DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc and Viacom. The story contents are the creation and property of C. Zdroj and are copyright (c) 2000 by C. Zdroj. This story is Rated NC-17.

Edge of the World
by C. Zdroj


Chronology Note: This story takes place about one year after the ST:DS9 finale, "What You Leave Behind."

~~~~

"Then the young archer mounted the horse of power and rode off to the land of Never. On and on he rode, many days and nights, and came at last to the edge of the world, where the sun rises in flame from behind the deep blue sea."

--from "The Firebird, the Horse of Power, and the Princess Vasilissa" in Best-Loved Folktales of the World, Joanna Cole, ed.

~~~~

She felt the kiss on her shoulder as she gazed out the viewport with her arms wrapped around herself. Odo's lips brushed her temple. "I'm sorry, Nerys."

"You don't need to apologize," she said, keeping her voice level. She would not cry. For his sake, she would hold her tears until later, as she had so many times before in her life.

She turned to him, took his face into her hands, somehow managing a smile. He needed to see her courage now, that she would survive, that his decision to leave would not cripple her. Kira let her fingertips move over Odo's smooth face, caressing his cheekbones, his temples. She had grown so familiar with his features, with their angular simplicity. He had ceased to look alien to her long ago, even before she'd realized that she loved him.

"I want you to do what's right for you," she said.

Odo stepped closer to her. In the darkness, he nuzzled her forehead. His fingers crept through her hair lovingly. For some moments, they did not speak. Kira stood with her hands on his chest while he kissed her. She knew that Odo was memorizing her--the warmth of her skin, the texture of her hair, the shape of her face and body--absorbing the details of her with that exquisite changeling sense of touch. He was making an image of her to carry with him into the Great Link. Moved, she simply closed her eyes and leaned her weight against him, accepting.

"I don't want you to wait for me," he said at last, his voice soft and low. I don't know how long this will take me--or what will ... happen to me once I go into the Link."

She looked up, laying two fingers over his thin lips. "I know that. I don't need any promises--I just want you to be sure that this is what you want." She also wanted him to be happy, though she did not say this. For she could see the pain in his eyes clearly. This was not the path he would have chosen for himself. But it was, perhaps, the path that the Prophets required of him, even though Odo himself did not believe in them. Knowing the necessities of duty as she did, Kira would not ask him to second-guess his choice. She would make this as easy for him as she could. She wrapped her arms around his body and held him close. "I'll be all right, Odo," she whispered. "I promise."

They stood for a long time in the starlight, holding each other in silent, intimate communion. Words were extraneous now. Kira swallowed the tears that rose in her throat, took her lover's hand, and simply led him into the bedroom--their bedroom--where time faded away into touches and kisses that lingered in the dark. She wanted it never to end. Don't think, she told herself, as the tears threatened to spill from her eyes and choke her voice. Don't think about tomorrow. Feel. Touch. Taste. Don't think. She let Odo roll her onto her back and kiss her deeply. Let herself fall into his touch, as she had a hundred times before. Somehow, her joy was the sweeter for being shot through with grief.  She dreamed, that last night in his liquid arms, of a sea of gold, and of kissing him for the last time.

****

Liquid movement--in him, around him, through him ... sensations and thoughts flowing in endless rhythm. Often, and for long stretches of time, he was not aware of himself as separate from the others--but this was sporadic--most of the time he was in a state of ... tension. He'd healed them, and they trusted him--but they did not trust the emotions that he still carried. These feelings made him, most of the time, still separate. It was not like the time before, when he'd been judged. Then he'd hated himself, had desperately craved their acceptance. Now ... swirls of warmth ... flashes of gold ... hesitant, mingled thoughts... Now it was different. Now there were things he was determined to make them see. Events and memories merged and blurred. He could still recall with perfect clarity what he'd felt as he lay dying in his corroded, solid, humanoid form. He could feel Kira's arms around him as she held his crumbling, fragile self. He felt his body dissolving slowly, slowly ... becoming formlessness. He was adrift in the Link, merging and blurring with the others, entering a state that felt like dreaming. And yet, the sensations pulsing through his body were humanoid sensations, appropriate to a solid form.

Awareness ... scattered impressions ... resolution, and then ... clarity. The wetness he felt against his skin was Nerys, or the memory of her--her mouth, her tongue, her vulva ... defining him, sculpting his body with her hands and lips. He stretched, arching himself, wanting to give her more. He was lying on the cold roughness of the stone atoll, outside the Link, and Kira was with him, as naked as he was, moving over his body. Beyond them, the Link writhed against the shore--restless for something that even its ancient knowledge couldn't give it. The waves of consciousness moved back and forth, crashing and swirling, background music to the louder sounds of solid, humanoid lovemaking. The others were watching ... he didn't care. In fact, he seemed to be in both places at the same time, in and outside the Link, watching and being watched.

