Disclaimer: Paramount's creation - I'm just picking up where they left off.
Author's notes: Part of the "Glory Days" series. Follows immediately after the events of "Act of War", and "Empty Sky" - it's best to read those stories first as this one relies heavily on those. Many thanks to Rocky for the beta.
When a friend is lost,
the mind is split in half,
Divided between memory of the past and fear of the future.
Harry Kim, Ensign. Only a boy when fate took you from the arms of blue-green Earth.
- From the sixth season episode, "Muse"
Tom Paris swore under his breath as he tripped over the box in the dark. He stopped himself just in time for calling for illumination; B'Elanna was sleeping just a few meters away, though with the amount of medication in her system, he doubted if even a herd of targs could wake her. He righted himself, his hand scraping against the plastic cover of the crate. He took a deep breath. Harry's things. He'd tripped over Harry's things.
He looked over his shoulder at the biobed to see if his bumbling in the dark had disturbed B'Elanna. He wasn't sure if he felt relief or disappointment - or a mixture of both - that B'Elanna didn't stir. And if it hadn't been for the cortical monitor affixed to her forehead and the screen just off to the side keeping check on her vital conditions, Tom would have sworn that his wife was simply sleeping.
Deciding not to take the chance of making more noise by stumbling in the dark, Tom called in a low voice, "Computer, lights. Twenty percent."
Tom turned to look back at the box, or rather boxes clustered in the corner of the room. He had managed to fit the sum of Harry Kim's life into six standard Starfleet-issue crates. Everything except for the uniforms. He'd left them - all but a single dress uniform - in Harry's closet back on the Livingston; the dress uniform would be used for Harry's funeral, scheduled to take place just a few days from now in San Francisco. Staring at the boxes now, Tom wondered whether he'd made a mistake in leaving Harry's uniforms behind for the Livingston's crew to dispose of? Maybe Harry's parents would want those uniforms, all nine of them. But it was too late to return to the Livingston now; the starship, crippled over a week ago in the Neutral Zone 'conflict' - as Starfleet brass now referred to the sudden outbreak of hostilities between the Federation and the Romulans - was now on its way to Utopia Planetia for much-needed repairs and he and B'Elanna had transferred to the Pasteur just eight hours previously, bound for Earth.
Tom sat on one of the boxes. He was tired and he knew he should get some rest. He had spent a week traveling from San Francisco to the Neutral Zone, arriving on the Livingston just the day before. He'd only had about twelve hours on the Livingston - just enough time to check on B'Elanna, conference with her doctors and then to collect Harry's belongings for transport before the scheduled rendezvous with the Pasteur this morning. He was grateful that the medical staff on the Pasteur had been kind enough to give them private quarters, rather than consigning them to a corner of Sickbay. Of course, they'd had to bring the medical equipment with them and the doctors emphasized that even though B'Elanna's status had been upgraded from critical to stable, if her condition changed at any time, they would have to readmit her to Sickbay for the duration of the trip back to San Francisco.
Despite the comfort of their own private cabin, sleep didn't come easy for Tom; he'd tossed and turned for the last hour on the recliner next to her biobed until finally, he'd gotten up to check on B'Elanna more closely; given his proximity to her bed, he knew he would be able to hear her if she called out. She hadn't reacted when he'd touched her clammy hand or when he'd smoothed away her hair from her forehead. But her breathing was even and her pulse steady; this much he had to be satisfied with.
Tom glanced turned to look at the array of boxes next to him. He'd spent about three hours in Harry's quarters on the Livingston, grabbing everything he could see, everything that could possibly be meaningful to the Kim family. At first, he had rushed in his packing, grabbing random items and then, remembering how Harry was, Tom had forced himself to slow down and methodically pack the remainder of his friend's belongings.
Tom took a deep breath and rose. His foot still ached from where he'd banged it against the box. It was then he recalled the small case of holochips he had found on Harry's desk. Where *had* he put it? Tom couldn't begin to explain it, but at that moment, it was supremely important to him that he find the holochips. Urgently, Tom started rifling through the boxes, finally locating the case in the fourth container. He held it in his hands, caressing it lightly. Tom inhaled sharply and then removed the holochip he wanted.
Tom quickly changed out of his blue pajamas into loose-fitting pants and a t-shirt. As an afterthought, he pulled on a pair of loafers, deciding to forgo socks for the time being. After a quick check on B'Elanna, he left the guest quarters. Down the corridors he went, barely aware of the Pasteur's crew passing him by. Finally, he found the holodeck and luckily, at this late hour, it was available.
