Hours later, Odo found herself behind her desk, watching through her semi-transparent office doors as the promenade crowd milled past. By the time she'd reached her office, she'd gotten used to her shifted center of gravity. Sisko had tried to convince her to stay off duty for a while, but she would have none of it.
"I'm still myself, Captain!" she'd growled. "I may have just undergone a complete switch of molecular programming, but I'm still perfectly capable of doing my job!"
Secretely, Odo had her doubts about just how much she'd remained herself. But there was no way she was going to admit that to the captain—or to anyone. Even to Kira. The most important thing right now was to maintain her authority over the station's inhabitants. It wouldn't be easy, now that she had a completely different body and she couldn't quite pitch her voice into a growl, but there were positives to being a female. She could only imagine how easy it would be to manipulate Quark now.
The captain had stubbornly insisted, but Odo had not changed her mind, and in the end it was Bashir who'd told the captain that perhaps it was best to leave well enough alone. "After all," Bashir had said, "it may be best to just let life go on, let things return to normal. Things might right themselves on their own."
Normal. As if anything was at all normal. But Odo was grateful for Bashir's support. She could only imagine what it would be like to spend her "adjustment" holed up in her quarters, with only her shape shifting apparatus to keep her company, a mockery of what she'd lost. Or—Prophets forbid—Kira, should she decide it was time to talk and come to corner her.
Odo shook her head. She wasn't even certain of the major's feelings. Kira had seemed accepting enough back in the infirmary, but Odo knew better than anyone how good Kira was at lying to someone who desperately wanted to believe her. Odo wasn't likely to forget Kira's initial reaction to her change, when she had beamed up from the Founders' planet. The shock, the helplessness in her eyes and voice…the way she'd stumbled over her words, for lack of something appropriate to say…
Kira had put forth a valiant effort. And perhaps she could adjust to the new circumstances. But there was no way to really know, except to ask. Odo had managed to avoid that conversation until now, even through four days trapped aboard the Rio Grande, and she had no intention of dragging them through a difficult reconciliation, no matter how much she still loved the major. What exactly could she say?
You seem to still love me, and I love you too, but it's as if love dosn't exist anymore. I reach inside myself, and I can't find the spark!
I'm sorry, Nerys. I can't love you—I don't know how.
I don't know myself anymore, Nerys! I can't even love myself! How can you?
How can you possibly love me? Look at what they've done to me! How do I know you're not just pretending? How do I know we're not back to square one? How can I trust you, Nerys?
I am a Changeling! I'm not like you! You can't ever bridge this gap—how can you possibly understand me now?
Each idea was worse than the last. And no matter what Odo chose to say, Kira would be faced with the impossible choice of denying Odo's heritage, or accepting the unfortunate truth of the situation…
No. Odo's priority now was to move on with her life and to assimilate her new perceptions on her own. Kira could wait for another day…perhaps sometime when Odo herself had some idea of where to take their relationship.
Odo sighed and leaned back in her chair as she surveyed the promenade through her closed office doors. She glanced down at the data padd that sat on the corner of her desk. It was her mission report for Starfleet. She picked it up, skimmed it over halfheartedly, and tapped it against the edge of her desk several times before letting out an annoyed harrumph. Starfleet had put her through this trouble—or, at least, had opened its door—and now they wanted her to report exactly what had gone wrong. They wanted to know why they weren't getting their intelligence.
Because you set me up for failure, Odo thought to herself with disgust. Typical.
She set the padd back down with a scowl. It would take her hours to hit the right tone, and she herself wasn't entirely sure what she'd done to warrant the consequences. And she was sure that no matter what she told Starfleet, they'd never understand. If she said her weakness had been the mission's failure, it would put her position on DS9 at risk. And then what would her options be, but to return to the Founders?
Hmm. Maybe that wasn't such a bad idea.
Odo's scowl deepened and she swiveled her chair sideways. It was time she cut off that train of thought. She was staying here, at least for a few more days, she told herself firmly. She was going to puzzle out just what had happened to her. She was going to assimilate her new thoughts and perception. And she was going to make this work. She would not resort to her people, not this time. They could solve her problems, but they'd never understand her.
