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) 1999 by C. Zdroj. This story is Rated NC-17.

Holding and Letting Go
by C. Zdroj

Chronology Notes: This story is set, mostly, during the events of the ST:DS9 episodes "When It Rains," and "Tacking into the Wind," with several references to the episode "Chimera." It is not, strictly speaking, a sequel to "A Break in the Rain" (having been written three years earlier than "A Break ..."), but it would follow that story in terms of DS9 chronology. Since "When It Rains" and "Tacking ..." don't actually have stardates, those used here are extrapolated from "Extreme Measures," which has a stardate of 52645.7.

~~~

"I still held his fear, his only truth, the only real one of his many shifting skins that had touched me. I patiently nursed the memory of his fear until it became a ghost which was always before me, melancholy and challenging. Now I knew someday I would follow the shadow to its source, and hold his fear and comfort it. I would never again see the liquid form I had seen under the lamp; I was growing too old. I had thought it was his core, his secret, but it was only another skin and disguise. I wanted what it covered, what I had never seen: a real person. I had never known him, but I loved him."

--Isabel Cole, "The Brown Bear of Norway" in Black Thorn, White Rose

~~~

Stardate: 52618.1

When we first got the news from Julian, I watched Odo's reaction in silence. His body became rigid in a way that was so subtle the change was almost imperceptible. It probably was--to anyone who didn't know his body and its muted expressions the way I did. He rejected immediately the suggestion that we go back to the station. We had a mission to complete.

I remembered the first time we'd taken the Defiant into the Gamma Quadrant--one of the few times I'd ever seen Odo lose control of his emotions. Desperate to follow what turned out to be a changeling homing-instinct, he'd practically begged me for the use of one of the ship's shuttles.

"You can return the favor by giving me a shuttlecraft and letting me go ..."

I was firm: we had a mission to complete. My very words. But now I know it was more than the mission I was thinking of. I was afraid of losing him.

I've always been afraid of losing him. From the beginning, his own people have had a pull on him that was almost magical--almost beyond explanation, with their Link, that complete communion of body and soul that seems to promise absolute bliss. He'd given all that up--not once, but many times--because of me. A love that at first I couldn't fathom. To be loved so much is a frightening thing.

I understand his love better since I've come to return it.

My true knowledge of myself--of the depth of my love for him--began on the day we got that transmission. A cold terror like nothing I'd ever felt before clutched at my heart, as I looked across the runabout console at the man I loved and realized what Julian's words meant.

Odo could die from this illness--would die, unless a cure could be found. I had never imagined I could lose him to death. In a universe full of explosives and plasma disruptors, death was always a hypothetical possibility. But Odo was a changeling. A god. Immortal and invulnerable. I could tell from the look on his face that he had never considered the possibility that he himself could contract the sickness that was killing his people.

I wanted so badly to reach over and touch him just then, but I knew that a public gesture of comfort would only humiliate him. Garak had discreetly slipped to the back of the shuttle to give us some privacy, but I sensed that Odo would not want to display whatever distress he felt, even to me. He was still intensely, stubbornly private about certain things. It infuriated me in a way. I was constantly unburdening myself to him. From the very earliest days of our work together, Odo had been my confessor. It bothered me to think that he didn't yet trust me enough to reciprocate. But at the same time I loved him for that closed-mouthed stubbornness, because it was so much a part of who he was. I knew that he trusted me. Eventually, I knew, he would come to me for support. He always did. Eventually.

He always comes back to me.

~~~

Memory I

The door opens, and he steps into my quarters, entering hesitantly, as though unsure of his welcome. I stand unmoving before my prayer mandala, a circle of glowing gold light that's filled my vision for the last hour. Some remnants of that glow haunt me still, dancing before my eyes as I stare in disbelief at my lover--the man I kissed goodbye--forever, I thought--just hours before.