Tom opened the case and selected one chip and plugged it in. As the doors opened, he found himself in the monochromatic world of Captain Proton.
"Oh Harry," Tom whispered. He bit his lip as he took a look around. Everything was exactly as he remembered it, from the boxy computers to the hard, wooden furniture and the garish flashing lights. Tom pulled out a wooden chair and sat down at the desk. He wondered how long it would be for Chaotica to make an appearance, or even Queen Arachnia. "Computer, do not start program until I say so."
Tom leaned back in the chair. The room was so empty, so cavernous, without - without Harry. Shakily, Tom got to his feet. He wanted to talk to someone, anyone. But B'Elanna had been drifting in and out of consciousness for days now and he also didn't think she was in the shape to talk about Harry's death.
Tom's heart skipped a beat. He remembered the utter relief he'd felt when his father had broken the news that B'Elanna had survived the battle in the Neutral Zone. However, only a minute later, Owen Paris had revealed that Kathryn Janeway was so grievously injured that she'd had to be put into stasis during the transport to the medical facilities on Vulcan. Tom had started to relax then, just a little bit; Vulcan had some of the best doctors on the Federation and he knew Janeway was in the best possible hands. The sorrowful expression on his father's face, however, had told Tom that there was more bad news to come - news, that Tom in a thousand years, would never have the time to get used to. Owen Paris had delivered the crushing news of Harry's death but Tom hadn't been able to absorb the news properly as in the next breath, Owen informed Tom that passage had been booked for him on a fast transport to the Neutral Zone.
"I thought you said B'Elanna would be here in a few days," Tom had said. He had placed his palm flat on the top of desk for support. "I thought you said she was fine." The volume of Tom's voice had risen slightly.
"Yes, I did, but I was sure you'd want to be with her, so I took the liberty of making the arrangements for you," Owen had said. When pressed for more information, Owen had been evasive - at best - with the details of B'Elanna's status. The only additional information Owen had offered was, "She's in critical condition and the doctors say that the next ten days are crucial."
Tom had stared at his father in disbelief. "The next ten days are crucial?" Tom had asked. He'd run his hand through his hair, trying to hide his shaking hands. "What does that mean? That's not the same thing as 'fine', Dad."
"You're a medic," Owen had said softly. "You know that that means." In a rare demonstration of physical affection, Owen had placed his hand gently on Tom's shoulder. "I think you should go out there, Tom."
Tom had nodded, slowly comprehending his father's words. B'Elanna may have survived the initial battle but she wasn't out of the woods yet. And from the dire tone his father's voice had taken on, Tom suspected that the doctors were pessimistic on her chances for recovery either.
"I called in some favors, son," Owen had told Tom. "At the moment, non-essential personnel are not allowed in areas surrounding the Neutral Zone, at least not until the situation calms down, but a good friend of mine, Admiral Necheyev, is heading out there now to resume negotiations with the Romulans. She has agreed you can travel on her ship. You leave in a few hours. Don't worry about the children. Your mother and I will be happy to take care of them. You need to get to B'Elanna."
Numbly, Tom had agreed. He had moved almost mechanically, informing the flight school's secretary that he would be out for at least a couple of weeks and that a substitute instructor would be needed to take over his classes; luckily, he had planned well in advance and the substitute would be easily able to follow the course syllabus already written up. Tom's mother had assured him that she would pack for the children's stay with them; it was one thing Tom didn't need to worry about. He decided to tell Miral and Joey that he was going on a trip to go get Mama and that he would be back in a few weeks. Neither child had seemed terribly upset at the prospect of his departure; they both adored their grandparents and were overjoyed at the prospect of staying with Owen and Marta Paris for a few weeks.
The call from the grief-stricken Kims had come just an hour before he'd departed from San Francisco; could Tom bring Harry's personal items back to San Francisco since 'non-essential' personnel were banned from traveling to the Neutral Zone? They'd also informed Tom then that they had petitioned against a 'burial' in space, wanting instead for Harry's body to be brought to San Francisco. The petition had been granted and they wanted Tom to bring Harry back to them. Tom had agreed, but his throat had constricted as he did so.
"We want to see him one more time," Mary Kim had told Tom tearfully.
