Disclaimer: Star Trek Voyager and all of its characters are the
property of Paramount. If you think I'm making any money off this,
perhaps you should be the one writing fiction.
Summary: Two old friends have a chance meeting at a starbase, leading them to reminisce and reflect on paths taken. Note: Despite the title, this isn't a 'songfic.'
Time Frame: Five years after Voyager's return to the Alpha Quadrant.
Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Seema for the beta, and for
allowing me to channel her bunny ("Look, Ma! No fangs!)
Lieutenant Commander Harry Kim glanced at the officious ensign trotting eagerly at his side and suppressed a sigh. It wasn't so much anything Hoffman said or did--Harry didn't even know the younger officer very well, despite the fact the man had served in his department for three months now. No, his annoyance stemmed from the fact that he was here at all, on Starbase 4 to attend a week-long scientific conference, when all he really wanted was to be back on board his ship, roaming the stars once more.
But the Livingston was in dry-dock, undergoing some necessary repairs after the damage she'd incurred in that last skirmish with the Ponzi raiders near the Romulan Neutral Zone. Most of the senior staff were taking advantage of their enforced leisure to fulfill the recent Starfleet continuing ed requirements. It made sense, Harry admitted, as in the past few years there had been a virtual revolution in warp field dynamics, much of it spurred by the various alien technologies Voyager itself had brought back. As in so many other disciplines, knowledge was advancing in leaps and bounds and it was crucial for the officers to keep abreast of all the new developments. Harry had studied the seminar database earlier, when he and Hoffman had first arrived, and had already noted several promising titles among the papers being given, as well as a number of speakers he knew he wanted to hear. However, marching now through the seemingly unending monochromatic corridors on the way to the lecture halls, he felt the last of his enthusiasm slipping away.
He halted abruptly. Directly in front of them, the passageway widened into a broad promenade-like area, whose upper and lower decks were lined with shops, numerous restaurants, and most promising of all, one or two bars.
He crossed over and was about to enter the closer of the two, when he heard Hoffman clear his throat nervously. Without turning around, Harry said, "Yes, Ensign?"
"Uh, sir, where are you going?"
Harry strove to keep the impatience out of his voice. "Where does it look like I'm going, Ensign?"
"But, sir, the conference session is due to begin--"
"At 1700. I'm aware of that, Mr. Hoffman. I'm also perfectly aware of the fact that it is presently only 1630, and it will take just an additional seven minutes to reach the lecture hall from our present position. We have more than enough time to make a quick stop." Harry could hear the ensign shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He waited.
"Yes, sir. Of course, sir."
Harry bit back another sigh and crossed the threshold into the dim interior of the establishment.
It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust after the brightness of the corridors outside. He took in the decor and smiled. Long, polished mahogany bar, pressed tin ceiling, dark textured walls, row upon row of glass bottles filled with exotic beverages from all over the quadrant...and a green, felt-topped pool table in the exact center. Just the sort of place Tom Paris would have liked. He smiled again, remembering Sandrine's.
The clientele was a mixed bunch--some Starfleet uniforms, but plenty of civilians as well. Harry shouldered his way through the crowd and placed his order. He turned to Hoffman. "Synthale ok for you, Ensign?"
Hoffman nodded, clearly uncomfortable.
"At ease, Ensign," Harry murmured softly.
"Before you sprain something," put in a new voice.
Harry's head shot up immediately. His gaze fell on a tall man in civvies, with thinning blond hair and a wide, impish grin. A moment later he was enveloped in a bear hug.
"In the flesh."
Still smiling broadly, Harry looked at him wonderingly. "Of all the places in the quadrant--what brings you here?"
"I could ask you the same question."
"The science conference--some new papers are being presented on advances in warp field dynamics," Harry said, as Tom leaned over and caught the bartender's eye. "And you?"
"The same. Well, helm and navigation."
Harry heard a faint rustling at his side, and realized to his chagrin that he had forgotten all about Hoffman. "I'm sorry, Ensign Hoffman, this is Lieutenant Paris."
"Former lieutenant," Paris said depreciatingly. "I'm retired, remember?" Harry frowned; after all this time he'd never understood why Tom had chosen to resign his commission. If he were honest with himself, though, he would admit that it was probably his own fault; maybe if he hadn't been so overt with his disappointment--and yes, feeling of betrayal--Tom would have explained his motives a bit more.