He held Nerys, held her hips pressed tight to his own as they came together, as he, with a pleasure so deep that it was pain too, spilled himself into her welcoming depths. Then, at the very moment of his climax he felt it ... a deep disturbance in the Link--agony and fear rippling through it. It rippled through him too. He stared up at his lover fearfully. She was gazing out at an ocean turned suddenly from gold to sickly green ... as if he'd never come back to them. Never healed them. Green ooze collapsed into black ash as Nerys collapsed against him, suddenly frail. She clutched him, her breathing labored and rasping.

In an instant, she was cold and brittle in his arms. Unmoving.

Odo was jolted back to himself, back to waking awareness, gasping, trembling at the edge of the Link, half out of it and half-formed. His fingertips clutched at rough stone. He pulled himself out and into the darkness, collapsing to lie trembling on his back. His hands--yes, they were hands--moved anxiously, cautiously, over his own form, his hastily composed humanoid body. He could not recall forming it, but it was his. He lay on the stone atoll as one awakened suddenly from a dream.

Odo shut his eyes, felt his chest rising as he inhaled and the air filled his lungs. He willed himself to stillness, slowly forming a semblance of clothing about himself. He did it almost without thought, summoning the easiest, most comforting details of shape and texture. The uniform. Of course. The Bajoran uniform he had worn for so many years--naturally that would occur to him first. He sat up slowly and looked himself over, choosing his alterations with care. The process quieted him, gave him time to think. Looser sleeves and neck, darker fabric, something closer to what he had worn when he and Nerys had gone to Cardassia that last time ...

Nerys ... he drew a deep breath as flashes of the dream came back to him.

He folded his hands in his lap and sat very still, gazing out at the Link. Even in the deepest hours of the night, its dark surface still held a faint gold sheen, a kind of glow from within. He ached at the sight of it. For a moment, he shut his eyes and leaned his forehead into his hands. There was nothing to be done.

He stood up, slowly, feeling somehow far older than he should have, and looked out over the living ocean of thought and awareness--the society that he had saved and healed. The world that he thought he'd finally come to understand.  He gazed down at the softly glowing liquid depths for a long time, recalling the heat and warmth there, the unity, the shared feeling. He waited. The Link was placid and silent. He stood under the starlight in his assumed, alien form, knowing that he could not re-enter this world on his own. Not now. He waited. No other changelings emerged to confront him, to speak to him using clumsy humanoid language about the folly of his emotions and the error of his thoughts. They were keeping to themselves now. He tried to summon up some anger, but all he felt was sadness. They were not ready. Even now. After all that had happened.

Odo stood there in the moonlight, a solitary figure, a being apart, as he had always been.

"I'm sorry," he to the stillness.

The Great Link remained unmoved, churning in its own mysteries, its own slow-moving thoughts, its own ancient, timeless ways.

Odo waited through the night, standing on the shore of the link, feeling the wind blow through him. When the first rays of sunlight crept over the horizon, making the Great Link look like a pool of molten fire, he decided that he'd waited long enough. He turned his back on them and closed his eyes. He needed to think, and the atoll was no longer far enough from the others to do that. The first thing he had ever learned from his people was how to become a bird. His form blurred and changed now--a Tarkelian hawk with glowing, satiny wings. He stretched them wide and launched himself into the sky--into the sky and beyond it.

He didn't look back.

****

It was only in her dreams that Kira wept. This was the same dream as always. She stood waiting on the shore while the water, crystal and transparent where it met the shore, deep jade-blue as it stretched to meet the sky, washed over the warm gold sand again and again, teased around her pale bare feet and then retreated--its ceaseless motion asking her to follow, urging her to leave the land and become part of the sea. The sounds of the tide, the restless churning around her ankles, the deeper rumbles further out to sea, gradually came to sound like a trusted, deeply familiar voice. A voice full of sadness and longing that wordlessly whispered: "Come to me ... be with me ..."

"I can't," she told the water sadly. "I'll drown."

So she stood there until the sun was gone and the ocean was black and opaque and the cold had gathered in her bones. And still shecould not go out and join the ocean.

And still she could not leave the shore.

So she waited ...

Kira woke in the darkness, alone, the damp sheets tangled around her body. She lay still for a moment, closing her eyes and seeing him--as clearly as the day he'd left. The black tuxedo with the bow-tie that she'd reached up to straighten for him. She remembered that she'd laughed. It was that or cry. Creating the tux had been an effort to please her, so typical of the Odo only she knew. She remembered kissing him, hoping it would go on ...

She stopped herself. There was no one but herself in the bed. No silken fluid changeling curled up around her body, no smooth skin pressed against her own. She still found it hard to believe he was really gone. A sense of emptiness swept over her, on this night as so many other nights spent alone.

"I love you, Odo," she said to the empty room, closing her eyes and trying once more to escape into sleep.

An hour later, as the wormhole flowered in the vastness of space, Kira was stirring fitfully in her sleep ...

Nerys ...?

