Disclaimer: Characters and places belong to Paramount. No profit or infringement intended.
Author's note: My gratitude to Liz for the beta and for compiling the timeline, which pulls it all together. My thanks also go to Sara for her comments and diligence in tracking down missing words. Also, thanks to Lori for some last minute edits.
I pack the clarinet last. Carefully, I settle the instrument against the blue velvet lining the case; for a contemplative second, I run my fingers tenderly over the barrel of the instrument.
I hadn't intended to bring the clarinet onboard Voyager, but Libby had insisted.
"You never know," she said.
I laughed then because I had dreams of great adventures and felt that there would be no time to devote to the clarinet. But Libby held out the case and said, "You'll miss it if you don't take it. Trust me on this one." And I did, because at that time, I was so in love, there wasn't anything I wouldn't do for Libby.
I find it slightly amusing - in a gallows humor sort of way - that the clarinet was the last thing I brought on Voyager and it will be the last thing I take off.
I take one last look around my quarters. Every bit of individuality that marked these quarters as Harry Kim's has been stripped, packed away into boxes and bags. Without my things, even the air smells different - more sterile, more clean. I sigh.
I snap the locks on the
case and then put it with the rest of my belongings against the wall. The moving
crews will be here and they will efficiently take my things from point A to
point B. They won't know the sentimental value of the only photo I have of Lindsey
Ballard nor will
they think to speculate on the origin of the small blanket I've tucked into a small bag resting on the top of the boxes; it's the blanket I wrapped Naomi in when I brought her over to this ship.
Yes, try explaining that. I haven't thought about the switch, the exchange - call it what you will - in years. To be more precise, I haven't thought about the other Harry. And after the few first few awkward moments after my arrival on this version of Voyager, the crew - this crew - accepted me as if I was their Harry. Like so many other things, this is yet another subject we don't discuss.
But I keep Naomi's blanket to remind me of what could have been.
I really don't know how I'm going to explain what happened to my parents. Conventional wisdom dictates that I keep my mouth shut; given the events of the last couple weeks, we're going to have a lot to explain and the fact that I'm Harry but not really the Harry originally assigned to this crew, well, that should be a brainteaser for another time.
The door chimes as I take my last look around.
It's Tom, with his pack slung over his shoulder. He looks refreshed, almost relieved.
"You work fast," he observes.
"They did give us a deadline," I answer. "Everyone off the ship by 1800."
"Of course you wouldn't want to ruin your perfect Starfleet record by being even a minute late," Tom teases. I shoot him a glare, intended to set his knees knocking, but Tom laughs at me. "Look, you even arranged your boxes by size. I'm impressed, Harry. Truly impressed."
"Never too late to make an impression," I joke back.
"In our cases, it might be."
I round the table, carefully sliding chairs in so the cleaning crew assigned to sanitize these quarters won't trip. Sometimes, I'm just way too thoughtful.
"You think we're all in trouble or just the Captain?" I ask.
"What difference does it make?" Tom asks. "Aren't we in this together?"
"A little while ago, you didn't seem to think much of the Captain."
"I don't agree with some of things she did in the Delta Quadrant," Tom says carefully. "But I think the situation is a bit different now, don't you?"
I lean forward against the table, putting all of my weight on my palms.
"What are you going to do?" I ask.
"I don't know." His tone is curt, sharp. "What time is it?"
"Not a lot of time left to decide, huh?" Tom quirks a grin. "You know me. I'll figure something out. Perhaps hire myself out as mercenary. There are still areas of the AQ where a good pilot is wanted."
I scowl at him, almost in annoyance. Even now, even for a moment, can't he be serious? As if sensing my irritation, Tom says quickly, "And you, as the most upstanding ensign in all of Starfleet, well, I hope you aren't an ensign for much longer." He sounds sincere in this sentiment and for that, I'm grateful.
"No, really. You deserved a promotion, oh, three, four years back? There's no glory in being the longest serving ensign in Starfleet history."
"You're exaggerating," I tell him. "I'm not-"
"Think of someone who's been an ensign longer than you."
"What are you trying to do? Rub salt in a wound?"
"No, I'm just thinking that it was damn unfair that you never got a promotion. You deserve it, Harry. More than anyone else."
"A lot of people didn't get promotions," I tell him. "We had a hierarchy to maintain out there. It wouldn't have made sense to give promotions out willy-nilly."
"That doesn't change the fact that you deserved a promotion."
I look down at my fingers splayed out on the table. Yes, there were times when I had a serious case of pip envy. When Tom was demoted, I felt guilty because finally, I wasn't the only ensign on the senior staff. And then, when Tom got reinstated, I experienced a severe sense of inferiority which I then translated into a nocturne in A minor. Of course, I would never tell Tom how I felt about his promotion but it comforts me now to know that even then, he was aware of what I might have been feeling.
Kind of nice, actually, since awareness of others has never been Tom's strong point. It's not that he's uncaring, merely oblivious. Nothing wrong with that. Many times, I would have liked to disappear into a self-centered universe myself. Would have made some things a hell of a lot easier.
Less painful too.
"Let's go," Tom says. "I wouldn't want to be the one to ruin your perfect record."
I grab the one bag I'm taking with me and take one last look around. The first time I moved into these quarters, I felt a childish glee in being able to rearrange things, and enjoyed the freedom of being able to escape to my own place. I could leave my shoes in the middle of the floor if I wanted to or I could leave dirty dishes on the table for days and no one would care. Not that I ever did either of these things; my fastidiousness wouldn't allow me to, but it was the idea that I could that thrilled me.
"I'm glad you're here," Tom says. "I don't want to walk out there alone."
I glance sideways at my friend. This moment of insecurity doesn't suit him. He walks out into the corridor and leans against the wall, arms crossed against his chest.
"I know what you mean," I tell him. One deep breath and then I say, "Computer, turn off lights."
The room goes dark and I join Tom out in the hall. I tap in the security codes one last time and then offer Tom a smile as the doors close. He shrugs back at me.
"Want to take bets on security?" Tom asks. "How large do you think the detail will be?"
"I think you're overreacting."
"You think your parents will be there? Libby?"
"They said they would be, if they could get Starfleet clearance in time."
I nod. "I think so." My parents had been deliberately vague in the last note I had received from them and in my terse reply, I had not asked for an explanation. Some questions, I think, are better left unanswered.
"So theoretically, we've been missing all of this time and no one will be there to greet us when we finally do arrive?"
"I didn't think you cared," I say sharply.
Tom looks at me. "You're right. I don't."
We walk down the hallway. Every curve is familiar to me. I can anticipate each computer panel in the wall, each doorway, each four-way junction. I swallow hard.
"You know, I spent the best seven years of my life on this ship," Tom says. His voice is quiet, contemplative and strangely, without much emotion. But then, I shouldn't be surprised. The Tom of the past few days has been curiously one-dimensional. He only showed a bit of the old Tom when I dragged him to my holographic recreation of a rainforest. He didn't like the program and made his feelings on the subject completely clear, but I felt good. Somehow, I had gotten to Tom and he never suspected a thing.
"You've been a good friend, Harry," Tom says. "My best friend. I mean that."
"I know you're going to go places. Whatever happens here, don't let it get to you. You're- you're good at what you do. I fully expect you to be captain one day."
"Just a captain? I was aiming for admiral."
"Ambitious, are we, Harry?"
Tom pauses for a moment to look at the blueprint of Voyager on the wall, with its prominent "you are here" indicator blinking. Carefully, Tom runs his fingers over the map and then stops as his index finger lands on the shuttlebay.
"What are you thinking?" I ask.
"I think it's going to be hell to leave," he answers. "I'm glad we're making our exit in the Delta Flyer. That's something, isn't it?"
"Yes," I answer. We continue on our way down the corridor. In a way, it's nice to make this last leisurely walk. Usually, we're in a rush, running from one end of the ship to the other to the beat of blaring klaxons. The corridors are empty; most of the crew has already disembarked in a frenzy of activity and excitement. The silence unnerves me, and I feel the need to fill the space with words, but Tom's expression shows that he is not interested in idle chitchat. And I understand, really, I do. I understand because this moment is bigger than what we could have ever imagined and it's more painful than I thought it could be. There aren't enough syllables in Standard to express how I feel right now and I don't even think I want to start.
I note that Tom is taking the most inefficient way possible to the shuttlebay. We pause in front of sickbay.
"I never thought I'd say this, but I actually miss the Doc," Tom says. "Miss his singing, that is."
"We'll see him again. You'll see B'Elanna again."
Tom doesn't respond but walks around the biobed, dragging his fingertips along any possible surface.
"Tom?" I ask.
"I'm ready," he says, but his voice is soft, almost strained.
This time, I take the lead and we end up in the mess hall. Neelix's supplies have already been packed and the boxes lines the walls and a few are on tables. In the farthest corner from the door, the Captain stands, one hand pressed against the window, her long fingers fanning out. Tom puts his hand on my shoulder.
"Captain?" I ask, shrugging off Tom's touch.
She doesn't turn around but answers quietly, "Yes, Harry?"
And then I feel childishly and foolishly stupid. I've never been this tongue-tied before, never at a loss for words like this. And not for the first time, I envy Tom's ability to get in the last word, his uncanny knack for knowing just what to say and how to say it. But even now, Tom seems at a loss.
"We- we're getting ready to go," Tom says.
"I need another minute," the Captain responds.
"We'll see you at Headquarters," Tom says.
"Right. At Headquarters." Her tone is flat, curiously devoid of personality, and I open my mouth, but can't think of anything more to say to the woman I served with unquestioning loyalty for seven years. Sometimes, there aren't words enough to express yourself and Tom senses this as he practically drags me out of the mess hall.
"Now why did you go do that?" he asks.
"It seemed silly to ignore her."
"She wants to be alone. Let her be."
We walk in silence for a few minutes and Tom points to the turbolift.
"You ready?" he asks.
"No. Are you?"
We make our way to the shuttlebay in silence. Seven is already there, her one bag at her feet.
"You are late," she says, but without much fire. We shrug. For once, punctuality isn't important, but try explaining that to a Borg whose entire life is scheduled to the micro-second. "I was concerned."
"Well," Tom says. He opens up the hatch and we stare at the interior of the Delta Flyer. "No one is else is coming with us, I don't think."