"Pleased to meet you, sir," Hoffman said, shaking the hand offered him.
Tom picked up the bottle the barkeep placed in front of him. "I've got a table over in the corner. Would you two care to join me?"
Hoffman gave his commanding officer a long look. He didn't say anything, but Harry could feel the disapproval inherent in that carefully obsequious expression, and suddenly he resented it. Who the hell was Hoffman, reminding him with his doleful gaze of duty and obligation? He was sick to death of duty, of always being the perfect officer. He picked up his glass, took a quick swallow and said, "You know what, Hoffman? Why don't you go on ahead to the lecture hall, grab a couple of seats. I'll be along in a few minutes."
Tom looked faintly amused at the scene being enacted in front of him, but when he spoke, his voice was solicitous. "Really, Harry, if you're in a hurry, I don't want to keep you."
"No, I've got time. No problem," Harry said. He looked over his shoulder and said pointedly, "Thank you, Ensign." Hoffman nodded miserably, and then hurried out the door.
Harry watched him go. "God, was I ever that young, Tom?"
"Nope. You were younger," Tom said, leading him to a small rickety table in the corner. With a flourish, he waved his friend into the nearer of the two chairs, away from the wall. "Still, you did the right thing, sending him packing. Can't have your junior officers hanging out in bars full of disreputable types..."
"On a Federation starbase? What's the worst that could happen to him?"
Tom didn't look up from his careful filling of his own glass. "I don't know, maybe getting fleeced by some unscrupulous Ferengi bartender?"
The two men shared a laugh as they lifted their glasses and lightly touched them together. "Cheers," Harry said.
Tom took a long swallow. "Not bad for synthale--if you didn't know better you'd think it was the real thing. So how've you been, Harry?"
"Can't complain." Harry took another sip of his drink, and then at Tom's quick nod, topped it off from the bottle on the table. "Is B'Elanna here, too, I mean, on the Starbase?"
Tom shook his head. "No, she just got back last week from an engineering seminar on Alphacent. We agreed a long time ago that while the kids are still so young only one of us would be away at a time, if we could help it."
"How are the kids? Keeping you busy?"
"Miral's doing fine. She's started school, nursery at any rate, which gets her out of the house, and more importantly, away from her baby brother for a few hours each day."
Harry smiled faintly at the hint of exasperation in Tom's voice. "Problem with sibling rivalry?"
Tom sighed. "She wasn't so bad when he was just a newborn, but once he started crawling around and getting into her things--"
"I can imagine," Harry said, with a laugh.
"Weren't you an only child?" countered Tom. "What do you know about bossy and possessive older sisters?"
"That's why it's 'imagine', not 'remember,'" Harry said. He leaned forward, putting his elbows on the table. "And you and B'Elanna, you're happy?"
Tom reached out and moved the bottle closer to his side of the table, away from Harry's left elbow which threatened to sweep it off the edge. "Of course. B'Elanna's having a great time, working with the Starfleet Corps of Engineers as a civilian contractor. Mucking around in the bowels of warp cores, dreaming up and testing new gadgets. She's in her element, couldn't be happier."
Harry said, with a smile that somehow didn't reach his eyes, "Just like old times, then. All the advantages of trying to develop new engineering solutions---"
"Without having to simultaneously keep repairing old worn-out parts for the umpteenth time," Tom agreed. "Or jury-rigging the system yet again to keep things running."
"Better than old times, then," Harry said lightly. "And you?"
"Playing with all the latest simulators, teaching the next generation of hot-shot pilots how to fly..." Tom shrugged and poured another shot into his glass. "What's not to like?"
"Except that you used to be one of those hot-shot pilots, and the controls were attached to real ships, not simulators," Harry finished quietly.
There was silence for a moment. "Yeah, except for that." Tom shifted in his seat. He glanced at his chrono, but didn't say anything, obviously having decided he would let Harry worry about any missed sessions. "But at least one of us has made it into the big time--Lieutenant Commander." He playfully flicked a finger at the new dark centered pip on his friend's color, alongside the two gold ones. "Third promotion in as many years. You're certainly making up for lost time." Was there a slight hint of mockery in his words?
Harry stiffened, but strove to keep his voice neutral. "After being the 'Eternal Ensign' all those years in the Delta Quadrant, it's about time."
