "I just need a little time alone. I'll be back soon. I love you."

A smile touched Odo's lips. "Me too. Where are you?"

"Out by the Bajoran Institute of Science. It's quiet here."

If Odo had blood, it would have run cold. Of all the places Kejal wandered, he had to go there. He ignored Doctor Mora's concerned look.

"Don't be too long. It looks like the rain will start again in the next three hours."

"Mother, I'm fine. I'll be back in two hours or less, all right?"

"I'm timing you on that, starting now."

"Tch, really? You're paranoid. Kejal out."

The combadge went silent. Odo tapped it to end the communication and grabbed the whisk again. "Well, now we know he's fine."

"Yes. I'm glad to hear that." Doctor Mora said. His entire demeanor brightened again, as though a weight lifted off his mind. "This smells wonderful already, and it isn't even warm."

He reached for a piece of sliced tomato.

Aleexa tapped his wrist with a wooden spoon. "Ah, ah! No tasting allowed until it's done."

"My apologies, your majesty," Doctor Mora offered a mock bow, chuckling. He seemed to regret it when he hesitated after straightening.

"Are you all right?" asked Odo.

"I'm fine. A twinge, nothing serious. Let's make this soup. Aleexa, how can I help?"

She handed him the knife. "You, young man, can chop this lettuce. Make it nice and fine. It's a soup, not salad."

Odo moved over a step to give Doctor Mora room. He heard the knife clink-clink away on the stone cutting board. Aleexa hummed under her breath while she peeled some sort of onion.

"Phew!" Doctor Mora leaned back.

"Safe to say it's ripe!" Aleexa set it down in a bowl of water.

"Most definitely. Odo, how is the whisking?"

"Smooth." Odo found the whisk moving evenly through the bowl. "Aleexa, is it ready?"

"Hmm...not yet. Keep going. You're almost there. You have mud, and I need something closer to pudding."

"Pudding? Hm." Odo adjusted his grip to stir faster. The noise of it drowned out the sounds Doctor Mora's knife made when it hit the stone cutting board.

"So, you're Kejal's mother..." Aleexa put something else in the bowl of water.

"Mmhmm."

"If you don't mind my asking, how did you, uh...well, those holograms make me wonder how you..."

"Give birth?"

"Yes."

"Ah. It was quite an experience. I decided to give birth the Bajoran way, and I-- "

"I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't see it myself." Doctor Mora interjected, much to Odo's annoyance. "His morphogenic enzymes saturated his system, and Kejal emerged through the area of lowest density, which happened to be Odo's chest. He oozed out without a struggle. Easy as breathing. Right, Odo?"

Odo bit back a scathing remark. "Yes." He shot Doctor Mora a glare. "The pain was awful at first, but the birth itself was peaceful thanks to Nerys. She helped me relax."

"How sweet." Aleexa nudged Doctor Mora and smiled up at Odo. "How old is he?"

Talking about Kejal cooled Odo's temper. "He'll be thirty years old by mid-spring, but don't let the number or his appearance fool you. He is still a child."

Doctor Mora almost dropped his knife. He captured it again and resumed chopping the lettuce.

"I won't be here to see his birthday," he whispered.

Aleexa covered her mouth. "Oh, sweetie. Is the conversation bothering you?"

"Is it-- no. I'm fine." Doctor Mora wiped at his eyes. "That's a strong onion! Odo, you're lucky you can't smell this thing!"

Odo knew nobody with scent receptors could smell something underwater. Rather than come off as pedantic, he refocused on stirring the contents of his bowl. "Go sit down and rest, Doctor Mora."

"Actually, I think I'll take a shower. It'll get the scent out of my nose." His voice was quivering. "Excuse me."

Aleexa and Odo looked at each other when Doctor Mora nudged between them.

"Should I...?"

"No. He wants to be alone for a few minutes." Odo paused until the shower hissed seconds later. He felt an eerie urge to shiver. He'd seen Doctor Mora shed tears before, but he never saw him actually cry.

"Two months doesn't feel like enough time, does it?"

Odo glanced at Aleexa. "No."

"Well, let's cheer up and get this soup going. The best way to make men happy is to feed 'em." Aleexa peeked into the bowl she gave Odo. "There you go, now it's perfect. Here, let's put this aside and I'll let you chop the onion."

"Of course." Odo set the bowl down. He took the onion out of the water, placed it on the stone cutting board and angrily hacked it in half.

In doing so, he felt shocking pain and realized he'd buried the knife in his thumb.

"Oh!" Aleexa turned on kitchen faucet. She grabbed his hand and moved him towards the sink. "Be still, I'll pull out the knife and put pressure on-- "

"Aleexa, wait." Odo tugged the blade out himself. His inner substance welled up to fill in the wound. He wiggled his thumb. "I'm fine."

She clutched her chest. "Oh my...you don't bleed?"

"I lack most of the body systems present in humanoids. I don't have a heart, therefore, I don't bleed. I can mimic the appearance of blood if I really need to."

"But you breathe."

Odo chuckled in amusement. Solids were so young now. "I imitate breathing, but there is no gas exchange." He resumed his work of cutting up the onion. "I don't really eat, I only appear to. I can't digest food, and I'd rather spare you the disgusting details of what exactly I do with food after I swallow it."

Aleexa collected the onion chunks and sprinkled them into the broth Odo mixed up. She finished slicing the lettuce Doctor Mora left sitting on the counter.

"You're so different from Kejal. I can't help noticing the tension between you and Pol."

"It's a long story. I'm sure he told you all about his experiments. He...did not realize he was causing pain and trauma in the beginning. How could he know a jar of goo was a life form?" Odo flexed his 'wounded' thumb. "It's been a source of pain between both of us for a long time. I prefer not to discuss it further. The memories aren't pleasant for me."

Aleexa squeezed his shoulder. "I'll drop it. Now let's change the subject to where we were before he interrupted you."

Odo smiled a little. "You mean about giving birth?"

"Yeah. That's where we left off." She poured the mixed broth into a large metal pot and added the rest of the ingredients. "I've never spoken with a man who's been through childbirth."

That won a soft laugh from him. "Birth for Changelings isn't dependent on gender...any one of us can do it in the right circumstances. It isn't sexual reproduction, but it is still considered a pregnancy and birth."

"Sooo...how did you give birth?"

"Well, uh, at first I didn't realize I was in labor. I resisted it." Odo shrugged. "I resisted until I was too exhausted to keep doing so, and my body just sort of took over the process. Nerys helped me relax, and the pain virtually disappeared once I did." He pointed out the hotplate controls when he saw her searching for them. "It was strange. The world shrank until I only cared about Nerys, myself and Kejal. I didn't want to talk, I didn't want to move, and I couldn't be bothered to respond to anything happening around me. I was so focused on letting my body prepare itself. The birth simply happened. No effort needed. I just...it was like a long, slow cough and there he was."

Aleexa's eyes softened at his words. "You should see the look on your face right now."

Odo cocked his head. "Do you have any children, Aleexa?"

"No, I don't. Someday, though, I hope to have at least one." She patted Odo's arm. "You might find that Pol exhibits some of the same behaviors you did during your birth experience."

"Such as...?"

"The withdrawal from everything. He'll take less interest in outside affairs and focus more inward. Issues that used to be important to him fall lower on the priority list."

Again, Odo heard himself chuckle. "Doctor Mora? Withdrawing from his science? I don't know, Aleexa, it was his life for a long time. As for me, I was running a sting operation while I was in labor with Kejal."

"You what?"

"Mmhmm...two straight hours of keeping my body from giving birth while waiting to make an arrest. I'm sure Doctor Mora told you I used to be Chief of Security on Deep Space nine."

"He did." Aleexa giggled. "Was it the Yridians behind the fabric counterfeiting ring? You made that arrest?"

"Yes, I did," Odo said proudly. "And then I gave birth two hours later. Er...is that supposed to bubble?"

"Give it a little stir." Aleexa handed him a wooden spoon. "Hm. Wow, that was quite a news story on Bajor. And, by the way, Pol said you're a grump, but you don't seem all that grumpy to me."

"Hmph." Odo stirred the pot. "It's an image I like to keep up," he added in a less serious tone. "Besides, it's hard to be in a sullen mood around Kejal."

Aleexa swept the unused leftovers off the counter and disposed of them in the replicator. "Odo, I couldn't agree more."

"Oh, but trust me. When Kejal is in a foul mood, it's contagious."

"Some people are like that. Pol said he and Kejal had an argument earlier." Aleexa left the kitchen and approached Doctor Mora's bedroom door. "Pol, sweetie, are you all right in there?"

"Just fine!" Doctor Mora called back. "I'm dressing. Brr, it's chilly!"

"I'll turn up the heat for you. Now keep your nose peeled, you're going to smell soup pretty soon." She adjusted the environmental controls and rejoined Odo in the kitchen. "Odo, you're going to get bored doing that."

Odo tore his eyes off the soup. "Doing what? I'm waiting to see it boil."

"Do you also entertain yourself watching paint dry?"

He arched an eye ridge, "Watching paint dry is quite interesting."

Aleexa snorted. Odo let out a snicker. They were both chuckling by the time Doctor Mora exited his bedroom.

.o

Singing was Kejal's favorite means of self-soothing. No matter his mood, no matter his current state of affairs, he could always count on music to silence the chaos in his mind.

"When you're weary. Feelin' small. When tears are in your eyes...I will dry them all. I'm on your side, oh, when times get rough...and friends just can't be found..."

He stood on the metal bridge between an outdoor restaurant and the Bajoran Institute of Science. The rain stopped for the moment, but the water under the bridge raged.

People didn't come to the restaurant at this hour of the morning. Nobody milled about outside the Science Institute building. Kejal had complete solitude, so he drummed on the railing and sang at the top of his voice. The song was centuries old. An Earth tune performed and re-performed by various people over the years.

Right then, nothing else mattered. All he felt was the music pouring through his very being. He treated it like a stage performance, and nature became his audience.

And for a few minutes, his mind quieted.

"...like a bridge over troubled water, I will ease your mind. Like a bridge over troubled water...I will ease your mind. I will ease your mind...ease your mind!"

He leaned back and put everything he had into the last note. The power of it rang throughout his whole body. He enjoyed the reverb he got from the Institute building.

Slow, subdued applause startled him back into reality. A lone figure sat at a table in the restaurant.

Kejal ducked his head. "I didn't realize someone was here."

The person rose, a tall form mostly concealed by a large, hooded blue and white rain robe.

"I stopped to listen when I heard your voice. I didn't know your race had the capabilities to sing." The person joined Kejal on the bridge. "A logical song choice, given the setting."

Oh. A Vulcan. Wonderful.

"It's my favorite song." Kejal muttered. "I sing it when I'm a mess."

The Vulcan leaned on the railing. His wrinkled old hands gave away his age. "Ah, so your mind is the troubled water."

"Ugh. You can say that again...about six hundred times."

"I see. What troubles you?"

Kejal folded his hands. He sneered. "The man who raised me is dying of Delfeya syndrome. He says the treatments quit working, so he gave up on them. What if there are more? What if something out there can save him? He would rather die than keep fighting."

The Vulcan didn't speak for a long time. Then, he said, "Your mind is torn by the notion of 'what if?'"

"Exactly! What IF? What if someone missed something that could have saved his life? He's Mora Pol, dammit! Men like him can't just die!"

"Doctor Mora Pol?" The Vulcan's voice rose enough to signify he asked a question. "I'm familiar with his work. His achievements are admirable, and his theories are fascinating. I would have liked to meet him while he still worked at the Institute."

"Now do you see why I can't stand it?" Kejal threw a rock into the unsettled water gushing past the bridge. "I should be doing something to cure him instead of sitting around, waiting for him to die."

"Life is full of dualities...what is your name?"

"Kejal."

"Kejal, then. Life is full of dualities. When emotions take over, people have a tendency to let one side of a choice blind them to the other."

"Uh-huh, sure. What would a Vulcan know about emotional choices, hm?" Kejal felt the anguish in him rise. "Well?"

"A lot more than you think," said the man, his tone coming as close to amusement as a Vulcan ever did.

"Yeah, right." Kejal tossed another rock. From the corner of his eye, he saw the Vulcan push his hood back.

"I speak only the truth."

Kejal prepared to give his companion a piece of his mind. When he turned to stare into his eyes, he recognized the wise, craggy features, and his anger collapsed into total embarrassment.

"Oh...I-I'm incredibly sorry. I meant no disrespect to you, sir."

"I know." Ambassador Spock tilted his head and looked down his nose. He wasn't much taller than Kejal, yet his presence made him seem gigantic. His dark eyes were full of emotions that remained tempered like a newly forged sword. "Kejal, if you spend your time chasing an impossible 'what if,' you will miss what already is."

He started to walk away.

After a moment's hesitation, Kejal called after him, "Wait, Ambassador!"

Ambassador Spock glanced over his shoulder.

Kejal could not believe he was doing this. "Can you spare an hour, sir?"
End Notes:

**Chapter soundtrack**

Stormy Morning: https://app.box.com/s/oxbfpei3vt12crjij8aj

He Always Comes Back: https://app.box.com/s/r7bz4cza9tqnrl0ubn1k

Singing is Comfort: https://app.box.com/s/mkqh7agqcutnn6ywxhzn
6. Unexpected Visitor by Cyndi
.o

.o

.o

.o

6. Unexpected Visitor

.o

.o

.o

.o

Hot showers and new information solved everything.

Mora heard his stomach turn over at the scent of Aleexa's soup. He relished the pleasant smells while he read his PADD.

When the population is in severe decline and a Founder is ill, wounded or otherwise near death, they possess the capability to rejuvenate themselves through literal rebirth. The weakened Founder casts away its mass and injects a portion of itself into a willing parent unit, and there it is carried until its morphogenic enzymes become self sustaining once again, triggering the birth. Founders are reborn carrying their previous knowledge and need only to grow.

There are occasions in which the ailing Founder's memory is wiped, such as the Hundred who were sent out as blank slates to learn of other species. Genetic memory persists. Once the morphogenesis enzymes activate for the first time, this memory comes forth like an instinct. These specially-grown Founders always feel an urge to return to the Great Link where they may share their knowledge. Through them the Founders learn not only the appearance of other solid species, they also discover their customs and the possible threat these races may pose.

The process of conception and birth can, on rare occasions, result in a completely new individual. We learned this when we examined Kejal
...

Mora squinted and leaned forward. This was the information that would prove or disprove his theories about Kejal's existence!

In a normal case, a Founder's original genetic material remains intact during such an injection. The one called Kejal is highly unusual. His genetic material suffered massive breakdown after exposure to tetryon radiation, and could not sustain life on the molecular level. A quantum scan of samples taken from Odo and Kejal was able to reconstruct Kejal's conception.

Kejal's broken DNA latched onto Odo's as Odo shifted from a solid to a shape shifter once again. Their genetic material linked forever in that instant, and Odo became Kejal's progenitor. This explains Kejal bearing such resemblance to Odo and the protective instincts Odo displays towards Kejal. A birth such as this has not occurred since their ancient ancestors traveled the universe.

Diagrams came up on the PADD screen. Mora smiled at them and felt his heart beat faster. He was there the moment Kejal conceived himself in Odo's body, and no one had any idea!

Mora knew he could write a paper on this information. It proved the theory he suspected about Kejal ever since he heard about Odo's unusual pregnancy, and it added to the question he mulled over since his diagnosis ten years ago.

What is life?

He looked up and watched Odo pull the dining table out of the wall like the drawer.

"That soup smells delicious," said Mora.

Aleexa beamed. "It's almost done."

"It's making my mouth water."

"Don't drool on your PADD," she replied playfully.

"I won't." Mora helped himself up with the grab poles. It felt good to stretch his legs.

The front door opened just before he reached the kitchen. Kejal stepped in looking much happier than he had when he left.

"Father." Kejal hurried to Mora's side and embraced him. "I'm sorry about earlier."

"Shhh, Kejal, it's all right. This is an upsetting time for you."

"I know. Um...do you feel up to a visitor?"

Mora raised both eyebrows. "Yes, of course. Who is it?"

Kejal smiled, waving to Aleexa and Odo. "It's a surprise." To the door, he called out, "It's all right! Please, come in!"

The tall figure ducked through the doorway and pushed the rain hood off his head.

"Greetings, Doctor Mora. It is an honor to meet you in person."

Mora's heart skipped a few beats. Ambassador Spock was standing in his home! His presence created an air of quiet dignity in the middle of a torrential storm.

"Likewise, Ambassador Spock." Mora remembered how to speak. Professional decorum overcame his shock. "Please, come in and sit anywhere you like. We're preparing lunch-- you're welcome to join us."

Ambassador Spock folded his hands in front of him. "Thank you. Your hospitality is most appreciated."

Aleexa almost dropped her spoon. To her credit, she didn't stop stirring the deliciously scented soup. Odo calmly added another place setting to the table. He was the only one in the room who didn't act impressed.

Ambassador Spock shrugged out of his rain robe. Underneath, he wore a woolen blue jumpsuit. The normally loose-fitting pant legs were tucked into his shiny mid-calf boots to keep them dry.

Kejal dutifully took the robe and draped it on the couch.

Odo called from the kitchen, "Ambassador, will your security detail be eating with us?"

"I came alone," Ambassador Spock replied simply. "But thank you for your concern."

Mora gave Kejal's arms a squeeze and sat in the large chair by the oval window. "I must admit, Ambassador, this is quite a surprise."

At that, Ambassador Spock exchanged looks with Kejal. "Our meeting is definitely a fortunate twist of circumstance. Kejal informed me of your situation, and offered me an opportunity to meet you." He quirked a slanted eyebrow. "He spoke highly of you. I would like to personally commend you on your treatise regarding genetics and the formation of life within the Founders. I found it fascinating."

Mora folded his hands to disguise their trembling. Ambassador Spock read his theory and liked it? "Thank you, Ambassador. I may yet write another before my time here is over."

"Oh?"

"I've recently run across new information regarding the Founders." Mora glanced at Kejal. Then he refocused on the wise Vulcan in front of him. "And I'm questioning life itself."

"I'll be sure to read the new paper," said Ambassador Spock. His nostrils flared as a new wave of scent wafted from the kitchen. The schooled expression on his face did not change. "How long do you suspect it will take?"

"Hopefully, less than two months," Mora answered, chuckling.

Ambassador Spock nodded. "It will be worth the wait."

No pity or sadness crossed the Vulcan's face or eyes. Mora liked that. People often looked at him with sorrow upon learning his diagnosis.

"Gentlemen," Aleexa called from the kitchen, "Lunch is ready."

"Thank you, Aleexa. Ambassador," Mora got to his feet and gestured for Ambassador Spock to choose a seat first.

Kejal whispered something to Odo and Aleexa. They promptly separated and strategically set Mora up to sit next to the Ambassador.

They're sly...very sly, Mora mused.

Kejal formed a facsimile of a soup bowl. "So, Ambassador, mind telling us what brings you to Bajor?"

Ambassador Spock politely served himself. He passed the scoop to Mora.

"I was attending a scientific demonstration at the Bajoran Institute For Science. I stepped outside to ponder Doctor Weld Ram's speech. You showed up on the bridge not long after."

"Then it's lucky you ran into me. You might have spent the afternoon with an empty stomach."

The Ambassador turned to Kejal. "Luck has nothing to do with it, however I concur. Thank you for the invitation." Then, to Aleexa, he said, "Your cooking is commendable."

Aleexa's face achieved a new shade of pink. "Thank you, sir." She ducked her head and sipped the soup off her spoon.

"It may not be safe for you to walk around unaccompanied."

Ambassador Spock studied Odo. He cocked his head and quirked an eyebrow. "I'm quite capable of passing unrecognized when I choose to."

"Odo, don't interrogate our guest." Mora said with a smile. "I'm sorry, Ambassador. Odo used to work as the Chief of Security on Deep Space Nine."

"Yes, I know. We've met before."

Odo delicately sucked the soup off his spoon. "If you need someone low-key to escort you to the space port, Ambassador, I'll be happy to accompany you."

"Unnecessary, but again I thank you for your concern." Ambassador Spock took up his tea mug and sipped.

Odo had the sense to not be put off by the Vulcan's casual dismissal. It struck Mora, then, that Odo had become a diplomat whether he wanted to be one or not. There was so much about him that Mora didn't still know.

After lunch ended, Mora invited Ambassador Spock back into the sitting room.

"What made you choose science, Ambassador?"

Ambassador Spock's sharp eyes focused onto him. "It seemed like the logical choice at the time. As humans say, I 'have a knack for it.' And you, Doctor Mora?"

Mora folded his hands in front of him. "Believe it or not, Ambassador, I chose the field because of you."

The Ambassador inclined his head.

"I know this will sound emotional to a Vulcan such as yourself, but I found the theories you wrote about life forms and DNA quite moving. The intricacies of what makes life become life grabbed onto my mind when I was just a teenager, and I always tried to push even further into your research. What is it that tells a strand of molecules to become life? Just what switches it on?" Mora sighed to himself. "It's funny...I always had a brain for science-- I was never talented in the arts."

Kejal spoke up, "Don't be so modest, father. You have a nice singing voice."

"Not like yours." Mora glanced at Kejal, noticing the holo-imager in his hands. Then he shifted his gaze to Odo, who still sat at the table with Aleexa.

To the Ambassador, he went on, "I discovered that Odo was a life form when he was just a liquid in a beaker. The greatest reward of my career was watching him develop, and neither he nor Kejal would be here if it weren't for your writings, Ambassador."

Ambassador Spock's eyes crinkled at the corners. Perhaps the closest thing he allowed to a smile. "The differences in their personalities are fascinating."

Mora chuckled softly. "It's a long story, and I know you don't have the time for one."

"On the contrary, Doctor Mora," Ambassador Spock checked the digital chronometer on the wall. "My shuttle does not depart for another three hours and six minutes. Time does not pose the same issue to me as it does to you." He seated himself on the sofa. "As I find your work admirable, I would consider it an injustice to leave without hearing your words."

Almost beside himself now, Mora eased back onto his favorite chair. He began to tell Ambassador Spock the same story he told Aleexa-- albeit this time he focused more on the science.

.o

Having such a high ranking diplomat in the house made Odo more nervous than he let on. He couldn't stop scrutinizing every shadow, and his eyes darted routinely to the doors and windows. His tense body was ready to act the moment something appeared amiss.

Sometimes, I think Kejal is out of his mind! Odo groaned to himself.

Hearing his own story from Doctor Mora's mouth made him roll his eyes. Spock, on the other hand, listened attentively. Once or twice, Odo swore those pointy Vulcan ears twitched.

Spock and his accomplishments weren't unfamiliar to Odo. They met off and on after he left Deep Space Nine for the Great Link. Once or twice, he accompanied him through Dominion space for his safety. Nobody contested a visitor when he escorted them.

And his presence practically bowled Doctor Mora over.

The soup contained in a bubble inside his body spread warmth within his substance. He didn't let it distract him.

"You're so tense." Aleexa whispered. "Is something wrong?"

"Old habits," Odo muttered. "I haven't seen Doctor Mora this excited in a long time."

She kept her voice low. "Who wouldn't be? We had lunch with Ambassador Spock!"

"Yes..."

"Come on, let's leave them to talk."

To Odo, the suggestion sounded like being told to abandon a battlefield.

"They'll be fine." Aleexa touched his arm.

He reluctantly followed her into the study, which was just off the kitchen. Doctor Mora had dumped the PADDS littering the living room in there. They almost covered his entire desk.

Odo straightened them without worrying about rearranging alphabetically. Doctor Mora had his own sense of order, and Odo knew trying to contest it would instigate an argument. He settled for making the piles neat. At least, that way, the desk looked orderly.

Aleexa sat on the day bed by the window. Shelves full of PADDS and isolinear rods stood on either side of it. She tapped the brass gyroscope decorating one shelf, making it spin.

"How are you doing?"

Great. She brought him here for random conversation?

"Doing?" Odo grunted, folding his arms. "I'm doing fine."

"Pol is right. You don't like to give anything away." She leaned forward. "I'm talking about in relation to what is happening with him."

The inquiry made Odo uncomfortable. Or was it the vacuole of soup shifting in his abdomen? He circulated it to his left foot where it became less annoying. "I'm making sure his needs are met."

"And how does the situation make you feel?"

Ugh, why now? "I don't know. I'm tending his needs as they arise."

Aleexa stopped tapping on the gyroscope. Outside the window behind her, light rain fell.

"He loves you, you know."

Odo rolled his eyes.

"I'm still a specimen to him. He treats me with respect. He cares. But I'll never be a son to him. That's Kejal. I wanted Kejal to have everything I did not. He began life without experiments or loneliness. Having him was the most ecstatic moment of my lifetime." He stared at the desk, unable to meet Aleexa's eyes. "And Doctor Mora was there. He held my hand. I'm sure all he could think about was the paper he would write about me afterward."

Aleexa's hand touched his wrist. Instinctively, he met her gaze and cursed himself.

"You couldn't be more wrong, Odo." She said. "Kejal was born on the seventeenth anniversary of Leruu's death...did you know that?"

He jerked his head up, eyes slightly widened. "No...I mean-- I knew what date it was, but I didn't consider it while giving birth."

Her pink mouth quirked in a small smile. "Pol told me everything."

Of course Aleexa would sit and listen to Doctor Mora talk. Talaxians were known for their enjoyment of hearing and telling stories. They possessed a natural talent for it. His favorite detective novels were written by a Talaxian-- and they became the only two novels in which he needed more than three pages to figure out who committed the crime.

"Being a witness to your life changing moment meant so much to him." She went on. "And I quote him when I say, 'Odo didn't know what a gift he bestowed on me. He was turning a day representing misery and darkness into joy and light. I wanted to hold him in my arms and never let him go. Instead, I kissed his hand. He chose Kira's arms, not mine, and I did not begrudge his decision. Just being there, watching him create life, was enough for me.'"

Feeling chastised, Odo shifted his weight from foot to foot. Everything else in the room suddenly got more interesting than looking into Aleexa's eyes.

"He also said this sort of talk makes you uncomfortable."

Odo gave a noncommittal grunt.

She leaned forward. "People at this stage in their lives start to withdraw from the world and reach out only to specific people close to them. There is no prediction for when this opening will happen. If you aren't receptive and miss it, you'll regret it."

"How will I know?" He asked without the intent to care about the answer.

"It's different for everyone." She stood up and shrewdly studied his face. "You'll just know when it's time to say what needs to be said."

Kejal peeked into the study. "The ambassador is preparing to leave."

"We're on our way." Odo replied.

Kejal grinned and practically ran back into the living room.

Aleexa nudged Odo's shoulder. "Your son is adorable. Has anyone ever told you that?"

Finally, Odo found something worth chuckling at. "He didn't get that from me."

Her expression sobered. "He is struggling, too."

"I know." Odo started for the door. "We both saw Doctor Mora as practically invincible."

"That's how parents are."

Odo said nothing more on the matter. He let Aleexa leave the room ahead of him.

In the living room, Kejal managed to get Doctor Mora and Ambassador Spock together for a holo-image.

"It was an honor to meet you," Spock said to Doctor Mora.

Doctor Mora smiled and took a deep breath. "Ambassador, the honor was mine, too."

They shook hands. Spock raised his right one in the Vulcan salute. Doctor Mora mirrored the gesture, his eyes practically glowing.

Odo grabbed the holo-imager from Kejal and captured the moment.

Spock approached Kejal next. "Thank you for your invitation. This experience was extremely enlightening."

"You're welcome, sir." Kejal said back, smiling. "I can't say how much I appreciate your coming here. I know you're busy."

A corner of Spock's mouth twitched. Odo knew enough about Vulcan body language to recognize the Ambassador's amusement.

"Take care of your father," he said.

"I will." Kejal raised his hand in the Vulcan salute. "Live long and prosper, Ambassador."

"Live long and prosper, Kejal." Spock seemed pleased as he returned the gesture.

Then, turning to Aleexa, he went on, "Thank you for the meal. I found it quite satisfying."

Aleexa dipped her head shyly. "You're welcome, Ambassador Spock."

Odo found himself fixed in the Vulcan's wise eyes. They were darker than Kejal's. "I will contact you if I need safe passage through Dominion space again."

"I'll make certain you receive it," said Odo. He nodded respectfully. "I'll see you out, Ambassador."

Spock pulled his rain robe over his head as they approached the door.

"I always wanted to salute a Vulcan," Kejal said in the background.

"Oh, that was such a moment." Doctor Mora answered him.

Their voices faded when the door hissed shut.

Almost on cue, a hover tram pulled up.

Spock pushed the hood off when he noticed the rain wasn't that heavy.

"Doctor Mora speaks highly of you," he said.

"He does that with everyone. I'm his favorite project."

"You are far more than that to him." For a moment, Spock appeared to hesitate. He looked up at the gray, swirling sky. "I was not able to reconcile with my father before his death. I spent much of my life believing he did not approve of me. He could not show the depth of his love for me until after he died."

Odo frowned and shook his head. First Aleexa, now Spock? He knew better than to spit out the 'mind your own business' statement burning the tip of his tongue.

"I...appreciate your observation." Odo murmured. He didn't offer Spock a handshake. Instead, he politely opened the hover tram door. "Have a safe trip."

Spock eased himself into the seat. "Thank you."

Nodding, Odo let Spock pull the tram door shut and stood back while the vehicle rumbled away. The moment it was gone, he stuck his foot out into the rain and emptied the vacuole of soup into the dirt.

Arms embraced him from behind. He chuckled, leaning forward and lifting Kejal's feet off the ground.

"You made Doctor Mora's day. That was nice of you."

Kejal swung his legs before he hopped down. "Father always said he wanted to meet him, but he never got the chance. I saw an opportunity and I took it."

"You never cease to surprise me." Odo wrapped an arm around Kejal's shoulders. "Come on, it's going to pour in a minute."

They stepped inside together.

Doctor Mora sat in his chair with both hands folded on top of his cane. He stared out the oval window, watching the brewing downpour.

"Come here, Kejal."

Kejal glanced Odo's way and approached the chair. Doctor Mora pulled him down and mussed up his orderly hair.

"You rascal," said the scientist.

"Hey! That's, ack-- not the hair!" Kejal squirmed, his voice expressing delight. "Watch the hair!"

Laughing, Doctor Mora smoothed Kejal's hair back into perfect order and encircled him in his arms. The wrinkles in his face deepened, especially around his eyes. "Thank you for today, Kejal. I had the time of my life."

Odo longed to protest that Kejal was too big to sit on anyone's lap, or that outsiders wouldn't understand. He turned away instead and went back into the study. Watching the rain fall outside became far more interesting than witnessing what he could not have.

.o

"Father?"

"Yes, Kejal?"

They still huddled together in the overstuffed chair. Outside, rain poured down in sheets. The deka tree acted like a filter that protected most of the garden from the onslaught.

"You already tried everything, didn't you?"

"Yes."

Kejal rested his head on Mora's shoulder. He felt his father's pulse tap gently against his brow.

"How do people get Delfeya syndrome?"

"Both parents have to carry the gene in precisely the same spot in their genetic makeup, and their offspring has to inherit two pairs of the gene in order to develop the disease. That is why it's so rare. Perhaps one in ten thousand Bajorans will match up genetically, and one in one hundred thousand children are conceived with two pairs of the gene."

Mora spread his hands. "On the molecular level, life is a gamble. A veritable slot machine of genes and proteins. Sometimes, you lose everything." He squeezed Kejal's arm for emphasis, "And sometimes, you win."

Kejal closed his eyes and listened to the rain outside.

"So the only cure is to remove it right at conception."

"Right now?" Mora sighed. "I'm afraid so."

Kejal's face twisted and he buried it against Mora's shoulder. The idea that this unstoppable, busy man was mortal reminded him of how different they were.

Solids...they get old. They die when their cells can't sustain them anymore. My people are almost immortal.

"I don't know what to do," he muttered. "I need to do something."

Mora didn't speak for a long time. Outside, the rain lightened. Kejal counted the water drops falling into a puddle beneath the oval window.

At last, Mora replied. "You can help me plan for the end. If you're willing, I would like you to sing at my burial."

Burial.

Kejal flinched at the word. It sounded so final.

"I haven't decided on a coffin yet. I know I want something simple and biodegradable."

The dread in his substance expanded.

"And I would prefer to be buried at sunset. I think-- Kejal?" Mora gripped Kejal's wrist. "Kejal, relax. That hurts!"

Kejal realized he gripped too tight and lifted his hand off Mora's arm.

"Eventually, you will have to let me go," said Mora, his voice gentle.

"I don't want to."

Mora's sigh ruffled the hair above Kejal's ear. "No one does, but it is inevitable."

"I'm afraid to watch. No, I'm terrified."

"Terrified? Why?"

Shaking his head, Kejal sat up to look his father in the eyes. Shadows crossed his face. "It's the unknown. What if I see something horrible? What if we make a mistake and bury you alive?"

At that, Mora broke into a small, sad smile.

"That's still two months away. Don't worry about that moment until it comes. You'll be ready for it by the time I reach that point. I promise you. I'll make sure you're prepared." He paused, squinting one eye. "Let me make you another promise, Kejal."

"Like what?"

"I'll give you a sign when I die. There won't be any doubt in your mind that my pagh escaped to freedom. No guesswork needed."

"How?"

"I don't know yet," Mora shrugged. "But you'll know it when you see it. I swear it."

"I-- " Kejal jerked backwards. "Ew! Your nose is bleeding."

"Ah, blast it." Mora snatched up the napkin he was using as a coaster for his tea mug and pressed it to his nose. "This isn't going to hold it. Go replicate me a handkerchief."

Kejal ran to do that. The napkin was almost stained through by the time he got back. "Does that hurt, father?"

Mora wrinkled his nose. "No, it's annoying." He leaned forward, letting the blood run out of his nostrils and onto the black handkerchief.

"This is what terrifies me!" Kejal burst out. He did not care if his exclamation sounded childish. "This, right here! What if this is how you go? Humanoids die if they lose too much blood! What if you develop a nosebleed that won't stop?"

"Uh-oh, nosebleed?" Aleexa appeared at Kejal's side. "They don't cause significant blood loss. Bajorans have about three thousand and six hundred milliliters of blood in their bodies." She studied Mora for several seconds. "Looks like you're a pressure bleeder."

"Hm?"

"Your nosebleeds always coincide with changes in the barometric pressure." She tilted her head. "And Bajor's shifts around a lot when one season is transitioning into the next."

"It doesn't change that much."

Chuckling, Aleexa made no move to help him. "True, but try explaining it to the capillaries in your nose. Is it slowing down at all?"

"Mmhmm. They rarely last long. Kejal, I'm all right." Mora blew his nose, folded up the handkerchief until nothing wet would be accidentally touched and let Aleexa dispose of it. He smiled. "Don't look so worried. See? I'm fine."

Kejal rubbed the back of his head. His skin was shiny, giving him the appearance of profuse sweat. "Okay. You're fine."

"You aren't." Mora pulled himself upright and patted Kejal's shoulder. "You look shiny. How long have you been holding your shape?"

"Too long." Kejal sighed.

Before anyone said a word, he poured himself into the large container by the wall and tried to forget the images of his father's face covered in blood.
End Notes:

**Chapter soundtrack**

Surprise Guest/Odo's Anguish: https://app.box.com/s/cwvj96dlvcgezf4ntfde

Kejal Panics: https://app.box.com/s/beduvqqu1jnt3453x8bh
7. Hardheaded by Cyndi
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7. Hardheaded

.o

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.o

.o

Mora seated himself at the desk in his study and synced his PADD with the computer console. Behind him, Odo sat on the day bed, watching the rain blow against the window.

"Why choose a Bajoran appearance?"

"Excuse me?"

Mora gestured to his own face. "You have nose ridges."

Odo reached up and lightly touched the three primitive ridges on his nose. "I can pass for a human if I want to." He frowned and the ridges disappeared, making him look completely human-- save for the lack of defined eyebrows. Then, with a blink, the ridges reformed. "But I prefer to look Bajoran. Everything I know began on Bajor."

He faced the window again. Mora took a moment to admire Odo's ears. They looked so complete now. He had a defined helix, antihelix and even an antitragus. Tiny details he couldn't even grasp twenty years ago.

No matter how Odo changed, his eyes remained the same shade of blue. Much paler than Mora's own.

"Am I distracting you?" Odo asked coldly.

"Not at all." Mora answered.

"You can't resist studying me, can you?" He turned his head. "Do you think I don't feel your eyes boring a hole in me?"

"I wasn't studying, Odo. I'm admiring. It's truly remarkable how far you've come."

"You always say that."

"Because I mean it." Mora tapped on his desktop. "You know, sometimes, I still miss having you over my shoulder."

"Mm. What do you intend to write about?"

The question took Mora's memory back so many years. To the times when Odo was young and curious and sticking his nose into everything.

"I plan to write about a question. What makes life become life, Odo?"

Odo snorted at the inquiry. "DNA is the foundation of life."

"True..." Mora swiveled in his chair to fully face the window. He held up his hand and pinched something invisible between thumb and forefinger. "But what tells that DNA it's alive? What happens within the molecules to turn on life? What lights up a brain into a thinking machine? What really animates us? Is it chemicals, or is it truly something else? Some call it a spirit, a pagh, or life-force. What if life is governed by something we can't measure yet?"

"I don't know. Kejal almost broke down into nothing. My body restored him using pieces of itself. It's why he looks like me."

"Exactly!" Mora snapped his fingers. "Something happened when you conceived him, Odo. Something incredible and intangible enough to make me question life itself."

"Doesn't the same thing happen in the womb when two parents mate to produce a child?"

"Yes. The genes mix and multiply. Still, even then, what brings that mass of cells to life? What is behind that force?"

"I always thought it was the chemical reactions. Neurotransmitters, proteins and so forth. Cells die if their processes are interrupted. Kill enough of them and the life form can't survive."

"And what happens to the life, Odo?" Mora didn't know whether he asked for his sake or for Odo's input.

Odo slowly shrugged his shoulders without taking his eyes off the window. The subtle stiffening of his posture gave away his discomfort at the subject matter.

"I don't know, Doctor Mora. The electrical activity in your brain is energy, and energy changes form. Perhaps the energy behind the electrical impulses in your neurons becomes the heat energy that dissipates as a dead body cools. I...apologize if that sounds cruel."

"No, no, I respect your hypothesis." Mora couldn't help but smile. "And where do you think the consciousness goes?"

"Nowhere." Odo deadpanned. "It's electricity. Once it transforms into something else, you're gone. Poof. Like you never existed at all."

"Strange...I have a hard time believing it's so simple. What is the point of life, of learning, if it all comes to nothing after we die?"

Odo lowered his head and let his hands fall into his lap. "You're asking the wrong person, Doctor Mora. Kejal and I...we will never die unless we are killed. We aren't as transient as you." He grunted, looked up again and started to chuckle. "Perhaps that is why most of my people prefer the Link over solids. Less grief, less loss. Heh, no wonder the Vorta still think we're gods."

Mora leaned forward in his chair.

"Odo, I'd like to make a pact with you."

"Why?"

"I want to." Mora peered up at him. "I told Kejal the same thing I'm about to tell you. When I die, Odo, and if there is something afterward, I will reach out and prove it to you."

"Spoken like a scientist." Odo's voice had enough sarcasm in it to drown a Ferengi. "I'll make a note to look up the nearest medium when it's all over. So, when should I start? Right after you die? After the funeral? Tch. Signs from beyond the grave...hah! I think you're going senile."

"Oh my! I'm so wounded!" Mora coughed a laugh at Odo's biting remarks. "You never change, do you?"

"Hmph. You brought it up." Odo stood. "I'll let you get to work."

"I enjoyed the conversation."

"I'm glad someone did."

With that, he left the room in silence. Thunder rumbled outside to fill it in.

Mora arched an eyebrow at the doorway Odo went through. How could a simple sentence carry so much bitterness?

Odo wasn't always that way. Sitting back, Mora stared at his computer console and remembered...

He hummed to himself all throughout setup. Scanners and recording equipment were trained on the unknown sample's bucket. Last night, it did something remarkable without the recording devices running, and he hoped to capture its activity on record.

Yes, last night, the creature showed it had some understanding of language. He asked it to shape shift a cube, and it did without any electrostatic prompting.

Mora stated the date and time. Then he poured the unknown sample onto the table.

"I know you understand some of what I say." Mora said to the inert liquid. "Become a cube."

The gelatinous mass abruptly formed into a tan cube. He tapped on it, and it felt spongy.

"A note for the log: The unknown sample responds to verbal commands." He looked down at the cube. "Liquefy."

Nothing happened.

Mora frowned.

"Liquefy," he said again.

Finally, the goo obeyed.

Mora turned away to pick up his tricorder. He heard the swish indicating the life form was changing shape. Only this time, it lasted far longer than normal. He faced the table again.

The sample was growing. It rose higher and higher, and suddenly it broadened. At the top, it grew rounder. Four tentacles sprouted off the sides and transformed into webbed hands and feet.

Mora gasped and leaned forward.

It had eyes! Primitive, colorless, but eyes nonetheless! And they were looking right at him!

He waved his hand. Its eyes followed the movement-- it could see!

After a moment, it lifted its hand and imitated the gesture.

"Oh!" Mora barely contained his delight at capturing this on his recording devices.

He touched his nose with his fingertips. The unknown sample did the same on itself. He reached out to touch its hand, and it let him. Its surface felt like warm, shifting ballistic gelatin. Fluid, but formed enough to maintain its shape.

Suddenly, the alien tried to stand up. Its legs couldn't support it and it abruptly splattered like a broken egg. Before Mora reacted, the creature oozed into its bucket, which he had placed on the floor earlier.

Over the next week, Mora encouraged the life form to use its new shape, but it didn't seem to understand facial expressions at all. Mora noticed it mimicking his facial and body movements. It did not appear capable of speech, but it responded to verbal commands approximately half the time.

The specimen improved upon its humanoid appearance more each day. Mastering its limbs became a struggle Mora hadn't anticipated. It lacked many of the reflexes humanoids took for granted.

Mora held his arms out to the creature. It was sitting on the table, looking at him.

"Come on," he said, wiggling his fingers. "Take my hands."

The specimen grasped his hands. He took care not to grip them too tightly.

"Remember now, your legs have to be very solid to handle your weight."

Looking down, the unknown sample concentrated on its legs. Mora gave a tug and suddenly it was standing on its two feet for the first time. The creature's clear eyes widened. It appeared frightened by this new posture.

"Good...good! You're standing up! Now I'll be right behind you. All right? I won't let you fall." Mora slipped behind the alien and grasped its upper arms. "Whenever you're ready. Take it slowly."

The alien's posture stiffened. It glanced over its shoulder as if reassuring itself of his presence. Then it moved one foot forward.

"That's it." Mora said. He gave the creature a nudge. "Now balance your weight on that leg and bring the other foot forward."

The specimen obeyed and took its first wobbly steps.

They practiced this for days until, one morning, the unknown sample shook Mora's hands off and stumbled ahead by itself. It walked all the way to the far wall.

And Mora swore its colorless eyes twinkled
.

Time began to pass.

Mora stepped into his lab early one morning and spotted the alien completing a shift. It stared at itself in a full length mirror. He noticed it mimicked his slicked back hairstyle and that it was very, very naked. There were no external genitalia and it lacked the cleft in its buttocks. It had extremely basic facial features like a sculpture ready to be fleshed out.

The creature stood there, poking at its own skin and moving its lips. No teeth yet, but there appeared to be something resembling a tongue in its mouth.

"Hello," Mora whispered, conscious that it still wasn't used to hearing with its ears.

Startled, the specimen turned completely around to face him. Its eyes were vivid, electric blue.

Mora smiled and folded his hands in front of him. "You're looking well this morning. How do you feel?"

The unknown sample imitated his stance.

"Use your mouth," Mora pointed to his own lips. "Just like we practiced."

Suddenly, the alien frowned! A spontaneous expression without prompting! Then it blinked its eyelids and spoke its first words as if it had been speaking its entire life.

"What am I?"


"What are you?" Mora mumbled to himself. His mind returned to the present and he whispered the same response he gave so many years ago. "Good question. Let's find out."

For the next few days, Mora went right to his study upon waking and hardly came out to eat or socialize. The treatise and the question it asked of him clung to his mind like a vine, and he wanted to make sure he finished it before he became too sick to write.

On the fourth night, Mora fell asleep at his desk. His dreams took him back to the accretion disk he remembered from before, and there he bore witness to the new star shining inside its nebular shell.

.o

Noisy space ports weren't Odo's favorite place in the universe. However, he tolerated it on this sunny mid-morning. He'd been awaiting the appointed day since he arrived on Bajor a week ago.

Thirty years, and their love survived.

Odo looked down at the Rigelian chocolates clutched in his hands. He never imagined Kira remaining single after his departure. In fact, at their parting, he silently wished her well with the hope of her finding someone else. Learning she never married surprised him.

That woman never ceases to amaze me.

"Shuttle one-nine-nine-five now disembarking."

The announcement brought him back to full alert.

Kira was the fourth person off the shuttle. She wore a sleeveless maroon jumpsuit with a flowing purple vest held in place by a thin gold belt. A matching barrette kept her hair bound in a loose ponytail.

At her brilliant smile, Odo stopped noticing the disorder in the space port. He hurried to greet her near one of the large, decorative domed windows. The sunlight shone in her auburn hair. Her brown eyes almost melted him on the spot. Age had not touched her beauty at all as far as he was concerned.

"I brought you something," they said at the same time.

Kira chuckled. Odo smiled and handed her the box of Rigelian chocolates. She offered him something wrapped in cloth.

"How was the trip?" Odo asked while he untied the twine around his gift.

"Pretty quiet. I think I slept for half of-- oh! Delicious!" Kira ate one of the chocolates. "Mm, thank you...the trip wasn't too bad."

Odo set aside the cloth and looked curiously at the four PADDS held together by large rubber bands. Without separating them, he switched on the top one.

Detective novels, all written by Tixom. His favorite author.

"Ah, he finished the Shaarlek series. Thank you," he said, his eyes lighting up. "Nobody writes a mystery quite like a Talaxian."

Kira leaned against him, grinning. "I thought you might like that."

"I do. Very much." Odo turned his head and kissed her forehead. "Where will you be staying?"

"Ah, about that. Doctor Mora told me he has a guest room available." She shrugged. "I took him up on the offer. It'll save me the hotel credits. Plus, it means I'm right there with you. No traveling back and forth into the city."

Of course Doctor Mora would meddle with that. This time, though, Odo realized he didn't mind it so much.

"I see your point." He picked up Kira's travel bag. Its weight didn't hinder him at all. They walked casually towards the hover tram pickup dock.

Kira looped her arm around his. "How has Doctor Mora been since he left the station?"

Odo accepted the gesture. "Better. At the moment he is working on a scientific treatise. Don't be surprised if he jumps up and disappears to write something in it."

"That's how scientists are." She squinted in the sunbeams streaming through the trees. "How about Kejal?"

"I think he's over the shock of Doctor Mora's collapse. However, I wouldn't discuss death around him if I were you. He still gets upset."

A tram pulled up at the dock. Odo told the driver the coordinates to Doctor Mora's house. He held the door open for Kira, and didn't climb in until she properly settled in her seat. Her travel bag found a nice home near their feet.

Kira reached for his hand again. "How have you been handling all of this?"

"I just...have." Odo shrugged, interlocking their fingers. "I am surprised to see him dying at such a young age for Bajorans. I think his father lived to be a hundred and fifty, and his mother a little longer. They were already getting older when he was born. As he says it, he was a happy surprise."

"How old is he?"

"Ninety-five."

She shook her head. "Kejal seems so attached to him."

"Yes," Odo answered. Disguising his annoyance took all his willpower. "He is."

"It bothers you."

He bit the insides of his lips to stop the sharp retort. Were his features really so easy to read now? He looked down at his leather boots. That day, he felt a little lazy and didn't bother to shape shift actual feet inside his footwear. It certainly saved him the pain after a careless person ran over his foot with a luggage cart!

"Seeing things through the Great Link, and actually seeing them are just as different as observing a romantic relationship versus being in one. I see what could have been for me, and I know Doctor Mora will never care about m-- oh...these feelings are ridiculous. I should be past that now. It is what it is." Odo frowned and gazed out the side window.

"Odo," Kira said, "It's okay to feel hurt."

He looked at her. She met his eyes with such tender caring that he nearly liquefied inside. In her presence, he felt as naked and vulnerable as he used to thirty years ago.

"You were traumatized as a baby, Odo." She squeezed his hand. "You told me yourself that Doctor Mora didn't know you were a life form at first. You said he never set out to maliciously hurt you. But you were still traumatized. That isn't something you 'get over.'"

"It wish it didn't bother me like it does." Odo replied bitterly. "It's in the past. It should stay there. Then I see how they act together and-- hm, Nerys, let's change the subject." He lightened his tone and kissed her nose ridges. "I have you here. I should be celebrating this moment, not mourning what I can't have."

"Odo," She gave him a serious look. "You can't run from this forever. Eventually, you have to turn around and face it."

"I know, but I can't do it right now."

"I understand." Kira patted his hand. "Don't wait too long, okay? You'll never forgive yourself if he dies before you talk about this."

"I know...I-I'll talk to him soon. Once I find the right way to bring it up."

"Okay. I'll hold you to that."

She started to say something else after that. Then she paused and lowered her head, chuckling quietly to herself. Her cheeks turned a lovely rosy hue.

Odo blinked. "What's so funny?"

"I just remembered an old Earth proverb."

"Oh?"

Still smiling, she scooted closer and laid her head on his shoulder. "If you love someone, let them go. If they return, they were meant to be yours."

He wrapped his arm around her as the tram pulled up to Doctor Mora's house. The softness of her form fit so well against his side. She'd put on a little weight over the years, he noticed, yet it didn't detract from the beauty of who she was to him.

"I will always be yours, Nerys." Odo whispered in her ear. He let his brow rest against hers and dropped his voice to a low rumble. "I was yours the first time I set eyes on you."

Kira brushed her fingertip across his bottom lip and the physical desires he used to feel for her sprang to life again.

"I'll be yours as long as you remember me." She kissed the end of his nose and nodded towards Doctor Mora's house. "Let's head inside."

Odo completely forgot they were still sitting in the hover tram. "Of course. I'll get your luggage."

They reached for the bag at the same time. Their heads smacked together.

"Oh!" Kira grabbed her eyebrow.

"Ack!" Odo rubbed forehead. "Nerys, are you all right?"

"I'm fine." She started to giggle. "Ooh, your head is harder than it looks."

At that, Odo heard himself join her mirth. "Thanks...I think."

.o

Kejal's green clothing blended in perfectly with the leaves of his beloved deka tree. He'd scurried outside to climb it the moment he heard Mora tell Aleexa about what a nice day it was and that he felt like working outside.

Kejal morphed into bark on a branch when Aleexa placed a folding chair under the tree. A short time later, he sensed Mora settling himself down.

He silently regained his humanoid shape. Mora kept his head lowered, his focus intent upon the two PADDS in his lap.

Too easy.

Kejal pulled a nearby seed pod off its branch and let it fall.

CRACK!

"Gah!" Mora nearly leapt out of his skin.

"Target obliterated!" Kejal shouted, laughing.

"Kejal!" Mora chuckled, picking up the offending seed pod. "I missed having you do that."

Kejal dangled himself upside down and crossed his arms. "All work and no play makes you grumpy anyway."

"Old men are supposed to be cranky." Mora made a face.

"You're only as old as you feel."

"Mm...I used to climb trees when I was a child." He sat back, his eyes faraway. "I broke my left knee falling out of one. That is probably why it's arthritic now. I don't think it ever healed quite right." Then his eyes widened and he peered at the PADD on his left knee. "Ah...nucleotide sequencers, where did I file y-- aha!"

Kejal liquefied and reformed after he plopped onto the ground next to Mora's chair. At that angle, he realized Mora had lost weight. Or was it an illusion caused by his baggy shirt and pants?

Mora grew intent on his work. Kejal stood up and glanced at his hands. The bones in his wrists and knuckles were obvious under his skin. His fingernails had a slight blue tint.

Kejal sat down hard on the swing. Pretending his father wasn't sick was easier when he couldn't see it so clearly.

"...sub-nucleotide sequencing..." Mora muttered under his breath. "Kejal, your species is a wonder. You can choose which genetic markers you turn on and off." He glanced up, smiling. "Your genetic profile suggests you should have blue eyes like Odo."

"I can make them blue." Kejal said. "They wouldn't match the rest of me." He scuffed his feet on the ground. "What do you think Olan would've looked like?"

"Mm..." Mora leaned back in his chair. "I always imagined Olan having Leruu's eyes."

"Green like this." Kejal caressed a nearby leaf. "Wouldn't the trait for blue eyes be more dominant in his genetic sequence?"

"It might have been." Mora shrugged one shoulder. "Then again, genes love to play tricks on us. My maternal grandmother had green eyes and so did my mother, but my grandfather's eyes were blue. My father had hazel eyes. The blue skipped a generation. It's rather amusing-- except for my eye color, I look almost exactly like my grandfather did at my age."

"I saw an image of him...you do look like twins, except he combed his hair different."

Mora snickered. "A good forehead is a terrible thing to waste."

Kejal pushed off with his legs, pumped once and let the swing slow naturally. All around him, the completed garden shimmered.

"I missed this. Us, talking about silly things under this tree."

"It wasn't the same without you here." Mora looked up and squinted.

"Oh, that's a charming expression." Kejal pulled out a holo-imager and snapped an image.

Mora chuckled at that. "And why are you wasting space with pictures of me making ridiculous faces?"

"Because they're funny?"

Mora snatched the device out of Kejal's hands. "Give me that." He turned it around.

Kejal crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue. He heard the imager beep.

"Nice, Kejal. That one will please the women."

"That's right, father. I'm irresistible! Even when I look ridiculous." Kejal looped his arms around the swing's ropes and leaned forward. "I have every intent to take one of mother kissing mom."

"I wish you luck in that regard. Odo doesn't normally like having his picture taken."

"The trick is catching him before he blocks your view with his hand." Kejal started to swing again. "I don't try it very often. He gets angry."

"You can thank me for his hatred of image capturing devices." Mora shut off his PADD and set it aside. "Where is Odo? I heard him say he was leaving, but I didn't catch the last part of it."

"He's picking mom up from the space port." Kejal hopped off the swing and sat on the ground by Mora's feet. "They'll be back any minute."