"I understand," Tom had replied mechanically. He'd only met John and Mary Kim a few times before, most recently at a party celebrating Harry's assignment to the Livingston. But Tom's brief encounters with the Kims had shown just how much their lives revolved around their only child. "I'm so sorry, Mrs. Kim. I can't even begin to put into words-" he had stopped there, suddenly imagining their positions reversed and that it was Miral or Joey who had died. The lump in Tom's throat had prevented him speaking.
"You were Harry's best friend," John Kim had interrupted. "Since we cannot go ourselves to the Livingston, we feel so relieved that it is you who will bring Harry's things for us and not some stranger. It makes it... easier."
"I understand," Tom had said again, finding it hard to say anything else. He was grieving for Harry as well, but he knew that it had to be a million times worse for Harry's parents; they'd lost their son once before to the Delta Quadrant and now, a scant six years later, they'd lost him again - this time forever. "Mr. and Mrs. Kim, I'm so sorry. I-" he'd stopped there, once again at a loss for words. And then he'd simply said, "I'll bring Harry's things for you."
Now, as Tom wandered around the holodeck, his throat tightened again. Here he had played Captain Proton and Harry had been his loyal sidekick, Buster Kincaid. The last time they'd 'played' in this scenario on Voyager had been the week before Miral's birth. The Delaney sisters had participated and they had even managed to talk Seven into joining them as well. And that last time, Neelix had been there and had managed to wheedle his way into playing the part of an evil overlord. The casting had been incongruous, to say the least, but Neelix had enjoyed himself greatly.
A few days later, Neelix had chosen to leave Voyager, to start a new life with Dexa and Brax - the Talaxian woman and her son with whom he'd formed instant bonds when Voyager had unexpectedly discovered a colony of Talaxians. If I'd only known that that was the last time, Tom thought a little sadly. But at the same time, he'd been happy that Neelix had found happiness with Dexa and Brax; Tom had always been aware that Neelix continued to miss Kes and hadn't had a serious relationship since Kes' departure - the brief and tragic affair with Talli on the Mari planet notwithstanding. Tom ran his fingers over the computer. Once he'd admired the blinking lights, the knobs and levers; he had always enjoyed the more manual controls than the automated computer wizardry and he'd incorporated that same 'rudimentary engineering' - B'Elanna called it - into the Delta Flyer. Neelix had been fascinated, to say the least, with the primitive Captain Proton setting and Tom could still remember him cackling - as an evil overlord should, Neelix had insisted.
It occurred to Tom that someone would have to tell Neelix about what had happened. He took a deep breath. Janeway was in no condition to deliver the news - if she even knew what had happened. Tuvok was on Vulcan and Tom knew that if even if Janeway weren't on Vulcan, Tuvok would already be at her side - no matter the distance. Tom also hadn't heard from Chakotay or Seven in months. B'Elanna had been close to Neelix but Tom knew that she wouldn't be up to talking about Harry to the Talaxian - or anything else, for that matter. Which left the task of informing Neelix to him.
Tom pondered; should he wait? After all, the message wouldn't be transmitted to Neelix until after they returned to Earth and even so, it would take several days for it to reach Neelix after it was sent as well. Tom took another long look around the holodeck, feeling lonely and hollow inside. He wanted - no, *needed* - someone to talk to. On Voyager, there had been no counselors to help them through the difficult times, but they'd been able to comfort each other and share in each other's pain. At the moment, Tom Paris felt very, very alone. It wouldn't be the same as having Neelix here in the room with him, but Tom knew that Neelix was a wonderful listener; in fact, Tom had managed to have entire conversations with the Talaxian without Neelix ever saying a word. And those talks had always ended up with Tom feeling much, much better.
"Computer, begin recording. Audio and visual both." Tom eyed the chair. Should he sit for this? How long did it take to convey bad news anyway? Better yet, how to start a message like this? He chose to remain standing. "It's Tom." He laughed, almost shakily. "Guess you figured that out by now, huh?" He cleared his throat. It seemed impersonal to come right out and say that Harry was dead, had died in the line of duty, and his funeral would be next week. Tom twisted his hands together. Damn it, this was *Janeway's* job, not his; commanding officers bore the brunt of relaying bad news, not helm officers. He paused then, realizing that unconsciously he still thought of himself on Voyager, of Janeway still being his commanding officer. Tom felt an irrational burst of anger at being placed in this position, but then pushed it away; it would do no good to blame Janeway or anyone else for what had happened in the Neutral Zone. He decided then that he wouldn't sit down - he had too much nervous energy to burn and somehow, walking made him think more lucidly.