"Surely you're not blaming Janeway for that," Tom said, a note of surprise in his voice.
"No, I'm not. If the promotions schedule had continued as usual---and it would've really taken us the whole 70 years to get back--we would have arrived home with a shipload of captains." Harry tossed off the contents of his glass. He wiped his mouth. "If not admirals."
Tom laughed. "No, just captains. Janeway wouldn't have promoted anyone above her own rank."
"Who's to say she wouldn't have made herself an admiral?" Harry said, pouring himself another drink.
"I didn't think she was that eager for the job, actually," Tom said quietly.
Harry shrugged. "She certainly took it fast enough, once we got back and they offered it to her."
Tom regarded him above the rim of his glass. "What else could she have done? She knew they weren't going to give her another command. After all those years in the DQ, answering to no one but herself, she was too much of a maverick for them to want to worry about." He sighed. "A pity. The brass never did know how to handle loose canons."
Harry looked down at the glass in his hand. After all this time, he still remembered how it felt when he'd heard the news about Captain Janeway's promotion. "So you're saying they kicked her upstairs instead."
"Exactly," Tom said. "Rendered her harmless. And deprived themselves of one hell of a field commander at the same time."
"Better than a court-martial, right?" Harry said with a laugh. As if that would have happened to the 'Hero of the Delta Quadrant.'
"I wonder," Tom said, his mouth tightening, apparently not finding the idea so amusing at all. "At least that way she'd have the chance to go down fighting, instead of being locked away in a gilded cage."
Harry put his drink down, untasted. "Whatever. She didn't have to accept that promotion, you know."
"She did if she wanted to stay in Starfleet."
"No, she didn't," Harry argued. "She could have resigned, found something else to do."
Tom smiled sadly. "Harry, Harry, Harry. I can't believe you're saying that. After all those years of serving with her, seeing her on the bridge day after day after day, you can honestly say that?" He leaned back, tilted his chair up on its back legs, till he was braced against the wall. "You know as well as I do, that she couldn't do that. No," he mused. "She gave up so much in the name of duty, and responsibility, I sometimes wondered if she had left herself anything else, anywhere else to go."
Harry felt a sudden pang as the impact of Tom's words washed over him, but he still said stubbornly, "No, I don't see that. Sure, the last few years especially were hard on her, but she always gave it her best shot, never--"
"Never let us see how much it was killing her inside," Tom finished softly. He sighed. "No, you wouldn't have noticed, Harry. But I did."
Harry regarded him through narrowed eyes. Where did Tom Paris get off, talking down to him like this, as if he needed to have things spelled out for him? He fought down a sudden urge to knock the other man's chair over. "And what makes you so special?"
Tom gave him a faintly pitying look. "I never went into my career quite so starry-eyed." Harry bristled at the implied criticism, but Tom continued, oblivious to his friend's reaction. "I knew from my father just how much of a toll it took to serve in Starfleet. Not just on the officer, but on the people around him." Abruptly, he lowered his chair until it was once more resting equally on all four legs. "And that was in the Alpha Quadrant. Out there, on the other side of the galaxy, it was a lot worse. She had virtually no support no backup, just a rag tag crew composed of young officers on their first or second tour of duty, combined with some hardened former terrorists, and the occasional alien recruit. And yet somehow, she managed to hold it all together."
"Not just hold it together--look what she accomplished! Against all the odds!"
Again, the pitying look. "You won't get any argument from me, Harry. I remember after we got back, all the grumbling in certain quarters, claiming this one or that one could have done better out there than Janeway, picking over every single decision she made, debating what was the 'right' thing to do instead of just acknowledging that she'd accomplished the impossible. They left her with no margin of error, expected her to be perfect, and gleefully pointed out the areas where she fell short of the almighty Starfleet regulations."
Harry said slowly, "I didn't hear any of that." He took another swallow.
Tom shook his head. "No, you wouldn't have. The complaints were never made public--in the eyes of the media she was the intrepid leader who got her ship home. End of story. And then the press eventually went on to the next big thing, the next captain anointed as savior, the newly minted heroes, the shiny new ships capable of doing things none of the previous ones had ever done before and would chase all our demons away. And the former heroes, the people past their prime, why, they've settled into quiet obscurity."
"Some people, perhaps. But not all of us." Harry stared at him belligerently. Just because Tom had chosen to walk away from Starfleet...
