Odo was amazed at how much had stayed the same on the space station and how much had changed during his absence. Reaching even further back into his memory bank he could recall a time when it was a place of horrors. Terok Nor, it was called, and it was commanded by none other than Gul Dukat. Today, it was a Bajoran shrine and commanded by his greatest love Kira Nerys. She didn't answer to Colonel anymore but to Vedek or Commander. She was also the mother of his children, three children he had missed the opportunity to raise by her side.
They embraced him and he loved them instantly, but truly living with them and trying to play father and husband couldn't possibly be so simple.
Nerys led him to their quarters and for the first night they gathered around as a family to look over family albums and recordings. They were so excited to catch him up on what he had missed! He wanted to know every detail, of course. Each picture had a story told from four different points of view. Pohl was reserved, Taban was patient, and Iliana was lively. Nerys stood nearby, smiling and adding whatever commentary was necessary.
As it began to grow late, the eldest child led the others out of the quarters. Odo went to stop them, but Nerys took his hand and shook her head. The teenagers had friends they would stay with tonight. They were mature enough that they knew their parents needed time alone. A lump came to his throat because he had been looking forward to this confrontation and dreading it at the same time.
"We'll be back in the morning, daddy!" Iliana gave him a kiss.
"Don't fight, you two!" Taban joked.
Pohl said nothing but tipped his head down in a sort of half hearted gesture of good night.
When they were gone, Odo turned to Nerys. She stared back at him and he thought she looked almost as she had the night he had returned to her instead of leaving with Laas the Changeling. Her eyes seemed to become larger than life and full of the purest love. He gazed at her with equal adoration. Neither of them had been good with words.
"I didn't think I'd ever see you again," she spoke first.
He sighed, "You know I never really wanted to leave you, right?"
A hint of sadness flickered in her eyes, "Yes, I know. That doesn't mean I didn't doubt you now and then. Raising children alone wasn't always easy."
"It seems from the short time I have been with them that you did very well," he smiled. "In fact, if I had been here, I'm sure I would have hampered them all."
"Why would you think that, Odo?"
"I was never patient or good with children."
"That's a lie and you know it!" she snickered. "You were always good with Molly! I found your letters from Anasa and I was the one that helped you rescue her! You treated that hologram girl like gold and you even made a connection somehow with that Baby Changeling when you were merely human and couldn't Link with it to make it understand!"
He shook his head, "I would have tried to make ridiculous rules the children could never possibly followed! I would have lost my temper every time they made a mess or broke something carelessly! I would have probably undermined you or made some disparaging remark to make them feel terrible! I was never a child, Nerys, so I can't possibly understand children as much as I might like them."
"I think you are wrong. You may not have been born human, but you were human for a time. Thank the Prophets you were! Our children wouldn't exist if that hadn't have been the case!"
"Yes, I suppose that is true."
They stared at each other in silence for a spell again. He wanted to grab her and kiss her but he wasn't sure if he should. She seemed to be in a state of shock. It was happy shock, but still…
"So what is your mission now exactly?" she took the initiative a second time. "Are you sure there's no hidden agenda the Founders instilled in you? Are you really, well, YOU?"
"That's a good question."
She gasped and appeared to be a little frightened. That hurt him a bit, but he understood why she would be afraid. She must be worried that he didn't remember vital things that had passed between them. What if there were multiple personalities within him? What if he was nothing like the Odo she had come to know and love decades ago?
"Nerys, may I take your hands in mine?" he asked softly.
She hesitated even though she hadn't a few moments before. Then she offered them and he stroked her fingers as he began to explain.
"Do you remember meeting Gaia Odo?"
"That must have been a bit traumatic for you. He must have seemed wildly different because he was showing you a version of me that had lived over two hundred years. He had learned to shift better, to imitate humans better, and most strange to you, he had become an open and warm creature. He didn't hesitate to tell you that we loved you."
