Two nights later, Bashir and Sisko arrived at the village just in time for the evening meal. Bashir was still wet from spending another day riding the waves, while Sisko looked very mellow indeed as the two strolled between the huts.

"Hello, Doctor. Did you have an enjoyable day?"

"Yes! I'd forgotten how exhilarating surfing can be, Do you suppose Quark might be able to find a holosuite program that would simulate it?"

"Considering some of the things which his programs manufacture, a few waves should pose no problem at all."

"I thought I caught sight of you up by the bluffs. Did you spend the entire day there?"

Sisko nodded, his expression becoming dreamy. "Yes. It was just like the beach where Jennifer and I -- " He returned to himself abruptly and changed the subject. "You know, I haven't seen Odo for the past few days. Do you know where he's gotten to?"

Bashir shook his head. "No. Where was he when you last saw him?"

"He was playing games with the local children."

"Odo? Games? Children? Are you sure, Commander?"

Sisko sighed, smiling. "He's probably hiding somewhere, avoiding the natives and their philosophy."

In the main square, they encountered a group of children sitting in a circle, staring at an odd assortment of objects with deep concentration. Bashir dropped down beside them.

"Hello, what are we looking at?"

"That." The child next to him pointed to two identical gourds.

"How interesting," Bashir offered blankly.

"Do you think they look alike? Exactly alike?"

The doctor picked them up for a closer look. "I think so."

Sisko glanced about. "I wonder where Odo is."

Bashir replaced the gourd on the ground, where it instantly shivered and morphed into Odo.

"You wanted me, Commander?"

Just then another child came panting up, carrying an extremely gnarled piece of driftwood. "Odo! I bet you can't do this one!"

"Tomorrow we'll do some more," Odo promised, shooing the children away.

"And will you play search with us again? I loved how you turned into a snake to squeeze into the cave with me!"

"Yes, but you shouldn't go so deeply into the caves. You might have gotten lost," the constable admonished.

"You'd find us!" the children chorused with utter confidence. "You're the Constable!"

The children ran off, and Odo turned to his colleagues, gaping at him in astonishment.

Bashir found his voice first. "But -- but, Odo, I thought you detested mimicking things. I thought that was one of the things you hated most about Dr. Mora's laboratory."

"When it is done of my volition, it can be -- fun," Odo retorted.

Bashir's jaw dropped. Sisko muffled his laugh.

"Well, Constable, it seems you've learned how to relax."

"You even told the children your nickname?" Bashir was still stunned at the shapeshifter's transformation. "Why, Constable -- "

Odo glared at him. "Odo."

Sisko grinned. It was nice to see that some things were unchanged.

Elani approached with fruits on a plate made of large leaves. "Would you like to eat?"

"Yes, thank you." Sisko seated himself, the others following suit. Elani beamed maternally at them.

"For the last few days, ever since you decided to adopt our ways, it has given me pleasure to watch you. I hope you have found the time equally agreeable. Did you enjoy this day?"

Sisko answered honestly. "Very much. It has been a very long time since I did nothing but lounge on a beach." He smiled reminiscently. "It makes me remember all the times I spent on one with my wife."

"You see, Sis-ko? Do you see the price of unswerving allegiance to your god? You should remember such things more often. Feel how happy they make you. And look how your friend has benefitted from this visit. Why, the tension has just drained from him. I imagine he has never before been so relaxed."

"Madame," Odo sniffed, "in my native state, I am not merely relaxed, I am semi-solid!"

"Now do you understand what I tried to tell you that first day, Sis-ko? You have relinquished your concerns and responsibilities, and the cosmos have not crumbled. Very few things are irreversible in this lifetime, Sis-ko, and it is foolish to imagine otherwise. We all have our niche in the universe, and we must live that role as fully as we can, but do not torment yourself over matters beyond your control."

Sisko smiled up at her. "Thank you, Elani. Your wisdom - -and your world's beauty - have rejuvenated my soul."

Elani blushed in delight. Bashir looked up, a brilliant idea taking hold of him.

"I agree that this planet is marvelous. The climate, the food, the sea... Swimming was marvelous today, but you know, Elani, I'm just not able to enjoy the waves properly."

Elani's face puckered in concern. "Oh, how sad! Why?"

"Well, the runabout is right in the way. I wish we could move it aside."