~~~

Stardate: 56520.5

I think the disease showed first in his hands. A suppressed tremor. A fine tracery of cracks from his knuckles to his wrist--hurriedly covered over with new, smooth skin. He thought I didn't see. I let him think that I hadn't.

~~~

Memory II

For a moment I can do nothing but stare. "I thought I'd never see you again," I whisper.

His voice is low and contrite. "I couldn't go." I have to remind myself that changelings don't --can't cry ... or so I've always believed.

I take one step toward him, then another. My eyes never leave his face. Odo doesn't move. I'm almost afraid to touch him, afraid of breaking the spell that keeps him there in front of me.

"I'm sorry if I've ever made you feel that you couldn't be yourself with me," I say. A faint flicker of surprise crosses his features. Anyone who didn't know him well would not have seen it. I grope for words, some little part of me afraid. "I want to know you," I say. "The way you really are."

He gazes back at me, desire and disbelief warring in his eyes. He tilts his head the merest fraction, and the look becomes a question. Are you certain, Nerys? Are you sure? I say nothing, but I cannot take my eyes away from his.

~~~

Stardate: 52638.2

I saw him fall. One minute he was there beside me--the next, he was clutching one of the bulkheads. He kept insisting there was nothing wrong, as his voice shook, as his body crumpled to the floor. I dropped to my knees beside him. His eyes looked out at me from a ravaged face.

"I'm sorry," he said.

I put my hand on his upper chest, just below the shoulder. I tried to tell him there was nothing to be sorry for. The place where my hand came to rest looked like a mass of rotting, withered leaves, brown and crumbling away at the edges, mired together in the center--over his heart, the place where his heart would have been. His skin didn't feel like leaves, though, or like anything I'd ever touched. It felt ... soft ... yielding under my fingers. Fragile. He cried out in pain seconds afterward and shrank against the wall. I drew my hand back, terrified of hurting him.

~~~

Memory III

Wordless, he raises his hands, palms up, and I slip my own inside them. Skin to skin contact. A silent pledge. He moves as if in a dream, slowly raising and turning his palms outward. I feel the change as fire stealing up through my fingertips. A blurring of sensation. Semi-fluid and then liquid heat around my hands, radiating up through my body. Odo closes his eyes in concentration, a picture of serenity and rapture that any vedek might envy, and then ... his face, the "human" face I know and love so well, is a mask of amber crystal, his body gold and elemental, something between liquid and solid.

The light bursts through him like a wakening star, washing over my awareness. His hands dissolve into streamers of golden light and warmth that swirl around my fingers. I keep my hands up, blinking back tears, still feeling his touch dancing over my palms as his light and heat rise in a column of pure energy, gradually transmuting into a living cloud of radiance. The light shines through my closed eyelids like sunlight on a summer day. I reach out to hold him and I'm holding light, cradling it in my arms ....

~~~

Stardate: 52638.2

When I finally relinquished the helm to Damar, I felt completely drained. I handed the headset controls to the Cardassian almost without caring what happened next.

Odo's labored breathing tells me that he's still alive. He's huddled against the wall, trembling, seemingly half-asleep--a troubled, unsound sleep. Looking at him breaks my heart. He's so utterly alone in his distress, buried so deep within his pain--and strangely, he also looks ... innocent. Childlike, almost--like one of those dirty, ragged orphans of the Occupation. As I approach him, I think that perhaps that's what he is, after all. Perhaps we both are. Perhaps this is the reason we've always been bonded--even before we became lovers. I step carefully around him and sit down on the floor beside him, taking his stiff, corroded hand in both of my own and setting it gingerly down on my knee.

He stirs in response to my touch, like someone being wakened from a dream. For a moment his eyes hold utter panic and terror and I wonder fleetingly what his life was like in that lab he never speaks of. He calms only when he sees that it's me. I let my fingers move over his in a slow, careful caress.

Odo sinks back against the wall, closing his eyes. "You're probably angry," he murmurs, his voice only a little slurred by pain and fatigue. The voice is still his own--with that faint touch of warmth audible just beneath the raspy harshness.

I smile in spite of myself--in spite of everything. Odo always assumes the worst. It's such a predictable response from him that I've come to find it endearing. "Why?" I ask.

"I ... I hid my true condition ..."

His humanoid shape is by now literally in tatters. His face is brown and cracked, like a dry river bed. A shriveled clay mask around his still-beautiful eyes. His silken gold hair is brittle as broken straw.