A tentative whisper sounded in the depths of her awareness. She strained to hear it. She reached out with herself ... with her soul--her pagh, and felt a movement like restless waves ... around her body ... reaching for her ...

****

He hovered at the foot of the bed for a moment or two, watching her sleep--if it could really be called watching. More accurately, it was an act of sensing her with his whole self. He had learned so much during his time in the Link. It was simple to "become" fog, as Laas had once done, to gather around her like a halo. Had she started to wake, he could have "disappeared" himself in a heartbeat, becoming part of the bed or the floor. Now he let the weightless essence of himself veil her, wrapping her in a chaste embrace. He could feel her breathing, a deeply familiar sensation, and the longing to become his liquid self and hold her that way became suddenly as sharp as an ache. For the first time since departing the Link, he allowed himself to simply feel, allowed his love for Kira to surge through his being, hoping that some part of the emotion could translate itself to her sleeping awareness. It was futile, he knew. She could not link with him, and yet ...  Her body stirred, displacing his molecules. A soft little moan broke from her as she lay there, and then he felt the salt wetness of her tears mingling with his substance. Kira's body curled in on itself and shook with sobs, even though she was still asleep. This was almost too much to bear. Odo saw ... or rather, perceived, that her hand was clutching something very tightly, and moved gently to tease open her fingers. Smooth metal with a faceted jewel embedded there, threaded on a chain. Croden's key. His almost-changeling "cousin." Had he been in humanoid form, he might have smiled--or wept. Giving in, he let himself gather around Kira's body and assume his humanoid shape, turning her in his arms, cradling her against his chest. "Nerys ... hush ... it's all right." He felt her weeping into his skin, closed his eyes, and steeled his heart--his illusory, nonexistent, purely metaphorical heart.

"I'm sorry, Nerys ... I'm so sorry ..."

****

Kira woke in a kind of daze, feeling a welcome, familiar warmth surrounding her. What had wakened her was not a nightmare or her own restlessness, but ... a presence.

"Odo ..." she murmured, and even as she said it found that she was speaking the words against the smooth, soft velvet of his skin. She kissed him without hesitation, kissed his chest and up along his breastbone, until she found his face, his ice blue eyes. He seemed to have a halo around him, and she smiled through her tears.

"It's you," she whispered. Odo nodded--that priceless, minimalist gesture that she loved so well, and then he kissed her--her forehead, her eyelids, her lips last of all. Her own hands moved to slide the straps of her nightgown off her shoulders, to offer him her body as she had on that last night.

She felt his lips against her temple, his arms pulling her close. "Nerys ..." he said her name as if he could not believe in the reality of her. Kira shut her eyes, surrendering, not caring if she was lost in a dream.  The difference between them was no difference. Her arms, reaching out to wrap around his now-solid body, to pull him close, were warm and familiar. Her breathing, her heartbeat, the softness of her skin--these spoke to Odo and made him feel welcome. Kira did not think, in that moment. Thought was not necessary. She simply wound herself around her lover, receiving what he offered--kisses that searched her mouth, hands that knew her body more intimately than she knew it herself. Odo lifted and held her. Kira opened her thighs, opened herself--gasped softly as Odo kissed her throat and then filled her aching emptiness. He fitted her body easily, warm and solid and familiar inside her, comfortingly humanoid at first, then dissolving to hot fluid in her depths. Her fingers clutched his still-solid, still-warm shoulders. She heard herself saying his name mindlessly as she moved with him--a tender, insistent, rocking motion--finally gasping in joy and relief as her body overloaded with the pleasure of being joined to his.

Then she was lying in the tangled bedding, wrapped around his lean, beautiful body, breathing softly against his shoulder. She couldn't speak at first, almost didn't dare. Odo drew back to stare at her, his fingers delicately tracing the side of her face. His head tilted the merest fraction, and suddenly the tears sprang once more into Kira's eyes. She took his face into her hands, pulling him down into a fierce kiss that went on and on until she was forced to stop and catch her breath. Odo bowed his head until it touched hers.

"Nerys ..." he breathed.

"It really is you ..." she said again.

"Yes."

She reached out to feel his smooth, mask-like features as if she'd been a blind woman, found an idiotic grin stealing across her own face. "What are you doing here?" she whispered softly.

"Making love to you." A gentle tease, delivered in that soft, gruff voice that she had come to find so alluringly sexy and reassuring.

"Seems like this should be a dream ..."

"Not this time ..." he kissed her again, and she wound him in her arms and let it go on, until a stab of sudden need and pain made her simply clutch him tight, as if she were drowning.

"Nerys?"

The tears choked her voice. "I--I'm all right--I just ... I've missed you. I didn't realize how much ..."

Odo buried his face against the side of her neck, calming the sudden sobs that wracked Kira's body. He felt them shudder through his own frame. "I've missed you, too," he said tightly, rubbing his cheek against her temple. "I'm sorry ... I had to see if--if you were all right."