She smiled at the memory now but it had been alarming at the time and so unexpected.
"Imagine how it was when Gaia Odo Linked with me," he began to caress her face since she didn't flinch away. "I was still quite new to the experience and he had a wealth of memories good and ill to absorb incredibly quickly. I have not had an Orb experience, but you described it to me. It's not terribly unlike Linking."
"Really?" her eyes widened.
"It is eerily similar, as a matter of fact. I couldn't make true sense of it for a while. He stressed certain points, but to truly absorb centuries of experience, I needed to live with it. It's not terribly unlike eating far too much and your stomach needing time to digest it. Your system wants to reject it but eventually you assimilate it."
She communicated with her eyes that she understood.
"Now think of the Great Link," Odo continued, running his fingers through her hair that she had finally allowed to grow long, "Billions of beings with a wealth of experiences of their own. I was constantly Linking with one Changeling and then another. It was like I had returned to some primordial soup and was merely a drop being absorbed and reabsorbed by all the other drops."
"It sounds like it would have been an overwhelming but relaxing experience."
"I wouldn't say relaxing," he let out a dry laugh. "Not all of those experiences were pleasant. The Great Link was not as the Female Founder described it."
"You mean she lied, eh?" Nerys laughed bitterly herself.
"It didn't matter what she said in the end. There was no way she could have prepared me. Imagine that you didn't have a brief experience with your Prophets, Nerys. What if the Prophets had whisked you away within the Celestial Temple itself for an entire year? What if they continued to mull about inside your brain asking you incessant questions and trying to convince you that all you knew was wrong? What if they showed you things you could never find or see or do on your own?"
"I think my fragile body and mind would explode!"
"Well, then perhaps you have a tiny appreciation for what I experienced. I had no idea how long I was in the Great Link until I arrived here. When Linked continuously with the Female Founder alone, I lost track of time."
"I remember. It was three whole days and it nearly cost us everything!"
"Well, I was gone twenty years, Nerys, and they felt like two weeks to me if that!"
"Tell me more, Odo," she worked up the courage to touch his face. "Was it more Hell than Heaven? What made the Founders decide to let you go?"
"It wasn't Heaven or Hell. It was something in-between. Believe it or not, there was a large number of Changelings that had never bothered to leave the Great Link! They were like mindless elementals that communicated only through senses and kept to themselves only accepting me because I contained the cure they so desperately needed. There were angry and bitter beings that had been victims of humanoids like the Female Founder. They had a wealth of knowledge about the animal world though or the quantum realms and beyond! They were eager to share that and show me exactly why they hated other species. Those two different sorts of Changelings grudgingly agreed that I had experienced something very special and maybe humanoids weren't so bad after all."
"Or else we would all be dead," Nerys shuddered.
"There were a good number of benevolent Changelings within that ocean too," Odo said to ease her misgivings. "They had kept the others in check with their infinite patience and wisdom. They had good experiences to pass on. They soothed me and kept me from going insane or being changed too much by some of the more pushy ones. The Great Link was far more diverse and complex than I had expected it to be."
"No wonder they were so divided about what to do with you when you came to them to be judged for murder!" Nerys exclaimed. "They are not endless clones of one mind like the Female Founder tried to insist!"
"No, not at all. It was very hard to keep myself together, but I was vastly different from any Changeling that had ever gone out exploring and come back. The difference was that I had you."
"Me?" she was astonished.
"None of them could say they had changed time for a single creature, human or other. None of them could say they had literally become a being as I had done. Changeling can simulate nearly anything but I was the first to become flesh and blood. I was the first to kill another of our kind. I was the first to sicken with an illness and not only forgive those that had given me the illness in the first place, but I was willing to forgive them for casting me out. They heard what you said when you let me go, Nerys."
"What did I say exactly that softened them?" she asked.