"Odo in love." Mora shook his head, smiling. He leaned forward and rubbed the left side of his lower back. "I never thought I'd see the day."

"He gets all starry-eyed if somebody talks about mom. Like you do when someone mentions Leruu."

Kejal's words were rewarded by the exact starry-eyed look he described.

"I'll never not love her, Kejal. She was the only woman for me, and it is the reason I never remarried. I have a sneaking suspicion Kira says the same about Odo. If that isn't love, then I don't know what love is."

Kejal leaned his head against his father's knee. "You never told me how you met her."

At that, Mora's eyes lost focus. He touched Kejal's hair and gazed off into the distance.

"We were children...I was twelve, and she just reached her thirteenth year. I had a scuffle with a much larger and stronger boy named Kartal Lem. I was scrawny compared to him. He beat me bloody, let me tell you!" Mora chuckled and wiped his nose. "So there I was with my nose bleeding and a black eye, and Leruu just appeared there. I'm sure she saw the whole thing. She wiped the blood off my nose with her sleeve, chased down the bigger boy and beat him to a crying pulp!

"She came back afterward and told me, word for word, 'I know you didn't start that fight, and I hate idiots who don't fight fair.' Then she introduced herself as Shalla Leruu. I was shocked that such a delicate looking girl had the ability to knock down someone so much bigger than herself. We became friends on the spot, and my life changed forever.

"That was the thing with Leruu. She had the sweetest personality, but--heh, heh! --she had quite a temper, too!"

Kejal's face lit up when he watched Mora reminisce. "Did you ever fight?"

"Oh, yes!" He winked one eye shut. "And we made up every single time."

"How?"

"Er...we...well..."

"Ohhh, you had sex!" Kejal laughed. "I know how these things work."

"Argh! Kejal, that's personal." Mora cleared his throat.

Kejal snickered and breathed in the cool almost-spring air. "I still wish I could have met her."

"Me, too." Mora sighed. "I have no doubt in my mind that she will be the one to take me into the Celestial Temple when the time comes. I'm looking forward to it."

The subject dulled Kejal's lively mood. He almost resented it. The response leapt off his lips before he could stop it.

"Don't forget about me."

"Never." Mora leaned forward until they were almost face to face. "I'll tell her all about you and Odo. I promise."

"And will you visit? Even if I can't see you?"

"If such becomes possible, yes. Most definitely." Mora pushed himself up out of the chair. His frown betrayed his pain. "Here, help me get everything inside. Brrr...I'm getting chilly."

"Sure." Kejal scooped up the PADDS and folding chair. He handed Mora his cane. "Good thing it's going to be a long time before you have to go anywhere."
End Notes:

**Chapter soundtrack**

Mora Remembers: https://app.box.com/s/0navt70f05d4352czgvo

Reunited: https://app.box.com/s/mg7cfj04b0born49mweb

Avoiding the Truth: https://app.box.com/s/xls4bnvju85dv91sd5pw
8. The Perfect Dress by Cyndi
.o

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8. The Perfect Dress

.o

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.o

Kejal was getting clingy again. He always did that when thoughts about the future scared him-- a trait he had long before they separated twenty years ago. Mora kept his mouth shut because he knew commenting on the issue would only upset the young Changeling.

Still, Mora worried about Kejal's emotional well-being. What if Kejal couldn't deal with his declining health? What if he couldn't handle seeing another sentient being transition from life to death?

Kejal's talent for walking out and disappearing rivaled Odo's. Mora knew he'd never survive another abandonment like that.

No, stop it! Kejal cares too much to run off. I didn't make the mistakes I made with Odo. Mora shook the negative thought side. He'll be ready. He is a quick learner.

The warm interior of the house chased the cold off his bones, but it did nothing for his pain. He eased himself into his favorite chair by the window and propped his feet up on the footrest. Moving anything below the waist sent fresh, hot aching through the left side of his lower back.

"Oof! Kejal, could you bring me my metorapan?"

"Of course." Kejal hurried to retrieve it. He skittered right back into the bedroom to watch for Odo and Kira.

The medicine came with a freshly mixed fruit smoothie.

"I won't let you forget those herbs." Aleexa said with a wink. "I'm due to check on another patient. Will you be all right?"

Mora hesitated long enough to sip the fruity concoction. He figured the pain in his back was nothing compared to the suffering of Aleexa's other patients. Besides, the metorapan had already taken the edge off.

"Oh, sure. People need you, you should attend them." He raised his glass. "Thank you, Aleexa."

She smiled, patted his hand and took up her knapsack. "Kejal, I'm leaving for today. I'll be back tomorrow!"

Kejal called from the bedroom, "See you tomorrow, Aleexa!"

The door whirred.

Mora spent the next hour working on his treatise. He saw Kejal perk up through the corner of his eye, chuckled and set his PADD aside.

"They're here!" Kejal ran for the front door like a large, hoofed beast. "Mother! Mom! Hello, good to see you again. I'll get your bag. Father is in the living room."

"Well, hello to you, too!" Kira's familiar voice wafted into the living room. "Thanks. Put my bag wherever it's out of the way. Oh. This is a beautiful house."

Odo and Kira walked into the living room holding hands. The look in Odo's eyes was a sight to behold. Mora forced himself up to greet the couple with a smile.

"Welcome to my home, General Kira."

"Thank you, Doctor Mora...and please, I'm off duty. Call me Nerys."

"Only if you agree to call me Pol," Mora replied playfully.

Kira nodded once. "Deal."

"I'll get you a mug of tea." Odo kissed her on the shoulder.

She smiled at him. "I'd like that." Then she faced Mora and shook his hand. "This is a gorgeous house. Ooh, I saw that. Let's both sit."

"My wife did the decorating." Mora replied. "Mmh, let's sit on the couch, thank you. This chair won't fit us both, and Odo might get jealous."

Odo scoffed in the kitchen. "Hmph!"

Kira helped Mora seat himself. He remembered the last time she came to his aid. Decades ago, she assisted him to his quarters when he drank too much on Deep Space Nine. It did his heart good to see a woman not hardened by the horrors of the Occupation. Many weren't as fortunate as her.

"I hope your trip here wasn't troublesome," said Mora.

"Not at all. I slept through most of it." Kira covered a yawn with her hand. "The time differences really get to me."

"Me, too."

"Here you are." Odo reappeared holding an orange mug of deka tea.

She took it, smiling, and the soft expression Odo offered back reminded Mora of how he used to look at Leruu.

Kejal bounded back into the living room. He almost plowed into Odo in his excited haste to jump on the couch next to Kira.

Oh, Kejal, sometimes you're still such a child, Mora mused.

Kira pinched Kejal's cheek. "Someone has a wild streak."

"You don't know the half of it." Kejal said back. He wiggled his nose at her. "I'm glad you're here."

"It's nice to get away. It's hectic on the station! A bunch of Klingons almost took over Quark's, and Malath spent all afternoon shuttling the drunk ones to their guest quarters. That was enough paperwork to make anyone throw themselves out the nearest airlock. Now-- ah..." Kira's attention was drawn to the holograms under the oval window. She smiled tenderly at the images of Kejal's birth. Then her eyes went to a picture of Leruu. "She was beautiful."

Mora flinched at a pang in his lower back. He covered it with a fake cough. "She was, and she would have aged beautifully." The nagging pain refused to back off. He forced himself upright. "Would you excuse me? I need to lie down for awhile."

"Oh, I'm sorry, was I keeping you up?"

"No, no! Not at all. I'm just a tired old man." Mora waved a hand. "Please, stay out and visit, and help yourself to anything you want to eat or drink."

Kejal's smile slipped. He slid off the couch and draped his arm around Mora's shoulders. "Come on, I'll help you."

Grrr, damn this disease.

Mora wasn't sure how Kejal got him into the bedroom. The last thing he remembered was stretching out on his side. He woke up to darkness outside and a puddle of Kejal regenerating on the foot of his bed.

Grunting, Mora dosed himself with metorapan, got out of bed and replicated himself a glass of water. As he drank it, he heard a noise. It happened again, louder this time.

Mora limped closer to his bedroom door. It sounded like Kira gasping in pain. He almost ventured out to check on her-- and then he heard Odo. Their vocalizations accelerated and suddenly muffled themselves.

Suddenly, Mora decided he needed to wash his face. Anything to get away from hearing such a private moment.

"Father?" Kejal's voice gurgled as he took shape. He froze, wide-eyed, and turned towards the door. "Are they having-- "

"Shhh!" Mora nabbed Kejal's arm and hauled him into the bathroom. "It's none of your business, Kejal."

Kejal pointed to the toilet. "Urinating is private, too, isn't it?"

"I'm not in here to do that." Mora turned on the sink and ran his hands under the cool water. He splashed it on his face, but the embarrassment wouldn't stop burning.

"Father?"

"Whatever you do, Kejal, do not discuss what you heard with them."

"Why?"

Mora rubbed the corners of his eyes with his fingertips. "Because it's personal between them. I thought we went over this."

"We did. You said people do it because it feels good to procreate." Kejal gestured over his shoulder. "And they can't reproduce together, so why? I thought love was holding hands and getting married."

Now, Mora considered climbing out his bathroom window. He put the lid down on the waste commode instead and sat down.

"All right, all right...I'll explain it to you." He cleared his throat and started to speak.

Mora told Kejal how he loved watching the sunrise gleam off Leruu's bare shoulders in the morning. The soft hollow in the side of her throat. Her cute way of wrapping her leg around his. Spending an entire day without putting on a single garment of clothing. Her lips against his ear.

Kejal wrinkled his forehead. "That isn't what they're doing out there."

Mora couldn't help but laugh. "Because making love is more than intercourse."

"This is weird. Humanoids are weird."

"We're all a bit strange, Kejal. Plus, you asked." Mora stood up, yawning. "Now I am going to do my business and go back to sleep."

"Ew." Kejal wasted no time exiting the bathroom.

"And don't go creeping out into the living room."

"What am I? A pervert?"

The way Kejal said it sounded so childishly snotty that Mora snickered to himself as he used the toilet and washed his hands. He climbed back into bed and slept until the pain woke him up again. It ached like a hot coal in the left side of his lower back.

"Ugh..."

Daylight poured through the windows. Mora wiped the crust off the inner corners of his eyes.

His bedroom door was open. A shadow moved past it.

Mora dosed himself with metorapan, grabbed his cane and padded into the living room. Pillows and blankets were piled up in the middle of the floor.

"Shh," Kejal held a finger up to his own mouth. He leaned back on the couch and studied the PADD in his hands. "Mom is showering and mother is asleep."

Mora glanced to his left and saw Odo stretched out on his side amid the blankets on the ground. In sleep, he didn't breathe at all. He had one hand folded under his cheek. His rumpled hair fell around the pillow and his upturned ear, and his only cover was the white bed sheet draped over his body. He seemed to be smiling and his face looked utterly peaceful.

Mora's expression softened. He reached down and covered Odo's exposed shoulder with the sheet. Odo didn't even flinch.

"Does he toss and turn?" asked Mora.

Kejal shook his head. "He picks a position and stays in it. His eyes move and he breathes when he dreams...that's about it. He's not like you."

Mora gave an amused sniff. True, he twitched a lot in his sleep. The trait ran in his family.

"Remarkable." He scrunched his nose and limped towards the back door. His lower back complained about every step he took. He tried to ignore it. "Kejal, let's step outside and give him his privacy."

Thankfully, Kejal didn't argue.

.o

Soft fingertips drew a line from the base of his neck all the way down to his backside.

"Mm," Odo stirred.

"Good morning," Kira whispered in his ear.

Odo opened his eyes. She curled up next to him, her messy hair damp and her skin warm from a recent shower. The only clothing on her body was a filmy white house robe.

He smiled. Thirty years, and she still looked beautiful like that.

"Good morning." He kissed her.

Kira gazed at him through her eyelashes. "Ooh, say it with your little growl."

Odo grinned and gave her a slightly deeper kiss.

"Good morning." He nipped at her earlobe. "Rawr."

She giggled and laid her head against his shoulder. "I really missed that. I missed everything about you, Odo."

He brushed this thumb across her bottom lip and ran his fingertips along the familiar landscape of her jaw. Making love to her always gave him a sense of belonging he never found anywhere else. One moment with her was worth more than a thousand years in the Great Link.

"I missed you, too, Nerys." Odo rubbed his lips against her hairline. "I don't want to move from this place...let's stay like this forever."

"Hm," Kira tapped her finger against his chin, "Me either. Besides, I like seeing you naked."

Odo chuckled and kicked off the sheet to let her see all of him. His long, lean physique appeared almost indistinguishable from an average Bajoran male.

"I'm pleased to meet your approval," he purred.

"Stop that!" Kira pretended to be scandalized. "Or we'll never get up and dressed!"

At that, Odo untied her robe. "I wouldn't mind that at all."

She caught the tie before the robe fell open. "Except we're naked in someone else's house."

Odo blinked. Until Kira mentioned it, he completely forgot they were fooling around on Doctor Mora's living floor. He sat up and his outer surface shape shifted into clothing similar in color and cut to his old security chief uniform. Then he ran a hand over his head and his hair returned to its neat combed-back style.

Kira scooped up the sheets and pillows. "Sometimes, I wish I could do that."

Odo took them off her hands, gave her a chaste kiss and batted his eyes at her. "It takes practice."

She laughed, slapping his shoulder. "For you, maybe."

He followed her into the guest bedroom and redressed the bed. The room was tiny-- meant to be a nursery-- but she didn't appear to mind it.

Falling asleep together on the living room floor happened by accident. They started out talking, followed by Kira bringing the sheets and pillows out, and one thing led to another.

Kira whipped her robe off and climbed into a lovely form-fitting jumpsuit.

Odo smoothed the blankets over the bed. He noticed the date on the digital calendar above the bed. His expression softened. "Nerys, it's the thirty-first anniversary of our first date."

"I know." She caught his hand. "I usually visit Vic in the holosuite."

"Really?" Now Odo felt guilty about never remembering the exact day. Time in the Great Link was fluid, and it didn't measure dates or times the way humanoids did. Still, he felt the need to make his unknown error up to her. "Then let's do something tonight. How about dinner?"

She paused. "The closest nice place is the Ital."

"The Ital?" Odo quirked a brow. "I've never been there."

"Me either, but I heard it's amazing." Her eyes sparkled. "I'll have to find myself an evening gown. It's been ages since I dressed up for a fancy night. See, Odo? Not having a hotel fare means I can splurge."

"I...yes, you're right."

"I'll go dress shopping after breakfast." Kira winked.

Odo felt himself smiling. "I'll come with you if you like."

"But I want to surprise you tonight." She mirrored his expression. "I'm thinking of asking Kejal to come with me. I want to get to know him and this is the perfect opportunity."

"That's-- "

Kejal poked his face in. "Did I hear my name?"

"Speaking of Kejal." Odo stepped aside. "Yes, you did."

Kira pulled a brush through her tangled hair. "Just the person I wanted to see. Odo intends to take me somewhere nice later, and I don't have anything fancy to wear." She twisted her auburn locks into a bun and secured it with a clip. "I think a shopping trip is the perfect opportunity to get to know each other."

At that, Kejal's eyes lit up. "That sounds fun. When do we leave?"

"After I've eaten breakfast."

Odo heard the door.

"Hello! Good morning!" Aleexa announced her presence.

"Aleexa!" Kejal shot back out of the bedroom.

Grinning, Kira put her hairbrush away. "Were you ever that energetic?"

Odo slipped his arm around her shoulders. "Mm, not quite. Kejal has such a different disposition than I do. Sometimes, I hardly believe he's mine, but I wouldn't change a thing about him." He glanced out the bedroom window and noticed Aleexa checking on Doctor Mora.

"Is that the nurse?"

"Mmhmm. Her background check came back clean."

Kira nudged him with her elbow. "Always working, aren't you?"

Odo shrugged. "Old habits."

"It's nice to know some things don't change. So," she looped her arm around his, "are you going to introduce me?"

"Intro-- oh, right. Of course." Odo made a noise like clearing his throat and escorted Kira outside. He waited politely for Aleexa to finish listening to Doctor Mora's heart and lungs.

"How has the pain been?" Aleexa asked in a hushed tone.

"It bothered me last night, and it's awful today." Doctor Mora shook his head. "It's worse on the left side."

"I can tell."

Kira squeezed Odo's arm. "He doesn't look so good."

She was right. Doctor Mora sat rigidly in the wicker chair. His right hand gripped his cane and the left remained a fist in his lap.

"Perhaps we should-- "

"Ah, there they are." Doctor Mora's face lit up. "Odo, introduce Aleexa to your lovely lady friend."

Aleexa perked up and looked over her shoulder. "Oh! Hello! My apologies for not greeting you sooner. I'm Aleexa. It's nice to meet you."

"I'm Kira Nerys," said Kira with a smile. She and Aleexa shook hands. "And it's an honor. How is he?"

The face Aleexa made spoke louder than words.

"Excuse me." She smiled politely at Kira and returned to Doctor Mora.

"Nerys," Odo glanced at the house, "it might be a good idea to eat breakfast and get Kejal out of here before he sees this and gets upset."

Kira gave him a knowing look and patted his hand. "I'll do that."

Odo let her go. He reluctantly pulled up a chair next to Doctor Mora and listened in on what Aleexa was telling him.

"...left kidney inflammation is up fifteen percent. Your temperature is also elevated, which might suggest a minor infection. That wouldn't be a big deal for say, Odo-- "

"I don't have kidneys," said Odo.

"Oh. Right." Aleexa grinned at her tricorder and grew serious again. "Someone else wouldn't feel a thing. Since your kidneys are already chronically inflamed, the added swelling of the left one is causing more pain. I can give you a dose of antibiotics once a day for seven days and that should take care of it. Are you okay with that?"

"Of course." Doctor Mora shifted in his chair. His eyes remained slightly squinted. "Any treatment that will help the pain is fine with me."

"I'll put in an order. The medicine should arrive by twelve-hundred." Aleexa got up and tapped on her combadge.

Odo handed Doctor Mora the water glass he was reaching for. He felt suddenly guilty for making love to Kira the night before. They weren't exactly quiet, but they did their best to be discrete.

"Did Nerys and I wake you?"

Doctor Mora's lips twitched in a smile. "I didn't hear a thing. Why?"

He was lying.

Odo rolled his eyes. "Nothing."

"I can't even begin to say how happy I am for you."

"Doctor Mora, please." Odo stiffened his posture. "About the pain you're having..."

Doctor Mora waved a hand. "Oh, it's nothing. Once I sit down it gets tolerable. I was told to expect this a long time ago. Now what's this I heard Kejal say about going out?"

"I'm taking Kira out to the Ital tonight. And before you ask, yes, it is a date."

"Heh, heh...aren't you glad you decided to talk to her again?"

Odo finally cracked a small smile. "Fine, you were right."

"You should see how your face changes when I mention her." Doctor Mora leaned forward. "It reminds me of how I used to be around Ler-- ooh..." His face scrunched up and he cupped his lower back.

Odo reached out and steadied his mentor. "Aleexa, he needs his-- "

Aleexa passed him the hypospray. "Way ahead of you."

Nodding, Odo pressed it to Doctor Mora's neck and delivered the dose.

Aleexa handed Doctor Mora a fruit smoothie. "Kejal and Nerys are leaving now. Pol, I think we should get you to bed."

"Thank you." Doctor Mora sipped the drink. "But I don't think I can walk."

Odo grumbled to himself. He slipped one hand behind Doctor Mora's shoulders, another under his knees and lifted him with minimal effort. Doctor Mora was too surprised to protest. Odo carried the scientist into his bedroom and laid him down on the bed.

"There." He straightened his shirt. "That solves that problem."

"I suppose that's one way to take care of it." Doctor Mora bore his teeth and grabbed his back again. "Ooh, Prophets...augh, dammit...ow!" He almost bucked himself off the bed. His head ended up against Odo's chest. Odo caught him by the shoulders to prevent him from falling onto the floor.

The discomfort made his body shake. He clutched at Odo's shirt while gasping for the breath being taken away by his illness.

Seeing Doctor Mora dissolving in agony struck Odo like a slap in the face. Vomiting blood was one thing-- Doctor Bashir solved the problem easily. Pain wasn't so simple.

Odo let his arms slide around the sick man's shoulders and sat down on the edge of the mattress. He was so used to holding Kejal this way that he didn't give the gesture a second thought.

"It's all right, Doctor Mora."

"Don't take her for granted, Odo..."

"I'm sorry?"

Doctor Mora swallowed hard and closed his eyes. "Nerys. Don't take her for granted. You never know...you might wake up one morning and she won't...or you won't..." His breathing slowed. The metorapan was taking effect. "I told Leruu I loved her every night before she went to sleep. The only comfort I had after her death was knowing those were the last words she heard me say."

"That sounds like a nice tradition." Odo said.

Footsteps entered the bedroom.

"His smoothie is on the table," Aleexa whispered in his ear.

She tip-toed out.

Odo picked up the glass and tipped it to Doctor Mora's lips. "Here."

Doctor Mora drank a little before pushing it away. He rested his head on Odo's chest again.

"Thank you," he murmured. "Mm...no wonder this feels safe to Kejal."

"I-- wouldn't know." Odo realized he was petting Doctor Mora's hair. He moved his hand away. "I never really-- "

Doctor Mora's breathing morphed into soft snores. Odo awkwardly scooted him towards the middle of the bed and got up. The fingers clutching at his clothes relaxed as he moved away.

.o

Kejal listened intently to Kira describing her first true date with his mother. She stood before the fitting room mirror wearing a short peach dress made of shiny Andorian satin. Lace ruffles accented the fluffy skirt and cap sleeves.

"...then I said, 'well, why don't you?'"

"And...?"

"He yanked me close and gave me a kiss I'll never forget." Kira fluffed her bangs. "People still talk about it."

"Hah! Mother says that was the scariest moment of his life, but he doesn't regret it."

"Well, if he wasn't going to make a move, I sure was." Kira turned sideways and frowned. "This doesn't work. I look like a dabo girl."

"The color is nice on your skin."

"Mmhmm, but I'm too old for this dress. No alteration on Bajor will make this look right on me."

"Really?" Kejal cocked his head. "Clothing has an age limit?"

She laughed and slipped back into the booth. "Kejal, when women get older, gravity starts to take over. Certain body parts don't stay perky, and I don't need my big back end looking any bigger

Kejal snickered. "It's not that big! Really!"

Kira poked her head out the door. "Thanks." She passed him the rejected pink dress. "Hold on, I'm trying on the gray one next."

Kejal politely put the garment back on the rack where he found it.

"Argh! No way. I'm not even walking out in this. I'm not wearing something cut down to my stomach!"

"It's that low?"

"Unfortunately." Kira chortled. "It's pretty, but it doesn't suit me."

"The gold ball gown looked good."

"Mmh, it did, but I'm not aiming to be the belle of a ball. I'm going out to a nice dinner. I'd look ridiculous."

Kejal made a face. "Female fashion is complicated."

Rustling noises punctuated her removing the offending gown. She cracked the fitting room door.

"Yup. Be glad you're a man."

"I can look female if I want to. I chose to look male because I thought it suited me."

"True...you have a point." Kira held out the rejected dress. "Here, hang this up again. So, what determines your gender, then?"

"Technically, we don't have one. Changelings who lived their whole lives in the Great Link have trouble understanding gender. The lady Changeling who led the whole Dominion War looked female in order to appeal to mother." Kejal took the dress and replaced it on its proper rack.

"Oh...her. Guess you learn something new every day." Kira's voice had a slight edge to it, but it vanished after a clasp snapped into place. "Ah! Okay, trying on the blue one. Ready?"

"Ready!" Kejal perked up.

Kira reappeared wearing a sparkly tea-length column gown with white flower detailing on the hem and neckline. She frowned at her reflection. "Hm. I knew this had shoulder pads in it. It's too old for me."

Wow, I didn't know women were so picky!

"The color is lovely on you." Kejal said.

"I know, and the length is good too." She gestured to her midsection. "But I look pregnant in this."

Kejal couldn't see what she meant. He nodded anyway and cleared his throat. "Can I pick one?"

Kira smiled at him and slipped back into the changing room. "Yeah, why not? Surprise me." She cracked the door again and gave him the blue dress.

As Kejal turned to put the discarded garment back on the rack, he spotted something worn by a mannequin in the back of the shop.

The backless, form-fitting evening gown was made of deep burgundy velour. It had a closed halter top neckline completed by a gold plated metal collar. The sleeves were separate pieces ending in gold cuffs.

He dug through the nearby rack until he found the same dress on a hanger.

"Mom?"

"What?"

Kejal lifted the dress over the door. "Try this one."

"Oh, my! This is beautiful, but I'm not as skinny as I used to be. I'm not sure I'll be able to get into this."

"C'moooon, if it's too much, we'll laugh about it. Same as the orange outfit with the poofy pants."

"Hm." Kira chuckled and Kejal felt her take the hanger. "I'll give it a shot because it's gorgeous."

The metal collar and sleeve cuffs clinked behind the fitting room door. Kejal sat on the bench, eagerly waiting for the big reveal.

"I like how this feels. Ready for me?"

He perked up. "Definitely."

Kira swung the door open and stopped to examine herself in the mirror. She looked absolutely statuesque. Like that dress was made for her and nobody else.

"Ooh, wow," she breathed out and turned to see herself from behind. The gown exposed her whole back and the floor-length skirt had a slit all the way up to her right thigh, yet it was modest and sophisticated.

"Mom?"

"Kejal, I don't know how you did it, but I think this is the dress for tonight." Kira let her hair down and re-twisted it on top of her head. "Hair sticks will look good with this, and I see the perfect set."

Kira stepped away from the mirror to pick up two black hair sticks. From their glossy tips, gold mandala charms dangled on short, delicate chains. She pulled her hair into a bun, held it there and added the hair sticks.

"What do you think?"

Kejal beamed at her. "Perfect. Mother is going to be amazed when he sees you. I know I am!"

"You're sweet." Kira grinned back. "Okay, it's settled. Shoes are the easy part for me." She vanished into the changing room. "Did I mention Odo looks fantastic in a tuxedo?"

"Those formal things from Earth, right?"

"Mmhmm."

"Ah." Kejal concentrated and fashioned his outer surface into a fancy tux with a yellow shirt, a red tie and a matching cummerbund. "Something like this?"

Kira emerged holding her chosen evening gown. She paused, stared at Kejal and smiled, her eyes soft. "Yes, something like that. I still can't get over how much you look like he used to."

He grinned, reverting to his previous outfit of a green turtleneck and pants. "He thought about you all the time while in the Great Link. I think he was hoping you found someone else and got married."

Kira paid for the dress and hairpins. Pricey, but not overly so.

"Really?"

Kejal walked with her to the shoe store next door. "Mother didn't want you to be alone. He loves you so much and said so many times, and I quote, 'I hope for her happiness, even if it isn't with me.'"

"That sounds like Odo." Kira shook her head. "I tried dating again after he left. None of them worked out. So how about you, hm? Anyone special in your life?"

At that, Kejal smirked. "No, but I make women blush all the time."

"Odo mentioned you're an awful flirt."

"He's jealous because he is about as charming as a Tarkalean cactus."

"Cacti have a lot of charm! Prickly on the surface, gelatinous on the inside." Kira examined the holographic display of shoes and selected black pointy-toe slingbacks with spike heels and gold buckles.

Kejal imagined a cactus talking like his mother. He couldn't hold back a rude snort.

Grinning, Kira pulled off her boots and placed her feet in a small depression in the floor. The computer measured her and replicated the shoes right onto her feet. She tested them out by walking around the bench.

Kejal eyed her shoes. He willed his boots away. "Computer, give me the same."

"Kejal! What are you doing?"

"Having a little fun." Kejal stood up and realized his entire center of gravity wasn't where it belonged. He rolled both his ankles before he took two steps. "Uh oh." He reverted to his gelatinous state as he fell. The impact made him splatter on the floor and wall.

The elderly shopkeeper didn't look pleased at the disturbance.

Kira gasped. "Oh! Kejal! Are you okay?"

He reformed sitting on the ground, laughing, and set the heels back into the replicator where they dissolved in a white sparkle. "How do women walk in shoes like that?"

Kira's worried expression melted into amusement. "It takes practice." She helped him up. "You're lucky you don't have bones. People break their ankles doing that. Did that hurt?"

"A little." Kejal wiggled his toes and reformed his boots. "I hope father is all right. He looked tired this morning."

Beside him, Kira changed out of her heels and paid via the computer system on the wall. The replicator produced a box to store the shoes. She let the shopkeeper see the shoes in the box before exiting the shop.

"Odo says you're upset about the whole thing."

Kejal nodded once. "I'm not ready to let him go."

"Nobody is. I wasn't. I ran away from my father's death. I could have stayed to hold his hand, and instead I went on a raid." She blinked, staring down at the floor. "I never forgave myself for that."

"I don't like that he gave up."

She led him to the door. "It's not giving up if the treatments don't work."

A cool breeze blew over the street. Leaves rattled along the white roadway.

Kejal faced Kira. "Then why isn't he spending his time looking for new ones?"

Her face softened. She reached for him. "Because he's getting ready to die, and he wants everything in order before he goes."

He let her grasp his hand. Everything in his chest was churning. It amazed him how fast his mood sank after soaring so high.

"When mother and I shopped for plants to plant in the back garden, I saw plants that don't bloom for four or five months. I couldn't picture their flowers." Kejal glanced at Kira while they strolled past a computer shop. "I can't think beyond father's death. Those days don't exist to me."

Kira peered up at the blue-green sky and squinted. "Because all you see is that he won't be there."

"Exactly!"

Kira stopped walking and looked Kejal squarely in the eyes. "You and Odo are both running in your own way. You're here, but you aren't here. You can't do anything about his illness or eventual death, but you can make something with the time he has. Whatever you do, Kejal, don't leave it all until the last minute. Make memories now, and let go as fast or as slow as you need to, but don't run from it. I ran, and I never got to say what I needed to say before my father died."

Kejal swung their arms, sighing. He had no desire to discuss the subject. "Mother is handling this better than I am."

"The dying part? He's doing fine there." Kira released Kejal's hand and caught her dress before the bag fell off her arm. "But their relationship is still rocky. Odo has a lot to work through, just like you."

Suddenly, Kejal felt himself smile. "I see why mother is crazy about you."

She giggled. "Believe me, Kejal, I had no idea of his feelings for me for a long time. Not until he told me. He was the best friend I could ever ask for...he listened to me complain about Bareil and Shakaar. Then I watched him have you, and I realized there was a lot more to him than I thought. He became so much dearer to me. I loved him, and our first date in the holosuite made me realize it."

"Really?" The change of subject helped lift Kejal's spirits.

"Mm, I always thought he had the prettiest eyes I'd ever seen on a person."

"He gets all embarrassed when people tell him that."

"I know." Her gaze was faraway. "Kejal, I was holding him in my arms when he gave birth to you. He doesn't really remember me whispering in his ear, but I told him he was incredible. Pol had great timing, he caught the smile...Odo hasn't smiled like that since."

"Mother isn't much for smiling...he says that's my job." Kejal bumped Kira's shoulder with his own. "I remember seeing your faces side by side. I felt his love for you the whole time I was inside his chest."

"You did?"

"I think it helped shape who I am."

"Oh..." She rolled her eyes and rubbed her palm down her face. "I was such an idiot. I think I was the only one who didn't know Odo was crazy about me."

"Sometimes love takes time. Mother didn't want to impinge on you and Shakaar."

"That's so like him, isn't it?" Kira smiled. "Odo said you're the baby Changeling he tried to help."

Nodding, Kejal rattled the bag holding Kira's evening gown. "Yeah."

She eyed him. "So how much do you remember before you...?"

"How much do I...oh!" He picked up a faded leaf skittering past his feet. "Bits and pieces. Mother spoke to me often. He seemed incredibly sad. I didn't know why until he actually held me in his hands. Then I knew-- I just knew what to do. I wanted to live. He wanted his shape shifting abilities back. It worked out for both of us."

Kira's eyes tilted in amusement. "I wish I had holograms of him during the pregnancy. It changed him. I heard him laugh for the first time because of you. He said your bubbling tickled."

"Oh, mmhmm. I remember. I liked hearing him talk to me."

"So do I." Kira stopped walking. "We should head back. They're going to think we got lost out here!"

"I hate time." Kejal grumbled, smiling. "I'll get us a tram."

"Thanks." At the sound of soft music from a nearby shop, she smiled again. "Pol said you're quite the singer."

"Music! I love it so much I want to marry it." Kejal flagged down a tram. "Climb in and I'll serenade you."
End Notes:

**Chapter soundtrack**

Those Grown-up Noises: https://app.box.com/s/r69tysfmsso05gzsg4hq

Waking Together: https://app.box.com/s/uos3a7y1xlg4008jc3rd

That's the Perfect Dress: https://app.box.com/s/vl2u56h57xxg8k6zmpva
9. Life's Little Hiccups by Cyndi
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9. Life's Little Hiccups

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The young star burned brightly, its stellar wind and intense radiation cutting billowing swaths through the darkness. He watched its looping prominences and flares dance against the void. Stars-- so peaceful at a distance, yet so violent up close.

Mora woke to a cool hypospray touching his neck.

"Oh," Odo moved back. "I didn't mean to wake you."

"You didn't." He yawned, picking the sleep goop off the corners of his eyes. "Don't worry about it...I didn't mean to fall asleep."

"You needed it." Odo replied gruffly. "I gave you your antibiotics. Aleexa says you need to take them at same time each day. It's almost twelve-hundred."

"Mmhmm." Mora lifted his head. "You stayed all this time?"

Odo shrugged, glancing down at the PADD in his other hand. "I made myself available in case you woke up needing assistance. Do you want anything to eat or drink?"

"Water is fine." Mora scooted himself closer to the head of the mattress and adjusted the bed into a semi-sitting position. His lower back roared in protest at the disturbance. He sucked a deep breath and slowly exhaled. "Are Kira and Kejal back yet?"

"Yes." Odo handed him a cool glass of water from the replicator.

"Ah, thank you." Mora took three sips. "I need to speak with Aleexa."

"I'll get her."

"I appreciate it." He winked one eye shut. "By the way, Odo...your mothering instincts never really go away, do they?"

Odo stopped and looked over his shoulder. "No, I, um, suppose they don't."

A few minutes after Odo left, Aleexa slipped in. As always, her brown eyes shone with compassion.

"Pol, how do you feel?"

Mora sighed. "I have to admit, the pain is still there." He tightened his lips and voiced the question he feared asking. "Aleexa, is it going to be like this from now on despite your efforts?"

Aleexa sat by the bed and rubbed his arm. "No. Finding the right combination of meds and herbs might take time, but there's no way I'll let you lay there in agony. I have other medications on-hand if you want to try them. Is the metorapan touching it at all right now?"

"No. It worked for an hour. Now I feel like I have nothing in my system."

"All right." She leaned forward. "Remember, you have a minor infection that's adding to the chronic inflammation. Let's try morphenolog for awhile. It's a little stronger than metorapan. It won't make you sleepy at all, and we can easily go back to the metorapan after the excess inflammation is dealt with."

Mora nodded, desperate to be comfortable again. "I'll give it a shot."

"Then I'll go get it." Aleexa patted his hand. She got her knitted white knapsack and took out a small cloth roll full of hyposprays. "Here we are."

Mora turned his head to let her administer it. The sharp aching in his back slowly dwindled until it only felt like pressure. How odd, he could practically feel the shape of his kidney!

"I see it's working. Your face changed."

"It is." He reached for the glass of water and took a generous drink. "Oh, Aleexa, thank you...this is so much better."

"Just doing my job." Aleexa smiled. "And extra fluids will help your body flush out the infection, so drink up."

"Anything to help get past this. Ahh..." He pointed, "I think I'll finish that smoothie now."

"Oh! I forgot it was there." Aleexa giggled, sliding it into his open hand.

Mora sipped the sweet, fruity concoction. Letting it warm to room temperature didn't affect its taste. "You should be a chef."

"Oh, pfft, there are dozens of Talaxian chefs already. They don't need another one. I wouldn't be talking to the likes of you if I was a chef catering somebody's wedding."

"Aleexa, you sell yourself short." Mora lifted his smoothie glass. "This is delicious. And who knows? You might feed a wedding party someday."

"That would be the day." Aleexa's cheeks turned a nice shade of pink. Then she paused and blinked. "Before I forget-- Kejal said I need to hand this to you."

She passed him a deka seed pod. He looked at it and laughed.

"One of these days..." Mora finished off the smoothie. "...I will get revenge for all the seed pod pranks he's pulled."

Suddenly, the seed pod shimmered and grew. There sat Kejal on the edge of the bed. "Boo."

"Kejal!"

Kejal grinned. "What's this about 'revenge' I hear?"

Amused, Mora mussed up Kejal's hair. "Telling you would spoil my plans before I make them."

"Hmph!"

Aleexa folded her arms, watching them. "You two are a pair."

"He's the weird one," said Kejal.

"Don't listen to him." Mora countered.

The baffled look on Aleexa's face made them both chuckle.

Afterward, Kejal sobered and focused on Mora's face. "How are you feeling, father?"

"Better, thanks to Aleexa."

Aleexa patted his hand and quietly slipped out of the bedroom.

Kejal laid down next to Mora. "What happened earlier?"

"It's a minor infection in my left kidney. The additional swelling is causing more pain than usual. Aleexa already has it taken care of. I'm fine." Mora smoothed Kejal's hair back into order. "Did you have fun earlier?"

"Yes." Kejal's face lit up. "I found mom the best dress in the store. Mother's eyes are going to-- " he stuck his index finger in his mouth and pushed it out, causing a popping noise, " --right out of his head when he sees her. Then I tried walking in high heels, and-- "

"You what?"

"I was curious. I fell and went splat. I don't know how women do it. Do you think they emit alternating gravimetric fields?"

The mental image left Mora laughing so much his back started to protest. "What makes you think that?"

"Because the female species does a lot of things we can't explain."

"That they do." Mora laid his head back against the pillows with a heavy sigh. He didn't feel well, but he knew saying so would upset Kejal.

"Do you need anything, father?"

"Mm, stay with me for a little while...that is all I need." He closed his eyes. "If I fall asleep again, wake me before Odo and Nerys leave-- I want to see them all dressed up."

Kejal's expression softened. He curled up with his head on Mora's shoulder. "You got it."

Mora smiled and relaxed.

.o

Odo morphed his clothing into a dashing tuxedo. His hair smoothed itself out as he walked into Doctor Mora's bedroom. Late afternoon sun streamed into the window, casting an oblong shape across the opposite wall. It gave the room a warm golden glow.

"Ah, so that is a tuxedo," said Doctor Mora. "Odo, you look fantastic."

"Thank you." Odo adjusted his jacket sleeves. "I'm sure you would look just as good in one yourself."

Kejal peeked in. "She's coming. Mother? Face the window."

Odo did so, licking his lips. He ran a hand over his hair and waited.

Something rustled in the doorway. Doctor Mora took a sharp intake of air.

Kira's voice spoke. "Odo?"

Odo turned. His eyes almost bugged out. The dark burgundy dress fit Kira's body like a glove. She'd pulled her hair back into a bun with delicate hair sticks. Her lips were painted luscious red. And her eyes, so dark and dynamic, expressed everything he loved about her.

No woman in the universe was more beautiful than Kira Nerys.

It was several seconds before Odo remembered how to speak.

"N-Nerys..." He cracked a smile and didn't hide it. "You look beautiful."

"Thank you."

They met at the foot of Doctor Mora's bed. Odo kissed her lightly on the lips, careful not to smear her lipstick. Kira beamed and straightened his bow tie.

"Hey, handsome," she winked. "Ready to go?"

"If you are." Odo winked back. He glanced at Doctor Mora.

"Fantastic," Doctor Mora grinned, pressing his hands together. "Kejal, make sure you take a holo-image before they leave."

"Are you kidding? I'm recording right now." Kejal pointed to the holographic camera. He aimed it at Doctor Mora.

Doctor Mora held up a hand, laughing. "Oh, don't point that at me. I look awful."

Kejal smiled, refocusing on Odo and Kira. "Have fun, kids."

Kira chuckled and gently tugged Odo's hand. "We need to go if we want to be on time for our reservation."

"Yes, of course." Odo noticed the hover-tram pulling up outside. "The tram is here."

Doctor Mora pushed himself up on his elbows. He did look terrible, but it didn't dampen his spirits. "Have a nice night, you two."

"Take care of yourself." Odo nodded to Doctor Mora. He smirked at Kejal. "Stay out of trouble, and contact us if anything drastic happens before we return."

Kejal nodded once. "I got this, mother. Mom? I told you mother's eyes would bug out."

Kira laughed. "They sure did, didn't they?" She gave him a hug. "I'll see you later."

Odo offered Kira his arm and they stepped outside. He held the tram door open for Kira. Once they were both inside the vehicle, he couldn't avoid looking her over again.

"What?" She caught him staring.

He cleared his throat and fidgeted with the gold cufflinks he just formed on his sleeves. "I'm sitting next to the loveliest woman in the world. Forgive me for admiring you."

Her cheeks turned pinker. "Well, I'm sharing a tram with the most dashing man on Bajor." She touched his hand. "Forgive me for admiring you right back."

Their eyes locked and they both snorted at the same time.

"Too much?" Odo asked.

She slapped his shoulder. "You say that like it's a bad thing."

They went quiet and held hands for the rest of the trip.

Odo glanced up when the tram pulled in next to the Ital's front entrance. He got out and opened Kira's door for her. Then he repeated the gesture on the door leading into the restaurant. They walked through a vine-encrusted foyer and stepped onto the wooden platform of the outdoor eating area.

Strings of lights decorated the perimeter. A crystalline chandelier hung off a beam to mark the exact center of the glossy dance floor. The dance floor itself glowed with thousands of tiny, twinkling LED's that brightened whenever someone stepped on them.

Odo approached the impeccably dressed Bajoran standing behind a podium. "Good evening. There should be a reservation for two under the name Odo."

The Maitre d' consulted his PADD, smiled and nodded. "Right this way."

He led Kira and Odo towards a secluded table by the railing. It offered a lovely view of the river, the bridge and...

Odo's substance ran cold. The Bajoran Institute of Science loomed like a shadow from the past. He hadn't seen that structure since he left it so many years ago. The triangular white fixtures illuminating its front entrance were accusing eyes glaring at him. He wanted to shrink from it and disappear.

"Odo?" Kira hedged. "Odo, are you all right?"

"Hm? Oh. Yes." Odo pulled himself together. He eased her chair out for her and didn't sit down until she did. Once they were seated, the building was out of his immediate view.

The Maitre d' lit the tall centerpiece candle and handed them gold-trimmed PADDS containing the menu.

"Would you like to start the evening with a drink?"

"Springwine for me, please," said Kira.

"And you, sir?"

"The same." Odo replied.

"Coming right up." The Maitre d' departed from their table.

Kira's attire and face became more spectacular as the sunset progressed. The candle softened her features and reflected the fire always burning behind her eyes. Odo once again found himself amazed by her inner beauty radiating to the surface.

She asked, "So, you eat and drink now?"

"Er, sort of. I don't want to disgust you with the details, but yes. I still can't taste or smell." Odo glanced at the menu. "So, what will you be having tonight?"

Kira smiled and studied hers. "Ooh! They have shrimp sautéed with klavaatu. I've always wanted to try that."

Odo chuckled. "Then I will have the same and experience it with you."

The Maitre d' turned over the wineglasses on the table and poured the pale blue springwine. "Are you ready to order?"

Kira's eyes tilted when she smiled. Odo nodded to her silent request. She said, "Odo and I will have the shrimp and klavaatu sauté."

"Ah, a nice choice." He reached for their menus. "Your meals will be out shortly."

Odo gestured his thanks. Kira sipped her wine.

Off to the side, a small orchestra played tasteful classical music.

"So," she set the glass down. "You look like you saw a ghost."

The subject made Odo shift in his seat. He folded his hands around his wineglass. "The building over my shoulder is the Bajoran Institute of Science. Where I...began, and something I hoped to never see again."

Sympathy crossed her features. She reached across the table and touched his hand. "I don't mind going somewhere else if it bothers y-- "

"No, no, Nerys, it's all right." Odo managed a small smile and rubbed her knuckles. "I didn't realize it was right across the river. Don't let my past demons spoil your evening. It's been three decades since we had a night like this, and I wouldn't trade it for anything."

At that, Kira lifted her glass. "Then let's toast to the here and now. I don't want to be anywhere else."

Smiling, Odo raised his glass and tapped it against hers. "To here and now."

Together, they sipped. Their food arrived moments later. Ten large shrimp arranged in a circle around a bowl with chopped klavaatu and some sort of lettuce decorating the center.

Odo didn't have the faintest clue how to begin eating such a meal. He awkwardly took one of the shrimp off Kira's plate and held it up to her lips. She giggled, guided his hand to dip it in the juice and took a bite.

"Mm!" Her eyes closed in delight. "It's sweet and a little tangy. Do you remember the margaritas you tried while you were a humanoid?"

"Oh...yes. Doctor Bashir's birthday party. Sisko hosted, and I remember I liked his homemade margaritas so much I was too drunk to walk. Then I woke up in my quarters with no idea of how I got there."

"Someone helped you." She smiled and sipped her wine. "Me."

"It was you?"

Her expression sobered. "You were mumbling and upset. I couldn't leave you alone like that. I wish I'd known you were talking about me."

Gulping, Odo fiddled with the stem of his wineglass. "What did I say?"

"You mentioned loving a woman who loved someone else. That you wished you had the courage to come out and tell her. Um..." She bit into a slice of fruit. "I'm sorry for not telling you. I figured being that drunk was embarrassing enough. Alcohol does things to people."

Now Odo longed to ooze under the table. "I didn't try anything on you, did I?"

She shook her head. "I held you until you fell asleep. You needed someone, and I was there. Friends take care of friends."

Odo dipped a piece of shrimp and stuck it in his mouth. It felt wet and spongy when he chewed it up. Not his favorite texture, but not awful either.

"Before I was humanoid, I spent a lot of time wondering why people purposely intoxicated themselves in Quark's bar. Then I got drunk, and it all made sense. Liquor took away my ability to care about how miserable I felt, but it was still there, waiting for me after I sobered up. It wasn't worth it." He set his shrimp down and smiled ruefully. "I know this is late, but...thank you for being there, Nerys."

Kira's grin reached all the way to the corners of her eyes. Odo loved it when she made that face.

She finished her food. Odo asked to have his boxed. He consumed enough to be polite, but he figured someone with taste buds might appreciate the leftovers more. Nobody noticed him discretely dangling his foot over the side of the wooden platform. Everything he ate went right into the water below.

"I heard Kejal sing today." Kira tilted her head. "It was beautiful. The tram driver liked it so much he waived the fee."

That made Odo shake his head in amusement. "Kejal has always been musically inclined. I don't know where he got it. Certainly not from my genes."

"Really? He mentioned Pol having a good voice."

Odo shrugged. "I've never heard Doctor Mora sing anything. My first exposure to music was someone at the lab singing a lullaby every night during lights-out. I wish I knew who it was, because he did it nicely. I looked forward to hearing it."

Kira finished her wine. "Could have been a Prophet watching over you."

He made a face, which won a snicker out of her.

The musicians started a slow Bajoran waltz. Kira's favorite classical piece, simply titled Into The Light.

Odo stood, offering Kira his hand. "Nerys, may I have this dance?"

Kira set her napkin on the tabletop and accepted his invitation. He pulled her close. They swayed together amid the twinkling lights and candles.

And nothing else mattered.

"Odo?"

"Yes, Nerys?"

"If you love something, let it go. If it comes back, it's meant to be yours." She gazed into his eyes. "You came back to me."

"Mm...I did, but I won't be staying."

"The point is you're here with me. It doesn't matter if you can't stay long. Here we are."

Odo smiled, twirled her and led her into a chaste kiss. "I certainly have no complaints."

She mirrored his expression. Then her face grew serious.

"Odo, we're still as much in love now as we were when we said goodbye."

Truer words had never been spoken.

"I really believe we're meant for each other," she went on. "I've thought about this since you left, and I regretted that we never did it while we were together. It's time. Let's get married, Odo."

Odo's mind did a wipe-rewind. He missed a step in the waltz and barely avoided tripping over Kira's feet.

"Married?" He blinked. "Nerys, I'm still making peace within the Dominion. I want this. Oh, you have no idea how much I dreamed of it. But we may be apart for years at a time. Perhaps even decades. How can a marriage work that way?"

"Nobody said it's going to be easy. And didn't you tell Laas once that the fact that it isn't easy is what makes it worthwhile?"

She took his hands. Her eyes held only tenderness.

"I have no intention of falling in love with anyone else. I want to be yours, and I want you to be mine. Knowing we have that bond-- even if we have to wait decades to see each other-- that's enough for me. I love you, Odo."

Odo nearly forgot how to mimic breathing. This moment made him more nervous than any other of his lifetime.

They both knew the time they had together was short at best. She had duties aboard Deep Space Nine, and he still had a lot of work to do with the Dominion to undo the damage it caused. Neither occupation allowed much time away. And there was the matter of her short lifespan compared to his biological immortality. One day, she would be gone from him.

Somehow, we will make this work. Just like she said. We always make it work. Don't worry about the future...just live now!

Odo looked up at the elaborate chandelier above the dance floor and prepared himself. Then he sank slowly to one knee, gazing up at Kira with promises shining in his clear blue eyes, and asked the question he only voiced in his dreams.

"Kira Nerys..." He squeezed her hand. "Will you marry me?"

Kira's lips quivered. She answered without hesitation. "Yes, Odo."

Odo rose up, wrapped his arms about her waist and spun her around once. Afterward, they shared a breathless kiss under the stars.

He didn't notice the other patrons in the restaurant until the applause started.

"You know the planning is going to be hell, right?"

"Maybe." She kissed him again and let her forehead touch his. "Let's do it while Pol is still with us. I think seeing you get married will mean a lot to him."

Getting everything ready on such short notice meant utter chaos. "It would, but it's still going to be hell."

"Doesn't that make it more fun?" Kira gave his hands a squeeze, and her smile outshone the candles. "Come on. Dance now...we'll talk more on the way home."

.o

Assuming the shape of a PADD took no effort. Kejal loved this game, and he was glad to see Mora feeling strong enough to play it with him.

Footsteps shuffled into the living room. They went right past the table.

"Hm..." Mora's voice was a vibration. "You're the chair cushion, aren't you?"

Nope.

"No? Well then...aha."

Kejal sensed Mora heading towards the kitchen. Two more guesses before he could reveal himself.

"Oh, hidden well this time. You aren't the countertop, are you?"

Try again!

Finally, the scrape-scrape of feet approached the back door.

"Are you the door sensor again?"

Kejal concentrated on his humanoid shape. Arms, legs, a torso and a head. He reformed sitting on the table, grinning.

"Gotcha."

"Ah! I should have guessed the PADD."

Kejal chuckled. "I hid the original."

He pulled the real PADD out of a drawer and set it on the table.

"You scoundrel." Mora snapped his fingers in mock annoyance. "I should have guessed!"

"No rule states I can't move an object and replace it," Kejal said smugly. "Classic infiltration trick."

The front door hissed on its housing. Kira and Odo stepped in holding hands, and the invisible bubble surrounding them excluded everything else. They looked absolutely starry-eyed.

Kejal hurried to take the box of leftovers Kira carried. He made a face at the contents and stuffed them in the cooling unit under the kitchen counter.

Mora eased himself into the chair by the oval window. "Well, well, you two aren't in love at all, are you? How was dinner?"

"Dinner was great," said Kira. She leaned against Odo, smiling.

"Yes it was. I'm glad you two are here together." Odo added. He kissed Kira's cheek and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "Kejal, Doctor Mora...Nerys and I have decided to get married."

Mora sat up straight. "Really?"

"Mother? Mom?" Kejal mirrored his father's posture. "You mean it?"

"Yeah." Kira was practically glowing. "If everything works out and I can get the extra time off, we'll have the wedding a month from today." She knelt down in front of Mora and gently touched his knee. "We want you there, and I want you to pass my hand to Odo's at the ceremony."

Nodding, Mora clasped her hand between his. "I'm honored."

Odo bumped Kejal's shoulder with his own. "I want you to be the dais bearer...and I'd like you to sing."

"Mother? Really?" Kejal jumped into Odo's arms and kissed his cheek, laughing. "I'll do anything you want for this wedding. It's going to be great!"

In response, Odo plopped Kejal down on the couch. "You're heavy."

"And you're noticeably less grumpy."

Odo offered a fake scowl. "Hmph!"

Kira sat down beside Kejal, smiling. "I'll really be your mom. Mother-in-law, technically, but..."

"You'll be mom to me whether you're married or not." Kejal hugged her, laying his head on her shoulder. "I always wanted to be in a wedding."

"It's going to be wonderful." She patted his arm. "I need to get out of this dress. It's comfortable out in the cold, but it's hot in this nice, warm house."

Chuckling, Kejal let her go. Odo followed her.

Then Kejal faced Mora, held up his hands and pretended to scream at the top of the lungs he didn't have.

"They're getting married!"

"Married!" Mora replied. The smile on his face was one Kejal would never forget. "From a viscous mass in a jar to a man about to wed the woman he loves." He shook his head, sighing. "Incredible. This is just incredible. Kejal, help me up. I need to lie down again...I don't think I'll sleep-- not after news like that!"

"Nobody will!" Kejal helped his father onto his feet and led him into the bedroom. "I'm going to regenerate for a little while. Will you be okay?"

"Mmhmm...I'm going to work on my treatise." Mora reached for a PADD on the bedside table. He stopped for a moment, wide-eyed and tense. The odd look disappeared into another soft chuckle. "Married...heh, heh, heh!"

Kejal, grinning ear to ear, bounded out of Mora's bedroom and into the living room. His excitement actually made it hard to hold his humanoid form, and letting it go was bliss.

A short while later, he sensed his mother joining him. Time became fluid as they exchanged feelings of joy and wonder.

Mother! You're really getting married!

I never thought I would...if not for Doctor Mora's illness, we wouldn't be in the Alpha quadrant at all.

It's the work of the Prophets.

Or it's just a lucky coincidence.

You have your beliefs and I have mine.

I can't argue with that.

...Kejal, do you sense that noise?

What n-- yes, I felt it that time.

It's Doctor Mora. Something is wrong.

Oh no
.

Quick footsteps padded into the living room.