"I wish you were here, Neelix," Tom continued. "You'd know what to do. You'd know what to say." He shook his head as he rounded the computer and climbed a step towards the time machine. "My problem is, I'm not sure how to start or what to say. It would be different if you were sitting right here with me. It's easier, you know, to talk to a person than to record a message. I'm just going to talk, okay, Neelix? I may edit later, I may not. I'm not really sure. I hope you understand." Tom took a deep breath, pausing a second to let the emotion clear from his voice before continuing on.
"You always had the right words, Neelix. I always envied that." Tom wiped his hand against his face. "And I feel terrible now because I never responded to your last note. The one you sent six or seven months ago. You had good news to report, that you and Dexa were expecting a baby. I imagine he or she is here by now." Tom paused. "Also, congratulations on establishing a new trade route. It sounds to me like you've really done well for yourself. I hope you're happy and well-established in your life now. It certainly sounds like you are." Tom sat heavily in the wooden chair. There was no way to gently cushion the news; he had to come out and say it directly. "I wish I wasn't sending bad news, Neelix, I really wish I wasn't. As you might guess from this message's signature, I'm talking to you from aboard a medical ship, the Pasteur. I'm here because B'Elanna is very ill from injuries sustained during a battle in the Neutral Zone and Harry-" he swallowed hard - "Harry is dead. He died in the line of duty in that same battle."
Tom paused. The battle in the Neutral Zone had erupted without warning; until that moment, all signs had pointed to a successful resolution in the conflict between the Romulans and the Ponzi raiders who insisted on preying on both Federation and Romulan colonies on either side of the Neutral Zone. From what little B'Elanna had been able to tell him and the information he'd gathered from reports his father had supplied him with, Tom surmised that the captain of the Federation starship Amherst had been a little trigger-happy and had decided to fire a warning shot at a Ponzi ship; the misguided missile had slammed into a Romulan freighter instead, causing the Romulans to fire back at the Amherst.
"It escalated from there. B'Elanna's ship - the Minuteman - responded to the Amherst's distress call. I'm sure B'Elanna mentioned the Minuteman to you; she was one of the chief engineers responsible for the design specs of the new Mars-class ships. Harry shouldn't have even been there. He was assigned to the Livingston and he and Janeway beamed over to the Minuteman perhaps an hour at most before hostilities broke out." Tom cleared his throat. The reports had indicated severe damage to the Minuteman due to the Romulans' new weapons' technology and B'Elanna had been forced to eject the warp core, which had been leaking massive amounts of radiation. Somewhere along the line, Harry had shown up to assist B'Elanna and the other engineers in trying to salvage the ship.
"Harry was injured in one of the Jefferies tubes. He and B'Elanna were trapped there, trying to reroute critical systems in order to erect force fields and keep the Minuteman space worthy until help arrived. It should have been a safe place to wait, but the battle wasn't over. The aftershock of the Amherst's destruction caused a massive shockwave and Harry was thrown up against the wall," Tom said. He cleared his throat before continuing. "He sustained severe head trauma. However, it was a 'slow bleeder' so he managed to keep consciousness but B'Elanna was concerned for him. He told B'Elanna that it wasn't serious when she insisted he go to Sickbay and when they were beamed to the Livingston, he insisted that she get treatment before him. She was having trouble breathing, but you know B'Elanna-" Tom shook his head - "she was adamant about Harry. Only the doctors' intervention caused her to accept medical help before Harry; they said she was suffering from pulmonary distress." Tom took a deep breath. He had visualized this scene in his mind many times, thinking on how chaotic the Livingston's sickbay must have been. "Harry died an hour later. Quietly and-" Tom cleared his throat - "alone."
Tom had talked to the doctors when he'd first arrived aboard the Livingston. They'd found Harry Kim sitting in a chair, leaning against the wall, his eyes half-closed, his expression relaxed. No pain, the doctors had told Tom, he just slipped away, quietly and peacefully.
