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11. Bittersweet Homecoming

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"...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."

Chapter 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

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