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3. Songs of Life

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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.

Chapter 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

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