"It looks pretty there, but it is something of a nuisance," Elani agreed.

Sisko seized the opportunity. "If we all worked together, it would be easy to move."

Odo leaned forward and used the magic word. "Trying to accomplish it would be -- fun."

Elani stood up, convinced. "You're right, it would be! Let me see who else would like to take part!"

She hurried off, and the men shared a look of triumph.

By midafternoon of the next day, the Orinoco had been successfully relocated further up the reef, and Sisko was hard at work trying to repair the damaged stabilizer. Bashiri and Odo continued to "have fun": Odo with the children and Bashir in the surf not too far from the ship.

Sisko muttered to himself in frustration. It had been a long time since he had last done something like this, and Elani's curious interference wasn't helping. "Please don't touch that," he told Elani for the twentieth time, then continued to himself, "Now let's see. The power converter is hooked up to the phase inverter, and the -- Chief, where are you when I need you?"

"Is this "Chief" another of your deities?" Elani asked politely.

"No, just one of our magicians. Hmm. Is this the energy coil or the antimatter conduit?"

"What is that pretty glowing thing?" she asked, pointing.

He caught her hand just in time. "Please don't touch anything! That's a plasma stream, and it's very dangerous."

Elani looked at him steadily for a moment. "When you finish fixing this, you will leave, no?"

Sisko paused, uncertain how she would react. "Well, yes," he confessed.

Elani's expression was surprisingly philosophical. "If you must leave, I hope you will at least return some day."

Relieved, Sisko nodded vigorously. "I would like that. I think my son would enjoy your world very much."

"By all means, bring him to us. And Sis-ko, try not to forget the lessons you have learned here. I do not believe that everything you have said these last few days is make-believe."

Taken aback by her perspicacity, it was a moment before Sisko could reply, but he felt only relief that he did not have to lie to her. "It wasn't. Thank you for helping me remember."

Just then, with his unfortunate lack of tact or timing, Bashir swam up and clambered onto the reef. "Hello, Commander! I saw you hard at work and thought I'd come over and lend a hand." He winked at Elani. "Don't worry; I enjoy this sort of thing!"

She smiled back. "I can understand why. It all looks so interesting."

"Elani! Please don't put your finger in there! Doctor, I appreciate your offer, but -- "

Bashir interrupted, a little hurt. "I took several engineering courses at the Medical Academy, you know. Miles was surprised at my ability."

Struggling for calm, Sisko explained, "If I could just concentrate on what-- "

"Honestly, I know what I'm doing. That's the phase inverter there."

"No, that's the flux monitor," Sisko said between clenched teeth.

"No, Commander, I'm really quite certain that's the phase inverter. The flux monitor has a green casing. I remember because my instructor had eyes that exact shade, and when I pointed that out to her -- over dinner -- she said that -- "

Sisko took a deep breath before trusting himself to speak. Meanwhile, Elani, bored by all the technical talk, drifted towards the open panel.

"Doctor. Right now I need to fix this ship. Later I'll be happy to listen to your charming anecdotes."

"Oh, of course. Naturally. I didn't mean -- "

Sisko took the younger man by the shoulder and steered him back towards the water's edge. "So, if you wouldn't mind, I'll get back to work on the monitor here. If I can just figure out how to recalibrate it, I'll be able to recharge the dilithium crystals in no time."

"Would you like me to take a look?" the doctor volunteered eagerly, turning back towards the runabout.

Sisko interposed himself between Bashir and the ship. "No! I can -- "

In facing Bashir, Sisko placed his back to Elani, and so it was the doctor who saw her move towards the Orinoco, her attention caught by a flickering deep inside the open panel.

"No! Don't!" Brushing past Sisko, Bashir leapt to stop her, but he was too late. Sisko turned just in time to shield his eyes against a sizable electrical discharge. When he lowered his arms, both Elani and Bashir were unconsious at his feet.

At Ops, back on the station, Kira, O'Brien, and Dax were slumped in their chairs, utterly exhausted.

"I will never have children. What little monsters." Kira was too tired even to swear.

"If I had to pull one more lump of sticky candy out of the maintenance panels..." O'Brien trailed off.

"What are the two of you complaining about? I'm the one who was stuck in the turbolift with the primary graders for two hours." Dax turned to O'Brien waspishly. "Oh, Chief, thanks so much for the speedy rescue!"