Tom's hand shot forward, but he stopped before making contact. He waited, perhaps till he regained his control. "No, not all of us," he said at last. "As I was saying, you're certainly moving up in the world. And believe me, Harry, I know how much you deserve it." He glanced at his chrono once more. "What time was that seminar you wanted to attend?"
Harry shifted uneasily in his seat as he fought down a stab of guilt. "It doesn't matter. I wasn't interested, not really." The thought came unbidden 'just another way of passing the time.' Aloud once more he said, "At any rate, I can always download the abstract later."
Tom picked up the bottle, and Harry saw with surprise that it was nearly empty. Tom signaled, and soon another bottle appeared before them. "I'm sure your ensign will be glad to give you his notes."
Both of them filled their glasses once more. The conversation had hit another lull, but neither of them seemed ready to make a move. Harry closed his eyes, feeling the effects of the synthale. He knew he should get going, that there were places he needed to be. But it was much easier to simply sit there, in the shadows, and let the occasional words come out freely, without concern for who might be listening, and how it would be interpreted. Such a relief...
Harry continued suddenly, as if there'd been no pause. "So did you hear about our latest run-in along the Neutral Zone, with those damn Ponzi?"
"You're talking about the Livingston, I presume." Here Tom smiled to himself, as though at a secret joke. "Yeah."
"Did you hear any details?"
"Other than the fact it resulted in your promotion? I heard that your ship got banged up pretty well," Tom said. "Made the lead story on the newsvids two nights running, though they never really explained what happened. What was it, an ambush?"
"Not exactly. Just in the sense we got caught with our pants down, big time."
"The captain was in his diplomat mode," Harry said, trying and failing to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "It was our assignment to quell the flying raids along the border; Starfleet doesn't want to give the Romulans any excuse for crossing beyond the Neutral Zone." He wondered if Tom, as a civilian, was aware that relations between the two powers had been deteriorating for some time, and it would be all too easy for the 'cold peace' between the Romulans and the Federation to turn into a hot war.
"I take it the Ponzi haven't been distinguishing between whose convoys and colonies they attack?" Tom asked.
"Not at all." Harry realized he was gripping the edge of the table so hard his knuckles were turning white. He forced himself to relax. "At any rate, Captain Johnson thought he could get the raiders to listen to reason, make them realize that it was only a matter of time till one side or the other decided to put an end to them one way or the other. So he called for a big meeting, with all the faction leaders."
"I take it he wasn't successful."
Harry snorted. "Not at all. Instead of sitting down to work out their differences, at least a few of the Ponzi vessels thought this would be a great time to try and eliminate the competition. And the Livingston got caught in the middle."
"So much for diplomacy." Tom lifted a hand and smoothed back his hair, or perhaps simply assuring himself that there was still plenty left. "It was a gamble, at best. You can't win them all."
"That's right, you can't win them all," Harry said, not even trying to keep the disgust out of his voice. "But what gets me is that he didn't have a plan B, you know, some sort of back up, in case the negotiations failed. He thought one cruiser, in peace-keeping mode, just the show of force, would be enough."
Tom shrugged. "In other circumstances he might have been right."
"Maybe. But like Janeway used to say, successful diplomacy always includes a little saber rattling. And the show isn't worth much without some substance backing it up."
Tom smiled. "I remember. Unfortunately we had to put her little tenet into practice a little too often for comfort." He leaned forward, his smile fading. Abruptly, he asked, "Are you happy, Harry?"
Harry's lips twisted in a brief, ironic smile. "What's happy?"
Tom shook his head in bemusement. "You really want me to spell it out for you? Fine. I'll tell you about happy. B'Elanna is. I am too, most of the time, at any rate. But you...This isn't the first time I've asked you that." He looked down at the scarred surface of the table for a moment. "Remember--it was soon after we'd gotten back, no, we must have been back for a while because you were serving on the Challenger then, and had just gotten your first leave. You spent a weekend with me and B'Elanna, in that place we were renting across the Bay."