"Good," I say rather rudely. Seven stares at me. "Don't look at me like that, Seven. I don't mean it that way."
And I don't bother to explain what I mean either because there are some things that if you don't understand right away, you never will. Seven, for all of her newly acquired humanity, still lacks the sentimentality necessary to feel the intensity of leaving Voyager, perhaps forever. I'm not even sure that I feel enough; maybe I ought to feel more.
Tom slides into his chair, already focused on the task ahead. I envy this single-minded drive of his; fly, damn it, just fly. A hell of lot better than sitting at Ops, waiting for asteroids, nebulas, and solar storms - none of which will happen on this tame route between Utopia Planetia and Earth.
Seven sits opposite me, her fingers flying efficiently over her console. She looks up and announces in crisp tones that our trip to Earth should be relatively smooth. Thank God for small miracles; I'd hate to land and emerge from the Delta Flyer only to fall over myself due to a bout space sickness.
We sit in silence and I figure we all have our own thoughts. Seven is apprehensive about meeting her relatives - understandable - and Tom's still trying to figure out what made his father violate Starfleet commandments the way he did. Me, I'm thinking about Libby and the way it was before Voyager ended up in the Delta Quadrant. I know I shouldn't get my hopes up, but a boy can always dream and damn, I dream a lot.
Tom brings us in smoothly, piloting a nice arc around Headquarters, before setting us down on the landing pad assigned to us. No one moves and after a few moments of silence, Seven stands up in one fluid move.
"We should disembark," she says.
I always find good-byes to be unbelievably difficult; somehow, the words get stuck in my throat. With Libby, I was casual.
"See you in a few weeks," I said to the woman I intended to marry. Libby hugged me quickly, her arm loose around the back of my shoulders; I don't think I looked back even once when I boarded Voyager.
"Place looks the same," Tom says as he glances up at the viewscreen. His fingers move quickly across the console, tapping in the post-flight shutdown procedures. "Exactly the same. Should've known. Good old boys, they don't care much for change."
I nod, but don't say anything. I don't know what I expected, but it's comforting to know that for all of the variables we could have faced, this one - the appearance of the Academy and Headquarters - remains constant. It is, I think, a good place to end, or begin - it all depends on point of view, and even now, as I stare out the window at the long expanse of the Golden Gate Bridge, I think of slinging my bag over my shoulder and just walking. Walking in any direction - it doesn't matter to me now.
"Ensign Kim." Seven is impatient, but I ignore her. I look instead at Tom who is still working. I put my hand on my friend's shoulder.
"Tom," I say just as the consoles go black. Tom turns to me, offers me one of those goofy smiles - the one that says he's trying his best to be happy, trying to cover up that deep-seated insecurity with a shiny face, but is failing miserably. Seven years ago, Tom was there when I was new, when I needed help; now, I feel like I'm the stronger of the two of us and I'm not quite sure why.
"There's no one here," Tom says hoarsely as he stares at the viewscreen. "Damn them. We disappear for seven years, finally make it back mostly in one piece, and they don't have anyone to greet us."
I find it difficult to swallow my disappointment as well; I had hoped that my parents would have been here when we finally landed.
"You are mistaken," Seven says as she looks out the side window of the Flyer. "I see two officers. I assume they are our escort."
I don't bother explaining to Seven.
"Let's go," I tell Tom.
The Starfleet brass are assembled when we enter the James T. Kirk Reception Hall. Most of them are in dress uniforms, updated versions of the ones we wore on Voyager.
"Nice of them to tell us about this little shindig," Tom says under his breath as the three of us stand in the doorway looking around and without asking, I know he's talking about the uniforms. I too feel a moment of self-consciousness in my out-of-date uniform and I think, it would have been nice for the powers that be to give us some time to pull ourselves together instead of making us arrive immediately for this reception of theirs.
This is not a civilian affair and I'm disappointed; to have to spend my first hours back on Earth with people I've never seen before is an added frustration. The Delta Quadrant, with all of its less than friendly neighbors, is looking better to me by the second.
But of course, when the first admiral - name unknown - strides up to me and jovially shakes my hand, I plaster a smile on my face; I look at Tom and wonder if I look as ridiculous and as artificial as he does. Seven, on the other hand, gazes at our welcomes with a cool eye and even the slightest hint of smile doesn't cross her lips. The aloofness works; the Starfleet faithful stay away from our Borg drone, but I can tell from the titter of voices that they are intrigued.
We escape to a food table and check out the selection. Cheese, crackers, fresh fruits, little finger sandwiches, and retains are on the menu. All of it fresh and served on white linen tablecloths. I help myself to some fruit and Tom pours himself a retain. Seven tells us that she does not require sustenance at this time, but she looks a bit green in the face which makes me think that her nanoprobes are doing gymnastics in her stomach.
I don't blame her; I think I'm going to be sick too.
"Do you know anyone?" I lean over to ask Tom. He shakes his head.
"Some familiar faces, but no names."
We see Carey and Nicoletti, to name a few of our former Voyager crewmates. I find myself looking for B'Elanna, Chakotay, and the other former Maquis and then have to remind myself that they aren't here. Aren't here, Harry, not going to be here. And then I repeat silently to myself what I've said out-loud to Tom with confidence: I'll see them again.
Seven stays close to us, not mingling, and I know this is hard for her. Her confidence in navigating any social situation is off the scale in the negative direction; I do have to give her credit for what she has accomplished. I only hope she finds a new life here, one that she could settle into comfortably.
Aw hell. I don't just wish that for Seven, I wish it for all of us. I want there to be one moment - a single moment - where we're all standing outside of motion, ignoring the little devils perched constantly on our shoulders and for that blessed moment, experience peace. But then, as I look at Tom, smiling artificially at some admiral who should have been dead years ago, I realize that I'm probably out of luck.
Shouldn't be surprised though; nothing goes the way I want. Not my relationship with Libby, not my career, nothing, nada, zip.
I don't want to be bitter. If I told Tom, he'd laugh at me, tell me that I don't even know the meaning of hardship. I can almost hear his smooth voice telling me silkily, "Seven years in the Delta Quadrant is nothing, Harry. Let me tell you a thing or two or hardship."
And then he would launch into his litany of hurts, both imagined and real. He would tell me about his blasted relationship with his father who pushed him too hard when all Tom wanted to do was meet women. Maybe then he would move on to Caldik Prime, tell me about that in no uncertain terms and remind me that every so often, he would look down at his hands, see red, and remember. Maybe we'd talk about his vagabond days, how he drifted from bar to bar looking for the next best thing. And then there'd be the Maquis, followed by his woeful tale of incarceration in New Zealand and then we would end up here, at a dull official reception devoid of family and friends - the cruelest punishment of them all.
I know I would listen to Tom, the way I have always listened, and he would feel better and I'd feel lousy. And it's not that Tom feels sorry for himself - well, yeah, sometimes he can be pout and self-centered that way, just ask B'Elanna - or that I feel sorry for myself, it's just that we wanted a parade. We wanted confetti. We wanted to be heroes, glorified in our own exploits.
Instead, it's just me, still an ensign after seven years and without the foggiest notion if Libby wants to share more than a cup of coffee with me.
Seven puts her plate down carefully on the tray designated specifically for that purpose and I realize that the two of us have not moved a single centimeter or spoken a word since we picked up our food. She looks at me and we both look at Tom, who moves naturally and fluidly through the crowd. He accepts the pats on the back and the handshakes with a skill I hadn't realized he possessed. Then again, I don't know why I'm surprised at anything Tom does anymore.
"Do you have family?" Seven asks abruptly.
"I thought they were coming," I answer uncertainly. "But it doesn't look like it this is the time or the place. Maybe later."
"You must be excited at your reunion."
"It will be good to see them again."
"Will it be... difficult?"
"Shouldn't be, no," I say. "After all, we have been communicating off and on through the data stream for the last year or so."
Seven nods. "Of course."
We watch Tom arch his head back and let out a laugh. His body shakes with humor.
"Where is the Captain?" Seven asks.
I look around, noting very keenly that Kathryn Janeway is nowhere to be seen. I know she must have left Voyager - it's nearly 2200 hours now, well past our deadline to leave Voyager.
"Let me ask around," I tell Seven.
"I will accompany you."
And I realize that I had been unintentionally inconsiderate of Seven. I nod at her. I scan pips on collars and catch the sleeve of the first admiral who passes me by.
"Sir," I say. "Excuse me."
The man looks me up and down, eyeing me in much the same way one would regard a cockroach. Next to me, Seven's posture loses some of its characteristic stiffness.
"Ensign Kim, sir. Harry Kim." I extend my hand and he gives it a limp, moist shake. I make a concentrated effort not to wipe my now damp palm against my pants. "I was curious about Captain Janeway. Did she arrive?"
The Admiral's eye twitches.
"I have not seen the Captain," he says carefully. "And I do not know if she has arrived." His tone is clipped, abrupt, leaving absolutely no room for argument. "You will have to ask Necheyev." He points to a woman standing near the window, wine glass in one hand and a white plate in the other. She is intent in conversation with another man, their heads almost touching. Their stiff body language tells me, however, that this is no intimate moment between lovers, but it's also not a moment to intrude upon. I thank the admiral for his assistance.
"He is deceiving us," Seven says in a low voice.
"You get that feeling too?"
"There must be a record of Janeway's arrival."
I suddenly imagine the worst. Immediately, I think of all the things you can do to a shuttle so that it never reaches its destination: a misrouted relay in the plasma coils to the strategic placement of an explosive device.
Our unhelpful admiral drifts in the direction of Necheyev and Seven puts her hand on my forearm.
"There must be some record," she says in a low voice. I look around, see Tom enjoying himself, his glass - the real stuff, not the synthetic - full. "The Captain cannot still be on Voyager. We must verify this for ourselves."
I nod in agreement. And I have to admit to a moment of self-conceit here - I've always wanted to play Sherlock Holmes. Not Watson, but Holmes himself. And since no one else seems perturbed over the absence of the Captain, I figure this is my chance to find out, for once and for all, what exactly is going on.
"That way," I indicate the doors leading out to the grounds. There are a few people milling outside and if anyone asks, we can always say we needed a breath of fresh air.
Outside, the air is brisk, cool, and I remember fog-clouded mornings, fog that would never quite burn off, even when the sun was at its height.