"I said I was sorry, Lieutenant! But I had to fix that glitch in the replicators first. When that little witch in pigtails programmed them to turn out nothing but Denarian sugar-clouds, I thought we'd have a riot on our hands!"

Kira's eyes were haunted. "And then the aftermath, when all of them had the candy in their systems! I thought they were excitable before -- " Overwhelmed by the hideous memories, she could not bring herself to continue.

"If Keiko hadn't thought to distract them," O'Brien commented, "they'd have torn Quark's place apart!"

"What possessed him to invite them into his bar in the first place?" Dax wondered.

"I think he was hoping to take advantage of their chaperone's absence to introduce them to the dabo tables. He says there's nothing like capturing your clientele while they're young."

"That's one of the first Rules of Acquisition," Dax agreed. "But where was the chaperone?"

"Chasing after the group that had decided to study docking clamps from the wrong side of the airlock," O'Brien explained. "It's a good thing Keiko had the station kids serving as guides. Jake was able to warn her when that imp figured out how to rewire Quark's replicators, and she contacted me."

"I never did hear what Keiko used to capture their attention," Kira said.

O'Brien grinned. "She gave them a tour of Odo's."

She looked at him, puzzled. "And that kept them occupied long enough for you to fix the system? What did it? The mugshots?"
"The cells. Or more specifically, the forcefields."

"Did all of the regular traffic make it out all right?" Dax mercifully changed the subject.

"Happily, most of the scheduled ships made rapid detours once they heard whom we were hosting. The few that had no choice but to dock during the invasion made it all right. What about Starfleet? I noticed you'd gotten some messages from them."

"Yes, Admiral Mbeke has called twice, wanting to know where the quarterly reports are. I explained that we were hosting the children, but she couldn't seem to understand why that would interfere with the reports. Then she told me that the Crippen will be stopping by the station in three days and that we'd be expected to host a reception for her crew."

"Oh, no. I forgot! There's a delegation of Vulcan astrogators arriving tomorrow. The Council has specifically asked us to welcome them personally." She whimpered pitifully to herself. "Not another reception! And with Vulcans!" Then an idea struck her and she slowly turned to O'Brien, an enticing smile on her lips. "Chief, you must know a lot of Vulcans from Star Fleet..."

"Oh, no, Major! I'll be spending all of my time just cleaning up after those hellions. They did more to wreck this place than those Orion miners did during their holiday binge! Do you know how difficult it is to scrape hardened jamja off of isolinear rods?"

Hoping against hope, Kira turned to Dax. "Jadzia, maybe you'd be interested? After all, you have access to Curzon's vast experience with diplomatic functions -- "

Dax cruelly dashed those hopes. "Not on your life. Curzon has some very vivid memories about receptions with Vulcans. A slow, agonizing death by boredom doesn't interest me, thank you. Besides, I'm too busy placating Admiral Mbeke and working on her quarterly reports. I have no idea where Benjamin stored half the files I need."

Kira sighed mournfully. "I suppose I have to do it myself. You -- you don't suppose --"

"What?" Dax asked. O'Brien looked on quizzically.

"You don't think that -- if he'd been here -- the commander could have used his political connections to have gotten us out of hosting Education Day? And all these other events?"

The three exchanged a long, long look.

"For the sake of our future working relations, I think that's a question we shouldn't even entertain," Dax finally said.

"If I might make another suggestion: in the future, I don't think we should say anything to the commander about his diplomatic duties. I couldn't take it if he started flying missions on a regular basis," O'Brien said with feeling.

Kira instantly agreed. "A brilliant suggestion, Chief. From now on, whatever the commander does will have my unqualified support -- so long as he does it here on the station. Better him than us."

"Amen!" the others chorused.

Inside one of the village huts, Sisko and Odo huddled over Bashir. At the far end of the room, Elani lay surrounded by other natives. Sisko finished tying a bandage around Bashir's eyes, while a worried Odo watched.

"Run the scanner over me again, Odo," Bashir instructed. "What does it say?"

Odo obeyed. "The medication is beginning to take effect, and the radiation damage to your skin is healing, but the injury to both corneas is severe."

"I'll need the regen gel back at the station, but for now, we've done all we can."

"Are you sure you shouldn't be resting?" Sisko asked uncertainly.