"Odo? Kejal?" Kira tapped on what ended up being Kejal's surface. "I heard a bang. I think Pol fell in his room."

Kejal broke the link with his mother and quickly reassumed his humanoid shape. Beside him, Odo did the same.

A raspy shout sounded behind Mora's closed bedroom door. Kejal never heard his father yell like that, not even when angry. He pushed between Kira and Odo and keyed the code to open the door.

The bedside table lay on its side, spilling PADDS and a water glass across the floor. Mora was on his hands and knees. He still had his right hand on the table's corner. His free hand clutched at the left side of his lower back.

"Father!" Kejal knelt. "Father, I'm here. Tell me how to help."

"Call-- Aleexa-- please, now!" Mora said through gritted teeth. "Medicine...not-- helping!"

Odo got right on the comm system. Aleexa answered after two hails.

"Aleexa, it's Odo. Doctor Mora collapsed. He says the medicine isn't helping his pain."

"Can he walk?"

"No. He fell."

"Get him into the bathroom and run a hot bath. As hot as he can stand it. I'll be right there to assess."

"What will that do?"

"It'll help him relax. Tension and stress worsen pain."

"...all right."

Kira wrapped a shawl around her shoulders. "What can I do?"

"Keep an ear out for Aleexa." Kejal scooped Mora up into his arms and carried him into the bathroom. He heard Odo explaining the situation behind him.

"It's all right, father." Kejal whispered. "Can you get your clothing off?"

Mora barely managed to strip off his nightshirt. He wore nothing else underneath. Kejal gave him a towel to cover up before he helped him into the tub. Mora did not appear to care about his state of undress. As a man of high dignity, that spoke of his pain louder than anything.

Odo reached over Kejal's head to turn on the bath. The drain plugged automatically and steam soon filled the room.

"Aleexa is on her way." Kejal rubbed his father's arm.

"I'm not prepared for this much pain!" Mora gasped. "Not like this! Oh, it's starting agai-- " He pressed his forehead against the side of the tub, " --augh, dammit!"

Kejal shut off the water. Mora couldn't stand any position other than laying curled up on his right side. Kejal laid his arm on the edge of the tub to give him somewhere to rest his head.

"Odo-- if your labor-- was this painful-- I c-can see why you-- struggled-- before you relaxed..."

"That was an entirely different situation, Doctor Mora." Odo knelt beside Kejal. "Is the hot water helping?"

"A little...oof..." Mora's breathing accelerated again.

Odo leaned over and took Mora's hand. "Don't try to speak. Focus on relaxing. Aleexa will be here shortly."

Mora nodded once, closing his eyes.

"Aleexa is here." Kira whispered. "I'll go let her in."

Moments later, Aleexa slipped into the bathroom wearing a dark orange nightgown and slippers.

"All right, sweetie, let's have a look." She wasted no time hiking up her nightgown's skirt to kneel between Kejal and Odo. Her tricorder ran silently.

Kejal's jaw dropped at the reading. Mora's left kidney was twice its normal size! He felt sympathy pains in his own lower back, and he didn't even have internal organs.

"Pol? Are you with me?"

"Yes..." Mora panted. "What's happening to me?"

"The antibiotics I gave you aren't strong enough. The infection is getting worse. Your left ureter is completely blocked by swelling. It's causing a condition called hydronephrosis."

"I know what that is. Can you help?"

"Yes, Pol. This requires more intensive treatments than I can give you here. I need to transport you to a medical facility."

Grimacing, Mora gripped her wrist. "Can they stop the pain?"

"Definitely. They'll put you in a specialized biobed and block the nerve impulses responsible for your pain. You'll get stronger antibiotics to take care of this kidney infection. Aw, sweetie..." She stroked his shoulder. "I said I'd get you through any pain you have. You're going to be feeling better in a few minutes."

Kira passed a faded old bathrobe into the bathroom. Mora pulled the plug in the tub and Aleexa covered him with the robe once the water drained out.

Aleexa spoke into her combadge. "Palliative unit, we have an incoming pain emergency. Requesting transport." She handed out reflective white stickers full of circuitry. "I'll get him transported, and then I'll have the rest of you transported. These will help the facility lock onto you, so don't lose them."

"Understood." Odo nodded.

Kejal leaned over and kissed the top of Mora's head. "Don't leave me, father."

Mora touched his hand. "I'm not leaving you yet. I have a wedding to attend...ooh," his face contorted. "It's coming back again."

"Wedding?" Aleexa spoke as the transporter beam made her and Mora shimmer into nothingness.

Kejal hid his face against Odo's shoulder. Kira leaned on his back.

Ten minutes later, everyone else was transported directly to Mora's location.

The room didn't look like a hospital at all. A large window overlooked the city, and the walls were painted warm brown like deka tree bark. Soft recessed lighting lined the crown molding in the ceiling.

The only visible medical device was the casket-like bed. Mora looked so small in it, but he appeared much more comfortable. He wore a purple standard issue hospital gown and his robe hung on a hook in the corner.

Aleexa joined them. "I had him sedated to make him more comfortable. He might be groggy for awhile. We were able to find out the exact bacteria causing the infection and we're adjusting his antibiotics accordingly. He'll be just fine in a few days."

"Thank you." Kejal said shakily. "What exactly is hydro-- what was it again?"

"Hydronephrosis is kidney swelling due to urine backup."

"Ew."

"You asked." Odo snorted. He peered at Mora. "Perhaps we should return to the house and visit in the morning."

Kejal hung his head. "You can go. I want to stay."

"I don't see how it will help anything."

"Mother, I want to be here if he wakes up."

"Odo," Kira kept her voice low, "let him stay. We'll come back tomorrow."

"What about visiting hours?" asked Odo.

Aleexa examined the monitors above the bed. "There aren't any in this wing of the facility. This is the section for terminal patients. We never turn away family. Kejal is welcome to stay if he wants to."

Terminal. The word cut through Kejal like a phaser.

Mora opened his eyes. They didn't quite focus. "Odo."

"Doctor Mora?" Odo approached his bedside. "I'm here."

"Yes," he smiled slightly. "When you return to my house, look for a small white box in the chest under the oval window. You'll find something that should go to someone I will soon consider a daughter-in-law."

Kira blushed at that.

"A small white box? Very well." Odo patted Mora's shoulder. "You should rest. We'll see you again in the morning."

"Thank you." Mora replied, his eyes already fluttering shut.

Kira lightly touched Odo's arm. They stepped back onto the transporter pad and Kejal heard them shimmer away.
End Notes:

**Chapter soundtrack**

Another Dream: https://app.box.com/s/svck27fhsk4wzvwvyq5p

Odo and Kira's Evening: https://app.box.com/s/3soyv1tvaingu8hm5z4b

Mora's Disaster: https://app.box.com/s/pvdthpeon1ex9a3u30ftr
10. Abreaction by Cyndi
.o

.o

.o

.o

10. Abreaction

.o

.o

.o

.o

Mora's dreams were strange and terrifying. Somehow, he'd gotten lost within the Fire Caves, and he felt a pah-wraith pressing into his back. Instead of running from it in fear, he turned and cursed its existence.

He awoke feeling angry. Angry at the Delfeya syndrome, angry at being in a medical facility again and angry that he couldn't do the things he used to.

Yawning, still tired, he checked the time. Oh three-hundred. Blast it all, he hadn't slept more than two hours and his bladder needed emptying.

His back gave him a few twinges. He calmed himself down and touched the call button next to his head.

"Pol?" Aleexa's voice offered reassurance. "What is it?"

"I need to make water."

"I'm on my way."

"Father?"

Mora blinked. "You're still here?"

Kejal approached his bedside. "I couldn't leave you here alone."

Aleexa slipped into the room with a clear container in her hand. It was hardly more than a long plastic tube inside a bag.

"Here you go. Do you need help?"

Mora shook his head. "May I have some privacy?"

She smiled. "Of course. Kejal? Come on."

Kejal offered a little protest before Aleexa convinced him to leave the room. She pulled the curtain around the biobed and waited just outside while Mora took care of his bladder.

He didn't think the bag would hold it all, but to his relief it expanded as he filled it.

"I think the blockage is gone. I never go this much."

"That's good to hear!" Aleexa said cheerfully. "Does it hurt to pee?"

"No." Mora finished and tucked himself back into the facility-issued shorts. "I'm done now."

"And decent?"

"Mmhmm."

Aleexa moved the curtain and took the bag. The contents were cloudy with blood. "Oh, yes, I think you're definitely emptying out the swollen kidney." She swished it. "Is it usually this bloody?"

Mora nodded once and shifted his position. "Some days it looks like that, but not always." He cleaned his hands with the provided wet sanitation wipes.

"That's how it usually is with Delfeya syndrome." Aleexa noted down the amount in the bag and discarded it in the waste extraction unit. She used an ionizing station to disinfect her hands and came back to take his temperature.

Mora didn't mind the cool probe being rubbed across his forehead. It soothed his pulsing headache. "Do I have a fever? I feel like I might."

"Yeah, you do. It's the antibiotics you're being given here. They pull your own antibodies towards the source of the infection, so I'm sorry, that means I can't give you anything to lower the fever without disrupting the process."

"Mm...I understand. Compared to how I felt earlier, a headache is nothing." Mora wiggled on the bed. "Can you up the field strength a little? I'm getting twinges."

"Sure." Aleexa adjusted something above his head and the pain faded. "How's that?"

"Better, thank you."

She smiled kindly. "You're scruffy." Her fingernails scraped lightly at the stubble on his chin. "I like scruffy men."

Mora chuckled at her. He scratched his chin and made a face. "It looked better when I was younger. Now, I just look like an old, dirty goat."

"You certainly do not! You're still quite good looking, sir." Aleexa balked. She replicated a tall water glass with a spill-proof lid and a flexible straw. "Here's some water. Your mouth looks a little dry."

"Thank you." He took a generous drink. Until then, he didn't realize how thirsty he was. The cold water felt wonderful on his parched throat. He set the glass on the bedside table. "I think I'll rest a little more."

"That's just fine. Rest is the best thing for you." Aleexa reached down and gave his hand a friendly squeeze. "Don't hesitate to call for me if you need anything else. I'm always available."

Yes, I have to bother other people to tend to my most basic needs...

Mora resisted snapping the comment running through his mind. He smiled instead and patted her wrist. "I appreciate it, Aleexa. I apologize in advance for any further interruptions I may cause."

"Don't, sweetie. It's what I'm here for." She straightened the blanket for him, smoothed his hair and padded out. "Keep it down in there. He wants to rest."

"Okay," Kejal's voice filtered through the door.

Mora sighed, closing his eyes. Kejal entered and Mora felt the air disturbance of him leaning over the bed. Then he moved away to sit by the window. Mora cracked an eye open.

Kejal didn't look happy. He seemed haggard, as if he hadn't relaxed once in the past several hours. Sitting on the floor like that made him appear far smaller than his actual size. Amusingly, he was barefoot and shape shifting his fingers and toes into different flowers from the garden back home.

Seeing Kejal doing something so silly dissolved Mora's anger. He could always chase away Mora's darkest mood just by entering a room. A talent he possessed since being born on Leruu's death anniversary.

That date used to drive Mora into drinking himself numb. Now, it had a new, wonderful meaning, and he still believed Leruu talked the Prophets into planning it that way.

"Kejal," Mora whispered.

Instantly, Kejal's face lit up. He clambered towards the biobed. "Father! How do you feel?"

Mora crinkled his nose. "Old."

"Pfft!"

He yawned and fought down his amusement at Kejal trying and failing to imitate it.

"Infections are exhausting," muttered Mora. Then his nose started to leak blood. "Augh, wonderful! Kejal, get me a-- "

Kejal handed him a handkerchief. "Should I call Aleexa back in?"

"No. This is a minor issue."

"I wish I could lay down with you." Kejal said quietly. He glared accusingly at the bed and all the gadgetry attached to it. "I don't like this bed. It looks like a casket."

"I feel half-dead. I think it suits my condition."

"That's...almost funny right now." Kejal gave a half-hearted chuckle.

Mora's head pounded. He rubbed his forehead and blew his nose to clear it. The coppery taste of blood clung to the back of his throat. Damn nosebleeds.

He set the bloody handkerchief down without caring where it landed. "I'm going to fall asleep pretty soon." Smiling a little, he added, "Sing something...would you please?"

"Oh! Gladly, father." Kejal cleared his throat and launched into a quiet, hypnotic melody about a butterfly in a well. His clear tenor voice rose and fell like pure light finding its way through darkness.

And Mora felt himself slipping into slumber...

.o

Odo sat silently on the edge of the bed. Kira was settling down to sleep.

"Are you coming to bed?" she asked.

"I might later," he replied. "I don't feel like sleeping right now. I'm sorry."

Kira nodded and closed her eyes. She rubbed his leg in a sleepy attempt to soothe his troubled mind. Odo's expression softened at her kindness. He brushed a strand of hair off her forehead and kissed her above the ear.

"I love you, Nerys."

"Love you, too," she yawned. In a few minutes her breathing shifted into soft, kitten-purr snores.

Odo padded out of the bedroom. The square white box Doctor Mora told him about sat unopened on the kitchen counter. Odo had been afraid to look inside.

Ridiculous...me, afraid of a box? Odo, get a hold of yourself.

He steeled himself and pressed the button that made the lid pop up. The gold betrothal bracelet gleamed faintly in the dim overhead lights. It consisted of five long bars with small red beads in between. Vows of love were engraved on each bar.

I promise you my love.

I promise you my devotion.

I promise you my strength.

I promise you my faith.

I promise you my everything
.

Underneath the bracelet was a tiny piece of parchment listing the people who wore it before.

Mora Leruu

Mora Sirah

Mora Y'lai

Mora Ival

Mora Myrna

A prickly feeling bothered Odo's eyes. Rubbing them made it go away. He tip-toed into the guest bedroom and gently slipped the betrothal bracelet onto Kira's wrist without waking her up. Then he kissed her cheek and walked back out.

He spent the next three hours reading one of the Shaarlek novels. The story revolved around a Ferengi named Murg hiding in a science lab after being framed for murder.

Wonderful.

Odo dropped the PADD, held his head in his hands and sighed. No getting around it. This needed to get done.

The communications console lit up when he tapped the touchpad. He asked for a hover tram and paid the fee in advance.

"Odo?"

"Nerys...I didn't mean to wake you."

Kira rubbed her eyes. "You didn't." She looked down at the bracelet and smiled. "It's beautiful."

Odo dipped his head politely. "A gift from Doctor Mora. It's been in his family for generations."

"I'll be sure to thank him." Kira indicated the communications screen. "What's going on?"

"I'm doing something I should have done a long time ago." Odo tapped his thumbs together as he paced the length of the couch. "I'm going to see the lab."

"I'm coming with you."

"Nerys-- "

She was already in the bedroom pulling on her clothes. When she returned, she said, "Don't face this alone, Odo."

He met her eyes. She wouldn't back down.

Sixty minutes later, they stood together outside the intimidating black building. The fog swirling around its angular edges made it seem alive. A huge, dark monster about to devour anything in its path.

Odo took a breath. Kira squeezed his hand. Together, they stepped through the main entrance and slipped past the snoozing security guard. Odo led Kira onto an elevator to the second floor. He walked swiftly, hoping the trepidation he felt stayed two steps behind.

The laboratory was the first door Odo saw when the elevator arrived.

"Come on..." He muttered more to himself than Kira.

Fashioning his thumb into an exact replica of Doctor Mora's, he pressed it to the identification panel beside the double doors. They slid apart and revealed the last place in the universe Odo ever wanted to see again.

It looked exactly like he remembered it. From the cold black countertops to the gleaming metal table running down the center. A layout so familiar he could find his way around blindfolded.

Odo headed straight for the shelf on his right. He plucked up the beaker and handed it to Kira. The label was still there.

Odo'ital.

"Oh..." Kira turned the beaker over in her hands. "The Cardassians called you nothing?"

Odo nodded slowly.

"Once, I believed that label. The Cardassians didn't know what I was, so they chose Doctor Mora to find out. He labeled my jar as 'unknown sample' and the Cardassians translated it into 'nothing.' Nobody realized I was a life form for a long time. Doctor Mora's experiments revealed that by accident.

"I didn't have a name, then. I was the unknown sample, the creature, the specimen, the alien...the beaker of nothing. Once I started taking humanoid form, the Bajorans in the lab started calling me Odo Ital, as if the two words were a Bajoran name. Over time, it was shortened to just Odo. No matter how they changed it, I always heard nothing when people called my name."

Kira cupped the beaker against her chest and squeezed his hand. Her eyelashes were damp. "You were never nothing to me, Odo." She cracked a small smile that he mirrored effortlessly.

"I know. The first time you said my name to me, I stopped hearing it as nothing."

She pulled him close and kissed him deeply. "If I hadn't seen Kejal after he was born, I never would've believed you fit in this beaker."

"Sometimes I can't believe it myself." Odo laid a hand on his chest. The very spot from which Kejal emerged. His eyes roved over the menacing gadgets tucked neatly into the walls. Larger pieces of equipment were positioned near the windows.

He tugged Kira's hand and showed her the electrostatic dish. "This is the device that first induced me to shape shift."

The memories came up, unbidden...

Most of his existence had been vibrations, stirring, suction, stinging and tingling.

And then, out of nowhere, agony! Disorientation! Burning! Spinning and confusion and terror!

Then nothing...for a long time, nothing.

Suddenly, IT happened.

Something poured him onto a flat surface. The smooth, cool environment seemed safe enough until the cruel Pain Thing bombarded his entire being! He discovered he could move; he stretched until he found a place of no pain. Parts of him still touched the Pain Thing. He compacted himself until the zapping stopped.

Later on, he experienced the Pain Thing again. Only now, the Safe Place was blocked! He extended desperate tentacles and palpated the cylindrical obstacle. The top was open. He rushed for the container and poured himself inside.

He began to perceive the outside world. Shape, form, texture and vibration. The alien who exposed him to the Pain Thing looked different than the other shapes around it. He began recoiling inside his beaker each time that alien turned on the lights and stretched out its limb.

The alien put many shaped containers inside the Pain Thing. He memorized them all. Then, suddenly, no shapes. What did this alien want?

He learned to recognize the smoothness of the Pain Thing. It was a big, flat, round surface. He dreaded feeling it, for he knew it meant suffering.

Once, he adhered himself to the bottom of the Pain Thing. The alien turned it on. Resisting it was impossible. He took the last shape he remembered pouring himself into and became a cube all by himself. When the Pain Thing stopped buzzing, he stayed a cube. All those straight lines and right angles-- wait, he could do this without the Pain Thing?

The alien made noises at another alien. Now two were hovering over him. He felt himself being picked up, tapped and turned over. The alien's strange limbs were two flat surfaces with five smaller appendages. This odd alien used those five appendages to manipulate the Pain Thing. He heard the alien generate more noises, and the next thing he knew he was spinning. Holding his cube shape was impossible.

He got tired of it. The poking, spinning, pain and the giant alien looming over him-- he wanted it to stop!

Changing shapes made the alien use the Pain Thing. Perhaps not changing shape would stop the pain!

Then the alien got confusing. Once, it poured him into a tall, cylindrical container. He felt the smoothness of the Pain Thing underneath it. A trick? The container lifted away. He relaxed his shape, resisting the Pain Thing. It did not hurt as badly as it used to.

Just when he thought he finally won, the alien tried again. He melted into liquid a second time. But the persistent alien did it AGAIN, and resisting the Pain Thing became impossible. He held the container's shape.

Wait, he could change shape without the Pain Thing, right?

Of course. He knew what to do.

The next time the alien turned on the Pain Thing, he stretched part of himself out and attacked its appendage. The Pain Thing immediately stopped.

And the alien became cruel
...

Or so Odo thought. He didn't realize he was mumbling out loud until Kira whispered his name.

"Odo?" Kira's brow knit in concern. "Odo, you're liquefying. Odo? Odo!"

Odo's consciousness realigned with the present. He forced his body back into its humanoid shape.

"I-I..." The memories were so real he swore he was re-experiencing everything. "...I thought he was punishing me for slapping his hand away from the control panel. I never asked...I didn't know any better." He gestured to the test tubes, the large beaker and the long, thin syringe lying on the countertop behind Kira. "Doctor Mora discovered I was a life form when he poured acid on a small sample of my substance and found DNA. But he did not realize I was sentient when he returned the sample that didn't break down. The acid reacted with my morphogenic enzymes."

"Odo!"

Odo clutched the electrostatic plate in remembered agony.

"He saved me with the centrifuge. It separated out the acid, but the pain persisted for weeks...and I hated him. My first emotion was hate, and I never knew the guilt he felt for causing me that pain.

"I thought he enjoyed hurting me. I thought he was punishing me. I used tentacles to grab tools out of his hands and knock over his equipment, and he had to keep me inside a containment field for his own safety. I threw myself against it in attempt to escape. I didn't know how else to communicate that I wanted the pain to stop. He wasn't even aware of my sentience until I shape shifted into a copy of my beaker.

"Later, I began recognizing the vibrations of voices as a means of communication, and through that I began to understand language itself. I proved I understood his words by shape shifting into a cube on command. Then everything changed...he started introducing me to various life forms and objects, and my shape shifting vocabulary grew until I..." Odo tilted his head to indicate himself. He looked over at Kira, his inner substance swirling in shame. "This is where I began, Nerys."

Kira put his beaker down. She pried his hands off the electrostatic plate and wrapped his arms around her. Then she pulled his head down onto her shoulder and kissed his ear. A touch so tender compared to the memories of his surroundings.

Odo leaned into her warmth like a plant desperate for rain. He felt his lips quivering, but beyond that he could not express the emotions welling in his substance.

"The hardest part," he sighed heavily, "is realizing my fear and hatred were completely misguided. He wasn't a sadist. He didn't enjoy my misery. He was experimenting on a jar of what looked like organic residue because the Cardassians wanted to know what I was-- I could have been a valuable new fuel source, or an undiscovered chemical or biological weapon. How could anyone know I was alive? Of course, once the Cardassians realized I was a life form and sentient, they pressured Doctor Mora to find out everything about me. My capabilities, my intelligence...everything.

"Once a month, I had to entertain them at parties to show off what I'd learned. I thought they liked me. I thought they truly wanted to be my friends. Humanoid children were cruel to me because I was different. I told you about the young Klingons a long time ago..."

"Yes, I remember," Kira whispered, never breaking her embrace.

"I recognized their mockery as the same mockery I heard from the Cardassians, and suddenly I understood what really happened at those ridiculous parties. I stopped enjoying them, and I saw my shape shifting as a source of shame.

"The Cardassian neck trick was the last straw. Doctor Mora made me practice it for weeks. At the party, I tried to refuse by stating I didn't like it. Doctor Mora got angry at me, and I finally did the trick to shut him up. The whole place erupted in laughter. Doctor Mora thanked me for cooperating. And again, I thought he enjoyed seeing me suffer. I felt betrayed...I believed his science meant more to him than me, so I left the lab after that party. I told him what I was doing and I walked out into the rain."

He kissed Kira's shoulder. "If I knew then what I know now, and if we had simply talked about it, things between Doctor Mora and I would be so much different. I know the experiments I endured wouldn't have been done if he knew I was alive at the start. I-- Hmph, it's all so ridiculous. It's the past, it shouldn't bother me."

Kira squeezed his upper arms and resumed her embrace. "Your feelings aren't wrong, Odo. He hurt you, and he was wrong to do it. It doesn't matter if he did it knowingly or not, you were still hurt."

Odo closed his eyes. He grasped her shoulders. "I'm sorry, Nerys. I didn't mean to drag you through this."

"No." She sat down on the metal table and made him look into her eyes. They were watering, but she spoke before Odo could snap that he didn't want her pity. "This is an important part of who you are. You can see it for what it is instead of what you thought it was. Look at what you've overcome, Odo. I'd be bitter as hell and never look Pol in the eye again if it were me!"

Odo snorted. "I would say the same if he fell ill two decades ago. I walked out swearing to never see him or this laboratory again."

"And here you are, facing it and helping him." Kira patted his hip. "I really admire that. We've both overcome a lot, haven't we?"

"Yes. We definitely have." A small, amused smile tugged the corners of his lips. He touched her knees with his fingertips. "You're sitting on the exact spot where I took humanoid form for the first time."

Kira tilted her head. "Really?"

"Mmhmm." Odo sat next to her. "I didn't realize my legs weren't solid enough to hold my weight. So when I tried to stand..." He slid off the table and reverted to his gelatinous state on the floor. After a few seconds, he reformed facing her. "Learning to walk took a long time. I did not have the reflexes associated with balance. They came to me with practice. Talking happened the same way. Both with Doctor Mora's guidance."

"Just like any other baby." Kira said affectionately.

"Then I was a large infant." Odo found himself smiling as fonder memories surfaced. "Doctor Mora played games with me to teach me the simple things-- like facial expressions, but I did not master using or interpreting them until after I left the lab."

He walked past the table and opened the glass cabinet by the wall console. Isolinear rods labeled with dates lined the shelf.

"Ah, here." Odo placed one in the port below the console. He saw himself sitting on the table. At that time, he did not have eyelashes or teeth, and the only clothing he could mimic was a pair of black skintight shorts.

"You were so young!" Kira gasped.

Odo stared at his younger self on the screen. At Doctor Mora guiding his hands and praising him.

"Now remember, you have to hold it tight." Doctor Mora said after shaping Odo's hand into a fist around the neck of a beaker. "I'm going to let go. Don't loosen your grip."

He let go. Odo focused his whole being on keeping his fingers closed.

"Aha! Fantastic. You're doing so well! Let's put it down. Slowly. Open your fingers. There you go. Perfect! Now, do you remember the handshake?"

"No." Odo opened his eyes wide, grabbed Doctor Mora's hand and shook it vigorously up and down. "Wait. Yes."


He felt Kira leaning against him.

"You sounded a lot like Kejal when you were young. What made you change your voice?"

"I wanted to frighten other children away."

"Right...the Klingons..."

Odo nodded. Oddly, that memory didn't sting like it used to. In fact, the building-- the very room he was standing in-- didn't look as terrifying as his mind made it out to be.

The equipment was just equipment. The shadows were just shadows.

"It is hard to imagine that there was a time where I knew nothing. I didn't know what it meant to love...or be loved..." Odo thumbed the betrothal bracelet on Kira's wrist. "...or that I would be standing here with you."

Kira ducked her head, smiling. She glanced at her wrist and refocused on his face. Her expression softened. "Pol seems to love you like a son."

Odo cleared his throat and put the isolinear rod back into its proper place. "He is not my father."

"Family isn't always governed by genes. Kejal has no problem calling him his father."

"That's what I told Kejal to call him." Odo replied. "Don't all mothers want their children to know better than they did?"

"Yeah, but that doesn't mean denying yourself if a chance comes up, either, and you won't have yours for long."

Odo closed his eyes and allowed himself a silent sigh. Doctor Mora was good to him when he wasn't blinded by his own arrogance, but at that time Odo didn't have the mental capacity to understand gestures like embracing and pats on the back.

Looking back on those times left him even more confused.

"We should get to the facility," said Odo.

Kira handed him his beaker. "Got your sticker?"

"My-- " he scooped it off the floor, where it fell when he liquefied. "Here we go."

They joined hands and activated the circuitry in their stickers. The facility transporter beamed them right to Doctor Mora's room.

Kejal was regenerating in a clear basin by the window.

Doctor Mora had been stripped to the waist. He shivered a little, his face flushed. Odo picked up the digital chart by the biobed. The antibiotics were causing a controlled fever and helping his body fight off the infection in his kidney.

Odo did a double take. Doctor Mora looked so small in the bed. The hair on his pectoral area was all gray and thinner than Odo remembered. His collarbones stuck out beneath the skin. He shifted restlessly and his lips were dry.

"Doctor Mora?"

Doctor Mora's eyelids fluttered.

"Nerys, replicate a cool cloth for his head."

Kira nodded and replicated one. She laid it lightly on Doctor Mora's forehead. "He's awfully warm."

"It's the antibiotics."

"Leruu?" Doctor Mora mumbled.

"No," whispered Kira. "It's Nerys."

"Mm..." he opened his eyes. "Oh."

Odo edged in next to Kira. "Doctor Mora, good morning."

Doctor Mora covered a yawn with his hand. "To you, too."

"Nerys and I stopped by the Science Institute. I...felt the need to face it."

"Did you now?"

Nodding once, Odo handed Doctor Mora his old beaker. At the sight of it, Doctor Mora's eyes twinkled. He smiled, but it was sad.

"It's been a lifetime since you fit in this thing."

"I know. Nerys almost didn't believe it either."

Kira gave his arm a squeeze. "He's right. If I hadn't seen Kejal as a newborn, I never would've guessed."

Doctor Mora held the beaker out to Odo again. "Keep it for now. It'll get lost in here."

Odo accepted it and slipped it into the pocket he created in his pants. "How do you feel?"

"The blockage seems to be gone and the swelling is going down. The pain hasn't gone away yet. I'm fortunate this contraption is so good at controlling it."

"Ah. Yes. Doctor Bashir used one of these to stop the pain when I had the morphogenic virus. Apparently, you had the same idea for Kejal."

"I kept him in my living room. I held him as much as I could to make up for your inability to be there." Doctor Mora lifted his head and glanced at the window. When he noticed Kejal regenerating, he settled back once again. His eyes remained troubled.

Aleexa bustled in carrying a food tray. "Oh! Well, the gang's all here! Good morning, Odo. Good morning, Nerys."

Odo and Kira offered polite pleasantries. Aleexa helped Doctor Mora incline the head of the bed and moved the tray into his reach.

"I'm afraid this isn't my home cooking, but it'll be easy on your stomach." She lifted the lid to reveal some sort of fruit sauce, toasted bread and a mug of warm tea.

"Ah, it looks delicious anyway. Thank you." Doctor Mora's eyelids dropped as he reached for the packaged spoon.

Odo watched how Kira tenderly buttered the bread for him and replicated extra napkins. She and Doctor Mora talked in hushed tones, their faces serious.

Odo let them converse uninterrupted. He slipped over to the sunny window and gazed down at his 'sleeping' offspring.

.o

Something cylindrical plopped into Kejal's substance. Only his mother and father dared do such a thing, and at the moment his father was indisposed.

He absorbed and studied the invader. A beaker with something written on it.

Cardassian language.

Odo'ital.

Curious, Kejal slowly assumed humanoid form. He popped the beaker out of his elbow. "Oh, mother...it's your first beaker!"

"Mmhmm." Odo lightly slapped Kejal's knee.

Kejal rolled it between his hands. "It's so little."

"You were that tiny when you were born." Odo slipped his arm around Kejal's shoulders and Kejal leaned into his mother's comforting touch. "How is Doctor Mora doing?"

"He filled up an entire pee bag earlier. I didn't know humanoid bladders held that much."

"Tch, I don't miss having one. They're annoying."

"Father says the same thing." Kejal smiled and handed the beaker back to Odo. "He's doing better. Aleexa says he'll be well enough to return home soon. Maybe he's going get completely better!"

The arm Odo had around his shoulders tightened its hold. "He is dying, Kejal."

"Moth-- "

"No, listen to me. I understand you don't want to hear this, but it is time to face reality." Odo's voice remained gentle, but firm. "Today, I showed Nerys a painful part of my past. If I succeeded, so can you. Stop running from reality, Kejal."

Kejal's substance quivered. He clasped his hands together. "I'm afraid to."

"Why? Look at me...tell me why."

He met his mother's worried gaze. "No. It's too hard. Let's talk about your wedding plans inst-- "

"No. Don't change the subject. Doctor Mora is going to die in approximately seven weeks."

Seven weeks. Before, the word months got thrown about. Months meant a long time. Weeks felt like no time at all.

Kejal's world contracted more.

Odo said, "Nerys and I will take care of the wedding plans. That means Doctor Mora needs your help planning his funeral. You...are closer to him. You know what he prefers better than I do."

"No. That's not enough time. Don't have the wedding for a year. He'll wait for it! Sick people stay alive for things like that all the time!"

"Kejal, you are asking for the impossible. Don't be selfish!"

"Why not?" Kejal exploded. "Why not, mother?"

His outburst silenced the muted conversation between Kira and Mora.

Odo sighed without backing down. "Let's talk somewhere else. If you're going to yell like that, I'd rather not cause a disturbance."

"Is everything all right?" asked Mora.

"We're having a minor disagreement," replied Odo. "We're taking it outside right now."

"They're fine, Pol." Kira soothed.

Kejal couldn't protest. Odo bodily led him into the hall by the arm. They followed the signs to an elevator leading onto the roof. Once out in the bright sun, Odo pulled Kejal close again.

"You've been close to him your whole life. Even while in the Great Link, you thought of him. I know how much you love him, Kejal."

"People don't let the ones they love die!" Kejal gestured at the silver ground beneath their feet. "We're just sitting back and letting him die!"

"No. Delfeya syndrome has no cure. Scientists like Doctor Mora have studied it for years. It's such a complicated disease. Who knows? There might be a cure in another hundred years. Even if Doctor Mora lived a natural lifespan, he still won't be alive in a century. He is a sick man and he needs you."

Kejal wanted to hit Odo in the mouth. He wanted to cry-- and hated that he lacked the ability to do so.

Instead, he uttered several Bajoran curse words and sank into Odo's arms. "I don't know what to do."

Odo's hands pressed him closer. "Be there. Worry less about tomorrow and focus on today." He exhaled, the air puffing across Kejal's head. "I didn't know how I would go on once I sent you away with Doctor Mora. Then I realized what a wonderful life you were going to have, and it wasn't so bad. I missed you terribly for those first ten years. But the knowledge that you were safe and happy made it bearable. And I'm sure it wasn't easy saying goodbye to Doctor Mora when he brought you to the homeworld."

"It wasn't." Kejal shook his head. "But I always knew he was alive. If I had a pressing need, I could've come to Bajor to visit him. It's not so easy once someone crosses into the Celestial Temple. Admitting it means it's real...that he'll die."

"And if you don't, he is still going to die. Whether you want him to or not, his death is inevitable." Odo hardened his expression. "Either you can see him off properly, or you can hide from it until the bitter end. Which would you regret more?"

They were hard words to hear. Kejal knew Odo only took on that tone when he had a point to drive home. And it worked. He felt it burrowing into his chest like a knife.

His father was going to die, and nothing he did could prevent that eventuality.

"I think...I-I need to be a Tarkalean hawk for awhile." Kejal said, avoiding Odo's eyes. "My transport sticker is next to the container I used to regenerate."

Odo held him closer. "Don't be too long."

As soon as his mother released him, Kejal crouched low and relaxed. Morphogenic enzymes flooded his system, breaking up his cells into cytoplasm until he told his body what to become. He compacted his substance. Feathers appeared on his gelatinous surface. He focused on perfecting the shape. The curved beak was the hardest, but the fierce golden eyes were easy. His vision sharpened until he could distinguish individual freckles on the face of a little girl a mile away.

Kejal gave a hawk's shriek and flapped his wings. The wind, a bird's best friend, lifted him upward. His feet folded up against his underbelly as the hospital facility shrank away.

Air moved differently in the city than it did in the wilderness. He sensed the currents ricocheting off the buildings like rapids in a river.

Finally, an updraft! Kejal spread his wings to let it carry him so high the city below was just a miniature diorama between rolling green hills. Morning fog hugged the ocean, obscuring it from view. The distant mountains were majestic creatures reaching for the atmosphere. Even further off, he saw the curved horizon.

A breeze sent something pale brown skittering in the city street far below. He recognized it from thousands of feet away.

Tarkalean hawks were the greatest showoffs in the sky and the fastest predator in the Alpha quadrant. Known for making kills in mid-air, off the ground and even in water-- able to soar for hours and capable of reaching dizzying heights --yes, they truly fit the profile of a perfect bird.

Kejal twirled through a cloud. He tucked his wings in, closed up his tail feathers and let gravity take over. Within ten seconds of beginning his stoop, he reached speeds of over one hundred and fifty miles per hour. Wind roared past his ears and tore at his feathers. Baffles in his nostrils kept the air from ripping his inner substance apart. Every nanosecond he adjusted his teardrop shape for maximum aerodynamic control. The city grew like magic.

He felt weightless. He felt free.

But his aim was a little off.

Not a problem. Not a problem at all.

Turning his head would send him out of control, so he flicked his wings and did a graceful barrel roll to keep his target centered in his sights. The horizon spun. His central vision stayed clear. He maintained his balance. Almost there!

The side of a skyscraper whipped through his peripheral vision. His instincts screamed, and at the last possible second he fanned his wings and tail. His momentum shot him forward. Pebbles on the street were blurs. G-forces slammed into him as he stretched his talons to grab his prey before flapping back towards the sky in a harrowing death-defying spin.

Him against gravity, and he won.

Kejal circled another cloud, shaking from the thrill. A dirty hasperat wrapper dangled off his feet.

I still got it, Kejal thought triumphantly to himself. He swooped past an outdoor waste unit and dropped the trash inside, leaving a very confused street merchant staring at his retreating tail feathers. If only birds could laugh.

It was impossible to be sad while flying. Impossible.

But he couldn't put off reality forever.

Kejal circled the city once more and headed back to the hospital.
End Notes:

**Chapter soundtrack**

A Lullaby Soothes: https://app.box.com/s/jj565b22466xt4igg041

Odo Faces His Demons: https://app.box.com/s/wgpbchzsfo31pt4fyvcb

Stoop: https://app.box.com/s/4n44enr16yfgi2thugmo
11. Bittersweet Homecoming by Cyndi
.o

.o

.o

.o

11. Bittersweet Homecoming

.o

.o

.o

.o

"...and so far those are the three wedding bowls we like." Kira handed Mora a PADD showing three elaborate bowls for the ceremonial sip of wine.

The first bowl was silver and covered in beautiful decorative engravings. The gold one had small red gems along its rim. The third looked two-toned, gold and silver arranged in spirals.

Mora smiled softly at being included in the planning.

"I like the second one." He glanced at Kira's new betrothal bracelet. "It matches."

"Our wedding colors should be red and gold." Odo remarked. His eyes literally sparkled when he gazed at Kira. "I always associated those colors with you."

"Mm." Kira's expression mirrored Odo's. "Then I know what colors my dress will be."

Odo smiled, gazing down at his feet. "I look forward to seeing it. I'll wear a tuxedo...and Doctor Mora, I think you should, too."

Mora lifted both eyebrows. "The fitting is going to be a nightmare."

"I can take your measurements to Garak when I go back to Deep Space Nine," said Kira.

"I'm losing weight." Mora admitted. "Fitting the pants might be an issue. Better make sure it comes with a belt."

Nodding, Odo cast a sidelong look at Kira.

"Nosing in. Coming through." Aleexa wiggled her way towards Mora's bedside. "I see you ate everything on your plate. That's good. Any nausea, sweetie?"

"No...eating actually makes me feel better." Mora pushed his plate towards her. "Thank you, that tasted nice."

"Glad to hear it. I'll make sure you get to clean your teeth in a minute. Let me take this first." Aleexa took the whole food tray away. She grinned at Odo and Kira. "I hear you two are planning a wedding. Congratulations!"

"Thank you." Odo replied. Kira bumped her shoulder into his.

"Yes, Aleexa, thank you."

The Talaxian giggled and left with the tray. She came back carrying an ionizing toothbrush. Not Mora's favorite type, but he didn't complain as he used it.

"I hate to be a bother, but is there any way I can get a shave?" Mora rubbed at his stubble.

"Oh, of course! You like straight razors, don't you? We only have disposable laser razors here...will that be okay until you're home again?"

"Yes. That's fine."

"I'll be right back then."

"Hm. I never grew facial hair when I was stuck as a humanoid." Odo scratched thoughtfully at his own chin. "I still can't quite mimic it."

Kira swatted at his hip. "I always wanted to see you with stubble."

Odo crinkled his nose at her.

Mora laughed as Aleexa passed him the tiny laser razor. A short stick ending in a flat rectangular emitter. The laser cut off his stubble and the plate underneath collected the hairs when he passed the emitter over his skin. A very soothing shave, though not as close as he preferred it. He discarded the unit once he finished.

Almost immediately after, his head swam. His body was reminding him of the battle happening inside. "Ooh...someone please lay me down."

Odo adjusted the bed. "Are you all right?"

"Yes. Just a little dizzy. I still have a fever."

"I can tell." Kira touched a cool hand against his brow.

"It should pass once the antibiotic regimen is finished." Mora said. Then he realized Kejal hadn't returned. "Where is Kejal? It's been three hours. Is he all right?"

"I wondered the same thing." Kira's brow knit. "Odo?"

"Don't worry about him. It's a behavior he inherited from me." Odo leaned over. "He should be back-- "

" --right now."

Kejal was leaning on the doorway with his arms crossed.

Kira rushed over to embrace him. She held onto his shoulders and they spoke to each other in hushed tones. After a few moments, she patted his cheek. He hugged her and walked with her into the room.

"I needed some time alone," Kejal said by way of explanation. "I'm sorry for worrying everybody."

Something about him had changed. His eyes now carried the odd light Mora saw in everyone else who learned of his diagnosis.

It's sunk in for him.

Mora held up an arm. "Kejal, come here."

When Kejal came closer, Mora pulled him down into a hug. He wasn't sure if the trembling he felt was his own body or Kejal's.

"I'll take care of you, father." Kejal whispered. "Just like you took care of me."

Mora patted Kejal's back, smiling. "It will mean a lot to me when we reach that point. But we aren't there yet. This is a temporary setback." He glanced up at Kira and Odo and winked one eye shut. "Besides, I have no intention of going anywhere when I have a wedding to look forward to."

"Mother says I should help you plan, but I don't know how."

"We will figure it out together."

"...I'd like to do the sand." Kira's voice filtered across the room. She and Odo had moved over by the window where they talked to each other in gentle tones that included no one else.

Mora clasped Kejal's hand and patted it. "When they head home, I want you to go with them. Get some proper rest. I'll be all right."

"But father," Kejal tightened his grip, and his eyes grew large and pleading. "What if you need something? That's why I'm here, so I can go fetch if you require help."

"This facility is full of trained doctors and nurses who are a button push away. I'm in good hands. The best help you can offer me is to take care of yourself right now."

"If you're sure..."

"I am. Besides," Mora's eyes glanced at Kira and Odo, "They might need your help planning their wedding."

Just as Mora expected, Kejal's expression brightened. "Mother dreamed about it all the time."

"Did he?" Now Mora found his curiosity piqued.

Kejal nodded his head once, resolute. "Leaving wasn't easy for him. He knew it was the right thing to do. Why should innocent Changelings die with the guilty?" His voice lowered to a rumble that sounded so much like Odo. "Their fear of solids is going away a little at a time. Especially after I went home and shared my experiences."

He touched Kejal's hand again. The skin on the young Changeling's fingers felt as real as his own, but unnaturally smooth and hairless.

"You must miss the Great Link."

Shrugging, Kejal patted Mora's forearm. "I'll miss you more. Will you miss me, too?"

"Yes." Mora said it without hesitation. "But listen...it won't be all over. I know it. This face, this voice, these eyes, this heartbeat-- they are all transient, Kejal. I'm beginning to think the transition between life and death is the greatest shape shift of all. From flesh to energy. Consciousness without form."

"I can do that."

"What?"

"I can shape shift into light." Kejal looked up. "Mother, I'm going to shape shift. Don't get upset at me."

"Why should I get upset at you for that?" Odo groused, not pleased at being interrupted.

Kejal smirked, refocusing on Mora. "Watch this."

His whole body shimmered like liquid gold. From within his chest came a faint, steady glow. Suddenly his entire form dissolved into the auroras seen near Bajor's magnetic poles.

"Oh..." Mora stretched out his hand. Kejal coalesced around it briefly before rising towards the ceiling again.

"He loves showing off." Kira kissed Odo's cheek. "I remember the first time you did that for me."

"Hm. You mean, like this?" Odo glistened and joined Kejal.

They danced in circles together, two misty spirits untouched by gravity. Wherever their ribbons of light crossed, sparks of color sprang out.

Mora's eyes watered. He couldn't tell which was Odo and which was Kejal.

Kira reached for his hand. She was smiling.

"Do they realize they are capable of such beautiful things? Do they even realize?" he asked her.

"Odo was afraid to show me for so long." Kira shook her head, her face softening. "The only sight more beautiful than this was seeing him give birth to Kejal." Her smile brightened a little. "He was completely open. Did you see the way he looked at me?"

"Mmhmm."

"He still looks at me that way." Kira's cheeks flushed pink. "Now I know what it meant. It wasn't just the sensations of giving birth. I was blind then...he was a friend who needed me."

One of the auroras dipped down and surrounded Kira. It dimmed and pulled itself together into Odo's familiar form. He slid his arms around her shoulders. A very amorous display for someone like Odo, Mora noticed.

"I'm glad you were there, Nerys," said Odo.

The other ribbon of light sank and reformed into Kejal.

He was standing on his head.

Odo rolled his eyes. "Kejal, you are ridiculous."

Kejal stuck his tongue out and righted himself. "So's your face."

Odo sniffed in mock contempt. Kira slapped his arm, giggling.

Mora couldn't hold back a yawn. The others noticed despite his attempts to cover it.

"We should go." Odo straightened. "Kejal, say goodbye for now."

"Okay, sure." Kejal leaned over the edge of the biobed and kissed Mora's brow. "I'll see you again soon, father."

"I'm going to be home in a flash." Mora rubbed Kejal's shoulder. "Aleexa will contact you if anything changes for the worst. I promise."

Kejal straightened. He grabbed his transport sticker and stepped onto the transporter pad. "She better."

"We'll see you soon, Pol." Kira moved Mora's water glass closer. "Get some sleep."

"Thank you. I will. Odo?"

Odo looked over his shoulder. "I'll keep your house in order."

Mora chuckled. "Thank you. Take care."

The three of them vanished, leaving Mora's room silent. Mora sighed contentedly and closed his eyes to rest.

.o

Green leaves shivered in the gentle breeze. The deka tree's drooping branches moved past the oval window like giant waving fingers.

Odo noticed Kejal sitting on the wooden swing, his forehead knit in deep thought. After a long minute, he pumped his legs and set the swing in motion. Odo hated seeing Kejal unhappy. No, it killed him inside. From the moment he learned he was pregnant, he wanted his offspring's life to be only happiness.

Hmph, that's only fairy tales, Odo mused darkly. Shielding Kejal from every little pain would be a grave disservice to him. Life and death are a common thing among Solids. He has to see it at least once. The Great Link doesn't replace actual experience.

Something hard jolted his backside when he sat. He pulled out the beaker he brought from Doctor Mora's lab. The memories attached to it plagued his mind like nightmares.

"You enjoyed watching me suffer."

"Do you really believe that? How pathetic! If it wasn't for me, you'd still be sitting on a shelf somewhere, in a beaker labeled 'unknown sample!'"

"If it wasn't for me, you'd be a nobody! Starfleet wouldn't hire you to judge a science fair!"


Odo raised his arm in preparation to smash the beaker into a million pieces on the floor. Yet the memory of Doctor Mora looking small and sick in the casket-like biobed stayed his hand. He finally set the beaker on the chest under the oval window.

Doctor Mora was going to die, and Odo couldn't name the emotions thinking about it brought to the surface.

He won't be my problem anymore. Why does it hurt to think about it?

Six loud thumps vibrated beneath the floor. Odo heard the telltale hiss of the shower in the guest bathroom. He envisioned Kira naked within the steam, her wet skin glistening from beaded water.

A familiar tingle raced over his surface. Casting all thoughts aside, he walked towards the guest bathroom. He shape shifted his clothes away as he stepped into the shower with her. There she stood under the overhead spray, rinsing shampoo out of her beautiful hair.

"Nerys," Odo whispered her name like a benediction. Giving himself to desire became another form of running, yet he couldn't stop. Right then, he needed her the way humanoids needed oxygen.

Kira faced him. Her brown eyes looked right into his-- well, if he had a heart, she would have seen straight into it. Her wet auburn hair was harshly slicked back. She resembled a highly experienced Changeling.

"Odo?"

His blue eyes darkened. He leaned in. The kiss he gave her mirrored their first on the Promenade thirty years ago.

Kira tilted her head and slipped her tongue into his mouth. A hot, wet invasion mightier than any sun. She knew exactly what drove his senses into overdrive. He felt the steam rising off her body. Her fingertips ghosted along his imitated collarbones. Golden ripples followed in their wake. His reaction rose and turned inward.

She pushed him under the hot spray, grabbed his hand and playfully sucked on his left index fingertip. His senses were out of control from being near her. Between the vibration of the water and her mouth, he couldn't hold on. At the moment of climax, he released his shape and poured himself over her wet skin until she, too, soared.

Odo reformed behind Kira, wrapping his arms around her shoulders. She was trembling.

He tilted his head back. Water ran down his cheeks like tears.

"Nerys, I-I'm sorry...I know I went too fast."

Kira turned and shushed him. She wiped the water droplets off his cheeks.

"You look like you're crying."

Odo grasped her wrists. "I can't cry, although sometimes I wish I could. Today, at the lab...I wanted to."

"Old, abscessed wounds hurt until you treat them." Kira said. "Sometimes, that takes time." Then she kissed him gently on the mouth. "You'll get there, Odo."

"I hope so," Odo replied. He felt better already because of her.

"So...do you want to try this again?" Kira's eyes twinkled. Gleaming droplets clung to her eyelashes.

Nodding his head, Odo pressed himself closer. "This time, I'll stay humanoid." He smiled against her earlobe, "Rawr."

With the urgency gone, there was no reason to hurry. They made slow, sensual love under the spray, and their hands left wet smears on the transparent shower door.

The female Founder once said the Great Link was but a pale shadow to humanoid intimacy. As Odo looked into Kira's eyes and felt their bodies fit together, he began to think the old, jaded Founder had it backwards.

Sensations within the link grew mundane after a short time. Like smells that faded into the background during constant exposure. Pleasure became another 'new normal.' One more side effect of being joined to many minds feeling several sensations at once. A total opposition to the transient lightning strikes felt by two solitary humanoids seeking oneness.

Maybe paradise is better experienced in small doses. Odo mused when Kira relaxed into his arms.

"I need a nap after that. Two in a row, mmmh." Kira sighed hotly against his throat. "You smell like cinnamon."

"I do?"

She smiled. "It's my shampoo. It rubbed off on you."

Odo wished he could smell it with her. He remembered the scent so vividly that he almost detected it when he nuzzled his nose against her ear.

"I'll let you finish up your shower."

Kira caught him in one more deep kiss. Then he released his humanoid shape, letting all the water on his surface fall to the tiled shower floor. Being in his true form no longer brought him shame. He oozed under the shower door, passed through the seams in the bathroom door and reformed looking perfectly dry without a fold of clothing out of place.

Odo grabbed the first Shaarlek novel in the pile and sat down in the chair by the oval window.

Kejal came inside. Without a word he curled up in Odo's lap. Odo kissed his son's forehead as he wrapped his arm around his shoulders.

"It's going to be this empty when he's gone for good." Kejal whispered.

Doctor Mora's absence was palpable. Odo closed his eyes, set down the PADD and let his cheek rest against Kejal's brow. He liquefied his torso and arms, enveloping his son.

Kejal did the same, keeping his head on Odo's still-solid shoulder. His control was getting better.

Life without him won't be the same. Odo expressed through the link.

I still can't picture it, mother. Kejal replied, wrinkling his nose.

Nor can I...Kejal, I wish I had the happy memories with him that you have.

He didn't hurt you on purpose.

I know. Still, I'm struggling to reconcile what I experienced with what is happening now.

Father loves you as much as he loves me
.

Kejal passed it so simply across the link, yet it ran over Odo like a tsunami. Of course, he knew Doctor Mora cared about him. But love? Paternal love? He still had a hard time believing it.

Mm... Odo distracted himself with memories of Kejal's return to the Great Link. I love you, Kejal...I always have and I always will. Your life is mine, and mine is yours.

I love you, too, mother. You're upset...did you and mom fight about the wedding?

What? No. Quite the opposite. I...I'm looking forward to it, Kejal. I never imagined marrying her. It feels right. Like you feel when you water your plants
.

At that, Kejal pulled himself free of the link and met Odo's eyes, grinning. "Come water them with me."

"Now?" Odo also solidified, relieved at not having to rehash the lab again.

Kejal grabbed his hand. "Why not? It's easy."

Chuckling, Odo let Kejal haul him outside.

"I do this in a specific order because-- don't step on the rocks!"

Odo jumped back like he'd been burned. Then he grinned-- Kejal definitely inherited that from him!

He got handed a big, silver watering pail. Kejal guided him through pouring it gently over the more delicate flowers.

"You have to make sure to fill up the little reservoirs around them."

"Won't they, uh, drown?"

Kejal shook his head, his brown eyes shimmering. "Only if you water them too often. Once a week is fine unless it's boiling hot outside. Then I do it every day. Now, here's the best part."

"What is the best part?" Odo asked.

Kejal began singing to the plants.

Exactly eighteen hours after that moment, a message came through Doctor Mora's communications console. Kejal whooped excitedly and crashed into the guest bedroom, spilling morning gleam into the darkened space. In doing so, he successfully woke up Kira and made Odo lose his place in the Shaarlek novel he'd almost finished.

"Kejal!" Odo snapped, "What did I tell you about stomping around like a targ?"

Kejal ignored him. "Aleexa is bringing father home in an hour. He wanted to take a hover tram."

"Mm..." Kira rubbed her eyes and sat up. Fortunately, Kejal hadn't interrupted something more intimate. She was clothed in a long pink nightgown. "Odo, move, I need to get up and decent."

"You don't have to, Nerys. I can-- "

"There should be a nice breakfast waiting when they get here Besides..." Kira yawned, rubbing her eyes, "I need to keep a regular sleep cycle."

"I already got his deka tea." Kejal said proudly. He skipped away to clean up the kitchen counter and straighten out the cushions on the couch.

Odo just rolled his eyes at Kejal's exuberance.

Kira snorted and playfully shoved him. "Is he like that in the link?"

"He's worse." Odo groaned good-naturedly. He moved to let Kira get up and dressed in proper clothing. She crackled a comb through her tangled hair before pulling it into a loose ponytail.

A little later, Doctor Mora's arrival was announced by Kejal bounding towards the front door with all the silence of a charging elephant.

"Father!" Kejal exclaimed. "Oh, that nightshirt looks good on you!"