"I'm glad you're here," she whispered, pushing away the rest of the words that sprang to mind: even if you can't stay ....

Odo closed his eyes and let his lips travel gently down Kira's throat and over her body--the soft pink nipples of her breasts that hardened under his tongue, the smoothness of her abdomen and inner thighs. He parted her legs gently and kissed the soft flower of her labia, lapping at fluid that spilled from her body, listening to her soft cries of pleasure as she twisted among the sheets. He let his fingers liquefy over her, caressing every centimeter of her flesh as he slowly went fluid around her, enveloping her within himself. It went on forever until Kira was a tangle of naked limbs sprawled in exhausted sleep and Odo was a spent pool of translucent gold poured over her. The pulses of her body--breathing, heartbeat, echoed through his own senses, lulling him into sleep at long last.

****

Hours later, after he'd slipped almost unthinkingly to the floor and lay for some little while as a still pool beside Kira's bed, reflecting the starlight up at the darkened ceiling, he moved out into the living area of her quarters. Slowly, deliberately, Odo reformed his humanoid self, rising up as a pillar of glowing, fluid amber and then shaping his body, cell by cell, joint by joint. He made himself naked and smooth, but without obvious gender. He lingered over aesthetic considerations--eye color and skin tint, the texture of his hair, the shape and length of his fingers. By now he was a skilled enough changeling that such intense concentration was unnecessary. This face and form were so much his own that he might have summoned them up complete as quickly as thought. But he chose not to. He found the meticulous process of creating himself, one detail at a time, to be strangely comforting, particularly after being in Kira's arms. He was not yet sure exactly why this should be, but in this moment, shaping his own lungs, drawing the air inside them, feeling his chest expand--all these things seemed to demand focused attention.

Once everything was in place, he was somehow not surprised to find himself standing in front of Kira's prayer mandala, gazing into its soft gold light.

He had never believed in the Prophets. Yet so much had happened to him since he'd last stood in this place, since he'd slept or made love in these rooms, he found himself feeling unusually still, almost ... reverent.

"Hmmph," he snorted softly, not at all sure if this was a desirable state of affairs.

He stared at the mandala for a long time--for all he knew, it might have been hours--before his lover's soft voice intruded on his thoughts.

"Odo ... are you all right?"

He looked up slowly, momentarily surprised to find her there.

"I woke up and you were gone," she said quietly. "I thought that maybe you'd ..." Kira shook her head. "I thought you'd disappeared. Or that I'd dreamed you." She tried to make her tone light, but Odo sensed her deep sadness, her fear and uncertainty, even through the turmoil of his own emotions.

It happened. We really did make love.

Kira leaned silently in the doorway to the bedroom, a slender, pale figure wrapped in one of the bedsheets, her eyes large and dark and worried. Odo looked away from her and fixed his gaze on the object standing beside Kira's personal shrine. He had not noticed it before, but now he recognized it immediately. Slowly, he let his hand come to rest on the single metal arch taken from the larger sculpture that had once occupied the main area of his own quarters here on the station. His fingers, moving almost of their own volition, traced gently, lovingly over the smooth surface.

"Nerys ... exactly how long have I been gone?" he asked softly.

"You don't know?" Her question was gentle, not accusing. She didn't even sound surprised.

"Time is perceived ... differently in the Link."

"It's been just a year and seven months--or nearly seven."

There was silence for a moment. For some reason, Odo could not look up at Kira--not yet. He kept his hand--and his eyes--firmly on the piece of curved bronze.

"I liked ... the way that it sort of reaches upward into space," said Kira softly. "It reminded me of you--that day when you learned how to be an Arbazan vulture. Do you remember?"

Odo nodded slowly. How could he have forgotten? It was the day he'd learned who his people really were. He'd been trying to make peace with that knowledge ever since.  "I remember," he said, still running fingertips over the soft, smooth metal, "--the day that I had this delivered to my quarters."

"Me too," said Kira.

Odo could hear the deep affection in her voice, closed his eyes as his form began to feel oddly liquid and unstable.

"You brought me that potted plant on the same day," he recalled, carefully keeping his voice level.

"Yes--I still have that, too."

"I noticed. What else did you keep?"

There was a soft rustle in the dimness as Kira shrugged. "Only a few things. The locket, some of your detective novels. Most of it was packed off to Bajor, but Ezri tells me that ... I have a problem letting go."

"So do I, evidently," whispered Odo. There was a brief silence. Then--"Nerys ... I never meant for you to ... wait for me. I didn't --"

There was more soft rustling, and somehow he was stunned to look up and find Kira facing him. "I know," she said. The corners of her mouth turned slightly upward in soft but wry smile. Odo glanced down at the slender hand that had come to rest on his shoulder. Kira's touch crept slowly upward to caress the side of his face. She was staring at him again in rapt amazement, as if he'd returned from the dead rather than simply from the other side of the galaxy.