Seven leads the way away from the reception hall and then abruptly stops.
"Where are we going?" she asks.
"You looked like you knew-"
"You are in error. I have never been here before."
*Right, Harry, there you go, surrendering the lead again.*
"Fine," I tell her. "This way."
I point in the direction of a low-rise building that houses the human resources branch of Starfleet. It was here that I came, nearly everyday during my last three months at the Academy, to find out if I had gotten a posting yet. I would linger on the front steps, with other cadets, most of us talking and laughing, trying not to think too hard about where we would be assigned.
Every now and then, someone would get a cushy assignment, maybe on the Enterprise, or the Valiant, and we would greet that person with cheers and pats on the back. And everyday, there would be fewer people waiting to find out and I really thought, as I stood on those steps with Lindsey Ballard, that I would be sent to the far reaches of the Federation, where all of the seemingly "undesirables" would end up. Libby told me that I was paranoid.
"Who wouldn't want you, Harry? You're intelligent, funny," she said, as she traced her fingers along my jaw. "And I think you're cute too." She smiled then, leaning in to kiss me. "Plus, you play the clarinet pretty well too."
"Playing the clarinet isn't a prerequisite for a Starfleet career."
"Every little bit helps, Harry."
Both Lindsey and Libby
had more faith in my success than I did and I really didn't think for the longest
time that there was actually a spot for me in Starfleet. Sure you can graduate;
you take all of that book learning, memorize enough for the test, find yourself
towards the top, and you ought to get where you want to be. I mean, that's how
it's supposed to work, right? So that's how it was, me speculating on the way
it was supposed to be, when reality was sitting here on the steps, waiting,
day after day. Waiting until the Voyager assignment finally came
I remember Lindsey grinning at me, saying things like, "I knew you could do it, Harry. It was just a question of the right time, the right assignment... see?"
And I clutched my PADD and kept rereading those words: Harry Kim, USS Voyager. Today Voyager, tomorrow, well, who knew? But at least I had a place. I wasn't going to be one of those people who eventually drifted into administration after the waiting eroded their nerves and shattered their confidence. No, I was going up into the stars, where I wanted to be, and this, I was convinced, was just the beginning of a long and illustrious career.
I imagined myself as a dignified ensign. Always prompt, always quick with the answers and never with a speck of dust on my shoes. Soon, my diligence would catch the captain's eye and she would bring me into her Ready Room and grant me another pip.
Of course, like I said, what you think and what really is, those are two different things. And one, unfortunately, is always harder than the other.
So now, I'm back here on those steps where I spent endless hours in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, sometimes here even before the early morning fog burned off.
"Ensign," Seven's voice is low, urgent. "Where are we going?"
I nod towards the control panel to the left of the door. "Can you crack that?"
"I will attempt to."
I watch in fascination as Seven shoots those silver tubules out of her hand and into the control panel. That woman can do anything. I don't even know why I'm surprised anymore by her talents at just about everything she tries; one day, I'd like to catch her doing something wrong. I wouldn't say anything of course, but I would know that Seven wasn't perfect, and that I'm not the only one running around with a deep-seated flaw or two.
Of course Tom would chalk it up to insecurity. Every time we met in Sandrine's, we would brood over the brandies we smuggled on board during shore leaves. We always managed to leave a third chair free for our collective insecurities. Tom called me on it more often though; I rarely have the courage to whack Tom over the head with his own little angst bunnies. Instead, Tom would analyze me, deeply and thoroughly, telling me that sometimes I come across as too eager, too enthusiastic - "You've got to smile less, Harry," Tom would say and then flash his trademark grin at me. And I hated him then and hated me too, for hating him.
"Done," Seven says. The doors slide open and we're in. We head down the corridors until we find an unlocked office. We slip in and Seven immediately takes to the console while I try to find a way to disable the security system from the main hall panel. I figure we have about thirty seconds before company arrives and Seven's fast, but this time, I'm not laying the odds on her and her army of Nan probes.
Disabling security systems is a forte of mine; I figured out early in my Academy career that this was the quickest way to make friends, and after a few years, my skill had grown tremendously. Plus, it was nice to have this to balance my otherwise squeaky clean image. Harry "Picklock" Kim. Yeah, that was me. Of course, I never told Tom about this particular talent of mine; he would have put it to good use, I'm sure.
By the time I'm back in
the office, Seven has already downloaded the information we need.
"Captain Janeway arrived at 1900," she says. "She was assigned to quarters in the Officers' Quadrangle."
Down by the water where all of the dignitaries are housed. So far so good. Maybe things are finally looking up for us. Seven continues reading.
"She has been assigned an honor guard."
"An honor guard? Let me see that." I check out the screen and verify what Seven said is indeed true. Starfleet only gives honor guards to people it doesn't like or trust. Call it honor guard to make it sound like a privilege of rank, but we all know better. "Damn."
Seven's looking at me and I know she hasn't made the connection.
"Let's get out of here," I tell her. Already, I feel uneasy; we've been away from the party too long and God only knows what's Tom up to. And maybe, when we get back to the reception, the Captain will be there and we can forget about this honor guard nonsense. Of course, again, that's in the Harry Kim fantasy world, and not necessarily reality; I'm really going to have to start to draw a distinction between the two.
We ease out of the office carefully, but hear voices at the far end of the hall.
"In here!" I grab Seven's arm and yank her into a utility closet. There is barely room for us both in there and her hip brushes up against mine. It's impossible, in such a tiny space, to avoid bumping into the various objects tossed in there. We try our best for quiet, but give up when in an attempt not to push full up against Seven, I nearly trip over something and fall into her arms anyway. Her breath is warm on the back of my neck as I regain my balance.
Footsteps pass by, loud, clacking heels - click clack click clack - along with the loud voices, laughing. Not security, thank goodness, and after a few minutes, we hear nothing and ease out of the closet. I can feel the heat in my cheeks rising as I feel Seven's breasts pressing into my back.
"Let's get out of here," I tell her in a low voice. I step out into the corridor and then nod to Seven when I note that the way is clear. We make our way back to the reception hall quickly and we sneak inside; however, it's evident that no one missed us. I'm relieved to see that there are more people here now and most of them are holding something alcoholic. I'm glad they're happy, glad they're enjoying themselves. Someone ought to be having a good time.
We find Tom sitting at a table, his cheeks flushed red and his hand curled around a glass. He's not alone though; somehow, he's managed to seat himself at a table with several captains and commanders. They're all laughing.
I edge behind Tom's seat and tap him on the shoulder.
"Harry!" Tom exclaims jovially. His voice is high-pitched, loud. Not a good sign, not at all. Another quick look around the table reveals that most of these Starfleet officers are drunk too, so that's a small consolation. "I was just telling them about our adventures with the Vidiians-"
"Tom," I grabbed his arm. "I need you."
"We're just getting to know each other," he tells me. "Talking about the future. Postings-"
"Something's come up. Come on, Tom. Excuse me."
"Harry Kim, always on the job. Best damn ensign in all of Starfleet. Keep your eye on this one, boys," Tom laughs. "He's goin' places. Lots of places. You know, we've been lots of places already."
I drag Tom before he can inflict further damage on our reputations and Seven meets me, grabbing Tom's other arm. We end up right outside the reception hall and sit Tom down on a bench. He is still laughing, but Seven, who lacks a sense of humor in general, and I are not amused.
"Why so serious?" Tom asks. "We're having a good time."
"You've got to be careful, Tom. Something's going on and you just can't go around saying anything you feel like," I tell him. "You don't know who's listening."
"Don't be paranoid, Harry. It doesn't suit you."
I stare at him. "Have you already forgotten what's happened? Do you think it's any different now that we're back at home? Has it occurred to you that we might still be pariahs?"
"We're heroes. Everyone says so."
"Would heroes get an honor guard?"
This gets Tom's attention.
"What are you talking about?" he asks.
"Captain Janeway. She arrived some time ago. We checked the logs, but she hasn't come to the reception. More importantly, they've placed her under guard."
"Why?" Tom is alert now and interested.
"I don't know. Don't you get it now? Something's going on and we've got to be careful."
"But this is ridiculous," Tom says. "Janeway got us home. What could their beef with her possibly be?"
"Captain Janeway had many instances where she violated the Prime Directive," Seven points out.
"You're not helping," I tell her.
"I am trying to come up with a logical explanation."
Tom looks around curiously and then says, "Where's Tuvok?"
Damn. Had forgotten about Tuvok in my rush about the Captain.
"I don't know," I tell him.
"I am unaware of the location of Mr. Neelix also," Seven says. We look at each other in dismay. Tom inhales deeply.
"We're in trouble," he says.
That, I think, is an understatement.
My first morning on Earth and I wake to gray skies. I roll over in bed so that I stare directly out the window. I'm on the third floor of Starfleet Housing so I can't see much except for the for fog which never seems to quite burn off. It's comforting to know some things will never change: Risa will always be the vacation capital of the Alpha Quadrant and San Francisco will always rebel against weather control.
After a few minutes of laziness, I get out of bed. There are three messages waiting for me on my console, all with varying degrees of importance and since I know nothing sent with "high urgency" can ever be good, I check to see the lowest priority message. Simply, the message welcomes me to Headquarters and hopes I have a good stay; if I have problems, I should just check in with the front desk. I'm glad to know Starfleet still cares about the comfort of one Harry Kim. The second message is from my parents, gushing and overwrought. They will be here in the afternoon and cannot wait to see me; there is no explanation why they weren't here last night. The last message tells me to report at 0900 to one Commander Jane Sullivan's office for a debriefing and then to attend a reception at 1500 in honor of Voyager's crew. This second reception is open to family members, the note mentions, but RSVPs aren't necessary.
I shower quickly, loving the feel of water pulsing against my skin; it has been a long time, too long. I turn my face up towards the showerhead, closing my eyes. For a delicious moment, I'm somewhere else entirely, far away from the strangeness that is our return home. I don't have to think how Seven and I dragged an intoxicated Tom Paris out of the reception hall and dumped him unceremoniously into his assigned quarters. I don't need to figure out why an honor guard has been assigned to Kathryn Janeway and for this moment at least, I don't even need to remember I'm in Starfleet.
I dress in my uniform, nervously adjusting my one pip on my collar. Already, I feel self-conscious that our uniforms are so obviously out of date, but I suppose we can rectify that once we figure out if we are still, indeed, Starfleet officers.