Odo rounded the corner to see them embracing tightly in the doorway. Doctor Mora wore a knee-length white nightshirt with matching pants made of the same material. The long sleeves hung loose off his wrists, hinting at the weight he must have lost during his short time in the facility.

But Doctor Mora didn't appear to care. He was too busy enjoying Kejal's tight hug. When he saw Odo there, he extended a hand.

"It's good to see you home," Odo said politely. He took the offered hand and shook it.

"It's fantastic to be home. Oh, come here." Doctor Mora pulled Odo forward into Kejal's embrace. "I'm glad you kept things running in my absence. Thank you."

Kejal beamed. He helped Doctor Mora into the living room and let him sit in the chair by the oval window. Odo noticed Doctor Mora favoring his left leg. He shook his head and stepped outside to meet Aleexa.

"Ah, good morning, Odo." The Talaxian woman flashed a jolly grin. She paid the tram driver and the vehicle pulled away with a soft whoosh.

"Good morning." Odo replied. Behind him, dishes clanked as Kira finished preparing breakfast.

"Kejal!" Kira laughed, "What are you doing with that orange?"

"Trying to...nope, still can't taste yet." Kejal sounded disappointed.

Doctor Mora snorted. "Someday, perhaps. This fruit salad is delicious, Nerys! Thank you."

"I see they got breakfast started." Aleexa straightened the purple vest draping her plump frame.

"Nerys wanted to." Odo replied off-handedly. "Does Doctor Mora require any specialized care while he recovers?"

"Always detail oriented, aren't you?" She eyed him shrewdly.

Odo shrugged, allowing himself a half-smile. He beckoned Aleexa inside. The chilly morning air didn't bother him, but he didn't want to let the heat in the house leak outside.

"He is still on antibiotics. Tramoradine twice a day." Aleexa stepped past Odo. "I've got him on metorapan patches now for a constant stream of pain control. They need changing once a day, and he can still use the hypospray for breakthrough pangs. The tram driver bumped his bad knee closing the door."

"That explains the extra limp."

"Mmhmm, it's just a bruise. He said it didn't hurt until he stood up."

"What about the kidney issue?"

"The swelling is down to what's normal for him. This infection cost him a lot of that kidney's function. I'd say it's working at fifty percent. The other one is at about eighty. I noticed his anterior spleen is starting to show signs of swelling, too. I increased the dosage of his dexalin to combat his fatigue, so don't be alarmed if he has a chunky cough for awhile. It's going to take his body a few days to get used to the higher dosage." Aleexa pulled her white knitted knapsack forward and took out a portable oxygen mask. "I've also ordered him oxygen for shortness of breath. It's more of a comfort measure than anything. It won't breathe for him if he stops. He made that desire very clear. No life support devices."

"Mm." Odo nodded slowly, glancing into the living room. "Thank you for being so thorough with him, Aleexa."

"...and they're over there whispering about me." Doctor Mora spoke with a knowing grin.

"Aleexa was updating me on your condition." Odo shot back without malice. He recognized Kira's famous fruit salad on sight. She often brought it to parties aboard Deep Space Nine.

"I ate an orange slice." Kejal made a face. "It was slimy."

Kira chuckled, elbowing him in the side. "Oranges are juicy, not slimy."

"Blech."

Doctor Mora laughed and ate the last two alvas off his plate. "Mm, that was delicious. Aleexa, come and help yourself! Nerys, what wonderful salad."

Odo eased himself onto the couch. He let out a soft 'oof' when Kejal hopped into his lap. His good mood was infectious.

"Aren't you glad father's home?"

"Of course I am." Odo deadpanned. He ruffled Kejal's hair and smoothed it back down.

Kejal grinned, scrambled back to freedom and collected the empty bowls from everyone else. He dished a bit of salad up for Aleexa, who thanked him.

Kira settled on the couch beside Odo. He wrapped his arm around her. She laid her hand on his chest. Her betrothal bracelet glistened enticingly.

Tomorrow evening, she would return to Deep Space Nine for three weeks and come back two days before their chosen wedding date. Odo didn't know how Kira worked it out, but he found it convenient. The only annoyance would be the long distance wedding planning. There was so little time and so many details to work out!

"Have you decided on a dress?" Odo murmured against her hair.

"I have an idea of what I want." Kira's eyes twinkled when she glanced up into his. "And no, I'm not telling. You have to wait until our wedding day to see it."

"Mm, can't wait."

"So, lovebirds," Aleexa faced them with a twinkle in her eye, "when's the wedding?"

"One month." Kira answered her. "You're welcome to be there. In fact, I want you there."

"Really? Are you sure?" Aleexa brightened. Then her cheeks suddenly pinked up. "I always cry at weddings."

"It's not a wedding without at least one crier. Cry all you want, just make sure you come." Kira grinned.

"Are you trying to invite the entire population of Bajor?" Odo asked, only half serious.

"No, no, mom, it's not enough to invite Bajorans." Kejal perched on the arm of the couch. "Let's invite the Klingons, too!"

"Klingons?" Kira balked.

Kejal promptly burst into a tenor aria from Gav'ot toH'va, knowing full well Odo despised Klingon operas.

Doctor Mora chuckled. Aleexa stared open-mouthed. Kira giggled. Odo cringed and bore it. Not even Kejal's singing talent covered up the disorderly arpeggio runs present in the piece he chose.

Odo looked for the nearest window to ooze out of, but none were close enough.

Aleexa jumped to her feet and applauded Kejal's high note finale. "Kejal! They said you can sing, but...you can sing!"

Kejal mock-bowed, beaming. "Mother hates Klingon opera. I sing it to annoy him."

"It works," Odo grunted. "I'm surprised the windows are still intact."

"Oh, no, you need a soprano for that."

Doctor Mora snorted and flung his napkin down in pretended defeat.

"Well, as much as I'm enjoying the company, I need to rest."

"Have we been keeping you up?" asked Odo.

Doctor Mora shook his head. "Not at all. I'm just old."

.o

Watching his father struggle onto his feet tore into Kejal's soul. He escaped into the bedroom where he adjusted Mora's bed lower and arranged the pillows how he liked them. The click of Mora's cane and shuffling feet came closer.

Kejal fashioned a smile he didn't really feel. "I thought I'd get your bed ready. Do you want me to take your slippers off for you?"

"Oh, thank you, no. I can do that." Mora let himself collapse onto the bed and kicked his slippers off himself. His cane found its home on the magnetic hook Aleexa placed near the bed. He pressed the control console until the left side of the bed stretched itself out. "Climb on."

The invitation made Kejal's smile genuine. He reclined next to Mora and felt a still-strong arm encircle his shoulders.

"I hate hospitals. They aren't home...I don't think I slept more than three hours at a time during my stay."

"Hospitals are chaotic," Kejal grumbled. "Did you see the tile floor in the bathroom there?"

"No..."

"Prophets, it's awful! So many irregular spiral patterns. Someone must have flung the tiles down onto the grout and called it finished!"

Mora chuckled softly. "Chaos to you is art to someone else."

"Do you remember the art museum?"

"Oh, yes. You were terrified of the Taking Flight sculpture. An abstract bird."

"I still don't 'get' abstract art. Why carve a bunch of triangles and say it's a goose? Just carve a goose."

"An artist's mind is a strange place."

Kejal grinned. "So is mine!"

"Hm, you have a point." Mora grabbed a PADD off his bedside table and switched it on.

He was looking at biodegradable coffins.

In the other room, Aleexa's jolly laugh reverberated off the walls. She said, "I'll never squeeze into something like that! Now come on, show me the wedding bowl you two chose."

"Oh, sure!" Kira answered. "Hold on, I'll get the other PADD."

Mora looked through a selection of wicker coffins. The blurb underneath said it would take three years for them to break down once buried.

Kejal slowly realized he had a say in the vessel his father would rest in after death. Something as important as Kira's wedding gown, if not more so.

"Those don't look comfortable," he whispered. "There's no padding inside."

"Hm, I agree." Mora glanced at Kejal. "Is this bothering you?"

"No." Kejal reached over and opened a selection of cloth coffins in a variety of colors and designs. "You should get something soft and warm."

He felt rather than saw Mora lift an eyebrow.

Their description said they took approximately one to two years to biodegrade underground. About the same amount of time it took an adult Bajoran to go from flesh, fat and muscle to bare bones.

Kira's voice filtered into the room, "...and I can wear my comfortable boots under the dress and still look fine..."

Mora selected a gray cloth coffin and enlarged its picture. The white cushioned inside looked similar to a sleeping bag, and it could handle a body up to three times Mora's weight.

"Look, you can have it custom embroidered," Kejal pointed out.

"I don't know what I would say."

"It's for the living."

"Hm..."

"I'd keep it simple." Kejal gestured in the air. "Scientist. Husband. Father. Loved."

Mora inhaled through his nose. His eyes were misty. "I...I like that. Here, you type it in. I'll feel silly doing it myself."

Kejal swiped the PADD and wrote in the Bajoran script. Mora scanned his thumbprint to finalize his selection. It was all done faster and less painful than Kejal thought.

Sighing, Mora switched the PADD off and set it aside. He curled up on his right side, his back to Kejal. "I'm glad that's over with. I was worried about it being left until the last minute."

Kejal scooted off the bed long enough to pull the covers up to Mora's shoulder. Then he climbed back on behind him.

"Mother said you were upset that you won't see my birthday."

Mora flinched noticeably. "I'm sorry about that." He twisted a little to meet his gaze. "I know how hard this is for you, Kejal...and I-I'm sorry to put you through this."

Kejal made a face. He gently pushed Mora to lay properly again and kissed the back of his head. "Don't be. Age is just a stupid number anyway. I'm sorry that I missed your birthday...you just had it three months before you came to see us, didn't you?"

"Mm, I did...and here's what makes it funny. I found out my birthday is Christmas day on Earth's calendar. Nearly everyone there exchanges gifts on Christmas." Mora's voice sounded faraway, a sign he was falling asleep.

"Really?"

"Mmhmm."

"Maybe it's Earth's birthday." Kejal mused. "I like that idea, father."

"Hmmm..."

A minute later, Mora's breathing regulated into rhythmic snores. His fingers and eyebrows twitched as he slept.

Footsteps approached the bedroom.

"Oh, bless his heart," Aleexa whispered. She stood in the doorway, sipping a mug of something emitting too much steam to be deka tea. "He had trouble sleeping in the facility."

"Yeah." Kejal nodded. He carefully extricated himself from the soft mattress. "We picked out his coffin. It's gray cloth...like a sleeping bag."

"I've seen those. They're gorgeous." Aleexa led him into the living room. "How are you doing, Kejal?"

He sat down on the couch. "I'm alive. Where are mom and mother?"

"They went to the market to get more alvas for Pol." She leaned forward. "Sweetie, are you okay?"

Kejal finally met her eyes. They held only compassion for his well-being, not pity.

"He's going to die. I can't fix that, but dammit, someday, somehow, I'm going to find or help someone else find a cure for this disease. Maybe not for my father, but somebody deserves a second chance. So that person's sons or daughters don't have to go through this."

Aleexa squeezed his shoulder, smiling. "Knowing you, I think you'll succeed."

"I hope so." Kejal glanced at his hands, which he held clasped in his lap. "He barely wanted to talk out here. Is he tired from not sleeping, or is it the disease?"

She sighed. "Both. He lost most of the inflamed kidney, and his anterior spleen is showing signs of swelling because it isn't getting enough oxygenated blood."

"So he's getting sicker?"

"I'm afraid so." Aleexa sat beside him on the couch. "You might notice him losing interest in the things he used to enjoy. People at the stage he's in begin withdrawing from the physical and focus more on the spiritual. Even people who don't know they're dying yet do this-- it defies explanation."

"Maybe their pagh knows."

"Mmhmm, my thought too."

"What can I do to help him?"

She held his gaze again. "Just be there."

Kejal squinted and faced the wall console. "Computer, display information about the Earth holiday called 'Christmas.'"

"What are you up to?"

He grinned, reading the information onscreen. "Absolutely no good, and I'm going to need your help."
End Notes:

**Chapter soundtrack**

Consciousness Without Form: https://app.box.com/s/cuuxr9b122azu59hrp64

Lost in Memories and Sensations: https://app.box.com/s/1yv8goelbjifu2sb0hr3

Gardening with Kejal: https://app.box.com/s/hvj151hbg7y8b1p1me7t

Juxtaposition of Planning: https://app.box.com/s/lwxxgnr5dalearkrdc4b
12. Vows by Cyndi
.o

.o

.o

.o

12. Vows

.o

.o

.o

.o

An odd, outdoorsy scent woke Mora from a sound slumber. Frost framed his window and the wind howled outside, indicating a miserably cold day. The last weeks before spring tended to be the coldest.

Mora pulled up the leg of his silky pajama pants. The bruise marring his left kneecap looked like an angry purple splotch, but it didn't hinder his range of motion much. He groggily limped into the bathroom to shave, shower and change into fresh clothing. A few minutes and a metorapan patch replacement later, he considered himself more awake.

"Father?" Kejal manually pushed the door aside enough to speak through it. "Are you up?"

"Yes."

Kejal slipped in bearing an impish 'I-am-up-to-something' smirk. "Oh, you're wearing the green pants?"

"They go best with this." Mora fastened the clasps of his wooly white shirt.

"Make sure you add the red vest."

"Why red?" Mora reached for it.

"You'll see."

Definitely up to something.

After Mora finished dressing, Kejal shape shifted his left hand into a blindfold and guided him into the living room, where the outdoorsy smell grew suddenly stronger. Mora felt himself being lowered into his favorite chair.

"All right, ready?" Kejal asked.

"Yes." Mora replied.

The blindfold disappeared, and Mora found his living room transformed. A pine tree decorated with LED lights and colored baubles stood in the corner across from the eastern windows. Wrapped gifts glistened underneath it. Festoons of greenery framed the doorways.

And Kejal wore an odd, floppy red and white hat.

"Merry Christmas and happy birthday!" he said emphatically.

"What in the...?" Mora sagged back into his chair, laughing. "Kejal, you rascal! What's gotten into you?"

"He insisted." Odo appeared by the kitchen counter.

"And I helped," Aleexa said, stepping out from behind him.

"Me, too." Kira exited the guest bedroom, grinning.

They went to all this trouble for him? It meant more than Mora could find words to say.

"You are all insane. All of you...but I appreciate it." He gazed longingly at the glittering tree.

Odo brought him his mug. Mora relished the first sip of hot deka tea.

Aleexa nudged Kejal with her elbow. "Kejal? The gifts?"

"Right!"

Mora soon found himself holding a rectangular box wrapped in shiny green paper and gold twine.

"Mom, mother, this one is for both of you." Kejal handed them a silver cube shaped package.

"Kejal!" Aleexa exclaimed upon receiving an oval box covered in red paper. "Well, guess what? I got you one."

She passed him something triangular cocooned in gold paper.

"Aw, Aleexa!" He beamed. "Okay, everyone, let's open at the same time. Ready...go!"

Kejal tore into his gift. The sound of shredding paper filled the room.

"Oh! Kejal!" Kira cried. She and Odo lifted their chosen wedding bowl out of the box. The jewels encrusting it sparkled in the morning light pouring into the windows.

"These are cute!" Aleexa peered at her new assortment of hair ties and barrettes. "Just in time. My last one broke yesterday."

Mora examined the black socks nestled within his package. They appeared to have treads on the bottom. Kejal noticed his baffled expression.

"They're grips for the floor." He indicated Mora's bare feet. "You can wear these and you won't slip. Now you can be almost barefoot in winter and not deal with cold feet. Try them on?"

Behind him, Kira and Odo turned their wedding bowl over in their hands. They smiled at each other, leaned forward and shared a chaste kiss.

Mora chuckled and slipped the socks onto his feet. They were soft and long, reaching almost up to his knees. He pulled himself upright. His feet didn't slip an inch.

"Well, how about that?" Mora wiggled his toes. "Kejal, what did Aleexa get you?"

Kejal reached into his package and lift out a crystalline pyramid. He clearly didn't know what it was. "It's pretty."

"It's an imaging crystal." Aleexa said. "I noticed the holo-imager getting full, so I transferred everything on it. This can hold ten times more than a standard imager. Plus, it looks nice when it's turned off."

He switched it on and images he'd taken over the past week popped up with realistic clarity.

"Oh, wow! Thanks, Aleexa!" Kejal hopped over the paper to hug her.

"Pfff, you can't do this Christmas thing without getting a present yourself. Thank you for these!" Aleexa shook her package, smiling.

"Hold it." Odo gripped Kejal's arm. He pulled him onto the couch where he and Kira both caught him in a tight embrace. "This means a lot to us."

"Thank you," Kira murmured. "That bowl is really special, Kejal."

"I agree." Mora padded over to the couch and wrapped his arm around Kejal. "Now, what I'm wondering is how you got that tree into this house without waking me up."

Everyone chuckled.

"It's not a real tree. It came in a box and I put it together." Kejal pointed out. "I think the green ornaments on the bottom have the pine smell, but I need someone with an actual working nose to confirm."

Kira sniffed one. "Mmhmm, it's the green ones. They smell so real."

Mora caught another scent coming from the kitchen. "Is that cinnamon?"

"Oh!" Aleexa bolted around the counter and removed something from the heating container sitting on the countertop. It looked like a toasted loaf of bread sprinkled in cinnamon. "I baked us some Talaxian toast. It's pretty rich, so I'll give anyone who wants it small pieces at first."

She cut it lengthwise before slicing it into several wedge-shaped pieces. The creamy filling inside added another layer of sweetness to the warm scents wafting through the living room.

Mora joined her and retrieved plates onto which she dished up two small slices of toast.

"Butter or honey?" she asked.

"Butter, please."

"Nerys?"

"The same," Kira answered.

Mora happened to glance up at the green sprig hanging above Odo and Kira. Tiny white berries grew between the round leaves. "What is that?"

"Ah!" Kejal followed Mora's gaze. "It's mistletoe. If you're under it and you kiss, it's good luck."

Odo met Kira's eyes and smiled. "We make our own luck."

"Oh, you're such a grump. Come here." Kira grabbed his shoulders, pulling him close for a long kiss.

Mora could remember kissing Leruu that way on the very same couch.

"Bajor to Pol...here's your toast."

"Ah! Thank you." Mora accepted the offered plate and took a generous bite. Crisp, crunchy sweetness mixed into the butter and cream became a symphony for his taste buds. "Mm!" He swallowed. "This is delicious. Nerys, try a piece."

Kira joined him in the kitchen. Her eyes lit up as she tried a bite from her own plate. "This would be a great treat for the wedding."

"Really?" Aleexa blushed. "I'll make it...it's really easy. Are you sure you don't want something fancier?"

"It's not going to be a high religious ceremony, so no. Just a simple garden wedding. Which reminds me, Pol-- " Kira gave Mora's shoulder a squeeze, "I'll need your measurements."

Mora finished his toast. Aleexa wasn't kidding about its richness. He felt full from that tiny piece. "Let's do it right now, while I can stand up straight. Is that all right with you?"

She ate the last bite of her toast. "Sure! Let's go in your bedroom where it's quieter."

He swiped the measuring laser out of a drawer and led her into the other room. "I'm sorry about my bed."

"Don't apologize...you have reasons." Kira gently lifted the measuring device from his grasp.

Mora squared his shoulders. "Odo mentioned visiting my lab."

The statement tumbled out of his mouth when he only meant to think it.

Kira paused. When she spoke, her voice had a new edge. "Yeah...he showed it to me."

Suddenly, standing up straight became much more difficult. "Odo tries to act fine about it, but I know him too well-- he still resents it."

"It wasn't right." Kira measured his shoulders.

"I know-- I know now, but I had no idea at the time. There was no indication he was a life form. I can't change the past, Nerys, but if I knew he was a life form going in, my approach would have been vastly different." Mora said simply. "Everyone told me not to grow attached to him, and I tried not to. He was so innocent. He needed someone. I did care about him, Nerys...he became my life. I never wanted to hurt him."

"Hey, I'm not judging you. I won't lie-- if it was me who went through that, I'd never want to see your face again. The only reason I gave you a chance is because I know you're not the man you were back then."

Her words made Mora's heart drop into his stomach. Before he pulled back, she went on, "I don't like it, but it's the past and it's long gone. Holding a grudge over your head won't solve anything. Like you said, it can't be changed. Odo walked into that lab looking terrified as hell, like a child afraid of the dark."

"And I was the monster."

"No, Pol, you aren't. Monsters don't regret their mistakes. They make excuses to justify them, and Odo knows that." To his shock, she embraced him. "He wasn't afraid of the lab anymore when we left it. I think he wants to see you like Kejal does, but he doesn't know how yet."

Her kind words were soothing balm on his soul, yet they didn't erase his guilt. "All I want is to tell him I'm sorry...but 'sorry' isn't enough. Nothing will make up for-- "

"Let Odo decide that." Kira smiled, though it seemed forced. She knelt to measure his inseam and waist. "He trusted you with Kejal, and it wasn't an easy decision. I think that says a lot in itself."

Mora's eyes were faraway. The bitter-sweetness left a lump in his throat. "Kejal made my life worth living again. I owe Odo everything for such a gift. But what happened to Odo after I left with Kejal?"

"Odo never got over giving up Kejal. Kejal's birthday was the hardest for him. We sat together in the Replimat every year and talked about it. I think it helped." Kira traced Mora's feet with the measuring device. "There. That's it."

"Ah, finished?"

"Yup." Kira jotted everything down on a PADD. "Back to what we were talking about before-- the lab was the worst part for Odo, but he did it. All that's left now is for him to talk it over with you."

"I'll make sure I'm receptive." Mora squinted at the measurements Kira took. He'd lost eight inches off his waist in the past month because of the damn Delfeya syndrome. Putting it out of his mind, he managed a small, sad smile. "Thank you. Make sure you get a belt. I have no idea if my waist will be the same size by the time the tuxedo arrives."

"You got it." She squeezed his hand. "Odo will come around...he just needs time."

"I'll wait as long as I can...and I am truly sorry."

"I know," Kira touched his shoulder. "I'll let you rest if you need to."

And the days began to pass. Odo returned Kira to the space port for her trip back to Deep Space Nine, and they exchanged several communications related to the wedding in the meantime. Kejal cleaned up the Christmas decorations. Aleexa visited twice a day-- and sometimes stayed the entire afternoon. Mora swung between coughing up mucus and working diligently on his nearly completed treatise.

The cloth coffin arrived on a rainy morning. Mora told no one for fear of spoiling the festive atmosphere. When everybody else became busy planning the wedding, he unfurled the oval-shaped coffin on his bed and laid himself down inside.

It did feel like a sleeping bag, and it rolled up like one, too. He stashed it in the closet.

That night, he dreamed of the star within Kejal's nebula. He couldn't be entirely sure, but he swore he saw a newborn planet and moon spinning through the remaining stellar dust.

.o

Odo spent a long, peaceful night regenerating in the vase by the wall. In the morning, Kejal dumped him onto the floor.

"Mother! Father's tuxedo arrived! Come on!" He poked his fingers into Odo's substance. When that didn't get enough of a response, he huffed. "Okay, fine."

Suddenly, Odo felt a rectangular weight settle on top of him. He grudgingly oozed out from underneath it and assumed his humanoid form.

Kejal grinned. "Good morning."

"You're the worst morning person I know," Odo groused without any true malice. He peered at the long, glossy black delivery crate. "Is Doctor Mora awake?"

"Mmhmm."

"Fine." Odo carried the container into the bedroom. "Doctor Mora, your tuxedo arrived. Would you like to try it on?"

Doctor Mora didn't look well at all. He kept rubbing the left side of his abdomen. Yet, when he saw Odo holding the crate, he brightened.

"Let's see how it fits." He got out of bed and took the transport container into the bathroom. "I may need assistance with the smaller details...I've never worn a tuxedo before."

"Do what you can and I'll help with the rest." Odo replied.

The sink gurgled for a few moments. Fabric hissed across skin. Shoes plopped onto the floor and paper crackled. Several minutes later, Doctor Mora called through the door. "All right, I'm coming out."

Odo noticed Doctor Mora had combed his hair and shaved before trying on his new outfit. He did a decent job for someone who had no clue how to wear unfamiliar formal attire. His coat was unbuttoned and the bowtie hung loose around his neck.

Amused, Odo popped Doctor Mora's shirt collar up and tied the bow tie. Their eyes met as he helped him smooth the collar back down.

"Hm," Odo couldn't hide a smile. "It fits perfectly. Although to wear it properly, you need to button the jacket." He briefly fashioned his outer clothing into an identical tuxedo to show him. "See?"

Doctor Mora buttoned the jacket as he turned to examine himself in the full length mirror by the door. "Well, look at that. Kejal, I should have a black cane in the closet. Get it for me?"

"Got it." Kejal reached into the closet.

Doctor Mora traded his lighter colored cane for the black one, which had a decorative gold handle, and it added the perfect detail to his wedding attire.

"Hey, what's this?" Kejal tugged something and the cloth coffin popped out of the closet. "Oh..." He touched the beautiful custom embroidery. "Do you want to be buried wearing your tuxedo, father?"

"No," Doctor Mora shook his head, "My old Science Institute garb will do. It's how most people remember me."

Kejal nodded, his expression unreadable, and carefully tucked the cloth coffin back into the closet.

Four days and a space port pickup later, Odo was kissed awake on his wedding day by a disheveled, yet beautiful Kira Nerys.

"Mm..." Odo nipped her bottom lip. "Good morning."

"You, too." Kira smirked and twirled her finger around his shoulder. "So, how will you justify kissing a married woman?"

He chuckled. "By not informing her husband. What about you? People talk when they see a woman fooling around with a married man."

"I'll court marshal anyone who tells his wife."

They grinned at each other, their eyes gleaming.

"And if I never have to see another bowl of koganka pudding for the rest of my life, it'll be too soon."

"You don't like the taste?"

"Oh, I do, but not every day!"

Odo snorted at that. He sat up to look out the guest bedroom window, which faced northeast. Thick clouds darkened the sky-- the weather forecast said a chance of thunderstorms-- but his mood soared at seeing red and gold ribbons wrapped around the deka tree's trunk. Several more tied its drooping branches together, creating a pathway. Doctor Mora's prayer mandala stood on a small altar set upon the very spot where Odo and Kira would say their vows. A wide, flat container and four small jars of colored sand gleamed in front of the mandala. The setup was all Kejal's idea, and it looked fantastic.

The sand ceremony was something Odo never saw done before, but he'd heard of it. Kira wanted Kejal and Doctor Mora to be part of the wedding, and the sand ceremony symbolized unity as a family.

Everyone chose a specific sand color. Doctor Mora preferred white, Kejal picked green, Kira wanted red and Odo decided on orange. Two days ago, they all practiced their part using ground up deka seed pods. Everyone knew where, when and how to pour. There would be no hiccups or errors.

At least, Odo hoped not.

He smiled again and traced Kira's delicate collarbone. "What I want to know is how you got someone as busy as Shakaar to officiate the ceremony."

"I'm just that good, and I figured you'll be more comfortable with him rather than a vedek." She crinkled her nose in the cute way that made Odo ripple inside. "I love you."

His eyes softened. "I love you, too."

Together, they tacitly disentangled themselves. Odo kissed Kira one more time and left her alone to handle her personal preparations.

Aleexa arrived wearing a gold corset-style dress. Its off the shoulder cowl neckline and wrap skirt flattered her plump figure well, and the color made her brown eyes stand out. Odo never realized how well endowed she was-- he'd only ever seen her wearing vests and loose fitting jackets. She topped the whole outfit off with one of the sparkly gold hair clasps Kejal gave her.

"Wow, Aleexa," Kejal stopped in his tracks to stare. "You look beautiful."

She beamed at him and set down the container of Talaxian toast she brought along. "Thank you! I managed to squeeze myself into this silly old thing. I hope it's not too much."

"Not at all. It's very becoming." Odo nodded approvingly and nudged Kejal to stop him from staring.

Her cheeks gained more color. "Thanks, Odo!"

"Aleexa, you look lovely." Doctor Mora poked his head out of his bedroom door. His hair was wet and messy from a shower.

"Thank you! Whew, compliments everywhere." Aleexa looked over her shoulder. "Do you need help, sweetie?"

"I just have a question." Doctor Mora glanced at Odo and Kejal. "It's pretty rough today. Would it harm anything if I took the triptacederine with the metorapan patch? I don't want my aches and pains interrupting the wedding."

"It's fine. Just don't use any metorapan hyposprays for at least six hours after you've used triptacederine, or you'll end up in liver failure. I don't think you want that just yet."

"Definitely not! Thank you, that's all I needed to know. Kejal, a hand, please?"

Odo nudged Kejal. "Go help him."

"Sure, mother." Kejal scrambled into Doctor Mora's bedroom.

Aleexa peered at Odo's state of undress. He'd only bothered to shape shift loose brown pants to avoid appearing naked. She giggled good-naturedly. "Nerys is one lucky lady." She set the container holding her toast on the hotplate to warm it. "Shouldn't you be getting dressed?"

Looking down, Odo gave an amused sniff. "The clothing I wear is part of me."

He politely turned his back to the guest bedroom when Kira slipped out and padded through the kitchen carrying everything she needed to prepare for the ceremony. When the bathroom door closed, he faced Aleexa again.

"As I was saying..." Odo let his arms fall to his sides. His surface shimmered and became a formal black tuxedo with coattails, red lapels and a shiny red bowtie. A gold waistcoat and cufflinks complimented the wedding colors. As a finishing touch, he wiped both hands over his hair and its waves disappeared, making it appear like he used gel.

Aleexa's mouth dropped open. "That's handy!"

"Do I look enough like a groom?" Odo asked with a wry smile.

Aleexa started to reply, but the door opened and Doctor Mora stepped out looking absolutely impeccable. Aside from the cane, Odo noticed he didn't look ill at all.

"Well, well, well!" She eyed Doctor Mora, grinning. "You clean up nice, young man!"

Doctor Mora winked at her. "It's been a long time since I felt this fancy. Kejal? What are you doing in there?"

"On my way!" Kejal clambered out. He spun around once and his green jumpsuit transformed into a tuxedo identical to Doctor Mora's, save for the red stripe running down the length of his slacks. His slicked back auburn hair gained a noticeable sheen. "How do I look?"

"Quite charming!" Aleexa circled Kejal and Doctor Mora. "Earth attire suits you boys nicely. Get together, you three, I'm taking a holo of this."

Kejal slid over to Doctor Mora's left side. Odo stood on the right. Doctor Mora threw an arm around both their shoulders. Aleexa gave them a three count and captured the image.

"Doctor Mora, you look nice."

"So do you, Odo." Doctor Mora squeezed Odo's shoulders and held his gaze for a moment. "I feel like I'm seeing my oldest son get married today. You've come so far from where you started. I'm proud of you. Never forget that."

Something within Odo's substance tightened, and his eyes felt prickly. The feeling went away as soon as he blinked.

"I won't," Odo replied. He straightened Doctor Mora's bow tie, smiling. "I've dreamed of this day for a long time. It's all happening so fast, but I wouldn't change it for anything."

Then he turned to Kejal and smirked. "I like the stripe."

Kejal eyed his legs. "It's not too much?"

Odo shook his head. "No, it suits you."

The door chime rang. Doctor Mora answered it. "Ah, First Minister! Welcome to my home!"

"Thank you." Shakaar ducked through the doorway. He wore a long, formal gold Bajoran jacket and brown slacks. "I'm glad I chose the right color. I'll fit right in with the ribbons. Oh, thank you." He let Doctor Mora take the ceremonial flask of wine off his hands.

Kejal disappeared to knock on the bathroom door. "Mom, the First Minister is here."

The reply was too faint to hear.

"Odo, you look...well. Very well." Shakaar shook Odo's hand.

Odo shrugged, smiling slightly. He noticed streaks of gray peppering Shakaar's hair. "It has been awhile, hasn't it?"

Shakaar chuckled and patted Odo's shoulder. "I suppose we all look a little older."

"Ah, First Minister. I'm Kejal, nice to meet you." Kejal gave Shakaar a vigorous handshake.

"You look just like-- hm, it's great to make your acquaintance, Kejal."

Kejal grinned and put his arm around Odo. "He's my mother." With that, he walked off laughing, leaving Shakaar looking baffled.

"It's...a long story," said Odo. "So, are we starting?"

Shakaar nodded, his Bajoran earring bouncing. "I'm ready if everyone else is. Please don't mind my security team stationing a perimeter."

"Hah! I'd be worried if I didn't see them." Odo noted the eight officers taking up positions around the yard.

Doctor Mora knocked quietly on the bathroom door. "Nerys, it's time. Are you ready?"

Kira cracked the door. "Anytime you are. Just say when."

Kejal scooped up the ceremonial bowl and beckoned for Shakaar to step out first. Aleexa followed the First Minister.

Everyone jumped when thunder rumbled. Odo groaned mentally at the threat of rain ruining everything.

"Let's just do it. If it rains, it rains." Kejal said.

"It won't rain. It never rains on weddings." Odo said sarcastically. "Go on, dais bearer."

Kejal poured a tiny portion of ceremonial wine into the wedding bowl and stepped out the door. Holding it high, he began a beautiful chant asking for blessings upon the bride and groom as he carried the bowl towards Shakaar.

Odo followed several feet behind his son. He joined Shakaar beside the altar. While he couldn't smell, he felt the cool wetness of the air in his nose. He hoped the rain waited for the ceremony to conclude.

Kejal bowed towards the door. "The bride arrives!"

He completed the ritual with a Janalan Order chant welcoming a bride into the sun-- and the irony brought a few chuckles.

Time and space funneled into a single point in the middle of the doorway. Odo watched it intently, waiting to set eyes upon the woman he loved long before he knew the meaning of the word.

Doctor Mora stepped outside. Kira joined him, gently taking his arm.

And suddenly, the sun came out and shone down on her like a spotlight.

She chose the wedding dress Odo saw in Garak's shop. A simple red gown beneath a golden floor length lace jacket. There was no jewelry other than her betrothal bracelet and her Bajoran earring.

Time had added lines to her features that weren't there thirty years ago. Gray streaks began at her temples and disappeared into the loose auburn braid dangling behind her. In another hundred years, her hair would be all white and her face deeply wrinkled...and he realized he didn't care.

Odo met Kira's gaze. Her eyes were brown like stained glass windows hiding an inferno, such a contrast to his icy blue.

"Odo, I offer you your bride's hand," said Doctor Mora.

Odo forgot about accepting Kira's hand until Kejal nudged him back into reality. A part of him feared waking to find all of this a fanciful vision created within the Great Link.

Kira arched an eyebrow. Odo cast out his worries and interlocked their fingers. Her touch sent a thrum throughout his fluid interior. He let his palm liquefy, hidden and secret against hers. The only way he could say the things that always stuck somewhere between his mind and voice was through touch.

You look beautiful beyond imagining, Nerys. I want to live in this moment forever.

Kira's expression softened. He felt the quickening of her heartbeat through the pulses her fingertips. A small vibration capable of driving him towards ecstasy if he let it.

"You look amazing, too," she whispered in his ear. Softer, she added, "And yes, so could I."

Doctor Mora joined Kejal and Aleexa near the altar. Odo hardly noticed, his attention focused solely on his soon-to-be wife.

"Ready?" Shakaar cleared his throat. "To all who hear me, we gather to honor the unity of not just Kira Nerys and Odo, but of a family." He accepted the bowl when Kejal handed it to him. "We begin with the pouring of the sand. I ask that the Prophets send down their blessings. May the pattern we see unfold be a symbol of today's union."

Doctor Mora leaned against the altar, picked up his jar and poured a small portion of white sand in the very center. Kejal went next, sprinkling his sand around Doctor Mora's. Kira followed him, and Odo did it last.

Then, together, they all dumped the last of their sand into the flat container, screwed on the lid and shook it once. The pattern inside stayed white in the center, but the green, red and orange surrounded it in graceful swirls.

Doctor Mora dabbed his eyes with the back of his hand. "Over this new mandala, we unite as one." He smiled shakily at Odo and Kira.

"May this circle never break," Kejal added quietly.

"And with love, we will stand together." Odo squeezed Kira's hands.

"In life, in death, and in marriage, we are bound now and forever." Kira finished.

The new family grasped the mandala and lifted it up for the gathering to see.

Aleexa gave a huge sob and blew her nose. Odo stepped on Kejal's foot to stop him from laughing. They propped the sand mandala against the deka tree.

"Congratulations on becoming a family." Shakaar bowed and handed Kejal the wedding bowl. Kejal swirled it once before passing it to Kira.

Shakaar began the marriage blessing, and Odo felt his substance tingle. In moments, he would be Kira's husband...he was about to belong to her forever.

Odo accepted the bowl. He sipped from it and offered it to Kira. She also drank. Their hands interlocked as they held the bowl between them.

Shakaar unrolled a small scroll and recited the ceremonial scripture.

"Boray pree hadokee. Tolata impara boresh. Preeya Odo, Preeya Kira Nerys, abrem varo atel." He closed the scroll and held his hand out for the bowl. Joy radiated from his eyes when he said, "In the sight of all present, I now pronounce you husband and wife. May the Prophets bless you always. Odo, it's time to kiss your bride."

Odo flashed the most radiant smile of his life. Kira's expression mirrored his. They leaned in simultaneously and kissed like it was the first time they ever touched lips.

Everyone present applauded. Aleexa burst into sobs and Doctor Mora wrapped his arm around her shoulders.

"Wife," Odo whispered.

"Husband," Kira whispered back. "Now I'm yours."

"Forever."

They kissed again.

"Oh! A rainbow!" Kejal pointed south. "The Prophets approve!"

And then the rain came blasting down.

"Ack!" Aleexa helped Doctor Mora back into the house. Kejal rescued the sand mandala. Shakaar and his guards took the altar and prayer mandala inside.

Odo and Kira stood under the only part of the tree that blocked the rain. They hardly noticed the downpour-- their eyes remained riveted on each other.

.o

Kejal finally had his long-coveted hologram of Odo smiling. He captured the exact moment Odo and Kira became husband and wife. The rainbow he'd spotted glowed in the background, barely visible between the deka tree's branches. It shone brighter in the next picture, which caught the official smooch.

Aleexa and Mora were also in the background, both crying into the same handkerchief as though someone died. Kejal found it too funny for words.

"This toast is delicious!" Shakaar said from the kitchen. "Do you have the recipe?"

Aleexa passed him a gold napkin. "I can write it down for you. But to make it work, you have to mix it with a little love. And make sure your handsome security guards get a piece. They're included in this party!"

"I'll make sure of it...on both accounts." Shakaar chuckled softly. "It's been a long time since I tasted a Talaxian dish."

Kejal noticed Mora sitting in his favorite chair by the oval window. He was looking at the hologram of his own wedding. Shakaar saw him sitting by himself and joined him. They talked quietly to each other for quite awhile.

Outside, the rain slowed to a light drizzle. Kira seated herself on the swing, looking up at Odo. Odo held onto the ropes to keep the swing from moving. They talked quietly, kissed and exchanged gentle looks while surrounded by greenery and ribbons.

Kejal grinned and snapped the images for posterity.

"We better head inside," remarked Odo.

"But it's all muddy now!" Kira laughed.

"I'll fix that."

Odo, ever the gentleman, scooped Kira up into his arms and carried her to the door. Kejal, of course, recorded the whole thing. Odo wiped his feet before setting Kira down inside.

"That was some wedding." Kira eyed the holo-imager in Kejal's hands.

Kejal laughed. "I think Aleexa cried through the whole thing."

"And then some!" Aleexa tittered. She went right back to telling one of Shakaar's security guards about meat pies and sauce.

Anyone not engaged in conversation came forward to congratulate the newly wed couple. Shakaar's security detail proved itself quite friendly.

"I'll get you some toast." Odo said.

"No, we will." Kira grabbed his coattails.

Kejal took a great holo-image right when Odo looked back at her. It was the second picture showing his mother's most genuine smile.

A little while later, just after Shakaar and his security team left, Kejal saw Mora hobbling into his bedroom.

"Father?"

Mora made a face. He laid back on his bed, sighing. "I'm all right. I just need a little rest."

Kejal noticed Mora holding the left side of his stomach. His lips were tense and he looked pale.

"At least it waited until after the ceremony," Mora turned his grunt into a chuckle. "The triptacederine works well. I don't have any back pain at all."

"But you still hurt." Kejal laid his hand over his father's.

"It'll pass."

"Should I bring Alee-- "

"No. Kejal, please. I don't want anyone focusing on me. This is about Odo and Nerys. Please, Kejal, don't make them worry. When you're just married, you fall under a spell of utter happiness. Don't spoil it for them." He picked his head up. "Do you understand?"

Nodding, Kejal glanced across the bed where Mora's prayer mandala had been returned to its proper place under the window.

"Hey," Mora whispered.

"What?"

He patted the PADD on the bedside table. "I finished it."

"Oh! Is it published yet?"

"I sent it off when I woke up this morning. Today is a celebration of life-- why not have today be the reception date? Even if it takes three or four months to go public, you will remember me finishing it today."

Kejal leaned over and hugged him. "And you call me a scoundrel!"

"You are one." Mora kissed the top of his head.

Something rustled towards the doorway. There stood Kira, sparkling in her wedding finery. Snacking on Aleexa's toast caused some of her ruby red lipstick to rub off. She didn't appear to mind.

"There you are, Pol." She approached the foot of the bed. "Is everything okay?"

"I'm taking a little rest." Mora smiled at her. He sat up and swung his legs off the side of the mattress. The gel he used in his hair didn't let a strand move out of place. "You look beautiful, Nerys. Odo is such a lucky person to have you."

Kira hung her head and smiled a little. "I like to say I'm the lucky one. He's wonderful under that grouchy exterior."

Mora clasped her hand between both of his. "But you opened him, Nerys. That was something I've never been able to do."

She rubbed his knuckles with her thumb. "We both had the right keys to each other."

"Where has my wife disappeared to?" Odo's words carried through the living room. His gruff voice had a note of merriment, and from him it sounded genuinely odd.

"We're in here!" Kejal answered.

"I better go see what he's up to." Kira squeezed Mora's hand. "Are you sure you're okay?"

Mora shrugged. "I'm feeling my age, that is all."

It was more than that, however Kejal kept his mouth shut. Kira let go of Mora and nudged Kejal with her shoulder, whispering, "Take care of him."

He nodded once, meeting her eyes. Her dress rustled as she left the room.

"It went so fast. Three weeks of planning and it's done." Kejal sighed to himself. "Was your wedding that quick?"

Mora reached for his shiny black shoes. "Leruu and I got married in secret between Cardassian inspections. We took the wedding hologram outside the Bajoran Institute for Science. The Ital wasn't a thought in anyone's mind yet, so we had a lovely meadow behind us. There was no party after the vows. We changed and went right to work. So, yes, it happened quickly."

Mora made another attempt at untying his shoes before Kejal knelt and did it for him. "The best thing about a special moment is your memory's ability to relive it over and over again."

"A lot of mine include you," said Kejal.

"I'm glad." Mora blinked. "Ah, go run along. I can handle this tuxedo myself."

"Sure." Kejal set Mora's shoes on the mattress and dashed into the living room.

Kira and Odo sat together on the couch, holding hands and whispering amongst themselves.

Rain began falling within seconds of Kejal stepping outside to remove the ribbons from the deka tree. By the time he had the decorations taken down, the rain morphed into a downpour. Soaked, he scrambled back inside just in time to avoid a hailstorm.

Loud thunder shook the house. Hail knocked down leaves and seed pods. The noise outside was comparable to a war zone. Up above, the ragged gray clouds swirled.

"Whoa!" Kejal slammed the door shut and stood there, his "tuxedo" dripping. "Talk about a storm giving birth on your head, haha! Mother, mom, I think you timed that wedding perfectly. Any later and you'd be getting married in that!"

"The Prophets waited for us." Kira said cheekily.

"I can always shape shift into an umbrella." Odo added.

Kira slapped his arm. "I can't kiss an umbrella."

Hail beat against the roof like hoofed beasts. Strong winds sent the deka tree's drooping branches whipping past the oval window. Kejal prayed his garden wouldn't be torn apart by the jagged ice.

"Is it hailing outside? Oh, yup." Aleexa emerged from the guest bathroom. She'd changed out of her gold dress and into her usual nursing jumpsuit and vest. "Quite a storm. I hope Shakaar and his security team aren't caught in it."

Kejal shook his head. "Hover trams can take a beating. They'll be fine."

He liquefied and reformed looking perfectly dry with puddle of water on the ground by his feet.

Thunder roared overhead, shaking the windows. Kejal grabbed an unused wineglass and opened the door far enough to collect several large hailstones. One was almost half the size of his palm!

Aleexa reached past him and moved the takeo plant closer to the door. Over the past few weeks it grew six inches taller. She picked off its largest leaves and hummed to herself while grinding them up in the blender.

Odo and Kira still hadn't left their freshly wedded bubble of happiness.

Kejal chuckled at them. He peeked in the bedroom. Mora sat on his bed, quietly praying before his prayer mandala. He wore a his warmest robe over a striped flannel nightshirt. His tuxedo lay neatly folded inside its box by the closet.

When he finished his prayer, Mora scooted backwards and laid himself down. He groaned with every movement, briefly revealing the pain he hid during the wedding.

"I'll get this put away." Kejal hurried to shove the box into the back corner of the closet near the rolled up cloth coffin.

"Kejal."

"Yes?"

Mora exhaled noisily. "I think I've reached the 'dying' part of this damn disease. The pain is constant unless I medicate myself. Every morning, I wake up and wonder what I won't be able to do anymore that day. I'm afraid I may not be a pleasant person to be around much longer."

Kejal felt a stabbing sensation somewhere in his chest.

"Don't worry, father." He placed his hand on top of Mora's. "I don't care how unpleasant it gets in here. I'll take care of you."

Mora sniffed. Then he smiled, his eyes watering. "Wasn't that a beautiful wedding?"

"The best wedding ever." Kejal replied. "We're all glad you were part of it." He showed his father the glass of hailstones. "Quite an angry storm, eh?"

"Oh, but storms on a wedding are lucky. By weathering that storm, they showed they'll weather any storm that comes their way."

Yes... Kejal thought, and I think I know what the next storm will bring.
End Notes:

**Chapter soundtrack**

A Merry Bajoran Christmas: https://app.box.com/s/oj2wh8r8mckav60tz0hs

Measurements of Forgiveness: https://app.box.com/s/t945z1q4djmtlzeat23c

The Wedding Ceremony: https://app.box.com/s/qrj5623e21himyif445a

Heck of a Storm!: https://app.box.com/s/7flxosfgml33n3hvdneq
13. The Dying Process by Cyndi
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13. The Dying Process

.o

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.o

Time got lost somewhere in the days following Odo's wedding.

Mora's pain worsened almost overnight. High doses of triptacederine combined with the metorapan patch and takeo smoothies offered his only relief. The dexalin stopped helping his fatigue and the cough aggravated his back, so he discontinued it. He had trouble getting out of bed, and he couldn't bathe without assistance. Aleexa got him a bedside commode with a rig to transport his waste right into the bathroom toilet. He knew he was losing ground after he needed Aleexa's help to take a shower.

Sleep became Mora's favorite escape. He slept often and dreamed every time. Sometimes his slumber sent him chaotic, abstract visions. Others seemed as real as a holosuite program.

And then came the morning he woke to Leruu petting his hair. She smiled, crinkling her lovely green eyes. Her breath tickled his brow when she bent to kiss his nose ridges.

"Good morning," she said.

Mora blinked at hearing her voice. He caught her hand. "Leruu?"

"Who else, silly?" Leruu rubbed his upper arms. "How do you feel?"

"Awful," Mora admitted. "But with you here? Better."

Leruu climbed onto the bed with him. Mora's throat ached when her arms wrapped around his shoulders. Yet something about her felt different. He let his gaze wander downward to the swell of her gravid belly. His heart caught somewhere in his throat.

She followed the line of his eyes. "The baby is due in two weeks."

"Oh, darling..."

"Do you want to feel him kick?"

"Him?"

"I'm still sure it's a boy." Leruu placed his hand on her swollen belly. It felt soft, yet strong under his hand-- like a hard boiled egg after peeling off its shell. Something tiny swished beneath his palm.

"Oh!" Mora gasped, meeting Leruu's eyes. "I can't believe you're making that."

"Well..." She grinned impishly, "You helped get it started."

Then she laughed that wonderful laugh of hers. The baby inside her moved some more.

Leruu visited again late in the evening. No one else saw her, yet Mora never thought anything of it.

"Close your eyes, Pol. I want to show you something."

Mora did what she asked. Leruu helped him sit up.

"Now you may look," she said.

They stood together on an asteroid within an unfamiliar solar system. Mora saw a blue and brown planet twirling around its central G-class star. The planet's gray-green moon orbited extremely close to it.

"This is your star, Pol."

"My star?" Mora flashed back to Kejal naming a blob in 'his' nebula. "Oh. Oh my..."

He looked towards the galactic hub. Except, there appeared to be two, and the neat stellar bands denoting the Milky Way were distorted beyond recognition. Giant clouds of star birth lit the darkness like newly polished jewels.

"So it's true...this galaxy is colliding with another."

Leruu nodded, looping her arm through his. "Yes."

He closed his eyes and breathed the floral scent of her hair. How he did so when there wasn't any air never occurred to him.

"I must look so old to you," whispered Mora.

Leruu didn't answer.

Mora opened his eyes. He was in his bedroom again, staring at the blue daylight outside his window. The hand on his shoulder wasn't Leruu's.

"Good morning." Kira sat on the edge of the bed. "I'm sorry to wake you up. It's almost lunchtime. Aleexa wants to know if you'd like any soup."

"Yes. Thank you." Mora covered a yawn and stretched. He thought better of it after invisible hot pokers jabbed his back. His eyes screwed themselves shut. "Oh!"

"Are you all right?"

"The pain is pretty bad." He admitted. "Would you please hand me my triptacederine hypo and the white card? Ah, thank you."

Kira patted his hand. "I'll go let Aleexa know you want lunch."

Mora reached under his nightshirt collar and peeled off yesterday's metorapan patch. He stuck the new one onto his hip-- Aleexa said to place it on a new site every day-- and dosed himself with the triptacederine. The sharp pains in his back cooled away into nothing.

"Coming in!" Aleexa announced. "Are you decent to be seen?"

He had to laugh. She saw him naked yesterday, so why did it matter?

"I'm clothed, if that's what you mean."

She stepped in carrying a steaming bowl. "I always like to ask. Dignity matters. Plus, you stepped into a towel. I only saw your bottom."

Mora let Aleexa roll a tray up to the bed. He stirred the chunky, delicious smelling soup and watched steam pour into the cool air.

"I keep dreaming about Leruu."

"Oh?" Aleexa leaned forward. Her tender smile warmed Mora's heart. "What sort of dreams?"

"She is..." Mora gestured at his own stomach to indicate a pregnant belly. "I felt the baby kick. She told me it's due in a few weeks. When she died, she was only six weeks along."

"Mm, and Bajoran women don't show until the second month, right?"

"Mmhmm." Mora tasted the first salty spoonful of soup. Somehow Aleexa managed to create a rainbow of flavors. He enjoyed the chewy bits of cabbage she'd added at his request. "Leruu had the most adorable sneezing fits. They always came in clusters of five at the same time every morning. You knew it was ten-hundred at the first set, and ten-hundred and five at the second set."

"Was she a scientist, too?"

"No. Leruu was extremely smart, but she hid it and worked with the laboratory cleaning crew." Mora ate another bite. "She listened in on Cardassian talk around the lab and helped smuggle ingredients for medicine and information to a small Resistance cell." He sighed, his eyes far away. "Leruu could sweet-talk you into believing the sky is purple. It's a miracle she was never caught."

Aleexa giggled, her eyes twinkling. "I'm sorry I never met her. She sounds like someone I'd definitely get along with."

"Leruu would have adored you. She was kind to practically everyone...except the Cardassians." Mora licked the spoon and finished the soup. "I need a shave."

"I'll get your supplies."

A good shave fixed a lot of ills.

Fifteen minutes later, Mora let Aleexa help him into his favorite chair by the oval window. He held a small PADD in his left hand.

Odo, Kira, Kejal and Aleexa sat together on the couch. They gathered at his request.

"I know this is difficult, but I want to get this done now. I don't want you scrambling around after I'm gone. This PADD has all the information you need for planning my funeral." Mora cleared his throat. He'd put this off so long because it made him emotional. "Keep it small, and bury me beside Leruu at sunset as soon as you can after my death. Odo, I have a copy of my treatise...I would like you to read it before I'm buried."

Odo's blue eyes widened. He folded his hands in his lap. "I can do that."

Mora nodded once. "Kejal, I have the chants I'd like sung over my grave." He read them off the PADD.

"Okay...I know those. I'll do it, father." Kejal breathed. Almost humorously, he mirrored Odo's stiff posture.

"Nerys, I understand your duties on Deep Space Nine may mean you can't be present." Mora said, focusing on her. "Please don't trouble yourself over it. If you are here, I'd like you to help carry my coffin."

"I'll be here for the funeral." Kira laid her hands on the two clasped pairs flanking her. Her strength held the two Changelings beside her together. Somehow.

"Aleexa," Mora focused on her, "If you're able, I'd like you to carry my coffin, too." He gazed at people gathered on the couch. "I don't want a spectacle or a three hour chant. All I need is a simple burial in the presence of those who stood at my side in my final days."

Kejal suddenly hopped off the couch. He curled up in Mora's lap and wrapped his arms around his neck. Mora set the PADD aside and embraced him.

"I'm not ready," Kejal whispered. "It's going to happen, but I'm not ready."

Mora kissed his ear. "You will be when the time comes."

Aleexa and Kira discretely slipped into the guest bedroom to speak quietly amongst themselves. Odo stayed on the couch. Always just out of reach behind his mental stronghold.

Except now, Leruu sat beside Odo, petting his hand, and Odo had no idea. She winked before disappearing in the time it took Mora to glance at the clock.

He closed his eyes and stroked Kejal's hair.

"Odo?"

"Yes, Doctor Mora?"

"I'm sorry if I spoiled your wedding."

"What?" Odo balked. "You...you didn't."

"It's only been two days since you got married, and I've declined so much."

"Three, actually...you slept through most of yesterday."

Kejal snorted and rubbed his cheek against Mora's shoulder. "You kept talking to Leruu in your sleep. I didn't want anybody to wake you up and take those dreams away. You looked so happy."