I bring my face close to his. "Odo," I say, as gently as I can. "I've known all along."

His eyes open for a moment, startled, and then he sags against me, whether in relief or in despair I can't tell. My chest feels less tight now that I've told him the truth. I feel the tears starting into my eyes. Burning. I can't keep the words from spilling out of my mouth. I have to give him something. Anything.

"It's not over," I insist, "Dr. Bashir is probably working on a cure ..."

His ravaged hand comes up to touch my face, stopping me cold. His voice is a cracked murmur of sound, pleading with me ... "Nerys ... Nerys don't ..." Low and gentle. We've always been truthful with each other. It's false hope that he doesn't want. For a moment, I feel oddly as if his strength is supporting me. It's an almost laughable idea. He's falling apart before my eyes. "Just ... stay here with me," he asks. The words are breathed, gasped almost. So faint. Yet it's typical Odo--a simple, straightforward request. I reach up and pull him against me, so that his head is on my shoulder. My hand rests against his cheek.

Of course, dearest, I think. Of course ... I will do whatever you ask ...

~~~

Memory IV

My dreams are molten gold and flashes of amber. I'm aware of holding and soothing his fear in the darkness. Even in the deepest reaches of sleep, I'm not alone. I'm always aware of him. It's almost a surprise when I wake to feel the fragile body of a man in my arms. I reach up and run my hands over bare, silken shoulders--and sigh in relief--this isn't a dream. This too is Odo. Yet his body, even in humanoid form, is like no one else's. The feel, the smell, the taste of him as a liquid being somehow linger here too, in this solid shape, in his supple form and water-smooth skin. There is a connection between us now that seems rooted in the most basic rhythms of my body. I draw my hands slowly up and down his back, reconnecting with my "solid" self--and his. I feel his kiss on my forehead, it falls almost absently there--as though he is only partly awake. I kiss his throat and rub my cheek against his shoulder.

"Nerys ..." he murmurs, almost as if surprised to find me there. His voice is spent and soft and drowsy. There are kisses, slow, tender, searching, his mouth warm against mine. I feel something sorrowful and apologetic in his caresses, try to let my body and my hands speak for me without words, drawing him closer against me, letting him know that there is nothing to regret or forgive.

"I'm sorry," he breathes at last, drawing away from my mouth.

"Shhhh .... It's all right," I say, letting my words fall and fade away into the silent communion of our entwined bodies. We have always known how to share silences. Touch is, for him, more reassuring than words. He closes his eyes and breathes deeply. I hold him for a long time in the stillness, not saying anything.

~~~

Stardate: 52638.2

And so I sit with him. I don't know how long. Other sounds are soon swallowed up by his soft, ragged breathing and the constant humming of the ship. Those sounds become the sole markers of my awareness--that, and feeling Odo's frail, brittle body collapsed against my own, his chest rising and falling with every precarious breath. You wouldn't think that changelings need to breathe, any more than they need to eat--but Odo seems trapped in this shape right now, and in all the physiological responses that come with it. I try to hold him securely but not too tightly, afraid that he'll shatter in my arms. We are so far away now from that blissful night when he first showed me his changeling self, that it somehow seems a distant dream. There's a strange horror in the thought of that fluid, ethereal being of light now confined in this eroding form ... dying locked inside it.

Yet even now he's beautiful, the lines of his body spare and graceful. Once again I caress his hand, staring at its shape, my cautious touch moving over his long, once-strong fingers.

Dear Prophets ... his hands are still beautiful ...

