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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...

Chapter 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

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