"I was," said Mora.

"As I was saying..." Odo squared his shoulders. "You haven't spoiled anything. We all knew this was coming. The wedding was the surprise." He tipped his head towards the guest bedroom.

"A pleasant surprise." Mora beamed. "I think I'm ready to lie down again. Assist me?"

Kejal climbed off Mora's lap. Odo extended a hand. They helped Mora up and walked him back into his bedroom.

That evening, he had trouble keeping his supper down. Aleexa made excellent ratamba stew. Its delicious smell filled up the whole house. Mora ate a whole bowl full, and spent the rest of the night vomiting.

Odo commed Aleexa when Mora brought up blood. She came and gave him an antiemetic, and the heaving stopped.

"I think it's time I moved in, sweetie." Aleexa said soothingly. "I can share the guest bedroom with Nerys. I'll bring a futon."

"There is a mattress hidden in the wall. Pull the handles behind the door and you have a spare bed." Mora made a face. "Why am I vomiting? I felt fine this morning, and I know I don't have an infection."

Aleexa smoothed his hair back. "Your digestive organs aren't getting enough oxygenated blood. They're slowing down. It's a normal part of the process."

"What can I do?"

"Small, light meals might be best."

Mora closed his eyes. He used to be a big eater until recently. "Thank you...I’m sorry for waking you."

"No, don't apologize, sweetheart. Times like this are when you need me the most."

"I appreciate-- " Mora gagged and leaned over the bowl in his lap. Nothing came up. "False alarm."

Aleexa gave him water to swish around in his mouth. "I'll sleep in the spare room tonight. I'll get the rest of my supplies tomorrow morning."

Mora laid back. He wiped a hand across his face. "I'm getting close to the end, aren't I?"

"Yes, Pol, you are." Aleexa never sugarcoated anything. Mora liked that. She leaned forward, fixing him in a serious gaze. "Is there anything you want to do that hasn't been done?"

He nodded without hesitation. "It's...a private matter I need to resolve on my own. I hope I have enough time. It's going so fast now."

She rubbed his hand. "It's a blessing. It really is."

"Now watch, I'll end up living another six months." Mora chuckled at the irony. "I never do things the conventional way."

"Well, good!" Aleexa replied jokingly. "I never liked conventional men anyway!"

They both snorted. Aleexa emptied and washed the sick bowl.

Mora drifted in and out of slumber. He dreamed about Cardassians pouring acid into a beaker of golden fluid. The liquid screamed. Its pain traveled straight through his lower back. He awoke gasping for air.

"Shh, father. It's time for your medicine." Kejal changed the metorapan patch and gave him his triptacederine. He handed Mora his oxygen mask. "Here."

Mora breathed the sterile-smelling air. He slowly resumed his sleep. This time, he rested peacefully.

.o

Aleexa's discrete departure from the guest bedroom barely registered in Odo's consciousness. Somehow, he'd reverted to his gelatinous state in his sleep, but Kira's body was the dam keeping him on the bed. He assumed his humanoid form and nibbled on Kira's ear.

"Nerys..."

"Hmmm?" Kira answered. He loved her croaky just-awakened voice.

"I have a bowl of koganka pudding."

"Ugh!" She pulled the pillow over her head.

Odo chuckled, kissing her bare shoulder. She hit him in the face with the pillow.

"Spousal abuse is a crime." Odo smirked.

"So are bad jokes first thing in the morning."

"I never joke."

"Ugh. I want a divorce."

They snickered at the same time.

Odo grabbed the pillow, flung it over his shoulder and caught Kira's wrists. "You are under arrest for spousal abuse."

"Ooh, is anything I say going to be used against me?" Kira squirmed in his grasp.

"Possibly." Odo morphed his hands into handcuffs. "Resisting arrest is also a crime. How do you plead?"

Kira licked the end of his nose. She grinned with fire in her eyes. "Guilty."

Odo's eyes glinted. "Then your sentence is death by a thousand drops."

His body glistened as he liquefied. He oozed drop by drop under the front of her nightgown. Beads of his substance slithered across her erogenous zones. He flowed through softness, wetness and warmth until her gasps of release sent him rippling into ecstasy.

Odo reconstituted himself when the chaos of the moment passed. He spent a short time as a puddle between her breasts before slipping to the floor and regaining his humanoid shape.

Kira rolled over and kissed him as he rose. "I wish I didn't have to go back to Deep Space Nine again. Pol is getting worse. I don't think he'll live much longer."

He glanced at the sand mandala hanging above the bed. "I know, but it's probably for the best. Do you want me to accompany you to the space port?"

She shook her head. "I want you to stay here and take care of Pol. He needs you, Odo."

Odo hung his head. He couldn't decide if the emotion curling in his chest was anguish or shame. Having Kira around gave him a great excuse to avoid seeing Doctor Mora's illness advancing.

"I'll see if he needs anything."

Kira squeezed his arm. Odo kissed her brow.

He crossed the living room and poked his head into Doctor Mora's bedroom. Just in time to see him miss his sick bowl and splatter vomit all down his chest.

Doctor Mora muttered obscenities. The tiny dinner napkin he grabbed did not even touch the mess on his clothes.

Odo hurried into the room. "Come on, let's get you cleaned up."

"Odo, wait, I-- " Doctor Mora heaved into the bowl a second time.

Disgusted, Odo averted his gaze and praised his inability to smell.

"Aleexa will help me bathe."

"She isn't here right now. You aren't sitting in emesis until she gets back. Are you through?"

"Yes. That was breakfast."

At that, Odo helped Doctor Mora stand and assisted him into the bathroom. "I'll help you get into the shower. Take your nightshirt off and give it to me once you're inside."

"That's a strange way to do it." Doctor Mora replied.

"And more private."

"You have a point."

Odo steadied Doctor Mora until he stood safely inside the shower. A few seconds later, he was presented with the vomit stained nightshirt. Odo wadded it up and shoved it into the bedroom replicator for cleaning.

The shower hissed.

Doctor Mora called. "Odo, please, don't go far. Stay in the bathroom."

Something in his voice stopped Odo from walking away. A thread of...panic?

"Doctor Mora?"

Odo saw Doctor Mora sitting on the bench in the middle of the shower. Hot water poured down his back. The bones closest to his skin stuck out in sharp relief. His ribs were visible, though not overly so, and his arms and legs seemed thinner than Odo remembered.

He was a hardy man, once. Now, his flesh resembled clothing too large for its frame. Everything sagged around his bones.

An odd stinging made Odo blink his eyes. When did Doctor Mora's hands grow that thin? They were the same hands he feared for so long. And now, he realized, Doctor Mora could hardly use them to wash himself.

Not even newborn Kejal looked that vulnerable. And there sat Doctor Mora, naked and nearly helpless.

Odo forced away the pity gnawing at his mind. He knocked on the doorframe. "Doctor Mora, do you need assistance?"

"Yes," came the quiet reply.

Reluctantly, Odo soaped up the wash rag and handed it to his mentor. "Wash what you can reach and I'll help with the rest."

He kept his eyes downcast and felt the rag slide off his fingers.

Doctor Mora reached for the mobile showerhead. He stopped short, making a wounded noise in his throat. Odo rolled his eyes and got it down for him.

This is insane. He can't honestly be that sick...

"I need your help now."

"Where am I washing you?"

"I got my front from my neck to my knees. The rest is up to you."

Of course, Odo groused mentally. This was so much easier when he imagined Doctor Mora as being invincible. He didn't like seeing the reality.

Odo started at Doctor Mora's feet. He kept his eyes only on what he was washing.

"Your left knee is swollen."

"It's been that way for years."

Doctor Mora's toes were short and round like his fingers. Odo worked the washcloth between them. It would have been easier if Doctor Mora didn't squirm.

"Can you try to be still?" Odo grumbled.

"I'm ticklish. I can't help it." Doctor Mora leaned forward, discretely covering himself with his arms.

Some of Odo's irritation melted. Like smell or taste, he lacked the ability to feel tickle sensations until after he spent time as a humanoid. He often assumed Kejal "let" him keep it.

Even then, he often hated it unless Kira did it. She had the ability to tickle him in the most erotic way. With one finger, she could leave him gasping.

"You're smiling about something."

Odo wiped the smirk off his face. "No, I'm not."

"All right." Doctor Mora hung his head. "I won't argue with you."

"Thank you. I'm going to wash your back now." Odo rinsed the soap away. "Do you need help standing up?"

"I'll stand myself up." Doctor Mora grasped the grab poles on either side of him and pulled himself up. Odo saw more of him than he ever wanted to as he slowly turned away.

"It's painful to stand, so please hurry."

The muscles under his skin quivered. His sides heaved when he breathed. He pressed his forehead against his wrists.

Odo swore he heard a muffled whimper. Such a proud man reduced to this...it just wasn't right.

Odo scrubbed Doctor Mora's back. He got into the shower, not caring that he got wet, and knelt to wash his lower body. Then he rinsed. Slowly, carefully, still fighting the pity encroaching on his mind.

Doctor Mora lost his balance as Odo shut off the water. Odo caught him by the armpits. The former scientist weighed less than he did the last time Odo picked him up. He was shrinking into nothing!

"That's the last time I drink a martini," said Doctor Mora. He twisted his head to smile at Odo.

Odo scoffed at him. "This is the last time I shower fully clothed. And...by the way? Martinis taste terrible."

They both chuckled, breaking the tension.

Odo walked Doctor Mora to the waste unit, lowered the lid and sat him down. Doctor Mora leaned forward with his forearms resting on his knees. He grasped the towel Odo wrapped around his shoulders and sprayed something on his underarms.

"Do you remember how water used to scare you?"

"Mmhmm." Odo caught his own mothering instincts in action again when he started drying Doctor Mora off. "You're the one who told me humanoids die if they submerge."

"And then you..." Doctor Mora laughed, "...you fell into the river outside the lab, and it was hell getting you back out. You discovered you could swim."

"Exposure seems to help me get over my fear of anything." Odo stopped moving the towel. He met Doctor Mora's eyes. "Especially the lab."

"I'm sorry about it, Odo."

"Please, Doctor Mora, don't." Odo wasn't ready to hear this. So he did what he always did and pushed the subject away. "I didn't realize how low this commode is. How does Aleexa normally help you stand up?"

"I used to use the grab poles, but it's too hard now. This is how she helps." Doctor Mora placed his hands on Odo's shoulders. If being pushed away hurt, he did a fine job of not showing it. "She has me hold on and stands up." His eyes crinkled. "It's remarkable how strong Talaxians are, isn't it?"

"Indeed. Hang on." Odo stood, pulling Doctor Mora onto his feet. "You need a shave."

"You don't miss a single detail." Doctor Mora rubbed his chin. "Help me to the sink and I'll take care of that."

"Mother? Where's the-- ew! Father vomited!"

Odo rolled his eyes while Doctor Mora combed his hair and shaved off his stubble.

"Kejal, it's just vomit. Clean it up. I'm busy."

"It's gross! I'll do whatever you're doing, you clean this up."

"No," Odo replied sternly.

"I'm going to gag." Kejal complained.

"You don't have a gag reflex." Odo sent back, smirking. "Clean it up, Kejal. The smell will make Doctor Mora ill again."

A long-suffering sigh punctuated footsteps moving away. Then Odo heard the wet splat of the mop at work. He nodded, satisfied.

Doctor Mora put his straight razor away and splashed water on his face. "Kejal still enjoys pushing peoples' buttons."

"Sometimes, he is such a child."

"I heard that, mother!"

Odo fought down the sharp retort. It would only open up the avenue for Kejal to continue the argument, which meant he didn't have to mop. Odo wasn't going to play that game.

"Do you want me to bring you a clean nightshirt, Doctor Mora?"

"Thank you, no. Take me back into my bedroom and I'll-- " Doctor Mora stopped mid-sentence and stared blankly at his shower. He smiled, " --I'll put one on myself."

"Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. Leruu is taking a shower."

"What?"

"Nothing." Doctor Mora shook his head. "Please." He gestured towards the bathroom door.

Odo tucked the towel around Doctor Mora's waist and helped him into the freshly mopped bedroom. Kejal had the decency to dry the floors.

Doctor Mora pulled on his brown winter nightshirt. An old, shapeless thing that somehow kept him warm.

Still shaking his head, Odo found Kira carrying her travel bag to the front door. He stopped short of exiting the living room. A familiar, colorful artifact hung on the wall by Doctor Mora's bedroom door.

"Oh!" She said, "I put the sand mandala on the wall in the living room. Pol might like having it around. I better see him...just in case he's not here when I get back."

Odo kissed her cheek. Kira still looked a little flushed from their early morning activities. She slipped past him on her way to Doctor Mora's bedroom.

Outside, Kejal slouched on the swing, half-heartedly kicking at a seed pod under his feet.

"I was helping Doctor Mora." Odo said upon joining him. "I couldn't let him fall and hurt himself."

"He throws up almost everything he eats now," grumbled Kejal. "I don't like seeing him this way, mother. Father values his dignity."

"I've said this before for a different reason, but I'm going to say it again now. Perhaps the fact that it's not easy is what makes it worthwhile."

Kejal shot him a hard look, his brown eyes blazing. "It's so easy for you to say that, isn't it? You don't love him like I do. Seeing him sick like this doesn't hurt you as much as it hurts me. He loves you, and you won't see it! You're going through the motions. That isn't taking care of someone. He wants you to love him, mother. He's sorry for the pain he caused you in the lab. I see both of you and I want to slam your head into a wall until you see what I see. You're so blind! Are you going to hold his mistakes over his head for the rest of our lives? When will you let it go?"

The outburst took Odo aback. As long as he'd known Kejal, he never saw him express such anger straight at him before. And it hurt like knives stabbing into his torso.

"Do you think this is easy for me?" Odo met Kejal's burning brown eyes with his icy blue ones. "You aren't the one who went through it."

"He hurt you! I know, I understand! It feels awful and I wish I could take that pain away from you. But I can't. You're the only one with that power, mother. He didn't mean to hurt you. He didn't know he was hurting you. It's eating him alive, and you're just sitting there, watching it happen! Forgiving doesn't make everything okay, it just means you're willing to move past what happened and focus on healing." Kejal jumped off the swing. "Dammit, mother, sometimes you're too stubborn for your own good!"

"Kejal-- "

"You won't understand until you sit by his bed and hold his hand while he is in pain."

"Let me finish."

"No."

Kejal crossed his arms. He shape shifted into a smooth black river stone at Odo's feet.

Odo scooped up the rock and carried it inside. For a single angry moment he considered hurling it at Doctor Mora's forehead. It wouldn't help the situation any.

What was that old saying again?

An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.

He sat down in the chair by the oval window. The sand mandala fit right in with the décor of the house. He spent ages staring at it.

Kira's voice filtered out of the bedroom. "...so, how is the pain?"

Doctor Mora's answered. "To be honest...it's getting worse. I am not the type who admits to pain easily."

"That makes two of us."

Their voices dropped too soft to hear.

"Perhaps you're right." Odo cupped the rock in his hands. Just the way he had immediately after Kejal's birth. "I don't want him to suffer, either, but he is going to regardless of what we do. I'm not sure how to help or make it easier."

He placed the rock on the floor. It shape shifted into a humanoid again.

"Aleexa told me dying people with unresolved issues will suffer more pain than those who don't." Kejal sat on the footrest in front of Odo. "I'm not blaming you for father's pain, but this wall you have up around yourself isn't helping him either."

Odo sighed heavily. He took Kejal's hands in his own. They looked identical to his. "The fact that he raised you so well shows me how much he's changed over the years. He used to be so arrogant, so buried in his work."

"I know, but he was good to me, mother. He really was. He raised me the way he wished he could have raised you." Kejal smiled. He made a shushing motion at the sound of Kira's footsteps. Then he liquefied and oozed under her travel bag.

"He's resting now." Kira said as she emerged from the bedroom. She checked the clock. "I better go. My transport leaves in a little over an hour."

Nodding, Odo walked her to the door. "The tram is here."

Kira leaned into him, grasped two handfuls of his backside and squeezed. "I love you, husband."

Odo let his forehead touch hers. He didn't want her to go. "I love you too, wife."

They kissed and embraced. Odo wished he could smell her soft hair.

"Take care of Pol," she whispered in his ear. Then she reached for her travel bag.

Kejal dribbled out of the side pocket and took shape already hugging her. "Do you think I'm going to let you escape without a hug?"

"Ah! Kejal!" Kira laughed, giving him a good, strong squeeze. "Ooh, you sneak." She pinched his cheeks. "I need to get going. I'll be back in about three weeks. I told Pol not to wait for me."

Kejal's smile sobered. "I understand." He embraced her again. "Take care, mom."

Kira rubbed his back until he let go. She stepped out the door, climbed into the hover tram and was gone.

A tram carrying Aleexa pulled up scarcely two minutes after Kira's drove away.

"Help her." Odo said to Kejal. He left him there and ventured into Doctor Mora's bedroom, where he found Doctor Mora curled up on his right side.

The former scientist appeared even smaller in the bed than in the shower. His upturned shoulder shuddered.

In the living room, the sounds of Aleexa unpacking were punctuated by Kejal chattering to her about gardening.

"Doctor Mora?" Odo moved in front of him and sat on the seat that swung out from the bedside. "Are you in pain right now?"

Doctor Mora nodded without opening his eyes. His eyebrows knit. Suddenly, his face contorted and turned red. Tears poured over his nose ridges. The shaking of his shoulder accelerated.

"Don't leave me again, Odo," he sobbed. "Please. Please."

At a loss, Odo moved onto the edge of the bed and touched Doctor Mora's hand.

How many times had he been the one cowering, helpless and small inside his beaker? How many times did he suffer pain he couldn't escape?

"Please, don't leave me," whispered Doctor Mora. He sniffed. "I know how I made you feel...I'm going through it. It's no wonder you left...Odo, please, don't leave again! If this is how I must atone for it, I will...I will. Please, stay..."

Odo reluctantly climbed onto the bed and drew Doctor Mora to his chest. He didn't pull away when strong hands gripped his clothing.

This wasn't the terrifying scientist who unknowingly tormented him so many years ago. This was a broken, dying man.

If Odo believed in the Prophets, he might have called it divine retribution. Except, he didn't feel vindicated. Seeing Doctor Mora like this hurt.

For a split second, Odo considered leaving and taking a shuttle to Deep Space Nine. He couldn't stand to see this. But abandoning a sick man would be more heartless than his physically lacking a heart.

"I won't leave you," Odo said softly. "It's all right." He tucked Doctor Mora's head under his chin and scooted closer to him. "I'm right here. Shhh. I'm here. I'm not going anywhere."

Odo held Doctor Mora while Aleexa changed his metorapan patch and dosed him with triptacederine. He helped him drink his takeo smoothie. By sunset, he'd settled into a restless slumber in which he sleep-talked to Leruu.

The house gradually grew silent and dark.

Odo extricated himself from Doctor Mora's bed and tip-toed out into the back yard. Cloudless skies always chased the darkness out of his mind. Being alone let him gather his scattered thoughts.

That night, it was below freezing outside. Odo hugged himself. He couldn't shiver like a humanoid. Instead, his willed his inner substance to thicken and circulate faster to maintain homeostasis.

Millions of stars glimmered in the clear sky. He watched a gibbous Jeraddo rise over the southeastern mountains. It encroached upon the Milky Way's central hub, which looked like a streak of sugar someone spilled and then tracked across a black carpet.

What was it about winter that made the sky feel so close?

He stepped past the property line to better see the moon. Wind stirred the deka tree, making it creak. A limb of frosty leaves brushed his back. The chill almost hurt.

Odo ignored the droopy branch. He walked further eastward, closed his eyes and told his body to change. Morphogenic enzymes flooded his substance, bringing forth a pleasure experienced only by shape shifters who morphed for the sheer joy of it.

He let his feet sink onto the ground and spread out. His elongating torso broadened. When he lifted his arms, they transformed into two massive limbs from which several drooping branches unfurled.

Suddenly, he sensed the wind ruffling his leaves. Instinct prompted him to fluff out his appendages, trying to capture the light of suns far too distant to warm him. All around, the universe went on into eternity, and only his strong roots stood between him and the void.

The vastness of everything left Odo awed. Trees really knew things!

"Mother?"

Odo stretched a branch towards the vibration. Something touched his trunk.

"You feel that, don't you? The night air, the sky, the stars...no, don't change back. Stay a tree."

A weight settled in the junction between his two largest limbs.

"Imagine turning into a planet full of trees like you. Heh, heh, Vokau told me it's great to have two eyes, but ten eyes see even more. Then she shape shifted into a ten-eyed squid from Karemma to prove it." Kejal patted the limb he was sitting on. "Can I tell you a secret, mother?"

Odo rustled a leaf. Kejal chuckled at him.

"My biggest dream is to be a world full of trees. I want to be a garden. I want to be the ground, the plants, the sky and the rain all at once. I want to become a place where people will appreciate how precious nature is." Kejal sighed wistfully, "I just want to be."

He jumped down, the vibration of his landing reaching Odo's roots.

A few minutes later, Odo sensed another deka tree forming scarcely ten feet away. Their roots intertwined underground.

They stayed that way for hours. Simply being.

A flicker of warmth rippled the horizon. The wind stopped. Everything held its breath in anticipation.

Odo's leaves sensed life. He turned them towards it. Golden light created a sweeping chord that resurrected the dormant world. Nature became music and he joined its song.

The simple joy of it rivaled giving birth to Kejal. Odo was in awe.

Now he understood Kejal's openness towards music and nature.

No, towards everything.

Together, the trees shrank into two humanoids silhouetted against the sun.

Kejal grinned, his brown eyes twinkling in the sunrise.

"Trees know," he said. "Now, you know, too."

Odo smiled back and extended his hand. Kejal accepted it. They made their way towards the house.

Aleexa greeted them at the door. She folded her arms against the cold and pretended to shoot them stern looks. "Well, where did you boys wander off to?"

"We communed with nature," said Kejal. "How is father doing?"

"He's resting. I'm giving him small doses of long-acting promethazine every twelve hours. It seems to do the trick. He ate alvasauce on toast and kept it down. I expect him to stop wanting food pretty soon." Aleexa moved out of the doorway. "Oh, get in here! We're letting the heat out! It's freezing out there."

Odo pushed Kejal through the door and closed it after stepping inside. He glanced nervously around the room. There was no delicate way to broach the question he wanted to ask.

"Aleexa, how will we know Doctor Mora is near death?" He focused briefly on Kejal. "You said there are signs when it is imminent. I think it's time we learned what they are."

Aleexa gestured to the couch, where they sat down together. "Everybody does it at their own pace, but the sequence of changes is almost always the same. I'll go step by step from where we are now. First off..."

.o

Days melted together like the Great Link, remembered only by the rising and setting of the sun.

Kejal climbed into bed with Mora and let morning sunlight pour through the open bedroom door.

"It's almost spring, father," he said.

Mora awoke and flashed a sleepy smile. His eyes were twinkling.

"I brought you a bowl of warm, chunky alvasauce sprinkled in kava." Kejal showed him the mushy red concoction. "Do you want it?"

"Mmhmm."

"Here, I'll sit you up a little." Kejal inclined the head of the bed until his father was comfortably in a sitting position. "Does that hurt your back at all?"

Mora adjusted his pillow. "Not enough to bother me." He felt underneath his bottom lip with his front teeth. "I need a shave."

Kejal handed him the spoon. "We'll do that after you try this."

Mora stared intently at the utensil in his hand. Finally, after a long moment, he said, "Kejal, help me."

"Oh." Kejal took the spoon. If he had a heart, he knew he'd feel it breaking at the sight of his father too weak to feed himself. He dipped the spoon into the alvasauce and lifted it to Mora's lips. "Here you go. It's not burning hot."

Mora had trouble swallowing the alvasauce, but eventually he did. He fell asleep with the second spoonful still in his mouth and it dribbled all down his chin.

Kejal wiped away the sticky mess with a cloth napkin. "Father? Wake up, you need to swallow that."

"Mmh." Mora stirred. He made chewing motions and his neck muscles worked several times.

Kejal offered more when the swallowing movements stopped.

Mora didn't react at first. Kejal slipped the spoon between his parted lips. That roused him to take the next bite. As soon as Kejal leaned back, Mora grimaced and coughed, splattering alvasauce on the napkin under his chin.

"Oops!" Kejal covered Mora's mouth to minimize the mess. "I'm so sorry! Did I hurt you?"

"No," Mora cleared his throat and laid back. "Done eating."

A few bites isn't going to nourish you.

"Do you want to try something else? How about Aleexa's soup?"

"No."

"Larish pie?"

"Kejal, I don't feel hungry."

Rather than question it, Kejal set the bowl aside and slipped into the bathroom for Mora's shaving supplies. Mora liked to shave the old-fashioned way using a straight razor, hot gel and water.

"It is, isn't it?" Mora mumbled. "Yes, darling...we'll watch a sunrise together soon, won't we? Oh, is the baby kicking? Let me feel."

Talking to her again... Kejal warmed the gel on the heating plate. Through the bathroom door, he saw Mora touch a nearby pillow as though feeling an unborn infant kick.

"Here we go." He walked back into the bedroom carrying the gel tube, a mirror, a small basin of water and a dry towel. "Is step-mother still here? I don't want to step on her foot by accident."

"She just left," Mora said matter-of-factly. "Could you replicate me a hot towel?"

"Of course."

Mora pressed the hot towel to his face. Kejal helped him apply shaving gel and steadied his hand when he brought the razor to his face.

"Ah, Kejal, this is important. Please shave my face for me after I die. I don't want to go to my grave looking like an old goat."

Everything in Kejal's chest contracted around itself. "I promise you'll look your best, father."

Two days later, Kejal had to shave Mora's face for him because he kept dozing off and dropping the razor. Afterward, Mora turned down a plate of orange slices imported from Earth, but he took two tiny sips of deka tea.

Aleexa gave him a triptacederine patch for a constant stream of pain medication. Despite it, Mora required steadily increasing bolus doses via hypospray to stay completely comfortable. He still experienced episodes of breakthrough pangs. They could be stopped, however it sometimes took several minutes for the medications to kick in. Mora commented once that pain had a time dilating effect, and a single second of it felt endless.

Watching his father writhe made Kejal want to flee the room, yet he couldn't leave.

Aleexa said the dying process can mirror the birth process...but this is awful! This is suffering!

"We've reached the hard part," Mora said. He hid his face behind one hand. "Kejal, you've been so helpful these past few days...I don't know what I would do without you."

Kejal gazed at the only father he knew. Mora looked so small among the pillows and blankets. The agony of the last three days added lines to his face that weren't there before. He couldn't bathe, walk, shave, eat, drink or get on the bedside commode without assistance. Just turning over nearly made him scream. Even his voice, which had always been deep and soothing, sounded breathy and thin.

Kejal's eyes glimmered. He turned his gaze away.

This is no way to live.

Mora moved his hand off his face and stared out the window. His eyebrows remained drawn in a perpetual frown.

Prophets, give me strength...please.

Kejal climbed onto the bed and laid his head on Mora's shoulder. He wanted to say this while his father was alert.

"Father?"

"Hm?" Mora peered at him. His ocean blue eyes were wet in the corners.

"Father, I need to tell you something."

"Then spit it out!" Mora snapped. "Oh, Kejal...I'm sorry...it's the pain..."

Kejal closed his eyes, unable to look at him and speak these words at the same time.

"If the pain is too much...if you think you need to get out of that body..." He forced the words past his lips, "then i-it's okay with me. Go to the Celestial Temple when you think the time is right. Don't suffer like this to protect me, father."

The pillow rustled. Kejal felt Mora take his hand. He heard him sniffling.

When he opened his eyes, he saw his father weeping.

"I want to go so badly." Mora's face contorted. "I pray for death every night, and it hasn't come yet. Leruu tells me I'll know when it is time, but I don't see how. The pain isn't anything like I expected. I'm ready now!"

"Father?" Kejal had never known Mora to actively wish for death, but he didn't let his terror drive him out of the room.

"Oh..." Mora wiped his eyes and composed himself. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't talk like that to y-- "

"No, don't apologize. You're sick and in pain. You have every right to cry right now. I would cry with you if I could."

Mora blinked and groaned through another pang. "Kejal..."

The substance in Kejal's chest tightened like a ball. "I want you to feel better, father. You don't deserve to suffer."

"Ah, son..." Mora's eyelids fluttered. He rallied and patted Kejal's hand. "I'm so proud of you. You couldn't speak of this two months ago, and look at where you are now." He relaxed as the triptacederine kicked in, and his voice returned to its normal low pitch. "You're growing up, Kejal. You're truly growing up."

Kejal sneered. "Adulthood stinks."

"It does!" Mora snorted with laughter. "It sure does."

He actually fell asleep again mid-snicker, and his snorts became snores. Kejal reverted to his gelatinous state, slithered to the floor and regained his humanoid shape. He didn't realize Odo had entered until he finished reforming.

"Mother?"

"How is he?"

"The pain is getting worse." Kejal threw himself into Odo's arms.

Odo embraced him tightly. "You're taking wonderful care of him."

"It's the hardest thing I've ever done," said Kejal. He met his mother's eyes. "I gave him permission to die."

"Oh." Odo held him closer. He reached over and rubbed Mora's arm. "It's happening so fast now."

"I know." Kejal sighed. "Have you...?"

Odo shook his head. His face darkened in the dimness of the room.

"Do it soon, mother." Kejal whispered.

For the next two days, Mora didn't eat a single bite of solid food. He drank an entire mug of Aleexa's broth when Odo put the straw in his mouth for him. That was his only nutritional sustenance.

Hours became filled with pillows, hyposprays and patches.

Kejal lived for the brief times Mora reacted to outside stimuli. He convinced Odo to sit down and read the Shaarlek series out loud. Odo had a great voice for reading. He never got tired of doing it, much to Kejal's delight. Mora turned his face towards whichever side Odo chose to sit, and he outright smirked at mention of a Yridian getting swindled in the fourth novel.

Mora opened his eyes right at sunset. He held his arms out to Kejal. Kejal accepted the embrace without hesitation and felt a kiss pressed against his ear.

"Thank you." Mora whispered.

Kejal knew what it was for. He hid his face against Mora's neck. "You're welcome."

Then something changed literally overnight.

It started when Mora suddenly hurled off all his blankets. He grabbed at the air. Then he piled up every single small cushion within reach and mumbled ceaselessly to himself.

"Father, what are you doing?"

"I'm packing my supplies," Mora said.

Kejal leaned on the bed. "Why?"

"Moving...the second floor addition is complete and I have to transfer my equipment. It's a lot of work and I'm not finished yet."

"Oh." Kejal grasped the cushions and helped Mora lay down again. "I can take care of that for you."

He covered him with the blankets he'd thrown on the floor. Mora twitched more than usual in his sleep.

An hour later, he awoke, and the confusion started over.

"I need to reach Doctor Weld. Now!"

"Father?"

"My son is ill. He is dying. The morphogenic virus-- he is infected! Those bastards in Starfleet are using my research to commit genocide! They didn't tell me...they-- I trusted them. It's all my fault! Odo and Kejal may be dying, and I'm at fault!"

"Wait, what? No! I'm fine. I'm right h-- "

"Blast it all, the induction didn't work. I need a biobed! He's in pain! Don't you see? He's in pain!"

"Fa-- Doctor, it's all right. I will stabilize him."

"But I must hold his hand. He needs me at his side. He-- "

"Shhh, you need to sleep. You're no good to him with no sleep. I'll tell you if anything, uh, changes."

"One hour. Get me in one hour."

"All right."

Exactly sixty minutes after Mora dozed off, he stirred. His eyes had a faraway glaze.

"He's gone."

"Hm?" Kejal took Mora's hand. "No, I didn't die...I'm right here."

"What are you talking about? I meant Odo. Odo is gone!"

"No! He's fine. Father-- "

"You don't understand!" Tear streaks glistened on Mora's face. "I drove him away. I failed him...I-- the Cardassians, they'll find him. He isn't prepared to be out there on his own. If the Cardassians get their hands on him-- please, you have to help me. Tell Doctor Weld we need to find Odo!"

"Father!"

"He must be found! Please! I need to tell him I'm sorry. Please..."

"All right! All right, shhh. We will find him."

"We have to go now." Mora tried to get up. His eyes were wild. "I want to help."

Kejal caught Mora's shoulders and pushed him back down. "N-no, you should, uh, stay in case he comes back. Is that okay?"

"Fine...but hurry. It's storming." Mora picked violently at the fraying pocket on his nightshirt. "Thunder terrifies him."

"Okay, stay here. I'll find moth-- I'll find Odo for you."

Then, almost in a panic, Kejal bolted into the living room. "Mother! Mother, come quick!"

"What?" Odo poked his head in from the garden. "What is it?"

"It's father. He's very confused and said I had to find you." Kejal grabbed Odo's hand. He practically dragged him into the bedroom. "Seeing you should calm him down."

By they time they got there, Mora had slipped back into restless unconsciousness. The quilt was thrown off one side of the bed and the sheets were on the other.

Odo shot Kejal a glare.

"But he...he was just..."

"Call me when he really needs me." Odo growled. He left the room in a huff.

Kejal grabbed the discarded blankets. They were wet. So was Mora's nightshirt. Alarmed, he called Aleexa into the room.

"It's fine. I'll take care of it. Pol, sweetie, we're going to get you cleaned up." Aleexa swapped out the soiled linens for dry ones. She did everything without removing Mora from the bed.

Kejal prepared to pull a clean nightshirt over his father's head.

Aleexa stopped him. "Wait, don't redress him yet. I need to wash him off."

Kejal helped Aleexa give Mora a sponge bath. He saw more of his father than he ever wanted to. Finally, she reached into the closet for something he hadn't seen her bring in.

"Oh, Prophets..." Kejal groaned. "Diapers?"

"Briefs." Aleexa corrected him. "I call them briefs. It's more dignified."

At least they looked like typical jockey style undergarments. He wouldn't have realized the difference without seeing the package.

"Kejal, I know this is embarrassing, but listen. It's extremely important to keep him clean." She set a pack of large swabs on the table beside a jar of disinfectant salve. "Every time you change his briefs, dip a swab in this, pull his foreskin back and wipe the tip of his penis. You won't hurt him if you're gentle. Make sure your hands are clean before you start."

"Why?" he asked.

"It's very delicate skin, and his urine is getting more acidic as his remaining kidney fails. This will prevent infection and irritation. Trust me, Kejal, having itchy or sore genitals is not fun." She straightened. "Oh! One more thing. Point him down towards his feet before you close up the briefs, or there's a chance they might leak at the waistband."

Kejal wasn't keen on looking at or handling someone else's genitals, however he knew it was necessary.

Aleexa showed Kejal how to apply and remove the briefs before they dressed Mora in a clean nightshirt. Mora never moved throughout the process. He just laid there, sleeping with his mouth hanging open.

"Check the briefs every few hours. The stripe on the front turns blue when he needs changing. Don't be surprised if you see brown or purple urine. His right kidney is just about done."

"What about solid wastes?"

"I wouldn't expect him to. Food has to go in first and he hasn't eaten much. All you have to do is wipe his rear end with a warm wet washcloth. Call me if you have any doubts. I'm not squeamish about taking care of that."

"I see. Um, okay, I-I can do that." Kejal pursed his lips. "How much longer?"

Aleexa touched his arm. "We're down to days. I'd estimate he has five at the most. I'm amazed he is still with us now."

"Father is strong." Kejal closed his eyes. "I think he's waiting for everyone to be in the house again."

"It wouldn't surprise me."

Kejal stared down at the red and gold quilt on the bed. "Aleexa?"

"Hm?"

He smoothed a wrinkle out of Mora's sleeve. "Father took care of me when I fell seriously ill. I almost died, and he was there. He barely left my side. Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing enough for him."

"Aw. You're doing fine, Kejal. You really are."

At Kejal's sad smile, Aleexa let go of his arm and slipped out.

"Is something wrong?" Odo's voice filtered into the room.

"Not really. I'll tell you about it in the kitchen." Aleexa replied.

Their quiet talking faded from the doorway.

Kejal changed Mora when he needed it. Somehow, he performed the task without shying away from his private parts.

Mora did not wake up at all during the afternoon. That night, his breathing was labored and irregular. Kejal spent every moment he could lying in bed next to him. He listened intently for the congested exhalations Aleexa said meant imminent death.

Early in the morning, Odo encouraged Kejal to regenerate.

"His color is good. I don't think he'll die tonight."

"I don't want him to wake up alone."

"He'll be all right." Odo kissed Kejal above the ear. "You're stretching yourself too thin, Kejal. You need to rest, or you won't be in any shape to help him later."

"I'll regenerate if you alert me when anything changes."

"Fine." Odo sat by Mora's bed and took his hand. "I'll sit with him. Go regenerate."
End Notes:

**Chapter soundtrack**

Among the Stars with Leruu: https://app.box.com/s/s6ky1wo2paqcns9qh9ef

Mora's Funeral Plans: https://app.box.com/s/ewtr1brogcue23zcl218

The Unstoppable Man Wastes Away: https://app.box.com/s/9ic1y0qfqtp752hrrmkd

Mother and Son Connect: https://app.box.com/s/iqn8yclezsdzq6ih0c9z

The Hardest Words: https://app.box.com/s/5zxoxu7e9h7hgci43e2m
14. A Gift for the Future by Cyndi
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14. A Gift for the Future

.o

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The trees sang as heavy rain impacted their leaves. How did an entire forest surround his bed? Had he been transported, or was his bedroom transformed?

Mora brushed a butterfly off his shoulder. He watched it flutter around Leruu, it's iridescent wings shimmering like a sunrise.

"Oh, Leruu, the forest is singing."

"I love listening to it." Leruu rubbed her growing belly. She looked lovely in her purple wrap dress, which accentuated her pregnant frame. "The baby kicks more when you're with me. He wants to know you, Pol."

Mora played with her blonde ponytail. Above her head, the tree canopy was too thick to see the sky.

"He will know me soon."

She placed his hand on her abdomen. "Very soon. Can you stay and watch the sunrise?"

"I'm sorry...I can't this time..." Mora felt his eyes growing heavy.

Leruu pressed her lips to his brow. "It's all right. Sleep, my love. We'll watch the sunrise together when you're ready."

He slept.

Later, when he woke, his bedroom had gone back to normal. Kejal was curled up in Leruu's place.

"Father, hey." Kejal smiled at him. "How do you feel?"

Mora tugged on the edge of his nightshirt.

Kejal sat up and looked. "Oh, you need a change."

The cool air in the bedroom wasn't exactly comfortable. Mora no longer cared that his genitals were being cleaned by someone else. One less issue to worry about.

"The ointment is cold." He complained.

"I know, father. I'm almost done."

Mora's attention flickered to the butterfly. It got left behind when the forest disappeared. He smiled, letting it land on his wrist.

Then Kejal took his hand, smashing the insect into paste.

"Kejal! No, no!"

His outburst made Kejal jump. "Oh! What?"

"You crushed it. Why?"

"I crushed-- father, I'm sorry, I didn't see it there. I'm so sorry. Is it okay?"

Mora wiped the butterfly's pulverized remains on his sheets.

"You visited the forest again, didn't you?" Kejal still looked regretful.

"Mmhmm..." Mora's eyes wandered to the ceiling, where dozens more butterflies roosted.

Suddenly, the butterflies all took off at once. The whisper of their wings surrounded Mora before they flew out his bedroom door to...he had no idea where.

Kejal smiled shakily. He placed a straw in the mug on the table and held it up to Mora's lips. "Here, I made your deka tea."

The hot tea tasted bittersweet the way he liked it. Sucking it through the straw took a lot of energy. The tea went down wrong when he swallowed. He coughed violently, sending spasms of pain through his torso.

"Slowly." Kejal told him. He wiped the tea off Mora's chin and offered another sip.

Mora spat out the straw and closed his eyes. He awoke on the asteroid orbiting his star again. Odo was busily clipping his toenails for him.

How much time passed?

"Doctor Mora," Odo acknowledged him. "You're overdue to have these trimmed."

Nodding, Mora checked his fingernails. They, too, had been groomed.

"Do you remember Aleexa giving you a haircut?"

"No..."

"Ah. Well, she said you needed it."

"Mm. Thank you." Mora replied sleepily.

Odo finished trimming his toenails and set the clipper disk aside. He sat on the edge of the bed, his weight denting the mattress. "Do you need anything?"

Did he realize the entire universe shone in his blue eyes?

Mora reached out. He touched Odo's face. His eyelashes were damp with what could have been. The words he wanted to say came out of their own accord.

"I love you."

Odo seemed to flinch. "Is Leruu behind me?"

"No. I'm saying it to you."

Something in Odo's eyes screamed. A silent cry unheard for far too long.

"Thank you. I uh, I think Aleexa is making something in the kitchen. I should assist her. Excuse me."

He left in a hurry. Starlight trailed behind him.

Tears poured down Mora's face. All at once he felt Leruu's familiar hands stroking his cheek.

"He won't listen to me!" Mora sniffed. He turned his face towards the light of the nearby star.

"He will." Leruu kissed away his tears.

"When?"

She cradled his head on her chest. "When he is ready to believe it."

"Mmh, the pain is getting bad again."

"You'll get medicine in one more hour, my love. Shhh...oh, my beloved...I'm sorry."

"It hurts, Leruu, it hurts."

Her gentle hand squeezed his arm. "I know. It won't hurt forever, my dear husband."

Mora stared at the planet and moon as they spun through the glow of their parent star. He vaguely heard someone whisper his name. No, a dream...then they did it again, and his surroundings transformed once more into his familiar bedroom.

He peered at Kira's face through the haze of pain clouding his mind. At the sight of her, he started to weep. Lately, it was all he seemed to do.

"Oh, Pol." Kira cupped his cheek. The last time Mora saw her, she told him she would stop by the temple on Deep Space Nine and pray on his behalf. He wondered if she remembered.

Maybe it didn't matter.

"Is the pain bad right now?" asked Kira.

Mora nodded once. He hated crying, yet could not spare the energy to stop himself once he started.

"One second." Kira turned to the door. "Aleexa?"

Aleexa's distant reply, "Yes?"

Rather than shout at the other room, Kira walked into the doorway. "Pol is pretty bad in here. Should I dose him?"

"Go ahead. Mark it on his bedside PADD."

Kira followed Aleexa's instructions. Mora groaned when the hypospray hissed. The medicine took ages to touch his misery. Several more minutes passed before he relaxed again. He sensed a cool cloth on his brow.

"Leruu?"

"No, it's still me," whispered Kira. "Is that any better?"

"Uh-huh...thank you."

She washed the evidence of tears off his face.

"Leruu's belly is getting so big," Mora said.

"Is it?" Kira beamed. "Sounds like she'll have the baby soon."

"Mmhmm."

Odo stepped in behind Kira. He rubbed her shoulders and kissed her above the ear. Mora smiled at them together. Then he closed his eyes.

"I gave him more pain medicine. He was suffering." Kira still held Mora's hand between hers. "It's hard to see him like this."

"Two months..." Odo trailed off with a sigh.

Something tightened around Mora's frame. A membrane, strong and fibrous. He sensed it squeezing, and instinctively he knew what it meant if it ruptured.

No! Mora pushed it off. Not yet. You go away!

The tightness disappeared.

Slumber took the membrane's place.

Motion woke him. Someone's arms laid him inside something smooth and cool. The change in position sent pain shooting across his lower back. He groaned and squirmed.

Aleexa bent into his visual field. She smiled tenderly. "Hey, sweetie. You got sick to your stomach in your sleep and I don't think you want to smell like bile. Are you uncomfortable?"

"Yes," Mora answered simply. "Back hurts."

"Don't worry, the water will help. I thought you might like a bath in the tub one more time. It's going to be bed baths after this."

"I don't mind," said Mora.

Warmth flowed over his skin. Aleexa bathed him head to toe and gently washed his hair. It felt so nice he drifted back to sleep before his bath was finished.

Not long after, a familiar heat and scraping echoed through his consciousness. He looked up. Odo was shaving his face for him.

"I couldn't grow facial hair when I was humanoid," Odo remarked. "I grew hair everywhere else...but never my face."

Mora held his upper lip between his teeth. It made shaving under his nose easier. He refocused on Odo's face, which looked almost natural except for the lack of true eyebrows or facial hair.

"Careful of the butterfly," Mora whispered.

Odo stopped moving the razor. "Where is it?"

Mora brushed it off his nose. It joined the swarm roosting on his ceiling. He pretended not to see Odo roll his eyes. The razor resumed its smooth motions, soothing him into slumber.

Faces came and went. Once in awhile, they were followed around by the butterflies from the moon forest. He got upset whenever somebody accidentally smashed one. Did they realize it took ages to pick the remains off his sheets and clothes?

Kejal started 'policing' the visiting butterflies by arranging flowers in a vase on the windowsill. The insects landed there instead of on people, and the accidental killings stopped.

Mora noticed someone in bed with him. He wrapped his arm around the presence.

"It's me, father." Kejal kissed Mora's cheek.

"I love you," Mora whispered before letting his eyes lose focus again.

Hands rubbed his upper arms. "I love you, too. I know you're still in there, and I'm going to take care of you as long as you need me."

Mora wasn't sure whether he thanked him out loud or not.

"The fireflies like you," he said.

"Oh?" Kejal smiled. "How many are there?"

Mora showed him six fingers. He couldn't keep his eyes open anymore, but he still saw the fireflies through his closed eyelids.

"Do you want me to sing for you?"

"Mmhmm."

Delighted, Kejal pulled Mora close and sang softly against the top of his head. His gentle tenor voice lifted Mora into a place of pure, white light. There was no pain, no sickness-- only love and peace.

Mora hugged Kejal tighter, keeping his voice close. He glided past people he knew long ago. Flickering beings surrounded them. Such beauty beyond imagining...

Kejal's song ended. The brilliance withdrew like fog and Mora found himself in his bedroom again.

"Did you dream?" asked Kejal. "You look like you saw something amazing."

"Yes. I saw where I will go." Mora trembled. "It's so beautiful there. It's so beautiful."

Kejal kissed his hairline. "Go back to sleep. Maybe you'll dream about it again."

"I..." His bladder complained. Lately it emptied every time he felt an urge. This time, it didn't. He squirmed. "Need to make water."

"Go ahead. You're wearing something to keep you dry."

Clarity crystallized in Mora's mind. He shook his head. "I want to use the commode."

"Why?"

"Because men stand up to urinate, and I want to do this like a proper man!"

"All right. Okay. Shhh, it's fine. I'll assist you," Kejal said. He helped Mora stand up, unhooked the briefs and pulled the commode closer. "I promise not to watch. I'm closing my eyes."

"No. You can help me by leaving me alone for a moment. I want my privacy."

Understanding dawned in Kejal's eyes and he quietly stepped out. He closed the bedroom door behind him.

Mora swore his organs were rough bricks rubbing together against his muscles and nerves. He gathered the bottom of his nightshirt in his left hand, aimed himself with his right and relaxed.

It burned on the way out, but the relief curled his toes.

When he finished, he jiggled himself, tucked everything in and Kejal returned to lay him down. He glimpsed brownish-purple fluid in the commode before the transporter beams emptied it.

Time kept getting away. Hours passed in seconds, and seconds passed in hours. He remained half-aware even when he slept.

Rustling noises brought him back. Stars-- the correct ones-- twinkled outside the window. He was being repositioned on his right side in bed. The person doing it placed a soft body pillow behind his back and tucked another one between his knees.

He looked up when the presence slipped a washcloth under his cheek.

Odo smiled a little. "I didn't mean to wake you. You were having trouble breathing on your back. Are you comfortable?"

Mora indicated the affirmative. He reached behind him and squeezed the body pillow that somehow hugged the shape of his back perfectly.

Odo noticed his movement. His expression softened. "That's Kejal. He wanted to be your pillow tonight."

That made Mora chuckle. He had so much he wanted to say, and not enough energy for saying it. Words were so complicated. They got in the way. They mucked everything up.

He offered his hand instead.

Odo took it. His fingers were cool. He'd been outside.

Mora's entire body reacted to the chill. Goosebumps prickled his skin.

"I took the shape of Kejal's deka tree. Tonight was my third time," said Odo. "He's right. Trees do know things. They recognize the sun. They know whether the air is warm or cold. They sense their environment. Being a tree is probably one of the most peaceful shapes I've taken so far."

Mora noticed the forest fading in around Odo. No rain this time. An abundance of grasshoppers took its place. Bright yellow and green ones bigger than his thumb. He frowned, shooing them off his pillow.

"Doctor Mora?" Odo's voice sounded distant. "Is everything all right?"

The grasshoppers went away. Nearby, Leruu leaned on the trunk of a large, bushy tree.

"Odo," Mora forced his voice to work.

"Yes?"

"I love you."

.o

Those three words again. Odo's inner substance churned at hearing them. They were the only words Doctor Mora seemed to say to him, and he hadn't said much over the past twenty six hours. What kept possessing him to repeat himself like that?

Odo wanted to leave the room, yet Doctor Mora still held onto his hand. Making him let go would be cruel.

"Thank you," Odo said, keeping his tone neutral. "Do you want some water? Here." He grabbed the water glass and guided the straw between Doctor Mora's lips.

No response.

"Are you thirsty?"

Doctor Mora let go of Odo's hand and slapped the glass away. The spill proof lid was the only reason water didn't splatter across the floor.

"I love you," he said again. His eyes held nothing but sincerity.

Odo put the glass on the bedside table and rushed out of the bedroom. He almost ran over Aleexa in his haste to escape from himself.

"Oh!" Aleexa covered her tea mug to avoid a spill. "Excuse me, I didn't see-- Odo?" She put the mug on the kitchen counter. "Odo, no, don't run off. Sit down. Talk to me."

Odo didn't realize how late it was until he noticed Aleexa wearing a long knitted purple robe with black flannel pants underneath.

"He hardly talks anymore." Odo shook his head. "Except to say he loves me."

"Oh." Aleexa sat next to him.

"Why? Why?"

"Because he means it."

"It doesn't make sense."

"Odo, everything is falling away. His energy is focusing on releasing his pagh. It's just like labor. You said you reached a point where you didn't want to talk much. Pol is at that point now. He can't lie to you. He won't say anything that isn't important in some form or another, even if it sounds like nonsense to you."

"I want to believe him, but I can't...I can't! Dammit!" Odo's eyes and nose ached. He soothed it by rubbing them.

"Maybe you need a good cry." Aleexa whispered. "You seem to hold onto so much pain. It's not good for you."

"My people can't shed tears. Ironic, isn't it?"

"You didn't cry while you were a humanoid?"

"No. Um, where is Nerys?"

"Asleep. She fell asleep waiting up for you. I thought it best not to disturb her."

"Ah. No, let's not wake her."

"You stay put. I'm going to check on Pol. We'll talk when I come back."

Odo rested his elbows on his knees and held his head in his hands.

"Hey, sweetie. It's Aleexa. I'm just checking you over." Aleexa's voice filtered through the bedroom door. She reappeared a few minutes later. "He's asleep."

Shrugging, Odo stared at his palms. "I know Doctor Mora told you all about me, but have you heard my side of it?"

Aleexa hooked her finger through the loop of her tea mug. She rejoined Odo on the couch. "No, you never told me."

"I don't like to talk about it, but..." Odo clasped his fingers together and laid it all out. He spared no details. In about two hours, Aleexa knew as much as Kira.

"...and I can't reconcile the image of who he was with who he is." Odo said. Then he looked Aleexa dead in the eyes. "Just once, after I left the lab, I hoped he would drop dead. I took it back immediately, but a part of me wonders-- "

"No. Odo, no, you did not cause this. It's a disease. A rare and ugly disease." She wrapped her strong Talaxian hand around his wrist. Her touch didn't bring him the ripple of pleasure he felt from Kira. "Hold my hand and listen to me."

He obeyed, reluctantly.

Aleexa tapped on his knuckles. "You're struggling to make sense of this. You want to see the man you're familiar with, and instead you see him as he is now." She made a wiping motion. "That's his past self. It's changed, and so has he. Stop seeing the past when you look at him. Look only at the present. He hurt you, and you acknowledge that it wasn't intentional. It's time to forgive."

"I wish it were that easy, Aleexa."

She sipped her tea. "Odo, I grew up in an abusive foster home. Then I watched the woman who raised me die of cancer. It ravaged her body, and I was the only person qualified to take care of her. I know what you're thinking. One part of you says, 'Good, hurry up and get out of my life!' and the other part of you still cares enough to put it aside and help. And an even smaller part always longs to say things you've never told anyone else."

"Did you...?"

"Yes." Aleexa stared at the rim of her mug. "We reconciled and forgave, and I had no regrets when she passed away. She was Bajoran...her name was Entil Voana. She grew up during the Occupation, and I think it hardened her heart so much she became hateful. She thought her hate caused the cancer in the first place." She swirled her tea and finished it off. "Pol will make it clear when it's time to talk. Don't miss it, Odo. Whatever you do, pay attention."

Nodding, Odo sat back on the couch and stared at the edge of the sand mandala. In the dark, it appeared in tones of gray and black, barely distinguishable for what it really was.

"Don't stay up on my account. I can see you yawning." Odo smiled wryly. "I don't need to regenerate for another three hours. Nerys will likely get up and take over."

"All right. Wake me if you need anything."

The air in the empty room weighed on Odo's shoulders.

Doctor Mora remained unconscious all day the next day. Kejal puttered around in the garden. Kira sat with Odo while he stayed close by Doctor Mora's bedside.

Sometime around noon, Doctor Mora developed an awful nosebleed. Odo glanced up and found him with his face covered in red rivulets. The bleeding ruined four washcloths before it stopped.

Kira helped Odo clean up the blood. Fortunately, none of it got on Doctor Mora's nightshirt.

"He looks peaceful now," Kira said, taking Odo's hand.

Doctor Mora rested on his left side. Not quite snoring, but not breathing quietly either. His face looked so thin and his lips cracked where they touched his teeth. Kejal was liberal with the lip balm to control it.

Kira lifted the blankets off Doctor Mora's legs and massaged his feet. Her ministrations generated no response.

"Nerys?"

"His feet are so cold. Feel them."

Odo gasped. Doctor Mora's feet felt as chilled as the outdoor winter air. His toenails had a blue tinge that wasn't there yesterday, and his toes curled downward at an unnatural angle.

"Are his feet ticklish?"

"Yes."

Kira tickled one. Doctor Mora pulled his foot back without opening his eyes. Just like that!