"Still wondering if it's really me?" he whispered, a half-hearted joke, though it had occurred to him that from her point of view, given the general level of distrust that remained between the Alpha Quadrant and the Dominion, he might have been any changeling at all. Kira only shook her head.  "No," her voice was soft and husky. "I'd know you anywhere. Don't ask me how--but I would." She brought her lips against his temple and kissed him.

Odo took her hand and pressed it to the smooth surface of the metal arch. She looked at him questioningly.

"Do you remember why I brought this into my rooms? Do you remember what I told you when you asked about it?" A note of urgency had crept into his voice without his intending it.

Kira looked a little puzzled, but her answer came with no hesitation. "You said you wanted to find out what it really meant to be a shapeshifter."

"Yes," Odo tried and failed to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "As if it were possible to learn that from a room full of inanimate objects."

"What's happened, Odo?"

He saw the distress in her face--distress over his own pain and uncertainty. He stared at the floor, trying to find words for something that he wasn't certain how to explain. "I wish I knew, Nerys. If I knew that, perhaps I could fix it."

She studied him for a moment, a peculiar kind of determination in her dark eyes. Then she raised both hands to touch him, and in doing so, she allowed the sheet to fall completely away from her body. "Let's fix it now," she whispered, leaning in to kiss him. His body tingled from head to foot as her lips brushed over his cheek and then found his mouth. Odo shut his eyes and allowed his hands to run softly up over her torso and her small, soft breasts. Kira's breathing became heavier while Odo's slowly liquefying hands began to explore her body once more.

"Wait ..." she whispered.

Odo's hands stilled and went solid on her shoulders. He tilted his head to look at Kira's flushed face. "Nerys?"

Kira smiled at him. "You've already done something for me tonight," she said, her voice low and seductive. "Now I want to do something for you ..." Her hands slipped smoothly down over his chest and then back up.

Odo took the hint immediately. "I'd like that," he whispered.

"Lie down, then ..."

She watched his face change as her hands moved over his body. The floor of her quarters seemed strangely accommodating at that moment, just as it had on that night over a year ago when she thought she'd released him forever--and then he'd magically come back to her. Kira's hands still knew exactly where to go as they moved over Odo's created form. She watched his eyes close in pleasure and felt his body arch and his breath come short as she kissed him, as her hands roved his body with a kind of desperation. Somehow she knew what was wrong. She felt how lonely he still was, how isolated, in every groan and every spasm of his body as he responded to her touch. It was in the very taste of his skin as she kissed him. She straddled his hips in the dark, covering his body with her own, covering his face with her kisses. Odo seemed incapable of saying anything except her name, over and over, until somehow it seemed to her that the two of them had been in this place forever, eternally tied together, and that her very breath was dependent upon his being there to receive and react to her touches.

"What is it, Odo?" she whispered. "Tell me ... tell me what's wrong ..."

He could only shake his head. Had he been able to cry, she knew he would have. As it was, she saw moisture begin to gather in the hollows around his deepset eyes. Her kisses moved down over his body, from the ivory smoothness of his throat, down his belly and thighs, and she heard him moan with joy and pain. He remained passive--and solid--until he could no longer bear it, and finally seized Kira in his arms and rolled her onto her back.

If anything, her body was even more open and welcoming than the first time. He could feel the hunger in her lips and fingertips. Unbidden, he recalled making love to the female Founder, and her obvious disdain for the procedure as anything more than a mildly amusing experiment. Afterwards he'd felt guilty and ... soiled somehow. But Nerys' warm body, with its soft, giving curves of flesh, was like water to a thirsty man. Her obvious hunger for him, the way her mouth demanded and returned his kisses, was balm to his aching soul. To be wanted in this intimate way, despite all of his perceived failings--yes, this was why he'd come back to the station. He kissed her deeply, sighed in pure relief as her legs fell open and he sheathed himself in the warmth between her thighs. She wrapped herself around him, gasping. Her body claimed him and he thrust, letting the tension flow out of his hips, feeling his own body ripple with pleasure.

For those fleeting moments, nothing mattered except their joining, their link to each other, as elemental as thirst and hunger--and Odo felt those humanoid needs as he moved in and with and against Kira's body, as clearly and vividly as when he himself had been forced into a humanoid body. What am I now? said a soft voice in his head. Am I a changeling or a solid? Did I make myself this way--or did Nerys? This was a dream he'd had before--after the Founders had made him human, a dream that had always ended in frustration. And now, now ... he ran his fingers up over Kira's smooth back, gripped her pelvis with his hands and pressed her against himself. This was real. He remembered now. They had always been here. The two of them. Odo heard himself as if from a long distance away, saying Kira's name. He heard her cry out and then felt her lips on his own again. She was kissing him, touching him everywhere with the soft, warm circle of her mouth. Nerys ... He could only clutch her against himself and shiver with pleasure and fear.