Odo turned toward the voice. Kira stood in her doorway, the doors open to admit her. So much for putting this discussion off until later, Odo thought with a smidgen of annoyance. Once, she would have admired Kira's determination. Now, she only wished that for the Prophets' sake, Kira would just leave her alone.
"You're not gonna hide away in your office all day, are you?" Kira asked, taking a step closer and raising an expectant brow.
Odo turned away. "That was exactly the idea."
"We've hardly spoken since you beamed up from the Founders' planet," Kira said. "I think it's time we talked."
Odo gazed at Kira in a silent appeal. "Kira, I need some time."
Kira tossed up her arms. "That's it? You're just gonna shut me out?"
Odo didn't answer. Leave, she silently urged her. You're not going to get what you came here for.
Kira paced in front of Odo's desk. "No. No. I'm not going to let you do this." She wheeled and faced Odo directly. "How about lunch in the replimat?"
Odo looked up sharply. "The replimat?"
Kira shrugged. "Seems less…assuming…than my quarters."
"I'm on duty," Odo replied.
Kira set her hands on her hips. "Don't give me that!"
Odo sighed. "Major…"
Kira sat in the chair opposite Odo's desk and reached across to squeeze the hand that rested on its surface. "I am not letting you walk out on us, Constable."
"That's not what I'm doing." Odo shook her head. "You said you understood."
"I do understand," Kira said, her voice softening. "I'm trying to help."
Odo let out a long-suffering sigh. Kira obviously wasn't about to give up. Maybe it was best if Odo just submitted to it. As the chief would say, she thought ruefully, "'ware the dragon."
Besides, maybe Kira was right. Maybe spending some time with the major could help clear up her confusion.
Odo looked back up at her. "If you insist, Major."
Kira stood and tugged Odo to her feet, drawing Odo with her out of her office. Odo let Kira drag her across the promenade to the replimat and dropped reluctantly into the seat Kira pulled out for her. Odo watched fondly as she dashed over to the nearest replicator to order her meal.
Odo forced herself to take her eyes off of the major and focus on the rest of the replimat. She was still chief of security, after all. She could take advantage of this situation and use it as an opportunity to observe station goings-on. Her eyes scanned across the replimat, falling on one diner after another, one a man, the next a woman. All peacefully eating, enjoying the company of their friends and family. They had no idea what it was like to have the opposite gender forced upon them. To have their senses, their tastes, their perception of the world turned entirely on end. Odo's gaze fastened on one couple who each leaned over their side of their table, talking animatedly, sneaking bites in between words. Behind them, a man gestured emphatically, while the woman sitting opposite him nodded thoughtfully, chin resting on her folded hands. Odo stared at one after another, all engaging in their daily life, uninterrupted. For them, the world hadn't turned on end.
Odo shook her head to clear it. None of that mattered. Ignore them, she thought. They have nothing to do with you—don't let them see! Maintain their respect—don't earn their pity! But before she could stop them, her old fears rose up from nowhere—of being a spectacle, on display, a treat for their eyes, nothing but a specimen demanding study. She could imagine Dr. Bashir ushering her through the infirmary, pouring over the data, composing the paper he would surely write for Starfleet, and then asking Odo for quotes. Or worse, escaping to Bajor, away from the prying eyes of the promenade…only to be accosted by an eager Dr. Mora…her eyes falling on the cytoplasmic separator, the only object in the room…and then widening as she realized—
"Odo? Are you alright?"
Odo snapped back to attention. Kira had returned to their table with her meal and now stood across from Odo, about to set down her tray. Odo was struck by the clear concern in her eyes and felt an irrational stab of anger—at herself. For Kira, nothing had changed. She was doing nothing now but trying to fuel their broken relationship in the only way she knew how. Kira had taken hold of the baton. Now it was Odo who was stalling and delaying, making up excuses to give herself more time. And the most maddening part of it all was that she knew how she felt about the major. She cared for Kira more than anyone else in her life. She just couldn't manage to…
"I'm fine," she lied.
Kira set her tray on the table and sat down. Her glance told Odo she wasn't fooled. "If you say so."