Bashir ignored the question and held out his arm commandingly. "Take me to Elani."

They did so, the locals making way at their approach. The natives were visibly upset and weeping, but hostility and blame were absent from their demeanor. Bashir ran his hands along Elani's body, determining what he could by touch.

"Respiration shallow," he muttered to himself. "No response to stimuli. Tachycardia. Clamminess. Symptoms of circulatory collapse... Odo, tell me what the scanner says. What is the reading at the far left?"

"Er, it says 'positive neurogenic vasoconstriction'. The adjacent bar is two-thirds dark."

"Is there encephelographic activity? What does the neural pattern look like?"

Sisko glanced over Odo's shoulder. "There is activity. It's a kind of sinusoidal wave. Very regular."

Bashir took a deep breath and laid out the situation for them. "She's in a coma. Her heart was badly damaged by the energy burst -- when I did all those tests I noticed that their myocardium is significantly less robust than ours -- and the tissue is beginning to autolyse. Toxins are spilling out into the circulation and being pumped to the rest of the body."

"Can you halt the process?" Sisko asked.

"Back at the station, I could do it in minutes, but here-- Let me think." He mused to himself for a moment. "The pharmacology of the medications should be close enough, but in order to deliver them to the tissues in time... Commander, is the runabout's power on?"

"No. I hadn't finished repairs when this happened."

"Damn! If only --"

"It won't take me long to complete the recalibration, and then the crystals will require only a few hours to recharge. By tomorrow -- "

Bashir cut him off. "Elani doesn't have that long."

"What is it that you need?" Odo asked.

"In order to reverse the damage, I'll need to infuse the heart muscle directly. Luckily, their heart isn't protected by ribs the way ours is, so it's much more accessible."

"You're planning to operate? Blind?"

The doctor was too busy to explain. "No. Odo, how bright is the sun?"

Odo was as confused as Sisko, but he answered quickly. "There are some clouds in the sky, and twilight's only a few hours off."

"Right. Here's the problem. To minimize risk of infection, I need to do the operation indoors, in a controlled environment. The runabout's no good because there's no power, and these huts are too dark."

"Leave that to me," Odo said firmly.

"But how --"

"I'll provide the illumination," Odo stated flatly. Pushing the medical tricorder to Sisko, he left the hut.

Sisko stared at Bashir's bandaged face, trying to work out what the doctor was intending and how unrealistic it would be. "That still doesn't solve the problem of your vision, Doctor," he pointed out, wondering how Bashir could have forgotten so basic a difficulty.

The answer took his breath away. "You'll be my eyes, Commander. I'll guide you through the surgery."

"What?" Sisko couldn't have heard correctly.

"I remember the anatomy from my scans, and you'll describe what you see at every step."

Sisko was stupefied for a moment. Quite apart from the question of whether he could actually perform surgery on anyone, he honestly did not believe that Bashir could have learned a sufficient amount about the natives -- let alone remember enough of it -- to operate safely on Elani. His mind filled with images of Bashir surfing and laughing with the natives-- not soberly investigating their alien physiques -- and he protested, "But you can't remember in sufficient detail! These people may be humanoid, but they're not human, and you performed those scans informally, between surfing jaunts. You can't jeopardize Elani's life further by attempting something you're not competent to -- "

Bashir cut him off, his voice crisp, his tone one of complete confidence and authority. "Actually I can remember, and my scans were very thorough."

Despite the bandage over his eyes, he could sense Sisko's disbelief, and a rather wry expression came over his face. "Commander, when it comes to medicine, I really do know what I'm doing, and I know I can save this woman's life. If you'll help me."

While Bashir struggled to explain the basic tenets of field surgery to a still-unconvinced Sisko, Odo gathered the natives.

Once a crowd had assembled, he addressed them: "This is a crisis. If we don't act quickly, Elani will die."

The villagers glanced at each other, stricken. Then one called out, "Odo, will you organize us the way you said you would?"

This was what he'd been waiting for. "Yes. Here's what you must do. Gather all of the lanterns and torches you can and bring them here. You, show me to a large empty hut. You children, go find as many sleeping mats as you can. You two, I need you to build a fire and boil water."