They made love until they were both breathless with it, entangled in each other, catching their breath. Odo lay back and saw Kira gazing down at him, felt her hands moving slowly through the damp hair near his temples. There were tears streaming down her cheeks. "Tell me," she whispered softly, as her kisses continued to rain on his face and neck. "Tell me what's wrong ..."

Odo closed his eyes and exhaled.

"I'm sorry, Nerys. I shouldn't have come here."

Kira lowered her voice. It was barely a whisper, but her words had never been so clearly audible. "Don't be silly ... I want you here. Hell, Odo--I hardly know what to do without you here." Kira swallowed hard, rubbed her wet cheek against Odo's face. "Please ... tell me what's wrong. You don't have to protect me from anything. I want to help."

There was a long silence while Odo struggled to keep his solid form from puddling beneath her, while he allowed the tension to leave his body.

"I failed them," he said at last.

When Kira offered no comment, he went on. "I didn't mean to end up here, Nerys. I just," he closed his eyes. "There was no where else. I only wanted to get away for a little while--go someplace where I could hear myself think ..."  She had gathered the crumpled bedsheet from the floor and now spread it over the two of them, curling against Odo's side. "What do you mean?"

"I mean--I couldn't bear it anymore--all those voices. All that constant ... intimacy." The word was uttered with deep distaste, for all the world like the old Odo she'd known, the one who despised "humanoid mating rituals."

"I suppose ... I suppose I had some ... vague idea of what it would be like when I rejoined my people. I knew it would be different from the isolation I've always lived in. I even idealized that, somehow. I thought--I thought that I could somehow ... move between my individual state and the totality of the Link. But after a while, being in the Link just became ... overwhelming ..."

He watched Kira's still-troubled face, fearing that he had said too much. It was asking a great deal to expect any humanoid to comprehend the nature of the Link. For a moment he felt the same kind of dread that he'd always associated with allowing others to see his natural form. Nerys hesitated a moment before speaking. "I ... don't think I understand. Isn't that kind of sharing ... natural for changelings?"

"For them, yes--it certainly seems to be. They don't think of themselves as separate beings most of the time."

"But you do." Her voice was gentle, inexorable. He drew another deep breath as he felt her hand gently rubbing just below his ribcage. Prophets how he loved her touch. How had he survived for a whole year and more without it? Eventually, he found the voice to continue, but the words were ragged coming out.

"Individuality was ... something I thought I could teach them. But as far as the Link is concerned, that's only evidence of how much I've been 'damaged' by living with solids. For all I know, they're right about that." Odo snorted.

"But--when you linked with the Founder here on the station, you said --"

"--that it was paradise. I know. It's probably simpler with just two changelings. There are fewer ... distractions. But it's also clear to me now that the Founder ... well, obviously she was making it easy for me--manipulating me, just as you said she was."

"But I saw you heal them, Odo--just like you healed the Founder ..."

"Yes. It was almost ... frightening how easy that was."

"Are you telling me that after you saved all of them, they just ... turned you away?" There was a hint of righteous anger in her voice, and in a way, it warmed him. It was so very typical of Nerys to spring immediately to his defense.

He paused for a moment, trying to retrace the thread of his own jumbled thoughts. Kira lay next to him, softly breathing against the side of his neck, waiting for an answer. "It isn't that, it's .... They don't understand, Nerys. They've been afraid of solids for so long--and it's not as if they didn't have reasons. After all, the Founders never would have needed saving if Section 31 hadn't used me to poison them all in the first place ..."

"That wasn't your fault," insisted Kira.

"It hardly matters," said Odo softly, "I was an oddity in the Link almost from the moment I stepped into it. The Founders assumed that my return meant I'd changed--seen the 'error of my ways.' When it became clear that I hadn't ... things got ... complicated. Some of the oldest ones still don't trust me, I'm afraid--and I have no idea how to change that, except by giving up who I am and giving up trying to show them any new ways of thinking."

Kira was silent for a long moment. "What will you do?"

There was a wealth of unspoken feeling behind her carefully neutral question. Odo was touched by her effort, even now, to remain open to whatever choice he might make. She did not assume that he would stay with her, even if she was no longer playing the good soldier, devoted only to duty with no needs or wishes of her own. He closed his eyes and tried to think past the roiling emotions in his own soul. Holding her in his arms, feeling her living, breathing reality, her sorrow and her love--all pulsing through his own physical being, he wanted desperately to comfort her, to offer reassurance. Yet he could make no promises about their future. He would not lie to her.

"I don't know," he said at last. "But I can't just ... abandon them Nerys ... they're my ..."

"They're your family."

She understood. Odo stared at the ceiling and released a breath. "Yes ... I just feel so ... useless."

To his surprise, Kira laughed softly. Odo gave her a solemn, inquiring look. Kira shook her head, recollecting. "Bareil once told me that I should 'explore being useless' for a while."

"When was that?"

"Years ago--when I was staying at the monastery--before he and I were lovers. It was during that incident with the Circle, remember? The first time that Winn tried to take over the Bajoran government?"

"I remember. So did you--'explore being useless'?"