The door chimes and I call out a brisk, "Enter."
It's Seven of Nine, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
"You are ready," she states. "I have not seen Lieutenant Paris."
This news doesn't surprise me; I have a feeling Tom is nursing a hangover of catastrophic intensity. To be honest, I'm not surprised by my friend's proclivity; its roots lie in the hard-drinking, womanizing days. I am surprised, however, that he would succumb to temptation in front of the Starfleet brass. I also haven't seen him drink so much since the time when B'Elanna decided to invent increasingly creative ways of almost killing herself.
"We'd better get him. We have a debriefing at 0900," I tell her. She nods as we head out into the corridor. Tom's room is three doors from mine. Our ring for entry goes unanswered.
"You seem to have a talent at unlocking doors," Seven says. I nod and punch in a few numbers. After about thirty seconds of trying, the doors slide open. We find Tom still asleep, wearing only boxers, white sheets tangled around bare legs, one arm sprawled across the empty spot next to him. His hair is ruffled, his breathing heavy, and his cheeks red with warmth.
"Damn," I say under my breath. "Computer, time?"
"The time is now 0832 hours."
"Tom," I say. "Wake up."
"Mmm...?" his mouth is pressed against the pillow. I shake his shoulder.
"Come on, Tom."
"No, it's me, Harry. Get up."
Tom's eyes open and those watery blue eyes focus on my face. He sighs.
"Damn," he says.
"Good morning to you too," I tell him. "Now get in the shower. You don't want to be late for your debriefing with Commander Sullivan."
"Commander Sullivan. Formerly First Officer of the USS Eriteria and now head of Intelligence," Seven says from her spot over by the door. Someone has done her homework, I think. Somehow, I get Tom to sit up.
"My head hurts," he says.
"It should," I tell him. "I don't feel sorry for you. What were you thinking?"
"It's been a long time since I've had the real stuff."
"Yeah, that should have been your first hint. Come on, put your arm around my shoulders."
"I will wait in the corridor," Seven says hastily.
"We'll be out in a minute," I tell her. I haul Tom over to the bathroom. "Can you handle this?"
"Yes, Harry," he says, laying deliberate stress on the last word. "I'm fine."
"Right," I answer. "I'll see you out in the hall."
Out in the hall, I find Seven examining a portrait of a long-ago decommissioned starship, the USS Achilles. She traces the outline of the sleek ship with a long, elegant finger.
"Will Lieutenant Paris be all right?" she asks.
"Nothing that won't wear off in a few hours," I answer. "How about you? Are you all right?"
"I am concerned about the rest of the crew."
"So am I."
"Harry, I am not familiar with Starfleet protocols. Why would an Intelligence officer conduct our debriefing?"
I frown at the question. Seven's question makes perfect sense and it's one, unfortunately, that I don't have an answer for.
"I suppose we'll find out," I tell her lightly and with an air of confidence I don't feel. Seven nods and turns her attention back to the picture on the wall.
"It is an efficiently designed vessel," she delivers her verdict rather flatly, giving me reason to think that she is simply trying to fill in the silence which lingers between us. "I received another message from my relatives."
"Your aunt?" I ask.
"Yes," Seven says. "She will arrive this evening for the reception."
"It will be fine, Seven," I say consolingly.
"I am concerned." And her fingers go quickly to the metallic implant above her right eye. She fingers it delicately and then drops her hand. I do not say anything but I understand the implications of her gesture. Without thinking, I reach for her hand, curling my fingers around hers. She exhales slowly, her perfect posture slumping just a little bit.
"Don't worry," I tell her. "I won't leave you."
"Thank you, Harry," Seven says and to my surprise, she doesn't pull her hand away. We're still standing like that when Tom comes out of his room, looking fairly cleaned up and none the worse for wear. I drop Seven's hand quickly but Tom notices. My friend can be too quick for his own good, but to his credit, Tom says nothing.
"Let's go," he says in a voice of exaggerated cheer. "Let's tell this Admiral Sullivan-"
"Commander," I correct automatically.
"Commander Sullivan, then. Let's tell her what she needs to know."
I shrug and look at Seven.
"Lead the way," I tell Tom.
Commander Sullivan's office is in the Christopher Pike Building, a fact that tells me everything. Jane Sullivan is not only in Intelligence, but she is also on the fast track to wherever it is capable people who are good at the fine print end up.
We find Sullivan's office on the third floor and discover we're not the only ones waiting for an audience; the rest of Voyager's crew is present. We exchange greetings, mostly in subdued voices, a couple of tense giggles, and no one asks about Tuvok, Neelix or the Captain.
"What do you think they're going to ask us?" Megan Delaney asks, her voice quivering. "The rumors have been flying left and right. I don't know what to think."
"Just be honest," I tell her. "Whatever they ask. The Captain would want that."
"Right, because you've talked to the Captain recently and you know what she'd like," Tom says heavily from behind me but I ignore his comment. I'm not sure that I like Tom Paris very much right now.
Doors up and down the long hallway open and close; an aide approaches and rattles off names. She calls Tom; my friend quirks a grin at me and saunters down the hall. Despite the fact that I'm not feeling very kindly towards him right now, I do hope that Tom has collected himself enough to behave coherently. At the very least, I hope he acquits himself well enough to avoid a trip to the brig.
Seven is called next for a briefing with another aide, but when my name is called, I find myself in the presence of Jane Sullivan herself. Sullivan is a petite woman with short, bluntly cut blond hair. Her eyes, blue and watery, are deep set on either side of a long, angular nose. Her jaw line is exceptionally sharp, her neck rather slender and elegant. She wears command red, three pips on her gray collar. Her handshake is brisk and strong.
"Harry Kim," she says as she seats herself behind her desk. She points to a chair and I fold myself into it. "Ensign, correct?"
Her voice is sharp, just like everything else about her. I resent the tone, so I lift my chin defiantly.
"That's correct," I tell her.
"I've been going over your records," she says. "You've had some interesting adventures, to put it lightly."
"Some near brushes with death," Sullivan says. She frowns. "Or rather, you have been dead." She says this last bit with a trace of amusement.
"Strange job, isn't it?" Sullivan asks. She leans forward, her fingernails tapping against the shiny veneer of her desktop. "Starfleet, that is. It's not always easy to explain."
"I'm sure you learned a lot in the Delta Quadrant."
Jane Sullivan glances at me. "I assume you can say something other than 'yes, ma'am' and 'no, ma'am.'"
"Yes, ma'am," and I grimace as the words slip out. Sullivan smiles.
"Relax, Ensign," she says. "I don't bite. You do know that, right?"
Sullivan sighs. "You don't sound very convinced. Well, I can't blame you." She shakes her head. "I have to admit that the last few weeks have been a little strange for me as well. We're still trying to come up with a good explanation as to what happened out on Starbase 87 and then there's the Maquis issue. I'm not even going to get into the violations of the Prime Directive. That's an issue best left to discuss with Kathryn Janeway, though I imagine at some point we'll want to get your feedback on what happened out there. I understand that the circumstances surrounding Voyager were unusual and rules made in the Alpha Quadrant didn't necessarily apply out there. But I'll be honest - there are others who don't feel the same way." Sullivan grimaces. "I won't even get into the politics that erupted prior to the Dominion War and that are still smoldering now. I'm afraid, Ensign, this isn't the same Starfleet you left behind."
"Yes, ma'am." I shift in my chair.
Sullivan reaches for a PADD and turns it on. "You do know it's protocol for any deep space mission that we debrief the members of the crew."
"So that's all we're doing here. I'm aware that this hasn't been the smoothest of homecomings for you, but I want you to relax. Nothing is going to happen to you." She lays stress on the word 'nothing.' "Is there something else you're concerned about that you wish to discuss with me?"
"Well," I hesitate but Sullivan is looking directly at me, her expression questioning.
"You can be candid," she tells me. I exhale.
"About Starbase 87," I tell her. "What happened there... was unusual." I wonder if Sullivan, with her Intelligence connections, knows about Admiral Paris' role in the destruction of the starbase.
"That's an understatement," Sullivan answers. She looks distracted, even a little worried. "We're still investigating why Voyager was sent to Starbase 87 - that was a breach of protocols and not at all what HQ wanted in the first place. Certain people took unilateral actions and I'm afraid our command structure fell apart when Voyager reappeared. I'm not quite sure why that happened, but I can tell you that there are people who do." Sullivan shakes her head. I get the strange feeling that perhaps she's telling me more than Starfleet Command would like. "And yes, Ensign, you can be assured that we are thoroughly looking into the destruction of the starbase. Eighty-two people died in that explosion, so you understand we have to ask questions."
"Well? You were there. What do you think happened? You do have a background in Engineering." Her tone is calm, but I get the feeling that it's no accident that my interrogation is handled by Jane Sullivan herself while my fellow crewmembers get to cool their heels in the offices of Sullivan's minions.
And of course, for the first time in years, I consider lying to a superior officer. I think of Tom, his face growing red with heat, his fingers curled tightly around his glass of brandy; I think of the expression on his face, the one he was wearing when he told me that his father was responsible for setting of the chain reaction that destroyed Starbase 87. And I think of the man, Owen Paris, and the sterling reputation of his name.
"I have some thoughts," I begin cautiously.
"Feel free to share them."
"Sensor readings show that the meltdown began in the core."
"We know that."
"Probably starting in the parallel relays and moving through the induction coils before igniting the plasma manifolds."
"We know that too."
"I don't have anything else," I tell her. "We evacuated and that's all we know."
"You aren't hiding anything?" her question is calm, cool. I shake my head. Damn, I'm good at this lying business, though Libby once told me I should never play poker; she could tell my hand even before I laid down any cards. "All right. You do understand that this is a matter of great importance. We don't think that this was a mere accident."
My mouth is dry so I nod instead of speaking. Jane Sullivan offers me a thin-lipped smile.
"As long as you understand," she repeats.
"All right. Let's talk about Voyager," she says. "We'll start with you."
My life story is hardly a page-turner before Voyager. I was born here in San Francisco. Harry isn't short for anything nor am I named for anyone in particular; my parents simply liked the name. We lived in a house near Telegraph Hill; well, several blocks away from Telegraph Hill, but within walking distance of Coit Tower. My mother, Mary, is a botanist and our tiny backyard bloomed in bright colors every spring; my father, John, is an astronomer and he was the one who first introduced me to the stars.