"When you saw the suffering of my people, the state that the Great Link was in, you didn't hesitate. You said: Go to them! Then you gave me a last kiss and you released me into the ocean with a smile. They expected you to try to stop me. They thought you would curse them for taking your beloved. They thought you would at least remain there weeping and tearing at your hair. Instead you showed nothing but peace and grace. We have near perfect memory. You have become the closest thing to a goddess to them that we will ever have."
She had no words for that. Her lips parted and she blinked as though something was in her eyes.
"Through me, they experienced our love, Nerys," he would have blushed if he could. "Every bit of it. Others had loved women before. Laas was no stranger to it. However, most of them began to not quite forget them but move on without much of a thought. I longed for you every moment I was separated from you. It became a melancholy that spread throughout the ocean not unlike the real sickness had. The whole Great Link began to cry out for you."
He kissed her tenderly and she pressed her brow to his. They nuzzled noses the way they had so often when they were a couple. She wanted to squeal happily into her pillow for an hour!
"They decided that we had earned more than a single year together," he told her. "They couldn't bear my suffering because it had become theirs. Not a single Changeling was spared of it. They let me shift into my old form that you were familiar with. They tried to restore me as close to the Odo you knew as possible."
"Was that possible?" she held her breath for the answer.
"I couldn't be completely unchanged," he said. "Just as you weren't unchanged by your Orb experience, Nerys. I am far more like Gaia Odo now. I have a vast store of knowledge I never had. I am far better at shifting, but we'll keep that a secret between us. I am not quite the Odo you knew, but you might say that I am better. Most importantly, I remember all that transpired between us. The Great Link didn't rob me of that. It couldn't completely destroy my developed independence either. I am Odo. I am nothing."
"You were never simply nothing to me!" Nerys insisted, kissing him fiercely. "You were everything to me!"
"As were you to me the moment I saw you. I will continue to change, Nerys, because I have much to live with still. The Great Link is in a state of Great Change. It won't be over and done with overnight. In the meantime, I intend to enjoy what time you have before you join the Prophets."
"And what of our children?" she reminded him. "You didn't know about them before you arrived. Do you intend to leave them when I am gone?"
"I told you I wanted to remain in this universe as long as there are Kiras in it. I intend to keep that promise. Perhaps I can't be with them consistently, and I may have to return to the Link to settle the disquiet once in a while, but I always be motivated to return and check up on the next generation."
"And the next and the next?" she grinned.
"Until the end of time if that's what it takes. They are extensions of you, my love. In time, every child on Bajor will have a link to you and our children."
"That would make you one hell of a grandfather!"
"They'll call me Father Time eventually," he grinned back at her.
"I was a little angry that you weren't with me to raise our children when they were little," Nerys confessed. "But now I'm glad it worked out this way instead. I'd rather you miss out on their childhood and return when you can actually befriend them and get to know them rather than they get attached to you as little ones incapable of doing that and losing your forever and ever."
"They might not feel that way," he groaned. "I will have to try to have a heart to heart with each of them. But tonight, I'm more inclined to reconnect with you in every way possible."
"Every way?" she stroked his chest.
"If you still desire me."
"If I still desire you?" she scoffed. "Look at me! I've borne three children, technically four if you count Kirayoshi, and have aged like milk and not fine wine! How could you still want me especially now that you are practically like a god!"
"You have never appreciated your beauty! You are the mother of my children. You are still the woman I fell in love with long before I had sense to know it. I would like to make you my wife. We didn't get the chance to get married. I want to change that immediately."
Happy tears burned at the corner of her eyes, "Do you really? But didn't Quark tell you to avoid marrying me because then our relationship would change? Everything would be about money and dark secrets and power games?"
Odo roared with laughter, "That troll told you about that?"
"Of course he did. He misses you almost as much as I."
"Well I refuse to say that I missed him!"
"Of course you do! You really are still in there, aren't you, Odo?"
"Well, then, if you really are proposing, then my answer is absolutely yes!"
They locked lips in a joyous kiss.