"He's still with us." She grinned. "He's smiling. Look."

The small sign of life made Odo smile, too. "Aleexa says he can hear us."

"She's right." Kira pulled the blankets back down. "Here, you massage his hands."

Odo grasped both of his mentor's hands and slowly rubbed his fingers. They were so cold and pale. Blue had crept into his nail beds overnight, same as his toes.

"I'm not ready to lose you," whispered Odo. "If you can hear me...if any of this ridiculous nonsense is true, don't die tonight."

Doctor Mora's fingers grasped Odo's hands. Tightly. Then they relaxed again.

"He heard you." Kira said. "See?"

"Odo?" Aleexa hurried up to the doorway. "I need you to come here."

Odo noticed the worried expression on Aleexa's face and followed her into the back garden. Kejal was slumped against the trunk of the deka tree.

"I noticed him sweating heavily a minute ago." Aleexa's brow creased in worry. "Is he sick?"

"No. It isn't sweat." Odo saw the familiar shimmer on Kejal's skin. "It's all right, Aleexa. Thank you."

"What's the matter with him?"

"A lack of regeneration. If we don't revert to our liquid state once in awhile, we temporarily lose our ability to hold a shape."

Aleexa breathed a sigh. "That scared me. Will he be all right?"

"Mmhmm."

"Mother?" Kejal couldn't lift his head.

Odo gathered his son into his arms and carried him inside. "Shh, Kejal, I'm here. Everything is fine."

"Father needs me...he hasn't produced urine since sunrise. He's leaving us so soon."

"No. Not tonight, he isn't. He needs you to rest, Kejal. When was the last time you had a proper regeneration?"

"Fif-- sixteen hours. Held it off...hurts...hurts so bad, mother."

"Sweetie, you're wearing yourself out." Aleexa touched Kejal's hair, only to pull back when it almost melted. Despite that, her hand came away dry.

Odo gestured at the large vase. Aleexa brought it closer.

"Everything is fine, Kejal. Rest now. Please, for Doctor Mora, you need to regenerate."

"I can't." Kejal groaned. He writhed in Odo's arms, fighting his body. "Mother, I-- "

His head lost cohesion and actually fell off right before his torso melted. It rejoined the rest of his substance when Odo guided him into the vase.

If the sight scared Aleexa, she didn't show it.

Kira poked her head out of Doctor Mora's bedroom. "Is Kejal okay?"

"He'll be fine." Odo stated calmly. "He needs to regenerate for a long while to recover. He overexerted himself. Aleexa, where is that large frying pan lid?"

Aleexa retrieved it from the kitchen. "This one?"

"Yes." Odo placed the lid on the vase and set the vase in an out of the way corner. "There. Now he won't be disturbed. This vase is excellent at blocking outside stimulus."

"Should I monitor him?" asked Aleexa.

"No, thank you. Right now, the best thing we can do is leave him alone." Odo patted the vase. "Typical. He tries to do everything."

"I can't blame him." Aleexa squatted by the vase. "Sleep tight, Kejal."

Odo straightened, prompting her to do the same. Kira joined them in the kitchen.

Soon, the sounds of cooking and chatter filled the twilight air. While Aleexa and Kira ate, Odo checked on Doctor Mora. He hadn't moved at all, and wouldn't for the rest of the night.

.o

A vibration under the vase snapped Kejal to awareness. He flowed past the obstruction above him and, after some difficulty, assumed humanoid form. His eyes adjusted to the darkened room.

Mora sat on the couch just outside his bedroom door. He looked clean-shaven and alert. His hair was combed back in perfect order for the first time in several days. He'd swapped his blue short-sleeved nightshirt for the long-sleeved white one, which he wore with matching pants made of the same silky material.

"Father!" Kejal gasped. His hopes rose and suddenly sank upon realizing what this meant.

"Shhh, don't wake the whole house." Mora smiled. "Good morning, Kejal."

Kejal rushed to curl up in his father's lap like he did so many times in the past. Mora caught him in a strong hug.

"I'm sorry. I know this is difficult for you."

"Don't apologize, father...you can't help it." Kejal looked towards the window. "Oh, here it comes."

The golden sunrise made Mora's eyes gleam like clear blue oceans.

"It's the last one," Mora murmured.

"Hm?"

"Winter is over." He quoted Bajoran scripture against Kejal's hair. "'...then Death's cool veil lifted, clearing the way for Life eternal.'"

Life eternal...

Something glimmered in the sun's glare. Kejal squinted at it.

"Oh. Father...the first bloom on the deka tree! Look!"

Mora nudged him. "Go pick it and bring it in."

Kejal didn't know how he got outside without making enough noise to wake the planet. He plucked the star-shaped blossom off the tip of the branch and cradled it between his hands.

"Here." He scooted back inside and placed the flower on Mora's palm. "How does it smell?"

Mora sniffed it. "Sweet like the spring air."

"It's early...usually my tree takes another week to bloom." Kejal gazed at the flower in his father's hand.

With his fingers, Mora spun the flower around once and leaned forward to set it on the table. "Perhaps your tree is saying goodbye to me in its own way."

"Why do you say that?"

"I'm going to die tonight." Mora said simply.

At that, Kejal curled up in his father's lap again. The panic he used to feel didn't rise in his substance. After seeing Mora so sick and in pain, he knew trying to keep him would be torture.

"How do you know?" he asked.

"Because," Mora made a face, "I feel like I've held this shape far too long. It's time to let it go."

A sensation Kejal actually felt that very moment. The dull headache, the exhaustion and the desire to break out of himself-- he knew it well. He once explained holding his shape for sixteen straight hours probably felt like a humanoid waiting too long to empty their bladder. Eventually, both bodies took over and did what came natural regardless of time, place or circumstances.

Some of Mora's physical nuances edged into Kejal's awareness. He breathed shallower and more frequently than he used to. His skin was cooler and his pulse rapid. And his hands and feet were swollen. Not to a terrible degree, but enough for Kejal to notice a difference.

"Please don't tell the others. I'll tell Odo myself later." Mora sighed. "I want my last day to be a happy one."

Nodding, Kejal chewed his bottom lip. "Don't go if I'm not with you. I want to be there."

"Deal." Mora squeezed Kejal's shoulder. "I lived a good life, Kejal and you're part of the reason I found it worth living again. You made my last thirty years wonderful. Always remember that."

"I will." Closing his eyes, Kejal hid his face against Mora's shoulder. "I love you, father."

"I love you too, son." Mora patted his back. He moved one hand away. "I'd like to give you something."

"Oh? What?"

Mora took Kejal's wrist and placed something metal on his palm.

His Bajoran earring. Simply made, yet strong.

"My grandfather gave it to me just before he died. Now, I'm giving it to you. I'll be close to you forever."

"Father...I-- " Kejal bit his lip and placed the earring on his right ear. It was heavier than it looked. "How does it look on me?"

Mora took his chin and turned his head. His expression softened into a smile. "Like it was made for you."

Kejal nearly crushed Mora's shoulders in an embrace. The chain on the earring jingled faintly. He shook his head side to side a few times, listening to it. "It's noisy."

"Heh! You'll get used to it."

Once more, Kejal clung to Mora's clothing. "I still can't picture tomorrow. Not without you."

"Don't try. Don't worry about it. It will come." He laid his chin on top of Kejal's head. "To everyone who doesn't live here, it'll be just another day."

"Time is funny like that."

"Mmhmm. So, how about some deka tea?" Mora lifted his eyebrows. "Nobody makes it like you do."

Kejal grinned. "Coming right up!"

Steam rose as he brewed the tea until it turned dark reddish-purple. He tried a sip.

"Mmph!" Kejal's tongue burned. He spat the tea out on the counter and carried the mug to his father. "Ow. My mouth."

"You silly brat! What did you expect?" Mora held the mug in both hands, sipped from it and tipped his head back with his eyes closed. "Ahh, fantastic."

"You don't have any trouble drinking it hot." Kejal pouted.

Mora ruffled his hair. "It takes practice."

"I was trying to taste it." Kejal huffed.

"Your mother can't smell or taste yet. Be patient, Kejal. You have a long time to grow and evolve."

"Yeah, I know." Kejal sighed. He often prayed for patience...and he wanted it right then. It never worked.

Mora slurped another sip from his mug. Like a plant, he seemed to perk up more and more in the sunshine coming through the windows.

Kejal brightened. Why take in the sun from indoors? It was the first day of spring-- one of the warmest mornings of the year on Bajor!

"Hey, father...I have an idea. It's perfect outside. Do you feel up to helping me water the plants?"

"Let's find out."

Mora set his tea aside and struggled to his feet. He walked very slowly and rested on his cane twice, but he made it to the back door without assistance.

The deka tree's drooping branches brushed their faces.

Yes, old friend...I know. He won't be here long.

Kejal let Mora lean on him for support while he filled up the pail.

"How are you doing?"

"I'm fine, Kejal."

"Great!"

They held the pail between them and gave every plant in the garden a refreshing drink. Kejal didn't know where his father found the strength, but he admired it. He decided not to think about how little time they had and focused instead on existing moment to moment.

The chants he sang over the garden begged the Prophets for Mora's safe passage.

Once the plants were tended, Mora needed help going back inside. He resumed his place on the couch and finished off his tea. Kejal plopped down next to him. He could barely hold his shape, and Mora noticed right away.

"You feel mushy, Kejal. Are you regenerating properly?"

"I, um...but what if you need something?"

"I have what I need." Mora put his empty mug down. "Rest, son. The others will be up soon. I won't be alone for long."

"If you're sure."

"I am."

Kejal nodded, closed his eyes and let his solid form lose cohesion. He melted into Mora's lap. Like relaxing his hand after keeping it clenched in a fist. Relief overcame him instantly.

A short while later, he felt Mora move him into the vase by the wall.

"The others are up," he said. "I'm fine. Keep resting. You will need your strength tonight."

Yes, father...if you're right about later, I agree.

Two hours passed. Kejal sensed footsteps, laughter and voices. The noise passed his vase and faded outside. He reassumed his humanoid form without effort. His new earring migrated to his right ear. Another burst of laughter sent him peeking out the oval window.

Odo, Kira, Aleexa and Mora sat together in wicker garden chairs under the deka tree. Mid-morning sunlight bathed them. They all wore smiles-- even Odo.

Odo rolled his eyes at the story Mora told. Kira took his hand. Aleexa covered her mouth while she giggled.

"...so the wall panel turned into Odo, and the Cardassian officers ran like someone lit their back ends!"

"Yes, and the stunt almost resulted in Gul Dukat shutting down the lab," Odo grumbled. "But it was amusing to see three adult Cardassians running in terror. Weren't they reprimanded for their cowardice?"

"Oh yes." Mora wiped his nose.

Kejal made his way to the back door. Everyone except Odo had plates of Kira's fruit salad in their laps. Mora handed his to Aleexa after finishing half his food. She happily ate what he didn't.

"Father?" Kejal called out.

"He's up again!" Mora tapped Odo's arm.

Kejal saw a Tarkalean hawk flap out of Odo's chair. Aleexa and Kira suddenly took intense interest in their meals.

"Father," Kejal stepped outside. "What's going on?"

Mora shrugged. "I had Odo bring me out again. It's such a nice day. Come on," he beckoned Kejal closer and offered him the chair closest to the deka tree's trunk. "Have a seat. We saved a special spot just for you."

"Ooh!" Kejal bounded off the steps and plopped himself down in the chair.

"I see where your earring went," Aleexa giggled. "Kejal, it looks nice on you."

Kira chewed and swallowed. "Let me see?"

Smiling, Kejal turned his head to let them look at Mora's earring on his ear.

"Now!" Mora called.

"Wha-- " Kejal heard a swish and suddenly an entire sack of deka seed pods poured onto his head. The impacts sounded like firecrackers. By the time the deluge finished, Kejal had seed pods in his hair, seed pods stuck in his clothing and several seed pods piled up in his lap.

He looked up to find his snickering mother sitting on a branch, holding the rope to the bag.

Mora roared with laughter. He slapped the arm of his chair. "That's my revenge for all the deka seed pods!" He guffawed. "How do you like it?"

Beside him, Aleexa and Kira failed to stifle their giggles.

Kejal shook the seed pods out of his hair and joined their mirth. "You got me. You all got me!"

Odo hopped down. The smirk hadn't left his face. "So sorry...didn't you spend a day raking these up?"

"More like two hours." Kejal pretended to look scandalized. "I can't believe you helped them. Traitor!"

"Hmph!" Mischief gleamed in Odo's eyes. "I'll clean this mess up. Nice earring, by the way." He nodded towards Mora and lowered his voice. "I think he needs help."

"Thanks, mother." Kejal beamed at Odo and headed towards a still-chuckling Mora. "Ready to go inside?"

Mora nodded. "I'll rest in my favorite chair. Don't move me if I fall asleep. I want to be part of the household for a little while."

"Sure. Do you need to use the commode at all?"

"No...thank you." Mora wrapped his arm around Kejal's waist. "You have a seed pod on your shoulder."

They looked at each other and broke into laughter once again.

Kejal helped Mora stand. When he saw how wobbly his father was on his feet, he scooped him up in his arms and carried him to the chair by the oval window.

By the Prophets, you weigh so little now.

"Well, that's one way to do it." Mora coughed a laugh. "Bring me my triptacederine hypospray."

Kejal did that. He returned it to the bedroom once Mora used it.

Kira edged in next to Kejal. She placed a water jug and a glass on the table. "Pol, how are you doing?"

He smiled, looking tired. "I'm all right...just resting a little."

"Do you need anything? I can bring it for you."

"Oh, thank you. The water is fine for now. You're so kind, Nerys. No wonder Odo loves you like he does. Thank you for making him so happy."

Kejal felt rather than saw Kira blush. She leaned over to kiss Mora's cheek. "Thank you for discovering him. He wouldn't be here without you."

Mora's eyes softened. He took Kira's hand. "If we don't talk again...always remember you're a sweetheart, Nerys."

"Ah, Pol, so are you." Kira patted his hand. Mora smiled and rested his head against the back of the chair. She gently laid his hand in his lap.

Kejal turned to Kira. "Should we go help mother clean up those seed pods? Father's prank made one hell of a mess out there."

"Yeah. Wait, hold on." Kira stopped him and picked a seed pod off his collar. She held it up, grinning. "So, are you going to tell me about this prank war?"

"Oh, sure! But, so it's official, father definitely won!" Kejal let Kira step outside first. "It started when I climbed my deka tree for the first time and knocked a seed pod onto his head, so I decided to perform a couple of cause and effect experiments..."
End Notes:

**Chapter soundtrack**

Dreaming in Places: https://app.box.com/s/wxeh1o20pionnlhimn66

Comforting Lullaby: https://app.box.com/s/tj8nmfkc1fz6ol8p5jbo

Odo's Conflict: https://app.box.com/s/sfuhqhw61d1laxxjceww

Sunrise With Father: https://app.box.com/s/2vake7c0pn8n49dxlg6d

Deka Seed Revenge!: https://app.box.com/s/7n44q8gznzeynpsaz0ae
15. Life Is... (pt 1) by Cyndi
Author's Notes:
This chapter is in pieces because this site kept cutting it off in the middle. The music links will be at the true end of the chapter. Sorry about that. It looks fine in previews and then is all chopped up in the live post. REALLY frustrating!
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15. Life Is...

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Morning became afternoon. Mora sat comfortably by the oval window, watching the happenings in the house and out back. Kejal checked on him often. Aleexa made sure his pain stayed under control. Odo brought a seed pod inside and set it on the table by the flower Kejal gave him earlier.

Leruu walked out of his bedroom. Her pregnant belly gave her an adorable waddle. She leaned over and kissed his nose. "I have everything ready for you." She led his hand to her gravid midsection. The baby kicked. Her green eyes twinkled.

"Take me with you," Mora pleaded.

"Soon, my love." Leruu tapped on his nose.

Mora took a deep breath and stroked her belly. "How am I going to find you?"

"I'll come and point the way." She let her forehead touch his and giggled. It sounded like birds on a spring morning. "The rest will be up to you. Just follow your heart."

He closed his eyes. When he opened them, Leruu was gone.

As the day wore on, Mora had trouble breathing. His back hurt despite the pain medicine. Dozing let him escape it. Nobody disturbed him while he napped.

When the shadows outside grew long, Mora heard a voice calling his name.

"Doctor Mora? Doctor Mora."

Mora lifted his head. He smiled sleepily. "Sorry, Odo, I keep falling asleep."

Odo shrugged his shoulders. "It's all right. I let you sleep, but it's almost time to dose you again. Do you want to go back to bed?"

"Yes, please."

Mora could tell he was overdue for his medication. A gnawing ache filled his back and abdomen. His face twisted. He gripped the grab poles by the chair, but no matter how hard he tried he could not pull himself up. Each attempt sent stronger pains shooting through his spine.

Odo's eyes widened. "I'll go get-- "

"No!" Mora grunted.

"Doctor Mora..."

"I don't want anyone here...ex-except you." He sank back into the chair to rest. "I'm going to walk to my bed like a man."

The lines in Odo's face deepened.

"All right, Doctor Mora." He extended his arms and wiggled his fingers. "Take my hands."

Visions from the past filled Mora's mind. He chuckled despite his misery and reached out. Odo easily pulled him to his feet and slipped around to his back.

"I'll be right behind you," Odo said softly, his strong hands grasping Mora's upper arms. "Whenever you're ready."

Tears blurred Mora's sight when he forced himself to stand up straight. The sensations in his back and abdomen eclipsed the discomfort from his arthritic knee. His heart palpitated like it wanted to burst through his ribcage. Spots danced before his eyes. An involuntary moan escaped his throat. He cut it off and spoke instead. One word for each step.

"M-my father-- walked-- t-to his deathbed...like a-- like a proper man. He kissed mother, hugged me and-- he stagg-- augh!-- staggered into the...b-bedroom. We f-found him dead an hour...later. Heart attack...he knew it was coming. My father taught me how to die with-- dignity, and...ungh-- dammit! --I'm g-going to do this with...dignity!"

At his bedroom door, Mora shook Odo's hands off and limped the last three steps to his bed unassisted. He stumbled, falling against the side of the mattress. His pained grimace became a sly grin.

"See, Odo...I made it!"

And he laughed.

Delfeya syndrome, you might take my life, but you don't have my dignity. I took it back from you, you wretched disease! I've won!

Mora let Odo help him into bed. Walking took everything out of him. He no longer had the energy to vocalize the burning discomfort spreading up his torso like wildfire. His sides heaved with every breath he took, but he didn't care.

"I'll get your pain medicine. Here, take this first." Odo grabbed the oxygen mask off the shelf by the bed and placed it over Mora's nose and mouth. Then he gave him a dose of triptacederine. "Easy. Breathe. It will stop in a moment."

His circulation was so poor now. The medicine took almost three minutes to turn the supernova into a campfire. To him, it felt like an eternity.

"More," Mora coughed. Ooh, that really hurt.

"But the dosage chart for your body mass says-- "

"It's safe. Please..."

The hypospray hissed again, and the discomfort finally shrank to a manageable level. He relaxed, sighing. When medicated, he didn't feel pain as long as he refrained from bending at the waist.

"Now I know how you felt when you saw me in labor." Odo said. He replicated a cool wash cloth and pressed it to Mora's clammy brow. Oddly, the coldness helped him breathe deeper.

"Ah...yes..." Mora sucked air into his tired lungs. "You were so young, Odo." The mask muffled his voice. He took it off and held it against his chest. "So young when you came to me in a tiny jar..."

Odo tightened his jaw. "We can't change the past, Doctor Mora."

"Please, listen to me for once! Odo, I don't have time, I have to say this now...I was such a fool." Mora shook his head. "I didn't take your feelings into account. I didn't listen to you."

"You did everything right with Kejal."

"Kejal isn't you. Raising him doesn't erase my failure with you, Odo. I know this sort of talk still makes you uncomfortable, but I am going to say this anyway." Mora's eyes watered, and his voice cracked when he said, "You needed a father, and I treated you like a specimen. Everyone told me not to grow attached to you. I tried not to, but you were so vulnerable to the world, so eager to learn. You didn't belong in that lab."

"Doctor Mo-- "

"Odo, please...let me finish..."

Odo closed his mouth. Mora found himself fixed in his clear blue eyes. He gazed into them and spoke from his heart.

"You needed someone to guide you, and I didn't want it to be one of those damn Cardassians. Those parties...they were mistakes. All of them. I wanted to show off my research. I should have taken you away in secret, and I was too afraid of the repercussions. That's still no excuse. I was a coward. I was too prideful. I put my needs before yours. I was a fool. I'm sorry. I am so sorry. I'm not asking for your forgiveness, Odo, I'm only asking to be heard. I'm sorry. For the shocks, for the acid, for my arrogance, for everything...I'm sorry."

Frowning, Odo straightened to his full, imposing height. He turned his head and stared out the window. His profile looked so natural now, so far evolved from where he began.

Finally, he let his shoulders slump.

"Doctor Mora...I...I hear you. Don't get me wrong...but I must confess that I, too, have been avoiding this conversation." Odo stared at his feet. His reflection superimposed itself over the first evening stars. "I read a story from Earth once, while I was still living on Deep Space Nine. It's the novelized version of a film many centuries old. I didn't understand it until I saw how close Kejal is to you. I'm no Talaxian, but it's a story that must be told rather than summarized. Are you up to hearing it?"

Mora replaced the oxygen mask on his face and struggled for breath. Sometimes, he had to flex his jaw to get the air down his throat.

"I'm...listening, Odo," he said.

Odo began to weave the tale.

"An old wood carver named Geppetto wanted a son, so he wished upon a star. A blue fairy came from the star and brought one of his marionettes to life as a little wooden boy named Pinocchio. Geppetto was overjoyed to have a son at last, and all Pinocchio wanted was to become a real child."

He ducked his head again, and did not pull away when Mora grasped his hand.

"Pinocchio tried to be a good son to his father, but he was led astray by a pair of con artists. They tricked him into working for a puppeteer who made him entertain an audience for money. Pinocchio realized he didn't like it and tried to leave, but the puppeteer locked him up. He told Pinocchio that once he outlived his usefulness, he would use him as firewood. Can you imagine how terrifying that sounds to a being made of wood?"

"And a child, no less," Mora gasped. He saw where this was going, but he wanted to hear the whole story. "Go on..."

"The blue fairy found Pinocchio in the puppeteer's clutches. He made the mistake of lying to her about his capture, and it set back his dream to become a complete child. She said he would become real once he proved himself brave, truthful and unselfish...or something to that effect. Then she helped him escape.

"But once again, before he reached home, Pinocchio was drawn astray by the wrong crowd. He followed his new 'friends' to a magical island where delinquent children mutated into donkeys. The donkeys were put to work in a mine. Pinocchio watched one of his friends change before his eyes. Then he sprouted donkey ears and a tail, and it frightened him into escaping the island.

"When he returned to his house, he discovered Geppetto went out to sea in search of him, and during his search he was swallowed by a whale. Pinocchio rushed fearlessly to the ocean to rescue his father. He let the same whale swallow him, and against all logic he found Geppetto in the whale's stomach. They somehow made the whale sneeze to escape its stomach, and it was angry to lose its meal. So it gave chase.

"Geppetto was too weak to keep swimming. He told Pinocchio to swim for shore. Pinocchio refused to leave his father, and he dragged him into an ocean cave too small for the whale to follow. The whale slammed into the rocks, apparently killing itself. The impact threw Geppetto and Pinocchio out the other side. Geppetto was briefly knocked out...and regained consciousness to find Pinocchio dead."

Mora trembled and squeezed Odo's hand. "And...?"

"Doctor Mora, all Pinocchio wanted was to be a flesh and blood child like his peers." Odo whispered. He flinched, closing his eyes. "And the fairy saw his courageous, unselfish act and how truly he loved his father...and she granted his wish to belong. Pinocchio was resurrected as a child. A real child."

"Odo?" Mora gripped Odo's fingers. He commanded his bedside lamp to turn on, and it filled the room with a dim white glow. Taking off the oxygen mask, he said, "Odo, look at me."

"I-I...can't..."

Mora lifted his head off the pillow. "Odo..."

"Don't you see? Doctor Mora, I have always been an outsider looking in! Everywhere! Even among my own people! All my life, I've only wanted one thing, and I can't attain it! I give, and I give, and I-- " His voice rose higher and cracked. "It's all I wanted...to belong. To be the people around me. To laugh like them, to cry like them, to be loved like them. I never thought it possible until I met Nerys. But I still longed to have a parent like everyone around me. I didn't want Kejal to go through that pain, and I knew you would know how to raise him. And you did it well."

Suddenly, he leaned forward and something impossible happened to his face. "But I see you two, and as ridiculous as this sounds, I want that, too."

Mora reached up. He touched Odo's cheek. The droplet clinging to his lower eyelid morphed back into Changeling cytoplasm the second it lost contact with his skin. Another trickled free and merged back into his substance when it reached his chin.

He was witnessing an evolution. An opening. Here. Now.

Odo's features began to contort. He looked at his hands in a mix of terror and confusion.

Using the strength he could still muster, Mora pulled himself forward and truly embraced Odo for the first time in over thirty years.

Odo's hands pushed at his shoulders.

"Something's wrong. I'm-- " Two more teardrops spilled free. " --crying?"

He looked at Mora, his blue eyes huge. The same expression he wore after being bullied by Klingon children and giving up Kejal. No matter how his face changed, his eyes were still the most emotive part of him. And now they expressed the deep, unspoken agony he kept buried for so long.

"Yes." Mora brought him closer again. "You're crying."

"But I...w-why?"

"Because you just learned how," he replied. "You held these tears inside all your life. It's time to let them go. Let them fall, Odo. Just...let the tears fall."

At that, Odo closed his eyes. He hid his face and wept like a child on Mora's shoulder. Mora's nightshirt remained dry, but he didn't see Odo's tears as any less real than his own.

"I wanted-- to be-- real to you. The way you and Kejal...he is so close to you, and I never knew how to reach out." Odo choked on his words. "Now it's too late."

"No. No, Odo, it isn't." Mora said. It hurt, seeing the fullness of the pain he put Odo through, yet he was simultaneously grateful for witnessing its release. "We have right now. Here, lay down with me."

Odo climbed onto the soft mattress. His nose was running. That, too, dissolved back into his substance. He didn't appear to notice.

Mora braved the agony of moving again and settled on his side. He clutched Odo more protectively, erasing the last rift between them.

"You were always real to me, and now you're proving it to yourself. I'm so sorry for the times I caused you to believe otherwise. I made so many mistakes with you, and I can't take them back. But if I could, Odo...I would." He pursed his lips. "After you left, there was never a day that I didn't think about you."

"This is incredibly painful. Me. You. All of this."

"I know." Mora's eyes overflowed when Odo reciprocated his embrace.

"I'm at fault, too. I took everything out on you instead of talking to you. I don't regret leaving." He slowly regained his composure. "But I'm sorry for the way I did it."

"Shhh. That was then. You're here now." Mora smoothed Odo's hair with his palm. "And this, Odo," he jiggled Odo's shoulder, "this is healing. And we're achieving it together. Just like we used to."

"Together." Odo agreed. "But I think I'm a little old for this," he added without making any attempts to get up.

Mora barked in laughter and patted Odo's back. "Nonsense. Sons are never too old to need their fathers."

They were quiet for several minutes. Mora used the lull to focus on breathing.

Finally, Odo murmured, "Doctor Mora?"

"Hm?"

Odo's skin began to shimmer. He melted onto Mora's chest in his natural gelatinous state. Mora swallowed over the hot lump in his throat and ran his fingers through Odo's substance. Powerful images bombarded his mind like holographic movies on fast forward.

Cities rebuilding after a catastrophic war.

Colliding galaxies reaching a new equilibrium.

Sunrises following violent storms.

A tiny child racing into his father's arms.

"Oh..."

Tears welled in Mora's eyes. The pain in his back lessened as if someone reached inside his body and shrank the inflammation. He pressed his other hand to his mouth.

Odo reformed in the same position he was in before. "Are you all right?"

Mora sniffled and nodded. He dabbed the tears off his face with a fingertip still covered in Odo's substance. Odo touched his hand and absorbed the stray pieces of himself.

"Now that part of you is part of me." He whispered. "Any more regrets?"

"No. Not anymore." Mora said. He felt Odo embrace him again. His head sank back onto the pillow and his grip on consciousness slipped. He dreamed of Kejal coming into the room. Immediately upon waking again, he peered expectantly at the door.

"Oh, hugging!" Kejal appeared in the doorway. "Can I join?"

"Of course!" Mora pressed the control button that widened the left side of the bed and beckoned Kejal over. "Climb on behind me."

Kejal's arms joined Odo's. In seconds all three of them held each other.

"Now that you're both here..." Mora paused and took a few breaths off the oxygen mask before setting it aside again. Who kept sucking the air out of the room? "I'm surrounded by the best part of my life. I...I want to thank you two for everything. Both of you."

He glanced out the window. The stars glowing in the evening darkness weren't from Bajor's sky. They were too numerous, too close and too bright. He blinked, but the view did not change. When he looked straight ahead, he saw orange grass instead of his bedroom.

Kejal lifted his head. "You're welcome." Then he gave a little nudge. "Tell mother what you told me this morning."

"I'm going to die tonight." Mora said matter-of-factly.

Odo looked away. "I...had a feeling."

"Mm. When you look back on my death, remember me telling you this. Today was a good day." Mora's eyes crinkled. "A fantastic day."

"Doctor Mora..."

"Odo, it's just like my favorite lullaby. 'Mission is over, mission is done. I will miss you, children of the sun. Now it's time to go away...'" He found Kejal's hand and squeezed it. Then he kissed the top of Odo's head. "'Goodbye, goodbye, Milky Way.'"

Odo sat up halfway, his eyes wide. "You were the lights-out singer?"

Mora lifted both eyebrows. That memory took him way back.

"You heard me?"

"Yes...I never realized that was you. I, um..." Odo sighed. "I found it comforting."

"Oh..." Mora mused before taking another puff from the oxygen mask. He laid his head down on the pillow again, his gaze fixed on sky. "I'm glad it gave you something happy to remember."

Kejal pressed himself closer. So did Odo.

"I am at peace now." Mora murmured. He looked between the two Changelings, truly his sons in everything but genetic material, and grinned. "If anyone asks, tell them I died a happy man."

The strange grass kept tickling his ear. Outside the window, the stars became clearer as his eyes grew heavier. He found comfort in their gentle glow.

Kejal gripped his shoulder tighter. "I love you, father."

"I love you, too." Mora replied. He faced Odo. "And you. I love you."

"I know." Odo's mouth trembled. He pressed his lips into a line and whispered the next words. "I...love you, too."

Mora's eyes watered. He beamed in delight. Odo mirrored his expression. Finally, after all these years, they had a true connection.

"Thank you." He squeezed Odo's hand the same instant he felt Kejal rub his upper arm.

Everything fell into place at just the right time. His work was done.

Mora focused on his prayer shrine and mentally let go of his life.

"Do you need anything?" asked Kejal.

"No." Mora forced another breath. "My sons are beside me." He smiled again with tears in his eyes. "I have everything I need."

His senses blanked out. For a moment, he floated above the foot of his own bed, watching Odo and Kejal embrace him. Then he inhaled and fell back into his body. Pink spots clouded his vision as though he stood up too fast for his blood pressure to compensate. He couldn't stop gasping.

"Easy." Odo said, "We're right here."

Another breath, and he saw the roof of his house from above the deka tree. Once more, he realized he was in bed, not floating in the sky.

Mora noticed someone putting the oxygen mask on his face. He pushed it back off since it didn't help anymore. Somebody brushed their palm over his forehead. Another hand massaged his fingers. A cool washcloth kept his lips moist.

"Mother, I think he's going to sleep." Kejal kissed him behind the ear. "You can sleep, father...we won't leave the room. I promise."

He tried to smile, yet he couldn't spare the energy to respond anymore. Breathing became his sole focus. Each gasp drove him towards a gigantic unknown.

Odo moved off the bed. Mora felt him take his hand.

"Doctor Mora, if you're comfortable, squeeze my hand once."

Mora managed to close his fingers around Odo's. He stroked his knuckles with his thumb until he grew too tired to keep it up.

Every time he took a breath, he left his body and came back. His eyesight dimmed until he only saw pink "static" against blackness.

"It's all right. We won't leave your side." Odo whispered. Vaguely, Mora saw his face contort. "I'm here."

"You were a great father to me." Kejal pressed against his back. "Never forget that."

Mora grasped Odo's hand again. He found Kejal's and squeezed it too.

His eyes closed on their own. The blackness became more absolute and time lost all meaning.

A voice reached him from far away. "Hey, it's Nerys. I'll take care of Odo and Kejal. You don't have to worry about them. I don't want to keep you waiting if you're ready to leave us, so I'll go. But first..." She spoke in a whisper, "Odo forgives you. I don't know if he told you that, but I want you to know."

Kira's presence faded away.

Mora sensed a familiar membrane surrounding him. His breathing hitched. Just getting air into his lungs required so much strength. He could think of nothing else. While he struggled for air, the membrane made full contact with his body in slow, painless increments. He kept seeing shimmers, like he'd stepped into a transporter beam, except its center appeared brighter than its outer fringes. The glow made loud whooshing sounds. His sense of balance disappeared. He swore he was moving forward at light speed. Mora watched the brilliant central speck grow with a scientist's sense of detachment. Suddenly, he slammed into the end of the "tunnel" and realized he could see again-- clearer than he ever had before.

Aleexa's finger moved away from his left eye. He saw the foot of his bed. Aleexa whispered a heartfelt farewell before leaving the room.

Odo and Kejal sat on either side of him. They talked softly to each other about how he'd been there for them. Their voices were music. Light shone through their skin. Like stained glass windows lit by candles inside.

Life...he saw their life and the strength of their love for him and each other.

"I know what he's waiting for."

Kejal scooted closer. Mora sensed arms around his shoulders. His awareness stretched to encompass his whole body. He blinked and looked into Kejal's eyes, marveling at the glow they gave off. Everything created its own light. Even his own skin. Their combined essence brightened the room.

Kejal made a wisecrack about getting lost. Then he whispered reassurances that Leruu would be there soon. Mora let Kejal know he understood him before turning to Odo. He wasn't sure if he said goodbye out loud or not. Odo reacted by coming closer and shedding a tear. His blue eyes held an entire universe. By the Prophets, he was still so young.

A flicker drew Mora's attention to the foot of his bed. Leruu stood there, smiling. She shimmered beautifully and her pregnant belly glowed like a sun.

Leruu rubbed her swollen abdomen. "Pol, it's time."

Mora raised his eyebrows. He wanted the others to know she arrived, but his voice no longer worked.

He pointed to her.

"Is she here? I told you she'd come!" Kejal understood through faith, though not sight. "Go to her, father!"

Leruu winked and waddled away from the bed. Mora pushed himself up on his elbows. He tried desperately to follow her.

"You have to leave your body behind. You don't need it anymore." Kejal held him down. "Your work here is finished. We'll be fine. You can go now. It's okay. You can go."

"Everything is in order." Odo spoke with difficulty. "You've done all you can. It's time to rest. I won't leave your side. I promise."

Mora's physical body had no strength left. He turned inward, breathing and waiting. His senses disconnected one by one. Sight, smell, taste, touch...until only hearing remained. The dark numbness wasn't frightening at all because he was safe in the arms of people he loved.

He didn't resist the membrane contracting around him.

Odo's voice continued talking quietly in his ear

Tighter, tighter...

And then, with a final, vicious squeeze, Mora's prison ruptured!

The need for oxygen disappeared. His heart began to fibrillate. He could feel the vibration of it quivering. What a strange sensation.

Kejal said something to Odo. Odo responded in a hoarse whisper. They weren't sure whether he'd left yet.

Kejal, Odo, he thought, I hope this is enough of a sign for you.

Mora shed his body. It just slipped off like an old coat, leaving him to wonder what all the fuss was about. Below him, Odo and Kejal embraced his darkened mortal shell. Their combined light made his bedside lamp appear dim by comparison.

Odo sat up. Kejal blinked. There was minor confusion between them. They'd seen the sign, but only Kejal recognized it. He glanced upward, just to the left of Mora's actual position, and said to have a safe journey.

Because he knew.

Mora smiled and drifted through the oval window in the living room. His passage stirred the deka tree's branches. He cleared the tree and shot eastward without looking back. When he reached the horizon of everything he knew, he picked up speed and kept going, trusting his love for Leruu to guide him to her side.

The finality of everything struck as soon as Bajor shrank from his sight. Its host star, a yellow G-class, shone like a newly-lit flame in the cold, silent void.

The Bajoran solar system was a mere dot among many dusting the black vastness.

Mora soared through time and space until the G-class star he kept dreaming about came into focus.

All at once he found himself standing face to face with Leruu. She'd taken her hair down, and it fell in blonde waves about her shoulders.

"Relax, my love," Mora kissed Leruu's forehead. "I'm here now."

"Pol," Leruu gasped. "Pol, the baby is moving."

Mora calmly helped her lay back against a slanted, mossy rock jutting through the orange grass. He eased the hem of her white birthing shift past her knees and rolled up his own white sleeves.

"Awake, child."

"We await you with love," gasped Leruu.

"And welcome you into the world," Mora finished.

Leruu's chest heaved, but her face remained peaceful.

New light glimmered when the baby crowned. The amniotic sac that protected it for so long still covered its head like a veil.

"That's it, Leruu. Relax, let it happen."

The baby's head emerged and twisted to one side.

"Pol..." Leruu's toes gripped at the grass. Her face flushed. She threw her head back, moaning as though making love. "Oh...oh, Prophets, Pol, my love...Pol!"

Suddenly, the baby slipped effortlessly into Mora's waiting hands. It was still in the caul, looking at him.

Mora peeled away the amniotic membrane. The baby gulped its first raspy breath and its dull glow became a brilliant light.

Tears poured down Mora's cheeks. "Leruu...we have a son!" He knelt beside his beautiful wife, happier than he'd ever been in his life. The infant in his arms let out a strong wail.

"A son." Leruu panted. She wrapped her arms around the tiny, pink newborn. "Olan. We have our Olan."

Olan stopped crying at the sound of Leruu's voice. His green eyes opened wide, taking in the world around him.

Mora kissed Olan's tiny nose ridges. Then he kissed Leruu's.

They huddled together, unmindful of the blood and vernix staining their clothes.

"He has your eyes!" Mora exclaimed in delight. "And his hair matches yours, but look, that's my cleft chin."

"He has your lips, too." Leruu nuzzled him. "And your hands."

"I can't believe you made that."

"We made this."

They chuckled. Mora placed his thumb on Olan's miniature palm, and those tiny fingers held on tight. So soft, so warm, so precious. Everything was there. Ten fingers with impossibly small fingernails and ten perfectly stubby toes. Mora gazed skyward to thank the Prophets.

A huge gray-green crescent moon rose in the east. It took up a sixth of the sky! And above it, the Milky Way had two disarrayed central hubs. Massive, colorful lobes of star birth hugged the eastern horizon.

"We're finally here," he whispered. "You brought me to the planet."

"You weren't ready until now," Leruu replied, hugging Olan close. "This solar system, your namesake, survived the galactic collision."

"I'm five billion years away now?" Mora raised both eyebrows. "I can't believe it." He grinned at his newborn son. "Olan, can you believe it?"

"Do you know what you're looking at, Pol?" Leruu blew warm air against his ear. "You silly scientists, you never see the forest for the trees, do you?"

"Leruu..."

"Pol..." She mimicked his playful tone.

Mora felt the ground ripple beneath him and his breath caught in his throat. He touched the soft grass. His gaze shifted skyward.

"Yes." Leruu spoke tenderly. "This is their evolution. Their lives always revolved around yours, Pol. Just as yours revolved around mine. You're part of the star, and they watch over it as you watched over them."

"How did-- "

She covered his mouth, her quiet laughter like music in his ears. "Let's not unravel every mystery yet, my sweet scientist."

"They...did this for me?"

"Yes."

Mora chewed his bottom lip.

"I promised Kejal that I wouldn't forget him...or Odo."

"And you won't." Leruu nudged him with her elbow. "Will you stay and watch the sunrise?"

"Yes, my darling." He kissed Olan's brow. Then he kissed Leruu's lips. "I'm ready to stay." He kissed her again. "I love you."

She grinned, her green eyes sparkling. "I love you, too."

They sat on the grass together. Mora cradling Olan, and Leruu embracing him from behind.

Dawn's first light came, but the stars and moon never dimmed. The burning white sun rose into the hazy Milky Way, turning the heavens blue.

Mora watched the filamentary structure of the universe spread across the sky. Every particle, every galaxy...even the afterglow cast by the cosmic microwave background shimmered in the vastness. He saw molecules congeal into radiant DNA chains, and he traced their atoms backwards to the big bang. He watched entire worlds rise and fall. He witnessed beginnings and endings and everything in between.

Everywhere he looked he saw energy creating life.

His pagh was energy.

Energy fueled life.

Life was...

Suddenly, the wormhole spiraled open before him. Deep in its center, the eternal moment of creation emitted a luminescence greater than a billion quasars. He saw it earlier in Odo and Kejal, and he noticed it coming from Leruu, Olan and himself.

Everything in existence came from that point.

Mora gazed deeply into the scientific and the divine. The truth flooded his mind.

Living beings longed to touch the brilliance that gave them life, never realizing its glow already suffused their genes.

Love is creation. I AM love, and love never dies.

Mora Pol laughed joyfully at the revelation as he, his wife and his son became the light.
15. Life Is... (pt 2) by Cyndi
.o

Doctor Mora's eyes were closed and his mouth slack. Ever since he lost consciousness, his exhalations sounded like someone slurping the last drops of a beverage through a straw. It started quietly and grew louder as time progressed.

Odo hadn't moved from his bedside in nearly four hours. He sat there in the dark, holding his hand. Doctor Mora's short, round fingers were swollen and cold. No amount of massaging them restored their fading warmth, but that didn't stop Odo from trying.

Earlier, Aleexa inclined the head of the bed and made creative use of the abundant pillows to make Doctor Mora more comfortable. A semicircular one supported his head, a large one kept his feet from pressing into the footboard and a small foam cushion propped up his arthritic left knee. He moaned a little at being repositioned.

"Oops, did that hurt? Shhh, Pol. I'm sorry." Aleexa spoke to him the same way she did while he was still awake. "I made it easier for you to breathe. That's all." She straightened the blankets and smoothed them down.

Odo cleared his throat. "How much longer?"

"He's moving through this stage pretty fast. At this rate, he won't make it to morning."

"Heh..." Odo looked across the bed at her. "He said he was going to die tonight. He seemed so sure of it."

"Sometimes, people just know. Where is Kejal?"

"I don't know. He shape shifted about ten minutes ago. He heard what you said."

Aleexa nodded and padded from the room. She checked back every fifteen minutes. Her presence was never intrusive. Odo liked that.

"Odo?"

Odo faced the familiar voice. "Nerys."

She moved closer to the bed. Her eyes watered at the sound of Doctor Mora's raspy exhalations. "Tekeny made that noise in the last hour of his life."

"Doctor Mora has been like this for four hours."

"Everyone dies differently." Kira sat down on the edge of the bed. "Pol said he doesn't want me to watch him die, so, out of respect, I'm not going to stay. Is that okay with you?"

"It's fine."

Kira smiled sadly and stroked Doctor Mora's left hand. "Hey, it's Nerys." She paused as if waiting for a response. "I'll take care of Odo and Kejal. You don't have to worry about them." Tears welled in her eyes. "I don't want to keep you waiting if you're ready to leave us, so I'll go. But first..." She leaned close to him and whispered something too quietly to hear.

Odo reached for Kira's hand. She grasped and squeezed. Their eyes met in the darkness. Then she tip-toed out, her steps silent like a shadow.

Two hours later, Doctor Mora smacked his lips and sputtered a few times. The first change in his breathing since the rattling noise started.

Odo unbuttoned the scientist's white nightshirt and applied a fresh triptacederine patch. A dose via hypospray followed.

The frown lines in Doctor Mora's brow relaxed. Everything about him seemed so fragile now. Odo picked up his hand and resumed rubbing it. His throat tightened at the memories washing through him.

Hours ago, when he shed his first tears, he finally experienced the paternal love he sought. It had always been there, and he spent decades letting his resentment act as a blindfold to it. No language could express the wonder of feeling truly safe in Doctor Mora's presence. The hands that once tormented him in ignorance brought wisdom, peace and healing.

Odo lifted one of those hands towards his lips and tenderly kissed it. Blessing it with silent forgiveness.

Doctor Mora's breath hitched again. He stopped completely for nearly two minutes. Then his limbs twitched and he resumed as though the pause never happened.

Frowning, Odo straightened. "Light, twenty-five percent."

He let his eyesight adjust to the dim glow cast by the spherical bedside lamp.

A knitted green afghan lay over the red and gold quilt keeping Doctor Mora warm. Propped up the way he was, he resembled a marionette held in place by strings. His half-closed eyes stared into nothing. Ghostly pallor was sweeping over his skin. His lips and fingers had a blue tinge. The way his mouth hung open gave his face an unnaturally thin appearance. He kept making gulping motions like a fish out of water. Every few breaths, he frowned and groaned. Was the rattling in his chest causing discomfort after all?

"Doctor Mora?" Odo shook his mentor's shoulder. "Doctor Mora, can you hear me? Are you in pain?"

Nothing. No response at all.

Odo frowned and pinged Aleexa's combadge. "I think Doctor Mora needs help. I dosed him with his medication, but he is still in distress."

"Sit tight. I'll be right in."

Moments later, Aleexa padded into the room.

"It's Aleexa. I'm going to do a quick exam, all right? No, Odo, you don't have to move. I can do it from here. Keep holding his hand."

She checked the pulse in Doctor Mora's wrist, lifted the blankets to peek at his feet and lightly brushed her finger across his eyelashes. Each action was performed with utmost gentleness. Her ministrations generated no reaction.

After the exam, she said, "This is it. He's going."

Odo leaned forward. "How can you tell?"

"His radial pulse is almost gone and his legs are mottling. He has minutes. Kejal? Are you here? Sweetheart, you need to come out now. Your father needs you."

The green afghan glistened, dribbled onto the floor and shifted into a humanoid shape.

Odo stared at Doctor Mora in disbelief. Kejal studied his odd facial contortions.

"Are you sure he isn't in pain? He keeps making faces."

"That's a reflex." Aleexa kept her voice low. "Don't be alarmed if his arms and legs pull inward or shake-- did you see his hand move? That's normal."

Kejal nodded and petted Doctor Mora's hair. "Why is he moaning like that?"

Odo wished Kejal would stop asking questions!

"His vocal cords are relaxed and they vibrate as the air passes over them. That's a good thing. It means he's not suffering." Aleexa said softly. "You can still speak to him if you wish. He can hear you."

"Can he feel us touching him?" asked Kejal.

"I believe so."

Odo doubted Doctor Mora had any awareness of anything, but for Kejal's sake he kept that thought to himself.

Kejal grasped Doctor Mora's left hand. "We're here, father."

Aleexa smiled tenderly at that. She patted Doctor Mora's feet.

"Pol, this is the moment you've been preparing for. You're doing just fine. It's all right to pass on when you feel ready." Her voice trembled. "Everyone in this house loves you. May the Prophets welcome you home."

She smoothed the blankets around his frail form and slipped out of the room.

Kejal kept petting Doctor Mora's hand. Other than that, he didn't move at all.

"I remember...he held me in his arms when I was sick with the morphogenic virus. He hardly ate or slept. He read to me, prayed over me and wouldn't let me give up. I'm alive because of him, and he told me I made his life worth living again."

Odo smiled wryly and studied Doctor Mora's wrist. The blood vessels under his skin created purple blotches all up his arm. Unsettled, he pulled the sleeve of his nightshirt down.

"Once, just after I mastered my humanoid shape, he broke a Cardassian's jaw on my behalf."

Kejal's eyes widened. "Why?"

"The Cardassians wanted to vivisect me, and Doctor Mora wouldn't have it. I was too angry at him back then to see the lengths he went to for my sake, but..." Odo sighed heavily. "...he saw my first shape shift. He heard my first words. He witnessed my first steps. He saw most of my firsts."

"Mine, too," whispered Kejal. "Now, we're here for him."

Doctor Mora's fingers were wholly blue. Rubbing the warmth back into them became a futile effort, but Odo kept doing it anyway. It made him feel less helpless.

They sat quietly, watching his chest rise and fall. The pauses between breaths stretched longer. There was an oddly familiar rhythm to the rapid inhales and slow, rattling exhales. Odo likened it to his own labor experience. The waves came quicker and stronger after he relaxed into the process, which culminated in the ecstasy of Kejal's emergence.

Now, he was watching it all happening in reverse. It pained him in ways he never imagined. Why did he wait to say what needed saying? Why couldn't they talk while they had time? Why did he let his bitterness stand in the way for so long?

Kejal moved to the edge of the bed.

"I know what he's waiting for."

"What?" Odo stirred from his reverie. "Kejal, don't reposition him again."

"I'm not. Just watch." Kejal bent and gave Doctor Mora a hug. "He needs his hug. Nobody leaves without getting one, remember?"

A shiver ran through Doctor Mora's body. Odo saw him blink and look at Kejal. Did that really happen, or was he imagining it?

"Hey, father...you're going the wrong way. Are you lost?" Kejal tried to smile, but his lips quivered instead. "It's okay. Step-mother will be here soon to guide you."

Doctor Mora blinked slowly. His left hand patted Kejal's knee. He moved his eyes to focus on Odo. Something profound and intangible reached out through his gaze.

"Hug him, mother," whispered Kejal.

Odo climbed onto the bed without question. His arms overlapped Kejal's.

Tears spilled down Doctor Mora's cheeks. Odo brushed them away and shed one of his own in solidarity.

Because, now, he could.

Their eyes met again. No words were needed.

Finally, Doctor Mora's attention focused just above the foot of his bed. His eyebrows went up and his eyes reflected a light not present in the room. He uncurled his right index finger to point towards his feet.

"Is she here? I told you she'd come!" Kejal's face practically lit up with hope. "Go to her, father!"

Doctor Mora's eyes widened. He gurgled and tried to sit up. Odo and Kejal stopped him.

"You have to leave your body behind. You don't need it anymore." Kejal glanced at Odo and his brown eyes held a strength reminiscent of Kira. "Your work here is finished. We'll be fine. You can go now. It's okay. You can go."

He met Odo's gaze and nodded towards the ailing man, mouthing, "Tell him."

"Everything is in order." Odo stammered, completely at a loss for what to say. He never was good at things like this. "You've done all you can. It's time to rest. I won't leave your side. I promise."

Doctor Mora stared intently at the foot of his bed. His eyes drifted halfway shut and his lips went from blue to white to grayish-purple in a span of seconds. Odo found the sudden changes alarming, yet he couldn't look away.

"There...now you're going the right way." Kejal murmured. He kissed Doctor Mora's cheek and stroked his jaw. "You'll be in the light soon, father."

Odo watched the remaining color drain out of Doctor Mora's skin. His breathing slowed to a shallow breath every thirty seconds. The way his tongue and throat flexed looked so mechanical. The awful, congested rasps of his exhalations grew even louder.

Sadness stung in Odo's eyes. He wanted to flee from that awful sound. Knowing his mentor's suffering neared its end became his only solace. He clung tightly to his single-minded wish for a painless passing.

"I'm still by your side, Doctor Mora, and I'm not going anywhere. Never again," he said. "If you can still hear me, listen...I'm right here. You have nothing to worry about. Relax...just relax."

Doctor Mora's ears, fingers and eyelids went purple.

"Everything is fine." Odo spoke softly. "It's time to rest now. Relax. Just relax."

He rubbed his thumb in circles around Doctor Mora's palm. Hoping to comfort him in the face of his impending oblivion.

"It's all right. Your discomfort will end soon. Very soon now..."

Another quick inhale followed by a long exhale.

"Let it happen, Doctor Mora. Don't think. Relax and let it happen..."

Doctor Mora's neck muscles clenched and went slack.

"No. No, don't struggle. Please, just relax. I'm right here..."

His jaw twitched.

"...That's it. Relax. You're doing fine..."

The room became silent.

"...It's all right. I'm here. I'm right here..."

"Mother?"

Odo focused on his son.

Kejal's eyes glistened in the dim lamplight. "He's not breathing anymore."

Time hiccupped the same way it did for Kejal's birth. Nothing moved or made a sound. There was no more struggle for air. How could such a profound moment be so natural and unremarkable? The weight of it crashed into Odo like a planet-killing asteroid. He straightened and stared at Doctor Mora's face.

"Doctor Mora?" Odo blinked in disbelief. "Is he...?"

"Not yet." Kejal said. He rubbed Doctor Mora's chest. "He said I'll know when his pagh leaves. Brain death takes three minutes without oxygen. Maybe he's waiting for that. Let's wait three minutes, mother. Please." He closed his fists. "Three minutes. I'm counting on you, father."

Odo released Doctor Mora's hand and grasped Kejal's instead.

Three minutes won't make any difference, he thought morosely. There won't be a grand sign from beyond. It's all false hope and everyone is deluding themselves. His suffering is over, and that is all that matters.

Kejal hid his face against Doctor Mora's neck. Odo mirrored his son's pose. They stayed that way in silence, both embracing the person who shaped their lives.

Several moments later, Odo felt a chill run down his back. He noticed a tiny stain on the pillow.

"Kejal, is his left ear bleeding?"

"Huh? No." Kejal gasped, wide-eyed. "He did it! His pagh is free!" He hugged Doctor Mora closer, looking up towards the ceiling. "I knew you could do it, father! It's okay now. Everything is okay. Have a safe journey."

"Kejal?"

"He's on his way to the Celestial Temple. He's gone now. Oh, father...I love you so much." Kejal nuzzled Doctor Mora's shoulder. He stopped short. "Um, mother? His nose..."

Odo straightened. "What now?"

Blood oozed out of Doctor Mora's nostrils. More filled his mouth to overflowing. Dark yellowish-red rivulets dribbled onto his white nightshirt.

The peaceful moment shattered into something hellish.

"Doctor Mora!" Odo recoiled in horror.

Kejal grabbed four towels but they weren't enough to contain the mess. He snatched the bowl meant for catching vomit and bent Doctor Mora's head over it.