I tended to be a rather quiet child with occasional moments of brilliance; well, if you ask my parents, I was a bright child who tended towards shyness. I did have aspirations though and that was of Starfleet. No one in my family had ever been in Starfleet before and both of my parents, in their quiet ways, wondered if their only child had what it took.
I made it through junior high and high school with little incident and on my eighteenth birthday, I received my acceptance to the Academy. I started packing my bags that day, already imagining a bright and wonderful career, one that would rival that of some of my idols like James T. Kirk and more recently, Jean-Luc Picard.
I passed through the Academy with no problems nor did I cause any problems. No, I take that back. I was simply luckier than most. I just never got caught. I did, however, discover a certain coffeehouse right off the Academy grounds and that's where I met Libby. She worked behind the counter and served up a delicious smile along with her cappuccinos. My grades went down that semester despite all of my studying at said coffeehouse.
Of course, I didn't actually talk to her until the Ktarian music festival rolled into town; then, by coincidence - I insist that there was no devious intent - I commandeered her seat. We talked, but it was weeks before I could ask her out for a date. I think when she said "yes," I nearly fell over and had to steady myself before continuing in the conversation.
Harry in love. I laugh now to think about how eager I was then, how wonderfully earnest I was. I'm quoting my good friend Tom Paris now; he says I'm still green in some ways, but I beg to disagree.
You see these gray hairs? The first ones appeared after the Vidiians. After the Krenim, I feared that my entire youth had vanished and I took supplements to restore the sheen and color to my hair. You must know how I died the first time. One minute I was alive, the next I was dead. Don't ask me how I feel about this; I fluctuate between elation and despair, and neither emotion is entirely honest.
The Hirogen battered us, the Borg taunted us and Species 8472 nearly killed us. We managed to recover every time, but each victory hardened us inside; we became more unyielding, more unforgiving and sometimes, I think we scared ourselves with our intensity. We escaped to the holodeck to pursue our fantasies as reality insinuated itself beneath our skins. We burned with desire to return home, replaying idealized memories in our heads, over and over again. We remembered you the way you were and I think, you must have done the same. At least I hope you remembered us.
We, Maquis and Starfleet, we had our problems at the beginning. Tom and Chakotay, they barely even spoke to each other those first years. They worked their problems out, I think. You never know with Chakotay. He presents a grim facade on occasion, always stoic, occasionally brooding; I think of him as a hero in a movie, the one who always suffers silently for whatever reason, the one who willingly sacrifices himself for the cause. That's Chakotay. Those dark eyes of his, they say more about what we have been through than I ever could. But that's right, you wouldn't know that. He's been banished, right? You don't even give him a chance to explain himself. I'm sorry. You told me to be candid.
Tom Paris. My best friend. I admit, I don't know him anymore. I wish I did, but I don't. I consider him another casualty of homecoming. He's turned inward in a way I can't understand, retreating to a dark place where I can't follow. I want to help him but I can't when he won't talk to me. I don't want to blame Starfleet, because I think there's enough blame to go around. When you think of the things we have seen, the things we have endured, it's almost astonishing that all of us haven't retreated the way Tom has.
Maybe one day I'll tell you about the Ankarian prison. One day when I can fully grasp what happened there, how we survived, our desperation. But not now, not today, and probably not for a while. But I can tell you this: Tom and I, we were never the same again. I almost lost my best friend during our time there, almost had to choose between saving his life or mine. No one should have to make that decision. No one.
Sometimes, I envied the dead. I would think of them, their features forever frozen, sometimes in agony, sometimes in peace. You see, they didn't have to endure. Some days, I didn't think I could. Not when I stared a Hirogen in the eye and knew he wanted a taste of my blood or when I knew a Viidian wanted nothing more from me but my face. So yes, call me a coward, but you did tell me to be honest.
Let's see, where was I? Sorry about that. I didn't mean to get off-track like that. I have a tendency towards rambling and I rarely have a captive audience. Okay, let's see. B'Elanna Torres?
I consider her among my closest friends. Pure, unadulterated engineering brilliance. You kicked her out of the Academy too soon. Oops, again, my mistake. Not you. Someone else. Yeah, you're right; she left on her own, but not without some pressure. My verdict stays the same. Facts can always be manipulated.
Anyway, B'Elanna would have made a damn fine officer on some ship, if someone had given her the chance. I bet if someone had counseled B'Elanna while she was at the Academy, made an effort to listen to her, she wouldn't have been on that freighter when the Cardassians attacked. She wouldn't have joined the Maquis and more importantly, she wouldn't have been in the Delta Quadrant.
I can't tell you much about Tuvok, other then that he was reliable, consistent, soft-spoken and always logical. He had his moments of trepidation, just like the rest of us, but he always wore his courage well; it suited him in ways that we admired greatly. His calmness, his demeanor and accuracy always brought clarity, even where there was none to be found.
You see, I can go on about all of them, but I see your impatience. I realize you don't care. I wish you did, but you don't. I don't suppose you'll notice that Seven of Nine, for all of her perfection and preciseness, is nothing more than a scared child, terrified of making first contact with relatives she doesn't remember.
You probably don't know that Neelix, for all of his bravado, misses his home and Kes greatly. You only see the smile which stretches across that mottled skin and you shrink away because he comes at you with such energy. You don't know what he has survived either and I doubt you would ask him because fundamentally, it doesn't matter to you.
I won't even go into the EMH, because I'm sure the debate whether holograms have rights must still exist and we already know our Doctor's program is obsolete. I hope you don't take him off-line without realizing his contributions. Sometimes, I have hard time believing that he isn't human.
It bothers me that I haven't seen the Captain since we came to Headquarters. It bothers me you keep her away from us. I shudder to think of what that means. I can tell you that Kathryn Janeway is a fine captain. She never forgot us, not for a moment, and never forgot her promise. She brought us home. Don't judge her methods; I ask only that much. Just think of the outcome. We're home. Janeway brought us home.
Me? You're still asking about me? I'm astonished at your interest, truly surprised. I guess I didn't think an ensign would merit so much attention. Well, I can tell you that I'm no longer naive, no matter Tom says. The last time I had birthday cake, if it hadn't been for those damn fire regulations limiting the number of candles, I would have blown out twenty-nine. I feel older than that, much older.
Let me tell you about Harry Kim. He laughs. He makes jokes and plays Buster Kinkaide to Tom Paris' Captain Proton. He works in Engineering when B'Elanna needs him, Astrometrics when Seven of Nine requests his assistance. He works Ops as best as he can and sometimes, he feels overwhelmed. He plays the clarinet, occasionally the saxophone, and he misses his family desperately. He doesn't think about Libby because even after all of that time, the pain of missing her is still very fresh and real. He wonders about what if, what if the tour of duty had only lasted six weeks? He wonders where he would be today. He knows he wouldn't be here, talking to you.
Harry Kim does his best to keep a stiff upper lip. He does his best to reach out when others need him. He offers hugs, good cheer and quick smiles generously. He listens when others need to be listened to and he offers advice only when it's asked for, because he hates to interfere.
If I repeat this enough times, maybe I can convince myself. Maybe I can convince myself that I'm the Harry Kim everyone wants me to be. I am the story I tell myself I am.
Out in the hallway, I find Tom and Seven waiting for me. Everyone else is long gone; apparently Sullivan kept me longer. Sometimes, I've got all the luck.
"Took you long enough," Tom grumbles.
"I couldn't exactly walk out on a senior officer, could I? And you didn't have to wait for me either," I point out.
"I know." Tom looks at me, his expression slightly apologetic. "But curiosity killed the cat. What did she grill you about for the last hour anyway?"
"I imagine the same types of questions you got asked," I say a little too cheerfully.
"My session was just your standard debriefing. Exactly what I expected," Tom answers. "Name, rank, serial number, the whole nine yards. Not to mention, heavy emphasis on my various incarcerations." His lips turn up at the last. "Still, I'm not convinced that they think that thirty days in the brig and six months in New Zealand is sufficient repentance. If they ate the food in New Zealand, they would think differently."
I look at Seven.
"The debriefing was sufficient," Seven adds. "And conducted very efficiently."
"Well?" Tom asks impatiently. "What about you?"
"It felt short," I say. Tom and Seven both look aghast. "And painless," I hasten to add. "I think I did most of the talking. She wanted my biography evidently and what I thought about all of you." I smile. "Don't worry. Your secrets are still safe with me."
"That's it?" Tom asks. His voice wavers a little. "Nothing about the Captain? Or about..."
"A little bit about the Captain, nothing specific." I take a deep breath. "Commander Sullivan asked about the explosion. She wanted to know my opinion about what happened out there."
"What did you tell her?" Tom's voice is strained.
"Nothing. Just that it looked like there was a meltdown, probably an accident."
"What?" Tom asks. He leans against the wall, arms folded across the chest. Very casual, but I can see the tension in his jaw.
"They don't think it was an accident."
"Did you...?" Tom looks worried.
"No." I shake my head. "There was a lot I wanted to tell her, a lot of thoughts. I never got them out."
"You froze up."
Tom laughs then. "Isn't that just like you? You never say what you need to."
"What I was thinking wasn't appropriate."
"What difference does that make?"
"I don't have time for this, Tom." I'm suddenly furious. "And you wouldn't have wanted me to say what really happened on Starbase 87, would you? I mean, regardless of anything else, you still care about your father, about his good name, and you really don't want people to know what he did."
"Go to hell, Harry."
We're only about a meter apart in the hallway now.
"Sometimes, I think I'm already there."
"Oh good one, Harry," Tom says sarcastically.
"I was only looking out for you," I answer. My voice is rising.
"I don't need your help," Tom says curtly. "Don't protect me, Harry. I can take care of myself. Watch yourself." He laughs. "Like I need you of all people to look after me."
"Get a grip," I tell him. I start walking away, feeling the heat rise in my cheeks. After all these years, Tom still gets to me. I know he shouldn't, but he does. And I wonder, in this singular moment, whether seven years of friendship has gone down the drain; it bothers me immensely and I'm not sure if I'm strong enough to walk away.
"Harry?" he calls. "Look, Harry, man, don't. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
I turn around. "You're right. You shouldn't have. Take it back."