"It sounds like negligence, Neelix, but it really wasn't. The Livingston's sickbay was in chaos. They didn't have enough medical personnel or equipment to treat the injured. You know how it is in a hostile situation. Events move so quickly, you make decisions without thinking them through clearly and you just hope that you've done the right thing. Harry insisted he felt fine and it was obvious to everyone that B'Elanna needed surgery immediately or she would die. And while she was in surgery, Harry sat down to wait." Tom paused. "The doctors insist that he felt nothing, but it still haunts me, that he died alone and I can't stop thinking about." Tom rose from his seat, his heart beating rapidly as he twisted his hands together. "I sometimes wonder if that's a lie we tell the survivors, that the victim felt nothing because it eases the loss for us." Tom stopped. "But I can't believe it, that he was there, that he was within inches of help and still..." Tom shook his head. "But that's such a 'Harry' thing to do, you know? Playing the hero? Wanting to be the one to take care of his friends?"
Tom swallowed hard and then continued his pacing. "I just came from the Livingston, his ship, where he should have been all along, Neelix. Or rather, I arrived earlier this morning. I had to pack Harry's things for his parents. No, that makes it sound like I didn't want to do it. I did want to do it. I thought it would be easy. After all, it's just *things*, right? Inanimate objects? How hard could it be?" Tom stopped. "His quarters were perfect, as always. You know how Harry was. All hospital corners. Everything in its place, not a speck of dust anywhere."
It had been eerie in those first few minutes. He'd stood in the middle of Harry's quarters, unable to even think of where to start. Despite Harry's neatness and organization, Tom had been overwhelmed by the task in front of him. The fact that B'Elanna would wake in a couple hours and she'd need him as well as only having a few hours to get the task done propelled Tom into action. He'd moved mechanically, first wrapping up the personal items on the desk and then moving to the closet to fold away the uniforms. At the bottom of the closet, he'd found Harry's footlocker.
Hunching down, Tom had popped it open. He'd found Harry's personal letters there, and in a small box, holoimages. Tom had stopped then, his fingers clutching the edge of the box as he'd stared at the memories Harry had carefully preserved. In typically Harry fashion, each one had been carefully labeled with stardate and the names of the individuals in the pictures. There had been several of Tom and Harry together, including one of them dressed up to 'play' in the Captain Proton scenario. Tom swallowed hard; he had the exact same picture in his office back at the Academy. He carefully replaced the picture in the box, placing it aside for Harry's parents.
"Harry had his saxophone and clarinet both on board the Livingston. I wanted to ask someone if he played still but I couldn't find anyone to ask. But I'm sure, if there weren't already a quartet on board the Livingston, he would have formed one himself. You know Harry. He loved to play those instruments," Tom said. His throat was starting to feel hoarse. "It really bothered me when I saw the saxophone and clarinet cases. It hit me then, that I'd never hear Harry perform again and how I never told him on Voyager that I appreciated his music. I think it was in that moment the reality of what had happened became real for me." Tom shook his head. "The trip on Admiral Necheyev's ship to rendezvous with the Livingston was nerve-wracking. I was comfortable, physically comfortable, that is. I had a stateroom, the type they assign to visiting diplomats. Despite the luxury, I couldn't relax for a second. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, and I couldn't sit still. I was so worried about B'Elanna - they, the doctors - wouldn't tell me exactly what had happened to her, and they were equally reticent about the Admiral Janeway's condition. I've never been so frightened in my life, Neelix. It's a long time to be alone with your thoughts. A very, very long time. Memories blur, recollections fade, and I was frantic, trying to remember everything about Harry, and all the things we experienced together, all the times - good and bad--that we shared." Tom remembered the utter panic he'd felt when he'd realized he was already starting to forget Harry's mannerisms, things Harry had said. It had bothered Tom greatly because, after all, he'd just met Harry in a chance encounter the previous year at Starbase 4. "Somewhere between Earth and the Livingston, I decided that it couldn't be true. It was all just a big mistake. Harry wasn't dead. He couldn't be, because selfish as it sounds, I had too much to say to him and there was so much that he still needed to do."
Tom's hands shook and all of his emotions welled up in his throat once again. He wasn't the type to cry, but he felt closer to a meltdown than ever before; even Caldik Prime had not had this same kind of intensity. Back then he'd thought that the loss of his friends, due to his negligence, had been the worst thing that could have ever happened to him. But he'd managed to numb that pain and somehow push it behind him so that it didn't hurt as much. This time, it was different. Harry had been his best friend - someone who had accepted Tom unconditionally.