Kira snorted softly. "I guess."

"And?"

"And I hated it." She pressed her forehead down against his, let her lips brush his cheek. "I always knew you and I were alike." There was momentary silence as he put one hand up to her face, sought her mouth and kissed her back. For a while, the kissing was an adequate distraction, and they got lost in it. Finally, Kira laid her cheek down on Odo's chest. "You remember the way I used to come to you with problems?"

Odo's tone was low and wistful. "I remember--I miss those days."

"Sometimes I still walk all the way to the door of the security office before I realize that you're not there. I was telling Ezri about that just the other day. You know, the whole station is different without you." Her voice was tender, but not urgent, her tone almost one of nostalgia. Yet her body felt very fragile in his arms.

"I'm going to tell you something that I should have told you a long time ago." She drew a deep breath, as if reaching far back into memory. Her next words had the air of a confession, of the type she used to bring to Odo back in the days before they were lovers.

"When I was in the Bajoran Resistance, I taught myself how not to feel. How not to be afraid, how not to fall in love. I got pretty good at it. During the Dominion war, when I was part of the Cardassian resistance, I fell right back into my old survival habits. At the time, it didn't seem like I had a choice. I wound up sitting in a basement on Cardassia for I don't even know how long. I learned a lot about being 'useless' then. All I could think about was you, Odo. I wondered if I'd ever see you again. I dreamed about you so much that after a while I started to wonder if you were a dream, if us being together had ever really happened."

She paused, seemingly catching her breath and steadying her emotions. "So when I saw you again, alive, after Bashir cured you, I was so grateful that you were safe--I would have done anything to keep you out of harm's way. I wanted to be happy when you decided to go back and be with your people, because I wanted you to be happy. For a while, I think it worked. But I pushed all my other feelings down where I couldn't find them--just like I had when I was in the Resistance. It was so easy, at first I didn't even know I was doing it. Ezri and Julian made me go down to Bajor for a while, because I wasn't fooling them, even when I was fooling myself. I stayed at Bareil's monastery for a while, and I was 'useless' there for a long time too--but I finally figured something out." She took hold of Odo's long, slender fingers and allowed her grip to tighten around them. "I've been terrified of losing you ever since the beginning. Not just since we've been lovers--but always. From almost the first day we worked together. I always had a feeling, in the back of my mind, that on the day you found your people, you would leave all of us behind. I always had that fear--and I think that's why ..." She let her voice sink very low, "... why it took me so long to realize that I loved you."

"I'm sorry, Nerys ..."

"When I said goodbye to you, I thought I was doing what was best--maybe for the Dominion and the Alpha Quadrant--but mostly for you. I've known you a long time, Odo. I knew you never felt at home here. I wanted you to be happy. I wanted you to be where you belonged. That's all I've ever wanted for you."

"I've known that for a long time," he whispered, "Ever since you did what you did for Laas."

"I did it for you. For you, Odo." She held him tightly, letting the words sink in.

Odo shut his eyes. It had always been hard for him to accept kindness, even at the most basic level. For a long time he'd found it difficult to accept love, to allow Nerys to tend to his needs as he'd always tended to hers. When he'd been close to death, he'd sent her away. He had always listened to her talk about her own feelings, but so seldom talked about his own.

"I remember when I took you back to the Link," said Kira softly. "You did seem happy then. You seemed ... hopeful. But --" She let her hand caress his face, as she had on that last night, so long ago. "--but you don't seem happy now. You're not happy, and neither am I--and neither one of us can help our people."

Odo reached up to stroke her wet cheek. "You're a bird, Nerys," he whispered. "I had to let you go ... so that you could fly ... live the kind of life you've always wanted. I'm ... I'm like a ... a fish you'd have to drag with you--always bound to the ocean. We're different from each other ... don't you see? There was no other way."

"I know what you tried to do. I know what I tried to do. But it's not working, Odo. Hasn't it ever occurred to you that you and I do our best work when we're together? How can I tell Shakaar about the state of the Dominion without a reliable source? How can I convince the people here that changelings are ... are people without any changelings here on the station? How can I ... how can I go through another year of not having you here to counsel me, to argue with me, to show me when I'm being an idiot? I know you. You try to be strong for everyone. You never ask for help. But I need you, Odo--and I know you need me too."

Her impassioned words left him silent for a moment. When he spoke again, his own voice was tentative.

"Laas once told me ... that humanoid love was a pale shadow of the Link ... but he was wrong." He looked into her eyes. "The Link isn't my home. It never was. This is home. You're home."

She studied his face. Could it be that the Prophets had somehow spoken to him and called him here? She digested this in silence, running her hands over his back. "You're home to me too."

"So what does all this mean?" said Odo.

"It means ... that we have to find a way to help our people ... together. Unless you'd rather go on 'exploring uselessness.'"

Odo snorted softly. "Sometimes I wonder if I've made things worse in the Link."

"How?" 