"Don't be ridiculous." He stands there, the cocky pilot back in full arrogance. Seven eyes us both and then moves to the side, probably to get out of the line of fire. I don't blame her. A step closer to Tom and I know I'll be at his throat.
"I'm under a lot of pressure. I don't mean it," Tom says. This is the closest to an apology he'll ever come and under most circumstances, it would be enough for me. However, at this moment, I simply want the word, those silly five letters. Not much, not much at all.
"What about me, Tom? Why don't you ask about me? You think I'm not feeling the strain? You think I'm not falling apart? Why are you the only one allowed to wallow in self-pity? Why are you the only one who can sulk so openly? It's getting old, Tom, and I'm sick of it."
"Look who's being selfish now."
"It's not about being selfish."
"Then what is it about? Tell me, Harry."
"It's about -" I pause. Why the hell not go all out now? "I'm tired of being the strong one."
"You?" Tom laughs. He takes a few steps, turns around and then when he looks back at me, he rakes a hand through his hair. He laughs again and I hate him.
"Who's falling apart here?" I ask him. "Answer that."
"Ensign," Seven says urgently. She indicates a door opening down the hall. Tom turns around and holds up a hand.
"Sorry," he tells the lieutenant who has obviously come out to reprimand us. She accepts the apology and goes back into her office. "Harry, I- I didn't think."
I take a step forward. "That's your problem, Tom, you never think."
"I've got a lot on my mind."
"So do I."
We stare at each other. I hope he blinks first, but as always, Tom's got the upper hand and I look away. Tom covers the distance between us quickly and pulls me into an embrace. I tuck my head against his neck, breathing in deeply. His hand is on my back, patting awkwardly. After a moment, I pull away.
"I shouldn't have," I tell him.
"You should have," Tom says. "You had every right. Every right. I'm sorry I've been such a jerk."
I blink. "What?"
Tom shrugs. "No big deal. I made a mistake, I'm acknowledging it. Call it a lesson of the Delta Quadrant."
"One of them anyway." I offer him what I hope is an easy grin of friendship. Tom's eyes twinkle back at me. For a moment, I see the old Tom Paris, the one who took me under his wing so many years ago. Back when I was green and he was not. "Did you find out about B'Elanna?"
Tom heaves a sigh that reverberates through his body. He stares up at the ceiling as he answers, "Only that there are no plans to repatriate the Maquis right now. The 'atmosphere' does not lend itself for the reintegration of former terrorists back into the Federation."
"That seems like a rather harsh stance," I say. Tom nods, but says nothing. The way he clenches his jaw and fists scare me. I wonder what he's planning.
"What about the Captain?" Seven asks. Tom and I stare at her, almost surprised that she is still here.
"I asked, but didn't get an answer," I say. "I mentioned that I was uncomfortable because we haven't seen Janeway, but Sullivan merely said that Janeway had her own debriefings to attend to and we would see her soon enough."
Tom doesn't say anything; his expression is pensive. We make a strange trio there in the silent halls, and even Seven starts to look uncomfortable.
"Maybe we're just paranoid?" I offer. "There could be a good explanation for everything."
More silence. I expect Seven's logic and coolness to come immediately to my rescue, or Tom to grow angry and vitriolic again. But no, nothing; my colleagues remain curiously quiet and still. And realizing that nothing more can be said about the situation we find ourselves in, the circumstances we simply cannot understand, only silence can prevail.
The "Welcome Home Voyager" reception is held in the Grand Hall in the main building. Yesterday's reception had been for Starfleet personnel only, so stiffness had prevailed and I'm pretty sure alcohol had been served just to get some of the Starfleet bigwigs to loosen up. This reception is for families, and laughter floats above the warm conversations. I see families falling into each other's arms, holding on, and I doubt anyone will ever let go again.
Seven and I arrive together - she having sacrificed her bodysuit for a more subtle dress in varying shades of blue and me in dress uniform.
"You look very nice," I tell Seven. The color rises in those pale cheeks. She smiles at me, a thin smile, not quite warm, but tentative.
"Thank you, Ensign."
"Please," I say. "Call me Harry."
She tips her head to the side slightly, acknowledging my request. I offer her my arm and she takes it without hesitation.
"I assume Lieutenant Paris is already here," Seven comments as we enter the hall. Not finding Tom in his quarters, we had decided to go on ahead to the party. I take a deep breath as I stand in the doorway; I don't see Tom anywhere, but there are a lot of people. Knowing Tom, he's probably found himself in the middle of a large group, flashing his trademark grin at them and entertaining them with that slightly cynical sense of humor of his. One thing I know, he'll be as far away from his family as he can possibly get.
"Is your aunt here?" I ask quietly.
"I do not know," Seven says, and she squeezes my arm tighter, perhaps in a rare moment of insecurity. She continues to scan the crowd anxiously. "She said she would attend." Seven turns to me. "I am certain I would recognize her, but I do not see her. Perhaps she has changed her mind?"
"She'll be here," I tell her. As I turn, I see my parents, both of them staring at me; my mother has her hand over her mouth. I swallow hard. "Seven..." She releases my arm.
"Your parents," she says softly. Her voice drifts off as I step away from her, reaching for them.
"Harry!" my mother hurries towards me. She wraps her arms around me, her face against my chest; I had forgotten how much taller than my mother I am. Over her shoulder, I see my father, his face working through a series of contortions. My mother releases as me as I extend my hand and my father grasps it tightly. His grip is warm, comforting, loving and in that second, formality is discarded; he pulls me toward him and I wrap my arms around him.
"Harry," my father whispers with more restraint than my mother but no less feeling. The three of us, warm together, in each other's arms. I had imagined seeing them so many times but had never realized until this moment how satisfying it was to finally see them. I swallow hard, truly surprised and overwhelmed by how much I missed them. The thought makes me smile and I'm sure I look like a moron at the moment but I don't care: I'm home.
"We have so much to tell you." Mother's eyes are watery. She has never been good at holding back her emotions, and in some ways, I take after her. "We've made changes to the house, and your father has retired... so many things, Harry, that we couldn't tell you in the data stream. Oh, and Libby too... she got your last letter. She wanted to come tonight, Harry, but had a meeting in Monterey. But she says she'll call you. I know you two must have so much to catch up on."
At this last bit of information, I notice Seven, standing off to the side awkwardly. I swallow hard and then nod in her direction. "Mom, Dad, Seven of Nine."
Both of my parents turn, both of them taken aback by Seven of Nine. To my relief, they greet Seven pleasantly, both of them doing their best to ignore her implants, those obvious reminders of Seven's Borg past. I can see now that life here will not be easy for Seven; she will be, for the most part, reviled and feared. Or studied. No fate looks good for her right now and the fact that this occurs to me now for the first time bothers me immensely; I should have been more aware of what lies ahead for my friend.
"Pleased to meet you," Seven says very pleasantly and she even smiles. I give credit to the Doctor, who has spent many long hours working with Seven, perfecting those little social graces. She has come a long way, but my feeling is, she will never completely assimilate into society. Of course, I can't tell her that; she'll have to discover that particular pain on her own. Though, a sneaking suspicion tells me that Seven already knows.
"You look... taller," Mother says indulgently. She caresses my cheek lightly with her hand.
"Mom," I say. I brush her hand away. "I haven't grown. Not since I was seventeen years old."
"I know my son and you are taller," she says defiantly. She eyes me closely. "You are different, Harry."
I flinch slightly at her words. Different, oh if she only knew...
"I've grown up," I tell her. The words sound silly and instinctively, I look over my shoulder to glance around for Tom; somehow I know if he was anywhere in earshot, he would have a retort on the tip of his tongue. "We -" I gesture with my arm in an attempt to include all of Voyager's crew - "have been through a lot." Understatement of the decade, I think.
"Yes, of course," Mother says softly, but I don't think she wants to believe that her little Harry is grown up, that he didn't stay static all those years aboard Voyager.
"We've been reading the reports," Father says awkwardly. "You've had an impressive career on board Voyager."
"Yet still only an ensign," Mother sighs. "After all you've done, surely the Captain would have given you a promotion to lieutenant at least." I glance at Seven, who arches an eyebrow.
"Mom," I say. "Have you gotten something to eat? Maybe we should have a seat."
My parents nod and I indicate an empty table. Seven looks unsure, so I lean over and whisper in her ear, "You too, Seven."
I lead the way towards the table and pull out a chair for Seven. My parents sit and both look uncomfortable when I tell them that I'll bring them all drinks. Doubtless, they don't want to spend time with the Borg drone, even if she has no intention of assimilating them; however, I want to take the opportunity to search for Tom.
I head towards the buffet table, where a long line is already forming for the punch. I take my place behind Pablo Baytart and Jenny Delaney. Both of them are deep in conversation with a couple I don't recognize. Neither notice me, so I take the time to look for Tom; still no sign of him and I'm starting to get slightly irritated.
At that moment, Seven joins me.
"I thought I would assist you in bringing the drinks," she tells me. I glance back at the table where both my parents sit stiffly.
"Something wrong?" I ask quietly.
"Nothing," Seven says. "Though I sensed perhaps your parents would be more comfortable if I left the table. They found it -" she hesitated - "difficult to make conversation."
No doubt, I think. Warm-hearted and caring as my parents can be, it's difficult to see beyond Seven's Borg implants and see the human. And to be blunt, even at the best of times, Seven is a less than scintillating conversationalist.
"Well, I could certainly use help carrying the drinks back," I tell her. "I should have asked you to join me here in the first place." I glance around, scanning the crowd once again from Tom. "Any sign of your aunt?"
"Perhaps she changed her mind."
"I doubt it. Sounded like she really wanted to meet you when she wrote that letter."
"It is doubtful she would want a former Borg drone as her niece."
"Seven..." I let my voice drift off, utterly at a loss as to what to say here. It was easier to deal with Seven's insecurities on Voyager. Finally I say lamely, "You know that's not true."
Seven's lower lip trembles slightly and I find myself wondering once again where the Captain is; I know Janeway would have the right words to assure Seven.
I turn around. The speaker, female, is blond, perfectly decked out in a black dress, with pearls in her ears and at her neck. I know those eyes though.
"Mrs. Paris?" I ask.
"Yes." Anya Paris' lips turn up into a thin smile, a brittle shadow of the one that spreads across her son's face. "How are you, Harry?"