Odo fastened her eyes on the tabletop and folded her arms.
"Listen," Kira said, digging into her food with gusto, "we've got to move on from this. If you don't let me in, then this relationship is going to go absolutely nowhere. I want us to be together, Odo. And I'm willing to let you have some time to think. But how are you going to figure out how you feel about me if you never spend any time around me?"
Odo sighed. Kira's words did have merit. If only Odo could convince the rest of her mind of them.
"You don't understand," Odo said. "It's…it's not you. It's me."
Kira's fork paused halfway to her mouth. "What do you mean?"
Odo shook her head. "It's hard to explain."
"Talk to me, Odo." Kira dropped her fork and leaned across the table in earnest. "I know you don't like talking about what you're feeling, but now is the time." She gripped Odo's hand so fiercely it startled her, and Odo looked up into her intense gaze. "I want to be here for you."
Odo could only sit still, paralyzed under the gaze of the woman she'd once loved. Always loved. Still loved. Dammit, her humanoid self knew how she felt. Why couldn't her Changeling instincts just follow?
"Please," Kira said.
Kira never begged. Odo knew that much. The word startled her out of her daze. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
"What do you mean?" Kira asked. "Are you apologizing for shutting me out? Or are you deciding not to let me help?"
"Kira." Odo drew the name out into a plea. "I'll ask for your help when I need it. I need some time. My mind's in such a muddle right now…there's nothing you can do for me."
"You're shutting me out again," Kira said.
"No." Odo shook her head. "No, I'm not shutting you out, I'm trying to go at my own pace. I'm trying to make sense of the world around me." She sighed and made an empty gesture as she struggled to articulate her thoughts. "Everything I see, everything around me…it's as if I'm perceiving everything I used to know through a different lens. The promenade looks different, the rocks on my homeworld felt different…dammit, even my office feels different!"
Kira frowned. "Let me get this straight. The Founders didn't just alter your body. They altered how you see things, too?"
Odo gave her a short, unwilling nod.
"I see." Kira paused. Her fingers tightened around Odo's. Odo waited.
"What about me?" Kira finally asked. "How do you see me?"
Odo looked down at the tabletop. "I don't know."
"Maybe…" Kira paused and considered her words. "Maybe it would help if you tried to describe your feelings for me."
"Help whom? You, or me?"
"Both of us, I guess."
"I doubt it would help either of us, Major. I can barely make sense of it myself."
"What exactly is the problem?" Kira asked.
Odo looked away and heaved a sigh. She couldn't figure this out now. "I doubt you would understand." She tore her hand out from underneath Kira's and covered her eyes. "Do you have any idea how afraid I am?"
"No, but I can imagine." Kira softened. "Don't you remember the time I was cosmetically altered to look like a Cardassian?"
She spat out the word like venom. Odo didn't blame her. But she couldn't help feeling that the analogy wasn't accurate.
"You don't understand," Odo whispered. "This is entirely different. It's not like women conquered my homeworld."
"No, not exactly, but I know how it must feel to—"
"No!" Odo's voice rose higher than she'd intended, but she didn't back down. "Kira, I don't understand this myself! How can you expect to—"
"I am trying," Kira hissed between clenched teeth, "to understand."
"You're trying to push me somewhere I'm not ready to go," Odo retorted.
Kira stood in a flash and loomed up over her. "And when will you be ready, Odo? In a month? In a year?"
"I don't know!"
"And until then?" Kira asked. "What are you going to do? Sit around in your office, pretend to dive into your work, completely ignore me?"
Odo drew herself up straighter. "What do you mean, pretend to dive into my work?"
"I mean, pretend!" Kira tossed her hands into the air. "Odo, you don't fool me a bit! Do you think I actually believe all this nonsense about being on duty and not having time for lunch with a friend? Do you think I've ever believed that? I don't even think you're capable of concentrating on your job right now. You've just undergone a major alteration and I don't see how you can just plug away at your desk like nothing else matters. It's as if you're only concerned with what the Federation thinks of you. It's like you're prepping for a job interview or something, except you already have a job. Unless…" She trailed off.
"Unless what?" Odo asked suspiciously.