"Even though my father had told me about Harry, I didn't really understand what it meant. I know that must sound crazy because really, what's there to understand? If someone is dead, they're dead. It's pretty straight-forward, but in my mind, it wasn't something I could comprehend," Tom said. He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself down. "How could it be real? Harry had his entire life in front of him and his career was finally going in the direction he wanted it to be. The last time I saw him, he was-" Tom paused, looking for the right words. Harry had been his usual responsible self, wanting to get back to the science conference, but Tom had urged him, for old time's sake, for another go in the Captain Proton scenario. Now Tom was intensely grateful that he had forced the issue.
"The first time I met Harry, we were on Deep Space Nine, at Quark's. He was striking a deal with the Ferengi bartender and was being taken for a ride, by the looks of it." Tom chuckled briefly at the memory. "I don't know what it was about Harry that made me want to step in, because, as you know, back then, I could be just as mercenary and cold-hearted as a Ferengi if I wanted to be. But I did and from then on, I always thought of Harry as someone I needed to look out for. Perhaps as a way to redeem myself, or maybe it was because of the unconditional way Harry accepted me and my past, even when Commander Cavit and Dr. Fitzgerald warned him against me." Tom smiled wryly - a bit inappropriately as well. "You never had the displeasure of meeting these two gentlemen, Neelix, but they didn't care for me as they'd made up their minds about me and weren't inclined to change them. Unfortunately, they had the capacity to influence the rest of the crew, except for Harry. He told them that he was capable of choosing his own friends. It was such a contrast from the way the rest of Voyager's crew treated me."
Tom was on a roll now. He could feel the words coming out more easily. "I always thought of Harry as my sidekick, you know? Buster Kincaid to my Captain Proton?" Tom gestured to his surroundings, knowing that Neelix would recognize the program. "But when we were in the Aquitiri prison, it was different. When he first arrived in the prison, I immediately took responsibility for him. I was convinced that Harry wouldn't be able to survive the prison without me. After all, *he'd* never been to prison before. Hell, I'd never been to a prison like this one either; New Zealand was a luxury resort compared to this one." Tom shook his head at the memory. It had taken months for the ghosts of the Aquitarian prison to stop haunting his dreams; still, on occasion, he'd wake in a cold sweat, wondering if someone had plans to slit his throat so they could steal his boots.
"But things changed after I got stabbed and I was weak from blood loss and fever. Harry took care of me and even then I wasn't sure Harry could take care of himself, let alone me. I urged him to save himself, not to think of me at all if he could find a way out." Tom laid a hand on the back of the wooden chair. "But Harry wouldn't think of it. We saw the worst of people when we were there and I'm convinced that if Harry hadn't stepped in, hadn't claimed me for his own-" here Tom paused to chuckle, remembering Harry's exclamation of "This man is mine!" - "I wouldn't have lived through the experience. I'll never forget the force with which he told those pressing for him to kill me that nobody would touch me; I was his friend. After that, I looked at Harry a little differently. Not just as a good buddy, someone to kill time with, to play on the holodeck with, but someone who was genuinely going to be there through good times and bad. I knew I would be able to depend on him, that his loyalty went far deeper than I ever imagined."
Tom looked around the room. He remembered spending long hours on the Captain Proton scenario; he'd made it a point to create a new holoprogram every year to share with the crew, along with the Sandrine's program he'd brought with him aboard Voyager. The resort program he'd created had been popular enough - he still had fond memories of B'Elanna in her 'tropical' sundress - but he knew he had hit pay dirt when he'd stumbled across the Captain Proton stories. Many of his fellow crewmembers including the Delaney twins and Seven had joined him and Harry here, enjoying the campy and vampish feel of the program. On one rare occasion, Janeway had been conscripted into the part of Queen Arachnia, under duress, the Captain had insisted, but Tom had silently noted that it looked as if Janeway *was* indeed enjoying herself. B'Elanna, on the other hand, had never cared much for the Captain Proton program. She'd deemed the program silly (she hadn't had much love for Fair Haven either), but Tom pointed out that silliness was the precise reason why Captain Proton was so popular. It gave the crew a chance to fight an enemy - Chaotica, for instance - that they knew, without doubt, that they could defeat. And Harry had never mentioned it directly, but Tom knew that Harry enjoyed flirting with Constance Goodheart, whether 'she' be the holographic version or the one who was occasionally played by a female member of the crew.