"I'm fine, thank you for asking." I step out of the line for the drinks, pulling Seven with me. "Have you met Seven of Nine?"
"Ah, yes, Seven of Nine." Mrs. Paris eyes Seven with trepidation. Seven visibly wilts beneath the intensity of Anya Paris' surveillance. "Do you have another name or do you like to be called Seven of Nine?"
"Seven will suffice."
"Ah." The slight note of disgust in Mrs. Paris' voice leaves no mystery as to how Tom's mother feels about this name. "Harry, I'm looking for Tom. Have you seen him?"
"He should be here. I saw him this morning and after lunch, he said he had some things to take care of, but he'd be here."
"He may be delayed," Seven put in. "He is a highly inconsistent individual."
"You don't have to tell me about my son," Anya Paris says sharply. The iron in her voice takes me by surprise. In general, Tom has shared very little about his mother. In the past, Tom's rants were usually directed towards his father, with little to no mention of his mother. As a result, I've always had the image of Anya Paris as a soft-spoken, retiring Starfleet wife. "And your assessment of my son was uncalled for and disrespectful."
"My intentions were not to offend you," Seven says softly, a wisp of apology underlying her tone. "I apologize."
The two blond women eye each other, their dislike for one another obvious. Maybe, later, when I have a moment alone with Seven, I can teach her the virtues of a poker face.
*Yeah, right, Harry, that's like the blind leading the blind.*
Anya Paris doesn't acknowledge Seven's apology and instead turns her attention back to me.
"About Tom," she says sharply. "Where can I find him? His sisters and I would like to see him."
"I'm sorry. We haven't seen Tom for a while now."
Mrs. Paris bites down on her lip. "I've been-" she shook her head - "Owen worked for this moment for so long." Her lips press into a thin line and those eyes soften just slightly. "I wanted to tell him about Owen." She heaves a sigh. "I'm sorry. That was personal. I didn't mean to burden you-"
"I'm sorry to hear about your husband," I tell her quickly. Her face clouds over briefly and she blinks.
"Thank you." Whispery, soft, and utterly disarming. "His death was a great shock." She shakes her head. "I take some comfort in knowing that he knew Tom had finally come home. His last letter home... he was so excited when he found out Voyager had finally come home." Anya Paris smiles faintly. "As excited as Owen gets, that is."
Truth be told, 'excited' is not a word I would associate with Owen Paris; no, as of late, I have a different image of this man. I wonder how much Mrs. Paris knows of her husband's dealings with the Maquis, that he had surrendered his principles for a thin vein of latinum running beneath the bloodied soil of Dorvan IV.
It's then that I turn and see Captain Janeway. She is wearing her dress uniform and looks- well, fine. She looks fine. I don't know why I'm surprised at this - perhaps, it's because I've been expecting Janeway to arrive surrounded by an 'honor guard' or maybe it's because I really didn't expect her to show up at all.
*Looking for conspiracies again, aren't you, Harry?*
Janeway's movements are fluid as she moves through the crowd. Even from this distance, I can sense the warmth of her interactions, the pure magnetism of her personality. There is laughter emitting from her direction, a truly warm and jovial atmosphere surrounding her. She looks comfortable and confident, not like the captain of the last few days. This, I think, is Janeway. And with a slight shock, I realize that I wanted Janeway to appear here flustered, to be slightly on edge.
*No conspiracies here, Harry. Not your turn to play the hero.*
"Ensign Kim?" Mrs. Paris sounds slightly annoyed.
"Sorry." I nod in Janeway's direction. "I'm sorry, I just noticed Captain Janeway." To my relief, Janeway is greeted with much adulation by the assembled dignitaries. "Look, they are practically surrounding her."
"Captain Janeway's courage is legendary and her heroism unparalleled," Mrs. Paris says. I glance at her suspiciously; she sounds like she is quoting out of a book.
Don't go looking for Starfleet propaganda where none exists, I tell myself.
"The story of Voyager and the redemption of its crew," Mrs. Paris says in a slightly sardonic tone of voice. "It's the story of the year, of the decade, if not the millennium."
I don't think I like the way Anya Paris uses the word 'redemption.' It makes Voyager sound like we were a ship of former convicts set adrift in the DQ.
"Sounds like a great holonovel," I say jokingly, in an attempt to lighten the mood.
Mrs. Paris' liquid blue eyes meet mine. "It is," she says. She shakes her head. "Publishers, you know, anything they can do to make a buck. They take the stories and pervert the truth. You should have seen what they did to my son in some versions. Unconscionable."
Next to me, Seven of Nine shifts position slightly. She is, I note, making a valiant effort to be polite and elegant, but I have no doubt she is bored.
"Holonovels lack empathy," Mrs. Paris continues. "It was a travesty what they did for profit, acting like a bunch of Ferengis."
I nod politely. Not having seen the insulting holonovels, what opinion can I possibly offer? I'm also not in the mood to argue with Mrs. Paris; I get the feeling she could easily chew me up for breakfast and then spit me back out, not thinking twice about it.
"Those holonovels made Owen furious," Mrs. Paris says. "He knew Tom was a better person than what the publishers made him out to be. After the first holonovel came out, Owen told anyone who would listen what Tom really was like." Mrs. Paris shakes her head. "He said it so often that I think Owen forgot Caldik Prime." Her lips press together into a sad smile. "In the end, Owen simply wanted his son back. All was forgiven."
"I think Tom would like to hear that," I say. This much is true. While Tom's relationship with his father has never been easy, I know there's a part of Tom that did admire Owen Paris very much and the events of the last few weeks have shaken Tom to the core.
"Where is Tom?" Mrs. Paris says again. Her jaw tightens. "I can't believe he wouldn't be here." She sounds almost petulant now.
I glance around. "You know..."
"I will look for Mr. Paris," Seven interjects. "Excuse me."
Mrs. Paris is noticeably relieved when Seven disappears into the crowd. "Don't get me wrong," she says, "I've never been near a Borg and old attitudes, they die hard."
"She's not a Borg," I tell Mrs. Paris. "She's a human being, like you and me."
"You know what they say," Mrs. Paris says, her lips thinning into a firm line. "Once a Borg, always a Borg. I'm not completely convinced myself, not many people are. I know I should be pleased that we've managed to save one of our own from those monsters, but I have a hard time reconciling what I see with what I know."
"You don't have to tell me that," I say coolly. "We've had plenty of encounters with the Borg and we're lucky we managed to make it out alive." I watch as Janeway shakes hands with the same enthusiasm she used to combat the Borg. "But you're wrong about Seven." The comment is completely unplanned, unexpected, and I feel my face growing warm with shock at my own audacity. "She deserves a chance."
Mrs. Paris' eyes narrow and I realize she is stronger than the delicate blond she projects herself to be.
*Of course she is, Harry. She had to put up with that tyrant for years.*
And I wonder when I started to think of a man I'd never met as a tyrant.
"I need to find my son," she says flatly. "Excuse me."
Anya Paris disappears into the crowd and I turn my attention back to the buffet table, but I've lost all enthusiasm for food and drink, but I know that my parents are still waiting. No doubt, they probably think I've taken off for the Delta Quadrant again. At that moment, Seven reappears at my side.
"Did you find Tom?" I ask.
"I wonder where he could be."
"As I've said before, he is an inconsistent individual. He may have forgotten this engagement."
"You shouldn't have said that to Mrs. Paris," I tell Seven gently. "She's looking forward to her reunion with her son. They haven't seen each other since Tom was sent to New Zealand."
Seven is visibly pale. "Perhaps I should have discussed the weather instead."
I feel guilty immediately for chastising Seven. "Everyone is a little on edge," I say gently.
"I am not wanted," Seven says flatly. Her face is devoid of emotion; she says this as easily as if she were discussing common spatial phenomena.
"Don't jump to conclusions."
"They are afraid of me."
"Now you're being ridiculous," I answer, even though I know she isn't. It occurs to me as I stare at Seven that she has already come to her own conclusions, that all of the strides she has made on Voyager have been negated by a single evening among a few boorish individuals. So much for enlightenment, I think. So much for reclamation.
Seven sets her jaw firmly. "I think I should retire for the evening."
I grab her by the arm. "Seven," I say firmly. "This isn't like you. Would you stop for a moment and just think? Everyone is a little tense, especially Mrs. Paris. Think of what she has endured in the last few weeks."
"Does she know of the Admiral's criminal activities?" Seven asks coolly, not bothering to lower her voice. A few people turn to look at us.
"Perhaps she participated."
Now I pull Seven away from the crowd of people, all thoughts of the food and drink we had come to get for my parents forgotten.
"Cut it out," I tell her flatly. "Behave."
Seven does not respond, but I know what's she's thinking, what she's feeling. In this room full of people, we are curiously and suddenly alone.
Seven eventually finds Tom. She interrupts while I'm eating dinner with my parents - good dinner, by the way, some of the best food Starfleet can produce for the very best in Starfleet.
"Ensign Kim," Seven says briskly. She stands stiffly behind me, one cool hand resting on my shoulder. "I require your attention."
My mother looks pale and I smile back at her reassuringly.
"Give me a second," I say. I push my chair back and follow Seven. "What's this about?"
"I have located Lieutenant Paris. He is in the garden."
I gaze at the French-style glass doors that lead out to the garden. One door is slightly ajar, letting the cool winds sweep in from the Bay. A shiver runs down my spine.
"What is he doing out there?"
I take a deep breath.
"I'll be back," I tell Seven. I make my way through the crowd of people, and as I pass by, Janeway's light touch brushes against my arm.
"Relax, Harry," she says and she is smiling, appearing happier than she has in years. And it occurs to me that maybe Janeway is play-acting, putting on a show for all these admirals. I know that Janeway is a master of deception, her eyes give absolutely nothing away. I wonder if she is planning to charm these stiff shirts into freeing the Maquis, but that's a question for another time.
"Captain," I answer. "Good to see you."
She shifts her body slightly, so that she is blocking out the onlookers. "Are you all right, Harry?"
Janeway glances at me through lowered eyelashes, her lips flattening into a straight line. "Are you glad to be home?"
"And your parents?"
"I'd like to say hello to them later." The forced civility in Janeway's voice convinces me; she hates this party almost as much as I do. "It's good to see you, Harry." And with that, she turns away.