I shut my eyes and remember those hands when they weren't seamed with cracks, that night we stood in my quarters and showed each other who we really were. I remember his palms turning upward to receive my hands, the ... blur of sensation as I felt warm, solid flesh melting and changing against my skin. I remember light pouring out of him and surrounding me, wrapping around my body. How does one make love to light? Had I really reached out and held such a thing--such a being--against my own frail skin and felt it move over me? I look down at his face--more peaceful than it has been for weeks now. It pleases me that I'm able to give him even that much. He sighs a little as I brush a wisp of stray hair back from his temple. I let my hand travel carefully down the side of his face, and then, like a child absorbed with the intricacies of a doll, I concentrate my attention on smoothing back his dry, disarrayed hair, one strand at a time. Now that he seems to be asleep once more, I allow myself to murmur a few endearments and a few prayers--old words worn smooth with centuries of use, uttered in work camps and death camps--words that somehow kept me alive through two occupations. I want them to do the same for him. I remember the last time I prayed for him back on the station--standing in front of my prayer mandala, staring into a light almost as translucent and golden as a changeling in its natural state. The words were like a shield then, as they are now. I dare not think beyond them. I remember how I let go of him that day, and how the Prophets gave him back to me. I can almost feel the warm pressure of his fingers, whole and smooth, against my lips when I kissed him goodbye in the turbolift.

In the back of my mind I hear a voice like my own that says, "I want to know you--the way you really are ..." It's almost a child's voice, trusting and full of fear and wonder.

I close my eyes and I am elsewhere again: kneeling on the floor, surrounded by light, heat, and silken touch roaming over my bare skin. A cautious touch, delicate and precise. I hear myself murmuring, "It's all right ..." My uniform vanishes, divested like an old skin, as if I had kicked it off while swimming. No masks or pretensions, just my bare skin gliding against the ever-changing fluid satin of his form, and I let myself stretch out, arms reaching up and then out to my sides for a moment as if I would fly. I feel him spilling down the front of my torso and then gathering me against him, into him, melting all over my body, pooling into the cleft between my thighs. My breath catches in my throat. My lips open silently to form the syllables of his name. I reach up, my fingers gliding through liquid silk, and feel the pleasure that it gives him just as keenly as I feel it myself, waves of heat and sensation, the movement of two beings flowing into each other like water. I hear my voice spilling endearments and encouragement and his name--again and again. "I love you" flows like water between us.

My dreams are molten gold and flashes of amber.

~~~

Memory V

At long last I speak again, hesitantly, hearing the way my words sound as they fall from my lips. "I think I've been afraid of losing you for as long as I've known you," I say.

My eyes are closed, but I hear the astonishment in his voice. "You have?"

"I've always known ... how much you wanted to be with your own people, how ... alone you must have felt with all of us. I could sense that, even when we'd just started working together. Somehow, I always knew that--that one day you'd be gone." I pause. "Are you sure this is what you want?"

"I told Laas that I couldn't leave you--that I knew I belonged here."  I reach up and touch the side of his face. "How did he take it?"

"I don't think he believed me." Sadness creeps into his voice. "I hope he'll be all right."

"Odo ..." my fingers move to his temple. He looks down at me, the faraway expression now gone from his eyes. There is so much affection and longing in his face that I suddenly feel as if I myself might dissolve to liquid under that gaze. "I'm sorry--sorry that everything has been so difficult for you. I don't mean just us--I mean the lab, Dr. Mora, Dukat ... everything. I'm sorry you had to go through all of that." My voice catches in my throat. "I want you to be happy, Odo. I mean that."

He kisses me again. "I am." The words are fervent. I have no doubt of their truth. "The female founder once told me ... that you could never love me because I was a changeling. For a long time I believed her. I doubted you. I'm sorry."

"Shhhh ... " My fingers move slowly through his hair, gently combing it into disarray. "We're together now. That's all that matters--that we don't need to hide from each other ... ever."

~~~

Stardate: 52638.4

I feel a shiver, bone-deep, and open my eyes. I feel my lover, my beloved god of golden light, shaking with the cold against me, a crumpled brown heap. Yet, his face, laced with its network of fine cracks--around his eyes, around his lips--is heartrendingly human. He trembles like someone caught in a bad dream, and I wake him with a touch.

"Nerys ...?"

"I'm here."

"It's cold ..."

"I know ..." I say. "Just stay close to me."

I put my arms all the way around him. "Stay with me," I say again. I shut my eyes.

This time, I will not let go.

~30~

Author's Notes: An earlier, slightly different version of this story was published in the fanzine Love and Justice IV (1999). This version was posted to ASCEM on February 17, 2003.