The villagers scurried off to carry out their instructions, and within a short time all was prepared. Inside the hut, a pile of sleeping mats had been arranged in the center of the room; Elani lay upon it. At the far wall, numerous lamps burned, but their limited illumination was magnified immensely by a huge reflective surface, its curvature precisely aligned to focus the increased light on the patient. Sisko entered, leading Bashir; they stopped at Elani's side.

"All right, Commander. I want this to be done as quickly as possible to reduce the risk of complications. Just as we discussed, give her the hypospray. That will keep her under for the surgery. Now open the medkit and remove the surgical supplies. First activate the sterilizing beam. Is it bright enough in here?"

"Yes. Although I think we need to move the light so that it falls a little closer to Elani's head."

The reflective surface, which was of course Odo, obediently rearranged itself, and after taking a deep breath, Sisko was able to begin. Bashir remained at his elbow the entire time.

"By now she's anesthetised, so go ahead and make the first incision through the skin and fascia. Let me feel where you are. Very good. Next the muscle. Good. Do you see the loops of bowel? Gently lift them aside. You should see the heart.

Sisko's voice was tight. Somehow this had all seemed much easier when Bashir was doing it. "I do."

"Don't touch it! Just pass the hypospray gently over its surface. Now reload it with the immunobooster and repeat. Do you see any changes?"

Sisko peered at the viscera, sweating lest he report something inaccurately. "I think it looks a little more blue," he finally reported.

"That's normal for them. Let's administer a channel blocker. With their physiology, that should have both chronotropic and inotropic effects."

"What?" Sisko asked blankly.

"Her heart. Is it beating more strongly? Faster?"

Sisko recognized the overly patient tone as one he had employed with the doctor several times, and he flushed. It wasn't so pleasant when you were the one out of your element. "Yes."

Bashir must have heard himself, because his next words were less condescending. "Sorry, Commander. Sometimes I forget that Medicine is a language all its own. How's her respiration? Hmm. All right; we're nearly done. Resterilize the field. Do you remember how I showed you to close? That's right, one layer at a time. You're doing fine."

To Sisko's vast relief, the operation was quickly over. Odo resumed his natural form and stood by Sisko's side as Bashir revived Elani.

"Elani, can you hear me? Wake up. Wake up, Elani."

She stirred, a faint whisper coming from her lips. "What -- what happened? I saw a different color and -- "

"Everything is fine. Just relax."

Elani closed her eyes again, smiling. "You sound like me."

The following day, the beach was crowded with waving natives. All of Odo's little friends were there, as was Elani, carefully supported by her peers. After many last farewells, the men finally boarded the Orinoco and powered up the engines. The villagers waved madly as the runabout lifted off the reef and headed off into the heavens.

All was quiet while Sisko piloted the ship out of orbit and logged in the course back to DS9. Odo sat beside him in the copilot's seat, while the still-bandaged Bashir whistled happily to himself in the back.

Once the ship was en route for home, Sisko cleared his throat. "Doctor."

Bashir hurriedly stopped whistling. "Sorry, Commander."

"It's not that." He paused; this wasn't easy for him, and he struggled to find the proper words. "Doctor -- Julian -- you did an excellent job back there. If it hadn't been for your understanding of the native culture, we might never have enlisted their assistance. And your ability to save Elani's life, even after you were hurt... Good job."

Bashir gasped, almost too delighted to speak. "Thank you, Commander! It means a lot to hear that from you."

Odo glanced at Sisko, then at Bashir. "Yes. I also thought you performed adequa-- " He broke off, reconsidering. " -- admirably."

"Thank you, Odo!" Bashir was patently thrilled.

After another pause, Odo added gruffly, "You may call me 'Constable'."

"Thank you, Odo! I mean, Constable!" The doctor sat back with a happy sigh, utterly blissful. "This trip was even better than I imagined it could be!"

Sisko shook his head in resigned amusement. Some things would never change. "Let's get you to the station, Doctor."

Odo stared out the window, his voice elaborately casual. "We can go back there, can't we?"

Surprised, Sisko glanced at him. "I don't see why not. They issued enough invitations."

"I was thinking that I might try taking a vacation sometime. It seems like an interesting custom," Odo explained in the same off-handed manner.

Bashir leaned forward eagerly. "Maybe all three of us could go together! Wouldn't that be fun?"

Odo and Sisko exchanged a look, but for once it contained affection, and even respect, as well as exasperation.

The commander turned back to his controls. "Engaging warp engines. We're on our way home."