I'm almost frozen for a second, trying to reconcile this rather abrupt and cool Janeway with the warm and caring Janeway I knew on Voyager, the one who seemed to know what you were thinking before you knew it yourself.
*The one who never gave you the chances you wanted?*
I brush the thought away quickly; no need to dwell on past bitterness. I step out into the cool night. As usual, no stars are visible in the sky; the lights of San Francisco have made true darkness a rarity here.
I find Tom sitting on a bench, pensively staring off into the distance.
"A penny for your thoughts," I say as I drop down next to him. "It's a cold night, Tom. How long have you been out here?"
"I'd rather be out here than in there."
"Your mother was looking for you. Your sisters are here too. You should at least say hello. You know they've all waited years for this moment."
"Yeah, I know," Tom says. "I'm not quite sure that I want to see them."
"Don't be ridiculous," I say. Suddenly, I feel very grown-up, very together and calm. A feeling of empowerment sweeps through me; I'm in charge of this situation, that I can make Tom go in there and face his family, that I can help Seven get over her insecurities. "You can't sulk out here."
"I'm not sulking. I'm thinking."
"Yeah." Tom gets up from the bench. "What he did, that wasn't my father, Harry. I know that. He would not have done that. He would not have betrayed Starfleet, his own values, for God's sake, for a barren piece of land in the middle of the DMZ. That doesn't make sense. And he certainly wouldn't have killed himself and so many others so that the truth wouldn't come out. I refuse to believe that about him."
"You heard him confess yourself," I say, recalling the hours Tom had spent listening to his father's logs. "That was his voice you heard, wasn't it?"
"Doesn't mean I believe it," Tom says stubbornly. He sighs. "How is your family, Harry?"
"You're changing the subject."
Tom flashes a grin at me. "Yes, and you didn't answer my question."
"They're good. The same."
Tom nods. "I thought so. Have you even considered that we aren't the same but that they are?"
"Is that why you're afraid to go in there?" I ask. "Because you're not the Tom they remember, but someone else entirely?"
"What I mean is that how can we go in there and talk to them as if nothing even happened? How do we even begin to explain what we went through out there? Do you really think they want to hear about the abuse we took at the hands of the Hirogen? What about the Vidiians? Do you think they can even understand what it was like to see your friend's face on another body, the edges of his skin still bleeding?" Tom shakes his head. "You do realize that there are only a few of us who really understand, who will ever understand."
"That doesn't mean you have to sit out here in the cold."
"No, it doesn't," Tom says. He claps me on the shoulder. "When did you get to be so smart?"
I ignore his condescending remark. "Does this mean you're coming in?"
He turns slightly to look through the windows, at the people within.
"You're right," he says. "I'd better go."
Once we're back in the hall, Tom disappears to find his family, while I scan the crowd for Seven. Finally, I see her sitting with a middle-aged woman whom I assume is her aunt. Relieved, I return to my parents' table to find Janeway sitting with them.
"Sit down, Harry," Janeway says. She leans forward, her lips slightly turning upwards. "I saw your parents and had to say hello, let them know what an asset you were on Voyager. I was telling them how you held the ship together when the Hirogen captured the ship."
Ah yes, how could I forget? Constant abuse, and the only thing that stood between death and me was the fact that I could keep the holodeck running. And I think, of all the things to tell my parents, why start with this particular story? Why talk about the Hirogen's proclivity for the hunt, for their desire to smell blood? Why not something a little less bloodthirsty? And then I think that there aren't many stories we can share with those we left behind that don't involve some degree of heart-stopping anxiety. Tom is right, I realize. Where do we even start to explain what has happened to us? How do we even reconcile the life we knew on Voyager, the one that was constantly punctuated by red alerts, with this quiet serene life, draped in white linen and lit with candles?
"Captain Janeway says you were quite a hero," Mother says, beaming, as I sit in the empty chair between my mother and the Captain.
"Yes, Harry did well," Janeway says. "I don't think we would be sitting here without him."
I stare at her in surprise, but Janeway doesn't meet my gaze.
"We're so proud of you, Harry," Mother says. I squirm in my chair. Janeway squeezes my shoulder.
"It was so nice to meet you both," Janeway tells my parents. "You should be so proud of Harry."
"We are," my mother says, smiling.
"Captain," I say sharply. "I haven't seen Commander Tuvok?"
"Tuvok is with his family," Janeway says smoothly. She rises from her chair. "They came in from Vulcan this morning and he preferred to spend the time with them."
"He just came a few minutes ago. He was held up," Janeway says. Her lips turn up slightly in a wry smile. "Starfleet isn't quite sure what kind of visas to issue as we really don't have any reciprocal agreements in the Delta Quadrant. I think they settled on diplomatic credentials finally."
"Good," I say. The Captain looks at me oddly.
"Something wrong, Harry?"
"No," I say. Indeed, no need to trouble the Captain with all of my paranoid delusions. It occurs to me, that superficially, everything looks just fine. "It's nothing. I just hadn't seen him."
"Well, if you'll excuse me," the Captain says. She indicates two admirals who are looking pointedly in our direction. "It was a pleasure finally meeting you, Mr. and Mrs. Kim. I'm so pleased to finally have the opportunity to tell you what a valuable member of my crew Harry was."
As the Captain disappears into the crowd again, I can't help but wonder where my promotion is if I'm single-handedly responsible for getting Voyager back from the clutches of the Hirogen and as a result, back to the Alpha Quadrant.
*Stop it, Harry, bitterness doesn't suit you.*
"Captain Janeway says you have to stay here for another week for debriefings," Mother says. "And then you have mandatory leave for six weeks. Have you considered what you want to do in that time?"
"No," I say honestly.
"We thought we should take a family vacation-" Father says, but I interrupt him.
"With all due respect," I say, "I'd like to stay here. In one place."
Mother and Father exchange looks and they both look slightly disappointed, but I know they won't push the point with me. They never have. I'm Harry, their golden Harry, and everything I do, from brushing my teeth to fighting off the Borg, is nothing less than miraculous to them. It occurs to me now that despite all I've been through that they still think of me as a child who needs to be coddled.
"Well, of course, you're probably right," Mother says brightly. "Maybe later. After you've seen Libby."
At the mention of Libby's name, I feel warm all over. Writing to Libby last week was a spur of the moment action on my part, a throwback to nostalgia. The first year on Voyager without her had been hard, and over time, I had found myself slowly blocking Libby from memory. Not because I didn't care, mind you, but because thinking about her hurt more than I thought possible.
"Yes." Mother beams; she has always liked Libby, maybe even more than she likes me. "Perhaps it's not too late for the two of you."
It surprises me how much I want my mother to be right.
Tom's gone and done what I thought he would never do; he's disappeared and left me to explain to the trio of Starfleet officers.
The three officers, all of them with at least three pips on their collar, are standing in the middle of my quarters. I can tell by the expressions on their faces that they think I've got Tom hidden in here somewhere in the tiny two rooms assigned to me. I feel like challenging them to look beneath the bed or in the closet; maybe they'll find Tom in one of those places, cowering with the dust bunnies.
"When was the last time you saw Lieutenant Paris?" the officer in the middle, Commander Jacobs, asks. I attempt an expression of extreme thoughtfulness. The last time I saw Tom, he was standing by the windows, surrounded by his mother and sisters. Tom had looked happy enough to be reunited with them; as my parents and I had left the reception, I'd seen Tom swinging his niece up in his arms.
Damn him. I didn't think he'd actually run. Yes, I know he was torn up about leaving B'Elanna behind on Alonius Prime. Yes, I know he has many questions he wants answered about his father. But I didn't think he'd go just like that.
But the fact I didn't anticipate Tom leaving tells me how little I know of the man I consider my best friend. Granted, I've spent many a late night commiserating with Tom Paris, listening to his tales of woe. I listen to the insecurities which spill out after one glass of Saurian brandy too many. I soothe those imaginary hurts and the real hurts. I always tend to Tom in ways that I shouldn't have to. I thought he'd escaped all of that. Thought he'd outgrown this habit of his, this tendency for escapism.
Score one for Tom Paris, zero for Harry Kim.
"At the reception," I tell Commander Jacobs. "He was there. With his family."
"We will talk to them."
I'm sure you will, I think, but only offer them a pleasant smile. I'm not even completely dressed yet - still only in black pants and my Starfleet gray t-shirt. My hair is likely still standing up on end, probably a terminal case of bed head, and I'm desperate for mouthwash, but there are three men between the bathroom and me.
And to tell the truth, wherever Tom is, I could care less, really.
I'm so mad at him. I'm angry that I found out like this, with three Starfleet officers descending upon me in the early morning hours, without so much as a good morning or a cup of coffee, demanding, "Where is Tom Paris?"
"Are you sure he isn't here somewhere?" I wave my arm abstractly now. I mean the entire Headquarters area.
"We will conduct comprehensive searches," one of the officers assures me. "You will let us know if you hear from him?"
"Is Lieutenant Paris in trouble?"
"No, but it is a concern when one of our officers is missing, you understand."
"Trust me, wherever Tom is, he is fine. He's probably doing better than you or me. Hell, he's probably even drinking a good, hot cup of coffee right now, enjoying himself." I shake my head. "Don't worry about Tom Paris. He always lands on his feet." Seeing the anger rise up in the officer's face, I hasten to add, "Look, it's only been a few hours. Tom has a lot of friends in this area. He'll be back before you know it."
The officers look doubtful but they take their leave. I stumble into the bathroom and splash warm water on my face. For a moment, I stare at my reflection in the mirror. In the stillness of my quarters, I can hear every little sound, from the creak of the pipes that run above the ceiling to the sounds of footsteps outside of my door. And I know that in a few minutes, I will put on my uniform and go look for Tom. This new realization only adds to my anger.
*Just once, can't I be the hero of my own life?*
The thought is unbidden, unforced, and it scares me. Hastily, I brush my teeth and run a comb through my hair. No longer do I look sleepy and wild and I'm much relieved by the more civilized face that reflects back at me.
*Are you mad because he's gone and didn't tell you or is it something more, Harry? Are you upset because he didn't take you with him?*
"Shut up," I say out-loud. My voice echoes in the tiny bathroom. I turn around, my back to the mirror. "Just shut up."
Continued in "Interlude"
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