"Harry always fell for the wrong girl," Tom said, his voice lightening as he recalled Harry's 'romantic' escapades. His friend's disastrous luck with women - a group that included a hologram, the 'wrong twin,' an alien, a dead crewman, a saboteur - had amused Tom greatly and when they'd returned to Earth, Tom, in domestic bliss, had been relieved to learn that Harry had resumed his relationship with Libby. Perhaps, Tom had thought at the time, all of those other 'affairs' - including Tal, the alien woman who had 'infected' Harry - had been simply a way of forgetting the woman he'd really loved. But the relationship with Libby lasted less than a year after Voyager's return. Harry's only statement on the matter was that he and Libby would always care for each other deeply; they were both different people now and they needed to move on with their lives and he would always wish Libby well. "But he seemed happy enough with the decision. Harry had his mind set on command track. I'm pretty sure he was aiming for the admiralty. I believe he was emulating Janeway; he admired her greatly and wanted nothing more than her approval. It bothered him that she never promoted him in the DQ and I'm sure a part of him wondered if he truly measured up to her standards. That's another thing I would want to tell Harry. That I really think he could have done it, would have done it. I really believe he would have made a hell of a captain. He was smart, ambitious, resourceful - all good traits in a Starfleet officer. But more importantly, he was genuine, sincere, caring. He didn't play politics like others did and he didn't always take the easy way out. He was a fine officer, Neelix, but more importantly, he was a fine man."
Tom closed his eyes. He was starting to feel sleepy and his voice was growing hoarse from talking. "I should probably tell you a little about Janeway and B'Elanna. I know you must be worried about them as well. My father informed me that Janeway had been placed in stasis for transport to Vulcan as her condition was serious. The last bit of intelligence says that she is currently expected to recover from her injuries." Tom stopped, thinking of the bit of information he'd received shortly before boarding the transport to rendezvous with the Livingston. Despite massive injuries, Janeway had remained in control on the Bridge of the Minuteman in its final minutes, continuing to negotiate with the Romulans for a ceasefire. He'd also learned the captain of the Minuteman, John Phillips, had been confident that the ship could be saved, that Janeway would be able to successfully convince the Romulans to stop their attacks; as such, no order had been given to evacuate the ship. The order had come later - from Janeway - after Captain Phillips had been killed. By then, it had been too late. Portions of the ship had been impassable and those who had survived the initial blasts, like Harry and B'Elanna, were blocked from reaching the escape pods. Others had perished from smoke inhalation and still more had succumbed to severe radiation poisoning.
"B'Elanna is very ill, Neelix." Tom gave in to his fatigue and sat down. The hard wooden chair gave him the support he so desperately needed and for that reason, he was able to disregard the discomfort. "Radiation poisoning, much of it due to exposure during the warp core meltdown. You know B'Elanna. She was in Engineering until the very last minute, trying to erect a force field around the warp core. She was the last one out after ejecting the core. Another stubborn officer -I always said she and Janeway had a lot in common." Tom pressed his lips into a thin line. "And that was before she and Harry were doing their best to hold the ship together from a main junction in the Jefferies tube which was a smart move to make on their part. They didn't know though that it was also an area with a severe concentration of radiation fallout." Tom shook his head in disbelief. The doctors had given him a readout of their estimation of what the radiation levels in Engineering and the Jefferies tubes had been - 10 gray - and knowing that, Tom had been shocked that B'Elanna had even survived the exposure. The doctors had credited B'Elanna's Klingon physique, the redundant organs, for making it possible for her to survive when so many others had perished.
"The doctors are cautiously optimistic about B'Elanna's chances. They say if she makes it past the six-week mark, we're out of the woods. I don't have to tell you, Neelix, about radiation poisoning, about how most people die within two to four weeks when they've been hit with a lethal dose of that magnitude. But B'Elanna's strong and she's going to make it." He said this last bit with a burst of confidence; the doctors' reports had been initially pessimistic but more recently, they had changed their tune to 'cautiously optimistic.'