Odo heard the ping-ping of blood hitting the metal bowl. He grimaced. "I'm calling Aleexa."

"Mother, no. I've got it." Kejal said. Nothing about his body language expressed fear. How could he be so calm at a time like this?

Odo's inner substance turned over. He gripped the altar of the prayer shrine. His fingernails cut deeply into the wood as he clung on for dear life.

Kejal started mumbling more prayers...a bunch of useless incantations directed at wormhole aliens who didn't care! Hearing it almost made Odo knock over the prayer mandala in rage, but respect for Kejal's faith stopped his hand. He asked Doctor Mora to teach Kejal about the Prophets and he had no right to tear those beliefs down, no matter how unrealistic they were.

Merciful gods indeed.

When Odo regained control of himself, he faced the bed again.

Four stained towels surrounded Doctor Mora's pallid, crimson-streaked face. His pupils were dilated like black holes.

The bleeding finally stopped. Kejal set the bowl aside and began systemically removing the soiled towels.

"What happened?" Odo asked.

"I don't know, but I'm going to clean him up. He wouldn't want anyone seeing him like this." Kejal replied. He asked the replicator for a basin of soapy water, cradled Doctor Mora's head in the crook of his arm and tenderly washed his face. Afterward, he dried Doctor Mora off and set aside the washbasin.

"There." He got rid of the cushion propping up Doctor Mora's arthritic knee and repositioned his head on the semicircular pillow. Every motion was performed with utter love and reverence. "I miss you already." He adjusted the mattress to lay flat and smoothed Doctor Mora's rumpled hair. "Mother, I think his pagh went right past you."

The statement dug at Odo's rawest wound. Moments ago, the body on the bed was a brilliant scientist renowned throughout Bajor and Starfleet for discovering the first Changeling. Now...he'd become a corpse destined to decompose.

"No..." His eyes stayed bolted to the bloodstained nightshirt. Something cold opened deep in his chest. He wanted a re-do without the bleeding. "This is wrong."

"Mother? What's the matter?"

"Everything." Odo choked out. The rising panic wouldn't abate. He tapped his combadge. "Aleexa!"

"I'm right here." Aleexa stopped in the doorway at the sight of Doctor Mora. "Oh, bless his heart." She finished tying her robe and checked her tricorder. The slight shake of her head made it official.

"That wasn't peaceful!" Odo exploded over the emptiness in his chest. He pointed at Doctor Mora's face. "He drowned in his own blood! You said he wasn't suffering!"

"Mother!" Kejal gasped. "And you tell me I'm immature."

"Kejal, I'll handle this." Aleexa came further into the room. "Odo..."

Odo clenched his teeth and held up a hand to halt her.

"Odo, listen to me. Did the blood look foamy?"

"No. It was dark in color."

"Then it wasn't from his lungs." Aleexa scanned Doctor Mora with her tricorder and showed him the screen. "See? His lungs are clear. Odo, look."

Odo stared at the image of two lifeless lungs bearing no abnormalities other than mucus in the bronchial tubes. The heart nestled between them stood still with all its valves pulled wide open. He saw similar images a few times when scanning Bajoran murder victims. It let him estimate the time of death. Regardless of temperature or the kill method, Bajoran hearts stayed relaxed for twelve hours before they contracted into a tight ball.

But this was Doctor Mora's heart, and it wasn't beating anymore.

"Then where did it come from?" Odo asked. "And why was there so much? Look at this!" He gestured at the bowl and bloody linens piled up on the bedside table.

Aleexa's eyes glistened. She ran another, more detailed tricorder scan. "It came from his esophagus. I've never seen this happen before myself, but it isn't unheard of with Delfeya syndrome. He was already gone when he bled, Odo."

"How can you be sure?"

"Bleeding of this sort only happens after the heart stops." Her voice remained calm. "I will let you see my full report when I chart it."

"Don't leave anything out." Odo said brusquely.

She touched his hand. This time, he let her.

"He loved you," she whispered.

"I know. W-we talked...I know." Odo mimicked a swallow. "I-I'm sorry for my outburst." He sat down again, trembling and embarrassed. "Please, I didn't mean to doubt you. You did nothing wrong. I thought-- no, no excuses. I'm sorry."

"Shhh, Odo. Everybody reacts differently. I had no idea he would bleed like that. Please remember, it happened after he died and he never felt it. He didn't suffer." Aleexa gave Odo's shoulder a squeeze. "Do you need to talk about what you saw?"

"No." Odo groused.

"All right. When you're ready." Aleexa said without taking offense at his tone. She got rid of the bloodied objects on the bedside table and gently approached Kejal. "Kejal?"

"I'm okay. Father promised to let me know his pagh escaped, and he kept it!" Kejal dropped his voice to a whisper. "He did it, Aleexa. He's flying now. No more pain."

"No more pain." Aleexa agreed. She patted his arm and kissed the side of his head. "Looks like you're still saying goodbye. I'll leave you to it unless you want me to help with-- you don't? That's fine. Call me if you need any assistance."

"Thank you," said Kejal.

Aleexa sniffed and bent to kiss Doctor Mora's forehead. She did a remarkable job of holding her emotions in check. "Now you're at peace, sweetheart. Good night."

At the door, she offered a respectful nod and keyed the code to close it.

Odo stared at the cooling body lying in the bed. The cold, empty space in his chest grew heavier, making his whole being feel numb. How long before it swallowed him up?

What is the use of life if it disappears as soon as someone expires? Hmph, I suppose it doesn't matter to Doctor Mora anymore.

"Mother? Are you okay?"

"Hm? I was just-- thinking." Odo passed his palm over Doctor Mora's eyelids. They wouldn't stay shut. His cheeks felt waxy and cool. "His body needs to be tended to."

"In a little while." Kejal didn't budge an inch. "I don't want to disturb him yet. Look how peaceful he is."

"Peaceful...yes, I suppose."

Odo took Doctor Mora's hand again. He thought he was ready to witness this. He'd prepared himself to move on. He never expected pain.

"I don't know what to do. Tell me what to do." Odo whispered, rubbing the former scientist's limp, purple fingers in a last-ditch attempt to warm them up. When no answer came, he solemnly laid Doctor Mora's hand down on his chest.

Now it felt real.

Kejal shifted Doctor Mora's hand into a more relaxed position. How could he lay there and embrace his lifeless corpse like that? How could he smile?

"He was in our arms." Kejal said softly. "He felt safe enough to die in our arms."

"Don't say things like that."

"Why, mother? It's true. Come, lay with him a little while."

"Later...after he's cleaned up." Because his nightshirt is still bloody, and that's all I can see right now.

Someday, Kira would take her last breath.

Odo frowned at his thoughts. He shook them away. Doing was the only way to stop his mind from twisting itself in knots.

"Where is his old lab tunic?"

"In the closet behind the winter robe."

Odo found the garments in a bag. He hung them on the hook next to the closet door. He turned and grasped Kejal's shoulder. "Let me know if you need me."

Kejal nodded once. "Thank you, mother."

Odo quietly exited the room. The void in his chest refused to go away.

Kira stood outside the door. She looked disheveled and groggy, having awoken only moments before.

"I was coming in to check on you. Aleexa told me Pol just died. Are you all right?"

"Nerys, I'm fi-- no. No, I'm not."

"Odo?" She was suddenly wide awake. "What happened?"

Odo shook his head and walked right past her. He headed out the front door. His legs kept moving until he stood upon the cold ground next to Leruu's burial arch.

"Odo? Odo!" Kira followed him. "Talk to me, Odo!"

"I can't."

Cloaked by darkness, Odo formed a shovel out of his substance and let it bite into soft, grassy dirt. He dug and dug. All his rage went into the shovel, but the hole never matched the emptiness in his chest.

"Odo!" Kira shouted. "Dammit, stop digging!"

"Let me do this!" Odo snarled back. He returned to the task at hand. Some of the dirt he tossed aside fell back into the grave, dirtying his face and hair. His legs were covered in soil. He didn't care.

Kira jumped into the hole and wrenched the shovel out of his hands. It turned back into Changeling cytoplasm. They both watched it merge with his shoulder.

"Talk to me," she said.

Sighing, Odo wrapped his arms around Kira and hugged her close to his chest. Her heartbeat brought sensation to the numb part of his being.

Jeraddo rode high in the sky, offering enough light to see Kira's face so clearly. He saw the march of time on her skin and in her hair.

Every second counted down her lifetime. Each beat of her heart was precious.

"I watched him die, Nerys."

Kira rubbed his back and kissed his cheek. "Your being there meant a lot to him. Was Kejal in the room, too?"

"Yes. He's still with him. I think he wants to be alone for awhile."

"That's fine." Her breath tingled across his neck. She pressed closer to him for warmth. "I'm sorry, Odo."

Odo closed his eyes. Life was so fragile and short. How much of hers did he waste by not saying what he should have said? If what his Gaia counterpart said was true...the alternative seemed unthinkable.

He brushed his lips against the soft shell of her ear, whispering, "I love you, Nerys."

Kira's grip on his arms tightened. "I love you too, Odo."

He kissed the top of her head. His breath, or what passed for it, hitched in his throat.

"Let's get out of this grave." Odo formed himself into a ladder. Kira climbed up and lifted him onto the ground next to her, where he resumed his humanoid shape. They sat together, their feet dangling into the hole.

She made him look at her. "Something's bothering you. I'm not leaving until you tell me what it is."

Odo gave in and told her exactly what he saw. The horror of the blood. He doubted Doctor Mora's final seconds were peaceful, regardless of what Kejal or Aleexa said.

"...and I wish I hadn't witnessed it. I can't think of him without seeing his face covered in blood. It's going to haunt me forever." He grimaced. "I've seen less gruesome murders."

"I know. You're in shock right now." Kira wrapped her arms around him. When she spoke, her voice cracked. "But each time that ugly memory comes up in your mind, find a good one to counter it."

"Does it help you?"

She smiled a little. "Every time."

"Then..." He sighed, rubbing her hands with his thumbs. "Five minutes before the end, he looked at us. He just...looked at us like he was saying goodbye with his eyes. Then he stared at the foot of his bed and pointed at something. Kejal is convinced he saw Leruu waiting to take him away. He closed his eyes and died right after that."

"Maybe he did see his wife." Kira pressed her hand against his chest. "There you go, Odo. Make that your last memory of him."

He cringed. "I wish it was that easy."

"Give it time," she whispered. "The hard part is over for Pol."

"But not for me." Odo replied.

Kira's eyes flickered at his words. She leaned into his embrace without another word.

Finally, Odo stood and offered her his hand.

"You should go back to bed," he said. "Tomorrow is going to be a rough day."

Kira let him help her up. "Will you be okay?"

"I...need time."

When they started towards the house again, Odo saw the light still on in the bedroom. In its glow, Kejal gently tended to Doctor Mora's dead body.

.o

Humanoids gave their babies a bath shortly after birth. Kejal saw no difference in bathing his father's remains after death.

When he shifted Mora's body to scrub his back, he felt comforted at hearing no moans of pain. He washed Mora's hair, cleaned the blood residue out of his nose and mouth and trimmed his nails. Then he slicked his hair back using styling gel and took great care in shaving off his stubble.

When Kejal finished, he kissed Mora's right ear and covered his nude body with a clean blanket. He faced the prayer mandala to thank the Prophets for granting his father a peaceful passing.

The door opened just as he completed his prayer. Without looking, he knew it was his mother. He practically threw himself into Odo's arms.

Odo cupped the back of Kejal's head. His voice sounded wooden. "You did a nice job. He looks good."

"He's naked under the blanket. I thought you wanted to dress him."

Odo nodded. "I'll need your help." He glanced at the chosen attire. "He never was very stylish, was he?"

They chuckled despite the ache. Getting Mora dressed was a simple matter. Odo and Kejal managed it without assistance. Afterward, Kejal placed a rolled-up towel under Mora's chin to keep his mouth in a dignified state of closure.

Then they stood together and studied what remained of the man who centered their lives.

Mora's face was relaxed in an inquisitive expression. The colors of his lab tunic actually made the pallor in his skin less shocking.

Kejal held his head and groaned. Odo bodily led him into the living room without a word. The vase became his regeneration container, and he enjoyed a blissful hour of nothingness.

Faint light on the horizon hinted at morning's nearness when Kejal returned to his humanoid form. He almost prepared a mug of tea until he remembered it wasn't necessary anymore.

In Mora's bedroom, Odo stared off into space. Eventually, he covered his face with one hand, and Kejal swore he heard muffled sobbing.

It's my imagination.

Kejal checked the PADD Aleexa filled out after Mora died. His official cause of death was multi-organ failure as a result of Delfeya syndrome. When his heart ceased to beat, all the blood in his body flowed into the varicose veins lining his esophagus. They couldn't handle the sudden influx and burst, pouring his entire blood supply into his gullet. Bajoran stomachs contracted at death, a reaction to the lack of oxygen, so the blood had nowhere to go but up.

There was no explanation for the bleeding in Mora's right ear. Something ruptured his eardrum from inside, but Aleexa had no idea how it occurred.

Kejal checked the date and shut the PADD off. He toyed with the chain on the earring Mora gave him. Knowing his father's pagh was safe brought immense comfort.

His eyes searched the myriad of holograms lined up underneath the oval window. He saw his birth, his mother smiling and his father in full health. A personal favorite was Mora and Ambassador Spock exchanging a Vulcan salute. Odo and Kira's wedding hologram stood in the center next to Mora's and Leruu's.

Every chair, every wall...everything carried echoes from the past. More than anything, Kejal loved seeing Mora laugh. Especially when he laughed hard, like he did less than twenty-six hours ago. The way his face crinkled up in mirth was unforgettable.

So many memories.

"The morning after my death, you will watch the sunrise from the oval window just like we used to. You will see the most beautiful dawn of your life and realize life goes on. I want you to smile for me when that morning comes."

Kejal looked up. A glowing line marked the misty east. He sat down on the floor near the oval window.

Brilliant colors heralded morning's arrival. Kejal's brown eyes shimmered with reflections of sunlight bursting over the horizon. Like a tree, he saw the sun as a sign of life.

Something stirred the dust motes floating in the air. Kejal reached as if to embrace the light itself. The sun climbed higher, its brilliance sliding down his body. He didn't try to hold on when its glow moved slowly off his outstretched fingertips.

Kejal folded his hands in his lap.

"Goodbye, father," he murmured, smiling. "You were right."

"Kejal?"

He startled. "Mother...I didn't hear you come out here."

"I didn't want to be heard." Odo said. He seated himself on the rug.

Kejal scooted over into his lap and wrapped his arms around his neck. He wanted to be held. Odo silently pulled him closer.

"Kejal...you saw the same thing I did." He inhaled through his nose and asked, "Do you think he felt pain at the end?"

Sighing, Kejal closed his eyes. "What did you experience while giving birth to me, mother?"

"You already know."

"Tell me anyway."

Odo frowned at the window. His eyelashes looked unusually damp. "Everything went white, and I felt the purest love I have ever experienced in my life. And then you were there, in my lap...and when you formed your face to look at me, I forgot all about the discomfort leading to your birth."

Without hesitating, Kejal said, "Father experienced the same thing when he died."

"He bled from his esophagus. Blood usually entails pain."

Kejal looked right into his mother's eyes. They were large and pleading for meaning. He wasn't surprised by Odo seeing Mora's death as total extinction.

But he hoped to change that.

"The blood in his nose and mouth came from his esophagus, yes. Aleexa doesn't know what caused his ear to bleed. Something ruptured his eardrum from the inside."

"So?" Odo growled.

"I think I know what caused it." Kejal leaned forward. "Mother, humanoids often bleed when a baby passes through their birth canal, and that usually happens after the amniotic membrane ruptures."

Something in Odo's face changed.

"Yesterday, father told me he wouldn't see another sunrise. He knew exactly when he was going to die. Do you know why?" Kejal saw the opening and kept talking. "His biological son was due forty-seven years ago today."

At that, Odo pursed his lips. He blinked rapidly, his eyes glistening, and touched the earring on Kejal's right ear. His whole body trembled. Then he looked at his hands and began to laugh. He clutched Kejal in a crushing embrace, his entire frame shaking.

Odo was laughing and...crying?

Kejal pulled him close. He kissed his cheek and rubbed his back, letting him experience whatever emotions coursed through him without judgment.

"I was so afraid to witness the end," Kejal said. "Father told me I would be ready when his time came, and I was. He prepared me every step of the way once you made me realize it was inevitable. Seeing him die was...mother, this will sound strange, but it was beautiful. All his pain and sickness ended at his last breath. I can't think about it with sadness. Why should I when he is hugging wife and son like this right now?"

Odo ruffled Kejal's hair and immediately smoothed it back down. His voice quivered. "It's amazing how we both saw the same thing and drew such opposite conclusions. All I wanted was for his last moment to be peaceful, and it didn't look peaceful to me. I worked cases on less gruesome murder scenes...so I always equated blood with pain. I felt as if I let him down."

Kejal gripped Odo's shoulders. "You held him in your arms when he took his last breath. You didn't fail him. You gave him what he wanted. You stayed by his side. He died happy because of you. Not me, mother. You."

The clock on the wall beeped to mark the hour.

"Kejal..."

"Hm?"

Odo closed his eyes and his form lost cohesion. He beckoned through the link. Kejal relaxed into it without question. In a few seconds they became one giant puddle on the living room floor with Kejal's earring floating in the middle.

Between them, a single, bittersweet emotion flowed with all the strength of a tsunami.

Hope.
End Notes:

**Chapter soundtrack**

Healing At Last: https://app.box.com/s/jvw19ef0wc1impmupvwo

Mora Finds His Answers/Waiting for the End: https://app.box.com/shared/bqmloxsc0p

Kira Comforts Odo: https://app.box.com/s/0n1k9fuj1uhvhfixd1o1

Sunrise Without Father: https://app.box.com/s/eujv251kte6dlvcz8pt8
16. The Seed by Cyndi
.o

.o

.o

.o

16. The Seed

.o

.o

.o

.o

Odo tried not to think about the task at hand. "Support his shoulders, Kejal."

"I've got him, mother. You hang onto his feet."

"Right. You ready?" Aleexa stayed in the doorway. "Now slide him over."

Odo and Kejal followed her instructions. Moving a corpse was vastly different than shifting a live body that could support its weight. Rigor mortis made it slightly easier-- no one worried about controlling limp hands or arms.

Doctor Mora fit comfortably in his permanent receptacle. Aleexa helped position him properly. Kira smoothed out his rumpled clothing.

Odo picked up his old beaker, an object he linked with his painful early years. Kejal had filled it up with deka leaves, a seed pod and the first spring flower he picked off the tree. Odo gently tucked the beaker under Doctor Mora's folded hands. He took a long, last look at his mentor's calm face. His inner substance clutched. He lowered the cloth flap.

Everyone worked together to lace the lid shut.

They eased the coffin onto the small antigravity platform. The simple device aided in carrying Doctor Mora outside. Leruu's grave was just over one of the western hills.

Cool spring air blew across the grassy field. The sun sat just above the horizon, its reddening brilliance giving the world a deep orange glow.

Odo and Kejal privately interred Doctor Mora next to his wife at exactly sunset. No part of his funeral was tended to by anyone who wasn't present during his final days. Everybody had something to say about him that brought forth smiles, and Odo read his last treatise out loud. He was surprised to find himself choking up halfway through the reading.

Ironically, the treatise had been published the day before Doctor Mora died.

Kejal sang beautifully before burial. Kira knew the chant and whispered the translation to Odo. Aleexa wiped her eyes several times.

Then they took turns pushing the dirt back into the hole. Before the last layer went on, Kejal sprinkled the grave with flower seeds.

"For luck," he said.

Odo realized he was surrounded by the same people who attended his wedding. He gazed at the fresh grave.

"You did this on purpose, didn't you?"

Later, Odo helped Kira pack for her return to Deep Space Nine. Her week was up. He longed to join her, yet it became his duty to start announcing Doctor Mora's death. Doctor Mora requested it kept quiet until after his funeral-- he didn't want the event to become a public spectacle. Odo made sure Spock was among the people to be notified personally.

The small guest bedroom felt cramped with two beds. Kira and Odo could barely maneuver past each other in the small space. They kept stepping on Aleexa's slippers.

"How are you doing?"

Odo glanced at his wife. He sighed and slipped her spare boots into her travel bag.

"I'm all right," he said.

She touched his hand. "Something is still bothering you."

"It didn't feel like goodbye, Nerys. I closed his coffin. I helped bury him in the ground. I just...I feel as though I should do something more personal. Something only he would have thought to do." Odo shook his head. "It's ridiculous. He's dead and buried now. It's time to move on."

"Odo." Kira straightened to face him fully. "He's only been gone for what? Eighteen hours?"

"It seems like less." He grumbled to himself. "Nerys, we talked. Six hours before he died, we talked. We connected."

Her expression softened. She leaned subtly closer, letting her hip brush his.

Odo bit his bottom lip. "I never thought I would grieve over him." His eyes prickled as he looked into hers. "I finally learned how to cry, and now I don't know how to stop. This is ridiculous."

"Odo?" Kira cupped his face in her hands. "Don't even try."

The urge to cry was a heaviness behind his eyes. Nothing like he experienced as a solid, but feeling the tears reach freedom without him willing them to offered a strange relief.

"I think our wedding day was his last decent day. He went downhill after that." Odo shuddered again. "I didn't want him to suffer, Nerys. Sometimes, I considered 'accidentally' overdosing his triptacederine. He suffered because of me."

"Don't say that. You don't know that for sure."

"Nerys, I do."

His face twisted. He sank against her. She pulled him close and held him tight. For a moment or two, he swore he'd lose his shape without her holding him together.

"You gave him peace in the end," she whispered in his ear. The wetness of her tears merged with his. "You gave him peace and held his hand. He died happy, and that's what matters. His pain is over."

"I wish mine was."

Kira's hands stroked his hair. "This is going to sound wrong, but it's a good thing you're grieving. It means he meant something to you."

Odo pressed her closer to his chest with trembling hands. "I realized it too late."

"Better late than never."

"I almost made the same mistake with you. Now, I'm glad I didn't."

"Me, too." Kira cupped his face and rested her forehead against his.

"I thought watching him die would ease my fears, but it made them worse. Kejal is coping much better than I am. I want to believe, Nerys. I want to keep hoping there is more, but it slips away every time. How do you keep your faith at a time like this?"

"Because faith kept me going when I didn't have anything else." She stroked his quivering bottom lip with her thumb. "You're scared. I understand, and it's okay. Open up. Let it all out, Odo. It's okay. I'm here. I love you."

Hearing Kira say she loved him touched the empty void in his chest. He trembled violently and the tears spilled free. They tracked down his face only to disappear into his substance once more. The sensation of crying was almost as visceral as sex and giving birth. He let it happen, because it was impossible to not give in.

"Don't let me go." Odo choked out. He didn't care how foolish it sounded.

A sad smile touched her lips. "I won't."

The shaking settled down. Odo leaned in and kissed her hard, seized by a sudden need to be closer.

She held onto his upper arms. "Are you up to doing this right now?"

"Yes," he said against her chin. "I need you. I love you."

Kira's eyes darkened. She locked the door and unclasped her top. He let her remove his clothing. It reverted to Changeling cytoplasm and merged with his legs as they kissed.

Odo laid her on the bed. Light from the tiny lamp in the corner softly lit her features. He saw everything he loved about her shining through her eyes.

"Are you really immortal?" asked Kira.

"Unless I'm killed, yes."

"Then I want you to keep me with you after I'm gone. It doesn't matter how. I want to stay with you, Odo. Forever. But you have to promise not to beat yourself up over it when I do die. I won't live forever, but I'll try to stick around awhile." She traced her finger along his jaw. "For you."

Odo's chest hurt again. He made himself nod his head. "But I might cry."

Her lips curled in a wan smile. "Your eyes look gorgeous when you cry, Odo."

Then she reversed their position and descended on him. When the chaos of their lovemaking passed, Odo surrounded her in his substance. He loved holding her in his natural state. She ran her fingers through his liquid form, bringing him a comfort no words could describe.

"Oh, look at the time." Kira groaned. "I need to finish p-- "

"Mom! Mother! Come quick!"

Alarmed, Odo reformed and raced into the living room. Kira dashed in behind him wearing only a robe. He found Kejal sitting by the chest, which he'd pulled away from its spot under the oval window.

Kejal held a rectangular gold box in his hands. It gleamed faintly in the light of the nearby duranja lamp. Inside it was a long, golden-hued braid. Silver cloth ribbons tied off both ends.

"Father's braid," Kejal said. He looked up, his eyes gleaming. "I found it while looking through the chest."

Odo knelt and touched the silky hair. In a flash, it came to him. He knew exactly how to say goodbye.

"Mother?"

Odo kissed Kejal's forehead. "Hold onto it. Don't lose it."

Nodding, Kejal put the braid back in the box and reached for an old fashioned Bajoran holo-image set inside a crystal cube. In it, a Bajoran baby peered at the image taker with huge, curious eyes. Kejal pressed the symbol on top and the infant crinkled his face up in laughter.

"Father laughed the same way all his life. Look."

"That's adorable." Kira bent to better see the hologram. She sighed after a moment. "I better get going. Where's Aleexa?"

"She went to finalize father's death certificate." Kejal put the hologram away. "So, you're going back to Deep Space Nine already?"

"Yes, after I get dressed in proper clothes."

Kejal got up and hugged her before she finished speaking. "No. Wait until tomorrow."

"I wish I could." Kira gave Kejal a good, strong squeeze. "I have a lot of work to catch up on, but I heard you and Odo will be heading there once you get things settled here."

Kejal nodded once. "Shouldn't take too long."

Odo watched them touch foreheads and smile at each other.

"Father said mother is a lucky guy to have you, you know."

She patted his cheeks. "We're all lucky to have him. And we're lucky to have you, too. Don't you ever forget that."

Kejal playfully bumped his nose into hers. "I won't, mom."

Kira hugged him again and turned to Odo. "I better get dressed."

Five minutes later, Odo held the tram door open while she climbed in.

Odo leaned in and said, "We'll see you soon."

"I look forward to it." Kira replied. She kissed him tenderly. "Husband."

He chuckled. "Wife."

She pulled the tram door shut. He watched the vehicle zoom away.

A chilly breeze prompted Odo to head back inside. Kejal wasn't in the living room anymore. Odo checked around the house until he found his son curled up on Doctor Mora's bed.

Odo laid down next to Kejal.

"You sang beautifully at the burial."

"Thanks." Kejal answered without trying to smile or look happy. Doctor Mora's absence had become more palpable as the hours passed.

"But the goodbye doesn't feel complete, does it?" Odo asked.

"No. It doesn't."

They were silent for several moments. Odo scooted closer and gathered Kejal to his chest. Exactly how Doctor Mora had done for him.

"I have an idea, Kejal."

"Oh?"

"Let me get the notifications out and then we'll talk."

Kejal nodded and buried his face in Odo's chest. Odo commanded the communications console to turn on and began delivering the news. Within the hour much of Bajor knew of Doctor Mora's passing.

Next, Odo and Kejal helped Aleexa pack up the medical equipment. The grab poles, the balance bars and the shower bench had become such regular fixtures that their disappearance felt somehow wrong.

Odo went to tell Kejal the bed needed to go. He found him in the middle of it in his gelatinous state, his substance surrounding the pillow that cradled Doctor Mora's head.

Maybe the bed could wait awhile longer.

.o

Day two without Mora wasn't as joyful as day one.

The reality of his absence hit Kejal hard. His established routine no longer applied and he found himself floundering.

It used to be so automatic. Watch the sunrise, make a mug of deka tea and check on Mora. Now, the sudden free time left him lost. He wondered if his father felt this way after those ten wonderful early years. Then again, now, Mora was experiencing the joy Kejal did upon reuniting with Odo.

Kejal realized he missed Mora's voice the most. After the confusion following the separation from his mother, that voice became his guidance. Holo-vids were the only items that kept his memories solid. Losing them meant truly losing his father forever.

"It was an honor to meet you," Spock said to Mora.

Mora smiled and took a deep breath. "Ambassador, the honor was mine, too."

They shook hands. Spock raised his right one in the Vulcan salute. Mora mirrored the gesture, his eyes practically glowing
.

The holo-imager flashed to the next video.

Mora held up a hand, laughing. "Oh, don't point that at me. I look awful."

All the memories he thought would bring solace became too painful. Kejal shut off the holo-imager.

Footsteps approached the door.

"Kejal?"

Kejal stayed huddled in a ball.

Aleexa sat by his feet. "It's a strange feeling, isn't it? You spend so much time looking after someone. Then they pass and there you are, wondering what to do with all the time you didn't have before."

He nodded without looking at her. "I feel selfish. I should be glad he isn't suffering anymore. He was so sick and weak at the end. I wanted him to get out of that miserable body."

"And now that he's gone, you'll give anything to have him back."

She practically read his mind.

"Like I said," Kejal whispered, "selfish."

"Missing someone isn't selfish." Aleexa moved to seat herself where he could see her. "You loved your father, and he loved you."

Kejal clutched the gray semicircular pillow to his chest. It still had the bloodstains from Mora's right ear. Blood caused by his pagh escaping and proof of his continued existence.

"Then why did I rejoice right after he died and why is it painful now?"

Aleexa smiled, but her eyes had tears in them. "The reality of it is setting in. You saw him go, and you saw him buried. This is where many people say 'now what?'"

"Hm...I remember...he woke up and looked at us right before..." A sigh made Kejal's nostrils flare. "I'll never forget the love in his eyes. Like he said goodbye with just a look."

"That is exactly what he did." She squeezed his shoulder. "I've been present at quite a few deaths, and I know the look you're talking about. He was completely happy and at peace."

"He was. Mother and I were hugging him. He died in our arms, Aleexa. I saw his last breath. I felt the pulse in his neck stop. My own birth was that easy." Kejal said. "Then he looked at the foot of the bed. His eyes had a glow to them. I know what he saw. This bloodstain, right here, it's from his pagh leaving his body. Do you think he ran right to Leruu?"

She touched the pillow and smiled sadly. "Yeah. I think he did."

"What do your people believe happens when you die?"

Aleexa looked up. "We leave our bodies and emerge into the Great Forest. A family member who went before meets us at the Guide Tree and leads us to our ancestors. It's a very beautiful place full of sunlight and greenery. I think you'd like it there."

"I would." Kejal said.

He still hadn't convinced his mother to believe in an afterlife yet. Not completely.

"I know you need to send the bed back," Kejal mimicked clearing his throat, "but can I keep this pillow?"

"Of course, sweetie."

He hugged it to his chest and slid off the mattress, taking the red and gold quilt with him. "Thank you. I'll be visiting father's grave while you take care of this. No offense-- I can't watch the bed go."

"I understand." Aleexa squeezed his arm. "I'll put the quilt and pillow in the closet."

Kejal thanked her before heading out the front door.

Sunlight shone in golden streams between puffy white cumulus clouds. Multicolored wildflowers bloomed on the majestic green hills. Gusty spring wind stirred the waist high grass and ruffled Kejal's auburn hair. He squinted upward at the blue-green sky.

Two huge hills cradled Mora and Leruu's resting place. Just beyond them, a small forest of moba trees.

Odo was busily digging a hole between the foot of both graves. He glanced Kejal's way.

"How deep for a deka tree?"

Kejal sat down in front of his mother. He stuck his open hand in the hole to measure. Shaking his head, he filled in some of the dirt until the hole was only a fingertip deep. "There. That's about right."

"That seems so shallow."

"It's a tree seed. It needs to be close to the surface. Don't worry, it'll be fine. They germinate fast."

"How fast?"

"About ten days."

"Hm."

Odo picked a single seed out of the deka seed pod he'd brought along. Deka seeds looked like fingernail sized wood chips. A defense mechanism the trees evolved to discourage birds and other animals from eating their offspring. Even then, perhaps one out of every hundred seeds ever sprouted.

"This can turn into a tree?" Odo stared at the tiny seed lying on his palm.

Kejal grinned at him. "Remarkable, isn't it? In ten years, it'll be a giant tree." He cupped his hands around Odo's and kissed the seed. "For luck. Go on, give it a kiss."

Odo rolled his eyes before complying. He dropped the seed into the hole. Kejal helped him cover it up.

Suddenly, Odo took his hands out of the dirt and embraced Kejal, pulling him close to his chest.

"I will never die on you, Kejal," he whispered. "Don't ever worry about losing me."

Kejal's face softened. He laid his head upon Odo's shoulder and closed his eyes. "The same goes for me. If we go, we go together or not at all."

"Hmph." Odo grunted. They slid apart and sat on the ground, facing each other. "I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the concept of an afterlife."

"Why?"

He shrugged. "It's all electrical impulses dependent on chemicals in the brain. Remove the any part of that equation and the electricity stops."

Kejal chuckled to himself. "Energy transforms, but once it begins it can't be stopped. Look around you. We're products of an explosion that happened billions of years ago. An old human saying is we're the universe trying to understand itself."

"That doesn't answer my question." Odo grumbled.

"Yes, it does." Kejal said.

Odo's eyes focused on Mora's grave. "He wondered what made us alive."

"Mother."

"What?"

"I think death is the greatest shape shift of all. To completely leave behind what we were and transform into energy...to float into a place so beautiful people can't find words to describe it." Kejal squeezed Odo's hands. "I was so afraid to die that I saved my own life through you. But after seeing father die, that fear is gone. I know there is more. I thought I got that through your head."

"Kejal...." Odo shifted without pulling away from Kejal's grasp. "You know how I am. I always need definite proof."

"Faith is to believe without seeing." Kejal released his mother's hands and touched the dirt where they buried the seed. "You're aware of the seed, right?"

Odo frowned at the soil. "Of course. We buried it."

"Why did you do it?"

"I hope a tree will grow here."

"There's that word again." Kejal's lips quirked. "Hope. You hope a tree will grow here. And you hope father still exists. You hope your existence will continue after you die. Mother, to have faith is to have hope."

"You can hope for something to happen all you want. It doesn't mean it will."

"It doesn't mean it won't, either." Kejal pressed on. "Do you think there's more?"

"I don't know." Odo looked up at the sky. Suddenly, he smiled a little. "I hope so, Kejal. I hope so."

Kejal mirrored Odo's expression and also gazed skyward. "I couldn't imagine life after father, yet here I am. I suppose, in a way, I can understand why you can't wrap your mind around an afterlife. Today didn't exist to me until I got here, and he is there." He gestured to Mora's grave.

"You're more like me than you realize," Odo said. His words resonated somewhere in Kejal's substance.

Another wind gust rippled the grass. Kejal heard remembered laughter between the green blades. Mora brought him to this field to teach him about plants and insects. And once or twice, it was a great place for hide-and-seek. The grass grew so fast here that by spring, a person could lie down and disappear.

Briefly, Kejal thought he saw Mora standing in the grass nearby. He blinked. The field was empty again.

He pursed his lips and took his mother's hand. "I think we've become more like each other after this."

"Maybe."

Kejal peered at his palms. They looked filthy because Odo's hands were covered in soil. He grinned. "Mother, it's not gardening until we're dirty."

Odo noticed the dirt. He smirked and wiped his hands on Kejal's sleeves. "You're right. Are we gardening yet?"

Kejal grabbed two handfuls of dirt and rubbed it all over Odo's knees. "We are now!"

They laughed and liquefied to let the mess fall off. Afterward, they stood together in the sunlight.

"It's time to pack," said Odo.

Kejal sighed solemnly. Their first destination was Deep Space Nine. Then, home. Back into the Great Link.

He hated to admit he missed the link, but he knew he would always miss Mora more.

Thirty minutes later found them together in the house, packing only what was going with them. Kira took the sand mandala with her at Odo's request. Kejal had a few knick-knacks he wanted to keep. Odo shot him odd looks as he packed every hologram Mora kept under the oval window on top of the semicircular pillow.

"He'd want us to have these memories." Kejal said. He paused at the holo-image Aleexa took of him, Odo and Mora on Odo's wedding day. They looked so happy. It brought a sad smile to his face. "I'll keep them in the underground vault back home. I can-- hey, Aleexa!"

Kejal scrambled into the guest bedroom at the sound of Aleexa dropping her hairbrush.

"Wow! Hey! Kejal, where's the fire?"

Kejal handed her an isolinear rod. "I copied the holograms. I want you to have this."

Aleexa took it and pulled him into a tight hug. "Are you okay, sweetie?"

"Yeah." He hugged back equally strong. "I'll be okay."

"Good." She patted his back. "What about you?"

"I'm...decent enough." Odo answered from the doorway. "Time heals a lot of things."

Aleexa stepped over and embraced him. He let her.

"So, will someone hear a heartbeat there someday?"

That made Odo smirk. "I doubt it, but who knows?" He finally returned the hug. "By the way...my people can cry."

"Oh?" Aleexa peered curiously at him.

"I had to learn how. So will Kejal."

She squeezed him gently. "I’m glad, Odo. Just don't hold those tears in, okay?"

"Believe me, it's impossible." Odo straightened, prompting her to step back as well. "Thank you. Let me know where to send my payments and-- "

Aleexa lifted a hand. "Pol took care of that. He didn't want you or Kejal worrying about money. It's been handled." She smiled, picking up her large travel bags. One orange, the other purple. They perfectly matched her purple jumpsuit, which she wore under a diaphanous orange vest.

"I swear you have a bag for every outfit you own." Kejal pointed. "You always match!"

"It's a woman thing! Of course you would notice, wouldn't you?" Aleexa giggled. She leaned over and kissed his cheek. "But thank you. I got to know a great family by taking care of Pol. So, walk me out?"

Kejal and Odo helped Aleexa carry her bags. "Well, I got to know a nurse who isn't boring."

"Boring? Me?" Aleexa feigned offense. "Someone is feeding you lies."

They laughed and embraced, squeezing each other tight.

"Take care of your mother," she whispered in Kejal's ear. "He needs you."

Aleexa's hover-tram pulled up to the house. The polite young driver took her bags and placed them in the tray between the back seats. He tipped his head politely to Odo, who seemed to give off a 'head of the house' air.

Sighing, Kejal made himself release Aleexa's shoulders. "Goodbye, Aleexa."

Aleexa pinched his cheek and smiled. Her brown eyes twinkled. This goodbye wasn't sad.

"Bye, Kejal." She climbed into the tram and stuck her head back out. "Odo, bye!"

"Take care." Odo waved.

The tram door closed, the driver got back in and Aleexa's smiling face shrank out of view.

Kejal stood there on the doorstep. The tram's engine faded. He leaned back when Odo wrapped an arm around his shoulders and kissed him above the ear.

"Have the legalities been taken care of?" Kejal asked.

"Mmhmm." Odo exhaled through his nose. "The house and property are in our names. This area will be left alone. That means no one will chop your tree down."

"Good." Kejal said. "I think I'm ready to go. Let me say goodbye to my tree real quick."

To his surprise, Odo went with him. They held hands and bid the tree farewell together.
End Notes:

**Chapter soundtrack**

Quiet Burial: https://app.box.com/s/2ndpdpz7miu0dwmbzcvl

Odo Mourns: https://app.box.com/s/mddfmofaarxj3gai2hr5

I Will Never Die on You: https://app.box.com/s/zgq9j5mop3mmtd86c9fu

Farewell, Aleexa: https://app.box.com/s/0br85e78732vmw99r9vw
17. Belated Reception by Cyndi
Author's Notes:
Song lyric credits go to Marc Anthony, Tina Arena and Ultrabeat.
.o

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17. Belated Reception

.o

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.o

The tiny transport shuttle zipped through space. A ship so small the transporter pad was almost situated between the two pilot seats. Kejal mentioned pitying anybody who tried to sleep in this thing before settling into his regeneration cycle.

Old holo-movies kept Odo busy during the five hour trip. He'd found them in Doctor Mora's study shortly before leaving Bajor. They contained Kejal's early life. Something Odo missed and was glad to see immortalized.

As he watched Doctor Mora read Bajoran nursery rhymes to a bowl full of two-day-old Kejal, his expression gradually morphed into a smile. It softened at seeing Kejal slowly grow up in each consecutive holo-video.

Kejal had toys to explore, which he did by engulfing them in his substance and mimicking them. Doctor Mora kept him in a beaker on his desk when he lectured at the Science Institute. He promised Odo to take care of Kejal, and the images showed just how hard he worked to keep it.

When Odo saw his son take humanoid shape in front of a mirror for the first time, his eyes developed a familiar stinging pressure. He let his emotions surface.

Kejal did it perfectly-- the hair, the eyes, even clothing. Immediately after taking form, he opened his arms.

Doctor Mora set the holo-imager down and they embraced. He didn't stop to poke, prod or take notes. He ran right into the hug.

"Kejal, look at you...can you speak?"

Kejal squinted and moved his lips. No sound came out. It reminded Odo of the moments immediately following his birth.

"Breathe in and try it again," Doctor Mora said. He let Kejal watch his lips. "And make sure you articulate your words."

"HUH! Heh. LUH...he-- luh. HELLO!" Kejal blinked. "I can TALK!"

"Yes, you can talk! Don't exhale too hard, or you'll shout." Doctor Mora smiled, deepening the wrinkles around his eyes. "Hello, Kejal, it's nice to hear you talk back to me."

"It's NICE to meet you, TOO! Oh...that was too loud." Kejal concentrated on controlling his breathing. He felt his own ears and nose. Then he touched Doctor Mora's. "Mine are different."

"Ears and nose ridges are difficult," said Doctor Mora. He chuckled and caught Kejal's wrist. "Odo has trouble with ears and noses, too, you know."

They both grinned. Facial expressions came naturally to Kejal right at the start.

"Odo is mother." Kejal said, "Mother told me I should call you 'father.' Do you mind at all?"

Doctor Mora covered his mouth with one hand. "Not if you don't mind me calling you 'son.'"

Kejal's face lit up. "I'd like that a lot, father."


And then Odo watched holo-footage of Doctor Mora sound asleep in his bed. Kejal crept right up to his face to capture the loud snoring.

"Captain's log, star date...I have no idea. Father makes this odd noise every time he sleeps." Kejal's voice spoke off-screen. "Let the examination begin."

Suddenly, two fingers plugged Doctor Mora's nose. Without even stirring, Doctor Mora started snoring louder through his mouth!

"As you can see, he has another orifice for creating this noise."

The holo-movie shook with Kejal's laughter. He tried pinching Doctor Mora's lips shut, and the snoring resumed from his nose.

Kejal made the mistake of trying to stop all air from passing. That was enough to rouse Doctor Mora from slumber. He had to sleepily explain the importance of breathing before he shooed Kejal away.

As he left the room, Kejal pointed the camera at himself. "Snoring means he's breathing. Huh, interesting."

Odo watched more footage. He couldn't stop his smile at the sight of Kejal playing, yes, playing with children in the field where Doctor Mora was now buried. At first, he just saw Kejal's auburn head popping up above the long grass. Three dark-haired children appeared behind him. Kejal squawked and disappeared again. The imager shook from Doctor Mora's laughter.

"Be a tree!" cried a young boy.

"Sure!" Kejal squatted and shape shifted into a knobby moba tree. The two girls and boy climbed into his branches and swung around, laughing.

"I can't believe you're only four months old," Doctor Mora spoke from behind the holo-imager
.

Then came the images Odo almost couldn't watch. Doctor Mora documented the progression of the morphogenic virus. Most were just holo-images showing the first symptoms. The videos almost broke the heart he didn't have.

Kejal laid in the casket-like bio-bed. His discolored skin cracked and crumbled. Doctor Mora panned the imager down to show himself holding Kejal's hand.

"Be strong, Kejal," whispered Doctor Mora. "The cure is on its way."

Kejal groaned. "I want mother."

At that, Doctor Mora shifted to pet Kejal's patchy hair. "I know, my son, but he can't be here right now. You have to get well, first. Shh, I know. I know..."

Doctor Mora forgot the holo-imager was still running and set it down at the foot of the bio-bed. He leaned over to gather Kejal in his arms and gently stroked his crumbling cheek.

And he started to sing
...

The lullaby took Odo's memory so far back it almost hurt. Impulsively, he switched to the next file, which showed Kejal being given the cure. He could barely watch his dear son writhe and scream in pain. The antidote for the virus worked slower and caused more agony than Odo experienced.

Doctor Mora leaned over the bio-bed. "Kejal, stay with me. It's going to be all right."

"Father!" Kejal's head thrashed back and forth. "Pain...this pain! Stop this pain!"

Doctor Weld spoke from off-screen. "It's working from the inside out. We should see visible effects momentarily."

"Good. Good! It's all right, Kejal. The pain means you're getting well. Hold on. It'll pass soon." Doctor Mora kept a tricorder trained on Kejal while simultaneously stroking his brow. "His vitals are getting weaker. Kejal? Kejal, stay awake. You need to stay-- dammit, he's unconscious! He needs to revert to his gelatinous state. Doctor Weld, power up the field emitters. I have to polarize his morphogenic matrix."

Kejal's skin began to bubble. The two men worked swiftly around the bio-bed. After several seconds, Doctor Mora told Doctor Weld to stand clear and slapped the keypad. Kejal's limp body jerked as though electrocuted.

"Again!" shouted Doctor Mora.

At the second shock, Kejal stirred and liquefied. Doctor Mora laughed with relief. "He's stabilizing. We got him back. We got him! Oh, thank the Prophets!"


The very next holo-movie showed Kejal taking his first steps since the illness. He was smiling and full of life again.

Consecutive holo-movies let Odo see Doctor Mora teaching Kejal all about gardening. Odo watched his son plant the tiny sapling that grew into the impressive deka tree he was so proud of.

Kejal recorded logs about his plants. Every new sprout brought him such joy.

There were videos of him dropping deka seed pods on Doctor Mora's head, videos of him singing at parties and videos of him making goofy faces at the holo-imager.

Odo chuckled and put the imaging device away. Kejal's personality hadn't changed much over the years, and for that Odo was glad. He gazed affectionately at the puddle on the floor near his feet.

Doctor Mora gave you all the love he wanted to give me.

The thought made Odo stare at his own reflection in the control panel. Unbidden, an image of Doctor Mora's face covered in blood rose to the forefront of his mind. He tried Kira's technique of finding a better memory, but he only came up with Doctor Mora lying pale and still in his cloth coffin.

It wasn't comforting.

Damn you! You had to traumatize me when you died, didn't you? Odo thought bitterly. He splayed his hands on his knees and picked up the imaging device. The first picture to come up was Doctor Mora and Spock.

It's not easy...I can't think of him as alive. Why is this so damn difficult?

"Approaching Deep Space Nine." The computer piped up.

Odo, grateful for something else to occupy his thoughts, typed a new command into the helm controls. He dropped the shuttle gently out of warp and let the autopilot system take over again

Deep Space Nine's familiar curved spires grew larger against the static stellar background. Such a majestic structure-- sometimes Odo found it hard to believe Cardassians built the thing. Its gleaming windows were compound eyes peering into the universe.

"Kejal, we're about to dock."

The puddle oozed away. A Changeling's equivalent to the old 'five more minutes' groan Odo heard many times from Kira.

Odo rolled his eyes. "Docking will take less than five minutes. You might as well assume your humanoid form now."

A face emerged from the goo. Kejal's familiar features gradually formed until he stood there in his humanoid form. He'd chosen a Bajoran security uniform, albeit green instead of brown.

"Coming back here feels spooky."

"What?" Odo raised a brow. "Why?"

"Father was with us. Not in this same ship, but..."

"Ah. Yes. You're right."

"We're being hailed."

Odo activated the comm system. Kira's face appeared onscreen. She'd braided her hair and put on makeup. Her lips looked especially beautiful while painted shiny red.

"Odo, I just thought I'd warn you...the place went a little crazy when I got back and your arrival is, erm, anticipated. There is going to be a belated wedding reception in Quark's, so make sure you put on that amazing wedding tuxedo." She stepped back, revealing she'd arrayed herself in her wedding dress once again. "I didn't want you caught completely by surprise."

With a groan, Odo let his head fall chin to chest. "Wonderful...an audience."

"Oh, it won't be so bad. Just wave and you'll be fine." Kira smiled. "I'll see you in a few minutes."

"I look forward to seeing you, too. You look beautiful." Odo replied with a small grin of his own. "Odo, out."

"It's going to be a party." Kejal's eyes were already lighting up.

"You are not going to sing any Klingon opera."

Kejal's brown eyes widened. He put on his best innocent face. "Me? Why would I do a thing like that?"

Odo smirked. "Because you're my son and I know you far too well. Sing anything else, but no Klingon opera. My ears will thank you."

"Not even an aria from-- "

"No."

Kejal laughed and squeezed Odo's shoulders. "I promise not to sing any Klingon operas. But anything else is fair game! And I will be singing your first dance song."

"That's a human tradition."

"And it will be expected at this reception, mother."

Odo elbowed Kejal in the chest, knowing full well it wouldn't hurt him. He shape shifted his outer clothing into his wedding tuxedo, complete with coattails, red bow tie and gold waistcoat.

"Go sit down and let's get this entrance over with," he grinned.

Exactly six minutes later, Kira met Odo and Kejal at the airlock. Kejal went on ahead. Odo groaned at hearing him announce their arrival. An announcement followed by cheering meant a crowd.

Kira wrapped her arm around Odo's. "Don't look so grumpy. They're old friends."

Chuckling, Odo kissed her nose ridges. "All right. For you."

He took a deep breath and started walking. With her beside him looking more beautiful than any living creature, he knew the cheering crowd full of new and familiar faces didn't matter. They could tackle anything together.

.o

"You're his son?"

Kejal eyed the wrinkled Ferengi behind the bar. "Yes, yes, I am."

"Well, I'd like to know how he managed that." Quark cleaned out a rectangular shot glass. "Kejal, is it?"

"Mmhmm. It's a long story, but you talked to him more than once when he was pregnant with me." Kejal beamed at the two Bajoran dabo girls behind him. "Excuse me."

He approached the impeccably dressed women. "Ladies...is it warm in here, or is it you?"

The tall blonde in pink gasped. "Oh! Well, isn't he cute?"

"Mmhmm." The petite brunette wearing black leaned against Kejal. "Care for a game, darlin'?"

"I was hoping you'd ask." Kejal mimed cracking his knuckles and placed his chips on his chosen numbers. The wheel spun, slowed and flashed. Kejal's eyes widened. "Dabo!"

"Well, well, he's a lucky one." The blond cooed in Kejal's ear, "By the way, I'm Eyana."

"And I'm Palat. Feel like another spin?"

Kejal's face lit up. "For you lovely ladies, I'll spin anything." He placed his chips. "Let's go aga-- uh oh, security! Sorry, I need to scram!"

He hid his winnings in his substance before grinning innocently at Malath. Behind him, Palat and Eyana laughed.

"Ah! Malath!" Kejal approached his Andorian friend. "My favorite blueberry pie!"

"Says the jelly doughnut." Malath folded his arms. "So..." He whacked Kejal in the back, causing him to literally cough up the latinum he won. "What is this?"

"I won it legally." Kejal sniffed in mock contempt.

They chuckled and hugged each other.

"How is your father?"

At that, Kejal's face fell. "He died not long ago. Delfeya syndrome is an awful disease."

"I'm sorry." Malath picked up the latinum Kejal spat out. "I hope his passing was painless."

"It was." Kejal accepted his winnings. He thought he saw Mora walking into the bar, but when he blinked there was nobody there.

Instead, his eyes fell upon a beautiful Deltan organ. Authentic crystal keys activated by lasers, transparent pipes and two accessory microphones for singing.

"Oh..." Kejal licked his lips. "Malath, how long has that been here?"

Malath's antennae twitched. He was an excellent organ player and Kejal knew it. "One month. Are you in the mood for a song or two?"

"You read my mind. But hold on, here come mother and mom."

"Ah."

Kira and Odo existed in their own little bubble. They offered fleeting acknowledgement towards the people bustling into Quark's with them.

"Great. Odo shows up and gets married and the whole place erupts." Quark snorted. "Fine. All first drinks are on the house, but you're paying for everything else!"

Odo stopped walking. He faced the bar, put on his best scowl and snarled, "QUARK!"

Quark grinned. "Don't bother. You aren't the security chief anymore."

"But I am." Malath pinned the Ferengi with his best glare. "I have my eyes on you, Quark."

Kira laid her head on Odo's shoulder, smiling. "Some things never change, do they? So, first dance? The people insist."

Kejal noticed Odo's curious glance. He leaned on the organ.

"Malath?"

Malath seated himself behind the glistening instrument. "Which song do you want, Kejal?"

Grabbing the cone shaped microphone, Kejal winked one eye shut. "Do you remember-- "

"Hey!" Eyana joined Kejal by the organ. "You're a singer? So am I!"

"That's great!" Kejal's face lit up. He named a popular Bajoran love song. "Do you know that one?"

"Mmhmm, never had a duet partner for it." She batted her eyes. "Think you can handle me?"

Kejal's eyes gleamed wickedly. "For a lovely lady like you? I'll handle anything. Malath?"

Malath cracked his knuckles and wiggled his fingers. "Of course I know this one. I thought you were challenging me."

Laughing, Kejal slapped his blue-skinned friend on the back. "Tch! I will with the next one. Hit it, old friend!"

In the middle of the bar, Odo and Kira stood together. Everyone cleared a space just for them. They still lived inside a world including no one else. Their eyes remained locked.

Malath's fingers rippled along the organ keyboard. Kejal tapped his foot. At just the right moment, he lifted the microphone to his lips and began.

"'Moon so bright, night so fine. Keep your heart here with mine. Life's a dream we are dreaming...'"

Eyana sang into her microphone next. A clear, ethereal soprano that made Kejal grin in delight.

"'Race the moon, catch the wind. Ride the night to the end. Seize the day, stand up for the light!'"

Kira and Odo moved slowly to the song's beat. Odo brought Kira's hand to his chest. It looked practiced, yet Kejal knew they improvised each perfectly coordinated step. They were so attuned to each other that they didn't have to guess the next move. The dance steps just happened.

Together, Eyana and Kejal burst into the chorus.

"'I want to spend my lifetime loving you. If that is all in life I ever do...'"

A few partygoers clapped at seeing Odo spin Kira and pull her close again. He smiled impishly, which made Kira mirror his expression. Their moves slowly grew more elaborate.

Kejal and Eyana kept singing, feeding off each other's energy, and together they sprang into the song's bridge.

"'...though we know we will never come again. Where there is love, life begins over and over again!'"

And then a sudden decrescendo...Odo and Kira following the slowing beat like experts.