Kira paused for an instant before looking at her with bleak resignation. "Whose side are you on now?"
"What makes you think I've switched sides?" Odo demanded.
"They altered you so that you'd return to them!" Kira said. "You obviously don't want to deal with me. How long do I have to wait before I lose you again?"
Odo frowned. "Don't you trust me?"
"Oh, believe me, I want to!" Kira said. "I want to believe you're still my friend, that this relationship can still work. But you've betrayed me before, when the Founders intervened. And that was just one of them. What's going to happen now?"
"Nothing at all," Odo growled. "I love you, Nerys."
"Then what the hell are we waiting for?"
"For the rest of me to agree!" At Kira's confused look, Odo only sighed. "I knew you wouldn't understand."
"Hard to do, when you're not making sense yourself!"
Odo sighed. "Let's let the matter rest, Major. Trust me, I am not going to return to them. I want to at least give myself a chance. But please, leave me alone. I can't—I can't think."
Kira's eyes flashed. "Don't you dare give up on us, Constable!"
"I'm not giving up!" Odo forced herself not to stand in turn and fight for her own ground. "Why do you think I'm trying to go at my own pace? I'm trying to figure out what's going on in my own mind before I have to explain myself to anyone else!"
"Explain yourself?" Kira retorted. "I'm not asking you to explain yourself—I'm trying to help you figure this out!"
"And there's no way I can do that," Odo growled, "when you're pushing me to talk to you."
"Oh, and what do you expect me to do, Constable?" Kira yelled. Her eyes brimmed with tears. "Just pretend that we never met? That we were never friends, that I never fell in love with you? Pretend that we haven't been through too damn much together to just walk out on each other now? Don't you understand, Odo? I love you no matter what shape or form you're in—you're still Odo!"
"But that's exactly the problem, isn't it?" Odo said. "I'm not still Odo."
"Major." Odo's voice held only cold resignation. "What will it take to make you figure out that I'm not me anymore? I'm not the man you once loved. He's gone!"
"Don't you dare say that," Kira said. "Don't you ever say that. How can you just surrender? How can you just let them take you away from me?"
"I'm not surrendering," Odo said. "Major, I'm asking you to leave me alone."
Kira's eyes bore into hers. For a moment, Odo thought she might melt under that fierce gaze. Odo, more than anyone, knew the pain that lay beneath Kira's anger. One second more, and she'd give in. She'd give Kira anything she wanted. She'd even pretend that nothing had changed, if it meant seeing the woman she loved smile again.
But Kira only spun on her heel and stalked away.
Odo remained at the table. She didn't bother to look around herself at the crowd that must have formed, at the eyes that were doubtless glued to the back of her head. She didn't want to know. She remembered the days when she would stand up to the crowd, stare down her haters, and they would fall away in surrender. Now, she wasn't at all sure she could manage a steady glare if she tried.
She should have known.
Kira had always been nothing but generous in their relationship. She was the same obtuse Bajoran Odo knew and loved, but since Kira had fallen in love with her—how that had happened, Odo would never understand—she had always done her best to understand Odo and to give just as much as she got in return. Odo had tried to enjoy it while it lasted. She should have known that Kira would one day reach the breaking point. She should have known that none other than the Founders would force them over the edge of that dark precipice.
Perhaps Kira could one day learn to love this female form. But she'd have to first fall in love with the woman who inhabited it. And to do that, she'd have to accept that the man Odo had once been was gone.
Odo buried her face in her hands, no longer caring who saw her. It was her fault. She was the one who'd accepted the mission to the Gamma Quadrant. She was the one who was forever torn between her people and her love for the major. She was the one who always managed to complicate their relationship. If Kira was afraid of losing her now, if she was tightening her grip to a choke hold, then Odo had no one but herself to blame for messing up Kira's life. And the worst part of it was, there was nothing she could do about it. She could watch Kira pull harder and harder in this tug-of-war Odo had started, right up until the knot broke and Kira fell, and Odo would never know how to stop it.
Odo stared down at the tabletop, at Kira's unfinished meal, and wondered if it wasn't time she considered returning to her people after all.