"And B'Elanna asked what it was like, serving on a ship that wasn't Voyager." Harry fell silent, remembering his reply, his confession that it was very strange indeed, and he wasn't sure he could make the adjustment. That it was strange to see someone else occupying the center seat. That every time Barker said, "Engage!" he heard another voice, a husky one with a quality that always made him think of smoky crystal, say, "Do it." Or how many times he'd been bending over his console and caught a glimpse of an auburn bun, a crimson uniform, out of the corner of his eye, only to see them replaced by a black buzz cut and goatee above broad shoulders clad in gray when the captain turned his way. The conversation from that long-ago leave echoed in his mind once more.
"Harry, there's always something special about the first captain you serve under, he or she becomes a hero, especially to an impressionable young officer. Add in the circumstances we faced out in the DQ..."
"What about it?"
"Don't put her up on a pedestal, Harry. She was good, and she went to hell and back for us on more than one occasion. But it's over, that time is over, and everybody has moved on. She's moved on, I have, and so should you. Voyager came back, her captain got promoted, and her crew scattered to the winds. You've got a new ship now, a new captain--and you can't keep comparing every commanding officer you'll ever have to her for the rest of your life."
"I've heard this before," Harry said, shaking his head. "They say that's why no one should serve more than three consecutive tours of duty on the same vessel, under the same command crew. That it's important to be exposed to different styles, to different ways of thinking, of evaluating a situation."
"And they're right."
"But look at the Enterprise, Picard's people. How long have they been together?"
"Yeah, look at them," Tom retorted. "Stagnating in their careers, all of them. Is that what you want for yourself?"
"No, it's not." He hesitated. "But if Janeway were still captaining a vessel, I'd sign on with her in a second."
"Then it's a good thing she's not. And Harry, don't go comparing every move Barker or whoever else is sitting in the center seat to what we would have done back on Voyager, what Janeway or Chakotay would have said, how they would have reacted. Everybody's got their own style. You serve your time and then you move on."
Harry shook his head to dispel the memory, and considered Tom's earlier question about his 'emotional temperature.' "Yes, I'm happy. At least, I think I am. I mean, I've got what I always wanted, right? Promotions, plum postings on the newest and most advanced vessels boldly going--" he broke off at the look on Tom's face.
In a lower voice, he continued, "And yet, why do I feel so restless, as if there's something I'm still looking for?"
Tom shrugged. "Human nature, I suppose. Look at the way we were on Voyager, always trying to get home. That became our whole purpose, our sole mission, and yet, when we finally got here--"
"We were happy then, Tom," Harry said firmly. "We all were. Seeing our families again, the fuss everyone made over us, all the media attention--"
"And when the speeches were over, and the hoopla died down, when people came to grips with the fact that the wife or husband or lover they'd left had moved on without them, that their children had grown up and had lives of their own--what then, Harry? How long did that feeling of accomplishment last?"
Harry didn't answer, but sat staring into the bottom of his empty glass. He thought of pouring another drink, but at that moment the synthale he'd already drunk burned fiercely in his chest. A wave of nausea rose in him and he turned his head away, and took a deep breath.
Tom was silent as well. He didn't seem to notice his friend's distress or perhaps he didn't know what to say, perhaps fearing he'd already said too much. A loud babble of voices washed over them from the next table. Tom looked in that direction for a long moment, clearly lost in memories of his own. "Say, you ever hear from any of the others?"
Harry shook his head. "Not really. Last I heard, the Doc was at Starfleet Medical--"
"And Seven was in Boston," Tom finished. "MIT, or one of those public universities."
"That was at least a year ago. Nothing more recent? Heard from anyone else? Ayala, maybe?"
Harry said, somewhat apologetically, "You and B'Elanna are the only ones I really keep in touch with. And..." He didn't add what they both knew, that the aside from this chance meeting, it had been almost a year since they had last spoken.
Tom said quietly, as if to himself, "So even among ourselves we've faded into oblivion."
Harry lifted his head, and stared at him challengingly. "That's an area where we can at least do something about."
"Is it?" Tom said quietly, a note of resignation in his voice. "Sometimes, it's best to just let things die a natural death. Why prolong the inevitable? Voyager was a unique time and place, and now it's over. Maybe it's best to just let those connections fade away."
"Some things are worth holding on to," Harry insisted. He reached over, picked up Tom's hand and squeezed it, hard.
Tom looked down at their hands for a long moment, and suddenly he smiled. "Who am I to argue with a superior officer?"
Harry smiled back, and this time it reached his eyes. "I may outrank you, Tom Paris, but I don't think I'll ever find a better friend."
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