Tom rose, feeling he could no longer keep his exhaustion at bay; perhaps moving around would give him the energy necessary to finish his letter to Neelix. How long had he been here anyway? He cleared his throat. "I've got to go check on her, Neelix. She's so weak now, dehydrated, nauseated, and in a lot of pain. It's hard to see her like this, Neelix, and not know what to do for her. The doctors say we have to wait and see; conventional treatments for radiation sickness didn't work for B'Elanna, possibly due to the fact she's been exposed to so much radiation over the past ten to twelve years that the medications have simply lost their potency." Tom sighed. He knew B'Elanna appreciated his presence by her bedside, but at the same time, he knew she resented her dependence on him as well. "You know as well as I do that B'Elanna hates being coddled and she'll want to go back to the way things used to be. She'll want to work long hours again at the Starfleet Corps of Engineers. But somehow, I'm going to have to convince her that things are going to have to change because we can't anticipate what the long-term effects of radiation poisoning will be. I know she won't want to slow down, that's not B'Elanna's way, but I'm afraid for the near future, that that's the way it's going to be." He stopped. "I'm worried about her emotional state as well, Neelix. She knows about Harry and to say she's devastated would be putting it lightly."
Tom had been furious when he'd learned that the doctors onboard the Livingston had told B'Elanna about Harry. He'd been hoping to tell her himself, knowing that B'Elanna would take Harry's death hard. She hadn't talked much about Harry in the two days they'd been together and this worried Tom; B'Elanna had a way of repressing her feelings when she was upset. She'd come a long way from acting out her emotions in suicidal holodeck programs. He'd already decided, when they got back to San Francisco, he'd make an appointment for B'Elanna to see a counselor. She'd fight him, he knew, but he'd be firm about it. So many times on Voyager they'd needed someone desperately to help them, and now that they had the best counselors in Starfleet available to them, Tom was determined to take advantage of their services.
"Maybe it's better that B'Elanna is aware of what happened to Harry, I don't know. I was just concerned that it would slow her recovery, but I have to have faith in her." Without thinking, Tom quirked a smile. "You know B'Elanna. There's no challenge she can't overcome once she puts her mind to it. And you know something else? I'm counting on it."
Tom headed to the door. "I wish you were here, Neelix. Not just because I know you'd be the perfect one to help us figure out what's going on, but also because you're a good friend." Tom took a deep breath. "And God knows, we could all use a good friend. It's only recently that I'm starting to appreciate what we all had together on Voyager and how easily it can be lost. I want you to know, Neelix, even though you're far away, you're not forgotten. You still occupy a place in our hearts." Tom's lips turned upwards and his tone lightened slightly. "After all, if it hadn't been for you, Neelix, B'Elanna and I would have never gotten married. So, we owe you. A lot. Take care, Neelix. I'll contact you again, hopefully under better circumstances." Tom gently touched the metallic surface of a large, boxy computer mainframe. "Computer end recording and transmit to personal database of Tom Paris, authorization alpha zeta five." Tom took one last, lingering look around the Captain Proton set. Instinctively, he knew that he would never return to this program. "Goodbye, old friend. Computer, end program."
"What is it?" Dexa stood behind Neelix, her eyes focused on the fading image of Tom Paris. She was holding a very sleepy baby in her arms. "Is something wrong?"
Neelix inhaled deeply before turning to Dexa. The initial joy of receiving a message from Tom Paris had dissipated once he realized what the message contained. "It's about Harry Kim."
Dexa's hand tightened on Neelix's shoulder. "Bad news? It sounded like it."
"The very worst kind." Neelix pressed the 'rewind' button; he wanted to watch the vid one more time. Tom's message had been a little repetitious, a little rambling, but that was understandable, given the circumstances the message had been recorded under. It would take several more viewings before Tom's words actually sunk in. "Harry was killed in action." It sounded strange to actually say the words out-loud.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Dexa said softly. Dexa hadn't known Harry that well, but Neelix had told her plenty of stories and he knew that her words were heartfelt and sincere. She leaned down to kiss Neelix lightly on the cheek. "Brax and I'll be in the nursery with Alixia." Neelix reached up to gently touch the now sleeping baby in Dexa's arms on the head.
"Thank you," Neelix said, grateful that Dexa had sensed his need to be alone to absorb the news. He *was* lucky, Neelix thought, and he *was* happy with the life he had now, comfortable with the decision he'd made not to continue on to the Alpha Quadrant with Voyager. But still, at times like this, his heart ached for his friends and he was reminded again just how much he missed them all. He cleared his throat. As hard as it had been for Tom Paris to dictate the bad news, Neelix knew it would be equally difficult to respond to Tom; Tom had given him too much credit when he had said that Neelix always 'had the right words.' Some things simply couldn't be put into words, Neelix knew. Taking a deep breath, Neelix began to compose a response to Tom.
~ the end
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