"'Save the night, save the day. Save the love, come what may. Love is worth everything we pay! I want to spend my lifetime loving you...'"

Kira wrapped her arms around Odo's neck. Now they danced so close they created one shadow on the floor. Kejal noticed tears in his mother's eyes. Kira leaned forward. Odo's forehead rested against hers.

It was like watching a god love a mortal. Kira, so transient, held within the arms of Odo, a being destined to live longer than the stars.

Kejal glanced at Eyana. Eyana smiled back. They finished the song together.

"'...I will want nothing else to see me through. If I can spend my life time loving you...'"

Odo dipped Kira. They ended their dance with a passionate kiss and the bar erupted in cheers, cat calls and whistles. Somewhere, a champagne cork popped.

"Uh oh. Kejal! Incoming!"

Kejal turned his head liquid just in time for the cork to pass right through and hit the wall behind him. He solidified, looked behind him and faced forward again, laughing. "Nice one!"

Eyana stared. "So that's what it looks like when you shape shift."

"That was nothing." Kejal chuckled. "Nice singing, by the way."

"You, too. By the Prophets, I was so nervous!"

Kejal smiled, tilting his head. "Aw, I couldn't tell. You sounded great!"

"Thank you." Eyana blushed, brushing her hair off her forehead. "So, what else can you do?"

"I'll show you in a few minutes." He rapped on the Deltan organ and named something upbeat. "I need to stir this place up. Malath? Let's make this party a party."

Malath threw his head back and laughed. "If you insist, but don't blame me if it sounds horrible."

"Kejal!" Odo warned.

"It's not Klingon, mother. It's from Earth!"

Malath changed the organ's settings. His fingers lit up each key. The upbeat music started. Something definitely not Klingon. A centuries-old song played in "clubs" according to its history. Kejal liked it for its simple, happy lyrics and he thought it appropriate within the wedding reception atmosphere.

Kira was certainly tapping her feet.

Kejal winked at Eyana and clambered onto the bar.

"Hey!" Quark complained.

"Sorry, I need a stage. Just one song, I swear!" Kejal told the glaring Ferengi. Then he looked up. "Everyone, I'd like to dedicate this performance to Doctor Mora Pol, who is watching from the Celestial Temple. Father, I hope you're listening."

"Let's hear it!" shouted a Bolian on the second level.

Malath's fingers lit up the Deltan organ's keys. He played a series of quick, energetic chords.

Kejal brought the microphone close, counted the beats in his mind and let his voice fly.

"Each time I see your face, your smile is shining through. I can't help the way I feel. It's all because of you. You stole me from my world and said that you'd be mine. That's good enough for me, 'cause I'm on top and now I'm feelin' fine! Now I'm feelin' fine...'"

The pounding beat picked up. Kejal hopped in place, rattling the drinks on the bar. He couldn't avoid dancing!

Kira managed to get Odo swaying. He twirled her. She threw her head back, laughing. They exchanged playfully chaste kisses. Above them, the Bolian who shouted at him whistled.

Kejal leaned over to sing to the elderly Lurian sitting alone at the bar. Then he stepped past him and winked at Eyana and Palat. Behind them, Julian Bashir snapped his fingers to the beat. Quark pulled a beer mug off the bar. Three annoyed-looking Klingons headed straight for the door.

Kejal's grin widened. He was in his element, and it felt great!

"I looked into your heart. I know that you are true. No matter what I see, you're always shining through! I always looked at you and you give me a sign. That's good enough for me, 'cause I'm on top, and now I'm feelin' fine...'"

Amused, Kejal made eye contact with Malath, who leaned back and shook his shoulders to the beat. He was singing it too! And he claimed he didn't know Earth music that well!

"'Feelin' fine. Yes, I'm feelin' fine...'"

Kejal beckoned at his audience. Most of them were dancing with each other and having as much fun as anyone could have at a surprise wedding reception.

He finished the song by back-flipping off the bar. Six points of light danced off the crystalline microphone in his hand. He landed in a crouch and straightened with a grin.

Malath clapped a hand on Kejal's shoulder. "Excellent performance. Now, give me that latinum."

"What for?"

"It'll pay your fine for disturbing the peace."

"Fine! Have it all!" Kejal handed it over. He snickered. "I have no use for it. The song was worth it! Besides, you'll just lose it all on the dom-jot table anyway."

Malath frowned in mock contempt. "Don't tempt me to double the fine."

Kejal made a face at the blue-skinned Andorian. He saw lines barely starting around his friend's eyes. Even he wasn't immune to time's inexorable march.

"They look so happy." Malath nodded towards Odo and Kira.

"They are," said Kejal. "This is a long time coming."

"Heh." Malath brushed imagined dust off his brown uniform. "I must get back to work. It was good seeing you again, Kejal."

Kejal hugged him. "Ah, I had an awful time with you. You're terrible company!"

They snorted.

"Take care of yourself." Malath said before he worked his way through the people coming towards the bar.

Kejal spotted Kira weaving between people and tonga tables. A slender Asian man wearing a gray Starfleet uniform walked beside her. He had a shy, gummy grin.

"Kejal," Kira smiled, looking to the young man, "I'd like you to meet Kirayoshi. Kirayoshi, this is Kejal. He is Odo's son."

"Kirayoshi!" Kejal clasped the man's hand and gave him a firm handshake. "I've heard a lot about you."

Giggling, Kira slipped away to join Odo at a table upstairs.

"Auntie Nerys is practically my second mom. And please, call me Yoshi," said Kirayoshi. His smile crinkled his slanted eyes. "You have a great voice."

"Ah, thanks! So, what do you do for a living?"

Kirayoshi's expression brightened with pride. "I'm the station's chief engineer. I learned from my dad."

"An engineer? Ooh." Kejal glanced at Palat and Eyana. Mischief flitted across his face. "Come on. Tell me all about it over the dabo wheel."

Just before Kejal made his bets, he felt a hand on his shoulder.

"A rousing performance," said a familiar voice. "He would be pleased."

Kejal turned. He could recognize that chiseled jaw anywhere, hood or no hood. "Ambassador Spock...what are you doing here?"

"Merely passing through." Ambassador Spock kept his voice nonchalant. "I wish to express my condolences. I just read Doctor Mora's last treatise."

"Oh? What did you think?"

To Kejal's surprise, the Ambassador smiled. Faintly, little more than a twitch, but a smile nonetheless.

"Fascinating."

Kejal grinned at him. "Father would be glad to hear that."

"Indeed." Ambassador Spock respectfully dipped his head. "I must take my leave. Live long and prosper, Kejal."

"Live long and prosper, Ambassador." Kejal nodded back. "Hey, fancy a game?"

He felt rather than saw the Vulcan's slanted eyebrow quirk upward.

"Hm." Ambassador Spock studied the wheel carefully. He set one chip down on a seemingly random number.

Palat and Eyana nudged each other. Kirayoshi grinned like he'd won a jackpot. Ambassador Spock had that effect on people, Kejal noticed.

The wheel spun, stopped and flashed.

"Dabo!" Kejal cried jubilantly. "Here's your-- " He turned to offer his congratulations and latinum, but Ambassador Spock had already left.
End Notes:

**Chapter soundtrack**

Isolinear Memories: https://app.box.com/s/ygink81qq9hru4ls1884

Back to Deep Space Nine: https://app.box.com/s/xe0atxijbctgkrbl36pj

A Belated Wedding Dance: https://app.box.com/s/05iz6wqh633n9n2voe9t

Let's Party: https://app.box.com/s/hcvuakpv7hde2tl1aia0
18. Footprints by Cyndi
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18. Footprints

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"Wait, wait, explain it to me one more time." Quark folded his hands on the table, where he'd rudely butted in on Kira and Odo's private space. "You were pregnant during the fabric counterfeiting debacle?"

Odo couldn't hide his smile. He'd already explained how it happened. Now, he enjoyed watching the wheels in the Ferengi's head turn. "I was actually in labor during the sting operation."

Quark's gaze flitted to Kira.

"He was," she added. "He had Kejal two hours later."

"Well! That explains the mood swings." Quark scoffed. "One minute you were almost chipper. The next, you bit my head off."

"Your skull is too thick to chew on." Odo remarked off-handedly.

Kira almost spat out her springwine.

Quark snickered, tapping his fingers on the table just loud enough to annoy Odo. The years wrinkled his skin, but his wit remained sharp as ever. "Good, I rather like my skull the way it is. Anyway, I like Kejal a lot more than I like you. He actually knows how to have fun. Even if it did mean disrupting my business...now look at him. The ladies love him."

Odo watched Kejal lean on the dabo table directly below him and wink at the two dabo girls he was hanging around with earlier. The blonde leaned against his shoulder. The brunette kept giggling and accepting his chips. Across the table, Kirayoshi placed his bets. They got along great.

"Heh, Kejal was blessed with all the charm I never had."

"You can say that again." Quark snorted. He broke into a sharp-toothed grin. "It's not the same without you, Odo."

Kira placed her hand in Odo's.

"I know, but I'm not staying." Odo said solemnly. "But don't think you can get away with anything. Malath is an excellent security chief."

Quark rolled his eyes. "Tch, yeah. He's as annoying as you were."

"Good! Now be a proper bartender and bring us both some champagne."

"You drink now?"

"I can, yes." Odo glanced at Kira.

"His appearance isn't the only thing that's changed." Kira leaned her shoulder against Odo's. He felt his substance tremble at her touch.

The lecherous grin Quark flashed on his way to get their drinks made Odo roll his eyes.

"He is still a pest," Odo grumbled.

Kira patted his forearm. "But he runs a good bar and holosuite. It's been years since he's caused any real trouble. Malath keeps him in line."

Quark returned with their requested beverages. He rubbed his hands together after delivering them.

"Well, you two, enjoy your reception. I hope the marriage lasts longer than the pining." He looked pointedly at Odo.

"Hmph!" Odo raised his glass. "Nerys, here's to us."

"And here's to marriage." Kira tapped her glass against Odo's.

"Great...now, don't hesitate to look me up if you need frictionless sheets."

Kira gasped and shot Quark a death glare.

"Quark!" Odo snarled.

Quark smiled again and beat a hasty retreat to hop behind his bar once more. He moved quick for an old Ferengi.

"Ugh, same old Quark." Odo sipped generously from his champagne glass. He swallowed and let the vacuole settle in his chest. His eyes drifted shut. The champagne bubbles tickled almost unbearably. Memories of thirty years ago drifted through his mind.

Kira laid her head on his shoulder. "What are you doing?"

"Oh." Odo set his glass down and took her hand. "I suppose I'm remembering how it felt to carry Kejal in my chest. Even now, I sometimes miss it."

She smiled softly. The lighting above the table complimented the auburn of her hair. "Are you capable of having more children?"

"It's...complicated. I could, yes, but I don't want to. It wouldn't be the same." Odo rubbed his thumb across her bumpy knuckles. "My people don't reproduce sexually. But if a Changeling is ill or otherwise dying, they can allow themselves to be absorbed by another willing, healthy Changeling. They gestate for anywhere from a week to a month and are born again as an infant, healthy, and with all their previous knowledge. All they have to do is grow up again.

"As it turns out, the Hundred-- me included-- had their memories wiped immediately after birth, but the records are incomplete. I can't tell you why or how. Sometimes I wonder who I was before."

Kira's eyes softened when she focused on his face. "Maybe you were like Kejal."

Odo chuckled, kissing her forehead. "Who knows?"

"Dabo!" Kejal shouted below. "Hey, mother, mom, I'm on fire here!"

Kira raised her glass to him. "Don't burn yourself out too fast!"

Odo peered over the railing. Kejal had a sizeable pile of gold pressed latinum.

"Sometimes, it feels like he's ours," said Kira.

"That was my initial thought, too. In a way, he is ours. You took part in shaping him. Just as Doctor Mora and I did." Odo lowered his gaze. The pain of loss stung like a hot ember. "He would have enjoyed Kejal's stunt on the bar."

Kira squeezed his hand. "He watched from the Celestial Temple."

"I...hope so." Odo said it more for her sake than his. The subject at hand dug at his rawest wounds. He changed the topic by leaning in and whispering in her ear, "You know, Nerys...we never did have a proper wedding night."

He loved how her cheeks colored. "Is that a hint, Odo?"

The kiss he gave her erased all doubt.

Together, hand in hand, they threaded their way downstairs, left Quark's bar and stepped into the nearest turbolift.

Odo felt a sense of anticipation and dread when the turbolift started moving. Tomorrow morning, he'd be separated from Kira once again. Maybe for a long time.

Maybe years.

Maybe decades.

Thirty years changed nothing between us...a dozen more won't change anything either.

He let his eyes follow a lock of hair that brushed Kira's throat. Her pulse throbbed just below her jaw. Unable to stop himself, he leaned over and slowly kissed along the curve of her neck.

I am hers, and she is mine...the distance doesn't matter anymore.

"Odo..." Kira's breathing deepened. She groaned as he nibbled the shell of her ear. He placed his hands on her shoulders and literally let the substance of his fingers trickle down her skin. Goosebumps broke out all over her flesh. Her nipples hardened when he caressed them secretly under her dress.

They had to stop when they reached the level of Kira's quarters. A cadet entered the turbolift they were leaving. Their hands remained interlocked. To Odo's amusement, it took forever for Kira's shaky fingers to punch in her key code.

There was a swish and a hiss, and the doors opened. The sand mandala Kira brought to the station reflected images of them kissing deeply.

"Let's take our time," whispered Odo. "Let tonight last forever. Let tomorrow never come."

"I'm in no hurry, but you seem to be." Kira grinned, nipping his earlobe. In his ear, she cooed, "Let me take care of you. Then we'll go slow."

Nodding once, Odo somehow made it to the bed. She straddled his waist in her sparkling wedding gown. The kisses she gave him were...he could only describe them as predatory. Exactly the sort that excited him the most. She loosened his bow tie, unbuttoned his shirt collar and exhaled hot air across his jaw.

Odo found himself completely helpless in her arms. Kira kissed his mouth, winked and scooted back.

"I've always wanted to try this with you."

She unclasped his tuxedo slacks. He felt everything. Her fingertips, the vibration of the zipper going down and his shirt being moved up.

Then her mouth was on him, and he lost all ability to speak. He tried to stay solid, to make it last, but the sensations overpowered him within thirty seconds. So wet, slippery and warm. Rushing in and retreating like ocean tides. His sharp cry of release came at the same moment he melted into liquid on her mattress.

He remembered the champagne he drank too late. It escaped through the point of contact.

Nearly a minute passed before Odo remembered how to regain his form.

"Nerys, I'm...I'm sorry. I didn't mean to-- "

"Hush. I liked it." Kira placed a finger on his lips. There wasn't a drop on her. She grinned at him. "Let me get out of this dress."

Odo shape shifted his clothing away. When Kira walked towards her storage closet, he slipped behind her, gently kissing her skin as she exposed it. He helped her hang up the gold lace jacket and the simple red satin gown that went underneath.

"Are you wearing perfume?" Odo rumbled in her ear.

"Mmhmm...can you smell it?"

"No, I was wondering. What is the scent?"

"It's called After Dark." Kira showed him the blue triangular bottle. "I think it smells a little like champagne mixed into lavender incense."

"I remember the scents. You had me keep a bowl of lavender oil by my bed when I complained that I couldn't sleep as a humanoid. It did work, by the way."

She chuckled, deepening the fine lines around her eyes. Her hands worked quickly to undo her strapless pink bra and slid off her seamless jockey style underwear. Afterward, she used some sort of cloth that wiped the makeup off her face without water.

Odo unclasped the golden barrette holding her braid together. He trailed his fingers through her hair, relishing its softness as it slid between them. When down, her hair fell to her waist in auburn waves. Here and there, a few gray strands expressed her age. He could tell she kept it meticulously trimmed.

"I'm going to cut it short again," she mused.

"Why? It's beautiful like this. I remember...you had long hair when we first met."

Kira's eyes welled up. She caught Odo's hand, squeezing it.

"I cut it right after the Occupation ended. I started growing it again after you left. My hair was always long when you weren't part of my life." She took a pair of shiny silver shears out of a drawer and hastily gathered her hair in a low ponytail. "Odo, I want you to cut my hair."

Odo knew he'd find her beautiful no matter the length or color of her hair.

The shears were cold in his hand. He grasped Kira's ponytail, positioned the shears just above the rubber band and squeezed. In three snips, the ponytail fell to the floor like a discarded garment. Her remaining hair swung free around the nape of her neck.

Kira's shoulders relaxed. She let out the breath Odo didn't know she'd been holding. Two tears dripped down her cheekbones. She turned and embraced him tightly, causing him to drop the shears on the pile of her hair.

"You're the love of my life," Kira sniffed. "If I never see you again after tonight..."

"You will, Nerys." Odo kissed the tears off her face. "I promise, we will see each other. Now that I know it's still possible. Somehow. I will find a way."

They kept embracing, their foreheads touching.

Her lips quivered. "I'll wait as long as it takes. Just promise me you'll leave before I wake up tomorrow."

"Why?"

She swallowed hard, fighting for control of her emotions.

"Because it's the only way I'll be able to let you go again. Please, Odo..."

Odo nodded, reluctant. "All right." He pressed his lips to her brow. Anything to make it easier for her.

At his kiss, she broke down and sobbed into his chest.

This time, she didn't cry alone.

Odo led Kira back to the bed. Without a word, he surrounded her in his substance as they exchanged desperate kisses. There was no way to determine where her body ended and his began. They loved as a single being. Every breath came in unison. At the point of climax, they held each others' gaze. Afterward, they laid together to enjoy the afterglow.

"Do you remember what you did the night we first made love?" asked Kira.

"Mmhmm."

She kissed in his ear, "Let me see that again."

Odo happily obliged. He felt his form growing lighter as he became a glowing mist. Kira's fingers reached through him. She was breathing him in and exhaling him out. He settled on her skin like dew. She caressed herself-- and him.

"You're so beautiful, Odo," Kira gasped.

He reformed beside her. "So are you, Nerys."

They made love again. Slowly. Anything to delay the inevitable.

For the next round, he remained in his liquid state. He wanted to make up for all the times he wasn't around. For all the times he wouldn't be around.

Their lovemaking lasted until the wee hours. Kira fought sleep with all her might. But, eventually, after a whispered 'I love you,' Odo heard her soft snoring.

He didn't know how long he laid there, holding her in his arms. He'd memorized every aspect of her body long ago, yet there, in the silence, he did it again. The softness inside her thighs, the swell of her breasts, the curve created by her neck and the lines around her lips. He committed them all to the deepest corners in his mind.

Kira's clock struck oh-three-hundred. Odo knew he had to go.

He kissed his beloved wife deeply on the lips before he liquefied, oozed to the floor and reformed fully clothed in brown Bajoran travel attire.

Kira mumbled his name in her sleep. Her hand pawed at the space he recently occupied.

Odo padded to Kira's discarded ponytail. He quickly braided it, rolled it up into a ball and slipped it into a pocket he formed in his trousers. She'd want him to take it.

The sand mandala reflected Odo's image when he knelt at Kira's bedside and kissed her goodbye.

"I love you, Nerys. I've always loved you."

Then he left her there, alone. He walked quickly down the corridor without looking back for fear of hearing her cry, but he wasn't fast enough to escape his own tears. Two swipes of his hands wiped them off before he reached the Promenade.

Kejal sat against the door of Quark's closed bar. His face was covered in lipstick marks. He looked up, winked an eye shut and grinned.

Odo's sadness melted into uncontrollable laughter. He covered his mouth to muffle the noise. "What happened to you?"

"I paid women to kiss me." Kejal said proudly. "Malath didn't believe it'd work, so I proved him wrong. He threw me in a holding cell because he was mad about losing the bet. I sang Klingon operas until he kicked me out again, heh-heh! I bought him a drink to make it up to him. Oh! By the way, this one-- " he gestured to a dark red mark on his forehead-- "is from Chalan Aroya. I told her all about father. She said to send you her condolences."

He went on to point out and name the owner of each consecutive lipstick print.

Only you, Kejal... Odo thought with affection. He offered his hand.

Kejal accepted, letting Odo help him up. His face scrunched when Odo turned his fist into a cleaning cloth and wiped the lipstick off his skin.

"I miss father here more than at his home. His home is full of happy memories...but not this station. Does that seem strange, mother?"

Odo hugged Kejal to his chest. "No. I miss him here, too."

Through the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Doctor Mora step into the nearby turbolift. The image vanished when he blinked.

"Come on. I want to make sure the shuttlecraft is refueled."

"You're in a hurry." Kejal snorted.

"Nerys asked me to leave before she woke up." Odo replied.

"Yeah. Her room. You take care of the shuttle. I'm going to wait and say goodbye to her."

Odo rolled his eyes, but he knew this meant a lot to Kejal. Decades could pass before they came this way again.

"All right, Kejal. She should be up in about two hours. I'm going to regenerate in the shuttle. Don't fool around."

"I won't. I think I sang myself out at the bar." Kejal smiled impishly. "I'll see you in awhile."

Nodding once, Odo took the tuborlift next to Quark's bar. Kejal climbed the stairs to the second level of the Promenade and shape shifted into a potted spiny basil plant.

Odo slipped Kira's lock of hair into Kejal's travel bag. Then he liquefied beside it. This regeneration period ended up being the most peaceful he'd had in months.

.o

Nobody paid attention to the spiny basil plant liquefying and oozing into the nearest air vent. Then again, not many people looked down at their feet early in the morning.

Kejal found Kira's office through trial and error. She ended up walking in while he was playfully spinning around in her huge chair.

"What in the-- Kejal?"

"Whoops!" Kejal stomped his foot to stop the spinning. "I came to say goodbye before mother and I left the station." He cocked his head. "You cut your hair."

She touched her hair, which she'd styled much like she had in the one old photo Odo had of her. "Yeah."

"But don't worry, it looks nice. Really." Kejal stood and walked past her desk. He gathered her in a strong hug. "I'm so glad I got to know you."

Kira sniffed, but somehow didn't burst into tears. She rested her head on his shoulder. "The feeling's mutual."

"But the goodbyes are hard, aren't they?" Kejal whispered, rubbing her back.

"Yup." She wiped her eyes and held onto his shoulders. How did she find such strength? "But you better go. A Romulan freighter is supposed to dock in an hour, and somehow I have to keep them away from the Klingons again."

"This job keeps you busy."

Nodding, she swallowed all her tears and straightened. "It does, but I wouldn't change anything about it."

"Good. Don't." Kejal chuckled. "Besides, it must annoy the Cardassians."

"Definitely!" Kira joined his amusement. She shook her head, sighed and cupped his face in her palms. "Sometimes, I feel like you belong to Odo and I."

Kejal's eyes softened. He grasped her wrists. "In a way, I do."

She kissed his forehead. "You should get going."

He hugged her again. "Take care, mom. I love you."

Her hands squeezed his forearms. "I love you too, son."

Elated, Kejal turned and exited her office.

Exactly four hours from that moment, Odo and Kejal sat together in a tiny two-seater science shuttle. On the viewscreen, the billowing structure of Kejal's nebula spread out before them.

Odo brought the ship as close as he safely could to the dark area of increased molecular density.

"Ready?" Odo asked.

Kejal handed him the rectangular box. "Ready."

Odo took out the braid. Kejal watched him gingerly lay it down on the transporter pad. As he did, the last words from Mora's final treatise echoed in his mind.

"What is life? What makes us alive? What makes our genes tick? What force animates us? I don't have that answer.

"What I do know, however, is life itself is about learning. Through our experiences, we grow, and through growth we acquire even more knowledge."


Kejal leaned on Odo's back. "This is a great thing you're doing, mother. Something only a scientist can appreciate."

Odo smiled over his shoulder. "I know."

"Our lives are a journey, and the path we take isn't always certain, but by applying what we've learned and experienced, we have the ability to create our own destination regardless of the terrain we face...and no matter where we walk, we leave footprints behind."

"It was your idea. You should do the honors." Kejal stroked the braid. Emotion swept over him. "He would want you to do it."

"From stardust we came, and to stardust I return you." Odo whispered under his breath, "Goodbye, Doctor Mora. No, goodbye...father."

To the computer, he said, "Energize."

"When I look back at my own path, I feel proud. Yes, there are parts I wish I could change, but overall I'm proud of what I have achieved in my lifetime."

Mora's braid disappeared in a white shimmer. The panel behind the transport pad lit up to confirm its safe arrival at its destination.

"I have two fantastic sons. We are not biologically related, yet they mean as much to me as my own flesh and blood. Watching them grow and learn has been the most rewarding experience of my lifetime."

Odo looked up at the viewscreen. His blue eyes gleamed. He wrapped his arm around Kejal's shoulders and pulled him close. Kejal welcomed the comforting half-hug.

"Let's wave to him." He said, raising his hand.

Smiling, Odo did the same. "That felt like goodbye."

"Their names are Odo and Kejal, and they are my footprints."

Onscreen, the dark section of the nebula churned like a Changeling taking shape.

"Let's go home," whispered Kejal.

Odo sat down and set in the course. Kejal glanced at the nebula on the viewscreen as the shuttlecraft pulled away. Seeing it sent a delightful shiver down his back, though he wasn't sure why.

I'm just tired. It's been a long night...oh wait, it's technically morning.

Kejal puffed out his cheeks and rubbed his eyes. "I'm going to regenerate. Will you be okay, mother?"

"Mmhmm."

The slosh of a Changeling liquefying filled the cabin. Only a tiny fraction of him remained conscious. Enough to sense Odo setting the ship on autopilot and leaning back in his chair.

During the next two hours, Odo slept. He did that a lot now-- just relaxing and going to sleep in his humanoid form. Except, this time, he mumbled Mora's name. Twice.

Kejal reassumed humanoid form. He watched his mother's hands twitch as though grasping someone's clothes. Odo's simulated breathing accelerated. He behaved in an extremely perturbed manner.

Then, suddenly, he startled awake, wide-eyed and gasping.

"Are you okay?" Kejal asked.

Odo groaned, shifting in his seat. "I'm fine. I...just a dream. I'm fine, Kejal."

"What was it about?"

A beep from the computer prompted Odo to make a minor course adjustment.

"I saw Doctor Mora in my dream." Odo replied. He shook his head and folded his arms.

Kejal gasped and leaned into his mother's personal space. "Mom says dreams of people who died are their way of visiting you. What did he look like? Do you remember?"

Something haunted flashed through Odo's blue eyes.

"He, um, he looked exactly like his wedding hologram. He had the blond braid...he looked younger than he was when I first encountered him."

Odo's description made Kejal long for the ability to sleep and dream. He curled up in his mother's lap, laying his head upon his shoulder.

"Tell me more."

"There isn't much to tell, Kejal." Odo encircled Kejal in his arms. "We were standing in a place of foggy white light, I suppose, and he was wearing white clothing. He hugged me, much like I'm holding you. His arms were strong again. He looked completely healthy, Kejal..."

More emotion washed over Kejal. His inner substance churned with the desire to hug his father again, and it hurt that he couldn't.

"Did he say anything?"

"Hm. Just some nonsense about seeing us in about eleven billion years. Dreams are often ridiculous and defy logic, so it didn't surprise me."

Kejal chuckled. "Mother, I think he's trying to tell you what you refuse to see. He's okay. He really is okay."

Odo kissed Kejal's hairline. "I admire your faith. Nerys once said faith is a journey."

"It is. Sometimes it happens overnight, and sometimes it takes a lifetime." Kejal met Odo's eyes. "Transporting father's braid into the nebula is just like the deka tree seed. You hope a star will form there, don't you?"

"I do. And I hope we're both still alive to see that star when it shines."

"We will be. I hope it has planets. Planets with people to watch that sun rise and set every single day."

Kejal felt Odo's mouth stretch in a smile against his forehead. "Oh, Kejal, you're such a dreamer."

"So are you. Don't pretend you aren't. I've seen parts of your mind that nobody else ever will." He touched his mother's chest. The very spot he was born from. "I saw all your hopes and dreams for me as I left your body. And they came true."

Odo squeezed Kejal's shoulder. "I know. I watched the holo-videos Doctor Mora left in his desk. He loved you with all he had, Kejal. Same as me."

Kejal focused on Odo's eyes. They carried a sadness in them that never entirely disappeared.

"He loved you that way, too, mother, but he didn't realize it until you left the lab. Do you remember the day he was talking nonsense about events from years ago?"

"I do."

Sitting up, Kejal went on. "One of those bad spells took him back to the day you left. He was crying. He said we had to find you before the Cardassians did. He said you were terrified of thunder. He said he needed to tell you he was sorry."

"I was able to say what needed to be said. You walked in right after we finished the conversation, actually. The night he died..."

"I know, and I'm glad." Kejal smiled and poked Odo's cheek. "So, are you going to let me fly this ship?"

Odo snorted and gestured at the controls. "Go ahead, but get in your own chair first. You're heavy."

Laughing, Kejal moved to his seat and took the ship off autopilot. It wasn't long before the viewscreen showed a familiar brown world circling its central red dwarf.

"By the way, in my dream..." Odo spoke without taking his eyes off the viewscreen, "Doctor Mora showed me his wife and son. Olan looks just like him. Then he said something about life being love and love is something else, but my memory of the dream is fuzzy after that."

"And that's not enough to prove there's more?"

"Can we drop the subject?"

"Tch, you're so stubborn! Here, you fly this thing." Kejal got up and paced circles around the cabin. Now that he could see his homeworld, he was impatient to get back into the Great Link and share his experiences.

The lack of space in the shuttle meant he stepped on the transporter pad with each pass.

"Doctor Mora said the same thing." Odo remarked. He slid his hand across the control panel.

When Kejal stepped on the warp pad again, everything glimmered. Suddenly, he stood alone beneath a cloudy reddish-brown sky.

"Mother!" Kejal shook his fist playfully at the sky.

Odo shimmered into view holding the travel bag. He grinned. "You forgot your bag."

"Hey, you beamed me without warning."

"My hand slipped."

"Tch." Kejal elbowed Odo's side. "What about the shuttle?"

"It's pre-programmed to return to Bajor if we don't beam back aboard within the hour, but I suspect it'll run out of fuel and end up adrift before it reaches the wormhole."

Kejal nodded once and looked out over the golden ocean. The pull of the Great Link gnawed at his mind like the chords of a song he couldn't stop thinking about.

"It's nice to be home. Hey, Vokau!" He ran up to the blob coming ashore and hugged it before it fully formed into Vokau.

She shot him a look without discouraging the embrace. "Welcome home, Kejal. Did Mora Pol die well?"

The point blank question made him flinch.

"Yes."

"I'm..." Vokau hesitated, searching for the right words, "sorry, Kejal. Is there anything I can do?"

Her gray eyes didn't quite reflect her emotions, yet Kejal picked them up in her quiet voice.

"Well..." Kejal stepped back and extended his hand. "Here."

Vokau grasped his wrist. He bowed his head and let his arm liquefy. The chemical receptors in his morphogenic matrix let him pass his entire two month experience to her in just a few seconds.

"Oh...I see." Vokau didn't let go of his hand after their arms re-solidified. She stepped forward, awkwardly reached up and embraced Kejal. He grinned at seeing her learn. "Am I doing this properly?"

"You bet." Kejal gave her a gentle squeeze. "See? Their expressions of affection aren't so horrible, are they?"

"No, they aren't." Vokau turned to Odo. "Odo, welcome home."

Odo smiled a little. "Thank you. Any trouble in our absence?"

"None," she replied. Then she faced Kejal again, her expression as close to curious as it ever got. "What is this Celestial Temple you mentioned a moment ago?"

"You want to see what I believe in? I'll show you." Kejal grasped Vokau's hand and liquefied his palm. Her gray eyes widened before their hands congealed again.

And for the first time, she smiled.

"Oh, Kejal," Vokau squeezed his hand tightly. "The Bajoran faith sounds like a wonderful thing, but I'm not sure I understand it."

"I'll teach anyone who wants to listen." Kejal grinned. "Mother? Shall w-- mother?"

"I'm here." Odo reappeared through the hidden trap door beneath the island rocks. "I put your bag in the vault below."

"Ah." Kejal looked up at the cloudy red sky. Dim rays of sunlight occasionally broke through. He'd been through such an experience in seeing the end of his father's life, yet here, at home, almost nothing had changed.

Life went on.

Vokau oozed back into the ocean of Changelings without another word. The surrounding golden fluid rippled and lapped against Kejal's boots, beckoning.

"They're waiting for us, mother."

Odo joined Kejal at the island's edge. "Let's go home and tell them about Doctor Mora."

"And you get to tell them all about married life."

"Hmph!"

Odo extended his hand. Kejal interlocked their fingers. He smiled, his brown eyes gleaming.

Together, the two wayward drops became an ocean.

And time marched onward...
End Notes:

**Chapter soundtrack**

Kira's Hair: https://app.box.com/s/1ddfbnwyzjghkytlw3uy

Leave Before I Wake: https://app.box.com/s/57y4a7ip1qi7e5f1a9ql

A Scientist's Goodbye: https://app.box.com/s/ivkhanreax27s08poigf
Epilogue: The Storyteller's Legacy by Cyndi
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Epilogue: The Storyteller's Legacy

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A breeze rippled the pond. It stilled again, creating a reflection of the Storyteller and the children gathered around him.

"Kira Nerys lived to be two hundred and thirty years old. Odo was able to see her once a year...sometimes twice. She and Odo always said they loved each other before parting ways, especially when her age became obvious. Her health stayed strong and she worked aboard Deep Space Nine until her dying day.

"Odo happened to be with her the night she died. She retired to bed complaining of a headache and said she'd visit the Infirmary if it wasn't better in the morning. Something about the way she spoke sounded wrong, yet Odo couldn't put his finger on it. He told her he loved her before they settled between the sheets, and she said she loved him too. When he awoke an hour later to her making the same gurgling noises he heard from Mora Pol, he knew, instinctively, that he was about to witness the end of her life. He didn't call an emergency medical team. No heroic measures could save her, and he didn't want her final living moments to be the pain of cortical stimulators and life support devices.

"Instead, he thanked Kira Nerys for all she gave him. She never regained consciousness, yet Odo told her he loved her over and over anyway. He had no regrets when she took her last, painless breath in his arms. The tears he cried for her were as numerous as the stars. Kejal found him that way when he came to see why Kira Nerys wasn't at her desk. He had to help Odo sit down when her remains were taken away in a body bag. They cried together-- or rather, Odo sobbed and Kejal longed to shed tears himself. Odo made sure Kira Nerys was clean, dressed in her wedding gown and wearing makeup before anyone else saw her. He chose the glossy red lipstick. Red was always beautiful on her lips. He never forgot how perfect her aged face looked the last time he set eyes on it.

"An autopsy revealed a ruptured aneurysm in her brainstem. If she survived it, she would have been in a permanent vegetative state. Not quite alive and not quite dead. Odo knew not calling for help was the right choice. He got to share a precious last moment with his wife, and he wouldn't have traded it for anything. She got to die in his arms, and he knew she wouldn't trade that for anything either.

"Kira Nerys' funeral was one to remember, and yes, Kejal sang at the service. Afterward, Odo had her cremated and absorbed her cremains into himself. He kept her ashes in the same place he carried Kejal during his pregnancy. She became a part of him, and her ashes never left his body, not even when he rejoined the Great Link.

"Over the next century, the Great Link dispersed into the universe, leaving Odo and Kejal alone on the Founders' homeworld. On that day, they made a promise to each other, embraced and went their separate ways to experience life as only Changelings can.

"Kejal returned to Bajor, where he became the first alien Vedek-- although few knew it, because by then he looked completely Bajoran. He also went into medicine, believing that spirituality and science could coexist to heal the sick. He studied Delfeya syndrome until the day he made a breakthrough in genetics. By chemically changing how the affected Bajoran's DNA folded into chromosomes, he was able to render the genes responsible for Delfeya syndrome inert. This was something no geneticist had thought to do before. He named it Mora's Solution and the first Bajoran to receive it was ninety-five year old man named Daran Fyal. Kejal shed his first tears on that bright fall morning, and he thanked the Prophets for giving him wisdom. A mere fifty years later, Delfeya syndrome went from a terminal disease to a treatable annoyance. In a hundred years, it practically disappeared from the Bajoran gene pool.

"With that goal met, he set his sights on another. He sipped deka tea every morning in honor of his father. By the way, he did finally taste it on the four-hundredth anniversary of Mora Pol's death-- and realized he hated it. Heh!

"He visited Mora Pol's grave often. A deka tree did grow in the spot where Odo planted a seed. Without guidance, it split two ways and bent over the graves, completely covering them in its branches. Kejal discovered it dropped its flowers on them throughout spring and rained seed pods in the winter. And he laughed-- perhaps the deka seed pod prank war wasn't lost after all.

"Six centuries after Mora Pol's death, a violent tornado destroyed what used to be his house and uprooted Kejal's beloved deka tree. Kejal was so distraught that he wouldn't visit the site for the next ten years. But, eventually, he did, and he found a surprise. The tornado had scattered his deka tree's seed pods. His tree's death gave its children room to grow. Their seeds fell and germinated until the hills were covered in deka trees. Within a century, Bajor named it the Aya forest. It had ten thousand and forty-five trees. Kejal counted them. He gave each tree a name, and he taught the children who played in that forest how to care for the trees. When they stumbled on the grave arches of Mora Pol and Mora Leruu, Kejal smiled a little sadly and told the children who they were.

"As for Odo...he chose to travel, taking Kira Nerys' ashes to every star she dreamed of seeing in person. Over the centuries, he single handedly ended three wars between six different races by encouraging them to talk rather than fight.

"He spent a brief time on Bajor with Kejal. By then, Kejal had built and lived in a small cabin deep within the Aya forest. It was there that Odo ran into a pregnant Bajoran woman who had obvious Talaxian spots. Her name was Entayan Zaraxa and she was Aleexa's great-great granddaughter. Odo saw her from time to time after their first encounter in a market. She had a baby boy, grew old and died. So did her husband. The child grew up, had a family and also died.

"Watching the generations come and go wore on Odo. He realized biological immortality wasn't as wonderful as it seemed. Compared to him, everything was so transient.

"Odo left Bajor and resumed his aimless journey to other worlds. He couldn't settle anywhere for more than a century. The urge for discovery drove him onward.

"He found the female Founder languishing in an abandoned prison on an asteroid near a red supergiant star. Everyone else died or left. Yet there she was, forgotten and dying because the star's radiation had the same effect on her as the morphogenic virus. Unable to shape shift or even move, she'd spent all that time suffering alone. She did not recognize Odo's face.

"In her madness, she told him stories about a shape shifter who left the Great Link shortly after its creation. He was an outlier with a penchant for wandering the stars. She said she loved him so much that when he fell ill with a disease he caught from Solids, she selfishly absorbed his substance to prevent his death. Then she didn't want him to remember her selfish act, so she wiped his memories during the birth, sent him away with the newly-formed Hundred and forged a record about all their memories being wiped. In reality, the Hundred were infant Changelings kept in stasis shortly after the Changeling species evolved. They were meant to be record keepers of the past and future.

"The female Founder hoped being among the stars would restore her lover's lost memories, but it never happened, and while he looked exactly the same the next time she saw him, not even linking with him jogged his memories of his previous life. She tried more than once, but each attempt failed and she never won his love back. He fell in love with someone else instead, a Solid, and her hatred intensified until worlds like Cardassia burned.

"This knowledge horrified Odo, but he couldn't abandon her to die alone. Maybe the centuries she spent suffering and unable to shape shift were punishment enough for her war crimes. Maybe, just this once, she deserved a thread of the mercy she never gave to others.

"Odo shifted himself to look like he used to in his youth. He took her into his arms and told her he'd returned. He said he forgave her selfishness, but not the war or the Dominion. She smiled, saying she didn't regret the war either because it was worth it to have him back, and died with her head resting on his shoulder. Odo scattered her ashes in space as he left the prison behind. He did not grieve for her like he did for Mora Pol or Kira Nerys, but he did hope death finally gave her peace.

"And so, like he had a lifetime ago, he wandered the stars. He thought about the female Founder's words, and he was glad she never got her hands on Kejal during his infancy.

"Millennia came and went. The Milky Way galaxy collided with a neighboring spiral galaxy, and the universe continued to expand and evolve. Odo and Kejal evolved with it until they were able to hold a shape indefinitely. No more annoying regeneration periods. You see, Changelings acquire mass as they take on new shapes, and they had to shunt more and more matter into subspace as the centuries went by. It wasn't long before compacting themselves into humanoid form took greater effort. In their gelatinous state, they became cosmic oceans, easily large enough to shape shift into starships, planets or even nebulae if they so chose.

"Kejal spent three thousand years as a reflection nebula near the wormhole. Odo tried being a starship for several centuries-- by then the descendants of the Ocampa race came up with biomechanical technology that he could easily mimic-- and he enjoyed the 'company' of thousands right up until starships of that class were decommissioned. Heh, that poor captain must have spent the rest of his life wondering why his ship sped away by itself after the ceremony! Heh, heh!

"But as time went on, Kejal and Odo both began to see physical form as a hindrance. They had shape shifted nearly everything they knew of. Nearly. There was one more shape left in them, and they're still in that form today."

"What shape was that?" asked Kejoda. His question earned him a nudge and giggle from Morolan.

"The shape they promised to take when they first parted ways." The Storyteller turned towards the curious child. "They found a star forming in a nebula. When it was mature enough to shine on its own, Odo and Kejal discovered it didn't have enough dust left over to create planets. They spun themselves into a planet and a moon to bask in its light. Kira Nerys' ashes became part of Odo's atmosphere. Odo collected matter during his journeys across space, and he used that to build the world he became. Kejal carried with him the seeds of every plant he encountered during his travels. His surface is a forest, just like he dreamed of being. Those who venture up there say the trees sing when it rains.

"Kejal revolves around Odo, and together they revolve around Pol, the sun that centers their existence. Everything you see is a testament to their memory of him, the people they love and their journey." The Storyteller sighed contentedly. "And that, my young friends, is how the world was made."

He released the hands he held. Silence fell like a thunderclap.

The smallest girl tugged his sleeve.

"So that's it? That's how it ends?"

"No." The Storyteller answered. "The end of the story won't happen for another five billion years."

Knowing smiles appeared on the older children's faces. The younger ones exchanged perplexed looks. That became the beauty of telling the story year after year-- each child understood a little more the next time they heard it. By adulthood, they memorized it, internalized it and passed it on to descendants who couldn't hear it from the Storyteller's mouth. Many told the story to other worlds, spreading it like wildfire throughout the galaxy.

The Storyteller looked up at the grayish-green moon. It dominated a sixth of the sky. Moonrise meant sunrise was a mere quarter hour away. People often said the moon played a joke on the sun, and the sun chased the moon across the heavens to pay it back.

Amused, the Storyteller gazed at the gathering. He loved seeing how each young one grew and changed over the years. After awhile, their offspring would join the circle. A never-ending cycle of life upon life.

"It's time for you to run along now," he said simply. "I will see you next year."

Each child got to their feet and left without question, leaving him alone by the pond.

Sunrise flooded everything with its brilliance. The Storyteller watched it until the sun cleared the horizon. Then he got up and walked into the grassy meadow.

And the world kept turning...

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The Storyteller ventured out to the Memory Pond and told the mysterious story another five billion times without fail. By then, he leaned on a staff and needed help to sit down. Then a year came that he seemed young and sprightly again, as if he'd been reborn...or replaced. This Storyteller also grew old. And so did his descendant. It happened every thousand years like clockwork. He always wore thick brown robes and a hood that concealed his face in shadow. The older children speculated about how many men had taken on the role as they grew up, but they lost track after the first two thousand years and their grandchildren stopped counting.

Through the millennia, the Odoans' features evolved. Their head ridges were joined by ear ridges, and their awareness of the universe around them grew with their minds. Many children in the newest generation showed signs of developing telekinesis.

Then again, so did the Storyteller. His abilities grew to match those of the children who heard his words.

When the sun became brighter and hotter, the planet and its moon mysteriously adjusted their orbits into its new habitable zone. Then, as the star's hydrogen ran out and it swelled into a red giant, the moon and planet moved even further out, giving the inhabitants ample time to plan an escape. When the Odoans detected carbon forming in the sun's core, they prepared the final evacuation.

Plants and animals were rescued off the moon. People left by the thousands. The biosphere starships resembled bubbles boiling off into the blackness. One by one, the Odoan ships drifted south, where a new home awaited them in a system a mere hundred and seven light years away.

On the final day, the Storyteller appeared at sunset to tell the story one last time.

One of the girls gasped at seeing the robed man sit down. "Oh, he's so tall and skinny! We should feed him."

The children huddled close to the Storyteller instead of sitting in a circle around the pond. There were only ten, and he embraced them all as he told them the tale of their world. After he finished, he stood up and bid the young ones farewell.

They were the last children to leave the cradle they called home.

A dark-skinned boy lingered by the Memory Pond, which never disappeared despite billions of years of erosion everywhere else. He wore something silver on his right ear.

"Child." The Storyteller spoke, "What is your name, and where did you get that?"

The boy fidgeted with the chain on his jewelry. "Polmora, sir. My mother's name is Neryskira. My father was Odomora, but he died in a construction accident last year. He gave me this ancient earring the day before the accident. He said a tree on the moon gave it to him when he was my age. It's been said it belonged to Mora Pol from your story. Do you know if that is true, sir?"

The Storyteller knelt to Polmora's level. He pulled back his hood. His sandy blond hair was slicked back in soft waves, and his vivid electric blue eyes shone with eons of wisdom.

"It's all true," the Storyteller said. He placed a ball of parchment in Polmora's hand. "You carry a legacy with you."

Polmora's eyes widened and his mouth dropped. "But...wait! You walk like you're old!"

"Oh, child," the Storyteller smiled and briefly stooped forward like an old man. "Emulating age is easy for a Changeling."

The baffled expression on Polmora's face became a grin. "You've always been him. All this time! You're Odo! You're the world!"

"I am, and I need you to remember the story," whispered Odo. He touched Polmora's earring and spoke to the boy's mind. "Remember it forever, because you will see how it ends."

"You aren't coming with us?"

"I can't. My destiny is here. That is why you need to remember for me."

"I will, sir. I promise." Polmora hugged Odo, almost getting lost in his robes. He spoke aloud, "Thank you for being home."

Simple words from the mouth of a child who had barely lived, yet they said volumes.

"You're welcome." Odo straightened to his full height. "Run along, now. Your mother is waiting."

Polmora bolted towards a petite woman wearing a red dress. "I saw his face, mommy! I saw the Storyteller's face! He's Odo from the story! He's really Odo!"

Neryskira turned to look. She glimpsed a golden ripple disappearing into the ground.

.o

The final biosphere launched.

Hours after its departure, the planet and moon literally unraveled like cosmic ribbons. All traces of plants and civilization flew off, surrounding their new form in a shimmering veil of debris. Gravity pulled the Changelings back together and they merged into a massive, glistening bubble trapped in a death spiral around the broiling red giant.

Two figures congealed on a platform at the center of the sphere. They appeared as identical Bajorans, differing only in hair and eye coloring.

"Mother," Kejal began, "Are you ready?"

"I don't know." Odo looked away. "I don't have a choice anymore, do I?"

Kejal kissed Odo's forehead. "You aren't choosing alone. We're doing this together. You and me."

"You and me," Odo said. He stopped to watch their outer surface glow red hot. Oddly, it didn't hurt.

Kejal followed Odo's gaze. His expression softened. "So, have you finally decided this isn't the end?"

Odo gripped his son's shoulders. "I don't know. I just hope what's left of us grows into a new star. One made from all of us."

"Heh, there's that word again." Kejal replied. "Hope."

They hugged each other. Odo's cupped the back of Kejal's head. The star's heat made further shape shifting impossible. There was no escape. He felt trapped. Images of Doctor Mora's face covered in blood rose unbidden in his mind. He forced them to retreat behind happier memories. Why did that always haunt him at the worst times?

"Now I know why I was born," Kejal squeezed Odo's shoulders. "You're scared, but I'm here to show you that you don't have to be."

The outer layer of the sphere began to burn away in the star's solar wind. Trails of glowing material billowed out like a comet's diaphanous tail.

How strange. It hurt in waves, yet it was no more painful than labor. Somehow, Odo expected worse.

Kira's ashes glittered everywhere, tiny dust motes within a sunbeam. Odo realized he'd been breathing them the whole time.

"It's starting," whispered Kejal. "Pray with me?"

Odo blinked, "How?"

"Just call out to what you believe in."

Kejal peered upward and began the song he sang at Doctor Mora's funeral eons ago. A prayer asking the Prophets to light a wayward traveler's destination.

Incredible heat blazed down. Odo clutched Kejal tighter. He watched the embers-- pieces of himself and his son-- mingle with Kira's cremains in the star's hellish onslaught. It happened too quickly to register more than a dull ache.

Kejal kept chanting. Odo sank to sit on an outcropping. He held Kejal closer and listened. Only his son would greet his imminent demise with a song.

Get a hold of yourself! Odo berated himself. Doctor Mora showed you how to die with dignity eleven billion years ago, now follow his example!

"It's okay." Kejal patted his arm. He curled up in Odo's lap like he used to in his youth and laid his head on his shoulder. "I'm right here with you. I love you, mother."

Odo's fingers dented Kejal's clothing. "I love you, too, Kejal."

Kejal remained perfectly calm. How could he not feel mortal terror? How was he so certain?

Odo clutched his offspring tighter, trying in vain to protect him from the inevitable. He comforted himself with an errant thought. We left our footprints with the Odoans. If all else fails, I know the story will live on. The Odoans will remember there was an Odo, a Kejal, a Kira Nerys, an Aleexa and a Mora Pol.

The star's boiling surface surged closer. He squeezed his eyes shut and waited for oblivion.

"Mother," Kejal whispered, "I understand why you're afraid, but don't be. There is so much to experience. We'll do this together, okay? You and me. Now open your eyes and see."

Grief-stricken, surrounded by his imminent incineration, Odo lifted his head. His eyes reflected a light not caused by the star above him. Both his eyebrows went up. The same glow came from himself, Kejal and the last Odoan biosphere barely visible in the distance.

"I lifted this vision from father's pillow. It's what he saw right before he died. Can you see it, mother? Can you see the light?"

"Kejal, I-- "

Odo remembered the whiteness he saw during Kejal's birth, the deka seed he'd planted and transporting Doctor Mora's braid into a nebula. All were things he did out of hope, and they came true.

I understand now.

Just like that, his fear became acceptance. His grip on his son relaxed. He beamed with tears welling in his eyes.

It was so simple.

"I found it," Odo said, "I found my prayer."

Kejal nuzzled Odo's shoulder. His response was drowned out by the disintegration of the last layer between them and the star's radiation. Their approximated skin began to dry out and flake off as the vacuum of space violently whipped at their hair.

Kejal looked up. Half his face was crumbling. He still managed a smile.

Odo felt himself solidifying like volcanic glass. He kissed his son's undamaged right ear and closed his eyes.

The light brightened.

Kejal gasped.

Odo said his prayer.

"Nerys."

A split second later, superheated plasma reduced everything to ashes.

.o

An image of the dying sun superimposed itself over Polmora, who peered at the chaos through a transparent wall.

He saw the glowing golden sphere disappear into the sun's heaving photosphere. The star shrank, convulsed and swelled to immense size. This time, its outer surface kept expanding.

No more fusion and no more struggle against gravity.

Polmora couldn't see the white dwarf through its thick shell of stellar gas, but he knew of its presence. Gravitational pressure collapsed the star's core into a dense carbon sphere no bigger than a planet.

Tears trickled down the boy's cheeks. His home was gone. Cremated by the sun that gave it life.

Someday, the outpouring stardust would bloom into an orange, red and green planetary nebula illuminated by the central white dwarf. To other worlds, it would be another dead star. To the Odoans, it became a cosmic tombstone memorializing a love story billions of years old. Even that was destined to continue outward and seed the interstellar medium with raw materials for new stars, planets and life forms.

Polmora touched the glossy, clear wall.

"Did you see it, mother?" He sniffled and wiped his face. "Did you see it go?"

"Yes." Neryskira squeezed his shoulder. Her fingers trembled. "I saw it."

Polmora unclasped his earring and stared at it on his brown palm. The weight of its importance made it the most priceless jewelry in existence, but Polmora didn't let that intimidate him. He took the wadded paper from his pocket and unrolled it. A lock of auburn hair revealed itself. It was braided into a circle, tied together by a single white string and wrapped tightly around a gold bracelet with red beads. Names were written on the parchment in ancient Bajoran script.

Kira Nerys

Mora Leruu

Mora Sirah

Mora Y'lai

Mora Ival

Mora Myrna

Four artifacts of value beyond measure. And the Storyteller, Odo, chose him to keep them!

Polmora looked up again, smiling through his grief. If he focused hard enough, he could sense the memories within the objects. The story's truth lay in the love woven throughout them like fine, unbreakable threads.

Odo chose me. I don't know why, but he did. In his name, I will be the new Storyteller. That way, he will live forever.

He began by telling the entire tale to everyone who listened. The biosphere he occupied glimmered as it sped towards a new beginning.

And somewhere unseen, six points of light converged inside creation.

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"For a better world without hate,
Follow your heart, believe in fate.
Only visions and the mind
will guide you to the light.

Mission is over, mission is done.
I will miss you, children of the sun.
Now it's time to go and say.
Goodbye, goodbye Milky Way..."


--Enigma, "Goodbye, Milky Way"

.o

"I'm going home; you can't keep me here.
I'm saying goodbye for the last time, yeah.
I'll find a way; my spirit's guiding me.
All alone, I'll fight to be free

And they said
Never forget you were born under the morning star.
Don't lose sight of the light, she's there,
she's waiting for you.
Contemplate the mystery of love, of love.
Never forget your destiny."


--Zephyr, "Destiny"
End Notes:

**Finale soundtrack**

Time's Passage: https://app.box.com/s/rpvahv7d83jl4nsrjz6b

The Storyteller Reveals Himself: https://app.box.com/s/ahvzm28usafc72l61nwk

Seeing the Light/The New Storyteller: https://app.box.com/s/kickhjerh4wssdu97fy5

Finale 1: https://app.box.com/s/tpxol40bx6fa635e4i2e

Finale 2: https://app.box.com/s/d4miz2eo1rvo9ky3z88l

***MUSIC VIDEO: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APbQdFwljnM
This story archived at http://www.adastrafanfic.com/viewstory.php?sid=1742