"I've confused them, Nerys. They don't know what to do with me, what to make of me. They still don't understand why I healed them--not really."

"Sounds like it's going to take some time."

"Yes ..." Odo shut his eyes. Could it really be as simple as all that? That the two of them simply needed each other? Somehow, in his deepest self, this truth was self-evident. He and Nerys were linked. Neither one of their worlds would benefit from their permanent separation. "This won't be easy, Nerys," he said at last.

"It never was, was it?"

"No."

Kira shut her eyes, drew a deep breath and let her arms close around him. She could sense the despair that was lurking under his words. It had been there all night, in the desperate way that he'd made love to her. She let her fingers run up through his hair, when she spoke at last, her voice was very soft. "You know--I think I finally figured you out. All these years you had everyone thinking you were such a cynic ..."

"Oh?"

"You're not. You're an idealist. You want a perfect world where everyone gets justice and everyone gets to belong somewhere. Where no one ever has to go without."

"Hmmph," he snorted softly. "The universe doesn't work that way."

"Exactly."

"Nerys ..." He hesitated. "I can't promise you that I'll ever be able to leave the Link behind for good ..." 

"I'm not asking for that. Why would I? The idea is to teach them how to get along with solids, isn't it?"

"You're right." Odo finally smiled at her--that thin ghost of a smile which always seemed so out of place on his usually solemn countenance. Their eyes held each other a long time. Then Odo became solemn again, recalling the dream that had spurred him to leave the Link. "We will lose each other one day, you know, no matter what we decide ..." he said softly.

"Better to end it now, then?" she challenged.

"I didn't say that."

Kira leaned down to him. "I can take being apart for a little while, Odo ... even for a long while, as long as I know that ... that this doesn't have to be the last time."

His heart--that nonexistent engine of emotion buried deep within the core of himself, had lifted somehow, if only a little. He gathered Kira against himself once more, kissing her slowly, reveling in the feel of her body against his. Perhaps there was a way, after all. Perhaps ...

He closed his eyes and at last breathed a promise against her skin, one that he knew would be kept. "I swear to you, Nerys ... this won't be the last time ..."

****

The memory of sleeping in her arms that night was something that sustained Odo for a long time afterward--the soft, even rhythm of her breathing, the warm, living reality of her. He realized in those moments that they did share a link, a link so subtle and intricate that his people would possibly never understand it, not unless they ever fell in love themselves with some fragile individual of another species. He no longer knew what was going to happen, but he knew where he belonged, and he knew what the others needed to understand if the Dominion was ever to find true peace with its neighbors. They needed to understand this kind of unconditional acceptance, and that it was possible, even between beings who were alien to each other.

He let his body flow around Kira's, knowing now that she would always be with him. Promises were not necessary, only understanding.

****

Kira was gazing out the viewport, clutching the pendant in her hand, when Ezri Dax came to stand beside her. The diminutive Trill was silent for a long time.

"He was here, wasn't he?" she said at last, her voice quiet but certain--for all the world an echo of Jadzia's serenity and sureness.

Startled, Kira dropped the pendant and turned to face her. "How did you know?"

Ezri shrugged nonchalantly, her elfin features coloring slightly. "Something about the way you've been acting since last night. Like a lot of weight has fallen off your shoulders." She gave Kira one of her earnest "counselor" looks. "Are you all right?"

"I'll be fine, I think." Kira allowed herself to exhale softly. "We both will."

"So he's gone back, then?" queried Ezri.

Kira felt herself strangely calm, almost contented, as she turned back to the viewport. "For a while."

She could hear the smile in Ezri's voice. "So you worked something out? That's wonderful." She paused. "Is he going to say hello to the rest of us the next time?" 

"I'll mention it to him," said Kira. Her hand came back to rest lightly on the pendant, and then she wrapped her fingers around it. "We must be crazy to think this can work," she said at last. "I still can't quite believe it really happened."

"You've had long distance relationships before," Ezri reminded her.

"Not like this one. Never like this one." Kira grinned
idiotically.

"But he is coming back?"

Kira shut her eyes, drawing in her breath, feeling her chest expand with the certainty of it. "Yes."

"That's good."

They stood together, not quite shoulder to shoulder, looking out the viewport at the endless depths of space. Suddenly the wormhole flowered open, and Kira shut her eyes and wished, with all her heart, that her lover would be well.

She already knew he would be back.


~ Not the End ~

              
Author's Notes: This story was my first attempt at a post-WYLB O/K reunion story. It appeared in the fanzine Love and Justice V (2000), and was posted to ASCEM in September of 2002. I have not yet tried to write any sequels for it (though I am currently working on a much longer and more involved O/K reunion story, set post-finale). The phrase "not the end" used to mark the closing of this particular story, is in this case merely a rhetorical device that lets me thumb my puny nose at DS9's PTB, since I emphatically do not see Odo's and Kira's relationship as "over" at the end of WYLB, Great Link or no Great Link.